I was born in 1905, the year of Bloody Sunday in St. Petersburg when Papa was thirty years old. He said I was a gift during turbulent times, but I don’t recall much turbulence when we lived there, only some disturbing impressions from that year we left our home. I do my best to push the dark memories out of my mind. It’s better to remember happy times.
Life in Russia was full of music and concerts and dinner parties with important people. Papa and I had our music and that mattered most. People flocked to our home after I was called to play at the Metropol at ten years of age. ‘Katya Pavlova Sadilov is a child prodigy,’ they said. But I didn’t feel like a wonder child until I mastered my first Paganini piece at thirteen. His music was my measure of success, and remained so even later when we emigrated to Canada and the concert halls were a fading memory.
Some say Niccolò Paganini was double-jointed. He could contort his arms, bend his elbows backward, spread his fingers along the neck of the violin, position the instrument behind his back, writhe across the stage, and play with a mastery no musician could match.
I often dreamed of Paganini, not only in my sleep, but also as I played. At times he stood next to me, but on occasion his spirit slipped into me and urged, “Katya, like this, Katya.” Then my bones floated beneath my skin. My fingers transformed into long-knuckled tentacles and it was Paganini who raised my arm and swept the bow across the strings. The notes that followed were not of this world.
WE started out at first light and by midmorning we could see Papa’s house. It was early March and the pond behind the barn was still frozen enough to bear the weight of horse and sleigh. The runners sprayed sparks of snow in a stream on either side of us. Ice cracked under Gust’s hooves and George hollered, “Giddap.” He half stood and whapped the reins. Clouds of white escaped his mouth.
I saw the surface of the pond crack open, my husband and I and the sleigh plunging into the icy water, the noise of the world hushed. My husband’s coat billowed out and away from his body, his scarf drawn up as a hangman’s noose and he drifted away, farther and farther until I could no longer see his nose or mouth or the red of his scarf.
It was only one of my apparitions, an accident unlikely to transpire.
I’d not had many such visions since coming to Canada. In Russia, the year we left, they’d been frequent. That was in 1918 and I was fourteen years old. I’d seen thin children melting into the pavement, mangled bodies on the steps of the Winter Palace, and in Palace Square a row of flesh and bone ice statues with faces twisted and tortured in pain. But, the cloud vision was the one that scared me most. It wasn’t only visual, but corporeal, dust churning and sucking up the air, a foul smelling froth of dirt making it impossible to breathe or see.
I’ve kept the visions to myself since childhood. Mama called them morbid thoughts when I tried to describe them, but she hadn’t understood. They are not thoughts I will to happen. They’re full-colour, all-consuming visions that take over my mind.
Still, until the runners of the sleigh slid onto firm ground I fisted my hands to my chest. I needn’t have. My husband brought us safely to Papa’s house. Little did I know, how this visit would spark events to change my life.
Mama and Papa ran out to greet us, hugging me and shaking George’s hand. They were excited, chattering away in Russian until they noticed George gazing off at the barn and they switched to English.
“I’ve made up the bed. Your old room.” Mama said.
George stepped forward then. “We shouldn’t stay overnight. The livestock.”
“The animals will be fine for one night, George.” I frowned at him. “Besides, even if we leave now, it’ll be dark before we’re half-way home.” We had to stay over if we were to have any sort of visit. Our farm was a formidable distance away. We’d only just arrived, and my husband was already planning our departure.
George shifted from one foot to the other. “Well, I don’t know.”
“It is settled then. You’ll stay.” Papa gave George a comrade’s slap on the arm.
My husband looked at the ground. Around others, especially Papa, his face tightened, as if a shoe pinched. Thankfully, he considered himself a man of God. I convinced him he could not, in good conscience, miss a Sunday service when we were only a stone’s throw away from the church.
Later that afternoon I cradled my violin and wandered the parlour back and forth. You could barely see the top of Papa’s bureau for books. Many were stacked and others lined up, supported by iron bookends engraved with Alexander the Great taming his horse, Bucephalus.
In this room, if I closed my eyes, I saw the vast chambers of the St. Petersburg gallery with its statues and paintings and art. For years the drawings of Paganini had been stencilled into my mind. He’d been a thin man with a bent frame and dark hair that rolled along his spine, as long and as ebony as mine. I told George that when I stood in front of a mirror, it was often Paganini who stared back.
George knew nothing of Paganini.
He’d said, “Sometimes you worry me. Your imagination is too vivid for your own good.” Truth told, I often worried over how little imagination my husband had.
I paced back and forth amongst Papa’s jumble heap of books. Only one wall was bare, the space reserved for a piano Papa had been saving for since we’d arrived in Canada seven years ago.
“Owners of land,” Papa had declared the day we drove up to the rickety clapboard house on the outskirts of Sylvite, Saskatchewan. On first sight of the property Mama covered her eyes. “This is wilderness. How will we survive?”
That winter she sewed curtains, crocheted coverings for the rustic furniture, and hooked rugs of red and purple fabric. It was 1919, and we had such hope. The Great War had come to an end. Russia was still in chaos, but we had escaped harm. We wanted to love this new life.
Violin lifted to my shoulder, I played the Caprice No 13. It wasn’t one of Paganini’s most difficult arrangements, but my hands vibrated. Few pieces challenged me as Paganini’s did, but many fiddlers completely avoided his work. I’d been renowned for my dexterity as early as the age of eight. “Fingers like dancing spiders,” Master Auer used to say.
When I finished the song, I sat at the gate-leg table in the far corner of the room and leafed through sheet music looking for something different to play. Mama was in the kitchen and I hummed along with the sounds of clicking jars and the bubbling noises from the canner. The aroma of cabbage and vinegar wet the air.
Papa burst in waving an envelope.
“Good, you’re here, Katya.” He grinned at me and bellowed, “Olga, come to the parlour. I have news.”
Mama piped back. “I have news too. Twelve jars of your best sauerkraut squash ready to seal.”
“Come in, woman. The jars can wait.”
Mama appeared in the doorway, wiped her hands on her apron, a shiny flush on her round cheeks.
“Remember my friend Gustav?” Papa held a letter up by its corner and jiggled it.
“The piccolo player from St. Petersburg?” Mama asked.
“Yes, yes. He is in Edmonton now. I wrote to him.”
“You have been writing to him for years.” Mama pressed the back of her hand against her forehead.
“I know, but I told him about Katya.”
“That’s nice,” Mama said. “You tell your friends about your daughter.”
“No, no I informed him of her talent.”
“That’s nice.” Mama nodded. “You brag about your daughter.”
“I may have to get out a stick, Olga.” Papa wagged a finger at her.
“Gustav has an orchestra,” Papa said, “in Edmonton. He requires a violinist for a performance at the end of May. They call it Northern Lights Transposed. A good name, eh? He has asked for Katya to play.”
I thought, at first, I heard him wrong. An orchestra and me playing?
“They will pay her?” Mama crossed her arms over her ample bosom.
“No, this is a charity, to help young musicians with the gift.”
“And where will we find the money?” Mama’s eyebrows lifted to a V.
“The money. The money. Is that all you think of, woman?”
“And what of George? Do you think he’ll want his new wife running away to play in an orchestra?”
“If George has sense, he will be happy.”
“Where is George?” Mama asked.
I reached up for the letter. “He rode to town for a roll of wire to repair something on the sleigh.”
“He is back now, outside fixing the runner.” Papa grinned, raised the envelope over my head, just out of reach. I tugged at his sleeve and he dropped it in my hand.
It was common paper, not textured as letters from Russia were. I tore the document out of its covering and scanned the words, the trumpets and cellos of the Russian alphabet emblazoned on the page. “Papa, is it true? An orchestra? And I can play?”
“Yes, a complete orchestra.” Papa smiled as if he’d eaten a pelmeni. Imitating a conductor, he raised his index fingers, closed his eyes, tilted his head back, and swayed to an imaginary tune. Then he stopped, stepped forward, put a hand on each of my shoulders, and pulled me into a hug. “I will speak to your husband.”
“No, you’d best let me do it,” I said. “Once we get there tomorrow or on the way home. I’ll ask him then.”
There was nothing in George’s manner toward Papa that anyone could criticise, but if the matter required persuasion… It might even be better to wait until we were pressed up against each other under the covers, in our bed.
“That is the way it should be.” Mama’s plump fingers rolled into fists on her hips. “Do not open your mouth, Vasha. This decision is for George and Katya.”
Papa walked around the entire afternoon like a magpie with his beak tied shut. At supper he winked at me when he passed the sausage and again when he passed the voreniki. Mama kept a leery eye on him.
Sunday morning George rose early as usual, shuffled around and went outside. Nestled into the same down quilt I’d had as a girl, a dream slipped into me.
I stood high on top of a mountain in a flowing dress, a pale colour, lake ice touched by the sun. The air was frost. My fingertips were blue. The lip of ground I balanced on was only a few inches wide and in all directions a sheer drop. Overhead, a crow flew. It made no noise, but I saw its shadow descend and felt a wing sing by my ear. The sun hung frozen in the sky. A shuffling and the chink of pebbles resounded loud. I peeked, and spied a distant figure climbing up a mountain path. The crow swept by my face again, and my foot skidded, but I remained calm. The bird flew off—became a dot on the distant view. The man grew close. It was Niccolò Paganini, truly him. A marble staircase emerged, and I stepped onto it. He reached out, took my hands and silver motes of sizzling snow whirled around us.
I slipped out of bed and tiptoed along the hall to Mama and Papa’s room.
“Mama, wake up.” I knelt beside the bed and touched her shoulder.
Papa’s space along the wall was empty. Light seeped into the room.
“Mmmm.” She rolled away from me and pulled the covers tight to her neck.
“It’s freezing, Mama. Can I get in?” I pressed the middle of her back.
“It is still dark.” She moved over enough to let me squeeze in beside her. She was voluptuous and warm with her own delicate fragrance of lilac and laundry soap.
“I’ve had an incredible romantic dream, but frightful too.”
“Umm, yes, a dream.” Mama’s slipped one hand out from the covers and patted my head.
I locked my fingers behind my neck. “I have to tell you, Mama, before I forget.”
“Yes. Dreams melt away in the light.”
“Remember that awful storm on the ship, on our way to Canada? It was scary like that.” From my view through the porthole, enormous waves had reared up, bloodthirsty monsters of the sea. I’d been sure the boat would flip.
When I finished recounting my dream she rolled closer. “You are ice.” She hugged me. For a moment we were back in her feather bed in St. Petersburg, snow flying outside the windowpane, snug in her cosy room. The Revolution was unheard of. Bolsheviks did not march the streets and watch your every move. Life was safe and warm.
Later that morning in the kitchen, after the dream faded and before we left for church, Mama set two baking pans out on tea towels, brought the four corners up on each side, and tied handle knots.
“Two coffeecakes?” Papa sat at the table, coddling his cup as if he had no intention of moving an inch.
“Yes, I had the raisins for two.”
“The other women do not bring so much.” Papa shook his head.
“Will you carry them?” Mama wiped a few crumbs off the table and tossed them in the sink.
As soon as she turned, Papa made a sad clown face. He grabbed the back of the chair beside him and feigned hoisting himself up with a grunt. I stifled a guffaw. If it were up to Papa or me, we would not bother with the church in town, but it was Mama’s only opportunity for social discourse. I often wondered, though, why she even made an attempt for that stall of miserable cows who berthed the pews at the Sylvite United Church.
“I can bring the cakes.” George picked them up before Papa was on his feet.
“You look nice, Mama,” I said. She wore her good coat with the sable collar and fur hat to match. Her purse dangled on her arm as if setting off to the Opera. My mama had more class in her toenail clippings than any woman within a hundred-mile radius of Sylvite.
“We will be late.” She pushed ahead and out the door to the waiting sleigh.
It was a four-passenger bob-sleigh and had been in my husband’s family for years. It had torn leather seats and horsehair stuffing, pushing through the cracks as if trying to find a place in the world. Harnessed up and ready to go, Gust pawed the snow. Sleigh bells pealed a cheery tune as we set out.
When we stopped across the street from the church Reverend Manning was not outside on the top step as usual, but Mrs. Stanley was there, blathering to Mrs. Kite and Spinster Freeman from the Ladies League. George jumped down to tie up the horse.
“I wonder what her lecture is today,” I said to Papa as George helped Mama out of the sleigh. “How immigrants and Roman Catholics are ruining the country, no doubt.”
Mrs. Stanley turned, looked right through us, touched the arms of the women and led them into the church. I skidded on a patch of ice and George steadied me. Mama pulled on Papa’s arm to hurry him across the yard. For a man with such long legs, Papa could dawdle. But what a handsome gentleman he was. White hair waved behind his ears and he always used wax to turn up the edges of his inky moustache. Papa’s good suit fit as it did the day the tailor fitted him in St. Petersburg.
The warm air of the church was suffocating after our ride. I unwound my scarf and let my coat slip off my shoulders. Mama must have been hot too, but she left hers buttoned up tight. George placed the coffeecakes on the long table in the foyer and we entered the chapel. The pews overflowed with women in hats and bald men stuffed into ill-fitting suits. A baby wailed.
Mrs. Stanley occupied her stall like a nasty little terrier. She turned, saw Mama and Papa approach and shifted over to block the unoccupied space beside her. George and I squeezed into an empty spot near the rear, next to two fidgeting boys who kicked at each other. Mama and Papa found seats up front. I barely heard a word of the Reverend’s sermon and hardly noticed the hymns. I was too busy conjuring an image of Mrs. Stanley trapped in a dank, dark well as I leered down from above.
After the service the horrid woman held court in the centre of the foyer, holding up her cake as if it had won first prize at the fall fair. Stout Mrs. Wilson shuffled in and said, “Oh, Mrs. Stanley, what a wonderful cake.” It was a gaudy white thing decorated with swirls of icing and shavings of chocolate.
“It’s a Seven Egg Cake from Ladies Home Journal.” She walked to the food display. Balancing the cake in one hand she moved the other baking around to make room for her monstrosity in a central spot.
Another image possessed me, a delightful vision, but I had to act fast. I steered through the crowd toward the table and Mrs. Stanley. I stopped right next to the wicked old hen. I leapt and cried, “A mouse!” Throwing my hands in the air, I lurched sideways and hurtled my whole body at her.
The cake wobbled on her hand. She reached with the other hand to steady it, lost her balance, and she and her creation collided with the floor. White icing splattered the walls, the floor, the ceiling, and Reverend Manning’s dark robe.
I brought one palm to my chest. “I’m sorry. Mice scare me half to death.” Pausing for a moment, I surveyed the spectacle, swallowed a lump of laughter and then scurried to the side door. I couldn’t resist the urge to glance back.
“You. You…” Mrs. Stanley hissed. Skirt askew, she struggled onto her knees, one lovely blob of Seven Egg Cake stuck in her hair just above her ear. Reverend Manning offered her his hand.
“Excuse me.” I ran along the hall to the washroom, flung the door shut, squatted, and to smother a bubble of giggles, stuffed my sleeve in my mouth. By the time Mama came to find me, I regretted the incident, not because of what I did, but because of Mama. I embarrassed her. She’d had so many friends in St. Petersburg, but here she had only Papa and me.
“Oh, Katya. You should take more care.” She looped her arm through mine and pulled me up. “Don’t worry. I helped the Reverend clean the mess.” She led me out through the side door to where George and Papa waited.
Once home we settled around Mama’s table. George faced me with a serious expression. “Did you knock Mrs. Stanley over on purpose, Kat?”
“Katya would never do that intentionally, George.” Mama shook her head.
“I saw a mouse. You know how I hate mice.” I tried to push the scene out of my mind, but it had been so comical, that gooey mess of icing in that horrible woman’s gauzy hair. I looked over at Papa who did not even try to disguise the merriment in his eye.
Papa chuckled. “Mrs. Stanley has taken a humble position in church for the first time in her life.”
“The poor woman,” Mama said. “Vasha, you should not laugh.”
“Poor woman? That evil shrew?”
“We’ve got a long ride ahead of us.” George stood, left a full cup of coffee and headed outside to hitch up Gust.
Mama had packed a basket of food for our trip home. We were to have an outdoor picnic and I couldn’t wait to ask George about the concert. I’d never had a winter picnic but imagined it similar to ice fishing, a commonplace scene in the St. Petersburg of my youth. Ice fishing men had dotted the frozen mouth of the Neva at dawn, holes cut in the ice, warming their hands over small cook stoves. Being outdoors with hot food evoked a certain level of ease. How could he say no?
It was brittle cold and Mama lent me her rabbit muff, the one she kept wrapped up in a silk scarf in the cedar chest. I packed our few things, went outside, climbed up in the sleigh, rubbed my hands inside the luxurious lining, peered at the sky and tried to visualise the musicians in Gustav’s orchestra. George fussed with the harness and adjusted a jumble of straps that connected the horse to the rigging.
“There, ready.” George bent to inspect the runner, grasped a wooden shaft wrapped in layers of wire, and gave it a shake. “It’ll hold till we get home.” Then he stood and stretched.
My husband was a handsome man despite one unfortunate oddity, eyes that always appeared half-closed. A family trait, someone once told me. People thought he lacked intelligence, but George was smart. Mama had considered him a catch when he’d first called. “A real Canadian,” she’d said. “He has feet to the ground and a good farm too, and a house, solid and big. A lucky girl, you are.”
At twenty-one my love for physical attributes was considerable. With George’s workhorse shoulders and cherub face, I tingled at the sight of him. And he could be kind. He’d placed warm rocks on the floor and I rested my boots on them. As he covered my legs with a heavy quilt, I brushed his lips with my fingertips. He smiled.
Papa approached from the barn. “Cold. The thermometer reads ten below zero.” He rubbed his gloves together by his chest. Relieved of his church clothes, he looked very much the countryman. Long furry pads on his hat dangled to his shoulders and red knit socks exploded from his boots.
“Yes,” George stomped his feet on the spot. “Should warm up soon though.” He waved one arm at the blue sky and then adjusted Gust’s halter.
“John Dari thinks we should seed early,” Papa said. “But we will need more snow.”
“Heard they had quite the storm over at Lloydminster last week, at least five inches, drifts up over the fences.” George studied the rudder.
Gust snorted and stomped. I shifted in my seat, rubbing my boots against the rapidly cooling rocks. My feet would be frozen bricks by the time the men finished talking. The old scar under my nose was numb. I pulled one hand out of the muff and rubbed until my lip prickled.
It was half-past eleven before we set out. I looked back at Papa’s house as the sleigh whisked us away. The house grew small and Papa’s figure diminished to a dark spot on the bleached landscape. A black bird circled in the sky above the farmhouse, trailing us. Oh, how this flat land resembled a white sea stretching to the edge of the world. Behind Papa’s farm, the buildings of Sylvite blurred on the horizon.