Emma and Gregory travel to Russia to adopt a pair of twin boys. As the children become teenagers, they display a worrying lack of empathy, seemingly involved in a series of persistent rumours and disturbing incidents.
A dark, violent, and tense novel, Daniil and Vanya shows the bond between parent and child gone brutally awry. And, in the meantime, enjoy an excerpt from the novel that translator Michelle Winters describes as “direct and shocking […] without the filter of Canadian politeness.”
It was less than ten minutes’ walk to the orphanage. The cold air did me the most good. I still felt feverish, but less nervous. Gregory had opened a Google Map and I had brought a tourist guide, even though the route was straight and clear. I don’t know how we still managed to get lost. We ended up in an abandoned alleyway, with graffiti painted in contrasting layers of colour. Stencils, tags, and English obscenities were scrawled alongside metal structures and rusted pipes. Despite the filth, there was a certain aesthetic to the arrangement. I pulled out my phone and took a few pictures.
Piles of wet clothes and cardboard littered the ground. Grey snow sat heaped against the walls. Suddenly, a pile of garbage stirred. I jumped, grasping Gregory’s arm. He froze, moving me behind him protectively as a little brown head emerged.
It was a child.
He scanned us with vacant eyes before trying to stand. He was wearing an old man’s hat with earflaps and a threadbare down parka. Strands of greasy hair stuck to his forehead. Very shaky on his legs, he sat right back down and rummaged in his clutter for a plastic bag, which he placed over his mouth and nose. At first I thought he was hyperventilating, before I realized he was sniffing glue. He couldn’t have been more than ten years old. His fingers, black with grime at the knuckles, were still plump.
I glanced at Gregory. He caught me by the elbow and dragged me quickly toward the main street, feeling it necessary to add, “We can’t save them all.” I agreed with a nod.
We passed through a poor suburban residential neighbourhood. All the houses and buildings were built of cinder blocks, the windows were in terrible shape, and the curtains did nothing to hide the poverty. A damp moss clung to the visible power lines entangled over our heads and ran in brown patches on the walls. The image clashed with the luminous palaces and canals pictured on the front of my guide book, but didn’t surprise me.
The two-lane road we walked up was filled with European cars: Škoda, Renault, Volkswagen, Citroën. On the sidewalk, people looked at their feet as they made their way to work. A woman with flat, yellow hair walked ahead of us. She was young, but her shoulders were stooped under her jean jacket. She stopped to talk to a round-headed man with gelled hair; her thin lips were painted in too-pink lipstick.
The sun couldn’t break through the layer of clouds. The crust of snow on the ground was black and icy, and we had to walk carefully to keep from slipping.
“There it is.” Low and rectangular, the structure looked like a school, but something was off. There were several grated windows on the upper floor, but none on the ground one. The roof looked to be little more than a flimsy layer of crumbling shingles. Around one side, we could make out a dirt yard in which sat a neglected swing set.
We fell silent. The ice squeaked under our steps. An oily smell permeated the dry, cold air. Discarded plastic and dead grass mingled in a patch of snow. I didn’t recognize the place; nothing looked like the website.
We climbed the steps as though walking into a church. As we announced ourselves on the intercom, I was seized with emotion.
The director greeted us with a firm handshake and let her eyes linger on me. She didn’t look me in the eye, but stared instead at the tinted glasses on top of my head. We sat patiently on peeling leather armchairs as she reviewed our adoption folder. She was ageless, her face a plaster mask of makeup. She wore a white wraparound dress with a tag pinned to her chest, on which her name was written in pink: Vonda. The dress was very low-cut and Gregory couldn’t stop ogling her chest. I took out a tube of hand cream to occupy myself while I waited.
“Everything looks fine,” she announced in a crisp French. “You can take the children when you come back tomorrow.”
Gregory asked her to repeat herself, and she confirmed we could sign the release forms the next day. We’d expected a number of short visits in the days to come. It was an essential adjustment period; it could take over two weeks to complete the process, Giselle had advised us. I’d bought open-ended plane tickets for this reason. Vonda didn’t register our surprise and rose briskly, giving us an artificial smile. She led us through the corridors of the orphanage without really bothering to show us around.
The smell of bleach was suffocating. Craning our necks here and there, we tried to get a feel for the labyrinth of the place. The hallway opened onto different-sized rooms. I thought I saw a TV room, cluttered with wheelchairs. We passed a dormitory lined with the beds of older residents. The dormitory for the little ones was farther on, crowded with dozens of numbered metal cribs. We took the main staircase upstairs. Several children sat on the steps. A damp little hand grabbed mine. The child smiled at me through creased eyes. He wouldn’t let go of my hand. Vonda pushed him back, and, on seeing my expression, explained with a wave of her hand, “These ones are vegetables. There’s no hope for them.”
An uneasy feeling overtook me. What was this place?
The second story had two extra dormitories, for severely disabled children. The rooms were crammed with beds with retractable bars, and various pulley and support systems. Even the hallways were overcrowded. A soundtrack of cries and moans accompanied our passage. Vonda quickly walked us past a bathroom containing a clump of towels and children slopping in puddles.
Green dominated the decor. An indefinable green. Watery green. Dirty green. Drowning green.
I clung to Gregory’s arm. Even he was a little unstable.
The door to the playroom opened with a slam. A racket escaped from within, freezing us for a moment on the threshold. A single barred window lit the room. Low bookshelves and white melamine furniture covered nearly all the walls, containing few books or toys. But that all disappeared once the director pointed to the left-hand corner of the room.
There they were!
I was paralyzed for a moment with vertigo. My breath sped up and the ground beneath my feet went soft.
I had made it.
With tears in my eyes, I hid a smile behind my hand; I had to catch my breath before taking a few uncertain steps toward them.
They were watching the activity in the room. I got down on my knees to bring myself to their height. Gregory pulled up his pant legs and bent down as well. His hands shook a little.
The boys looked at us, perfectly still, and blinked slowly. My cheeks were wet with tears and my nose had started to run. I pulled a tissue out of my bag, laughing, finally relaxed.
“Vanya?” I guessed.
Although he didn’t respond, I knew I was right. I turned to his brother.
“Hello, Daniil,” I said.
But he also remained there, slack-armed. Their hands were clean, their nails cut short. Their big blue eyes were fixed on us, passing from Gregory to me without batting an eyelid. They didn’t smile. Their cheeks were pink with mild eczema. Both wore T-shirts and light grey shorts. Their resemblance was striking.
The noise level was hard to endure. Dozens of children were shrieking at the same time and no one was trying to console them. The twins were not crying, but neither were they overjoyed at our presence. Seated side by side and straight-backed, they seemed interested in nothing in particular. They were waiting patiently for something, we didn’t know what. They seemed fine just to be there, together. They weren’t touching, but something in their attitude, in their posture, formed a unit. Around us, foam balls landed, stuffed animals were shaken, puzzle pieces scattered—the room held only soft, safe toys. Clearly, they wanted to keep the children from hurting themselves. The loudest were ten or twelve years old. In the centre of the room, fifteen babies, all dressed in the same grey uniform, were crowded into a big enclosure with wooden bars.
As the morning went on, we quickly learned to tell the boys apart. Daniil was fair skinned, his eyebrows and eyelashes so pale they were practically invisible. With a wet pout, Vanya observed the world inquisitively. While more frail than his brother, he was also more mobile. After heading off on his hands and knees, he took a few steps back towards us. One of his feet turned inward; he didn’t so much limp as hop from one foot to the other.
The babies eventually let us pick them up. I pulled my hair back in a loose chignon, a natural gesture to keep it out of the way. Soft and plump, Daniil smelled like damp biscuits. When I brought my face close to his, I noticed a scar starting at his brow bone. It must have been a serious wound, as there were stripes still visible on his forehead, even though you could see it had healed. I stroked it with my finger, as if to erase it. Vanya was more fragile. His little joints were bony. He exuded a lemony, vegetable scent. I inhaled the hollow of their necks for a long time. I didn’t know what else to do other than cuddle them. It was hard to get their attention and they didn’t want to play. They didn’t understand French, and we didn’t speak Russian. We had to appreciate just being there with them.
Gregory’s beard intrigued Daniil; he reached out his hand and touched it with his fingertip, which made Gregory laugh. Holding each of them in turn, he patted the contours of their bodies, trying to resist squeezing them too hard. They had muscular calves and straight shoulders. They were big, healthy boys. Gregory was visibly filled with an immense pride and was already in love with them.
When I got out my phone to take some photos, an employee rushed to let me know it was forbidden. She didn’t speak French, but her abrupt tone was unequivocal.
The director appeared again to let us know it was time to leave. We had a very hard time separating ourselves from the babies, even though they showed no emotion as they watched us retreat. I kissed them each on the forehead, whispering, “Mommy will be right back. Mommy will get you out of this place.”
Vonda walked so fast we nearly had to run to keep up with her. She hadn’t authorized us to stay for lunch. She didn’t think the bag I’d handed her would be useful, and told me to bring it the next day for their discharge. When we asked her for more details, she shrugged and replied that releasing the children was simply a formality.
Pushed to the exit, we found ourselves once again on the street a few moments later, before I could understand what was happening. I looked back as the door closed behind us, stripping me of my children. The feeling of being ejected and evacuated from my own life reawakened all my buried anguish.
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