The following is the sixteenth of a series of excerpts from The Rowan Tree: A Novel by Robert W. Fuller. The complete novel is available for Kindle and for other ebook formats. A print edition can also be ordered from Amazon. The author welcomes your comments. If you enjoy The Rowan Tree, please write a review on Amazon, Goodreads, or your own blog!
The American Ambassador wanted to keep the negotiations going right through Christmas, but the leader of the Soviet delegation could not oblige him. Religion was again becoming a force in Russian society. To placate the Orthodox Christians on his team, the Ambassador declared the first ten days of 1991 a holiday, as it traditionally was before communism.
When Rowan reported this to Katya, she proposed they spend a week in her parents’ cabin twenty miles north of Moscow. Ever since reading Doctor Zhivago, he’d dreamed of living in a Russian dacha. Katya’s parents, like many of the Soviet nomenclatura, spent January at a Black Sea resort, so both their car and their country dacha were available. The last obstacle evaporated when Marisol accepted an invitation to spend the week at a classmate’s home in Tula, south of Moscow.
Before Easter came back into his life, Rowan had almost succeeded in convincing himself that what he felt for Katya was love. High cheekbones gave her heart-shaped face an aristocratic look; he was also drawn to her old Russian soul, and he found the mellifluous sound of her native tongue, while quite incomprehensible, curiously soothing.
For a while Katya’s youthful abandon had made him feel young. He didn’t dare take her to his apartment in the Embassy complex for fear that the sounds she made during their lovemaking would bring Embassy guards who would hammer down his door with their rifle butts and burst in on them. With a shout, Katya would have repelled the intruders, all the while urging him on, as she had done when a hotel maid walked in on them in Novosibirsk.
On the way to the cabin, he glanced at Katya in the driver’s seat, piloting her parents’ beloved old Chaika around the potholes on the country road. In the language of photography, Ekaterina was Easter’s negative.
The dacha itself consisted of three small rooms—living room, kitchen, and bedroom—and the only heat came from an open fire in the stone hearth. Cold running water was available in the kitchen, and an outhouse stood a hundred paces from the back door.
At this time of year there were few hours of natural light. They used them to hike, and gather the wood they burned in the hearth, and pinecones for the samovar to boil water for their tea. Russian tea was awful, dusty stuff compared to the stash of Fortnum and Mason Royal Blend he kept in his Embassy apartment, but in this winter paradise its inadequacy was easy to overlook.
They spent most of their time reading. Rowan, who had left his technical work at home, tried to understand what Russians loved so much about Mikhail Bulgakov’s The Master and Margarita. Katya read Danielle Steele novels to work on her English.
Rowan, back at his residence in the Embassy compound, with no prospect of seeing Easter again anytime soon, stayed in touch with her by email. At the end of one of her messages, he was surprised to find an open invitation:
Aren’t diplomats called home for consultations now and then? As you know, the president of Jefferson College can always find something to do in the nation’s capital.
He replied immediately.
I wish it were sooner, but I won’t be back in the States till the end of March—over the Easter holiday. I don’t know where they’ll put me up, so if you’re free, let’s meet at noon on Easter Sunday at the Jefferson Memorial.
In Washington, the undersecretary of state confirmed what Rowan’s superiors in Moscow had already told him. In the next round of arms talks, they wanted him to head up the negotiations on land-based intercontinental missiles. The talks would focus on making the “deep cuts” that Presidents Reagan and Bush had agreed on with Gorbachev.
But there was a condition. Rowan’s promotion was contingent on avoiding personal contacts with Russian citizens. In other words, no Katya. She would be discreetly transferred to another ministry, and it was unlikely he’d ever see her again.
“Too much is at stake to risk embarrassment,” the undersecretary explained. “Their guys in Washington are operating under the same constraints. That’s where the policy originates. It’s tit-for-tat,” he concluded, breaking into a lewd smile that suggested he’d used this pun before.
“When would the assignment begin?” Rowan asked.
“This fall, with the start of the next round. But, as you’ve been told, the CIA and the NSC won’t sign off on you if you’re sleeping with the enemy.”
“I’ll have to think it over.”
“Look, Rowan, our girls may not be quite the linguists the Russians are, but they’re just as good in the sack.”
“Do you speak from personal experience?”
His question erased the leer from the face of the Undersecretary, who summarily returned to business.
“May I tell the secretary that you’ve accepted our offer?”
“As I said, I’ll think it over.”
On Easter Sunday, Rowan reached the Jefferson Memorial well before noon. He’d bought a new shirt for the occasion and had his shoes shined at the hotel. He circled the monument on foot, gradually spiraling inward toward the statue under the cupola. He’d always admired Thomas Jefferson, yet as he sat in the shadow of his statuary likeness, he wondered again how Jefferson had reconciled “All men are created equal” with his ownership of slaves. But he also took delight in the idea that the father of American democracy was also the father of some of Sally Hemings’s children. Jefferson’s secret love life jibed with Easter’s belief that love runs ahead of politics.
A woman waving from the distance caught his eye. A wide-brimmed straw hat hid her hair and forehead, but he recognized her graceful walk. A forest-green ribbon trimmed Easter’s bonnet, and as she got closer she peered up expectantly from under the brim.
He met her halfway. From behind his back he produced a bouquet of yellow tulips and presented them with a flourish. She accepted the flowers with a smile and a hug. The touch of her hair against his cheek inspired him to lift her a fraction of an inch, but he immediately leaned forward so her toes regained the ground.
“I’m glad to see you,” he said, modulating his voice to compensate for the forwardness of his hug.
He suggested they look for the café where, twenty years earlier, they’d had lunch after their meeting with the commissioner of education.
“I bet it’s still there,” she said. “Nothing much changes in this town but the man in the White House.”
Except for the addition of an espresso bar, the café was as Rowan recalled it. When they were seated, he said, “The hat transforms you into a portrait of yourself.”
“It’s not too old-fashioned?”
“It’s perfect. ‘Easter in her Easter Bonnet’—that’s how I’d title a painting of you.”
She met his gaze for an instant and then looked down at her menu. For a moment, past and present fused, and he wondered if he detected a hint of a blush on her neck.
As if to steady herself, she filled the momentary silence. “I dropped Adam off at Princeton yesterday. Instead of spending spring break in Florida, he visited me at Jefferson. Unusual for a young man, don’t you think?”
The waiter interrupted to take their orders. Without glancing at the menu, he ordered soup and a sandwich. She questioned the waiter about several items and finally settled on salade Niçoise.
“How long will you be here?” she asked
“Just long enough to get my instructions. The negotiations are at a critical point. I leave on a military plane tonight.”
“Oh, I was going to suggest we go to the Hirshhorn Sculpture Garden tomorrow.”
“I would have loved that.”
“It’s just as well. There are so many Jefferson alumni in this town, I’m still nervous about someone seeing us together.”
“We could always resort to our old ruse.” Easter didn’t pursue it; instead, she asked about Marisol’s plans.
“Marisol just spent a few days with Sara in Boston. Tomorrow she’s visiting her old teachers at the School of American Ballet in New York, and then she returns to Moscow on a commercial flight.” He paused, looked directly at Easter, and said, “The State Department has formally offered me a lead role in the arms talks in Moscow, but I’m thinking of turning it down.”
“The promotion would mean more status but less substance. And I’d have to prolong my tour.”
He scrutinized her face, hoping to read her reaction.
After a beat, he asked, “What do you think?”
“I have no right to an opinion.”
He tried again. “I’m leaning toward returning to the States. For one thing, Marisol wants to be in New York next year.”
“So, what’s holding you back? Katya?” Her eyes flashed as she spoke Katya’s name. It was the sign he’d been waiting for, and he spoke from the heart.
“Katya’s been a comfort to me, but she’s not the love of my life.”
From the softening of her face, Rowan understood why she’d wanted to see him—and he had answered her question. As they left the restaurant, she gripped his arm tightly.