Of all the children, it was Stepan who loved the olive-wood box the most, more for the workmanship which went into its making, than for the family papers and photos it contained. He had run his fingers over every carved stem and vine leaf many times, and over the lettering of the family surname on the base. He could accurately depict the design on paper without referring to the box to remind him.
Caterina became sombre as the olive wood box came to mind. She remembered the time, not long after their arrival in Australia, when she asked Alcandor for the box, and how he had reacted. There was another incident with the box shortly after that.
Stepan had been unwell and was in bed. As Caterina sat with her son, feeding him chicken broth to soothe his raging sore throat, he smiled up at her. ‘Please, Mama, can we look at the wooden box?’ he asked. ‘I haven’t seen it since we came to Australia.’
Caterina didn’t answer immediately, with the earlier incident still troubling her. The children hadn’t asked for the box since arriving in Australia, and the memory of the earlier incident was still fresh and raw.
She had to make up her mind what to do. She knew that the box was on top of Alcandor’s wardrobe. It belonged to the whole family. Stepan had the right to see it and hold it.
‘Of course, Stepan, I’ll get it for you. You can hold it, but I don’t know where your father keeps the key so we can’t look inside. Is that understood?’
‘Yes, Mama,’ he replied. ‘I prefer holding the box to looking at the photos.’
Thinking back on this, Caterina remembered how badly she felt as she went to fetch the box for Stepan. She had lied to him. She knew where the key was. After the earlier episode with the box, Alcandor carried it on his personal key ring so that he alone could access the contents. She didn’t want the children to know that even she was now denied access.
Caterina returned to Stepan’s bedside with the box. She sat next to him at the pillow end of the bed, so that he could sit up and lean his feverish body against hers. She placed the box in his hands and watched his pale fingers lovingly caress the carvings, while she softly spoke to him about some of the things inside.
They were like this for only a minute or two, when Stepan suddenly spoke. ‘Hello, Papa.’
Caterina looked up to see Alcandor standing in the bedroom doorway, his face set with the same strange fear she had seen the first time. She felt the blood run hot to her cheeks. She didn’t know how long he had been standing there.