At night, it’s like my head is made of footsteps. Loud and close, then quiet and far, then loud and close again. Like someone climbing stairs. I think of how my sister galloped the stairs of our first house. Prancing my grandma called it, galloping my mom called it, thinking my sister called it. I do this so I can think, she’d say.
Annoying is what I called it. My sister galloped for our whole childhood. Every room on every floor was a pivot in her path, and when our next house had no stairs, she galloped room to room, and when our next house after that had one room, she galloped to every piece of furniture, touched it, galloped on. The last house had just a bed, chair, oven, sink, and she tightened her route. Near the end, it was just a circle.
You think a lot for someone who has no ideas, I’d say.
My sister kept moving.
But don’t be fooled—my sister had a voice. She sang at the window in the winding staircase in our first house. She screamed when I strung a thread across her path and sliced her ankles.
No one tried to stop her steps. They all just read their books or counted coins or stirred stews or stacked blocks while my sister pranced. It fell to me, alone. So I raised up splinters from the floorboards. I laid thickets: brother’s mudpies, his bloody bandages, father’s family swords.
My sister grew. Her steps got louder, heavier, like wet snow falling from trees to the rooftop—or what, in your thin blankets, shuddering in your thin bed, you hope to be wet snow.
I grew, too. I stretched to fill our shrinking rooms as best I could.
Hardest to bear is the view from our windows.
We used to stroll among fountains. Grandma’s roses dizzied the bees. Every room spilled with blooms sent by toadying botanists. After that, they let us rake a garden. We planted beets. How funny it is to mourn the feel of soil warmed by sunlight. I miss the bend of stems.
Today, our view is a wooden fence. Plank after plank of palisade, dull as the beef we’re given. We’re pinned to the edges of routine. I hate to say it, you know it pains me, but I admire the way my sister loops as she likes. At least her path is hers.
The only softness in the days is ours—our dimples, our curls, our simple dresses. We’re allowed to sew, and so we circle together as our brother, at our ankles, sails ships.
Come here, butterfly, Mother says to my little sister. Light upon this sofa, sit a while. Let’s mend.
We pull seams, mark hems, gather ruffles. My favorite gown is blue, like parrot feathers. I haven’t worn it since the War. I rip out the neck.
Shall I tell you the secret of our dresses?
See my hands?
Look. With every stitch, we drop a diamond. We plant heirlooms beneath our pleats and tuck our waists with topaz.
When a guard looks in, we rest our hands and raise our eyebrows.
We daughters have a wager. Which of us will be the first to draw a smile from those beards? Who will catch and hold a gaze?
Outside, the guards stand in rows. Inside, we stab sleeves with pins.
It would only take a swaying skirt to pull a guard out of line. To remind us all of curves, of softness. To poke a hole. An opening.
What I saw today made me drop the eggs.
Yes, the girls, now women, have done worse. Cooking for them, I know things. It’s not my place to gossip. I cannot say which or what or who. But last summer, a middle daughter refused my bread, just like my wife did until things took hold. My wife’s sickness ended with our fat twins. The middle daughter’s sickness just ended. Done. Right after Doctor visited.
The things I know.
But today. Today spilled us over.
How to tell it?
I’ll say this. A guard left a box in a hole by the palisade. This guard stood watch. Then the youngest daughter, the one who skips, skipped along. The family’s morning walk. The third time round, she ran ahead. She stopped. Looked about. Stooped and opened the little box.
And then she smiled.
Smiled at the guard!
These pigs with guns trained on our heads!
Look at that bell tower! See the muzzle? They’re on every rooftop. The drunkest guard, there, fondles his bayonet.
It’s a chore just carrying eggs to the stove!
Next thing, the daughter pulled out something small and white and round. Popped it in her mouth. Ate another.
Teacakes. Nine or ten from the looks of it.
I about fell through the shutters.
All they let me do is boil. What I’d give to build a torte! Any food from the nuns, the guards gobble and belch like cannon fire. These pigs rut with women steps away from our bedrooms.
But not this guard.
Not this daughter.
This guard smiled and tipped his cap.
This daughter skipped away laughing.
Yes, I dropped the eggs. Yes, I lost all but three.
Everything here could break open at any minute.
Please, I beg you, save us from this mess.
I dreamt the bars on the windows turned into piano keys. I played them. I banged my hands and music rang. No, Son! Mother cried. You will bruise! Son, stop this very instant! Father laughed. My son, how do you know that song? I played Concerto No. 2. I beat the bars to clanging. My fingers purpled. They swelled like sausages. I played on. My sisters came after me with blankets, stacks of blankets, stacks so high they blocked my sisters’ faces. My sisters swaddled me as if I were on fire. I ran. I flew through the doors, beyond the fence, out into the driveway. The blankets fell away. I felt the breeze on my face. Our dogs gave chase. The music became the guards’ drunk singing. Their thrones are covered with blood! My fingers swelled until they split and Mother screamed. Put the blood back inside my son or he is going to die! Pebbles spat from the ground at my feet. I ran faster than the gunshots.
No, he did not look like a man out for blood. He was a modest man. The toes of his black boots were worn down to the soles. He had kind eyes. His beard was threaded, black and white, so much white I thought at first he was a servant.
He had to carry the sickly son out to the garden but the son was too old for carrying. In those moments he was neither tsar nor murderer—just a father stooped beneath a weight no father should bear. He had to place the boy precisely to prevent a bruise. Once, I stepped from my post to help.
This set the Commandant yapping. Put these idle rich to work! They thirst for our blood!
Yet in truth their thirst was simple.
All you had to do was meet their eyes and they would smile. It was like they thanked you just for seeing them. For looking past their gold chains our Commandant picked and pocketed.
All they wanted was someone to talk with.
So I did.
I used to carry my aunt uphill to market, I told him. She lived on air and yet each time I swore she’d ate a fatted pig.
He laughed and I could tell, were we elsewhere, he’d have shook my hand.
The next day as she rounded the path, I asked the skipping daughter what she’d name her dog’s new puppies.
She flew past. But the next time around, she whispered:
Honey, Pudding, Cake, Cake the Second, Cake the Third.
This I understood.
The skipping daughter had freckles you couldn’t see unless you got close. Each day, near me, she slowed a little more.
Inside my own worn black boots, my toes curled. I prayed I wouldn’t break her wings.
Pull the laces: 1-2-3-4-5-6-7 plus 8-9-10-11 and now another pull for 12.
Pull again to lock in luck: mother-father-brother-sister-sister-sister-me plus cook-doctor-maid-footman and one more for—.
(He gave me fine new boots!)
You’ve worn your boots to shreds by skipping, Miss A, he said. Your wings need feathering.
(He sees my wings!)
Well, of course he does. A good guard understands his fellow guardian.
But he is the only one who does. Mother, father can’t be bothered. Sister spies and tries to clip me. Trips, slips, my brother’s ships: wrecks I weave my rudder through.
My duty is undying.
My steps are our safekeeping.
I trench the tracks of fortune’s wheel.
He stands his post by the fence. I pace my post indoors.
60 steps for sisters’ safety.
Bruising brother, miserable mother: 700 steps apiece.
Cook and maid: 30 table taps.
Doctor, footman: 40 more.
For myself: 17, plus one more—a prayer for better birthdays.
(He brought me teacakes for my birthday!)
With every breach, I start over: when the drunk guard knocked off Father’s cap. When Father stooped to get it. When the fat guard sings about our death. When Mother’s maid weeps. When Mother rages. When they fire guns to wake our puppies. When they shoot my windowsill.
I start over.
I am Tyche, winged, powerful. I alone can steer our fate.
See how well I’ve done? My steps secured our secret savior.
He calls me Miss A.
He gave me teacakes.
(He says he will set us free!)
He brought me boots to lace so I can pace. Good boots make a good guardian.
For our protection, I pull the laces: 1-2-3-4-5-6-7 plus 8-9-10-11.
And now another pull for 12.
When my children reach for me, I become something different. Something whole, engulfing. For lack of more artful expression, I become my heart. Or perhaps I mean that my children become my heart.
This month was so trying, decorum crashed against the whitewashed windowpanes and splintered into screams. All we want is air, I’d plead. Just a crack of the window, please? Me, the Empress, reduced to begging a factory oaf who bragged of the gun in his trousers. But where is it, Sir? Your gun must be tiny, my Tatiana asked. Impertinent girl. If we die, we will go laughing.
My children wear brave faces and now I fear they’ll never know how proud I am.
How we’ve shrunk to fit inside this emptiness. Even Alexei stopped tempting fate with his leaps, feigning pleasure in a succession of chairs. Olga’s tempers folded, square by square, into sharp corners. Maria, as ever, ministered to our needs, her hands constant, open, steady.
Even Nastia charmed the guards by herding us. One young guard brought her new boots. What was I to do? The lines of propriety shift like shadows.
Last night, he and his cohort were dismissed, replaced with foreigners. These new guards are blank as iron skillets—they do not charm.
At midnight, they brought us to this basement.
What happens next?
You might think our hearts are hard as the diamonds sewn into our dresses. You would be wrong. Diamonds do not create darkness—diamonds can only reflect.
Now, the Commandant reads a statement.
Now, my husband asks me, What?
Now, the room explodes.
Now when my children reach for me, we bleed like watercolors. We are footfalls in wet soil—last words trapped inside a mother’s heart.
On and on we pulse.
Maeve D’Arcy is a visual artist from New York City. She attended Bard College and CUNY Hunter as an undergraduate and Central Saint Martins in London for her MFA. Her work explores repetitive mark making and the documentation of time, memories and interruptions using painting, drawing, and site specific installation. She has attended many residencies including Jentel Foundation, Vermont Studio Center, and Virginia Center for Creative Arts.
Rebecca Meacham is the author the flash fiction collection Morbid Curiosities, winner of the NDR chapbook contest, and her first book, Let’s Do, was a Barnes & Noble “Discover Great New Writers” selection. Her prose has appeared in Michigan Quarterly Review, Indiana Review, Necessary Fiction, Paper Darts, Wigleaf, The Collagist, Monkeybicycle, and elsewhere— and her stories have been set to music, translated into Polish, and carved into woodblocks and letter-pressed by steamroller. As Professor of English at University of Wisconsin-Green Bay, Rebecca directs the creative writing program, and she’s an organizer of Green Bay’s annual UntitledTown Book and Author Festival.