My name is not really Lena Seagull. Seagull is the nickname my father was given by those who knew him. While you were alive he would steal everything from you, and when you were dead he would steal even your eyeballs.
My first vivid memory is one of violence.
I was not yet five years old and I had disobeyed my father. I had refused to do something he wanted me to. I cannot remember what it was anymore, but it was something small and insignificant. Definitely unimportant. He did not get angry, he just nodded thoughtfully. He turned toward my mother. ‘Catherine,’ he said calmly. ‘Put a pot of water on to boil.’
I remember my mother’s white face and her frightened eyes clearly. She knew my father, you see. She hung a pot of water on the open fire of the stove.
He sat and smoked his pipe quietly. Behind me my sisters and brother huddled. There were seven of us then. I was the youngest. Two more would come after me.
‘Has the water boiled yet?’ my father asked every so often.
‘No,’ she said, her voice trembling with fear, and he nodded and carried on puffing on his pipe.
Eventually, she said, ‘Yes. The water is ready.’
Two of my sisters began to sob quietly. My father carefully put his pipe down on the table and stood.
‘Come here,’ he called to my mother. There was no anger. Perhaps he even sighed.
But by now my mother’s fear had communicated itself to me and I had begun to fidget, fret and hop from foot to foot in abject terror. I sobbed and cried out, ‘I’m sorry. I’m very sorry. I will never again do such a
My father ignored me.
‘Please, please, Papa,’ I begged.
‘Put the child on the chair,’ he instructed.
My mother, with tears streaming down her cheeks, put me on the chair. Even then I think she already knew exactly what was about to happen because she smiled at me sadly, but with such love that I remember it to this day.
I stood up and clung desperately to my mother’s legs. My father ordered my older sisters to hold me down. They obeyed him immediately.
Reluctantly, my mother dragged her feet back to my father.
With the dizzying speed of a striking snake he grabbed her hand and plunged it into the boiling water. My mother’s eyes bulged and she opened her mouth to scream, but the only sound that came out was the choke that someone makes when they are trying to vomit. While she writhed and twisted like a cut snake in his grip, my father turned his beautiful eyes toward me. My father was an extremely handsome man—laughing gray eyes and blond hair.
The shock of witnessing my father’s savagery toward my beloved mother was so total and so all encompassing that it silenced my screams and weighted me to my chair. I froze. For what seemed like eternity I could not move a single muscle. I could only sit, and stare, and breathe in and out, while the world inside my head spun violently out of control. And then I began to shriek. A single piercing wail of horror. My father pulled my mother’s hand out of the pot and rushing her outside, plunged her blistering, steaming hand into the snow.
I ran out and stood watching them, icy wind caught in my throat. My father was gently stroking my mother’s hair. Her face was ghostly
white and her teeth were chattering uncontrollably. Then she turned to look at me and snapped them shut like a trap. I was never the same after that day.
I obeyed my father in all things.
Once there were eleven of us in my family—my father, my mother, my seven sisters, my beloved twin brother Nikolai and me. We lived in a small log cabin at the edge of a forest in Russia. We had no electricity, no TV, no phones; water had to be fetched from a well; the local village store was miles away; and we had to use the outhouse even during the freezing winter months.
I didn’t know it while I was growing up but we were a strange family. We never went on holidays and we kept ourselves to ourselves. We hardly saw the other village folk. And when we did see them we were forbidden to talk to them. If ever they spoke to us we had to nod politely and move quickly away.
Growing up we had no friends. No one ever came around. I do not remember a single instance when even a doctor was called to the house. My mother said that she gave birth to all her children without even the assistance of a midwife. On one occasion when my father was not around she even had to cut the umbilical cord herself.
I have a very clear memory of when she went into labor with my youngest sister. How she was in agony for hours and how my oldest sister, Anastasia, dared to beg my father to call the doctor, and how he refused with cold anger. Only Anastasia and Sofia, my second oldest sister, were allowed in the room with Mama so the rest of us had to wait outside in abject fear.