…A Tale Told in Triptych…
CHAPTER 1: WHITE TSARINA
After they told me my boy was a haemophiliac I believed I would die immediately, long before him; yes, my heart was broken. I lay beside Alexei every night and prayed, but the dark walls were deaf and the night no longer provided succour. Nobody – nothing – answered my calls. Suddenly I had to ensure my son avoided any action that would maim him. If he bled, I was told, his life would be over. Nicholas and I looked at each other, stunned; this could not happen to our child, let alone the future Tsar.
Our Palace has become Golgotha.
Of course I show no emotion in public; an Empress must not reveal weakness. On the surface I remain composed. I’ve tried to keep my son’s illness private, secret even, but such is not possible in the shadowy, all-seeing halls of court. Although we told few, I’m watched by everyone. Some have pity, but most seem titillated, as if by scandal. I see it when their masks slip.
Though frail my Alexei loves life. So much so I’ve entrusted two naval officers to supervise him, carry him at day’s end when he can walk no longer, report any mishaps. He longs to play with his boisterous sisters; his eyes follow the girls greedily as they run and roll their hoops and fall. And Anastasia, his favourite, tempts him far too much. My voice is constantly raised at her thoughtless teasing.
I live in torment. How can a boy who bleeds eternally face destiny? How can he be Emperor of Russia?
Death hung over us all that glorious spring day last year in Tsarskoye Selo. When we were flippant, frivolous; when I eased my grip, loosened my dread and he skipped along, my heart beating in time. The lake was lilac-fresh, intoxicating; it smelled of life. I foolishly relaxed, we all did, even my ever-tense Nicholas. Until Alexei jumped into that rowboat and his thigh hit the oarlock.
The Tsar, my daughters, all of us fought the inevitable. But his haemorrhage would not abate; as they replaced the sheets even the servants were spattered in scarlet. Blood saturated the mattress and Turkey rugs as quickly as they were changed. Day became night. The ghosts of sovereigns glinted from the gloomy corners. In the flickering candlelight my poor son was wan, his face as hoary as the St Petersburg winter. Almost the same ashen grey as the cat we’ve foolishly given him.
(I knew we shouldn’t have yielded when he demanded a pet.)
Despite the priests’ vigil and the nurses’ susurrations, there was no relent. It wasn’t until my lady-in-waiting helped me secure the fabled Monk’s help; in a telegram I begged his salvation. Rasputin’s prophecy, his simple reply, saved my Tsarevich. ‘The Little One will not die,’ he telegrammed.
He was accurate. He has been for what feels like centuries.
And so I screamed for him this afternoon when the cat did what I feared most and scratched my Alexei – deep. But by the time the boy called us his sailor suit was soaked vermilion. Doctors rushed to the Palace, the girls again kneeled and prayed, but none of this stemmed the flow. The Tsar was far away in Moscow; the doctors waffled, fearful of being blamed for their Tsarevich’s death, and forced him again to take the bitter aspirins. The blood ran and ran. Alexei, wilting like an autumn leaf, cried out for that murderous cat. I could turn to no one but Rasputin. When he arrived, towering in his godheight, he bent over me and commanded, ‘Leave, Your Majesty.’ I began to argue, but was hushed by those hypnotic eyes.
Bewildered by grief and guilt I snuck to the hidden door at the back of the bedroom. Alexei lay panting on the bed, his mouth an o, dribbling pink drool. His swollen eyes were locked on Rasputin’s; as usual he was entranced by the Monk’s incantations.
I closed the door quietly and returned to the waiting room, my hands in knots, my chest raging. Rasputin finally opened the heavy battened door. Amongst the claret-dark sheets and bandages my boy lay listlessly; then he smiled. He was saved.
Only because of the Monk will my son be Tsar one day.
How can I not worship Rasputin?
CHAPTER 2: TSAREVICH RED
Running running running he can’t stop despite the frantic pleas from the guards, from his mother, from everyone. He will run as fast as he can, damn them all, they keep telling him to be careful and he’s sick of it.
He’s always sick of it.
Jigging and jagging he runs through the forest and finally reaches a Palace door. Skimming through the kitchen, knocking over pots and pans, he hears the cooks and maids cry out but still runs, through more rooms then up the grand marble staircase, under the ceiling’s paintings of rape and murder, until he reaches his enormous bedroom. He slams the door, automatically begs St Basil for solitude and another unbruised day. Pulls the satin curtains until his world is shadowed. Quickly he checks his body – no marks so far – but his breath is sharp and high and hurts his lungs. No doubt someone will have told Mother; no doubt she’ll be rushing to check that his body remains undamaged. She’ll probably even weep again as she berates him for being so wild and silly.
All he did was run through the forest. Play among branches and on the water’s edge.
But bleeders aren’t allowed the simplest treats.
As he lies on the bed and begs his heart to calm Babushka springs up, nestles against his chest, gazes at him with her imperial jade-green eyes. He thinks of her as more than just a cat – she’s a noble lion, a silver queen. The only colour in this flat October light, on this cold day, in his lonely, lifeless room. She rubs her whiskers along his cheek, arches her back; her hair so fleecy soft it’s comforting. Babushka cares nothing about his malaise.
Alexei strokes the bone behind her ears. Her purring is loud and satiated. He tells her he loves her and in a long swoop rubs from her shoulder to the end of her downy tail. She relaxes and unfolds, an indolent monarch; exposes her velvet belly. He’s never been able to resist touching her there – though he knows she hates it – all that silk fur is beguiling, he wants to hide in it. He kneels on the rich flaxen quilt and points to her fiercely as he announces, ‘I will be Tsar of the Russian Empire. You must do as I decree.’ She lazily twists her head, considers him, then licks at a paw. He can resist no longer. He caresses her belly.
Babushka hisses; she swipes at him and her savage claws stab into his wrist. Blood seeps immediately. As he jerks upwards the cat leaps away. Alexei can only stare at the laceration, pray that the bleeding stops. As alarm fills his veins he apologises to the saints for his naughtiness but his arteries are pounding. He shrieks until the room is filled with Mother and his sisters and maids and the hateful doctor. Bandages are wrapped around his wrist but the lifeblood soaks through.
He hears a whisper: ‘Kill the cat.’ Immediately he wrestles with the servants and cries out to Babushka, warns her to hide, tries to explain to Mother that it was his fault, only his; he just wanted to touch her. But Mother shushes him as she anxiously wipes the sweat from his forehead and his arm pumps more and more blood onto the quilt. Already he feels too faint.
A priest is in the corner chanting last rites. Woody, smoky incense invades Alexei; the thick frankincense fuels his nausea. Doors slam, the midday bell tolls, hammering his head. The whispering is urgent, the sobs hysterical, but he slows, slows, and the sounds recede. His room is a hazy pink now. He can see his tormentor Death waiting patiently beside his bed. Screams as he points at it but his mother is confused, oblivious to its bleak presence.
She fades in the haze. The tormentor approaches.
Rasputin is calling him. When he opens his eyes the Monk is leaning over, peering into him with those bottomless eyes. This man scares him – he smells of vodka and sin. He’ll never understand how Mother could love the Mad Monk so much – he’s watched her follow him full of devotion – but he’s heard the court’s gossip. He knows he cannot trust him; even dares to believe the man is soulless. He tries to pull away, shut his eyes, but as usual he’s rapt, mesmerised by that face.
The Monk’s fingers press on his forehead in a cross. Sliding, sliding, not understanding the muted litany, he’s almost gone.
Dimness, midnight, memory, peace.
The taut click of fingers drags him back. The Monk is grinning through his untamed black beard, his eyes still frightening, a vague glow shimmering from his shoulders. Alexei looks at his arm – the blood is a trickle now, already clotting. As his mother rushes into the room she cries out, crosses herself and thanks the saints, her hands twisted together. She squeezes him too tightly then collapses onto her knees at the Monk’s feet. The courtiers gasp; Alexei is shamed that his mother, the Empress, has kneeled before such a peasant.
‘Where’s Babushka?’ he mumbles.
A servant and his mother glance at each other. ‘We’ll get you another animal, my love,’ she says.
Rasputin laughs loudly, claps his hands together. ‘Come boy,’ he says. ‘Forget the beast and rule the empire.’
Alexei is not sure he wants that.
CHAPTER 3: BLUE BABUSHKA
Watch the cat. A Russian Blue. An Archangel, say the peasants. Eyes as green as the emeralds worn by the Tsar’s daughters, and that alluring powder-grey fur. All yearn to stroke her.
Watch Babushka. As she’s affectionately named by the Boy. She only knows him by his high-pitch voice, his own smell of death and decline. Babushka is rarely alarmed, except by the huge man wrapped in an inky cassock and thundering black boots. His glittering crucifix catches her eye; she wants to taunt it – but instinct says no. They call this man Rasputin, the healer, the mystic, the saviour, the mad; the womaniser, the drunk, the end-of-the world-as-we-know-it; but of course Babushka understands nothing of this. She’s just a cat.
Though she is wary; that aura he propels is both magnetic and deadly. He knows it, as does she. And so, unknowingly, she agrees with all the court – the man is evil. Only the Boy’s mother won’t believe that, of course. Not that Babushka cares.
The cat knows the Palace well. One squally day she remains inside (she loathes the wind; when it blows she’s as crazy as the Monk). Chases a mouse (there are so many here, they drive the lackeys barmy) from scullery through the vast servants’ quarters, to the golden church, along the marbled floor where Babushka twists around alabaster columns and follows it into the silver-gilted throne room then out to the icy courtyard then back inside under vaulted ceilings, watched by ancient frowning portraits in stuccoed drawing rooms then up the winding staircase into crimson boudoirs and finally into the Boy’s majestic suite.
The mouse disappears; its scent wanes. But Babushka senses the Boy, can also smell the tortoise he’s caught and is mildly torturing. She jumps onto the bed and swats at the animal; the Boy waves it in front of her then throws it out the window. The crack of its shell echoes; the Boy has forgotten it already.
Unimpressed, Babushka arches her back and turns away, then licks her paws, wipes her ears. She wanted that tortoise. Regardless she nestles her legs beneath her body and purrs, composed.
She sniffs the Boy’s tension, his boredom, his desire to play. He massages her skull as she likes. She decides she trusts him, they’re two of a kind, so rolls on her back, belly exposed, rewarding him.
The Boy rubs his palm hard against her stomach.
Babushka recoils; he’s hurt her, so he must be hurt. How many times has she warned him? Immediately her paw is tinged with red. He yelps. He nearly scuffs her but she bounds off the bed and darts beneath the mammoth oak cabinet. Realises she’ll have to hide here until humans enter and she can escape.
As she licks her paws and flicks her snaky tail she hears the Boy’s soft howling. Soon the room is steamy with his fear.
She naps, and purrs. The odour of fresh blood makes her hungry. Somehow she knows that his terror will open the door. She’ll hunt for dinner then.