What sign did I hope to receive that night? The laurel crown, the lyre? Or perhaps some evidence of grand passion—some ardent Pushkin or soulful Blok. Or maybe a boy I already knew — Danya from dancing class, Stiva with whom I’d skated in the park the day before and dazzled with my spins and reckless arabesques. Or perhaps an officer like the ones who lingered before the gates of our school in the afternoons, courting the senior girls. I see her there, staring impatiently into the candle flame, a girl both brash and shy, awkward and feigning sophistication in hopes of being thought mysterious, so that people would long to discover her secrets. I want her to stay in that moment before the world changed, before the wax was poured, and the future assembling like brilliant horses loaded into a starting gate. Wait!
My younger self looks up. She senses me there in the room, a vague but troubling presence, I swear she catches a glimpse of me in the window’s reflection—the woman from the future, neither young nor old, bathed in grief and compromise, wearing her own two eyes. A shudder passes through her like a draft.
Midnight arrived in a clangor of bells from all the nearby churches, Preobrazhensky, St. Pantaleimon, the Church of the Spilled Blood, bells echoing throughout the city, escorting in the New Year. Solemnly, I handed the candle to Mina, who pushed her spectacles up on her nose and bent her blonde head over the basin. Precise as the scientist she was, she dripped the wax onto the water as I prayed for a good omen. The lozenges of wax spun, adhered, linked together into a turning shape, the water trembling, limpid in candlelight. To my grave disappointment, I detected no laurel wreath, no lyre. No couples kissing, no linked wedding rings.
Varvara squinted, turning her head this way and that. “A boot?”
Seryozha peered over our shoulders. Curiosity had got the better of him. He pointed with a long, graphite-dark finger. “It’s a ship. Don’t you see — the hull, the sails?”
A ship was good—travel, adventure! Maybe I’d become an adventurer, and cross the South Seas like Stevenson...though the German blockade sat firmly between me and the immediate realization of such a heady destiny. Or perhaps it was a metaphor for another kind of journey. Could not love be seen as a journey? Or the route to fame and glory? Try as I might to tease out the mean- ing, it never would have occurred to me its final dimensions, the scope, the nature of the journey.
Varvara poured for Mina. The wax coalesced—a cloud, a sleigh? We concurred—a key! She beamed. Surely she would unlock the secrets of the world, the next Mendeleev or Madame Curie. No one considered that a key might lock as well as unlock.
And Varvara? The swirling dollops resolved themselves into—a broom. We shouted with laughter. Our radical, feminist, reader of Kollontai, of Marx and Engels, Rousseau and Robespierre—a housewife! “Maybe it’s a torch,” she said sulkily.
“Maybe it’s your new form of transport.” Seryozha quipped, settling himself back into the window seat.
She sieved the little wax droplets from the water and crushed them together, threw the lump in the trash, wiped her wet hands on a towel. “I’m not playing this stupid game anymore.”
Seryozha refused his turn, pretending it was a silly girl’s pastime, though I knew he was more superstitious than anyone. And behind us, in the red corner, the icon of the Virgin of Tikhvin gazed down at us, her expression the saddest, the most tender I had ever seen. She knew it all already. The ship, the key, the broom.