Thick Russian night is shifting, sighing underneath the windows, asking to be let inside. She’s sad to be all by herself on the streets, lonely. You can’t see anything through the windows – they are covered with ice, dusted with snow. I’m sitting on the windowsill. Every few minutes I breathe on a copper coin, stick it to the glass and then look out through the little, thawed circle. It feels like the whole world is made of snow and blueness and that our home is not a home at all, but a magical ship that is falling headlong into something, and that it will continue falling like this forever.
Grandfather is at the kitchen table, drinking tea, reading a newspaper. His glasses are at the very tip of his nose and it seems that any moment they will slip off, but they don’t.
“Do me a favor, will you,” his eyes are above the glasses now, looking at me. “Go get something from my coat. It’s in the study, inside pocket.”
The coin is put aside; windowsill abandoned; I go into my favorite room. There’s a green leather couch and moose antlers with hats hanging on them and bookcases that reach all the way up to the ceiling and a glass-door cabinet with all sorts of wonderful things – stone grapes on a metal vine, empty tortoise shell, peacock fan, wooden jewelry box with legs shaped like rose buds, Vietnamese vases, a mother-of-pearl snuffbox. There’s also a big desk with a matching chair. I like the desk terribly because its sides are studded with little round nails and it has a built-in inkwell.
My grandfather’s coat is hanging on the chair, smelling like wet leather and winter. I reach inside, feel around, my fingers close around something small, cold. I pull out a little oval tin box, the size of my palm. I gently put it on the table and examine it. It’s the most beautiful thing that I’ve ever seen. It’s plum colored and the top has a drawing of a young woman in a corset dress. There are vines, little cherubs and violets all around her and something is written underneath in foreign letters that I can’t understand. I hold my breath and stare; I don’t want to take it back just yet.
My grandfather comes in, stands behind me. “Did you find it?”
I touch the box very lightly, afraid of leaving a smudge.
“It’s so pretty, prettier than anything.”
“Well, that’s good to know because it’s a present for someone very important. Do you think she’ll like it?”
I look up in amazement. The thought of someone not liking it is so incomprehensible that I study my grandfather with suspicion, thinking that he’s playing a joke. But he’s serious. He sits on the couch, shadows eat away his face. The house is silent and I feel like I’m being let in on a special, grown-up secret.
“Everyone would like it,” I finally say with conviction. “Even the president. Even a movie star.”
My grandfather works for the government. He goes to a lot of meetings and sometimes brings people over, and grandmother wears her best dress and puts on perfume and I am allowed to stay up later than usual. I decide that the box must be a present for someone that my grandfather works with, because these people seem so different from us, from anyone. They use the word “imported” a lot. Imported clothes, imported furniture, imported cars. Still, I think to myself, none of them deserve this particular treasure.
We sit in silence for a few moments. I close my eyes and try to envision the woman who should own the violet box. I decide that she should be from some faraway, magical country like Lapland. She lives in a beautiful house with a spiral staircase, wears velvet shoes and has a sleigh with bells and red cushions.
“Do you want to know who it’s for?” asks my grandfather, still invisible.
What kind of a question is that? Of course I do.
He leans forward, beckons with a finger, cups his hand around my ear. His cheek is rough, prickly and warm.
I pull back, astonished, almost hurt.
“You said it’s a present! It can’t be for me.”
“It is,” he says and he’s laughing and I know that he’s telling the truth.
I sit next to him on the couch; we open the box. Underneath a layer of white parchment paper I discover hard candy. Each one is dusted with powdered sugar and shaped like a little violet, with exactly five petals. We each take one. I look inside and there are still so many, enough to last a lifetime. Moose antlers are hanging above our heads. The night is knocking against the windows. Our home-ship is rushing, flying through the snow, through the wind, through the endless blue that is all around.