Changing the story isn’t enough in itself, but it has often been the foundation to real changes.
-Rebecca Solnit, Hope in the Dark
It is late. Everyone is asleep, even Leo who snores softly next to her, having not returned to his bedroom after their encounter. Sophia knows he will never come to her again. She looks up at the painting on the wall of her dead boy, reaches her fingertips out as if to touch his still lips.
She rises from her bed, naked, and picks up her dressing gown from where she dropped it on the floor, remembering the way Leo smiled, reluctantly, then laughed as the silk puddled around her feet before putting his arms around her and kissing her the way he used to, before Vladimir Chertkov entered their lives, before their sweet Lev died, before all the followers of The Movement. Now she slides an arm into each sleeve and knots the slippery snake of a belt around her waist.
Sitting down to her desk beside the bed, Sophia lifts the glass globe from its base, turns the small knob to lengthen the wick. The striking of a match makes a sharp sound in the room. Moving slow, she transfers the orb of light to the wick; it blazes up. When she returns the globe to its base, light fills the space around her, pushing shadows into the corners beyond her reach.
She opens the book to the first page, and, dipping her pen into the ink jar, begins again.
Anna Karenina belonged to both of them.
It was Sophia who returned from bathing at the river one Sunday afternoon with news of the Mistress from a neighboring estate, she who told Leo how one of the peasants, nuzzling a baby at her bare breast, said the woman had thrown herself under the train, how right that moment, still damp and naked beneath her cotton sheet, Sophia understood how it could come to that for a woman, not the yet fictional Anna but a flesh and blood woman living on an estate in Russia.
She remembers the look in Leo’s eyes, taking the story from there, already revising it in his head.
Upon completing his first draft, her husband would take scissors to the stack of pages and cut them, pare back and rearrange them, and then he would paste them back together and give them to her and she would stay up late into the night while Leo slept and she would recopy them into his new version of the story, as she was doing now, one where things were better than they were before.
When they were young and in love, Sophia and Leo would sit down to tea discuss the story.
Anna Karenina began as her story. She brought Anna into the house.
He could have War and Peace, give it to whomever he wanted, but Anna Karenina, no, Anna did not belong to him. Anna Karenina was not his to give away, the way he had tossed her aside when Vladimir Chertkov became his new publisher, editor, photographer, admirer.
Little Lev was Sophia and Leo’s thirteenth child, their last child, her baby. Within moments of his birth, her son latched onto to her breast while Leo watched from the side of the bed, dipping the mattress so that her body leaned toward him a little, throwing off her balance. Their youngest child is the one who, finally, steals her heart from her husband. Perhaps this is the first rent in the fabric of their marriage, the crack through which Vladimir Chertkov blew like a cold draft in winter, for it would not be long before he began to join them at Yasnaya Polyana, where he and Leo would sit on the porch taking tea, shooing her away when she tried to set up her camera. So she retreated to the room of her body, infant Lev suckling at her breast, or strapped to her back in a swaddle of cloth, legs and arms dangling like a squirming beetle, and then toddling after her as he grew, while she picked flowers or skimmed jam in the front yard or slipped heavy plates into the camera when she’d set up a portrait.
Perhaps some part of her knew this was her last baby and the last moments of a happiness she had thought would last forever.
When Leo still ate pheasant from the hunt, still took a generous pour of milk in his thick coffee.
When he would write and write and write and hand the pages over to her and she would copy by the flickering light of her oil lamp, because Leo refused any of the modern conveniences that were being installed into other Moscow homes.
When they would spend afternoons talking about the novel and even if he did not write what she suggested, he would listen and smile and laugh. She missed his laugh. He had killed it, that part of himself.
Little Lev, his namesake, was dead too, dead at seven years of age, not even buried at Yasnaya where they stayed most of the time but in the city. Her baby boy, forever asleep inside a tiny coffin, as cramped as the womb before one is born.
This is why she goes into the city as much as possible, to hear Sergei play and have dinner with him afterward. But that is just an excuse to get away from the admirers and her daughter Tanya, Vladimir Chertkov, all of them loyal to Leo.
Sophie goes to visit her son’s grave and to sit in her old bedroom at the little desk where once she copied and recopied the novel, seven times, until Leo got the story the way he wanted it.
How many times has she copied it now? Ten, maybe twelve, trying to get it right, at first making small changes that Leo would not notice: the color of Anna’s dress, the name of Vronsky’s horse, the village where they stay in Italy when the couple is exiled from society.
Each time, Sophia became bolder, until in a fit of rage and sadness, she refused to let Dolly’s baby die.
Then she changed it back, knowing she could not undo that sorrow. Instead, after the baby dies, Dolly weeps. In Sophia’s version, the author does not wait a year to tell the reader in passing, the way Leo gave her no warning, letting her discover it along with everyone else, as Dolly takes a carriage to visit her banished sister-in-law and her infant daughter. How could he keep that from her?
In Sophie’s revisioning, Dolly, fresh from her own loss, scolds Anna for ignoring her daughter and demands to know how would she feel if her child disappeared one day from the nursery.
Sophie writes, Together the women sit on the divan holding the squirming infant in her charming dress, and Dolly runs her fingers along the child’s wet gums and counts 6 teeth broken through, four on top, two on bottom, giving her a snaggle-toothed smile, because what mother doesn’t know how many teeth her baby has? The drool runs down the baby’s chin and darkens the blue of Dolly’s shabby dress. Anna watches her and understands that the wrong baby has been taken away. Anna can be a good mother to one child, and that child is her son, Seryohza, but Dolly. Dolly was born to be a mother.
When Sophia decided that Anna will refuse to leave her son, she knew this was the final revision of Anna Karenina.
Tonight in her bedroom at Yasnaya Polyana, with her seduced husband still tangled in her bedcovers, she decides that Anna will not die.
How that will go? Will Anna stand at the platform but turn away from it at the last moment and from her fear of losing Vronsky? Or will she pack up her things, take her daughter and the nanny and her son to a place where they are safe? Will their group arrive at the station, where Vronsky has passed through on his way to his mother’s house? And before he can take care of his business and return, will Anna and her children be safely carried away from this dark place? Will her lover return to the empty house, strewn with Anna’s abandoned corsets and shattered bottles of opium, smashed in a rage against the men who thought they knew what was best for her?
Sophia likes this power.
In the flickering light of her lamp, she chooses how her story will end.
After years of copying page after page of Leo’s writing, this is what she now believes: Anna was the part of her husband that he wished he could kill, Desire, that which yearns. He never figured out, she thinks, it is in the yearning where we are together, merged into one. In the novel, he killed that part of himself before Death could take it from him.
In reality, it is not that simple to get rid of the parts of himself that drive him crazy. Even now, with a whole movement of people to whom he is an idol, he wants to kill that yearning, not only in himself but in them with rules about what they can eat and how to teach children and how to deny their physical needs. Instead he insists that they push their bodies to the brink of exhaustion through physical labor.
Leo does not see what Sophia sees, the way the young men look at the girls, the way the children desire what is on someone else’s plate.
Leo cannot kill desire; he can only make himself blind to it.
Sophia knows he is getting ready to leave her, but she wants to keep loving him and desiring him and what they had as long as she is alive. This is the way to defeat Death.
Sophia’s hand is growing tired. Still she continues on.
The child is what will save Anna.
Because a mother who still has her son cannot leave this world. Seryozha will make all things bearable. Anna can live without money, without love affairs, without operas and fine dresses. She can eat plain bread and water every day as long as she has her son. This is what Leo and Levin and Vronsky and Alexey and Sergei and Vlad will never understand about love.
Her husband will leave her, Sophia knows this. He is already planning it, with Vladimir Chertkov at a secret rendezvous in the woods where he will sign away the books they wrote together.
Sophia cannot save her marriage. She cannot save her own son. She could not save that neighbor woman whose death inspired the story, but she can save Anna, and maybe in doing that, she can save some part of herself.
She will no longer sneak around trying to find Leo and Vladimir and his little band of men in the woods.
She will not fly into hysterics, so that the doctor must be called.
She will not play the same recording of Leo’s speeches over and over until he comes in and threatens to break the damned machine.
What she will do is continue to order the simple food he requests, along with the macaroni and cheese that her sons and grandsons love and the lemon cake to be served after the meal. She will continue to take her photographs when the late afternoon sun comes through the window of her sitting room and develop them while the cook prepares the food. She will dress for dinner and be polite to everyone, even Tanya and Vladimir, and then she will excuse herself, saying she needs to rest, and she will slip into her room to find her pages where she left them.
The two Alexey’s, her husband and her lover, meet each other at the train station, hoping to find her, but she is already gone to a place where they cannot hurt her anymore.
After Sophia writes The End, she ties up the thick stack of papers with red thread from her embroidery basket and packs them into the trunk that will go with her on the train to see her dying husband after he flees in the middle of the night. There, Sophia, wrapped in furs and blankets to ward off the cold, will read the story one final time, from its famous first line to her own happier ending, while she waits to see him one last time, to say good-bye.
He will die, but she lives.
Julie Ann Stewart holds an MFA in Fiction Writing from Spalding University. She writes short stories and essays and creates clothesline art (AKA narrative textiles). “The Ending” is the result of Julie’s field immersion project Sophie Speaks, in which she recopied Anna Karenina by hand, as Sophia Tolstoy did for her husband. You can find more on that project at julieandsophiespeak.blogspot.com.