(excerpt from ...)


Harbin, Manchuria

Some of the scenes from my childhood blur behind the veil of time, others stand out in all their ugliness. One in particular is seared into my brain with painful clarity. I count the years in reverse and stop at a cold afternoon in October of 1935.

* * *
     I am eleven. I hear Mother and Stepfather arguing behind the closed door of their bedroom. I have never heard them quarrel before, and although I can't tell what they are saying, their angry voices scare me. I tiptoe to my room and try to read Tolstoy's Childhood, but can't concentrate. I walk over to the window and look outside. The afternoon light is fading and a branch of the single tree in our small garden is giving me a friendly nod. Our street is empty, except for a droshky coachman clip clopping lazily along the cobblestones.
     I hear my parents' bedroom door open. Papa's hurried footsteps along the hall, the sound of the trap door opening and his heavy steps to the basement where he keeps his photo equipment. After a while, I walk out into the hall and stand transfixed at the door to their bedroom. In the middle of the Persian rug stands Papa's tripod with a large camera and a black cloth over it, the kind of professional photographers have in their studios.
     “What are you doing there standing with your mouth open?” Mother says in a tone of voice I know so well. She turns the light out as she leaves the room and I retreat before getting a chance to ask what the big camera is doing in their bedroom.
     The atmosphere during supper is heavy. Mother is frowning and seems upset. Surreptitiously I study her face. It's not wise to ask her any questions when her beautiful, smooth face has that expression. Mother and Father are not talking, and what has happened behind those closed bedroom doors remains a mystery. We finish the meal, and after the maid has cleared the dishes and left, Mother tells me to follow her to the bedroom. The camera is still there, but the vase with flowers that always stood on the round table by the window has been removed, and a footstool has been placed below. Mother proceeds to pick up the flower vase from the windowsill. She places it near the corner of the table, moves it to the opposite corner, then back again. Mother brings me inside and closes the door ...