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About the author:
Olga Toprover was born in Russia, lived in Canada for a few years, but currently resides in Los Angeles. Olga holds Master Degree in Computer Science from Moscow State University. She is also a published media author.
Her scientific education and journalistic experience as well as living in different cities and countries formed her into the writer she is today. Olga believes that true literature is about people. Her stories, above all, are about us.
What inspired you to write your book?
The concept of “Love and Void” was partly inspired by “The Enchanters” (1973) by a French writer Romain Gary.
Here is a short sample from the book:
Chapter 1: The Pines of My Childhood
Nobody ever told me about the curse hanging over our family. Like the pieces of a bizarre puzzle, I gradually opened the mystery on my own: because of halfheartedly told words, aloof facial expressions or sighs, which were hiding doomed thoughts. Always knowing we were far from ordinary, I stubbornly unfolded fact after fact, trying to find an explanation as to why things were happening the way they were. Now, I am almost sure that I kept doing it because of the pines: they were whispering the truth to me. Of course! They were there from the very beginning of this incredible story.
Our house was on the edge of a small village, and the forest came right up to the walls. The village was called Dalniy. In Russian this name means “Far Away”, and the place fully justified its name, to a large extent reflecting the mood of inhabitants. We happened to stay away from the world as if forgotten by all. The forest surrounded us.
The pines were in charge in that corner of the world. A long time ago they superseded maples, lindens and birches. Slender grasses barely made their way through the rich and soft carpet of fragrant dry needles. It was a heavy forest, though you wouldn’t call it primeval: seeping through thorny branches sunbeams were able to find their way to the land. The pine forest remained in my memory, bright and friendly. That smell dazzled me! Even today wherever I go, I find it everywhere, catch a bit of it everywhere – that amazing and unique aroma of my childhood… I guess I have always kept that scented softwood somewhere deep inside and was carrying it with me my whole life, in spite of the incomprehensible number of years, months, days, minutes and seconds that separate me from that girl, that dreamer, who loved to lie down under the branches of luxurious pine.
Everything is possible when you are a child. You take a couple of steps from the fence – and reddish trunks, as if they are your pals, gather around you at once. Actually they were my real friends. With them, I laughed and cried. I even came up with nice names for some of them! Though most of the names faded from memory long time ago, it is impossible to forget the real friends. There were four. Fyodor proudly lifted his crown high into the sky. Nearby stayed Senka, who was not tall at all, but he definitely looked like a strong one with his heavy muscular trunk. These two were the most reliable soldiers-defenders in the whole world. Of course, it was only me who they were supposed to rescue. Close by grew coquette Maryanka in her bell-bottomed dress and slim shy Fekla. They were my dear girlfriends who could be trusted with the greatest secrets of a child.
I loved to read fairy tales next to them, and often even invented my own stories. Of course it was me who was playing the role of a beautiful princess. Sometimes I found myself lost in the woods, sometimes – abandoned here by enemies of the Tenth Kingdom. My imagination seemed to be almost infinite. It didn’t matter though how exactly the princess made it into the dense forest. Ah, yes, in the fairy tale the woods were impenetrable! So it didn’t matter how I came there after all. The ending was the same every time. A handsome prince always rescued me, every single time. Coincidence or not, but the prince found his fiancé, end of story. The savior came from behind the trunks with a backpack on his shoulders. You know, it is impossible to imagine a young man riding a white horse in the pine tree forest. So I decided, once and forever: my Prince will be a hiker, as I was one. He seemed to be woven from our pine forest and its fragrance. Later I got to comprehend that my fairy-tale hero was nothing else but my second half. That’s why he also loved the forest.
Sometimes the prince came early in the morning, when the dew on the grass was still there, untouched, and the moist air multiplied the scent of the forest. In other tales, the prince appeared in the forest at sunset, when the pines quieted down in anticipation of magic night. I was inventing incredible stories in a variety of circumstances. However, as I said, whatever happened in the story, my hero always found me. No wonder, every little girl dreams about a handsome prince: either on a white horse or in a fancy car or just on foot… Anyway, he had to be strong, kind and capable of love.
Of course, it is every girl’s dream. I was no different from others kids. In the imaginary world I was the object of admiration, adoration, even worship. My long-faded cotton dress had been made by my grandma using the only annoying pattern she knew. But in my fantasies it turned into silk, brocade and lace. I could stand on tiptoe, and my colorless slippers would become beautiful red shoes with high heels. It doesn’t matter that it was only a fairy tale. If my dreams were so wonderful, then why would I need the drab days of reality?
Meanwhile, the others appeared to think of me as of a strange and lonely child, because no one knew I was not alone, I was with Fyodor, Senka, Maryanka and Fekla. I kept my secret carefully. I was afraid that as soon as anyone found out about my friends, the magic might disappear as if it never existed.
“Strange girl she is turning into,” said grandma. “Antisocial… How can we convince someone to marry her?”
“No need to convince anybody,” I was indignant. “Try to convince me first!”
“Well, Dasha, of course, nobody is going to give you away against your will.” She smiled. “But it is not good for a girl of your age to wander in the forest all day long! You might consider staying with people sometimes.
I nodded, and grandma's sermons were hanging in the air without a reply, so I was left alone for a while. Still, one day my big sister Anna betrayed my great secret:
“She talks to the pines in the forest! They have names too.”
Her words sounded to me like thunder from a clear sky. I hadn't thought before that Anna would spy on me. I had no idea that my fantasy world was so fragile. It was terrible: what if I went back to the forest – and my pine friends were not there. All of it would evaporate and disappear like a pure dream.
“Good! At least the girl can talk to someone!” Grandma was laughing. “Or something.”
“All right, leave her alone,” Anna suddenly turned into a defender.
Later, when they both forgot about this conversation, I didn’t. I was looking out of the window at the sky with its drifting white fluffy clouds, trying to understand the fragility of my pine brotherhood.
Next day I went to the forest. I woke up early. I tiptoed outside when the old house was asleep. I took a few steps barefoot, not to make a sound and be caught. Then I walked around the house and headed down the path leading to my kingdom. I walked slowly and was ready for anything. Meanwhile the forest was calling me with the usual morning silence and a light breeze. Fyodor, Senka, Maryanka and Fekla were waiting for me as always. Nothing changed.
It turned out that I worried for nothing! The magic remained. My sister was ten years older than me and of course she had forgotten her childhood, moved on… She didn’t remember that she had had her stories too and waited for her prince to come. My older sister managed to forget that the world of childhood is incredibly fragile. That is why, as an adult, Anna had no idea what a big secret of mine she was giving away. It is a sort of paradox that it was the reason why my fantasy was safe. Anna looked at me from the outside, she was not in my world any more, that's all.
But just in case, I still looked around to check whether that spy was somewhere nearby, and didn’t spot her. Obviously it was not in Anna’s plans to watch me. She was busy with something else. Actually, she never took me seriously, and this is what I needed now. I sighed with relief and said to my friends:
“What a beautiful day, don’t you think?”
And interrupting each other they talked about the sun, the wind and the full moon last night – that night, which I slept through. What a shame…
Sometimes, however, we would come to the forest with grandma. I passed my friends in silence, winking secretly to Maryanka, as she stood near the trail. Grandma took me down the path, further and further – to the place where pines would retreat in front of a lake opening on to a sunlit meadow. Various plants were growing there, and my grandmother knew a lot about them. She could stay in the meadow near the lake for hours, trying to discover new herbs. Sometimes I thought I lost her. But all I needed was to look back – and somewhere in the grass my eyes spotted her bright shawl with the scarlet poppies. I wouldn’t lose her!
By the way, I would not be surprised to learn that grandma could talk to the plants – well, that's just how I was with trees. However, if she spoke their language, she was carefully hiding it from me. I tried to sneak up on her unexpectedly, but even if I heard something, at that very moment the sounds would turn into the wind, or into the bird singing. I never knew if she was hiding such a secret or whether it was just my imagination that was turning life into something more colorful.
We always came back with a light fragrant basket filled out with herbs. St. John's Wort was for stomach trouble and producing a good mood; thyme treated sciatica and coughs; lemon balm helped to get rid of colds and improved appetite; chamomile was for treating wounds and cuts; rose hips made awesome tea. This was just a small part of the herbs grandma brought home, but how I could remember them all through the days, months, years and centuries…
The plants were sorted into bundles and hung to dry in the barn, hidden from the summer sun. There was more there. Slices of apples and prunes that were strung on a thread were drying there also. I loved to take a look inside, inhaling the odorous air, to tear off a piece of an apple and to put it on the tongue as a special delicacy. Then, chewing the sweetish pulp, I managed to sniff each bundle separately, recognizing the herbal aroma: such as sour smells, pine, and some strangely unfamiliar. Some herbs exuded joy and sorrow; the other flavors seemed sad or romantic. There were morning and evening odors, summer and autumn fragrances. All that diversity greatly contributed to the happiness of my wonderful childhood.
Time went by and Anna remained indifferent to my trees. The existence of my magical world didn’t depend on her knowledge of it. Rather, this knowledge did not mean anything. It's very simple: you believe in pines or you don’t. I was not afraid to reveal the secret anymore, so one day I tried to bring my school friends to the forest. Lena and Luda lived on the other end of the street; I made friends with them willy-nilly. There was no school in Dalniy, so every day we had to walk five kilometers to get our education. The road ran through the forest, so we were told to walk to school together – this way this seemed safer to the adults. I played this game just to calm everyone down. In fact, in the forest, I felt at home. I didn’t need any companions. I strongly believed that nothing bad could happen in my world.
Lena and Lyuda were thick as thieves. They laughed all the time, and I must say, I loved it. Would you agree that laughing is always better than crying, even when there might be a reason for tears? And, anyway, what reason can there be if you are a little girl? So I revealed to them my secret. I brought the girls on the trail and pointed to a pine tree by the roadside.
“Her name is Maryanka,” I said.
“What is going on?” asked Lyuda.
“Dasha, are you saying this pine is bewitched?” said Lena.
“Bewitched?” I was surprised. “It’s just her name! Look at her flared skirt and how coyly Maryanka bends with the wind. Don’t you think this name suits her?
I had already opened my mouth to say that Maryanka could talk but suddenly changed my mind: Lena had burst into laughter and Lyuda was supporting her friend. I looked up at Maryanka. The pine tilted her unruly crown as if reproachful. Sudden wind gust, as if nothing had happened, immediately straightened her up. But I still managed to catch her message. It was an excellent lesson for me that any friendship has its limitations. We are alone in this world. It doesn’t happen very often when we are understood by others. Only pines can be true friends.
“You probably think I'm crazy?” I asked.
“Of course, no,” Lena said through her laughter.
“You can be open with us, we know that you are bewitched,” added Lyuda seriously.
“What?!” I was surprised.
“Come on, everyone knows about it!” Lena said.
“What is there to know?” I muttered.
“Don’t you play games!” exclaimed Lyuda. “They say there is a curse hanging over your grandmother!”
Well, it was too much! I turned and quickly strode away. I did not want them to laugh at me, especially here, in my woods, next to my pine pals. I knew Senka and Fyodor were not interested in gossip. But Maryanka and Fekla were clearly shaking their tops quite sympathetically. They felt sorry for me. I thought that the next day I might find more gum than usual on their trunks, because the amber resin is the pine’s bitter conifer tears. No, I don’t want them to cry! And I found myself briskly walking home.
Anna was sitting on the bench in front of the house. You could see her there all the time. She was reading a book or just looking into space as she was dreaming.
“Anna, the girls were talking about sorcery or stuff like that,” I said. “It's true?”
“Who was it?”
“Lena and Lyuda.”
“You have nothing better to do but to listen to those silly things!” She demanded, as if recalling herself from her own thoughts.
“They think everyone knows,” I said, and felt right away that my treacherous eyes grew moist. “It’s like grandma is enchanted.”
“Oh my God, who knows what ideas people might come up with!” my sister replied indifferently. “They are probably bored, that’s where their gossip is coming from.”
“Aren’t you bored sitting here?”
“No, I'm not,” she laughed. “I was waiting for you.”
It was not enough of an explanation for me. I immediately figured out that Anna must have her own secret. After all, she was my sister. So, we are supposed to be alike. It is interesting that I was not thinking about similarity in our faces. It was about personality: the same explanation of similar emotions, the need to have something different from our boring reality, even if it came from the imagination. However, we didn’t look alike at all. But I will return to this later.
I wouldn’t say that I forgot about that talk. Watching my grandmother, I tried to find evidence of a curse or something remotely associated with divination. Meanwhile, she was the same as always, the same grandma I knew: always doing errands, or cooking, or busy with something. Trying to catch grandma unexpectedly, I would run up to her and catch her hand. Sometimes I followed her when she was going to milk our cow Zorka. I would stand behind her back and wait. Who knew, while I was alone with her, the magic might spill over, bringing the mystical electric power to me and opening that elusive magical mystery!
But nothing like that ever happened. Grandma always kindly replied to my probing. Her palms were strong and rough, like the bark of a pine tree that had seen it all in its life time. A comparison like this one was bringing me back from insanity to reality. “What could be that sorcery about?” I thought. “That's my grandma, I've known her all my life.” Perhaps the secret was hidden in my grandmother's knowledge of herbs? But she was not the only one in the world who had the gift to understand nature. There, near the lake, I thought she was whispering something to the herbs. But who could say? I myself am talking to the pines all the time. Nevertheless, my own fantasies about the forest were completely innocent, they didn’t have a supernatural flavor. Therefore even if grandma was talking to herbs, you wouldn’t call it a miracle.
I stopped asking about the curse and kept my secret about pines to myself. Once when we were passing by my pine pals, Lena nodded toward Maryanka and asked:
“Dasha, what’s the name of this pine tree? It’s Mary, isn’t it?”
“Which tree are you talking about?” was my answer.
“This one, you told us yourself, remember?” Lyuda defended her friend.
“Nope, I don’t,” I shrugged.
“Wow!” They said in unison.
At this moment, I happened to walk under Maryanka’s crown, and she threw at my feet a little tapered cone. It was a good sign, which meant she approved! I took the cone and dipped it in the backpack, for my good luck.