Courtney’s last name was Holub. In Ukrainian, the word “holub” means “a dove”. Courtney would prefer to be called Courtney Dove, but in the proud Holub family, the idea of changing the last name was a tough sell. According to the family tradition, “things should always be, as they were supposed to be”.
Courtney’s older sister Ramona passed away on her wedding day. She died as Ramona Holub. That day Courtney became anxiously superstitious. Courtney’s mother’s eyes had turned metallic. Her father had become kind of mute. Courtney sensed that he could talk, he just didn’t. If life could be compared to an open book, Courtney would say that that day, the whole chapter of Holub’s family life had closed with a loud clap. She was not sure how things were supposed to be from now on.
Shortly after Ramona’s death, aunt Anastasia invited Courtney to stay with her, at least for a while.
Anastasia’s house was nested among cascading branches of purple Wisterias, on a quiet avenue, and it reminded Courtney of a gnome home. The house was built in 1862 and was one of the oldest surviving homes in town. It remained untouched for one hundred years and retained as much charm and character of its old days as incommodities. It had no central heat, no indoor plumbing, and no electricity. It’s fairly large kitchen centered on an old, stone fireplace. The small bathroom was arranged in the kitchen corner. Anastasia used to say that her kitchen arrangements mimics the natural way of things. To harmonize various kitchen smells, Anastasia dried herbs on the fireplace.
Courtney moved into the house in June, at the time when a multitude of red and pink asters run a welcoming riot in the front yard. The main door of the house was adorned with an eighteenth century iron padlock which served as a knocker. Anastasia said that her padlock had as much power to extend a welcoming gesture to her friends, as to discourage all intruders. Courtney often wondered whom Anastasia considered to be a friend and whom an intruder.
The whole summer Courtney helped Anastasia to grow rosemary, oregano, and thyme. They had large pots with sweet potatoes, tomatoes, and beans. On some mornings she was waking up at sunrise, listening to the songs of gold finches and cardinals, on others, with her nose under a thick comforter, listening to the cracking sounds of the kitchen fire. In Anastasia’s place each day was bringing a little abundance and a few friendly visitors. Mr Ruben was often stopping by for a friendly chat. He enjoyed gardening as much as aunt Anastasia. They always had something to talk about. Old Mrs Tylor was coming on Sundays for a cup of tea. She knew all the rumors in town and was a gifted storyteller. Each evening Hermit, the grey raccoon, marched through the garden looking for goodies they had saved for him from the dinner. Anastasia and Courtney lived cherishing each day. According to Courtney, it was just how it was supposed to be.
Summer and fall went by like a day. Courtney rarely thought about visiting her parents, and if she thought about it, it was all she did. It was Anastasia’s idea to invite her parents for Christmas. Courtney was convinced that the idea had something to do with family reunion, and that the family reunion could open a new chapter in Holub’s family life.
She rushed to help Anastasia unpack Christmas ornaments, imagining how they would glow under the snow-laden roof. She found two cooking recipes for the occasion, one for Kutia, and one for Marmalade Cake. Courtney couldn’t imagine Christmas without sweet Kutia. It was made with barley, poppy seeds, honey and nuts. Thinking about family traditions, she filled a kitchen bowl with dry cloves and cinnamon sticks and placed it near the fireplace. Old fairy tales for some reason seemed more real again.
In the morning before the first day of Christmas, Courtney fixed raspberry tea, pancakes with honey, and cottage cheese for breakfast, but Anastasia had no appetite. She remained curled up in bed, looking tiny and fragile.
Courtney’s throat became tight. ‘Are you sick? My parents are coming tomorrow. It was supposed to be a very special Christmas.’
‘Burn some sage and rosemary for me in the fireplace, it should help …’ whispered Anastasia closing her eyes. Courtney was not sure if it was the rosemary or sage that helped Anastasia to sleep all day.
Night gave Courtney the chills. She woke up several times staring into the darkness. The thought that aunt Anastasia may not always be by her side was unbearable. The dawn of the sun seemed to be an eternity away, and only dawn could wipe away Courtney’s nightmarish thoughts.
Courtney’s parents arrived early in the morning. They said that they thought something might be wrong when they knocked with the old iron padlock and nobody came to the door.’
‘There is no doubt that Anastasia is not well today,’ said the father. ‘But we all know Anastasia’s imagination and the way she acts on it.’
Mother’s dark eyes expressed suspicion. ‘Are you sure it is not contagious? Do you have any signs of an illness yourself?’
Courtney gazed at them with bewilderment. Suddenly the idea of remaining Holub until her last day filled her whole body with fear.
‘Can I help you with the food?’ asked her mother sensing the awkwardness of the situation.
‘Mom,’ whispered Courtney ‘I think we should all see aunt Anastasia.’
‘Yes, we should wake her up,’ decided the father. ‘It is the only way to find out how she is doing.’
‘Maybe we should let her sleep a little longer?’ Courtney’s mother had her doubts.
‘Then …,’ Courtney inhaled. ‘I’ll go get Mr Ruben.’
‘Who is Mr. Ruben? How do you know him?’ Father was clearly annoyed by the idea. ‘We don’t need any bad news for Christmas!’
There was no answer. Courtney was already outside. She looked around helplessly. The ornaments and garlands on the snow-laden roof had lost their glow in the winter fog. Courtney saw Mr Ruben shovelling snow in his garden.
‘Ho, ho, ho,… Merry Christmas! How is it going?’ he greeted her as if he was Santa.
‘It is not going the way it was supposed to be.’ Courtney has begun quietly.
Mr. Rubin frowned and remained quiet.
‘They say that things always change, but they don’t say that things change for the worse fast, and for the better slowly. I … I don’t know how to deal with it,’ Courtney was afraid that she was not making much sense, but she kept talking.
‘My parents don’t believe that Anastasia is seriously ill. They didn’t believe in Ramona’s illness either. She was supposed to get married. But, you see … I really don’t want to believe that Anastasia is very ill too. I am a Holub … I just really don’t know what I am afraid of …’
Mr. Rubin put his shovel away.
‘Life is mischievous,’ he said catching his breath. ‘When it realizes that you expect it to be in a certain way, it will play a trick on you. It could happen even on Christmas. Me, I do what I have to do, I do what I like to do, I don’t expect much, and I trust the flow of my river. And if it is covered with ice, I remind myself that underneath the ice my river always flows. This way, Courtney, this way I am at peace like a dove …’