Over at Read Me A Story Ink, the wonderful site run by booklover, bookseller and reader Robert Topp, there’s a whole searchable treasure-house of short stories for children, each carefully chosen for their quality and readability. The stories are available as printable PDFs, and some also as audio files(all with the full consent of the authors, of course). And I’m very happy to say several of my stories are available there, including a couple which are available both as PDFs and audios featuring Bob’s warm and lively readings. The latest of these is The Neptune Clock, one of my favourite stories, first published quite some years ago in ‘Tales of the Deep’ edited by Paul Collins and Meredith Costain, and since published another couple of times. And now you can listen to it at Read Me A Story Ink! Catch it here.
Today, I’m delighted to bring you an interview with award-winning historical fiction author Marina Osipova, whose first novel,The Cruel Romance, I read last year and loved. With its elegant writing, deeply evocative setting in wartime Russia, richly-drawn characters and tragic yet affirming story, it is an accomplished and memorable work. Marina has just released her second novel, How Dare the Birds Sing, and to celebrate I asked her a few questions about the book and her writing in general.
First of all, Marina, congratulations on the publication of How Dare the Birds Sing! It looks fantastic–I’ve just bought a copy and can’t wait to read it. Can you tell us about the novel and what inspired it?
Thank you, Sophie, for buying my book and for your readiness to allocate time in your extremely tight schedule to read it. I hope you’ll find the story interesting.
What inspired me? A difficult question for me to answer. It just happened. I was not yet done with The Cruel Romance when the story of Lyuba started germinating in my mind, or more accurately, in my heart. Unfortunately (you have to see me smile), it happens again and again. How Dare the Birds Sing was not published yet and already three other stories began pressuring me.
What was the road to publication like for this book? And how have readers responded to it so far?
The road to publication was not easy. First, and it was a month of thrilled anticipation, two editors from the Big Five requested The Cruel Romance and the ms of How Dare the Birds Sing for consideration. It was not out of the blue: one of my friends, an amazing author, recommended my work to them. Though they praised my writing and the stories . . . you can anticipate what their verdict was. Then, a small press publishing company from the UK expressed interest in How Dare the Birds Sing, but we did not agree on the terms. After spending tons of time researching possible publishers for my book, I chose Draft2Digital. Unfortunately, they help with e-publishing only. So, the process is not over for me. Despite that, I’m glad I decided to self-publish, which offers me more flexibility throughout the process. I like having control over all aspects of my career.
I am very pleased with the readers’ response to my newly published book. And the reviews are great. I’m humbled by praises from readers like: “A riveting WWII novel,” “A truly fascinating tale,” “The writing is excellent,” “Hard to put down.”
Your earlier novel, the wonderful, bold, memorable and tragic novel, The Cruel Romance, is also set in wartime and about the dreadful effects of war and occupation on people’s lives and potential–in all kinds of ways, including the possibility–or impossibility–of love in such circumstances. What draws you to tell these stories?
I hear this question time and again. It is known that wars are the most dramatic time in the history of humankind and WWII was the most brutal of them, full of universal and single-person drama. That’s what readers expect from fiction books—drama, right? Why WWII? I think, as a Russian, I inherited the horror and memory of that time. It’s in my blood. Besides, in the Soviet Union, preservation of the memory about the heroism of its people was a part of the broad propaganda. I, though, would call it nurturing patriotism and am thankful that the official policy of the state was to instill in the youth the feeling of respect and appreciation for what the prior generation sacrificed to preserve our life as an independent nation.
There is another reason for me to write about the Great Patriotic War: Thanks to The Nightingale, Lilac Girls, The Indigo Rebels, and other brilliant books, the stories of European women in their fight against the occupation of their countries has become broadly familiar. I believe ordinary Russian women who had to endure four years of Nazi invasion deserve the same.
Telling stories of unsung heroines is my humble tribute to the women who worked on the home front producing armaments, like Serafima from The Cruel Romance, or who were fighters on the front or partisans, like my heroine Lyuba from How Dare the Birds Sing who, after being captured by Germans, was subjected to slavery in the Nazi labor camp as hundreds of thousands of others were.
As a writer of Russian origin, you are no doubt influenced by the extraordinary literary heritage of your native country—how would you characterise that influence in your own work?
The influence was and is enormous. Starting with Alexandr Pushkin, Leo Tolstoy, and Fyodor Dostoevsky, Aleksandr Ostrovsky and Ivan Turgenev, Anton Chekhov and Maxim Gorki and the writers who wrote about the Great Patriotic War, like Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn, Vasily Grossman, Lev Kopelev, Konstantin Simonov, Yuri Bondarev, to name a few, all of whom shaped (and continue shaping) me as a writer with their brilliant ability to look beyond the time and human psyche.
You have also lived around the world, both as you were growing up, and as an adult–how do you feel that cosmopolitan experience has influenced your work?
This is another highly interesting question of yours, Sophie. Living abroad gave me not only the factual knowledge and experience of different cultures and political systems but also the feeling of how much unites us—the same everyday problems, the same sources of joy and love. But most importantly what influences my work is that I can feel for both protagonists and antagonists in my stories. As one reviewer of The Cruel Romance said, “There are no good liberators or bad invaders—there are good and bad people.” This is my credo as a writer—no prejudices.
Did you always want to be a writer, even as a child? And how did you get started on your writing career?
To be a writer? No, as a child I wanted to be a doctor, maybe because my dolls didn’t object to my sticking them with needles; then a fisherman (that is a fisherwoman)—I lived with my parents on the Volga River then—later, an operetta singer-dancer (without having any ear for music at all although I endured three years in a music school); then my small child’s interest in learning German and the love of this language overwhelmed all my other numerous interests and I decided my future profession must be related to anything that would involve the German language. And it did until I immigrated to the United States in 2001. That’s when I started writing (first, some flash fiction). My English language teacher, who I fed a story to every week, was impressed and suggested I “must publish” them. I published my first book in 2016.
You have won many awards for your writing–can you tell us more about them?
Yes, to my delight, my first submissions to literary contests, most of them to Romance Writers of America, were well received. Every one of them, big or small, are dear to my author’s heart. The list of them can be found on my website, www.marina-osipova.com.
But I’d like to tell you briefly about one in particular. It was my very first manuscript, which title had undergone several transformations from Margarita and her Master to Ark of Hypocrites to Garden of Weeds. I sent it to Pacific Northwest Writers Association literary contest and, surprisingly, happened to find myself among the finalists in the mainstream category. At the conference in Seattle, in the huge hall during the announcement of the winners, the chair asked the finalist to rise to their feet one category after another. Mine was the very last. Eight finalists stood up. The chair congratulated us and offered us our seats again but immediately changed her mind. “Wait, get up again.” We stood up. “All men and only one woman among the finalists!” I remember she sounded incredulous. When my category came up, I held my breath. Then, “And the first-place award goes to Marina Osipova.” Later, another finalist told me I exclaimed loudly.
What’s coming next? What new projects are you working on?
There are so many stories I want to tell! After my WIP, which is the sequel to How Dare the Birds Sing with the working title, I’ve Got to Know Who I Am, there will be a third book, and I already have a clear idea about another story outside of the series.
Thank you, Sophie, for inviting me to participate in your interview. A big honor for me. I can’t help but express my admiration of you as a brilliant writer and a wonderful person who helps other writers achieve their goal—to be a good author. Congratulations on your astounding and well-deserved achievement, the Order of Australia for services to literature.
A lovely start to the publication year for me, with my poem for children, Long Neck, published in the first issue of ‘Orbit’ , part of the wonderful School Magazine, with a beautiful, atmospheric illustration by Jenny Tan.
Here, below, is the poem–hope you enjoy! And by the way, if you are interested in fabulous writing and illustration for children, and would like to support one of Australia’s great and longlasting literary treasures, consider subscribing to The School Magazine–you don’t have to have anything to do with schools to do so.
Some exciting news: I have a brand-new site, Sophie Masson Presents, focussing on the presentations I can offer to schools, libraries, writers’ centres, writers’ groups, teachers’ and librarians’ associations, and festivals and conferences, amongst others. These range from author talks to workshops on writing and publishing, aimed at different ages and interests. The site features pages on each type of presentation, with sample themes and topics listed, but presentations can also be tailored for individual requirements.
You can book directly through the site or through booking agents I also work with. There’s also a calendar of already-booked events to help with planning schedules.
For anyone interested, my book chapter, ‘Going over to the other side-the new breed of author publishers’ which was published in the book ‘Publishing Means Business’ (Monash University Publishing, 2017) is now available through Monash on open access.
The rest of the book is also available, see here. You might also be interested to know that Chapter Two, by Dr Jan Zwar, explores some of the research findings from my 2014 book, The Adaptable Author.
Today, I have the great pleasure of presenting an interview I did recently with Hazel Edwards, to celebrate the publication of a very special picture book: Ho! Ho! Ho! There’s A Hippopotamus On Our Roof Eating Christmas Cake. It’s the seventh and final title in the well-loved Hippo series, written by Hazel and illustrated by Deborah Niland, which since the publication of the very first Hippo book in 1980 has been a firm favourite with families all over Australia–and well beyond (even royal families, as you’ll find out!)
This book’s as warmly and engagingly written as ever, with the familiar charm of the bold, colourful illustrations and a sparkly Christmassy feel as well. You can also get an activity pack which includes all sorts of fun Christmas activities–and cookie cutters, including one in the shape of Hippo of course, to make gingerbread biscuits just like the little boy does with his grandmother in the book. Indeed, Hazel’s dedication in the book is to her grandson Henry, the third generation to make friends with Hippo, as she explains in the interview. Read on!
First of all, Hazel, congratulations to you and Deborah Niland on the publication of Ho ho ho, there’s a hippopotamus on our roof eating Christmas Cake! It’s the seventh and final book in the much-loved Hippo series which have enchanted generations of children and their parents. Can you tell us a bit about how this new book came about?
Grandson Henry Garnet ( to whom “Ho! Ho! Ho !…is dedicated) inspired this hippo story. Henry had just moved with his parents and big brother to an older house which has two chimneys. He was concerned that his grandparents’ house had only skylights, and the lack of chimneys would mean Santa might miss us on Christmas Eve. Since I write a story gift of the imagination for him each Christmas, that became his photographic story, with his older brother suggesting a webcam and GPS to redirect Santa.
As with many picture books, the story was later ‘tweaked’ but is still about the logic of fantasy, especially when you have a ‘fantastic’ hippo and a Santa who might co-exist on a roof. And I especially wanted Hippo to strut a cake-walk on the roof , which later became a dance and carols by cake-light. So all ideas are moderated in the creation of a picture book like ‘Ho! Ho! Ho!…’
The hippo biscuit cutters have attracted the attention of reviewers , who are avidly baking gingerbread hippo biscuits. I feel a bit of a fraud as I’m not a great cook, but the grandkids and I will make hippo biscuits this weekend.
I wanted the emphasis to be upon the ‘giving’ of creativity at Christmas, not a ‘gimme presents’ attitude. So within the text and illustrations are many ideas which readers and families can create for themselves.
Instead of a ‘launch’, readers are making the other ideas Deborah Niland has hinted at in the visuals. And hopefully next year will be the touring musical again with Garry Ginivan productions. Last year’s national ‘Hippo Hippo the Musical’ inspired from the books, was one of the most satisfying aspects for me of this history of the imagination. To sit in the audience with enthralled children who were the third generation of the original readers of the 1980 edition was special.
And they were all reacting to the hippo character on stage as if he were part of their own imaginative world.
Lovely as it is to see a new Hippo book out, it must also feel rather poignant for you and Deborah, as this is to be the last. Tell us a bit about the journey of Hippo, from the start to now. Where did the idea for Hippo originally come from? Did you imagine 38 years ago that Hippo would capture the hearts and imaginations of so many people? And why do you think young readers take so warmly to Hippo?
Originally our new roof leaked and our then 4 year old thought the workmen fixing it were the cake-eating hippo thumping around. Now the nephew of the original 4 year old has been concerned about the same roof: only this time , the skylights being a Santa -barrier is the worry.
Because the big friend has all the answers, especially when you are doing something for the first time and are apprehensive, the hippo books are reassuring. Situations like starting school, going to hospital or acquiring a new baby in the family are easily identifiable. Christmas is also shown as a time of family sharing of traditions and is Australian, rather than snow laden.
I remember you saying in an interview that for the anniversary edition of the first Hippo book (There’s A Hippopotamus on Our Roof Eating Cake) you chose to tweak a couple of things in the text. Can you talk a little about that? And how has the reception of the Hippo books changed over time?
Food is the sex of children’s books, so the sensual delight of adding a themed food to a book for literary events is on-going.
Most readers enjoy the absurdity of juxtaposing cake with hippos who are actually bad tempered in real life, not cute and cuddly. But across the years I’ve had requests to make the cake gluten –free or a healthier alternative like celery sticks. Real hippos do eat carrots, so I’ve suggested carrot cake as a compromise, but generally the cake is a chocolate mud one which is apt for muddy hippos. Or even just roof tiles, which are easier to design than the challenging hippo cake shape.
The original ‘smack’ was edited out at the publisher’s suggestion but many readers, especially young dads had firm views on retaining the original wording as a point for discussion with their families. I tend to agree that stories should remain in the cultural context in which they were written and that readers are intelligent enough to discuss interpretations. I do NOT favour child abuse, but ‘smacking is a highly emotive issue for some parents. The publishers changed the wording to ‘Daddy growled’…so earlier editions are now collector items.
Picture books are of course always a collaboration between words and pictures, author and illustrator. Can you tell us a bit about your own collaboration with Deborah Niland over the years?
We live in different states. Deborah adds her visual interpretations to the text and I’m always willing to change the wording if the picture already conveys the concept. But I keep the rhythm of the reading. I love the ‘joyous’ aspect of the ‘Ho! Ho! Ho!…’ illustrations due to Deborah Niland’s ability to draw so appropriately for this age group. But it’s also a book which can be shared within families and many nostalgic readers love collecting copies, even if they are no longer children.
Hippo has become a classic figure in Australian children’s literature. What are your favourite anecdotes about how readers from 1980 to 2018 have responded to him?
Literary Speed Dating in my memoir ‘Not Just a Piece of Cake; Being an Author’ is where the hippo (via Hazel) answers fan questions in character.There’s also 100 things which have happened in the history of the cake-eating hippo friend. Readers’ responses are often poignant. And some children with health issues have responded to the books, using them as a kind of therapy, that if the hippo can cope, so can they. A book can offer reassurance that others survive, just like the young person in the original book (whose family has grown across the decades) but who is sort of in charge, with the help of hippo.
Here are a dozen memories:
- Knock at my front door. Small child. ‘Excuse me. Is this the house where the hippo lives on the roof?’ Answer. ‘Have a look.’
- Danish Palace note of thanks (with gold crown) from Princess Mary for autographed Hippo book Australia Government sent as official gift of the imagination for the birth of her daughter.
- Fan letter addressed to: The Hippo, Blackburn South, and delivered in person to author by the smiling mailman.
- Principal, an ex rugby player, accepted challenge to eat cake on school roof, in hippo costume, and read the book aloud if his students surpassed their reading quotas. They did. And despite being scared of heights, he kept his promise.
- Hippopotamuseum created by gifted educator to demonstrate physics principles e.g. falling, related to Hippo character.
- Rural prep mother who could not read, but wanted ‘Another easy book like Hippo which I’m learning to read with my 5 year old.’ Brave woman to ask in front of other parents.
- Parent’s letter from children’s hospital, thanking for the reassurance of ‘ Hippo on the Hospital Roof’ read in casualty waiting room and in ambulance en route.
- In Nepali Montessori School, in Kathmandu reading through interpreter, with hippo music and dancing, and Himalayan mountains as a backdrop.
- Feelix suitcase of book and stimulus for blind pre-schoolers. Also had hippo cake tins, an audio and Braille copy. Helped name Feelix project. Felix means happy and ‘feel’ related to the textures felt by blind children.
- Collage of memorable fan letters touring as ‘Corridors of Characters’ with Hippo responses by ghost-writer Hazel exhibited at the former Fremantle Maximum Security Jail.
- ‘Us mob like your stories. We laugh at the funny bits.’ from an online webchat with a remote outback school.
- After a literary festival, the over-loved hippo needed cleaning. Dry cleaners wouldn’t touch it because the head had paper inside. Too big to fit in washing machines, hippo had to be ‘emptied’ of the filling of polystyrene balls and the ‘skin’ washed by hand in baby soap flakes. Experts advised removing the filling either in the carpark or in the bath. …I found out why. The polystyrene balls went everywhere, even clung to our underwear. I handwashed ‘skinny’ hippo in our bath and a visitor freaked on opening the bathroom door to discover hippo hanging from the shower, to dry.
One of the most heart warming aspects of being a long term children’s author is having a three generational readership. ‘Ho!Ho!Ho! There’s a Hippopotamus on our Roof Eating Christmas Cake’ is being shared by the grandparent generation too. And I also have grandchildren who are reading books inspired by their parents when children. And even learning to read from Hippo books.
Another special moment with grandson Henry was when I gave him the advance copy and he read it through with expression. Earlier we used to read on Facetime each night, (he taught me Facetime and I helped with his reading) but he always chose the books we shared.
The first Hippo book was adapted for a musical recently--what was it like, experiencing your characters on the stage? And will Hippo pop up in other adaptations, whether for stage or screen?
While children’s theatre is my greatest love, I’d like the cake –eating hippo to have his own television program. In that way he could reach more children and also encourage them to pick up the books too. Although there have been translations into Mandarin, Japanese and other languages, the one I value most is the Braille translation in Vision Australia’s ‘Feelix project’ for children who are sight impaired.
Note from Sophie: As Hazel’s publisher Penguin Random House kindly sent me the Hippo cookie cutters with a review copy of the book, I had a go at making some biscuits myself, as a trial run for the visit of certain special little people who are coming to see us in a couple of weeks’ time! I didn’t make gingerbread biscuits as I’m not keen on gingerbread., instead making a vanilla butter biscuit mixture which has a similar consistency and is easy to shape and cut out. Here, below, is the result–the biscuits just made, before they went into the oven, and the final, brightly decorated product with some bonus stars! Fun to make and taste pretty nice too–and I know some little people who will love making them too 🙂
More about Hazel Edwards:
Hazel Edwards writes quirky, thought-provoking fiction and fact for adults and children. Coping successfully with being different is a common theme. Co-written ‘junior novel ‘Hijabi Girl’ and YA novel ‘f2m;the boy within’ explore cultural diversity.
Best known for ‘There’s a Hippopotamus on Our Roof Eating Cake’ series, recently touring as a musical, Hazel has grandkids for whom she writes a story each birthday. ‘Outback Ferals’ her YA novel set in Darwin, is a sequel to ‘Antarctica’s Frozen Chosen’, researched during her 2001 Antarctic expedition.
Hazel runs book-linked workshops on ‘Authorpreneurship’ and ‘Writing a Non Boring Family History’.
’Trail Magic; Going Walkabout for 2184 Miles on the Appalachian Trail ’ with her son Trevelyan is an adventure memoir. He did ALL the walking.
A National Reading Ambassador, in 2013 Hazel was awarded an OAM for Literature. Her memoir ‘Not Just a Piece of Cake-Being an Author’ explores long-term creativity.
‘Celebrant Sleuth;I do or die’ an adult mystery with an asexual sleuth is her latest fiction and ‘Almost a Crime’ , short crimelettes are available on Kindle.
Hazel’s website is here.
You can find her on Facebook here.
Today, I am posting something different: an enigmatic short story which appears in my novel, Trinity: The False Prince(Pan Macmillan, 2015). The Koldun’s Daughter is a story-within-a-story, supposedly written by ‘A.I.Denisov’ an aspiring writer who had been killed many years before, and whose death is one of the mysteries investigated by my character, ex-policeman Maxim. I wrote it like a fairytale, against what appears to be a timeless background but which in fact subtly gestures to the very early years of the Bolshevik Revolution. It functions in my novel as both a real clue and a red herring, but it also works quite well as a story in its own right, so I thought readers might enjoy it as is!
(A ‘koldun’ by the way, is traditionally in Russia a sorcerer, or male witch. You can read a bit about the background to that here.)
The Koldun’s Daughter
There was once a young woman named Nadia who lived alone in a small cottage in a deep forest. The forest had been her home for as long as she could remember, though she had not been born there. Nadia’s mother had brought her there when she was just a baby, for safety.
Nadia’s father had died even before she was born. She did not know his name, for her mother said it was too dangerous to say it, but she knew he had been a famous koldun. ‘He was a great and kind man but he had deadly enemies,’ her mother said, ‘and the worst of them all was Lord Winter, who had vowed to destroy him.’
Even though the girl had never seen her father or known his name, she always felt close to him. Her mother had brought with her from that other place, far away, a small leather bag, finely tooled.
In it was a tooth, and a piece of bone, and a fragment of a wooden cross. They had all once belonged to the koldun. Nadia’s mother herself had gathered the relics one terrible night, when Lord Winter and his men had finally hunted down Nadia’s father, killed him, and burned his body to ashes. ‘They thought they would destroy his very soul,’ said her mother. ‘But it lives on in us, and especially in you. Never forget that, Nadia.’
The leather bag with its precious relics was kept in a metal box, buried near an old rose bush that grew at the cottage door, for the koldun had loved roses. In that special spot were also placed other things, such as birds’ eggs, and feathers, and the bones of certain animals, for extra protection. Nadia would sit there often, by the rose bush, and the spirit of her father, the great koldun, was with her then, by her side.
The koldun’s greatest gifts had been in healing and prophecy, and the girl’s gifts were close to that. She could heal a sore just by touching it, and her skills at bone-setting were second to none, as she showed by her work on injured birds and animals of the forest. But despite this she was not really a healer, and her path did not lie in prophecy either, though she sometimes caught flashes of things happening in the wide world beyond, things she could not really understand, for she had only ever lived in the forest. But her mother knew what it meant, and it made her believe even more that they must never leave the forest, for terrible things were happening in the world, and rivers of blood swept through the land. The koldun had predicted it all, she told Nadia, and it was all coming to pass, just as he’d said.
Nadia only saw those flashes because of her own special gift. Mostly, she heard those whose tongues were silent; she saw those whose presences were fleeting. In short, she saw and heard the dead. And so she never felt lonely, in that quiet place. It was not only her father whose presence she knew, but other people, who had once lived in that cottage, and in the great forest beyond. But Nadia did not just know human phantoms; she could also sense the long-gone animal ghosts of the forest, and the animals who lived there now sensed that too, so she could walk unmolested among wolves and bears as easily as among deer and rabbits.
Though her mother often spoke of the koldun, she never spoke of her own past, at least not the past before she had met Nadia’s father. ‘My true life began that day,’ she said. She had fallen in love and left her parents, her prospects, everything to follow the koldun. But their joy had not lasted long, for only a few short weeks after, he was dead. And Nadia’s mother, carrying Nadia in her belly, had fled far from her old home and come to the forest, for she knew that otherwise the koldun’s enemies would hunt them down too. She had come on the cottage, not long empty, and in that place had made a cozy home for herself and her child, trapping small animals, growing vegetables, gathering wood, cooking good food and teaching her daughter many beautiful songs, for music was Nadia’s mother’s special gift. And there they had stayed for sixteen long years.
But then one morning, not long before Nadia’s sixteenth birthday, her mother did not wake up. Her heart had suddenly given out in the night and she had gone to rejoin her beloved koldun. Nadia was now all alone. She buried her mother close to the rose bush and tried to live as before. It was what her mother wanted, she knew that, because she could see and hear her mother now in the ghost-world, just as with the others.
And for a time she managed it. She was a strong and clever girl, and a good hunter. She knew all the ways of the forest and to her it was like a larder might be to a city girl. And she still had the company of her ghosts.
But after a time, strange dreams began to come to her. Dreams filled with new things, new people, new places. And in many of them, the same two figures appeared. Two young men. One, a soldier called Philip. The other, a painter named Yannik. These names were strange to Nadia, and she did not know where they had come from, she only knew the names were on her lips when she awoke. Both young men were handsome, each in his own way – Philip dark and delicate of feature, Yannik blond and strong of face. In each dream, Nadia’s name was called by one or other of them, but while Philip called to her in a voice soft as sorrow, Yannik’s voice was a summons like the ringing of a bell.
Presently Nadia began to feel that these men were not just in her dreams but were real people, somewhere. It was not just in her own mind she thought this; her father the great koldun told her so. She who heard the voices of the dead was now hearing also the voices of her future, his spirit whispered to her, and she must answer those voices before it was too late. So the day of her seventeenth birthday, she made ready to leave the place that had been her home for as long as she could remember. She packed food and clothes and her old hunting rifle. She dug under the rose bush and took out the box. Gently removing the leather bag containing the precious relics, she wrapped it in soft cloth and placed it in her bodice, next to her heart. Around her neck she slipped the only thing her mother had kept from her old life: a small enamel locket, with a miniature painting of a house in its heart. And so Nadia’s mother and father would stay close and travel with her, wherever she went. She would never be alone in the big world beyond.
Before she left, she said goodbye to all the ghosts of the forest, and blessed their memory. She did not know if she would be back. She did not know what the future might hold. That was not her particular gift. She only knew that she must go on this path.
Leaving the cottage behind her, she walked and walked. After two days, she came to another lonely cottage and there met an old hunter who lived there with only his equally old dog for company. The hunter gave her some more food and told her that she should not try and leave the forest, for he had heard that many bad things were going on in the world outside. But Nadia did not trust the old hunter; there was a look in his eye that reminded her of an outcast lone wolf. Such creatures could be dangerous. So she bade a polite good day to him and kept on her way.
She passed a few more cottages on her way, but none of them had people in them. At last, three days later, Nadia emerged from the forest into a large village. The people who lived there were not a friendly lot, and neither were the ghosts who clustered around the living like sticky shadows. At first, the villagers would not answer Nadia’s questions about where she might find a soldier called Philip or a painter named Yannik; indeed, they looked at her as though she was mad. They were pinched-faced people with eyes that seemed made of stone and mouths of cold steel. But Nadia was not put off – she could sense the fear in them, and the pain, and she knew that they did not really wish her harm. She had no idea about money because she had never seen any but she knew that people might expect something for their answers. So she thought they might like a song in exchange; but when she started singing, their eyes grew round as the full moon and the fear was in them worse than before. ‘You must not sing such songs, someone might hear you,’ one of them whispered, at last.
‘You had better leave,’ added a woman, ‘or you will bring misfortune on us.’
And then a third person, a young boy, said, ‘We should tell him, we should, you know that!’
Nadia did not know who ‘him’ was but from the expressions on their faces, she knew she probably did not want to find out. So she took to her heels and fled from that mad village and she did not stop till she had left it far, far behind. She did not understand what she had seen and heard and for once her ghosts were not of use to her. Even her father, the koldun, did not speak or make himself known in any way, and the leather bag which contained his precious relics felt cold against her breast, as did her mother’s medal locket.
But as she went along the road that led far away from the village, a little cat came out of the bushes and joined her. At first, she did not take much notice of it, for it slipped like grey smoke in and out of the shadows behind her. But then she turned around and looked at it and the cat looked back. As their eyes met, she began to see them, all around them. Ghosts and more ghosts, more than she’d thought might exist in the whole world. They were streaming past her with their eyes vague and their mouths open, but they did not speak and neither did they look at her. It was as though she were the ghost, and not they. And she knew then that the cat had been sent to show her. Sent to her by the koldun, her father.
She whispered kind words to the cat, and it came fearlessly to her and weaved around her legs. She said to it, ‘Show me the way,’ and it did, stalking in front of her with its tail in the air. So on they went and on until they reached a town. To Nadia’s eyes, it seemed huge, though in truth it was just a small town, bigger than the village, but not by much. But that was not what struck her most. For in that town was a place that Nadia recognized from a story told by her mother. ‘It’s a citadel,’ she told the cat, ‘where great men lived a long time ago, and it is surely a sign, like you.’
The walls of this citadel were white, its domes were silver and in one tower there was a large bell. As Nadia and the cat came closer, the bell began to toll, and at once she thought she heard, in the sound of the bell, the voice of Yannik, the golden-haired man from her dream. ‘He is there, he and Philip,’ she told herself, and marched on.
They came to a stone archway, alive with figures that loomed like golden shadows beneath a veil of new white paint. Another eye but Nadia’s would not have seen the figures beneath the white paint, but her gift was to see ghosts, even those of hidden art. Standing in the archway were two men that she knew at once were like the old hunter, only worse, much worse, for around them swirled black-clad ghosts in long robes, weeping tears of blood. These guards had big moustaches and ugly uniforms and large rifles in their hands. They did not look at all welcoming. But she would not turn back, not now. Her father’s relics against her breast were warm again, the cat was at her heels like grey smoke, and she knew she was in the right place.
She had to find a way to get past the men at the gates. And she could not ask the ghosts to help. Not the ghosts of the people anyway, for the old world that they had lived in before they’d been killed was gone, and fear and confusion had trapped them in a place of endless mourning so they could neither hear nor see her. But the cat whispered in her mind that the animal ghosts were a different matter. They sensed her, as did the living ones, and it was them she called to distract the guards so she might slip through.
So that is what she did, and in through the gates she went then, with the cat still at her heels, while the guards, their attention taken by the sudden howl of a wolf, seemingly close by, and the skittering of dozens of small feet, seemingly all around them, swung wildly here and there, trying to get a fix on the sudden invasion of unseen animals. Later, they would tell each other, fearfully, that they had heard and seen nothing, and would never speak of it to any other living soul.
Nadia ran through the courtyard beyond the gate, heading for the most magnificent building she could see, with shining silver domes against the blue, blue sky. All around, she could see signs of devastation; barns with doors ripped open; great gouges in the earth; meadows strewn with bits of cloth and fragments of stone. Still she ran, till she came at last to what had once been a garden, now overgrown with weeds. In the midst of this wilderness was a man standing at an easel, and the sunlight glinted on his hair, which was golden as straw. ‘Yannik!’ called out Nadia, and the man turned and looked at her. His eyes were blue-grey, soft as mist.
But before he could say anything, another man came walking across the garden. Though he was tall, and dressed like an officer, with a peaked cap, his features were delicate under jet-black hair, and Nadia knew him at once, too. ‘Philip!’ she cried, and he stopped, and looked at her with eyes as blue-green as the sea.
Faintly, she heard her father’s ghost, saying in her heart, ‘It is as it should be, my daughter, and soon you will be with child. A great koldun, that child will become.’ But he did not say which man to choose, which would be the father. She looked for the cat, but it had vanished as suddenly as it had come.
Yet now she found she could look at the two men with the eyes of her gift, and she called out the ghosts from their pasts. And then she knew, and came towards them, smiling. ‘I am the koldun’s daughter,’ she said, ‘and I have come from the past so the future may live.’
Copyright Sophie Masson