This Shared Dream

Eliani Hadntz


July 1890, North of St. Petersburg, Russia

YEARS AFTERWARD, Eliani realized that the meadow and the small country dacha belonged to her St. Petersburg grandmother.

The dacha was directly on the shore of a clear, cold lake. On this summer morning, Eliani, five years old, in her second-story bedroom, struggled to button her dress. She was eager to join her mother, Rosa, who was framed by the dormer window and limned by sunlight as she stood below on the weathered dock.

Hands on her hips, Rosa gazed outward, her cotton skirt fluttering in the slight breeze. She turned, saw Eliani, and waved. “Come down!”

As Eliani grew, so did her awareness of her mother’s uniqueness. Rosa Hadntz was a medical doctor in an age when very few women were, and was therefore, quite naturally, a feminist. She was also a poet, and a pacifist.

But now, Rosa Hadntz was just her mother, out by the lake.

Eliani gave up on the rest of her buttons. She ran down the stairs, through the house, ignoring the maid’s shouted Slow down! and pounded onto the dock.

“Be careful of that rotten board,” her mother said. She looked back at the house and sighed. “The old house used to be so beautiful. Not so … shabby. When I was a little girl, visiting my cousins, it was paradise. White crystal and linen and laughter.”

Eliani, used to the looming streets of Vienna, breathed the spice of fir trees and the scent of fresh, clean water. Beyond the meadow, where blue cornflowers swept through tall grass, lay a mysterious, sun-dappled forest, riven by the arrow-straight road that they followed from train station to carriage house in her grandmother’s tarantass, pulled by four black horses.

She saw nothing but vast, open, intense paradise. Below, golden, wave-scalloped sand shimmered through water clear as glass. “Can we swim?”

Rosa smiled down at Eliani, her eyes shadowed by wings of loose, shining black hair. “It’s cold,” she warned. “And you don’t know how. It’s easy, though.”

To Eliani’s surprise, her mother began unbuttoning the long row of buttons on her dress. She shrugged it off, along with the complicated cotton undergarment she wore, stooping, finally, to unlace her low black boots and kick them off. Then she stood on the dock, naked.

Eliani was astonished. Her mother’s quintessential space was a dressing room, draped with clothing, which she donned with care and precision. Eliani had, once or twice, glimpsed her mother naked—but never like this! Never boldly, out in the sunlight, framed by forest and green hills.

“Well?” Rosa threw back her head and laughed, not just to her daughter, but also to the lake, the forest, the intense, blue sky. She dashed to the end of the dock, dove in, and surfaced, shrieking and breathless. “Come on, then!”

Eliani undid her just-fastened buttons quickly. The air and the sunlight felt good on her bare skin. She stood on the edge of the dock, hesitated, then jumped. She plummeted down, shocked by the cold, then saw, through the water, her mother’s pale, blurred body move toward her. Her mother caught and boosted her to the surface. “Move your arms,” Rosa said calmly as Eliani spluttered and coughed and felt a peculiar tang in her nose. “Kick your legs. That’s swimming. Good. I’m right here.”

Eliani no longer felt the cold, only the cool, unfettered liquid, a new, silken atmosphere. The sun, in contrast, was hot on her back. It was delicious. Her mother’s deft hands turned her over so that she squinted at the brilliance and glimpsed a ring of pointed firs surrounding the circle of blue sky. “Take a deep breath.