My grandmother on my mother’s side died suddenly at our dacha outside Moscow when I was little. My mother and I were left alone in the world, except for a distant relative or two with whom we had mostly lost touch, and my nurse Polina.
My father lived separately from us. He had a new family and a new wife, Alexandra Arkadievna.
After my grandmother’s death, my mother tried to keep the dacha going, but during the first season the garden grew over and tiles on the roof pulled apart and began to leak. Workmen from a nearby collective farm took advantage of my mother’s inexperience. They overcharged her unmercifully, came to work irregularly or drunk, and disappeared with the job half-done.
The following fall, on the first anniversary of my grandmother’s death, my mother discharged Polina and sold the dacha to a well-to-do psychiatrist, Comrade Gippenshtok. A month or two later, she met another man. They fell in love and got married.
Even though I spent every summer of my early childhood at the dacha, when I visited it again several years later I found it almost unrecognizable. The main house was smaller than I had remembered it, plain and decrepit. The ceilings were low and the windows narrow and small. It was more like a summer cottage than the huge old manor house of my early memories. Even the most densely grown part of the property, the far corner around the outhouse where I used to wander for hours, imagining myself the last of the Mohicans, was little more than a few trees and a clump of shrubbery.
Everything seemed so different that I began to suspect that, coming in the dark the night before—exhausted, frightened, and frozen—I had picked the wrong house. Before leaving, I went into a small room off the terrace, which had been glazed with an intricate filigree of multicolored glass lozenges by the prosperous Gippenshtoks, and there, relying more on physical memory and the sense of touch than the treacherous winter light filtering through the cracks in the shutters, I groped for one particular floorboard, the fourth from the rear. It was easy to find, because it stood out approximately a tenth of an inch above its neighbors. I pressed hard on it on one end and got the other end to lift. In a recess below, buried under a layer of dust and sticky spider webs, my fingers felt the head of a pin. Long ago, when my grandfather was still alive, he and I had trapped a huge, brightly colored thistle butterfly, and I hid it in a secret compartment in my room. The butterfly’s wings had flaked off, but its desiccated body was still there, wrapped around a rusted pin.