I remember growing up with you, beside you I was the withering flower; dull and lifeless, whilst you were like a red rose; tall, brilliant, blossoming with life. I was jealous and how could I not be, you had everything that I wanted passion, confidence and beauty.
In the summer gardens we sat. We watched the sun’s rays flickered off the Fontanka River, casting brilliant lights across the waterway, sparkling and transcendent. The light touched upon your face, etching and enhancing your high cheekbones. The gold beam of sunlight caught the blue of your eyes and with it they light up like the river Neva, on a cool summer day. The Summer Palace steeped in history and pride stood before us. The stone of the palace appeared cold and formidable, though there is something about how the marble palace looms over us that leaves one with a sense of belonging.
As we immersed ourselves in the rare sunshine of Leningrad, lovers surround us and I confide in you “How I wish that I had a handsome solider to hold me Annika.”
“Why would you want to be with a solider Natalya?” You asked. I shrugged my shoulders and you continued, “When you fall in love and he disappears or dies in duty, then you will be left only with a broken heart and a longing that no one can fill.”
“Don’t you think that it would be romantic to be with a solider?” I inquired shyly.
You laugh and I cringe with embarrassment, “Soldiers are not to be trusted with your heart Natalya.”
I look at you thoughtfully, “It’s better to love once then never to have loved.”
“Forever the romantic,” you smile rolling your eyes.
He approached us in the gardens, all eyes where upon him; he did not seem to notice the watchful eyes of others, as he was completely besotted by you. He barely looked my way and when he did it was a brief glance, then straight back to you.
I remember that day so clearly. You see I had seen him first, before he had seen you or you had seen him. I watched him moving proudly through the park, he stood assertively in his Red Army Uniform. He was the most beautiful man I had ever seen. This is not an exaggeration. I had seen many handsome men before. There were many soldiers stomping through the narrow streets of Leningrad, in their heavy black boots. There were many soldiers in our city and we both fell in love with the same one.
Our mother took pleasure in telling me, all the reasons that you where better than me. Mama was a small wire thin woman, with thick blonde hair and piercing gray eyes. She was a formidable woman with strength that would astound us.
“Annika has hair like Leningrad lit up on a white summer’s night, illuminated and luminous.”
“Not like yours Natalya, black like soot.”
“Annika has eyes like Leningrad’s sky on a clear summer’s day,”
“Not like yours Natalya, brown like dirt.”
We all knew how she favoured you her dearest daughter. This was fine with me. Papa was my hero. Papa was a writer. He was a wise, educated and perhaps a little eccentric man. He spent most of his time locked away in the attic for days on end. Growing up we did not see Papa a great deal. I do remember him, coming into my room one evening; his thick black curls haphazardly lay around his face and his eyes swollen and red raw “My Little Tay”, he smiled softly, “I need you to be my helper, I need you to type for me.” I was finally needed for something. I was in such awe of Father. I loved Papa more than anyone else in my entire life.
The sun was shining on the morning of June 22nd 1941. It was midday and I was in a book shop; the owner of the store was telling everyone to hush. “Quiet down there is an announcement on the radio from Comrade Stalin’s foreign minister Vyacheslav Molotov.” The feeble old shop keeper declared, with one crooked finger to his lips. The radio clicked and the announcement came on. The room was silent;
Men and women, citizens of the Soviet Union-the Soviet government and its head comrade Stalin has instructed me to make the following announcement. At 4 am without declaration of war and without any claims been made on the Soviet Union, German troops attacked our frontier in many places and bombed from the air Shitomir, Kiev, Sevastopol, Kaunas and other cities. I don’t remember the whole announcement, although the end is etched in lead in my memory “The enemy will be crushed. Victory will be ours!”
It was soon after that broadcast, that Papa was taken from our home by the Secret Service. Our whole life went into turmoil. We searched for Papa, we asked everyone who had ever had contact with him, but nobody knew what had become of Aspel Levkov. He had simply vanished. Although there was speculation; he was a writer and a public figure, he may have been denounced as a spy.
Not long after papas disappearance you and Nicolai married and he moved into our house and consequently took on the role as male figure in the home, making us feel somewhat safe. It was not long before you and Nicolai began to fight. I would often hear Mama tell you that your fiery temper would send your husband away, you would casually shrug your shoulders and say “Mama, Nic loves my fiery temper that is why he married me.” Mama always shook her head at you.
I was sitting on my balcony, overlooking the River Neva. I was basking in the glorious sun, when I heard shouting, loud and raged and then complete silence. Only moments later did I feel someone above me, I opened my eyes, startled to find your Nicolai towering over me. He had never been in my bedroom before. I noticed his eyes drawn towards the thin dress I wore, revealing my thin white thighs. I’m ashamed to say it, but I enjoyed the feeling of desire he propelled towards me. He sat down beside me, he looked troubled. I held out my hand and touched his arm.
“You are getting more beautiful with each day,” he declared. Silence surrounded us until he continued. “I remember when I first meet you, I thought of you as a child, now I look at you and see a beautiful young woman.” He leant over and caressed my face, with the strong hands for which I had been dreaming of. His fingers ran softly down my neck and my whole body trembled. He kissed me passionately. My head was screaming out, ‘Stop’ but my heart was crying out ‘Enjoy.’ I followed my heart, when he roamed his hands down to my breasts; under my dress he fondled my nipples. “You are lovely,” he muted under his breath. I knew what I was doing was so wrong but I felt empowered. Here was your husband telling me I was beautiful, lusting after me, wanting me, needing me.
Guilt got the better of him and he regretted the kiss. He told me the affair had to stop. I cried, but agreed that the kiss had been a mistake. This lasted for a week; it was after you both had a huge fight that the affair resumed. Whenever he was on leave from duty, he would sneak into my bedroom late at night, and we would lay with one another completely naked. He would stare at me intently. I asked him what he was looking at. He smiled his cheeky lopsided smile and said “You are the most beautiful women I have ever seen,”
I raised my eyebrows in disbelief, “I find that hard to believe, when you are married to my sister.”
He went silent for what seemed an eternity. “I wish it was you I married” he said finally.
His words made me so happy Annika. He filled me with a love that I had never known before. I could not stop the affair. Our love was too strong.
On one of those nights I told him I was developing a conscious and couldn’t continue the affair anymore. “You are married to my sister; I can’t keep doing this, all this sneaking around, and the lying.” I whispered forcefully in my dimly lit bedroom.
“I can’t live without you,” he begged.
I began to sob, and he held me in his arms, “We belong together,
I don’t love your sister, I love you.”
Needless to say the affair continued.
I remember 1942 to be the coldest winter I had ever experienced in Leningrad. I assumed it was because we did not have any heating, electricity, or food. For many months I had to walk over frozen bodies laying ice cold in the streets. It was common to see people taking the shoes and rummaging through the pockets of the dead, trying desperately to find ration cards. At first this disgusted me; it wasn’t long before I kept walking unblinking and indifferent to the sight which was none so common.
Mama did not have the fighting spirit. She had lost the will to carry on, when Papa had disappeared. She had been skin and bones when the siege began. It was during the Siege that she had become unrecognisable as our Mother. Today she resembles a walking skeleton. Now that war was raging three other families where living in our apartment. It is bitter cold at night, the three of us huddled together in the same bed; trying to keep warm. It is on one freezing cold morning; I felt the rigidness and iciness of my mother’s body beside me that I knew she was no longer here on this earth with me. You took Mama’s death hard. You too lose the will to carry on, you too become ill. You cry the night your hair falls out in clumps. We take comfort in the darkness of our bedroom; at least we can’t see what is happening to our starving bodies. We barely leave the bed. Like most of the people of Leningrad, you develop a fever and I realise that TB has set in. I am so afraid for you and selfishly for myself, for when you turn to ice like Mama did; I will be all alone in this starving city. Nicolai is fighting and he has not been seen for many months now. My heart yearns to see him and for him to take us away from this famished city.
One night your body temperature is so hot, the heat radiates from your body to warm my bones, your hair is dull and your skin is gray, you no longer look like my beautiful Annika. You drift in and out of unconsciousness, your emaciated body stretched out along the bed.
When you are conscious you gaze into my eyes “Tell Nicolai I understand,” you murmur.
“Whatever do you mean Annika?”
“Why he loves you,” you whisper.
My heart beats frantically inside my chest “I do not understand,” I utter through gritted teeth.
You take my hand in yours, “he loves composure just as I do,” you sighed, “I’m foolish, my temper too fiery. Mama did warn me.”
I did not know what to say, I was so ashamed. “You must hold so much hate for me in your heart,” I cry as I bury my head into your gaunt shoulder.
“My dearest little Natalya, there is no room for hate in my heart, it is filled only with love.”
That was the night my beautiful darling sister died. The sister I betrayed, the one I wanted to hurt. You left me alone in the world and shamefully I felt a sense of resentment towards you. You would be with Mama and Papa, at peace, no longer having the feeling of emptiness of starvation and I would be left here alone and with nothing to eat.
It is now 2006, my husband, He is an old man with the weathered skin of a fisherman, too many years spent on the seas of Pacific Ocean, dark lines crease his face, his body frail and tired, the scars still visible from a war long ago, but he is still the most handsome soldier I have ever seen. This is not an exaggeration, as I have seen many soldiers in my time.
There is not a day that goes by that I do not think about you, my darling Annika, your forgiving heart and your beautiful face. Your fiery personality and confidence occupy my mind, and take over my heart, leaving me with a sense of longing that I cannot rid. I believe that it is my punishment for my betrayal and rightfully so, for I deserve it.
I long to go back in time and tell you how my heart was full of jealously, but it should have been full of love; because you were the best sister one could ever hope for.
I’m so sorry My Darling Annika.
My heart will be yours forevermore.