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The Language of Sisters

Cathy Lamb

  Books by Cathy Lamb











  Published by Kensington Publishing Corporation

  the language of Sisters



  All copyrighted material within is Attributor Protected.

  Table of Contents

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  Title Page

  Copyright Page
































  To the extent that the image or images on the cover of this book depict a person or persons, such person or persons are merely models, and are not intended to portray any character or characters featured in the book.

  This book is a work of fiction. Names, characters, places, and incidents either are products of the author’s imagination or are used fictitiously. Any resemblance to actual persons, living or dead, events, or locales is entirely coincidental.

  KENSINGTON BOOKS are published by

  Kensington Publishing Corp.

  119 West 40th Street

  New York, NY 10018

  Copyright © 2016 by Cathy Lamb

  All rights reserved. No part of this book may be reproduced in any form or by any means without the prior written consent of the Publisher, excepting brief quotes used in reviews.

  Kensington and the K logo Reg. U.S. Pat. & TM Off.

  eISBN-13: 978-0-7582-9511-8

  eISBN-10: 0-7582-9511-1

  First Kensington Electronic Edition: September 2016

  ISBN: 978-0-7582-9510-1

  ISBN-10: 0-7582-9510-3

  For Jimmy Straight


  I was talented at pickpocketing.

  I knew how to slip my fingers in, soft and smooth, like moving silk. I was lightning quick, a sleight of hand, a twist of the wrist. I was adept at disappearing, at hiding, at waiting, until it was safe to run, to escape.

  I was a whisper, drifting smoke, a breeze.

  I was a little girl, in the frigid cold of Moscow, under the looming shadow of the Soviet Union, my coat too small, my shoes too tight, my stomach an empty shell.

  I was desperate. We were desperate.

  Survival stealing, my sisters and I called it.

  Had we not stolen, we might not have survived.

  But we did. We survived. My father barely, my mother only through endless grit and determination, but now we are here, in Oregon, a noisy family, who does not talk about what happened back in Russia, twenty-five years ago. It is best to forget, my parents have told us, many times.

  “Forget it happened. It another life, no?” my father says. “This here, this our true life. We Americans now. Americans!”

  We tried to forget, but in the inky-black silence of night, when Mother Russia intrudes upon our dreams, like a swishing scythe, a crooked claw emerging from the ruins of tragedy, when we remember family members buried under the frozen wasteland of the Soviet Union’s far reaches, we are all haunted, some more than others.

  You would never guess by looking at my family what some of us have done and what has been done to us. You would never sense our collective memory, what we share, what we hide.

  We are the Kozlovskys.

  We like to think we are good people.

  Most of the time, we are. Quite good.

  And yet, when cornered, when one of us is threatened, we come up swinging.

  But, pfft.

  All that. In the past. Best to forget what happened.

  As my mother says, in her broken English, wagging her finger, “No use going to Moscow in your head. We are family. We are the Kozlovskys. That all we need to know. The rest, those secrets, let them lie down.”

  Yes, do.

  Let all the secrets lie.

  For as long as they’ll stay down.

  They were coming up fast. I could feel it.


  “A Italian!” my mother, Svetlana, howled, slamming a cast-iron pan onto her stove. “What is this? My Elvira marrying a Italian? Why not a Russian? What wrong with Russian? I been cursed. Like black magic spell.”

  English is my mother’s fourth language. Russian and Ukrainian come first. She is also conversationally fluent in French, which is the language she likes to swear in. Her English is never perfect, but it goes downhill quickly based on how upset she is.

  “That sister of yours, Antonia”—she put her palms up to the ceiling—“Elvira is a... how you say it? I know now the word: rebel. She a rebel. I pray for her, but I knew when she born, your aunt Polina say to me, ‘This one, she will cause your heart to cry!’ And see?” She pointed at her chest. “Tears.”

  “Mama. Your heart is not crying. Ellie says she is in love with Gino.”

  “Love! Love!” she scoffed. She pushed a strand of her black hair back, the same color as mine, only mine fell down my back in waves and hers was to her shoulders in a bell shape. Our blue eyes were the same shade, too. I looked at her and I knew what I’d look like in twenty-two years. Definitely encouraging.

  “I know about love. I have it with your papa. I know about this passion I have for him. He and I, we have the, what you call it?” She lowered her voice, for effect. “The biology in the bedroom.”

  “Chemistry. You and Papa have chemistry.” I rolled my eyes and braced myself, then ate one of her chocolate fudge cookies. They are beyond delicious.

  “No! Not chemistry. That chemicals. I say we have the biology in the bedroom because biology is body. He cannot stay away from me, from this.” She indicated her body from neck to crotch with one hand, head held high. My mother is statuesque. She curves. She still rocks it, I have to say.

  “I cannot stay away from his manly hood, either.” She grabbed a knife and held it in the air, as if making a solemn vow. “I say that in the truth.”

  I was going to need many chocolate fudge cookies that afternoon, that was my truth.

  “But Antonia, your sister”—her voice pitched again, in accusation, as if I were in charge of Ellie—“she cannot have the biology for a Italian. She has it, it in her blood, for a Russian! A strong Russian man.”

  My mother started banging pans around, muttering in Ukrainian. I loved her kitchen. It was huge, bright, and opened up to the family room. There were granite counters, white cabinets, and a backsplash with square tiles in every bold color of the rainbow. My mother loves bright colors. Says it reminds her, “I am no longer living in a gray and black world, fear clogging my throat like a snake.”

  She had her favorite blue armoire, formerly owned by a bakery to showcase their pies, built into the design and used it as a pantry. A butcher block counter was attached to a long, old wood table that had previously been used in a train station. Blue pendant lights, three of them, fell above the train station table. The windows were huge, at my mother
’s request. She wanted to be able to look out and know immediately that she was in America, not Moscow. “Free,” she said. “And safe from evil.”

  This kitchen was where all of her new recipes for my parents’ restaurant, Svetlana’s Kitchen, were tried out. This kitchen was thousands of miles away from the tiny, often nonfunctioning kitchen of my childhood in Moscow. The one where I once watched her wash blood off her trembling hands—not her blood—in our stained and crumbling sink.

  “Elvira should marry Russian man. She will grow to love him, like a sunflower grow. Like a turnip grow.”

  “You were in love with Papa when you married him. No one asked you to grow to love your husband like a turnip.”

  “Ah yes, that. I in love with your papa when I see him at university. I told my father after the first kissy, you must plan wedding for Alexei and me right away, right now, because soon I lay naked with him.”

  Oh boy. Here we go. I poured myself a cup of coffee. My mother makes coffee strong enough for me to grow chest hairs.

  “I make the love with him.” She grabbed a spatula and pointed it at me. “I say that to my father.”

  I imagined my mother’s sweet, late father, Anatoly Sabonis, hearing that from her. Poor man. I’m sure he momentarily stopped breathing. “I know, Mama, you told me.”

  “It was how I felt. Here.” She put her spatula to her heart. “So in one month I am married to Alexei, but my father not let me be alone with him for one minute before wedding. And still, in the bedroom, your papa and I—”

  “I know, Mama. You love Papa. Like Ellie loves Gino.”

  “No! Not like that.” She smacked the spatula on the countertop. “Elvira fall in love with non Russian. A nonrusseman.”

  “A nonrusseman?”

  “Yes. I make that word up myself. It clever.”

  “Is it one word?”

  “Yes. One word. More efficient. More quickly.”

  “Are you done?”

  “No, I not done. Never done. That Italian not Russian. Does not have our genes. Our pants, you know? The jeans. Not have our history in his blood.”

  “Mama, what’s in our blood is a lot of Russian vodka.”

  “Yes, devil drink. Fixes and dixes so many Russians, but we are Russian American. American Russians. We marry other American Russians.”

  “Unless we fall in love with Italian Americans, then we marry them. Or we marry Hawaiians, like Valerie did.”

  “Kai is my new son.” My mother adores my sister’s husband. “Not this Gino. No and no. He not enough. I see them together and I no see the love.”

  I didn’t see it, either, from Ellie to Gino, but Gino loved Ellie. I decided to keep my mouth shut.

  My mother whipped the spatula through the air like a lasso. “But she plans a wedding. Me oh my God bless, Mother Mary help me.”

  “I like Italian food.”

  “Italian food!” My mother gasped. “Italian food? At the wedding of my Elvira? No. Russian food. We have Russian food. If we not have Russian food, I not come.”

  “Ellie wants you to come.”

  She crossed her arms over her impressive bosom. “No. Not unless Russian food.”

  “It will be Russian and Italian food, I heard. A blend.” I tried not to laugh.

  “That not happening.” Fists to air. She looked to the heavens for divine intervention. So dramatic. “It cannot be. I am good Russian mother. I be good to her and now! A Italian. My Elvira choices it. Where went I wrong?”

  “Gino is not an it.”

  I watched my mother stomp around the kitchen as she yanked out more pans. Her pans, cast iron, from my father, are her favorite possession. She cried when he brought them home many years ago as a gift, when I was a teenager, as did my father. It wasn’t about the pans. It was about loss, despair, and a promise kept.

  My mother loves to cook, and when she’s stressed she cooks until the stress is gone. The cooking and baking can last for days.

  Her customers love it, as when my mother is stressed she makes specials for the restaurant. It is a quiet message that goes through the Russian American community. “Svetlana is upset? What is she upset about?” And then, quickly, “What is she making? Last time I had fish soup with salmon, halibut, and lemon. It warmed my bones. Do you know if she’s making that again?”

  The restaurant is packed, always, but when the Russian community hears about my mother’s temper going off, we are more packed than usual, line out the door.

  She banged those special pans, muttered, in English and Russia, swore in French, then it was back to English. She has a doctorate in Russian Literature and used to be a professor when we lived in Moscow before our lives collapsed.

  “You children and your papa, though he tire me out in the bedroom, you are my whole life. We love the children. But constant it is!” She yelled and swung another pan onto the stove. “Always these problems. Elvira want to marry a Italian it. Your other sister around the bad criminals, all the time! And you”—she pointed at me, this time with a wooden spoon, wielded like a sword—“you write about the crime. That make criminals mad at you. Why like this? More worries. More anxious for me. I worry, all the time!”

  Yes, I write about crime for the Oregon Standard, our state’s largest newspaper. But to my credit, I hate it. I would probably quit soon. Another problem, which I was not going to share with my mother so she would not get “more anxious,” is that the dock where my home is—a yellow tugboat—is about to be shut down. Yes, I live in a yellow tugboat on the Willamette River.

  I was also climbing my way back up from a soul-slashing experience that had knocked me to my knees, then whipped me to my butt, then pushed me down face-first into the dirt and there I lay for a long time. I am now breathing, and I have told myself that I will not be facedown in the dirt again, but sometimes I say that when I am facedown.

  “Lookie. See my hair. White streak. From the worry. It my worry hair.”

  My mother did have a white streak. It started at her widow’s peak, to the left center of her head, the same place where Valerie, Ellie, and I had our widow’s peaks. It’s where the language of sisters and brothers comes in, she’s told us, handed down through the Sabonis family line, to communicate, silently, with our siblings. It’s not rationally or scientifically explicable, so I won’t try, but sometimes I can hear my sisters talking to me in my head.

  “It’s vogue, Mama.”

  “No, not vogue. This old woman hair. Caused by my children. Nieces and nephews, too. All the peoples in the Kozlovsky family. I blame you, your sisters. And!” She slammed down a container of flour. “You know who, who worries me the most!”

  I knew who. I worried, too.

  She flung a pile of spice bottles down on the counter. “We are Kozlovskys, we are good people, but this not right. You talk to Elvira, Antonia, I tell you, you fix this.” She shook her finger at me. “Fix it right up, like you do. Quick. You do a quickie. No nonrusseman.”

  When I left, she gave me cheese dumplings and a container of roast goose with apples and dill. My mother has to feed her children. A daughter leaving the house without a container of food would undoubtedly starve by noon tomorrow, her skeleton pecked at by crows.

  “I love you, my Antonia.” She hugged and kissed me.

  “Love you, too, Mama.”

  “Now I make new recipe. I call it ‘My Childrens Makes Me Worry.’ ”

  * * *

  I headed home to my tugboat.

  Six months ago, I sold my home in the hills above Portland and moved to my yellow tugboat with red trim. I was in a dark pit I couldn’t crawl out of because each time I looked around, a memory bashed me in the face.

  I cried for days when I sold that home, but I knew it had to be done. The house was white with blue shutters with a willow tree in front. Now I live on a dock in a marina with other people who live on houseboats.

  You have to walk by three houseboats to get to my three-story yellow tugboat with red rails and trim and a red
door. Petey, a friend of my father’s, used it for twenty-five years to haul timber, grain, sand, and gravel on barges up and down the river, but he retired and didn’t want it.

  I wanted to live on the water, away from the city, as natural as I could get without a long commute to work, so I bought it from Petey, who moved to a condo in Miami. I then had it gutted and remodeled before I moved in, with a full bedroom added to the second floor. I needed something to think about other than the memory bashing, and it helped to have a project.

  I rented a slip on the dock and settled in.

  The whole tugboat is about a thousand square feet. I painted the small entry white. Two square windows on either side let in the light. I’ve taken photos of my river “pets,” which include two mallard ducks that always wander up on my deck named Mr. and Mrs. Quackenbusch; a blue heron named Dixie; a bald eagle, which disappears for days, that I call Anonymous; a golden eagle I named Maxie; two beavers named Big Teeth and Big Tooth; and river otter. There are a number of river otter, so I call all of them Sergeant Ott.

  I matted the photos in blue with white frames.

  I have a tiny hallway, then a bathroom off to the right. I have a shower over a claw-foot tub. Across the hallway is the kitchen with a huge window over a white apron sink. I had the cabinets painted light blue; the counters are a beige, swirling granite; and the backsplash is made of blue, gray, and beige glass.

  The kitchen opens to my family room. I have white wainscoting on the lower half, light beige paint on the top half, and a blue couch in the shape of a V. The blue couch has a multitude of pillows, made from thick, shiny, fuzzy, painted, mirrored, arty, lacy, silky fabrics from all over the world, sewn by my sisters and me. I have a glass dining table in the corner near the French doors, which leads to the tugboat’s lower deck. On either side of the French doors are more square windows.