The Coldest Winter This work is considered exceptional by our editorial staff.

November 9, 2009
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Anastasia wandered the icy streets. Her breath enshrouded her face in mist as her tawny eyes scanned the deserted alleys. She pulled her threadbare shawl tighter around her shoulders in a vain attempt to barricade her frigid flesh from the ferocious clawing of December winds. Confetti littered the shiny streets that glistened with a thick layer of ice. The tracks of the carriage were still visible from the stately parade that had processed through earlier that day.

The parade itself was quite a spectacle for rich and poor alike. The mighty Cossacks had ridden by in the most magnificent way atop their abnormally grand horses. But the moment that had captured Anastasia’s imagination was when she briefly glimpsed the carriage of the Tsar. Anastasia had found herself dressed in the finest warm furs and jewels, sitting in the solid gold, jewel-encrusted carriage. Grand Duchess Anastasia…it sounded beautiful. The glittering carriage was pulled by majestic white steeds in harnesses adorned heavily with garnets, emeralds, and sapphires. But soon the swirling masses of people had blocked her view and she was rudely awakened from her glorious fantasy.

But the parade, though fresh in her mind, seemed like it had made its way through the chilly streets a lifetime ago. For the past several hours she had meandered through the dark streets of Saint Petersburg alone with nothing to occupy her curious mind but the luxurious mysteries of the Winter Palace. Anastasia reached the banks of the Neva River and gazed upon the glittering castle. It shone in the moonlight. The gem of Saint Petersburg sparkled before a small street girl. She fell to her knees in reverence of the amazing beauty that was the Winter Palace. The windows glowed with a warm light. She could almost hear the joyous singing and merry laughter; could almost feel the warmth of a roaring fire in a solid gold grate.

A particularly fierce gust of wind rudely awakened her from her extravagant fantasies. Anastasia sighed and continued her desultory trek amongst the starlit Russian alleys. Finally, she reached a rather soft looking snow bank along the Neva, and, because her legs refused to take another step, Anastasia collapsed in the icy down. And while the biting wind blew fiercely, with the gentleness of a mother it swept a comforter of snow over her slumbering figure.

When Anastasia awakened, her stomach growling and her numbed extremities demanding nonexistent matches, she spied a girl dressed richly in warm furs. Her eyes shone blue against her snowy white cheeks. It was like gazing upon an ice princess.

“Come with me!” the girl urged in a hurried whisper. “I can help.”

Anastasia, having spent her entire life on the city streets, was wary of strangers, but something about this girl’s face said she could be trusted. The two girls quickly trotted away from the frozen river and into a dark corner.

“I don’t have long. Mother mustn’t know I’m gone,” began the girl. “I’m Ekaterina, daughter of Countess Ivana Petronova. Please. Take this.” She held out her mink cloak. “I can see in your eyes that if you make it through this winter, you are destined for great things. I know it may sound farfetched, but please, you must listen. I have a gift. I have been told by the Kieven Patriarch himself! I must go quickly before I am missed. Hope. Always. God has great plans for you.” Ekaterina scurried off leaving Anastasia stunned. She quickly took advantage of her gift and enveloped herself in warm fur. She began wandering, in search of some scraps with a bounce in her step.

Anastasia had faith in what Ekaterina had told her. It was another gem of hope to add to her dwindling collection of glistening dreams. And while it may have seemed unlikely to most, Anastasia believed at that moment that one day Russia would love her. One day her life would be better.

“What sort of great things could I be destined for?” she mused aloud. Her mind was filled with possibilities. Maybe she was to marry a Tsar. Or perhaps she would become a flirtatious young lady in the courts. Or possibly even a trusted advisor, sent to foreign countries to socialize and convince kings to make alliances with the Tsar. She imagined Paris. Though she knew nothing except that it was a grand city, she imagined it to be almost as wonderful as St. Petersburg.

The sudden sound of galloping hooves shook the very rock of the city and jerked Anastasia away from her wistful imaginings. A mighty Cossack perched atop a massive horse was before her. Anastasia gazed up at him, eyes wide and dilated with fear. She noticed the cruel leather whip he clutched with his gnarled right hand. He glared down at her with a look of utmost disgust showing through his bushy black beard.

“The Countess Ivana Petronova demands you return her daughters cloak.” He spoke in a gravely voice filled with venomous spite. From behind him emerged Ekaterina, tears flowing down her snowy cheeks. The woman who stood next to her could be none other than the Countess. Her eyes were as blue as Ekaterina’s, but filled with pure loathing as they surveyed the pitiful street rat. Her very lips seemed to drip with venom.

Anastasia handed over the mink cloak to Ekaterina with cheeks as dark as the garnets that adorned the Tsar. Immediately the Countess burst out, “Don’t you touch that! It was just worn by this filthy urchin. You are to drop it right now Ekaterina! We shall buy you a new cloak on the way back to the manor. To waste such a gift on an urchin!” Ekaterina dropped the cloak and with a look of more mourning than appropriate for someone she had just met, was dragged forcibly away by her impatient mother.

As the sound of their footsteps grew fainter, the Cossack raised his whip and it curled around Anastasia’s forearm. She fell to her knees, crying out against the searing pain. But the Cossack struck again and again. Blood slowly seeped through her ragged attire and stained the snow about her a crimson red. When at last, Anastasia was so delirious with pain she could no longer so much as groan, he rode off towards the palace.

Lying in the scarlet snow banks, Anastasia knew her time was almost up. She had no one to tend her wounds, no one to keep her warm as she healed. She prayed in the name of Saint Vladimir that her soul be carried away to Heaven. And as she ended, she prayed for Saint Petersburg. The cruelty of its inhabitants had never deterred her love for the city, and it would always remain that way. The sparkling manors and the palace of the Tsar had always given her hope. And maybe she would have become something spectacular. But the world would never know. As Anastasia floated slowly upward, she stole one last glance at the Winter Palace before turning and looking ahead. That winter was the coldest in all of Russia.

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