The pancakes are meant to look like the sun. They are supposed to signify the end of winter. Deep yellow eggs, butter and thick cream combine into some kind of promise. The worst has passed, they say. The ground will grow warm again. The ice will melt. Jackets can soon retire to the backs of closets.
The week of maslenitsa should be spent making snowball fights, and sledding. Inside, towers of blini and aladushki stand in the center of kitchen tables, surrounded by sour cream and red caviar, with preserves, with a pat of butter and a sprinkle of sugar.
On Sunday, all is forgiven. Anyone can ask forgiveness and they cannot be denied.
I stand in the dark kitchen, exhausted.
Looking out at the black, pitted snowbanks, I see smoke trailing from twin chimneys in the distance. This winter will not surrender. In the rest of the world, flowers are pressing through the wet earth. Not here. Just brackish muddle puddles stretching across parking lots. Just snow, and more snow. Ice chunks fall in wet thuds from the rooftops as we walk behind the buildings. Cars spin their wheels in furious turns, filth and slush spraying across everyone in their path.
I do not feel like celebrating.
E's regular teacher is away, replaced by a series of random substitutes. One tells me I have to bring toilet paper from home. I do, and it sits in E's locker for days. Just an empty order that should have been ignored. Next I am told I should make pancakes for the next day, but then I learn that school is closed on thursday. More randomness, which comes as no surprise. I have always felt that life in Russia is a bit like sitting on a train with no conductor as we coast towards some destination. There is no chance of stopping, or going back, no left turn, no right. Just this drifting into somewhere in the distance as we buy milk and pay rent, as we celebrate birthdays, as we attend funerals, as we toast at weddings, as we watch children perform in school plays and yes, as we make pancakes for maslenitsa.
In the darkness, I sip a first coffee and splash apple cider vinegar into the bottom of a white cup. I fill it to the top with milk. In ten minutes it will sour, turned thick and fizzy. In the bottom of a metal bowl I combine corn flour, a pinch of baking soda, a shake of baking powder, a little salt. I think I hear N waking up, but I am wrong, she was just turning in her sleep. I add two spoons of sugar.
Searching the drawers I find the grater, and add some fresh nutmeg. I must wake E soon. Next, a little bit of cinnamon. I crack an egg, then add the soured milk. Stirring it all together, I fight the sleep from my eyes and finish the coffee. Maybe I should make another one. Last, a splash of olive oil. The batter rests, bubbles growing and popping in silence.
I kiss E's forehead, smooth the hair from her face.
"I am making pancakes for you to bring to school." I whisper to her.
E smiles, her eyes still closed.
She was already awake.
I put a clean shirt and tights on the little chair next to her bed.
In the kitchen, butter is melting in the big pan. I drop spoonfuls of the batter.
"Should I make them with apple?" I ask E, who stands barefoot next to me.
She nods yes.
I peel one quickly. It is old, going a bit soft.
"I want to cook with you." She says, quietly.
I cut the apple in half, then in very thin slices. She stands on a chair next to me, placing two slices on each pancake. I flip them over, and she leans against my arm.
Outside, E hums a song to herself. A plastic box full of pancakes swings from my side, clouded with steam.
"You remember that song?" I ask her.
"It's our song." She says, yanking my hand.
"And you know the words?" I ask her.
"Little darlin', I think the ice is melting." She sings. "It was years but we were here."
"Here comes the sun, and it's alright." I sing, after her.
"I remember when we sang that when I was a baby." She announces.
We pass a group of stray dogs. One of them noses the plastic box in my free hand. E laughs, and says maybe we should give him one. A giant black car swerves past us and the dogs trot off.
"That is our song." She says, squeezing my hand.
"Yes it is, kiddo." I say."Yes it is."
E stops in the middle of the sidewalk.
"Pop, a gasoline rainbow." She says. "Take a picture."