Behold: in the beginning there was everything, just as there is now. The giant slap of a thunderclap and, bang, it's raining talking snakes. A greater light to rule the day, a lesser light to rule the night, swarming water and restless air. A man goes down on two knees, a woman opens her thighs, and both hold their breath to listen. Imagining God's footsteps could be heard in the cool of the day. But God walks silently along the bank of the muddy river that flows out of the Garden, the river that divides and becomes many: Usa, Kolva, Yug, Onega. Narva, Obsha, Luga, Okhta. Volycha, Sestra, Uver, Oyat. Volga, Kama, Neva, Ob.
From the windows of the house that was my childhood home, I heard a river running. The Tura hurried past our village to join the Tobol, and the Tobol joined the Irtysh, and the Irtysh joined the Ob, and the Great Ob carried our cries and emptied them into the Kara Sea, which, being frozen, preserved them like flies in amber.
"Go on," Alyosha said whenever I fell silent. "Please, Masha, I like to hear your voice."
And I did; I told him about my father, about me, about Siberia. I told him stories my father told us when we were children. I did whatever I could to distract him.
The day they pulled Father's body out from under the ice, the first day of the new year, 1917, my sister, Varya, and I became wards of Tsar Nikolay Alexandrovich Romanov and were moved, under imperial guard, from the apartment at 64 Gorokhovaya Street to the Alexander Palace in Tsarskoe Selo, the royal family's private village outside the capital. Eighteen years old, I hardly felt I needed a new set of parents, even if they were a tsar and tsarina. But every week brought more strikes and increasing violence to St. Petersburg. Revolution, anarchy, marshal law: we didn't know what to dread, only that we were accelerating – hurtling — toward it, whatever it was. And, as the tsar's officers pointed out, having summoned Varya and me from our beds before dawn, banging at the door with the butts of their rifles, anyone with a name as inflammatory as Rasputin would be an idiot to try to leave St. Petersburg unaided and without protection. As long as the Romanovs remained in power, they represented our only possibility of escaping Russia before it was too late to get out.
But first: my father. For without Grigory Yeﬁmovich Rasputin, the end of the Romanovs is no different from that of the Hapsburgs or the Ottomans or any other of the great dynasties that collapsed at the beginning of the century.
Word traveled quickly, more quickly than it would had any other man's body been dragged from the river. After I signed a paper confirming that the deceased was indeed my father, missing by then for three days, the police escort was to return Varya and me to Gorokhovaya Street to gather our clothes and what few things we cared to keep. But before we could climb back into the sledge it was surrounded by a mob. A crowd of people had come running to where we'd stood minutes before, on the frozen river. They came from their homes with bowls and jugs and cast-iron kettles — anything that could hold water. Some ran pouring wine and vodka, even perfume, into the gutters as they hurried to the Neva to fill their newly emptied bottles. I saw a samovar so big it required three men to carry it, and I saw an old woman lugging a chamber pot. Now, that would have made Father laugh until he hooted and howled and dried his eyes with the heels of his hands — the idea of a withered crone ladling his ghost into her chamber pot.
The crowd surged onto the river like a wave and swept all the officials away from the hole in the ice, the one out of which the police had dragged my father, beaten and bloodied, his right hand raised as if making the sign of the cross. People thronged the hole. They fell on their knees, praying and weeping. The common people, the people my father loved, all along they understood what the intelligentsia were too blind to see. They wanted the water that touched my father as he was dying, the water into which his soul had passed, through which it had swum.
Thousands of people, tens of thousands — the officials lost count as they continued to arrive — came to the Neva that day and the next and the one after that. They came and they came and they wouldn't stop coming, from all parts of the city and from the outlying towns and provinces. They came over the Urals, from Siberia. Nothing could stop them, not blizzards, not cavalry soldiers. Squadrons of Cossacks on horseback took aim and fired into the crowds, and their nervous mounts reared up and came down plunging, their shoes striking sparks from the paving stones, pale pricks in the freezing gloom.
For all the horses I'd ridden in my life, I'd never seen any as spirited as these. Towering black giants, not one of them less than twenty hands high, they weren't shying at the noise and chaos — no, that was what they wanted, an orgy of movement and sound. The dark luster of each animal's coat; the volatile quiver of its flesh as it responded to its rider's intent, not to his hands, which were busy with a firearm, but to his will, which commanded the horse's body as if it were his own; the nostrils flared wide at the smell of gunpowder; the shrill whinnying and the sharp gleam of each hoof: in an instant, the sight and sound and smell of them had, like a whetted blade, pared away the rind of shock that left me, in the wake of my father's disappearance, insensible to every feeling.
I watched, struck still with wonder, as the air around the horses changed color, like iron held over a flame, stealing its heat. The officer who had his gloved fingers wrapped tightly around the top of my arm gave it a shake, as if to dispel what he must have assumed was my fear. But all it was was my succumbing to them, allowing their desire to possess me to the point that I wanted it too — the crumple and yield of bodies under hooves. Then the clamor around me ceased, all the clatter and cries and sharp cracks converged into words only I could hear, and my father's voice spoke my name. Masha, he said, be comforted, and though I wasn't faint, I fell back so the officer had to support my weight. At last something had caught and cut me, made me gasp. Until that moment, I was afraid I'd lost not only my father but myself as well.
From Enchantments by Kathryn Harrison. Copyright 2012 by Kathryn Harrison. Excerpted by permission of Random House, Inc.