Before there was Catherine the Great, there was Catherine Alexeyevna: the first woman to rule Russia in her own right. Ellen Alpsten’s rich, sweeping debut novel is the story of her rise to power.
St. Petersburg, 1725. Peter the Great lies dying in his magnificent Winter Palace. The weakness and treachery of his only son has driven his father to an appalling act of cruelty and left the empire without an heir. Russia risks falling into chaos. Into the void steps the woman who has been by his side for decades: his second wife, Catherine Alexeyevna,
Before there was Catherine the Great, there was Catherine Alexeyevna: the first woman to rule Russia in her own right. Ellen Alpsten’s rich, sweeping debut novel is the story of her rise to power.
St. Petersburg, 1725. Peter the Great lies dying in his magnificent Winter Palace. The weakness and treachery of his only son has driven his father to an appalling act of cruelty and left the empire without an heir. Russia risks falling into chaos. Into the void steps the woman who has been by his side for decades: his second wife, Catherine Alexeyevna, as ambitious, ruthless and passionate as Peter himself.
Born into devastating poverty, Catherine used her extraordinary beauty and shrewd intelligence to ingratiate herself with Peter’s powerful generals, finally seducing the Tsar himself. But even amongst the splendor and opulence of her new life—the lavish feasts, glittering jewels, and candle-lit hours in Peter’s bedchamber—she knows the peril of her position. Peter’s attentions are fickle and his rages powerful; his first wife is condemned to a prison cell, her lover impaled alive in Red Square. And now Catherine faces the ultimate test: can she keep the Tsar’s death a secret as she plays a lethal game to destroy her enemies and take the Crown for herself?
From the sensuous pleasures of a decadent aristocracy, to the incense-filled rites of the Orthodox Church and the terror of Peter’s torture chambers, the intoxicating and dangerous world of Imperial Russia is brought to vivid life. Tsarina is the story of one remarkable woman whose bid for power would transform the Russian Empire.
Read our interview with the author on the Reading Group Choices blog!
- St. Martin's Press
- November 2020
- 480 Pages
“A fascinating and extraordinary ride from slavery to royalty…[for] fans of historical fiction, Russia, political intrigue, and powerful women.” —Booklist (starred review)
“Alpsten shines…Lovers of Russian history, strong women protagonists, and sweeping historicals will savor this vivid portrait.” –Publishers Weekly
“Astonishing…the ultimate Cinderella story [that] makes Game of Thrones look like a nursery rhyme.” —Daisy Goodwin, bestselling author of The Fortune Hunter
“As detailed as the jewels and enamel inlay on the creations of Faberge…[a] crisp, elegant fictional account of history, woven with emotion and brio.” —Adriana Trigiani, bestselling author of The Shoemaker’s Wife
“Gripping…Love, sex, and loyalty vie with war, intrigue, and treason to create an epic canvas as exotic and powerful as eighteenth-century Russia itself. Masterfully researched and beautifully written, this is historical fiction at its best.” —Nancy Goldstone, author of Daughters of the Winter Queen and Rival Queens
My life began with a crime. Of course I don’t mean the moment of my birth, nor my early years. It’s better to know nothing of life as a serf, a “soul,” than to know but a little. The German souls—nemtsy, property of the Russian church—were more wretched than you can ever imagine. The godforsaken place in which I grew up is lost in the vast plains of Livonia: a village, and country, that no longer exist. Do its izby—the shabby huts—still stand? I neither know nor care. When I was young, though, the izby that lined the red earth of the village street in rows, like beads on a monk’s rosary, were my world. We used the same word for both: mir. Ours looked just like many other small villages in Swedish Livonia, one of the Baltic provinces under the rule of Stockholm, where Poles, Latvians, Russians, Swedes, and Germans mingled and lived together more or less peacefully—in those days.
Throughout the year, the road through the village held our lives together like the belt on a loose sarafan, the wide gowns we wore. After the spring thaw, or the first heavy rains of autumn, we would wade knee-deep in ox-blood-colored slush from our izba to the fields and down to the Dvina river. In summer, it turned into clouds of red dust that ate their way into the cracked skin of our heels. Then, in winter, we would sink up to our thighs in snow with every step, or slide home on ice as slick as a mirror. Chickens and pigs roamed the streets, filth clinging to their feathers and bristles. Children with matted, lice-infested hair played there before they came of working age, when the boys stood in the fields, chasing away the wild birds with rattles, stones, and sticks; the girls worked the monastery’s looms, their little fingers making the finest fabrics. I myself helped in the kitchens, since I was nine years old. From time to time a loaded cart, pulled by horses with long manes and heavy hooves, would rumble through the village to unload goods at the monastery and take other wares to market. Apart from that, very little happened.
One day in April, shortly before Easter—the year 1699, according to the new calendar the tsar had ordered his subjects to use—my younger sister, Christina, and I were walking down this road, heading down through the fields toward the river. The pure air was scented with the greatest wonder of our Baltic lands: the ottepel, the thaw. Christina was dancing: she spun round in circles, clapping her hands, her relief at the end of the darkness and cold of the winter palpable. I clumsily tried to catch her without dropping the bundle of washing I was carrying, but she dodged away.
Through winter, life in the mir was on hold, like a bear’s shallow breathing as he lives off the fat beneath his fur until spring. In the long season, the leaden light dazed our minds; we sank into a listless gloom, soaked with kvass. No one could afford vodka, and the bitter, yeasty drink fermented from old bread was just as intoxicating. We lived on grains—oats, rye, barley, wheat, and spelt, which we baked into unleavened flatbreads or made into pastry on feast days, rolling it thin and thinner before filling it with pickled vegetables and mushrooms. Our kasha, the gruel, was sweetened with honey and dried berries, or salted with bacon rinds and cabbage; the cabbage of which we prepared vast amounts every autumn, chopping, salting, and pulping it, before we would eat it every day. Every winter I thought I’d be sick if I had to eat sauerkraut one more time, but we also owed our lives to it. It helped us withstand a cold that would freeze the phlegm in your throat before you could hawk it up.
Just as the snow and frost were becoming unbearable, they would slowly fade away. First, it might stay light for a moment longer, the time it takes a rooster to crow, or the twigs straightened with the lighter load of the snow. Then, at night, we woke to the deafening crack of the ice breaking on the Dvina, the water spurting up, free, wild, and tearing huge slabs of ice downstream. Nothing could withstand its power; even the smallest brooks would swell and burst their banks, and the strong, scaly fish of the Dvina leaped into our nets of their own accord. After a brief, scented spring, feverish summer months followed and our world was drunk with fertility and vigor. Leaves on the trees were thick and succulent, butterflies reeled through the air, bees were drowsy on nectar, their legs heavy with pollen, and yet too much in a hurry to linger on any one blossom. No one slept through the white nights; even the birds sang throughout, not wanting to miss any of the fun.
* * *
“Do you think there’s still ice on the river, Marta?” asked Christina anxiously, calling me by the name I was known by back then. How many times had she asked me this since we’d left the house? The spring fair was tomorrow and just like her I longed to scrub the stench of smoke, food, and the dull winter months off our skins for what was the highlight of the year. There would be amazing sights, delicious foods of which we might afford some, and all the people from the neighboring mir, as well as the odd handsome stranger, a thought that was never far from Christina’s mind. “Shall we race each other?” she asked, giggling. Before I could answer, she set off, but I tripped her up and just managed to catch her before she stumbled and fell. She shrieked and clung to me like a boy riding a bull at the fairground, pummeling me with her fists; I lost my balance and we fell onto the embankment, where primroses and rock cress were already blooming. The sharp young grass tickled my bare arms and legs as I struggled to my feet. Oh, wonderful—the clothes were strewn all over the dusty road. Now we really had good reason to wash them. At least we could work by the river: only a few weeks ago, I’d had to smash the ice on the tub behind the izba with a club and push the icy lumps aside as I scrubbed. My hands had frozen blue with cold, and chilblains are painful and slow to heal.
“Come on, I’ll help you,” said Christina, glancing toward the village. We were out of sight of the izba.
“You don’t need to help me,” I said, though the laundry was heavy on my arm.
“Don’t be silly. The quicker we wash it all, the sooner we can bathe.” She took half the washing from the crook of my arm. We didn’t usually split the chores, because Christina was the daughter of Tanya, my father’s wife. I’d been born to him nine months after the summer solstice to a girl in the neighboring village. He was already engaged to Tanya when my mother fell pregnant and he was not forced to marry her: the monks had the final say in such matters, and they, of course, preferred to marry my father to one of their girls. When my mother died giving birth to me, Tanya took me in. She had little choice: my mother’s family had stood on the threshold of the izba and held my bundle of life toward her. They would have left me on the edge of the forest as fodder for the wolves if she had refused. Tanya didn’t really treat me badly, all things considered. We all had to work hard, and I got my share of our provisions, such as they were. But she was often spiteful, pulling my hair and pinching my arm over the slightest mistake. “You’ve got bad blood. Your mother would spread her legs for anyone. Who knows where you really come from?” she’d say if she was feeling malicious. “Look at you, with your green, slanted eyes and your hair as black as a raven’s wing. You’d better watch your step.” If my father heard her, he wouldn’t say anything, but just look even sadder than usual, his back hunched from working in the monastery fields. He could only laugh his toothless chuckle when he’d had a few mugs of kvass, which brought a dull light to his sunken eyes.
Before we walked on, Christina took my arm and turned me toward the sun. “One, two, and three—who can look at the sun the longest?” she said breathlessly. “Do it. Even if it scorches your eyelids! Between the spots that dance in front of your eyes you’ll see the man you’re going to marry.”
How eager we were to know him then: at midnight, we’d light three precious candles around a bowl of water and surround them with a circle of coals; we’d stare and stare, but the surface of the water never reflected any faces but our own. No midsummer ever went by without us plucking seven types of wildflower and placing the spray beneath our pillows to lure our future husbands to our dreams. I felt the afternoon sun warm on my face and spots danced senselessly golden on the inside of my eyelids, so I kissed Christina on the cheek. “Let’s go,” I said, longing for the warm rocks on the bank. “I want to dry off when we finish bathing.”
In the fields, souls were bent double at their work and I spotted my father among them. Only part of the land was cultivated in spring, for the first harvest. In summer, turnips, beets, and cabbage were planted in the second part: all crops that could be harvested even in winter, when the earth was frozen solid. The last third of the ground lay fallow until the following year. The time we had to make provision for the rest of the year was short, and a few squandered days could mean famine. In August my father might easily spend eighteen hours in the fields. No, we didn’t love the earth that fed us: she was a merciless mistress, punishing us for the slightest mistake. Six days of the week belonged to the monastery, the seventh to us. God gave no day of rest for us souls. The monks walked back and forth between the workers in their long, dark robes, keeping a sharp eye on their property, both the land as well as the people working it.
“What do you think is underneath a monk’s robes?” Christina asked me now, saucily.
I shrugged. “Can’t be much, or you’d see it through the cloth.”
“Especially when they see you,” she answered.
Her words reminded me of Tanya’s insults. “What do you mean by that?” I asked tersely.
“Aren’t you meant to be older than me, Marta? Don’t say you haven’t noticed the way men look at you. They’ll all want to dance with you at the fair and no one will pay me any attention.”
“Nonsense! You look like an angel. An angel in dire need of a bath. Come on!”
Down by the river we settled at our shallow spot from the previous year. A little path wound down through a birch grove and some low bushes. Early buds were on all the twigs; wild iris and bedstraw would bloom here soon. Down on the riverbank I sorted the laundry, putting all the men’s good linen shirts and trousers on one side and the sarafans and linen blouses we women wore on feast days on the other. We had spent some of the long winter evenings embroidering colorful, floral motifs on the flat collars and tucks; the patterns were like a secret language and passed on within families and villages. Perhaps we could swap some of Father’s woodcarvings—small pipes and cups—for new thread at the fair tomorrow? I wound my hair into a loose knot, so it wouldn’t dangle in the dirty foam, and folded my faded headscarf to shield me from the sun. Then I knotted the hem of my sarafan, even though it was quilted and lined against the cold, and tugged at the long ribbons threaded through the seams of the sleeves of my blouse, gathering the cloth into countless pleats. From afar I must have looked like a cloud on long, bare legs.
“Let’s begin.” I reached out for the first linen and Christina handed me the precious bar of soap. I dipped the washboard in the clear water and painstakingly rubbed the soap over its sharp ribs until they were thickly coated with a slippery layer. Making soap was hard work; your whole body ached afterward. Mostly Tanya gave me this task in autumn, when the monks had been slaughtering to pickle, smoke, and salt meat for the winter larder and had bones to spare, or in spring, using ashes gathered throughout the winter. All the women would help mix rainwater and ash with pig or cow fat and the ground bones of animals to make a caustic lye, which they boiled for hours in great cauldrons. The gray, slimy brew—its big, hot bubbles bursting on the surface with a loud splash—thickened but slowly from one hour to the next. We had to stir it constantly until it felt as if your arms were about to fall off. In the evening we poured the goo into wooden molds. If we could afford to add salt to it, we ended up with a solid lump of soap. But mostly we needed the salt for the animals, or to pickle meat and cabbage for the winter: the soap remained more of a slime that you added to the washing water.
The river glittered and Christina and I worked fast: the prospect of bathing spurred us on as we dipped the clothes in the water, scrubbed them hard, beat them on the flat stones—“Imagine it’s the abbot,” I said, goading Christina to beat them harder. She threw her head back and laughed, her blond hair slipping out of her bun. We wrung them out, and hung them to dry on low-hanging branches along the shore. “On your marks, get set, go!” Christina shouted suddenly, as I was still straightening and smoothing the last of the shirts. She undid the lacing of her dress, pulling the simple sarafan and rough tunic over her head as she ran, and then she stood naked in the spring sunshine. How different she looked from me. Christina’s skin was as pale as skimmed milk, her body slim, with narrow hips and high, budding breasts that looked as if they fit just so in the hollow of her hand. Her nipples were like little raspberries. She was already able to bear a child: her blood had started to flow the previous year. I, on the other hand—well, Tanya was probably right about me looking like my mother. My hair was thick and black and my skin was the color of wild honey—or dried snot, as Tanya used to say. My hips were wide, my legs long and strong, and my bosom large and firm.
Christina was splashing about in the shallow stream close to the bank. Her head bobbed up and down between the rocks where water gathered in pools. The sand of the riverbed shone white between her feet when she rose. “Come on, what are you waiting for?” She laughed, then dove headfirst into the waves, allowing the current to sweep her off into the deep. I undressed as fast as I could, loosened my hair, and hurried after her. We splashed and dived and—deliciously forbidden!—scrubbed our bodies with the precious soap. I opened my eyes underwater, grabbed at water snails, broke off sharp reeds from the riverbank trying to spear an eel, and tweaked Christina’s toes, pretending to be a fish—anything to have a laugh after the dreary winter months! The water was still icy and when I was the first to get out, goose bumps instantly rose on my skin. I shook my hair and watched the flying drops sparkle in the sun before I wound it into a bun.
“Better than the bathhouse,” gurgled Christina, still drifting in the shallows. “At least you don’t get whipped with twigs till you’re all sore and almost bleeding.”
“Oh, I can see to that,” I said, snapping a twig off a bush. Christina squealed and had just ducked underwater when I heard sounds from the road: horses neighing, stones crunching under cart wheels, men’s voices. “Stay in the water,” I ordered Christina, and looked up at the road. Three riders encircled a cart decked with pale canvas while the man on the coach box was still holding the reins. In spite of the distance I felt him scrutinizing me, and I desperately wished I could reach my sarafan.
“Who is it?” Christina whispered, drifting back and forth in the shallow water.
“Shh! I don’t know! Stay where you are!”
To my alarm I saw the man get down from the coach box and throw the reins to one of the other riders. I counted three armed men while he turned down the little path toward our riverbank. I ran to the bush where my clean blouse was drying. It was still damp, but I slipped it on nonetheless. I had just managed to pull it down over my thighs when the man stood before me. He must have been the same age as my father, but he had certainly never worked as hard in his life. His long Russian coat had a dark fur collar and his breeches were cut from soft leather and held by a richly embroidered belt. His high boots were spattered with mud and dirt. I shielded my eyes with my hand. Sweat glistened on his forehead, although his face was shaded by a flat beaver fur hat. He had a full beard, as all Russians did in those days. He looked me up and down, judging me, then took off his gloves. He wore several rings with bright stones on his short, thick fingers. I’d never seen anything like it: not even the abbot wore this much jewelry. I took a step back yet, to my dread, he followed.
“Can you tell me the way to the monastery, girl?” he asked in harsh German. He still had all his teeth, but his gums were stained dark red from chewing tobacco, and he smelled of sweat from the long ride. It would have been rude of me to make a face, and an offense to a traveling stranger, so I stood there uneasily while he looked me up and down. I sensed that the outline of my breasts was visible beneath the thin, wet linen. Feeling my hair slipping its knot, I instinctively reached up to tighten it, and the blouse slipped, baring my shoulder.
His tongue darted across his lips, which made me think of the snake my brother Fyodor and I had spotted the previous summer in the undergrowth of our vegetable patch. It was pale green and we could almost see its intestines shining dark beneath the skin. It had slithered toward us, slowly at first. Although he was smaller than me, Fyodor pushed me behind him. The snake looked poisonous, and deadly, but my brother bent down and picked up a heavy stone. At the very moment when the snake shot forward, jaw agape, he smashed its head in. The nerves in the reptile’s dead body made it go on twitching and wriggling.
The man took another step toward me, and from the water Christina screamed: “Marta, watch out!”
He turned his head and I bent to grab a mossy stone. I may have been a virgin, but I knew all too well what he wanted. We had a cock and hens in the backyard, after all, and my father had to hold the mares for the stallions in the monastery stables. Besides, in the izby, where families all slept together on the flat oven, bodies and breaths mingling, there was little room for secrets. I knew what he wanted and I wasn’t going to let him have it.
“The monastery’s straight ahead, just down the road. You’ll be there soon if you hurry!” I said curtly, even though my shaking voice gave me away.
He didn’t respond, but took another step toward me. “Your eyes are the same color as the river. What else is there to discover about you?” he asked. There was little more than a breath separating us.
I stood firm and hissed, “If you come any closer, I’ll smash your skull in and bake a pie of your brain. Get back to your coach and go to the damned monks.” I weighed the stone threateningly in my hand. Out of the corner of my eye I saw his three companions dismounting, shaking out their limbs after the long ride and allowing their horses to graze. I bit my lip. One skull I could smash, but we didn’t stand a chance against four men. My heart pounded in my breast as I tried not to give in to the fear of what might happen. The first of the men seemed to head down the path. The stranger smirked, sure of an easy victory. Christina sobbed in the water and the sound made me furious: an anger laced with strength and courage. “Get out of here, Russian!” I snarled at him, and he hesitated; then, all of a sudden, he held up his hand, stopping the other man in his tracks.
“By God, girl, you amuse me. We’ll see each other again, and then you’ll be kinder to me.” He stretched out his hand as if to touch my hair. Christina screamed. I spat at his feet. His face grew hard. “Just you wait,” he threatened. “Marta, eh? That’s what she called you, the little minx in the water?”
I was mute with fear as he turned and walked back up the embankment. Only when he had urged on his horses with a flick of his whip, and the clopping of hooves and the clattering of wheels had died away, did I breathe and let the stone slip from my sweaty, sticky fingers. My knees buckled and I fell onto the rough, gray sand, shivering. Christina waded out of the water; she wrapped her arms around me and we held each other tight, until I was only shaking with cold and not fear anymore. She stroked my hair and whispered: “Marta, you’re so brave. I’d never have dared to threaten him with a silly little stone.” I glanced down at the stone at my feet. It really did look silly and little.
“Do you think we’ll see him again?” she asked, while I struggled to my feet. I bit my lip in worry. He’d asked the way to the monastery to which all of us belonged—our izba, our land, the shirt on my back, we ourselves.
I chased the thought away. “Nonsense,” I said, hoping I sounded surer than I felt. “We’ll never see that tub of lard again. Let’s hope he falls off his coach box and breaks his neck.” I tried to laugh, but couldn’t. Christina didn’t look convinced either. Clouds covered the sun, veiling the daylight with the first blue of dusk. I was shivering in my damp shirt, which was covered in dirt. What a nuisance: I would have to wash it again tomorrow, early in the morning before the feast. I brushed sand and pebbles off my shins. “Let’s go.” Silently, we slipped into our old clothes and gathered up the still damp washing to hang it over the flat oven at home to dry, though it would make the air in the hut even more humid and worsen Fyodor’s cough.
“Let’s not tell anyone about this, shall we?” I asked Christina, hoping I could pretend the meeting by the river had never happened. But in my heart I knew this wouldn’t be the end of it. Nothing in this world happens without a reason. That afternoon my life changed course, like the weathervane on the monastery roof spinning in the first blast of a sudden storm.
It rained the night before the fair. The monks didn’t make nemtsy attend their church on Sunday like the other souls: I had been baptized Catholic but to me faith was just mumbled prayers and a constant crossing of yourself with three fingers. On the day of our death, this—or so we hoped—was supposed to gain us entry to the freeborn Heaven.
As we walked to the fairground by the monastery, our feet sank into the warm mud of the road, a soft sucking sound accompanying each step. We carried our sandals of wood and raffia in our hands so as not to ruin them. My youngest sister, Maggie, who was only four, could barely keep up with us, so I took her hand and slowed to match her scuttle. The morning had been damp, but now the afternoon was sunny, the sky big and blue. At the village green, men were still leveling the ground for the evening’s dancing, and women were stretching ropes between high birch trees for children to swing on. Others were standing around in groups in their long, bright dresses, laughing, talking, singing songs, and clapping along. The fairground was already a lively hubbub, as people from all over the province had come for the market. A bear was tethered to a post outside the first tent I passed, his pelt dirty and disheveled, and the teeth in his jaws were filed down, as well as his claws. Still, better to keep away from the captive animals: their angry, unpredictable natures were merely slumbering, unbroken by their chains. In winter, the traveling merchants who kept them would freeze to death by the roadside; the bears would rip their chains from the dead men’s hands, driven by hunger to the nearest houses and farms. So Maggie and I gave Master Bruin a wide berth as he uselessly whetted his claws on his post. Maggie glanced round quickly for her mother, but Tanya was at a stall, looking at necklaces and bracelets. Putting her finger to her lips, the little girl curiously lifted the flap of a tent, its cloth mended and darned with colorful patches.
“Maggie…” I was about to tell her off when she gasped and shrank back in dread. I took her place and peered inside: a gruesome creature with two heads, four arms, and two legs was tied up in the middle of the tent. I suppressed a cry as one head turned to look at us, while the other hung helplessly to one side. Saliva dribbled from one slack mouth, while something like a smile spread across the other sad, slightly crooked face. A hand stirred; fingers reached out to me. I counted them: there were six! I shrank back. It was horrid, but I couldn’t take my eyes off it. Maggie squeezed in again beside me. At that moment a voice boomed behind us: “Aha, young ladies, so curious already about my Tent of Wonders?”
We were so startled, we almost tumbled right into the tent. Behind us, a man held on to a dwarf by a short chain wrapped around his neck. On his other side stood a girl in a dress of bright green and blue patches with a rope about her waist; her hair was wrapped in a torn fishing net. I had not seen makeup before and she looked frightful to me: her face seemed to have been pressed in lumpy flour, two garish red patches were painted on her cheeks, and she had outlined her eyes and eyebrows with a lump of coal.
The man bowed. “I am Master Lampert, bringing the wonders of the world right here to your sorry little village.”
I frowned: only we were allowed to badmouth the mir, not some random stranger! Master Lampert now kicked the dwarf in the side, whereupon he did a somersault and the bells and dull coins on his jacket clinked cheerfully. “No one has dwarves, mermaids, and ghastly creatures like mine. Come to my show this evening, ladies!”
Ladies! Maggie and I giggled. No one had ever called us that. Master Lampert ignored our foolishness and carried on. “There’s a fun competition planned, throwing rotten fruit at my monster. Who hits it bang smack in the face, wins.” He pointed at the miserable being in the middle of the tent. Timidly, I glanced at it again. Both its heads were hanging once more, and its arms dangled uselessly. The “mermaid”—whatever that was supposed to mean—smiled at me, revealing black gaps in her teeth. Dear God, I was glad when at that very moment an angry Tanya dragged Maggie and me out into the open.
“What are you doing loitering with the traveling folk? Are you one of them?” she snapped. “Come, Christina and I are watching the fire-eater.” In spite of the harshness of her tone, she pressed a few honey-roasted nuts into my hand. God knows how she’d smuggled the money for them past Father, who’d surely feel we’d deprived him of a drink or a dose of chewing tobacco. This was a feast day, no mistake. A troupe of musicians came down toward us along the muddy paths between tents and stalls, and the jolly noise of drums, flutes, and bells mercifully swallowed Tanya’s scolding. I fed a few nuts to Maggie and followed Tanya and Christina to the stalls with the fire-eaters, jugglers, and a magician in the midst of plucking a red ball from a farmer’s grubby ear. The crowd cheered and clapped furiously. Other men pressed forward, wanting to have balls conjured from their ears, too. Christina pointed to the fire-eater. “Have you seen those muscles? He eats fire all right,” she said, giggling. I sighed inwardly. If the monks didn’t find a husband for her from among the serfs in the village soon, we would be the ones leaving a little bundle on the edge of the forest. I strolled on a few paces to a juggler with a long white beard and a bare chest weathered by the sun. A vermilion dot was painted on his forehead, heavy rings made long loops of his earlobe, and his white hair was slicked back and plaited: still, his eyes shone bright and clear. He must have seen so many things in his life! I, on the other hand, would always stay here in this village. The crowd fell silent as he added a fourth and fifth club to the three he already held and said in broken German: “Two clubs—for bunglers! Three clubs—for fools! Four clubs—is good! Five clubs—for masters!” Christina squeezed in beside me and Maggie’s little hand snuck into mine. Tanya joined us, too. The clubs flew straight up in the air, high and fast, their wood shimmering in the sun. As he juggled, the old man got his helper to throw him a sixth club, and a seventh. I gasped and then watched breathlessly; the colorful musicians marched noisily past again. When the juggler took off his cap to ask for money, we walked on, past the barber-surgeon, where people with all sorts of aches and pains queued up. I heard a man’s horrified gurgle as the barber pulled the wrong tooth. There was cheering from the puppeteer’s stall: I headed toward it. The play was in full swing, and we sat down on the grass with the other onlookers. Surely we could watch for a little while without having to pay? It seemed to be set in a fortress. One puppet wore a glittering round cap, and had the Russian double-headed eagle embroidered on its jerkin. That must be the young Russian tsar. A soldier puppet stepped out in front of the tsar puppet and the man beside me burst into laughter.
“What’s it about? Is that the tsar?” I whispered.
He nodded. “Yes. Two years ago, Tsar Peter wanted to visit the fortress in Riga. He’s hardly ever in Moscow, did you know that?” I shrugged, and he carried on. “But the Swedes wouldn’t let him. An ordinary soldier barred the way to the tsar of all the Russias, and the king of Sweden”—here he pointed to a third puppet, sitting on a stool—“refused to punish the man. The tsar is said to still be furious. He’s sworn revenge on all Swedes.” He blew his nose into his fingers. The tsar puppet was having a temper tantrum, stamping wildly on its crown. I laughed loudly along with the others, and was feeding Maggie the last of the sweetened nuts when a shadow fell across me, blocking out the light. A voice said, in Russian, “That’s the girl.” I looked up. It was the man from the river.
Copyright © 2020 by Ellen Alpsten.
Read our interview with Ellen Alpsten on the Reading Group Choices blog!