By Thérèse Naccarato
The disappearances tend to happen at night.
They are unnaturally quiet occurrences. Peasants farm the land one day and are gone the next. Nothing seems amiss besides their absence. Work is still complete. Food stays on the table. The sky remains a radiant blue.
Despite this, Aleksandra Fedorova supposes that she should be concerned. She can hear her parents’ whispers to their fellow boyars as their vodka disappears from glasses in that same manner. There one moment, gone the next. The peasants have been fleeing, her father comments. Her turbulence is too much for them.
Russia’s turbulence is none of their concern, Fedorov, a boyar scoffs, to which Aleksandra’s father nods in response. The action reminds Aleksandra of a marionette being worked by its strings. This is why they must be tied to our land. They would then be unable to depart of their own volition.
Aleksandra is gripped with a strange desire to question whether these peasants truly have been leaving due to a will that is entirely their own. She does not find the idea of being scolded for spying agreeable, however, so she instead makes her way back to her bedroom. She is standing in a hallway when she hears a whisper. It is a low and melodic, one that serves to both calm and alarm her. “Sasha.” Aleksandra turns around immediately at the sound of her nickname and finds herself facing Lizabeta.
“Liz,” she sighs, voice quiet. “I’ve told you not to call me that in public. It’s much too intimate.” Though she is nervous, Aleksandra cannot find it within herself to be angry. Not when Lizabeta is standing before her, light hair wrapped around her head like a halo. Aleksandra has an inkling that this thought is blasphemous, so she dismisses it as quickly as it comes.
“Are we not intimate?” Lizabeta questions, face teasing. Aleksandra struggles not to grin at the sight of her. “Besides, you called me Liz just now.”
Aleksandra’s face burns a copper red. “I apologize,” she says as the two of them pad towards her bedroom. Lizabeta lets out a soft laugh and the way it makes Aleksandra feel is unnerving.
“I would implore you not to apologize. I suppose, however, it is I who holds the title of serf. I cannot really implore you to do anything.” Lizabeta opens Aleksandra’s bedroom door, allowing her to enter first before she follows from behind. The way that Lizabeta is able to make her situation—their situation—into nothing more than a simple jest burrows under Aleksandra’s skin. The feeling is itchy, and she wants nothing more than for it to disappear. Unfortunately, as she is typically unable to rid herself of her feelings, Aleksandra knows this to be impossible. Lizabeta eyes her curiously, a symbol of everything that Aleksandra cannot give up.
“Peasants,” Aleksandra begins slowly. “They have—could you please close the door?” It is only when Lizabeta complies that Aleksandra continues. “Peasants have been leaving. Serfs, even. I overheard my father discussing it with other boyars.”
Lizabeta hums as she organizes Aleksandra’s wardrobe. She supposes that Lizabeta does this more out of habit than anything else. “Good for them.”
“How can you say that?” Aleksandra questions as she sits atop her bed. “You, who knows how vital serfs are to families like mine. To… to me.”
“You prefer other serfs to me?” Aleksandra knows that Lizabeta is merely teasing, but she still feels herself grow defensive.
Once the wardrobe is organized, Lizabeta moves on to the bookcase. Aleksandra is unable to read, but the presence of books is a soothing one. She feels almost as though she is more intelligent for owning literature than she would be otherwise. “And you value rules?” Lizabeta asks this like she already knows what the response will be.
“Of course,” Aleksandra answers, though she is not privy to the rules in which Lizabeta is currently referring to. Lizabeta halts her task of dusting book covers immediately before walking towards Aleksandra. She does not cease her movements until she is towering above her.
“Is this,” she says, and lightly touches Aleksandra’s face, “not breaking a rule? Or this?” She leans in, capturing Aleksandra’s lips with her own. Aleksandra allows herself to grow lost in this kiss as she always does. It is over before she would have liked. This is a reoccurring complaint, one that Aleksandra turns over in her mind all too often. Sometimes they finish in her dreams, Lizabeta’s halo hair turning black in the darkness of Aleksandra’s room.
“This is different,” Aleksandra declares, face once again dusted with red. “I love you. You know this.” Though she speaks the truth, her voice is a whisper when she makes the confession. She never knows who could be listening.
Lizabeta hums, a silent agreement. “You only seem to go against the rules when it suits your fancy.”
“Is that not true of everyone?”
“That is oftentimes the case,” Lizabeta allows. “But customarily, the rulebreakers are not the sole beneficiaries.”
Aleksandra reaches forward and grabs Lizabeta’s arm, her grip sliding downwards until it reaches her hand. Lizabeta’s palm feels cold against Aleksandra’s own and a shiver runs through her, though it is not an unwelcome one. Lizabeta seems to understand what Aleksandra is saying without her having to voice anything aloud. She proceeds to lower herself down beside her. The bed does not creak underneath her weight, yet Aleksandra still senses the shift. “Am I to believe that I am the sole beneficiary in this situation?”
“Situation,” Lizabeta huffs, but it is clear once again that she is aware of the implications. Aleksandra is prone to this type of behavior, to refuse to say what she really means. “I suppose not.” She brings Aleksandra’s hand to her lips and kisses it lightly, sending another shiver throughout her body.
When Lizabeta leaves her room that evening, Aleksandra can still feel the cold. It twines around her body and does not leave, its presence suffocating.
It is also reassuring. A reminder that she is warm enough inside to feel the frost.
She thinks that she hears a scream outside of her window.
Her mind rushes immediately to the missing peasants, but she climbs into bed without further contemplation.
The sound is surely just the wind.
The news does not come as a surprise the next morning. It remains unsettling nonetheless when Aleksandra hears her father explain, “two more peasants have disappeared last night.”
“How can that be?” her mother asks, not bothering to whisper. Everyone harbors knowledge of these disappearances by now. “They’re attached to this land. They cannot leave.”
“Cannot,” her father comments, “or will not?” Aleksandra knows that he is thinking of loopholes and promises, of how he unceremoniously pledged himself to the new Tsar Dmitry in order to escape Boris Godunov’s taxation. She wonders then if her parents honestly believe in anything well enough to fight for it. Images of Lizabeta flash through her mind. They are not unwanted but instead uncomfortable, especially in proximity to her parents.
“Your parents are of that character,” Lizabeta says when Aleksandra reiterates their conversation later that day. She is cleaning the floor as they speak.
“Character?” Aleksandra questions. A candle flickers dimly behind her and she wonders how Lizabeta is able to see the floor so clearly.
Lizabeta does not look up once when she asks, “Has it escaped your notice?”
“It appears that way.”
“They despised Tsar Ivan,” Lizabeta says. She continues to scrub the floor. Aleksandra wonders what she is thinking of as she polishes the floor so harshly.
“Yes,” Aleksandra answers. “He executed people.”
“Boyars. People like your parents.”
Aleksandra nods. She fails to see the distinction and says, “Right. He has undermined their institution.”
Lizabeta ceases her cleaning now. She wrings out her towel and drapes it neatly over the bucket before standing up to face Aleksandra proper. They are on equal footing now, but never equal ground. “By allowing people land grants in exchange for military service?”
“Well, yes. The state policy of the Oprichnina took property from boyars such as my parents. You know this.”
“Why do you think that your parents were able to keep their land amidst the Oprichnina? Amidst everything?” This question seems heavier than the rest. The weight settles itself onto Aleksandra’s shoulders and distributes evenly. It is not crushing but instead annoyingly present.
“They remained silent.”
Aleksandra bristles. “You’re aware of what happened. Tsar Ivan was killing—”
“They,” Lizabeta says, and Aleksandra immediately finds that she is unable to speak further, “remained silent of their own volition. There is a difference between a noose and a necklace.”
“They pledged themselves to Tsar Dmitry.” Aleksandra protests, though she is unable to find the force behind her words. She sorts through them in her mind and comes up empty. Perhaps she does not believe what she is saying. Perhaps her parents never do, either. Perhaps she is just like them.
“Tsar,” Lizabeta scoffs. “It appears as though anyone can be Tsar now.”
Aleksandra rests her arm atop her pillow. She wants nothing more in this moment than to abandon this conversation, lay it to rest. “Tsar Dmitry cares for Russia, I think.” She does not sound convincing. “He is Tsar Ivan’s son.”
“Do you really believe that? He is a pretender, Sasha. The real Dmitry is dead.”
Aleksandra shakes her head. “No.” She is not sure which statement she is responding to.
Lizabeta seems to sense the weariness within Aleksandra. She lowers her voice as she says, “Some people merely desire power.”
“And some do not?”
“No.” Lizabeta speaks with the sort of confidence Aleksandra longs to possess. It seems so far away, especially in moments such as these. There is an ocean between them now. “Some people simply wish to be free.”
Aleksandra cannot shake the feeling that although Lizabeta is a serf, it is her who is truly trapped.
She dreams when the darkness comes.
Lizabeta is present, as she always is. A large table rests between them. It spans the entire dining room. The two girls sit at opposite ends, large plates of food placed before them. “Let’s eat,” Lizabeta says, as she begins to place a piece of food into her mouth.
Aleksandra reaches to grab her fork but discovers that she is unable to move. She is frozen, forced to stare at the meal yet never touch it.
Lizabeta continues to eat.
“Sometimes,” Aleksandra comments the next day as Lizabeta helps her dress, “I think your favorite feeling is that of hunger.”
“No, Sasha,” Lizabeta says, lacing up Aleksandra’s gown even though it is not her duty to do so. Lizabeta does many things that she is not meant to. Aleksandra glances at Lizabeta’s fingers and thinks that she sees some red beneath her fingernails. “It’s the feeling of completion. Of being full.”
She does not elaborate on this, and Aleksandra does not ask about the red, either. She finds that some things are better left unearthed.
Three more peasants go missing by morning.
As Aleksandra watches the snow fall from her window, she realizes that despite her parents’ distress, she is not panicked.
“I’m almost envious,” she says. She and Lizabeta are standing underneath a tree in the late evening, both wearing dark black cloaks. The snow falls onto Lizabeta’s hair, merges with the blonde of it. Lizabeta has never favored wearing hoods.
“Of whom?” Snow clings to Lizabeta’s eyelashes now. It reminds Aleksandra of The Cathedral of the Annunciation somehow, of beautiful things that should remain untouched.
“The peasants. They get to… they get to leave.”
Lizabeta regards her with a look of contemplation. “You would leave all this?” Her arm lifts to frame the land her parents own. And that is just it.
“It is not mine,” Aleksandra explains. She has a desperate need for Lizabeta to understand. “It belongs to my parents. I belong to my parents. My entire life has been planned out, plotted akin to a novel before I was even born. They are going to make me marry, you know.”
Lizabeta lets out a sigh, her mouth opening slightly to reveal her white teeth. Aleksandra’s eyebrows furrow momentarily at the sight. She wonders how Lizabeta manages to keep her teeth as spotless as she does. “I had figured as much.”
“And you do not mind?” Aleksandra whispers. The implication of this question feels like the cut of a knife.
“Of course, I mind.” The answer hurts even more, a living reminder of what they can never have.
Aleksandra bites her lip now, only realizing how much force she has dedicated to this action once a drop of blood hits the snow beneath her feet. Crimson red bleeds through white, devouring it all. Lizabeta stiffens.
“I would never hurt you,” she says.
“I know.” Aleksandra thinks that this is the only thing in the entire world that she can discern with any certainty.
Lizabeta opens her mouth. No breath comes out. “Do you trust me?”
Aleksandra does not need to think about her answer. “Yes.”
Lizabeta lowers herself onto the ground first, as though the cold cannot touch her. Aleksandra follows suit. “Close your eyes,” Lizabeta commands. Aleksandra feels her eyes close before she makes the conscious decision to do so.
“What are we doing?” she asks. Her voice is relaxed despite her confusion.
“Rewriting the novel,” Lizabeta says, and then once more, “Do you trust me?”
Aleksandra breathes her response more than says it. “Yes.” She can feel her breath rise out of her mouth and into the sky above them.
Lizabeta runs her hands through Aleksandra’s hair. They have a numbing effect and soon enough, Aleksandra is unable to remember the feeling of warmth. “Close your eyes,” she repeats. Aleksandra feels herself slipping further and further as Lizabeta speaks, as her fingers touch her hair and soothe her body.
Cool hands rest upon her neck. “Is this what you want?” Lizabeta asks.
“Yes,” Aleksandra affirms again. She knows what she is agreeing to. She thinks that she has always known, deep down, that this is how her life would truly begin.
She remembers that night, the night that two more peasants disappeared. Screams were heard outside of her window. They did not stop. Aleksandra embraced them; told her conscious mind it was the wind while her subconscious danced to their screeching music.
Aleksandra feels a prick on her neck. Her eyes open to see Lizabeta’s mouth attached to her skin, teeth buried deep within. Blood runs down both of their bodies, binding them together more than a ring ever could. The air no longer feels cold.
It is with this that Aleksandra is emancipated.
It is with this that she is free.
Thérèse Naccarato is an author who studies History, Criminology, and Celtic Studies. Her previous publications include Thought Catalog and the online literary journal Chewing Dirt. She can be found exploring the outdoors or coming up with new recipes in the kitchen.