On the Tale of the Firebird by Irina Frolova
Irina Frolova is a Russian-Australian writer who lives with her three children and two fur babies on the Awabakal land in NSW. She has a degree in philology from Moscow City Pedagogical University and is currently studying psychology at Deakin University. Her poetry has appeared in Not Very Quiet, Australian Poetry Collaboration, Baby Teeth Journal, Rochford Street Review, The Blue Nib, The Australian Multilingual Writing Project, and Live Encounters, as well as various anthologies. Irina’s writing speaks to the experience of immigration and a search for belonging. Her first collection of poetry Far and Wild was released by Flying Island Books in January, 2021. You can find Irina on Facebook @irinafrolovapoet.
Vika opened the bedroom window. The street of her small coastal town was empty. All she could hear was the breeze ruffling the treetops and the warble of magpies. Perhaps her neighbours, mainly retirees, were having an afternoon nap. On a different day Vika would welcome this siesta in the suburban carnival of lawn-mowing, whipper-snipping and leaf-blowing. But today the quiet made her hands tremble and her breath stall in her throat.
She unscrewed the fly screen and carefully put it down next to the wall. Then she picked up the first bag from her bed, lifted it over the windowsill and put it on the front lawn. When the second bag was out, she grabbed the cat carrier with Vegemite sitting patiently inside.
‘Thank you for being such a good girl,’ Vika whispered to the cat.
A few minutes later the bags were in the boot, the cat carrier and the kids in the back seats. She had told everyone it was just a trip to the park.
Vika took one last look at the old weatherboard house with the white picket fence and the rose garden. Oh, if these walls could talk. Or write. What stories they would tell: of motherhood, of loneliness, of denial, of lies, of anguish. These walls, covered with small handprints of her three children, stood around her: on the nights she fought sleep with a crying baby in her arms, or fought off panic attacks, the sneaky cowards, just before dawn. These walls stood between them: her in one room, him – in another. Can they stand with her one more time, keep one more secret?
Her eyes paused on the middle window. Was there a shadow behind the lace curtain? Vika was not sure if she believed in ghosts. However, she had come to believe that, perhaps, the house had a ghost – the suburban dream. Her dream. Her happily-ever-after. Would it haunt her for the rest of her life? Maybe so, but for now she had bigger things to worry about.
She put the key in the ignition. Every nerve in her body was buzzing. She remembered the first time she was on a plane. Her skin tingled, as the plane sped up the runway, like a match flashing on the side of the matchbox. The moment the plane was airborne, a steady flame radiated through her. Now, that she was driving away from the family home, it was back.
While the kids played at the park, she made three phone calls. The first one was to the women’s services. She told them that she was out, and a motel room was arranged for the night. Then she called her friend, who offered to take in Vegemite for as long as needed. She paused before making the third call.
There was no answer, so she left a voice mail: ‘We are safe. We are not coming back.’
At the motel, Ash and Violet took one of the double beds, while Vika and Rose shared the other. She told the kids they were having a little holiday, an adventure. The puzzled looks quickly gave way to jumping on the beds and excited squealing. When everyone was finally in their pyjamas, they all squeezed into one bed for story time.
Vika had packed only one book – a compilation of Russian fairy-tales that her mother had sent from home.
‘Ok, which one will it be tonight?’ she looked at the children.
‘Vasilisa The Wise! Baba Yaga! Ivan Tsarevich!’ they yelled over each other in anticipation.
‘You have to agree on one.’
‘You chose last time.’
‘No, you did!’
‘I never get to choose…’
‘How about we let the fairy-tale choose us?’ said Vika mysteriously.
The kids’ mouths fell open: ‘How?’
‘We close our eyes and open the book. We see which fairy-tale it is, and read it’
Two brown heads and one blond head nodded rapidly.
Vika closed her eyes, took a dramatic deep breath and opened the story book. On the left side there was an illustration: a young man dressed in black grasping a feather of an exotic bird. The bird looked like a peacock, with a magnificent long tail and large wings, the colour of fire. In the background, against the night sky stood a tree with golden fruit.
‘Wow…’ the children whispered in unison.
Vika pointed to the title: ‘Oh look: it’s “Ivan Tsarevich and the Gray Wolf!” And… It also has Princess Vasilisa.’
‘AND the Firebird too!’ squealed Rose in delight.
Once the children were asleep, Vika looked at her phone: thirty new messages and five missed calls. An icy wave rolled over her. She switched off the phone. One by one, she kissed the three silky heads. Rose was still hugging the book of fairy-tales to her chest. Vika carefully pulled it out of her daughter’s hands and flicked through the pages.
Curled up on the edge of the bed, she closed her eyes. She could see her own mother’s face before her.
The soft voice read to her: ‘and then Vasilisa the Wise said: “Go to sleep. Don’t worry yourself. A morning is wiser than a night.”’