ORIGINAL SIN by Deborah Downes 


Not sure what to expect, Lucy waded into the deprivation tank. She laid back in the warm, buoyant water and floated freely—a foetus in her mother’s womb. Her anxieties melted away like ice cubes on a summer day. The Nightingale by Alexander Alyabyev, a well-known piece in 1825, played softly in the background. Within minutes, she was soothed into a twilight sleep. The passage of time was blunted by soft, black stillness, suddenly punctuated by violent images of war. 

Ivan lay in a lake of blood not entirely his own. He felt its oiliness between his fingers and at the back of his neck. But the overwhelming sensation was the smell of butchery like the slaughterhouses back home. He opened his uninjured eye to see the battle’s carnage surrounding him. Severed limbs were strewn everywhere amid the gore of dead bodies, barely recognizable as human. “I must be in hell,” he thought, just before he lost consciousness for the last time. 

Flashback to young Ivan clutching his grandmother’s hand. They stood over a fresh grave, ready to swallow the wooden coffin suspended overhead. Imposing stone monuments stood nearby, the silent guardians of the dead and their secrets. Eyes cast downward, the boy’s face was barely visible under a brimmed cap and thick bangs. His slight frame trembled with palpable fear. 

Flashback yet again to days before the funeral. A burly, black-bearded man gripped Ivan’s hand in his hairy paw. He dragged the boy along a rock-strewn path near mountainous foothills. Before Ivan saw the killer, he glimpsed the razored edge of a sabre, glinting in the moonlight. The blade came down on the side of the man’s neck and sprayed hot blood across Ivan’s face. Horrified, he ran and crouched in the shadow of a nearby rock where he waited for the fatal blow that would end his own life. But it never came. Instead, the heavily cloaked executioner, grim reaper in the flesh, continued to brutally slash at his kidnapper’s body until the blade broke from the handle and lodged in his shattered face.

Feeling a blow to the side of her head, Lucy jolted awake. Had she hit the lid of the tank? She saw a burst of stars, like a fireworks display. The light hurt her eyes triggering a blinding headache. Disoriented, she felt the weight of a brutish man straddling her hips. He had a stout branch in his hand that was wet with blood—her blood? Tearing at her clothes, he had struck her to keep her from struggling. Mesmerized by his piercing blue eyes, she was unprepared for the searing pain. It felt like a hot knife had penetrated her maidenhead as he savagely raped her. 

Lucy tried to scream, but words that were not her own came out in a harsh whisper. “I know you, priest, and you will pay for your sins. You’ve dedicated your life to God, but now you serve Satan. By your evil, your children will be damned!”

Another wash of light blinded Lucy. This time it was Bran opening the lid of the tank. “How long have I been in? It seemed like minutes but then I hit my head.” Lucy's hand flew to the right side of her forehead where she had felt the blow. But there was no swelling, and it wasn't tender. 

“You’ve been in the tank for almost two hours. I heard you crying and thrashing around, so I thought you wanted out. If you did hit your head, I don’t see any sign of it.”

“Weird! In my last memory, I was hit on the head by some brute who reminded me of Rasputin. He had the same hypnotic blue eyes. In my first memories, I felt like I was inside and yet outside Ivan Popov’s body. I could see and feel what was happening. And then I wasn’t Ivan anymore but a girl being raped.”

“We’ll go over everything you experienced. But not before I’m convinced that you’re okay. Let’s get you warm and dry. I’ve ordered hot coffee and sandwiches. Now, I won’t take no for an answer. You’re shivering and ghastly pale.” Lucy was too dazed to argue.


For as long as she could remember, Lucy Richards was obsessed with facts. Like a new age archaeologist, she loved to dig into the internet’s vast stores of information. A rabid Googler long before it was mainstream, she spent hours mining for data on whatever topic caught her interest. One-click led to another, and then another, and so on until she had drilled down to the last byte. To Lucy, Google was both prophet and professor, revealing a treasure trove of trends and patterns amid the chaos of the universe. Her obsession eventually became a vocation that culminated in the birth of MetaData Analytics, her brainchild. 

So Lucy was dumbfounded when her evidence-based program yielded a paranormal projection. Gripping the armrests of her ergonomic chair, she stared blankly at the analysis screen. There it was: an irrational outcome computed by state-of-the-art software. She mumbled to no one in particular, “Can't be right—makes no sense—points to a high probability that I’ll be dead in a year or two. What do you think, Bran? Is our program logic flawed?”

Bran, aka Dr. Brandon Blake, held a medical degree in psychiatry but Lucy valued his opinion on anything and everything. He was both mentor and co-founder of MetaData. They had met at a technology convention, featuring medical records software. On the surface, they were opposites. She was a young Turk, and he was an old fart. She was sleek and slender. He was frumpy and lumpy. Underneath, they were soulmates, conjoined by mutual trust and respect rather than romance.

Lucy spun the monitor around to face Bran. She called him Bran in tribute to her favourite character in Game of Thrones but teased that he looked more like Archmaeister Ebrose. Massaging his bearded chin, he meticulously scrolled through multiple views of the same data: graphs and probability stats, etc. After several minutes, he leaned back in his chair, folded his hands across his paunch, and blew out a sigh. “Lucy, you certainly have good reason to question the program logic. But don’t be so quick to blame the coding. We should scrutinize the data and draw our own conclusions. Like we used to do before computers did the thinking for us—as hard as that might be for you to imagine.”

“Agreed. I don’t have time to micro-dissect the programming, anyway. MetaData is barely six months past start-up, and there hasn’t been a single, aberrant analysis in that time. It’s designed to crunch every data point in a patient’s medical record. If there’s an error, it’s in my data entry, so let’s start there. I wanted to see if a person's projected life span varied with the amount of input. Like Facebook, the more info entered into a profile, the more friend suggestions are made. My health has been great, so there wasn’t much in my medical history. Life span projection was above average. When I added my personal and gynaecologic history, my life expectancy decreased. Irregular periods and a stressful, sedentary job shortened my life by almost six years—not surprising. Keep in mind that I was just playing around with the program, not really expecting to find anything significant. Then I added my maternal family history, including grandparents, aunts, uncles, going back as many generations as I could remember. That's when the program predicted that my expiration date is coming due.” Lucy rarely showed her true feelings, preferring to deflect with sarcasm. 

Bran listened attentively and accepted Lucy’s abrupt silence before replying. “Give me specifics, tell me what you entered. I know the family history fields include relationship, age, or age at the time of death, cause of death, and that’s about it. It’s hard to imagine that family history could have such a significant impact on life expectancy. Is there an inherited condition like haemophilia?” 

“Nothing like that. My father is still alive and healthy. He was also adopted, so my paternal history ends with him. I’ve told you about my mom. She was an alcoholic who died from cirrhosis when I was nineteen. But there’s no other history of alcoholism or liver disease that I know of.”

Lucy leaned back as far as the chair would go and drifted off on a wave of bittersweet memories. She had adored the gorgeous Elena, but at the same time resented her mother’s brash humour and self-indulgence. Mindless television went well with a glass of scotch, enabling Elena to become a TV junkie. Accordingly, she had named her only child after the wacky redhead, Lucy Ricardo, from the I Love Lucy show.

“But mom, I don’t have red hair,” Lucy argued. Even at an early age, she insisted on a rational explanation.

“I know, sweetie, but your last name is Richards which is Ricardo in Spanish. Get it? Anyway, Lucy wasn’t a real redhead,” Elena slurred.

Lucy further resented her parents’ divorce at the beginning of first grade. Her father, Raymond Richards, an absent-minded but brilliant biologist, had been cuckolded by a much older, and far less handsome socialite named Montgomery Burgess. Raymond got the boot, Elena got the bank account, and Monty got the trophy wife. Ultimately, money couldn’t secure Elena’s happiness. Lucy never forgave her mother for usurping the love of her only child and doting husband for a burned-out playboy and a bottle of booze.

“If you can’t be happy, be rich!” was Elena’s mantra. Lucy never denied that her stepfather’s money had provided a luxurious lifestyle and an Ivy League education. She had dual degrees in evolutionary biology and computer science, and all the latest tech toys. No waiting in endless lines to get the next generation iPhone, or tickets to a Lady Gaga concert. No tormenting herself over what colleges she could afford, or what professions led to the highest paying jobs. Even after Elena’s death, Monty continued to support her. Devastated by the loss of his wife, he wanted to ensure that Lucy’s future was secure. She was all he had left of Elena.

Apart from the advantages that money provided, Lucy’s natural gifts also drove her ambition. She had Raymond’s intellect and Elena’s engaging personality. Where Elena was a curvaceous blond with aquamarine eyes, Lucy had soft brown hair, hazel eyes and was gracefully long-limbed, like her father. 

Lucy snapped out of her reverie. She turned her attention back to the family history screen and reviewed the entries with Bran. “I’m an only child and so was my mother. For whatever reason, she rarely let me see her parents, Martin and Hilda Wahl. I remember how I resented her for keeping me from the only grandfolks I had. As far as I know, they died of natural causes. Mom never bothered to tell me. When the phone calls and gifts stopped coming, I figured it out for myself.”

Lucy didn’t share anymore on the subject with Bran. But she recalled one of Elena’s frequent tirades. ‘Ever wonder why I became a boozer, baby girl? I’ll tell you something about my lovin’ parents. Got pregnant when I was fourteen—I was a luscious Lolita even then. Did they ask who, what, when? ’Course not! They made me get an abortion before it was legal. No problem, La Familia had money and connections, going back to the notorious Nick Wahl. Wait a sec, baby doll.’ Elena paused to refill her scotch from the ever-present bottle on the coffee table. ‘Now dear old dad’s big sister, Anna, was killed in a car crash before I was born, and he’d constantly remind me that I was her twin. Imagine! She got drunk celebrating her first starring role and drove into a tree. If only I’d died at the pinnacle of my looks and talent, she’d really be my doppelganger. Not sure if Marty liked that idea or not!’

Lucy paused for a moment to gather her thoughts before continuing: “Great-gramps, Peter Wahl, died of a heart attack and his older sister, Sonya, died giving birth to Anna. In her usual flair for the melodramatic, mom described Sonya as a beautiful, gentle soul who desperately wanted kids. She’d whisper to me that no one knew, or admitted knowing, who the father was. Per mom’s conspiracy theory, Peter adopted Anna when Sonya died, so the rest of the world would think she was his daughter and Marty’s sister. I’m not sure where she got her facts from. Anna or Sonya were dead by the time she was born. 

“My data ends with great-great-gramps, Nicholas Wahl—Peter’s dad. He was the only son of Russian immigrants who settled in California sometime in the 1880s. Nick went down on the Titanic and became a family legend. He managed to get a seat on a lifeboat for his pregnant wife and daughter, Sonya. The trip was a gift to himself after he struck oil in Texas. No sniggering, Bran, I know this sounds like Elena’s melodrama, but it’s true! I’ve seen the newspaper clipping.”

Another pause as Lucy remembered more of Elena’s wild theories. ‘Rumour has it that Auntie Sonya wasn’t quite right in the head after the whole Titanic thing, so her marriage prospects sucked. Poor thing! She badly wanted a baby. Ripe pickin’ for any perv’ who crossed her path.’

Lucy returned her attention to Bran and freely admitted that her entries were grossly biased, “They don’t include a lot of crucial data such as my dad’s history or mom’s maternal line. But again, I was just playing around with the data that I had. One thing that’s certain, everyone on the Wahl side originally came from Russia.”

Bran had been jotting down notes as Lucy spoke. “You’re right about the inadequate data, but for now we’re just trying to parse the software logic. It only incorporates whatever is entered. Maybe the next iteration should flag when data is incomplete, or possibly unreliable. In the meantime, I’m seeing a trend emerge, even if it is biased. Look at this diagram, and tell me if you see a pattern, as improbable as it seems.”

Lucy studied Bran’s diagram. “It seems like the firstborn of each generation died under tragic circumstances. This could be a strange coincidence, or Wahls are cursed!” Lucy let out a nervous laugh. “Then again, I’m basing a conclusion on four generations from one paternal line. That’s not enough data. Just for kicks, I’m going to try one of those ancestry sites to see if I can dig deeper. Do you think it’s worth it? I know the whole thing seems flaky, but it’s piqued my interest.” She looked at Bran, trying to gauge his reaction to her flimsy conclusions. 

But Bran was more concerned with the program logic than Lucy’s shaky hypothesis. “Why ask? We both know you’ll have to satisfy your boundless curiosity, even if it doesn’t end well. You're a lot like your namesake, Lucy Ricardo.”


“Where’s the next rabbit-hole?” Bran asked over morning coffee, the following day. 

Lucy, who started each day with a double espresso and an egg white omelette on whole-wheat toast, paused between bites. “I've been up most of the night researching various genealogy sites. I was able to go back two more generations.

“I found out that Nick Wahl’s mother was a Russian immigrant named Tatiana. He was her only son. The census reported a husband, Mikhael Wahl, but I couldn’t find anything further on him. Her maiden name must have been Popov because her immigration papers mention that Tatiana’s father, Ivan Popov, died during the Crimean War. The U.S. census also mentions an older brother, Igor Popov, who died of tuberculosis shortly after arriving in the U.S. He was unmarried and childless per the census.

“The Popov trail ends with Ivan in Russia during the Crimean War. Since it was the first war to be extensively documented, I found a Captain Ivan Popov in the online archives. I couldn’t find his age, cause of death, or a record of his parents. But I did find this letter—dated November 20, 1854—recommending his promotion to captain, from a Russian officer to Tsar Nicholas I.” Lucy had printed out the full letter to show Bran, after highlighting the following excerpt: 

‘... I want to recommend Lieutenant Ivan Popov for promotion to captain’s rank. He is a zealous young man from Yasinia who displayed extraordinary leadership and courage in the recent battle at Balaklava...’ 

“I couldn’t find anything else on Ivan Popov after the Crimean War. Maybe he died in battle, or of cholera which was rampant at the time. In that case, he fits the curse criteria that the firstborn of each generation dies young, in the peak of life. Coincidence? Maybe. There must be another way to go further back in the Popov lineage. But I’ve exhausted the ancestry sites and the Crimean archives. And I don’t want to get into DNA samples, etc. That would too long and may not yield any matches. Any ideas, sane or otherwise?”

After a thoughtful pause Bran suggested, “If you are willing to go into the realm of the paranormal, then yes, I do have some ideas. I’ve been following some fringe research into the theory that memories can be transgenerational. Per the research, the experiences of a parent, even before conception, can alter the nervous system of future generations. These ancestral memories may be passed down through generations, manifesting as phobias and anxieties. In theory, traumatic or frightful experiences can affect gene expression. Under the right conditions the memory can be retrieved.”

“That’s a compelling theory. If we could access my genetic memory and follow it, let’s say to Captain Popov and beyond, maybe we’ll be able to confirm a pattern? We'll have to figure out what those conditions might be.” 

Bran offered, “Regression hypnosis is the first thing that comes to mind, but that's largely proven unreliable. The power of suggestion can influence subjects. Even if you want to discount confirmation bias, it might be hard to prove that the recalled memories happened.”

Lucy's eyes lit up as the bulb in her head switched to high beam. “What about a sensory deprivation tank, like in the movie Altered States?” According to Lucy, facts and predictable trends were essential but boring—science fiction made them sexy. “It would eliminate distractions, allowing thoughts and memories to bubble up from the subconscious. Isn’t that what happens when we dream? In my case, I’d need to trigger genetic memories, specifically connected to Ivan Popov. He’s the oldest ancestor I’ve been able to find. I know that he fought in the Crimean War and was born around 1830 in Yasinia, Ukraine. To amplify these breadcrumbs, I’ll eat, drink, and sleep, absorbing the sights and sounds of his culture. Maybe create an audio-visual, like a PowerPoint, that could open a pathway into ancestral memories of Ivan. I realize that the power of suggestion would still be at play. But I don’t think that my brain would invent specific people, especially if they are not represented in the PowerPoint.”

Lucy bolted upright in her chair, almost spilling her super-sized espresso. “Let’s make a list of everything we need. We can use MetaData’s resources. This project could turn out to be a real windfall for the company. We can finance the experiment under research.”

Over the next few weeks, Lucy scrubbed the archival information on the Crimean War era and the culture of Ukraine in the 19th century. She created a corresponding, audible PowerPoint which she played and replayed at every opportunity. Bran assembled all the equipment they needed for the think tank experiment, as Lucy called it. They commandeered a windowless storage room that wasn’t in use. There was no reason for undue curiosity since the staff was used to their frequent tête-à-têtes and long hours. 


After her exit from the deprivation tank, Lucy allowed Bran to fuss over her. Once he was satisfied that she was okay, she described her flashbacks: the battlefield, the graveside, the murder, and the rape. All included Ivan Popov except for the rape scene. Bran took notes and recorded their conversation, much as he would during a therapy session. Then they tried to connect the details to possible places and timeframes. 

Still drained from the emotional trauma in the tank, Lucy tried to make sense of her hallucinations. “I’ll have to make some assumptions, so bear with me. I’m sure that it was Ivan’s death I saw in the battle scene—we may be able to verify this point. In my research on the Crimean War, I found a Russian military cemetery in Sevastopol, Ukraine, founded in 1854. A church was built on the site, St Nicholas. The inner church is covered with memorial plates inscribed with the names of Russian officers killed during the siege of Sevastopol. Maybe Ivan has a plaque? 

“And I’m also sure the boy in the second and third dreams was Ivan Popov. It could have been the murdered man's funeral he was attending. The rape victim did call him priest, so the locals would have known him. Ivan was from Yasinia and the landscape in the murder scene matches that area. I saw mountains in the background, likely the Carpathians which border Yasinia. But why would the village priest kidnap a child? I know what you’re going to say, Bran. Yes, my slides did include similar landscapes and might have influenced my memory.” 

“I’m just listening at this point. I want you to be spontaneous in your recollections. You already said that some assumptions would have to be made. Please, continue. I do not want to interrupt your train of thought.”

“The rape is more puzzling. I can’t remember a lot of physical details. Everything was hidden from view by that hulk of a man. And the girl's terror dominated my impressions. The rapist was wearing a black cassock and had a long scruffy beard. Here’s another interesting sidebar: the root meaning of Popov is priest. Maybe it was the rape victim who murdered him, years later? If we can confirm that the priest and his victim existed, we might be able to prove that what I saw actually happened.” 

Lucy slumped in her chair, taking a sip of lukewarm coffee.

Bran replied, “You said that your internet search ended with Ivan Popov. Did you try searching other variations on the name, like Popovich which translates to 'son of Popov’? It’s not unusual for someone to shorten a surname. And what about church records? According to the letter you found, he fought in the Crimean War and was likely born about 1830 in Yasinia, Ukraine. Maybe we can identify churches in the region that have searchable archives or even cemeteries.”

Back at her tricked-out workstation, Lucy found new leads after expanding her search as Bran suggested. She almost jumped out of her skin when she found a church record for the birth of an Ivan Popovich near Yasinia in 1829. No father was listed, but the mother’s name was Marina Kozlov. Lucy was certain that Marina was the rape victim of her flashback, and Ivan’s mother. Why else would she have a genetic memory of Marina and Ivan’s father (presumably the rapist), unless they were her ancestors? 

The birth was recorded in an online archive belonging to the Church of Our Lord’s Ascension in Yasinia. Lucy googled the church and was delighted to find that it was classified as a UNESCO World Heritage Site. Built in 1824, it was described as one of several tserkvas or wooden churches in eastern Europe. She could see from a photo that the church was surrounded by an old cemetery and bell tower. Studying the rustic image, she shuddered, as though someone were walking over her grave. Could this be the cemetery in her second flashback? Lucy was excited yet fearful as she drew closer to the truth. Bran would help her sort it all out. She sent him a text, asking him to meet her in their private lab where no one would interrupt them.

After discussing the latest findings, Lucy announced that it was time to explore some of the locations that had come up in the research. “Maybe seeing them would further jog my ancestral memory. I feel the need to experience these places, first-hand. Anyway, I’ve been trying to establish business contacts in Russia so we can plan an itinerary that includes the Ukraine.”

Lucy was pale and lacked her usual bravado, but she couldn’t be dissuaded once her mind was made up. She hoped that Bran didn’t sense, her increasing reticence. But she knew that he could easily read her without a word being spoken. What he couldn’t perceive were the flashbacks she had been reliving since coming out of the tank. 


They met their guide after arriving at Boryspil International Airport in Kiev. Ukraine’s capital city was home to a thriving technology industry, institutions of higher education, and historic landmarks, making it the perfect place to mix business and research. She had requested permission to visit The Brotherhood Cemetery and the Church of Our Lord’s Ascension, after concluding her business in Kiev. These were popular destinations for both tourists and academicians, so Lucy had no trouble obtaining the necessary visas.

The Brotherhood Cemetery in Sebastopol was first on their itinerary. They knew exactly what they were looking for here, and where to find it. Arrangements were made for a private plane since Sebastopol and Yasinia were far from each other, and Kiev. Lucy was surprised to see ancient Greek ruins around Sebastopol’s outskirts. They gave the city a classical aura, a perfect backdrop for its many historic monuments. St Nicholas Church at the centre of the cemetery resembled an Egyptian pyramid—another monument to the esteemed dead. Fortunately, there was an interactive map identifying specific gravesites, and a corresponding list of names in alpha order. It wasn’t long before Lucy and Bran found Captain Ivan Popov’s name. He died on September 8th, 1855 in the Battle of the Great Redan, as inscribed on his memorial plaque. No grave was listed so his body wasn’t buried in the individual plots outside the church. Bran suggested that he could have been buried in a mass grave, especially if his body couldn’t be identified. Lucy cringed, flashing back to the brutal battle scene and the mangled remains of the fallen. There was nothing more to learn here, and she was anxious to move on to Yasinia, her ancestral ground zero.

On the drive from the airport to Yasinia, Lucy wasn’t prepared for the haunting beauty of the Carpathian Ukraine. Dense, dark forests blanketed steep mountainsides shrouded in misty clouds. The ancient peaks reminded her how fleeting were the affairs of men. Neither conquering hordes, bloody holocausts, nor nuclear devastation had left a permanent mark on the timeless landscape. Bone tired, she was hypnotized by the purring motor and post-card scenery. Bran dozed next to her, his gentle snores calming her frazzled nerves. I don’t know what I’d do without him, she thought. No one, not even my own father, gets me like he does. I wish I could be more honest with him. But he’d shut the whole project down if he knew everything.

When they reached the outskirts of Yasinia, she caught sight of the domed wooden building, the Church of Our Lord’s Ascension. She spotted the old cemetery with its stone crosses. Seeing the melancholy structure, Lucy felt cold tendrils of dread engulf her chest, making it difficult to breathe. She flashed back to a young Ivan standing at the graveside. Blacking out for an instant, she was grateful for Bran’s steadying hand. 

“Lucy, you can barely stand! Are you sure you want to do this now? Maybe we should settle into our rooms and grab a bite, first? I’m having severe jet lag and so are you, even if you won’t admit it.”

“I’m fine, Bran. I won’t be able to rest until we’ve spoken to the church archivist. I sent an email to a general inbox, so someone should be expecting us. I didn’t give a lot of detail. I’d rather handle this as a live interview. There, that looks like the office building next to the cemetery. Our guide said that historic landmarks are staffed with multi-lingual personnel. We shouldn’t need an interpreter.”

Sure enough, they were greeted by an English-speaking woman who introduced herself as Katerina Smirnov. An attractive middle-aged woman, she was severely thin, with piercing dark eyes and greying hair pulled back into a tight knot. Lucy thought she looked like an old-school librarian though she was much more congenial than she looked. 

“Welcome to our church. I’ve been expecting you. You’re interested in tracing a local family’s lineage, yes? But you must be tired. Please, let me offer you some tea and refreshment while we talk. We will be more comfortable in my office. Right this way,” she gestured. 

The strong tea and biscuits were just the boost they needed. After settling into a comfortable leather armchair, Lucy explained how she found a birth record in the church’s online archive for an Ivan Popovich, born in Yasinia in 1829 to a Marina Kozlov. Without going into detail, she further explained that the unknown father could have been a priest who possibly had served at the church in that time period. 

“I know it’s a long shot, but since there was no father listed for Ivan, and his last name was Popovich, we made an assumption that his father was a priest. It was Dr. Blake who suggested that I search under the name Popovich or ‘priest’s son’ when I ran into a dead end under the name Ivan Popov. We’ve already confirmed that Ivan Popov was a captain who died during the Crimean War in 1855.”

Katerina listened attentively, her dark eyes giving nothing away. But before Lucy could continue, she abruptly interjected, “I’m sure you realize that Popov and Popovich are common surnames, so I wouldn’t assume that the father was an orthodox priest. It’s true that priests may marry before they are ordained, but not afterward. The fact that no father is listed proves nothing. Unwed mothers weren’t unusual then, as now.” 

“I meant no disrespect, Katerina. No doubt you’re wondering why we’re investigating this particular lineage. Bran—Dr. Blake—and I own a data analytics company and we are building a platform with more expansive access to genealogy information, outside the U.S. It’s become extremely popular to trace a family’s ancestry. We are using my mother’s paternal line as a test case since there’s a lot of intrigue in her history. Elena Wahl was my mother, and I know that her great-great grandparents—Tatiana and Mikhael Wahl—immigrated from Russia in the 1880’s. But that’s where the trail ends. Unfortunately, American-based ancestry sites have limited access to international records.”

Katerina nodded, jotting down an occasional note. She looked up from her notepad when Lucy had finished. “Yasinia is a small community, and this church is our main attraction. What you say is true. There is insufficient access to public archives online, particularly in eastern Europe where there is often political unrest. As you discovered, the Crimean War archives are easy to access. Such is not the case with earlier documents, particularly local churches who maintained records in cumbersome tomes. It so happens that I have created a computerized catalogue and cross reference to our books and files. Eventually, I hope to include images of the original source material.” 

Katerina smiled warmly, softening her sharp features. Lucy was relieved that she no longer seemed offended. Turning to her computer screen, Katerina entered the names and dates from her notes. 

Hoping that she would consider a possible connection to a priest, Lucy sat quietly waiting for Katerina’s results. It was hard for her to let someone else take control of a computer search, but she was exhausted by a lack of sleep and fitful dreams. Unlike Lucy, Bran was accustomed to listening and observing.

“I see a record of Marina’s birth in 1815 to Irina and Pyotr Kozlov, and the birth of an Ivan Popovich to Marina in 1829. As you said, no father is listed. In the church roster for that time frame, I did find a priest by the name of Grigor Popov. Your assumption seems to be correct after all, though I’m still not ready to jump to conclusions. His name disappears from the registry by the time of Ivan’s birth in 1829. But wait! Cross refencing his name with our cemetery, he was buried here in 1833. We’ll have a look at his grave when we’re done.” 

Katerina was visibly excited. In contrast, Lucy appeared anxious, crossing and uncrossing her long legs in attempt to get comfortable. Bran’s expression was flat, as usual.

Thinking out loud, Lucy reacted to the new information: “That would mean that Marina was only fourteen when Ivan was born. Can we find out what happened to Grigor Popov? Maybe there is a connection with the Kozlov family?” 

Katerina nodded. “Possibly. Likely there are church documents, regarding Grigor’s fate. Now that we have more names and dates, I can dig deeper. If nothing else, churches maintained detailed lists, especially when they were the only reliable source for births, deaths, and everything in between. Grigor might have been transferred. If so, there could have been communication between the two churches. Such a letter, if it exists, would describe the reason for transfer and other details. I do have a separate index for correspondence.”

After searching her index, Katerina located three original letters among the paper files. The first letter outlined the transfer of Grigor Popov to Holy Trinity Monastery in 1829—the year of Ivan’s birth. Translating to English, she reluctantly read them aloud, at Lucy’s request.

‘With deep sadness, I must recommend that Father Grigor Popov be transferred to Holy Trinity Monastery. His molestation of the maiden Marina Kozlov has resulted in an unfortunate pregnancy. The girl, though no longer of sound mind, has accused him repeatedly, and in front of the congregation, of rape. Her parents, a pious couple, have tried to restrain her outbursts and keep her secluded. However, she is now obviously with child and is becoming increasingly agitated to the point where the situation cannot be ignored. Father Grigor accepts that his transgression can no longer be hidden, and that he must adopt an ascetic life as penance...’

The second letter, dated February 1830, from Holy Trinity to Church of Our Lord’s Ascension:

‘Regretfully, I must inform you that Father Grigor Popov has left our humble monastery in pursuit of an alternative path to redemption. During his sojourn here, he was unable to come to terms with his sinful nature and became very anxious about the curse brought down on him by the young girl whom he violated. Adding to his guilt was the news that the girl had borne a son who would grow up without proper parents since Marina is rumoured to be quite insane. Against our counselling, he has decided to join the Skoptsky, the radical sect that practices castration to suppress sexual desire. We will continue to keep track of his whereabouts and attempt to draw him back into our fold...’

The third letter, dated April 1833, from Church of Our Lord’s Ascension to Holy Trinity:

‘God has released us all from further obligation for Father Grigor’s soul. His mutilated body was discovered in the foothills just outside of our village after he had kidnapped his illegitimate son. The boy’s mother, in a fit of madness, murdered him to rescue Ivan from his father’s cruel intentions. She claims that Grigor was planning to castrate the child so that he could never repeat his father’s sins. She would not be dissuaded from this conviction. Given that he had joined the Skoptsky, Marina’s ravings were not unfounded. Indeed, Grigor’s body was fully castrated according to the sect's custom. He will be buried here so that we can continue to pray for him, and bring some measure of closure to this ongoing tragedy and the victims he left behind…’

Whether from horror or shock, all three sat in silence after the letters were read. Katerina spoke first, asking if they would like to see the cemetery. “This is a lot to digest, and I’m sure you’ll want to return to your lodgings and talk in private. I’ll make copies of everything and join you in the cemetery when I’m done.” Sensing that Katerina also needed some space, Lucy eagerly agreed.

Bran held her arm as they navigated the uneven ground of the cemetery, occasionally stopping to view the headstones and monuments. Bran waited for her to start a conversation since Lucy was visibly shaken. “This is where I first saw Ivan.” She pointed to a simple, flat headstone, notable only for the imposing granite crosses that surrounded it. “There! That’s Grigor’s grave. Here comes Katerina. She’ll interpret the inscription for us.” 

Katerina spotted them and hurried over. She read, “Grigor Popov, born 1790, died 1833. May God forgive him and grant him eternal peace. It is odd that an orthodox priest wouldn’t have a granite cross to mark his grave, though not under the circumstances,” she sighed. 

Lucy stared at the stone, not sure of her feelings. Bran asked if Marina Kozlov or her parents were buried here. “No,” Katerina asserted. “I didn’t see their names on the cemetery roster. Then again, only clergy, their families, and local dignitaries would be buried here. It is possible that Marina was committed to an asylum following the murder of Grigor. In the late 1700s, Catherine the Great had established psychiatric hospitals called zheltye doma or ‘yellow houses’ for the insane. I will investigate this possibility. Maybe you can return tomorrow, after you’ve had a chance to rest?”

Bran thanked Katerina and gratefully accepted the copies of her search results. Lucy was too overwhelmed by the day’s revelations to say anything. As soon as they got back to the hotel, she fell into bed without eating or undressing and slept fitfully for the next ten hours. Her restlessness and soft cries went unnoticed by an exhausted Bran.


Lucy awoke to the invigorating smell of coffee and breakfast fare. Bran looked up from the desk where he was studying the copies. Before a word was exchanged, he insisted that she eat and shower first. Once again, she yielded to doctor’s orders and was relieved to have him take control. 

Over breakfast, they talked about yesterday’s discoveries. “Truth is stranger than fiction and often beyond science, as much as I hate to admit it. It’s horrifying to think that malevolence can live on in our DNA, like a genetically inherited disease. But I still must find out what became of Marina. Hopefully, Katerina has discovered more. Let’s call the driver and head over there.” Some of Lucy’s exuberance had returned, though she was far from her usual self.

Katerina ushered them into her office. Her hesitant smile promised results. “I scanned the index for Marina Kozlov, cross-referencing her parents, Irina and Pyotr Kozlov. We confirmed that Marina was born in 1815 on September 12th. However, Irina and Pyotr were married on May 15th, 1815. Irina would have been four months pregnant at the time. Ordinarily, I would not be shocked that a village girl was pregnant before she was married. But it did surprise me that Irina’s maiden name was Popov. I found that Grigor Popov was born in 1790 making it possible that he was a family member, possibly a brother? Church records prior to 1824—the year this church was built—are incomplete and subject to error. But I did find something curious: Marina Kozlov was also called Marina Popovich on her birth record. I hate to think that Grigor could have fathered both Marina and Ivan. She did die in 1840 at an asylum in Kiev, where she had been committed under vague circumstances.”

At first neither Bran nor Katerina noticed that Lucy had zoned out. Her eyes were open, staring at nothing while she muttered to herself. In a fugue state, Lucy was flashing back to the rape. This time she clearly saw Marina’s eyes. Like her rapist and their ill-begotten son, the eyes were an arctic blue, crystal and cold. The same seductive eyes had stared back at her from the newspaper clippings of Nicholas Wahl, his daughter Sonya, and her daughter, Anna... the same beguiling eyes as her mother, Elena. 

“Lucy, can you hear me? Please wake-up. I never should have let you push yourself so hard!” Bran shouted. 

Lucy gasped, struggling to free herself from the hypnotic grip of so many ice-blue eyes. “Bran, it’s not your fault. I haven’t told you everything. I wanted to be sure, and I needed you to be the hold on my own sanity. My mother was crazy near the end. All those years of heavy drinking and living in her TV world took its toll. For now, I just want to go home.”


On the long flight home, Lucy mulled over her secrets—what she had told Bran and what she had withheld. She couldn’t get pregnant. Something to do with those irregular periods recorded in her medical history. Elena told her it was a blessing in disguise though she never said why. 

Then there was the scrapbook: a haphazard collection of old passports, newspaper clippings, and letters that had been handed down thru the generations. It began as a journal, started by Nicholas Wahl’s wife, Nina. Lucy found it after her mother died and she was sifting through Elena’s personal possessions, which Monty had placed in storage. Lucy never had the time or desire to explore the storage locker until recently. She hadn’t told Bran about the scrapbook. It was the catalyst that prompted her to add the Wahls’ history into her medical record. She still couldn’t explain why she did it. Maybe she wanted to discover whatever was behind Elena’s haunting tirades. 

The dark odyssey began with Nina’s first entry after her mother-in-law’s deathbed confession. Tatiana admitted that Mikhael Wahl had been her betrothed back in Yasinia. He refused to marry her when it became obvious she was pregnant, though not with his child. Her older brother, Igor had seduced her; and to escape their mutual shame, they immigrated to the U.S. Tatiana wanted to warn Nina, in case Nicolas, the son of an unholy union, might harbour similar inclinations for their daughter, Sonya. But when he died on the Titanic, Nina hoped the threat to Sonya had died with him. But she failed to consider her son, Peter. Fortunately, she didn’t live to meet her granddaughter, Anna, whose father remained a mystery.

Nina’s journal eventually fell into the hands of her daughter-in-law, Maria, Peter’s wife. When Sonya, unmarried and prone to depression, died in childbirth, Maria had strong suspicions about Peter’s unnatural attachment to his fragile sister. To Maria’s dismay, he insisted they claim Anna as their child. Maria, not ready to accept the ugly truth, reluctantly agreed. All was forgotten when they welcomed their own son, Martin, into the world. Lucy suspected that Martin had fathered Elena’s aborted child, which would explain their estrangement, not to mention her mother’s manic behaviour.

Lucy intended to show the scrapbook to Bran after they got home. She was anxious to hear what he would say, once he knew everything. Her own thoughts? Marina and Ivan Popovich were children of rape and incest. Born from twisted desires, their line was doomed to repeat their father’s original sin. Nature was a cruel mother, extracting a terrible price for defying her laws. 

The superstitious might call it a curse. The bible-thumpers might say that the sins of the father are passed onto his children, and his children's children.

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