Molly gazed at an old ivory-colored postcard in its protective, clear plastic envelope. The artist had painted the girls in their dressing room, preparing for the ballet La Sylphide at the Mariinsky Theatre. Dressed in diaphanous tutus, with wreaths of tiny white flowers on their heads, all the girls looked ethereal like little sylphs, as if their costume wings were real and they could fly. Molly's grandma Ludmila had been one of these girls.
Sashenka, Ludmila's best friend, was in the middle of the picture, plucking her eyebrows, while Ludmila stood to the right, looking back at the artist over her shoulder. Her young brown eyes twinkled with curiosity; lips curled mischievously. As always, wisps of unruly hair escaped her mandatory ballet chignon. She could never tuck it all away.
Molly winked off an unwanted tear. Her hair was the same as her grandma's, auburn and unruly, although she always cut it short. She was a business interpreter and needed to look professional, unlike her adventurous dancing grandmother who had only needed to look pretty.
Molly glanced at the pile of documents on a small desk in her hotel room. She wished she could translate something else, something spry and whimsical instead of pages of financial negotiations. Perhaps she should write a story about her grandma's bequest, the one that had brought her to Russia, to St. Petersburg.
She put the postcard back inside her purse and pulled out a small golden medallion, her grandmother's legacy. The antique bauble had darkened with age. It swung on Molly's finger: a tiny cloisonné butterfly swirling around a rose. Shortly before her grandma had died, she had pressed the medallion into Molly's hands.
"It's magical," the old woman had wheezed. "It brings the Mariinsky luck. I was supposed to give it to Sashenka. The great Russian ballerina, Olga Spesivtzeva, asked me to. But I couldn't." A long coughing fit had wrecked her wasted frame before she could continue. "I wanted it for myself. I always envied Sashenka. I wanted her luck. Find her. Give it back. Tell her I'm sorry. Tell her the magic has always been hers."
Right, magic! Molly grinned wryly and put the medallion on. Blue enamel of the butterfly's wings glinted against her skin. She wasn't a dancer, so the charm was useless to her. She would try to find her grandma's former classmate Sashenka or her family and pass the medallion on to them.
Her only clue was the postcard, but who would remember a nameless artist making sketches of the nameless ballet students eighty-plus years ago? As far as she knew, none of those students had become a star. On the other hand, Molly's promise to her grandma was the real issue, not the pretty trinket that came with it. Molly put on her mackintosh, picked up her umbrella, and headed out.
It had been raining since her plane had landed a few days ago. Behind the gray veil of rain, the colorful palaces of St. Petersburg, bleached by years, looked like cinematic scenery of the seventeenth century. Bridges, wrought-iron fences, and elaborate street lights completed the surreal feel of an historical movie. If only there were no cars in the streets! Then the young graceful sylphid from the picture in Molly's purse, that teenage ballerina her grandmother had been, would have fit perfectly into such a milieu.
The Vaganova Ballet Academy stood in the same spot it had been when her grandma had studied there—on Architect Rossi Street. Molly took a deep breath and entered, but once the heavy door closed behind her back, she stopped, disoriented.
Despite its dignified classical fašade, inside, the Academy looked like any other high school: a bit shabby and flooded with teenage voices. Snatches of dancing tunes floated along the hallways. Some of the students wore denim. Others dressed in leotards, sweaters, and multihued knitted leggings. White tutus peeked from beneath many girls' woolen garments. Ballet shoes, tied together by pink ribbons, dangled over the shoulders.
In a small reception room, a middle-aged secretary with tired eyes and prematurely gray hair treated Molly to a scowl.
Molly turned on her best smile. "Hello," she said. "I'm not sure who I should talk to." She pulled the postcard out of her purse. "My grandma studied here in the '20s. An artist painted this picture in their dressing room, when she and her friends danced at the Mariinsky. This is her."
The secretary's sour grimace melted into an expression of mild interest. Several girls careened through the door, crowding behind Molly to get a glimpse.
Molly barged on. "Grandma asked me to find her friend in the picture, her classmate Sashenka." She pointed at the middle girl. "Unfortunately, I only know her first name." She shrugged apologetically and pushed the old postcard towards the secretary. "Would there be anyone who could help me with the search? Maybe there are some archives? I know it's somewhat foolish after all these years, but my grandma wanted to return something to her friend, something she owed her. It was her last wish. Please!"
"Where did your grandmother live?" the secretary asked.
"She died in a nursing home, in Vancouver. I'm from Canada."
"I wouldn't guess you're a foreigner; you speak such good Russian." The secretary's tired eyes lit up. Her reluctant smile looked twisted, as if her facial muscles couldn't quite assume the unfamiliar contours. "I'll ask the head teacher." She snatched the picture and disappeared into the room behind her desk.
Molly smiled at the girls around her.
"Pretty picture," one of them said. She lifted her slim hand to glance at her watch.
The entire flock of girls gasped in unison and whooshed down the corridor and out of sight. A bell for the next lesson sounded a few seconds later, and the hallway emptied, as if it had been vacuumed. Only echoes of the kids' voices still wafted around, interspaced by strands of ubiquitous ballet music. Molly's fingers caressed the medallion under her blouse.
At the squeak of the opening door, she stilled her errant fingers and turned. The secretary came back. On her heels was another woman, stately and much better dressed, with shrewd gray eyes. She introduced herself as the head teacher.
"We have archives, going back two hundred years, but we've done some renovations recently," she said. "Our archives have been packed and moved to another building. As far as I know, they're still in boxes. Someone will unpack them." Her full lips twitched. "Sometime soon. Maybe even this century. I'm sorry."
The secretary's face behind the head teacher returned to its customary sulky alignment.
"Maybe I should sign up for the unpacking." Molly grinned.
The head teacher returned her grin. "I'll make some inquiries but I can't promise anything."
"Of course. Thank you." Molly fished out her business card. "This is my phone number." She scribbled the hotel number on the back of the card. "I'll stay there for another week. If you find out anything, please give me a call."
She hadn't really expected another outcome. Perhaps, she didn't even wish for another outcome, Molly thought with a twinge of guilt. She wanted to keep the medallion for herself. It didn't have much of a commercial value, but it was lovely and a keepsake. Her grandma hadn't left many of those, except for her photographs.
Two days after her trip to the Academy, Molly went to the Mariinsky to see La Bayadere. Once upon a time, her grandma had danced in it. Molly loved the show. The sparkling costumes, the lush stage décor, and the blue plush curtain, embroidered with gold — they all breathed history: hundreds of years of gilded splendor and uninterrupted traditions. She hummed a tune from the ballet as she entered the hotel's lobby.
The concierge hailed her. "Room twenty-three, miss? You have a message."
"A message? From whom?"
"A local phone." He slid a piece of paper across the marble counter towards her.
It was from the head teacher. "I recognized the painting from your postcard," it read. "It was painted by Zinaida Serebryakova, a famous Russian artist. There's a local historian who's writing Serebryakova's biography. She might know something about the girls in this painting. She's eager to meet with you. Her daughter's studying with us."
"Really?" Molly murmured. "A historian? A famous artist?"
This was a surprise, and she wasn't sure whether she was glad or disappointed. She would have to relinquish the medallion after all, but perhaps it was just as well. Her grandma had wanted it done. In the morning, Molly called the number from the message.
A bright woman's voice answered the phone, "Hello. Dasha speaking."
Molly stammered her explanations about the postcard, her grandmother, and the head teacher from the Academy.
"The girl in Serebryakova's painting? With the curly hair? Of course I know," Dasha sang into the receiver. "My grandma Sasha is in the middle of that painting too."
"Sashenka?" Molly blurted in surprise. "Is she still alive?"
"No." There was no sadness in the woman's voice, just the fact. "She and your grandma were best friends, right? Grandma told me so much about Ludmila." The woman's laughter tinkled. "They were inseparable, until Ludmila ran away with that German juggler."
"A juggler?" Molly repeated in bafflement.
"You don't know about the German? You're from Canada, right? Anyway, please, come visit us for dinner tonight. Can you? I'll tell you all I know about the painting, and you'll tell us about your grandma and her dancing. My daughter is studying at the Vaganova Academy. She'll eat your words. And I want to hear everything too. It's so exciting! Come."
"Okay," Molly said faintly. "Thank you." She jotted down the address and switched the phone off. Then she just stared at it, while Dasha's enthusiastic words reverberated in her head. She hadn't mentioned the medallion on the phone. Now, she touched it gingerly. The little enamel rose felt smooth and cool under her fingertips. Had it brought her luck? Dasha was Sashenka's granddaughter. Dasha's daughter studied at the ballet school. Was it a coincidence that she found them as soon as she had started searching? Maybe the medallion itself was searching for its rightful mistress. Was it really magical? No! Should she tell Dasha about Ludmila's treachery? Molly winced. She didn't like the thought.
Dasha and her daughter lived in a new district, beyond the old St. Petersburg's city line, in one of many modern high-rises with their multitude of windows and balconies.
"Welcome!" Dasha greeted Molly at the door to her apartment. Short, plump, and strawberry blond, she seemed even more exuberant in person than on the phone. Her pink round cheeks dimpled prettily. She shook Molly's hand and pulled her into the living room. "Come in, come in. We're so happy to have you here."
Larisa, Dasha's seventeen-year-old daughter, dark and slender, smiled shyly behind her mother. Larisa's thin fingers fretted constantly with the bushy fringe of her sweater. Skittish like a gazelle, she stepped towards Molly, then stepped back, prancing in place. Compared to the girl's severe bun, a ballerina's hairstyling stamp, her mother's amber-colored mane of hair looked effervescent.
"Please, sit here," Dasha invited. Her eyes seem to caress Molly, make her feel cherished. "I'm so glad you came."
"Thank you." Molly sat down gingerly. She felt a little overwhelmed by the opulence of Dasha's place and the woman's animated babble. The chair, with its carved, polished wooden legs and cushions of faded crimson satin with creamy lilies, was very comfortable and obviously antique, as was the rest of the furniture.
Dasha glanced at Molly's postcard and nodded. "Yes, just as I suspected. This is one of Zinaida Serebryakova's paintings. She is revered in Russia. Some of her paintings hang at the Russian Museum and the Tretyakovskaya Gallery in Moscow. I can't believe she painted our grandmothers. This particular painting has been in a private collection for generations."
She pulled a large art album out of an old bookcase. "This is for you—an album of Serebryakova's paintings. A gift. I wrote the introduction." Before Molly could object, Dasha opened the album on the painting Molly knew only as a small, faded postcard.
"Thank you." Molly gazed at the shiny, translucent picture. It looked different than her discolored, yellowish card. White and blue, the two dominant colors, shimmered and swirled around the girls like silken melodies, fluffing their skirts, making their wings flutter, creating an illusion of perpetual youth. Cold northern light permeated the painting. Her grandmother, in all the glory of her sixteen years, gazed back at Molly, as if asking, "Have you found Sashenka? Have you conveyed my apology?"
With her eyes, Molly caressed the girl with the curly hair, her grandmother as she had been eighty years ago. I've found Sashenka, grandma, but I haven't apologized yet, she thought sadly. Her finger traced the outline of her grandmother's face and the little curlicues of disobedient hair.
"I'll tell you what I know first," Dasha said, oblivious to Molly's musing. She started setting the table for dinner. "After my grandma Sasha finished school, she danced in Perm. She was the first soloist there. She moved back to St. Petersburg after she retired. She taught dance at community centers and elementary schools all over the city."
"Did she ever dance at the Mariinsky?" Molly asked.
"No," Larisa interjected suddenly.
The girl had been so quiet before, Molly had almost forgotten she was there. Now, she saw in Larisa the same stilled dance that infused the painting. Despite her modern jeans, the girl belonged there, among the young sylphids with their silken wings.
Dasha threw a sharp glance at her daughter. "The world doesn't spin around Mariinka!"
Larisa didn't argue.
Suddenly, Molly felt uncomfortable, as if she had unwittingly intruded on a family secret. What would've happened, if Ludmila had passed the medallion to Sashenka all those years ago, when she was supposed to? Was the medallion really a lucky charm? Would Sashenka's life have been different? Would she have been luckier, had the medallion been hers? On the glossy page of the album, Sashenka was still plucking her eyebrows, still sixteen and hopeful, kissed by northern light.
"Now, Vera—she was a tragic figure." Dasha pointed at another girl in the painting. "She was a second soloist at the Mariinsky. During Stalin's regime, she was arrested and executed as 'the enemy of the people'. Her husband was a famous pilot. He was shot too."
Molly studied Vera's intent little face and slim hands in the painting. She knew little about the black Stalinist period in Russian history.
"My grandma once told me," Dasha continued, "that had she danced here, it might've been her fate as well. Perhaps Perm and its distance from the capital saved her life."
"You think so?"
"I don't know. Now it's your turn." Dasha smiled. "Let's forget about sad things." She ladled a mountain of potato salad on Molly's plate. Then she opened her notebook. "Tell us about your granny. What happened to her after the painting? Was she a famous dancer in Canada? Did she know Diagilev? Pavlova? Did she ever dance in Latin America?"
Dasha's cheery zeal was infectious, and Molly returned Dasha's smile. "Ludmila wasn't famous. She danced in corps de ballet all over the world. Theatre, circus, cabaret. She danced in Moulin Rouge for a season."
While Molly talked, Dasha took notes and pumped Molly with more questions.
"Did she know Margot Fonteyn?" Larisa piped in again.
"She never mentioned Margot Fonteyn, but she met Rudolph Nureyev once."
"Nureyev!" Larisa whispered in adoration.
By the time Dasha brought in dessert—a home-made chocolate torte—Molly finally reached the main point of her visit, the medallion. "Before she died, my grandma told me a story of this medallion." She pulled the trinket over her head and offered it to Dasha. "Do you know anything about it?"
"No. It looks old." Dasha turned it around. The butterfly's wings glinted coquettishly.
"Pretty," Larisa said. She played with the puny sliver of torte on her plate.
"It is old," Molly confirmed. "According to the legend, it belonged to Carlotta Brianza, the first Princess Aurora in the Sleeping Beauty."
Larisa almost stopped breathing. Dasha had been right: the girl inhaled Molly's words. Even Dasha seemed consumed by the story, to the point that she had forgotten her notebook. The medallion with its delicate chain gleamed in her palm: a mini puddle of tarnished gold.
"The medallion passed from one prima ballerina to another, as a lucky charm." Molly grinned faintly. "My grandma said it brought luck on the Mariinsky stage. Whenever one ballerina retired, she would pass it on to a rising star. My grandma got it from Olga Spesivtzeva, when Spesivtzeva left Russia for good."
Molly opened her mouth to tell the rest of the story, that Spesivtzeva had asked her grandmother to pass the medallion to Sashenka, but the words wouldn't come. She couldn't blacken her grandmother's name in front of these two, couldn't admit that Ludmila had betrayed her best friend and never given up the medallion to its intended owner. If she had, Sashenka's life might have been different.
"But Ludmila didn't need the Mariinsky lucky charm. She left Russia herself." Accusation rang in Larisa's voice.
"Maybe she meant to return," Dasha said thoughtfully.
"Anyway, before she died, my grandma asked me to find Sashenka's family and pass the medallion to them," Molly said. It was the truth, just not the complete truth. She wasn't going to repeat her grandmother's painful confession here. Ludmila's cheating would remain her dirty little secret forever. Sashenka was long dead and couldn't benefit anymore. But Larisa was right here. "I think the medallion should belong to you," Molly said. She nodded at the girl. "Have you had your graduation exams yet? Do you know where you're going to dance after the Academy?"
"No," Larisa whispered. "Not yet. People from Perm talked to me. My grandma danced there. I've almost agreed but . . . " She glanced at her mother. Then her eyes slid lower, to her mother's hand with the medallion. "Every girl wants to dance at the Mariinsky."
Dasha sprang up, putting the medallion around her daughter's neck. "Wear it."
"I hope it'll bring you Mariinsky luck," Molly said.
"Thank you." Larisa wasn't looking at Molly. Her long dusky fingers caressed the medallion, and her eyes seemed far away, probably focusing on the Mariinsky stage.
"Thank you," Dasha echoed her daughter. Her voice caught, and her ebullience deserted her. Without her customary smile, her round face looked tired and old.
"That was my grandmother's wish." Molly glanced at the album beside her, still open on the page with the painting. Forgive me, grandma, she thought. She couldn't tell them the truth.
"I'll contact the owners of the painting," Dasha said abruptly, breaking the spell that had encompassed all three of them. "I'm sure they'll allow you a private viewing."
"Is it still in St. Petersburg?"
"It's never left the city," Dasha said.
Larisa didn't move. She was gazing down at the medallion, her fingers playing with it. A tiny smile illuminated her face, tugging at the corners of her lips. Like Ludmila in the painting.
Dasha pulled Molly out of the room, into her immaculately clean kitchen. She poured them both a glass of wine. "Larisa is a good ballerina but not the first in her class," she said. "She would be a soloist in Perm, but if Mariinsky takes her, she would be in the corps. I hope she'll not be disappointed. Maybe it was a mistake."
"Maybe she needs the medallion." Molly sipped her wine. "Spesivtzeva also started in the corps. Maybe it will spur your daughter to work harder."
Dasha stared at her. "It's just a pretty necklace."
"Maybe not," Molly said. "I'm glad Larisa has it now. She is the rightful heir."
Dasha snorted. "It might bring her Mariinsky luck, but I'm not sure it'll bring her happiness. Ballet stars aren't always happy. Spesivtzeva wasn't happy. She was crazy."
"My grandma was happy." Molly thought again about those girls in the painting, so full of hopes and wings. "Did Larisa ever dance as a sylphid, like our grandmothers?"
"Tomorrow," Dasha breathed. "How do you know? I'll get you a ticket."
"She wasn't a star," Molly said, thinking of Ludmila. "She was a sylphid."
Olga Godim is a freelance writer and journalist. Her articles appear regularly in local newspapers. Her short fiction credits include Lorelei Signal, Sorcerous Signals, Aoife's Kiss, Silver Blade, Gypsy Shadow, and other publications. Her first mainstream novel was recently released from Eternal Press.