The Cardinals of Ever-June
by Sylvia Anna Hivén
I put up with much when I was a boy. I had no choice, really, because I was orphaned at the age of eight, and an orphan has less of a voice than a mute.
I had no say when my sister and I were shipped off to a poor-house, run by a cruel man. I accepted that I had to work most of my waking hours and face hard fists if I refused. I endured the lice-infested beds, watery broths and poverty seeping into my very pores. That’s just the way life was. But no matter how much I could withstand, I couldn’t accept a life of misery for my little sister. This is the story of how in order to save her, I let her die.
Hearing me say that might leave you cold. I won’t blame you if it does. But in the end, when you’ve heard the whole story, I still hope you’ll find it in your heart to say a prayer for me.
The snow groaned under my boots as I dragged Tatyana along the forest path. She was a small girl for eleven, but toiling with her through snow droves that stood to my knees was like pulling a giant through the eye of a needle.
“Come on, Tatya,” I pleaded. “It’s gonna get dark soon, and you know how angry Vladimir gets if we’re late. We gotta walk faster.”
“I’m sorry, Mischa. I’m so tired. Can I rest for a minute?”
Despite the pines towering above us like an army of black sentinels shrouded in mantles of snow, there was little shelter from the wind. I could see how tired and cold Tatyana was: wet snow clung to her coat, a splotch of red danced on each hollow cheek and half-frozen snot trailed from her nose.
“You know what’ll happen if you sit down in the snow for too long when you’re tired,” I said. “You’ll end up just like Yuri.”
Yuri had lived with us at Vladimir’s poor-house for two years. He’d been a sickly boy and he’d died from pneumonia the previous winter. I buried him myself, and Tatyana sung a hymn over his grave; everybody else in the cottage were too busy lamenting their own misery to care. Tatyana hated it when I brought up Yuri. Nevertheless, it scared her enough to where I could convince her to do almost anything.
I gave her a small hug. “Two years, Tatya. Then I’ll be old enough to move out of the poor-house, and I’m taking you with me to Moscow. Two years, and we’ll be free.”
She shook her head. “I don’t know that I can last the winter in that place, let alone two more years.”
“Sure you can. As long as you keep away from the sick folks and eat properly, you’ll be fine.” I gave her my sternest big-brother stare. “You did eat the lunch Vladimir sent, didn’t you?”
She rolled her eyes. “Boiled potatoes. Again.”
“When we’re in Moscow, I promise you’ll never have to eat another boiled potato for as long as you live.” I gave her an encouraging grin. “Now, let’s go. Or I’ll make you sleep next to old Vanya, and you know he hasn’t taken a bath since last summer.”
“He farts under the covers, too!” Her giggles were a rare treat, and they faded into seriousness all too quickly. She took my hand and nodded with determination. “Two more years.”
By the time we arrived home, the belly of the clouds had darkened to a charcoal grey. Swathed in a blanket that stunk of old tobacco, Vladimir waited for us on the stoop. His black moustache twitched as we approached.
“You’re late,” he huffed.
“Sorry, Vladimir Sergeyevich, sér,” said I. “It snowed more since this morning. The trail was covered.”
“I don’t want to hear your excuses, Mikhail. There’s wood to chop and Tatyana needs to help with dinner. You need to learn how to get your sraka home before dark, or there’ll be no more school for either of you.”
It was an empty threat, I knew—Vladimir wouldn’t be paid the ten kopecks a week for taking in Tatya and me if we didn’t show up to school like we were supposed to—but I wasn’t about to give him an excuse to knock me around. Instead, I bit my tongue, shoved Tatyana inside, and went to fetch the axe.
I spent an hour chopping wood in the barn before the smell of cabbage broth beckoned. When I entered the cottage, Tatyana elbowed her way around the table, trying her best to fill the bowls of the ten other inhabitants that Vladimir had taken in. She was exhausted; her hands trembled, and as she moved to fill Vladimir’s bowl, she spilled some of the steaming broth.
“Watch what you’re doing, bliad!”
Vladimir moved to slap her, and my muscles tightened. I would not stand for anyone to beat my sister. But I didn’t have to come to her defense; his face softened and he lowered his hand.
“No,” said Vladimir, unsettling malice glimmering in his eyes. “I’m not going to beat that pretty face of yours. One day it may earn me more money than the pathetic five kopecks I get for you now.”
Tatyana was young; she only looked bewildered by his words, but I knew what he meant. Vladimir wanted to sell her as a servant. Perhaps Tatyana and I didn’t have two years, after all.
We were the poorest children in our school, and the only orphans.At no time did our circumstance sadden Tatyana more than when she saw the lunches packed by the considerate mothers of our classmates. Her eyes would widen at the meat-filled pirozhki or tart winter apples emerging from their sacks. And there she would sit with cold, boiled potatoes—the bland stigma of our misery.
“Eat,” I told her the next day when, as usual, she looked at her food with disdain. “I won’t have you end up like Yuri.”
“So what if I do?” responded Tatyana. “Yuri’s probably much better off, wherever he is.”
“Don’t talk like that. Yuri’s dead.”
“Like I said, better off.”
I left her alone, hoping she would be in a better mood on the way home, but she dragged her feet more than ever. When we had reached the halfway point between the school and Vladimir’s cottage, she stopped.
“That’s it, Mischa,” said Tatyana. “I’m not taking another step.”
I turned around to face her and sighed. “Don’t be silly. We have to get home before it gets dark. I don’t want to get yelled at again.”
Tatyana responded by dropping her school bag into a snow drove and plopping down on top of it. “I’m not moving. I’m gonna sit here and pray for the gods to freeze me to ice, and that I’ll never have to see Vladimir or the poor-house again. You can go on if you want.”
“You’re crazy if you think I’m gonna leave you alone in the forest. Pray if you must, but in ten minutes, I’m carrying you home if I have to.”
I sat down next to her, also bundling my school bag beneath me to keep off the snowy ground. We sat so for a while and Tatyana mumbled angry prayers.
I had almost fallen asleep when Tatyana nudged me with her elbow. “Look,” she whispered.
Just a few feet from us, a group of red cardinals pranced on the stiff snow. They hopped around, kicking their little legs in some odd dance, and chirped at us.
“Do they think we have food?” asked Tatyana.
“I don’t know. I’ve never seen cardinals behave like that.”
The smallest bird jumped closer and skittered up Tatyana’s leg. It perched on her lap, twittered at her with a tilted head and then, as if they’d heard a signal beyond what I and Tatyana could hear, all the birds flew a few feet farther into the forest. They again performed their curious dance, and took another unanimous leap farther between the pines.
Tatyana got to her feet. “Well, let’s go. It wants us to follow.”
“And leave the path, when it’s about to get dark? We’re gonna get lost.”
Tatyana just laughed and ran after the birds, her fatigue forgotten. I had no choice but to run after her.
The birds did appear as if they wanted us to follow. They skipped around the tall pines, sometimes fluttering in a tight group, other times scattering about but always heading in the same direction. If Tatyana and I slowed down, they waited until we caught up. When they finally stopped near the ruins of an old stone cottage, both Tatyana and I were out of breath.
The cottage looked like it had been abandoned for years. Its southern facade had collapsed, and a burned brick chimney rose into the air through the crumbled ceiling. Moss-covered roof tiles lay scattered on the ground, undoubtedly hurled off the roof by decades of winter winds.
“Do you think anybody lives here?” asked Tatyana.
“I doubt it. But we should go inside and see if we can start a fire. It’s going to get dark soon and I don’t think I can find our way back to the path until morning.”
I opened the door and ushered my sister inside. To my astonishment, as I followed behind her, I stepped into a bright summer’s day.
I could not believe my eyes. There were children everywhere, bathed in sunlight. Nearby, two boys fenced with wooden sticks. One of them executed a particularly fine attack and pierced the chest of his opponent who fell to the ground in a fit of laughter. Further away, around a large oak tree with silver-trimmed leaves, girls braided ribbons and rosebuds into each other’s hair. Beyond the oak, a field of sunflowers stretched for as far as my eyes could see, and in it waded more children. They were flying kites shaped like bumble bees and dragonflies, and they shouted with glee as their kites dipped and rose in the sky.
Beyond the field and the silver oak, up on a hill, sat a school house. It wasn’t like our school house—small and grey—but painted cranberry red and with a brass bell mounted on a pole outside. A woman in a white frock stood on the steps.
“This is impossible,” said I. “How can there be summer here, when it’s winter on the other side of that door?”
The door through which we had come stood closed, and to my dismay as I yanked at the handle, it was glued to its frame.
“There’s no use,” said a soft voice. “You can’t leave Ever-June through that door; it only opens one way.”
The person that had spoken was one of the fencing boys. A thick mop of auburn hair brushed his freckled forehead. He wore linen shorts and a white shirt smudged with grass stains on its elbows—probably from vigorous play rather than hard work, I noted with envy.
“Ever-June?” asked I. “What is this place?”
The boy grinned, but he didn’t answer. He pointed to the woman by the school house. “You should go see Nadya Alekseeva.”
“Will she be able to tell us how to get home?”
The boy frowned and shrugged. “If that’s what you want.”
Tatyana, who had been eyeing the boy in silence, took a step forward. “Yuri?” she asked. “Is that you?”
It struck me that the boy did look a bit like Yuri—or rather, as Yuri would have looked if he had been born into a rich family that could feed and clothe him. But the boy just shook his head and laughed.
“I’m me; I don’t know a Yuri,” he said and ran back to his friend.
As the sound of their furious stick battle resumed, I took Tatyana’s hand. “Come on,” said I. “Let’s go see that lady.”
“I’m sure that’s Yuri,” protested Tatyana. “And I smell fresh bread. Jam and cherries, too.”
The lady pointed out to us by the-boy-who-wasn’t-Yuri came walking down the hill. When she came closer, my face grew hot with admiration at her beauty. She was young, but with wise eyes of a color too vivid for words.
“Welcome,” she said. “I’m so glad the birds found you. I am Nadya Alekseeva.”
“What is this place?” I repeated, hoping she would be more forthcoming than the boy had been.
“Ever-June, of course,” she said as if it was the most obvious thing in the world. “Now take your coats off and come. We are about to have lunch and you both look hungry. Do you like pirozhki?”
Madame Alekseeva showed us to a courtyard behind the school house. There, a long table lay heavy with the most amazing dishes I had ever seen: not only pirozhki like she had promised, but also fresh loaves of bread with butter and fat slices of cheese, cherry fritters coated in sticky honey, bowls of strawberries and sour cream, and huge pitchers of ice-cold milk. The other children flooded the table and took their meal in loud chatter.
Even though Tatyana and I both ate as if we’d never seen food before, it didn’t stop us from playing with the other children afterward. I flew a kite with some of the boys, and two twin girls took Tatyana to the oak tree and braided yellow ribbons into her unruly hair. We played for what felt like an eternity, but the sun didn’t move from its high place in the sky. Even though the house on the hill was a school house, Madame Alekseeva never rang the bell for class. It was the longest, most enjoyable recess I’d ever had.
By the time I played tag with Tatyana and the twin sisters, I had almost forgotten that I didn’t belong. But as Nadya Alekseeva came and told me it was time for me to leave Ever-June, harsh reality came rushing back.
“Why must I leave?” asked I, tears burning at the corners of my eyes.
Nadya Alekseeva looked saddened, but unrelenting. “The cardinals only invited your sister. She’s welcome to stay, because she earned her way. You came along, but that’s against the rules. You have to find your own path here.”
Tatyana, who had abandoned the twins, clung to my arm with a deep frown. “Madame Alekseeva, I really love it here,” she said. “I like playing with the-boy-who-isn’t-Yuri and the twins. The pirozhki and the fritters were delicious. But I’m not staying unless Mischa can stay, too.”
“If you truly want to leave, Tatya, I can’t force you to stay.” Sadness veiled Nadya Alekseeva’s face as she spoke. “The door to Ever-June only opens from the outside, so you can’t return that way. But if you lay down and rest under the silver oak, I’ll make sure that when you wake up, you will be back home.”
She took both of us by the hand and led us up on the hill to the oak tree. The sun’s rays trickled in through the canopy of the silver leaves above, but it was still cool enough to be comfortable beneath it. The grass was soft, and it didn’t take long before I fell asleep.
When I awoke, it was freezing cold. Tatyana and I both sat perched against a rough pine where we had first seen the red birds. There was barely a thin layer of snow on my coat, and even though we had spent hours in Ever-June, it was still light. It was as if time hadn’t passed at all.
“I had the strangest dream,” said Tatyana and rubbed her eyes. “I dreamed that it was summer. I had cherry fritters and you flew a kite, and I think we saw Yuri.”
I knew it hadn’t just been a dream—we had seen a place beyond a slumber that perhaps had been meant to last forever—but I didn’t tell her. Instead, I helped her to her feet and together we hurried home.
We weren’t late when we arrived at the cottage, but that didn’t stop Vladimir from berating us. He sat on the porch and talked with his brother, a big pipe sticking out from beneath his bushy moustache. As soon as we shook the snow off our coats, he shouted at me to go fetch wood, and for Tatyana to start preparing supper.
The hearty meal in Ever-June had energized me, and I finished my chore quicker than usual. When I came out of the barn, carrying a load of wood for the stove, the conversation I overheard between Vladimir and his brother froze me in my tracks.
“When is Ivanovich coming for the girl?” said the brother.
“In a fortnight.”
“And how much is he paying you?”
“Twenty-five rubles. Not bad for that dirty little runt.”
“What are you gonna say when the officials from Moscow ask why she stopped showing up at school?”
“I’ll tell them she got pneumonia and died. I’ll stick a cross in the back yard. No reason for them to question me.”
“Unless Mikhail talks.”
“That little mudak won’t be talking. I’ll have him tossed out to the wolves long before then.”
As I put away the wood in the box next to the stove, I cursed myself for letting my sister leave Ever-June. How could I’ve been such a fool? She would have been happy there, playing her way through an endless summer day. In our cold world, all that awaited her was to be sold as a servant for a few coins.
Tatyana went about her duties that evening with a smile on her face, and when we went to bed later, she whispered prayers to the gods that the birds would come to her again and bless her with the same lovely dream. Even though I knew what she prayed for was real and not a dream, I didn’t pray. Instead, I just lay there, biting my blanched fists in regret.
For the next few days, I deliberately stalled as we walked to and from school. I scanned the forest, seeking the flutter of red wings between the tree trunks, but to no avail. I remembered what Nadya Alekseeva had said—the birds would only come to those in true need—and it made me angry. Who in the world had more need than my sister?
A fortnight passed. I constantly looked over my shoulder in fear of seeing Vladimir approach with the axe raised over his head. Oddly enough, the disgusting man stayed clear of both me and Tatyana, not even hassling us when we arrived home after dark. I hoped the deal he had with his friend had fallen through, and that Tatyana was safe.
That was, until one evening when Vladimir approached me after supper and ordered me to chop extra wood. “Use it to heat up water in the steel tub,” he said. “And find me some soap.”
“You’re taking a bath in the middle of winter?” I asked.
“It’s not for me; it’s for your sister. She needs to look her best for some friends of mine tomorrow night. Now, stop asking questions and do as I tell you.”
I knew then, our time was up.
The next morning, as Tatyana and I walked to school, my frantic mind kept searching for ways out of our bind. Nobody in the village would take in two kids from the poor-house, knowing very well the diseases that ravaged the poor souls of that cottage. We had no money for a coach to the larger cities, and without papers, the militsiya would surely arrest us and send us right back to Vladimir. I toyed with the idea of finding shelter in the forest and try to survive by laying traps for small rabbits, but I knew we wouldn’t last a single night in the frigid cold.
There was no way out, and it tore at my heart.
“I have to rest, Tatya.” I fell to my knees in the snow. “I have to rest, and I have to pray.”
“Pray, now?” Tatyana watched me with confusion, pulling her coat tighter around her neck. “You don’t ever pray. And we’ll be late for school.”
“There are worse things than being late for school.”
So while my sister stood by, not knowing that what I was pleading for was her life, I prayed; I prayed that there would be a blizzard to stop Vladimir’s friends from showing up; I prayed that if they came, they would find her ugly and not want her. I prayed for any possibility, any mercy, to any god that would hear me.
I opened my eyes. The red birds had returned. The smallest cardinal tilted its head, twittered eagerly, and just like before it skipped into the forest, urging us to follow. I took Tatyana’s hand and stumbled after it, tears of relief streaming down my face.
Again, the birds took us to the dilapidated cottage. As soon as we stepped through the door, and Ever-June took us into its sunny arms, Tatyana wormed out of her coat and ran to the boy-that-looked-like-Yuri-but-wasn’t. He nudged her with an elbow and yanked playfully at her braid before taking off running towards the oak tree. Tatyana followed, her laughter pealing like bells.
I took my coat off, too, and walked up the hill toward the school house. Nadya Alekseeva stood on the porch. She looked as though she had been expecting me.
“Welcome back, Mischa.”
I couldn’t hold back my gratitude. I threw my arms around her slender waist, hugging her tightly. “You sent us the birds again, Madame, even though you said they would only come one time. Thank you.”
She withdrew and cupped my face in her hands, seriousness muting the odd color of her eyes. “No, Mischa. I don’t control the birds. You do. If you want the birds to come to you, and your need is dire enough, they will appear. Last time, Tatyana asked for them. This time, you did.”
“Well, this time, we’ll stay,” said I. “We can’t go back home again.”
“You can stay, if you wish,” said Nadya Alekseeva. “But Tatyana can’t. She turned down the offer of the cardinals once, and it’s not an offer that’s given twice.”
Desperation rose in my throat. “Please, Madame. She can’t go back. Terrible things will happen to her if she does.”
“I’m sorry, Mischa.” She looked pensive for a moment. “Now, if you’re willing to give your place to Tatyana, I could keep her here with me. But you would have to go back from where you came, and you wouldn’t be able to come back—not ever, no matter how hard you pray.”
I looked down the hill. Tatyana was playing tag with the other children down by the oak tree, and I heard her reckless laughter echo across the fields. It was the most wonderful sound, and I didn’t want it to stop—not even if I had to spend the rest of my life too far away to hear it.
“Yes,” said I with a heavy heart. “I want to give her my place.”
“So it will be, then. You’re a good brother, Misha.” She smiled somberly. “But it’s early yet, and the winds are brisk today. Why don’t you go down to the sunflower field and show her how to fly a kite. And when you are ready, the silver oak will be waiting to take you back.”
Tatyana was ecstatic that I would show her how to fly the kite. She was a fast learner and it didn’t take long before she was rushing across the meadow, shrieking in triumph as the kite fluttered high above her.
When she had learned well enough to fly it on her own, I went to sit by the oak. I tried to etch her face into my memory the best I could, but sleep came quickly that balmy afternoon. The last thing I remembered before falling asleep was that yellow ribbon fluttering among Tatya’s curls.
When I woke up, I sat under the same pine as the last time we returned from Ever-June. Tatyana slumped next to me, leaning against the tree trunk, but this time, she wasn’t stirring. The yellow ribbon lay frozen against her forehead, and her little lips looked stiff and blue. She was barely breathing, and the whirling snow coated her with alarming eagerness.
A dark hollow opened in my chest as I realized that was how I had to leave her—cold and alone, the winter tucking her into her last sleep.
I still remember how icy her cheek felt when I bent down and kissed her goodbye. Then I walked away with my school bag slung over my shoulder, and despite the tears that trailed down my cheeks, I withstood the temptation to look back.
Vladimir’s friends did show up that night, and from the menace that lined their scarred faces, I knew I had made the right decision. Vladimir was furious when I told him Tatya had gotten lost in the forest, but he didn’t beat me too much over it, and my broken nose certainly healed faster than my crushed heart.
I still sleep among lice-infested men in this dank place, but it is easier when I know that Tatya is safe. Sometimes I see her in my dreams. Often she pulls a kite across the sky with greater skill than any of the other children. Other times, she chases the-boy-who-isn’t Yuri around the silver oak. Never is she made to eat a cold, boiled potato.
I pray every night that I’ll see the cardinals and that they’ll take me to Ever-June again, but I suspect my pleas fall on deaf ears. I relinquished my place, and I’m paying the price.
However, now that you know the whole story, bitter as it is, perhaps you will pray for me. And if you pray hard enough, maybe I’ll see the flutter of red wings some day, after all.