When she closes her eyes, she imagines a faraway place.
Odessa. The year is 1941. Her Grandmother's legs are heavy. They have been walking for hours. Children are crying, but her face is solemn. They each know what will come next. Every single one. They have heard the rumours. They are not foolish. The fear returns, but it is not just her own. They have been herded like cattle. They shake with cold and with fear. There is a star on her jacket. There are men in uniforms watching her shuffle past in a line of hundreds. The building ahead is grey. If she tries hard enough, she can hear the sea. The mud beneath her feet is dark. Everything is dark. They are a proud people, but they keep their heads bowed. All they can do is submit. All they can do is pray. "Екатерина!" comes her mother's cry and she feels the weight of someone pushing her down. Into the mud. The shots ring out into the night. She lays there until the dawn. Hours later, when they have retreated, she pulls herself out. She doesn't go back home. She runs. She runs until she reaches mountains. The final count: 36,000 dead.
Fragmented memories of houses, humble and old, stacked together, one above another. A family of four. A family of eight. A family of twelve. Bellies churn. Everybody is hungry. All their livestock has been taken and all their fields are repurposed. Their town square becomes a bastion for the occupying army. In the quiet village, the enemy have loud voices. They have weapons they never have to use - it is powerful enough, to fall to your knees and see the barrel before your eyes. There is only one warning, then a trigger is pulled. The children no longer cry. They walk barefoot to school. It is the only refuge. Men and women drop dead in the street as they pass. They spoil in the sunlight like overripe fruit. Then a loud wail, when somebody is recognised by a person they loved. A widow screams and shakes as she mourns her youngest son. She pulls at her cheeks and tears at her hair. She learns how he joined the rebels in the night. In the morning, his body is found, riddled with bullet wounds. He was fifteen.
The land remembers better than she does. The memories are deeply entrenched in its soil, in the air, in the water. It remembers the fires. It remembers the blood. It remembers the dead. It remembers each and every one. How they used to laugh. How there was joy. How there was faith. The memory lives inside her DNA. In her body. In her life. In her name. But it is far-off, elusive and nothing more than a borrowed feeling. A frail bond to a place, to a time that she did not know herself. It is lost to her. Lost to years. Lost to her generation. These were not the bedtime stories for a child, but there is a quickening inside at the mention of home, of terror and fear, of voices that belong to ghosts. Lying on a cot, opening up sleepy eyes to the faces of grandparents. Maybe. She cannot remember. She tries so hard. Her heart aches with it. Tears fall when she pushes herself too far. She knows why it had to happen. A choice to keep her safe. To send her away. To give her a second chance.
The flight was long. Bumpy. She remembers seeing the sun rise while everyone around her slept. When she reaches the terminal, the woman from the agency tells her she is home and leads her towards the gate. The woman she calls mother does not look like her, but she cradles her close. The woman she calls mother tells her she is loved. She tells her that she is wanted. They have looked everywhere to find her. This will be the place that she can call her own. A place where she can leave history behind. A place that she promises is safe. They cannot come for her here. Here, in a land of freedom, the scars can heal. It is what she chooses to believe. It is what she cleaves to, knowing this mother did not carry her, knowing this mother does not have her eyes or her hair. Knowing this mother can offer no insights about the faces she remembers, the voices, the lullabies. But for all this mother lacks, her arms are warm about her. They hold her close when the nightmares come. They soothe her when she is hurt. This mother feeds her. Clothes her. Loves her. This mother quickly becomes "Mama".
When she sits in the living room, hands curled around a mug of hot tea, she cannot meet Mama's eyes. It was easier to tell her brother. In the other room, he is lost in conversation with their father. A pang, when she remembers that he has known this pain too. All her brothers and sisters are adopted. But he rises above it. He has his own family now. She thinks of her nephews. It hurts, knowing they are not really her nephews. Not by blood. One of them comes bounding toward her, she puts her mug down and lifts him up, helps him to sit and presses her face to the top of his head, inhaling the scent of his soft hair. He coos in her lap, nestles himself against her chest and her face begins to contort, pain etched in every line. Another nephew appears, wrestles his twin out of her grasp and she's left sitting alone. The seat next to her slowly depresses. Mama asks what's wrong.
The words come. The words she has been choking back for months. The words that return to her at night. That wake her up from violent dreams. Memories borrowed from someone else. Memories of another lifetime. They all fall out. She tells her of the doctor's visits. The false diagnosis. The tests. All the possibilities: defective genes. Environmental factors. Nuclear testing. Her hands are shaking by the time she is done. Her problems seem so small when she finally gives them voice. Pathetic. Stupid. Incessant worrying. For nothing. "Tell me I'm being an idiot, Ma. Tell me and I won't look for her," she says. Mama says nothing in reply. She leans in and pulls her into her embrace instead. Safe. Caitlin is safe. She begins to cry. She hasn't cried like this since childhood. "I have to know who she is," she sobs against Mama's shoulder. "Please,"
After a time, Mama says. "I'll go with you,"