The Amber Chamber is missing. How can a room itself go missing? What happened to the Catherine Palace? It’s still there—only the Amber Chamber is gone. It is worse than a whole palace vanishing, unmoored from its foundation, the cellars left behind as a gaping maw, worse than a city disappearing into the fog that shrouds it, worse than an island sinking under its own weight into the sea. If the rooms of the Catherine Palace were teeth, now there is a gap, and the other rooms shift and sigh to close it. The Amber Chamber is lost.
If you find it, you will have done the first hard thing. But that is only the beginning.
Once there was a man and woman who wanted a baby. But they couldn’t have one. They didn’t have any money for the medicines that could magically change what was wrong with them. None of their relatives died so that they could take in the children. It would almost happen. Somebody ate bad mushrooms and died. The boys came to stay, too scared to eat anything but cornmeal pancakes and kasha. But then an uncle was found with papers for the City and a chance for the boys to go on to a lyceum, and poof! Somebody’s husband was a drunk, and she had to pull night shifts at the hospital. Her little girl came to stay. She would whistle in the house, bringing the worst bad luck down upon them, but she learned the names of all the most poisonous mushrooms and how to talk to swallows. She was very clever, and they loved her. But then her mother was moved to the day shift, and poof! So two times they’d had other people’s children for their own, and two times they lost them. The third time, they would have to find something that worked, even if more was asked of them, if everything was asked.
Leave me, the woman told the man. Leave me yourself, he told her. You know, you could have an affair and all our problems would be solved. She lingered by the well in the evenings, and walked on the edges of the fields after the cows came home. The villagers could smell her desperation and left her alone. She was still pretty, but in a hard way. The men were scared of her, and the women scared for them.
She told the man, But you could have an affair, too, as long as you brought home the baby. You could steal him when the mother was sleeping. He was a soft man, gentle hands and a belly like a down-pillow. If she’d have had his belly, they would have thought she was pregnant and it was a miracle. The village women liked to nap upon his belly. They’d have the sweetest dreams. They were children again, but never hungry. They took it as a good omen. They were too happy to do more than sleep on him.
So they didn’t have affairs. They took their own chances with mushrooms, and they drank, and they waited for a relative, or even a neighbor, to leave them a child. They spoiled the dog, giving him scraps of meat from the table and letting him inside when it stormed. He often looked at them as if he were just about to speak, his head cocked, his ears pointed, but he never did. He barked and squealed and wheedled, but in spite of their love, he never turned into a boy. Worse, he grew from a puppy into a dog, and then he seemed to want a child as much as they did, staring at them in silent judgment.
So they went to the orphanage in the town. They filled out forms in triplicate that stained their fingers purple. They watched the children who roamed in packs in the yard, their eyes wolfish, howling at each other across the dusty playground. They thought, the dog will like these children, and these children will be clever. They weren’t asking for a baby, reserved for the foreigners or the wealthy city people, but a child, even a teenager or two. They were placed on a list, but the harvest never allowed for the bribes that would move them up the list.
They made gingerbread men. The dog ate them when they wouldn’t run. The woman planted fields of rapunzel, but no neighbor women were hungry for greens. The log the man found in the woods that looked as if it were branching into toddler legs got tossed in the fire once dripping milk into the knot that could have been a mouth got them nowhere. The man carved the charred log into a small wooden puppet. The dog chewed its nose off.
They built a snow girl. They hugged her, their tears melting into the snow. They rubbed her snowy hands until their hands were red and raw and her snow fingers winnowed down to splindly icicles. They kissed her turnip nose. This was the one they were sure would work, a wintery tale for their cold hearts. One of her arms fell off, crashing to powder at their feet. They couldn’t think of any other stories to try. Her remaining arm pointed north, and they followed it, out of the village and across the snow, the dog trailing behind them with as much dignity as he could muster.
To find the Amber Chamber, you must outsmart the Nazis and the Soviets, something most villagers have at least had a fair amount of practice at trying to do. They worked very hard to hide it, and it won’t be in any of the obvious places. It’s not sunk at the bottom of the Baltic Sea, packed in crates stashed in an abandoned salt mine, or at the bottom of a dry and poisoned well. It isn’t in a Palace of Culture, hidden behind wallpaper patterned with mushrooms and hedgehogs, or in a Politburo office beneath the propaganda posters of fields of wheat and busty peasant woman bouncing along on tractors. The Stasi aren’t using it as a torture chamber. It’s not in a Museum of Decadence. The Nazis and Soviets didn’t sell it piece by piece to the fat cat Americans who look like the guys on the Monopoly board. They were clever for once. They hid it in a story, where it can be found, but never stolen. It’s lost and found at once.
When you find the Story of the Amber Chamber, the amber tiles sticking out of the pages like miniature ship masts sailing through a paper ocean, you must rebuild it piece by piece. You have to imagine, how do I want it to look? What shape will the room take? How will I arrange the illustrated pieces? If I turn these carved guns upside down, will they look like flowers? Or if I place them in a row, will I have a cannon? Could these palaces be cathedrals? Cathedrals, palaces? Fat, smiling babies or dead angels in a choir? What kind of Amber Chamber do I want?
By the time they saw the amber poking out of the snow, they were exhausted and collapsed before the tiles, the man and woman stretched out like angels, the dog curled up between. The food, the hard-boiled eggs, the brown bread the woman had burned in her hurry to leave, the jars of canned pickled red pepper and cabbage salad, even the turnips, had been eaten to the last morsel. They were thirsty, and they sat up to eat handfuls of snow, blowing on it to ease the chill, pretending it was tea. The dog frolicked, shaking the cakes of snow off his back, rooting his snout around in it, pretending to be puppyish again. It was all practice for the imagination it would take to build the Amber Chamber.
At first, the dog was making too many choices, and the room was scaled to his size. The woman thought the baby might like that, so she was willing to humor the dog, but the man wanted his son born in a big room, at least as big as their house in the village which although only one room, was a roomy room. So they started again, tile upon tile, clinking against each other like fingernails upon a typewriter.
Once you build the Amber Chamber, it will give you what you want, but only within the walls of the room. It is its own world. It is its own sun. It glows from within, a yellowing flame that never flickers. The Greek word for amber is electron, because of its ability to hold a charge. The Germans called it Burnstone because you can set it on fire. The Russians call it sea-resin, and that’s what’s special about amber, that it can hold the properties of fire but be found in water, as if it’s frozen fire.
Czars played cards in the Amber Chamber before it was lost, their luck improved by the light of the room. In the one that you build, anyone can play cards, anyone you want, Nazis, Soviets, villagers, good fairies and bad, Baba Yaga and her jeweled toads, and czars, if you want them, can do whatever you want them to do. Want a Cinderella czar, dusting and dusting? Washing the amber floor on his knees with the rags and buckets of dingy water? Done. Want Catherine to go at it with her horse? Done. Want to add Peter the Great and Ivan the Terrible? And all of their horses? In every combination? And afterwards, they all play cards? Done and done.
If you give birth in the Amber Chamber, and try to take that child out of the room, the Amber Child can never be yours outside in the world. The child belongs to the Chamber. You can give her away to somebody else, starting off another story, but you can’t keep her, not unless you stay within the walls of the Chamber itself. If you try to keep her, she will disintegrate in your arms until you’re left hugging shards of amber wrapped up in a blanket. Even if you try to take those shards back to the Amber Chamber, the Chamber won’t give you back that exact child again, only an amber copy.
If your ultimate objective is a child at all costs, and you’re not picky, you could use the Amber Child as a changeling in the world outside, sneaking her into a crib and taking the crib’s original occupant for yourself. In the short term, the Amber Child will adapt her features to match the baby she’s meant to mimic, although there are no promises beyond the first couple of days or so. If the family doesn’t take to the changeling, the Amber Child will turn brittle and break into dust, as amber does when it isn’t cared for. But the Amber Child is charming, and it usually works out. No promises that the baby you’ve exchanged with your changeling will amount to much, either, but that’s always true unless your baby is an Amber Child and you’ve imagined every bit of her in advance.
The woman didn’t believe at first that she was giving birth to a changeling. She thought this was the child they could keep, their third chance, the one where they risked everything. Surely that risk deserved rewards? She was certain. Her labor started the moment they used up the last tile. She crouched up against the walls, the electric-charged warmth of the tiles against her spine. The man patted his belly and wondered if in the Amber Chamber, he could have a baby, too, but he couldn’t pull off the leap of imagination he needed. The dog decided absolutely he did not need puppies. He sat down next to the woman and nobly let her pull his fur when the contractions came. The man got stinking drunk on amber vodka and sang her favorite songs off-key. It was better than she had hoped for.
It was a horrible birth. It lasted for a day or a week or a year, they could never be sure in the Amber Chamber where it never went dark, and the blood she bled was yellow. Buckets and buckets, with the slimy baby sliding out into the room across the streams of blood. The man wrapped the baby up in his coat. She wailed and stared at him, the tiny features as sharp as if they were carved into amber. Tiny eyelashes, miniscule flaring of the nostrils. He carried her over to his wife proudly, as if it had been his labor after all. She was still leaking yellow blood. He handed her the baby, and she clasped it to her breast. The little yellow head rooted around for the nipple. The woman stroked the baby’s patchy down. She turned paler and paler, as if nursing the baby ebbed her last bit of strength. As if the baby was eating her up.
If they had been able to have a baby back in the village, without the help of the Chamber, back in the beginning of their story, if the doctor from the town didn’t come in time, she would have died. She was beyond what midwives can do. Maybe the baby would have made it, if a wet nurse could be found. Maybe not. In that moment, the man thought that maybe they should have let things stand the way they were. Maybe they weren’t meant to mess around with the Amber Chamber. Stay in the village, hope for a better harvest, hope for someone to have a child that needs fostering for whatever reason, hope to die and their story to end off that way. But they were in the Amber Chamber, and so he could imagine a different end. He could have all the skills of a surgeon in his clumsy hands. The man had to stitch her up, which he didn’t know how to do, but when she hissed, pretend you know how, he found himself threading the amber needle and imagining that his wife’s dangling bits of yellowed flesh like rotten meat gone through the grinder was golden cloth, bolts and bolts of it before him, and the dress he was sewing was for his daughter’s wedding day.
They had a girl, which is to say, this story has all been prelude to another story. Snow White isn’t about the queen who wishes for a daughter white as snow. The child born within her mother’s tear, the teardrop her womb, and who springs to life before our eyes, is the heroine of her story, not the weeping woman. Anne Boleyn isn’t the story of Elizabethan England. Those children are haunted by their lost parents, but they go about having their own adventures, including the adventure of not having any children themselves. Once you decide to wish for children, your story ends and theirs starts.
They can’t tell if she is jaundiced. She isn’t a rosy baby, but they like to think of her as sunny rather than sallow. She throws her toy turnip and the dog catches it. She claps her hands in glee. They are entranced. They know it’s time to leave the Amber Chamber, they know time is passing, but it’s as if they’re trapped, trapped like flies in honey, trapped in frozen fire, trapped in amber. If it’s a trap, it has been set by their own desires.
They understand now about the changeling bargain. The Chamber has whispered it to them, sung it to them in their sleep, illustrated the story along one of the walls, a part of the Chamber the woman tries to avoid, although when the Amber Child sleeps, the man finds the woman pacing along the wall, looking for a trick, a loophole in the story. There isn’t one. They can only keep her if they stay. If they plan to use her as a changeling, they will need to leave as soon as possible.
The longer they stay, the harder it is to imagine that she won’t be theirs. When she learns to walk, toddling across the length of the room, holding on to their hands with each of her own, the dog right behind just in case she needs to fall back onto something soft, the woman starts to wail. Why can’t we be the ones to bring her up? I don’t want the real baby. I want my changeling. When the Amber Child begins to babble mama and papa and doggy, the man wishes the words would catch in her throat, so she’d be stuck as a little baby. But he doesn’t wish it hard enough for the Chamber to make it happen, and besides, now the girl has wishes, too.
Amber isn’t hard. It’s worn like jewelry, but it’s no stone. It’s easy to break and it will burn. Remember, the Germans called it Burnstone, and you should think of the word as a command. So when you are ready to leave the Amber Chamber, all you need to do is crack a hole in the corner, ripping a hole in the seam, like breaking an egg from the inside. Then light a fire, and as the room burns to a crisp so that its contents can’t be used against you by future inhabitants of the Amber Chamber, slip through your hole into the stinging light of the world outside. You can come back, if you’re willing to take on all of the tasks you took on once before, but most don’t have the energy to return, and those that do return never leave at all.
I can’t give her up, she said. Let’s just stay here, he said. The dog grayed first. He couldn’t control it. The man and woman aged themselves piece by piece to match their daughter’s growth, adding wrinkles, losing a tooth, stiffening their joints, but when they weren’t thinking, they fell back into the age and health they had when they entered the Chamber.
The Amber Girl grew faster and faster. Once she could talk, she wouldn’t stop, and once she could write her own name, all she wanted to do was read in the library of the Amber Chamber. At first, they liked playing school with her, splitting the subjects between them, but when she worked past the ninth form, further than they’d been in school, and wanted to tutor them instead, they didn’t like it anymore. The cooking lessons went better, the woman coming up with soups with twenty-seven ingredients and sauces that were reduced down to the very elements themselves in order to keep the Amber Girl interested. The man specialized in walks though the woods he’d rise up in the center of the room, little amber trees like bonsai, and they’d go mushroom hunting. It was especially hard to spot the poisonous ones when everything was yellow, but the Amber Girl never made even one mistake. So when she ate a poisonous mushroom on purpose, they knew it was over.
We’ll make an Amber Boy for you to play with, promised the woman. It’s going to be better, soothed the man. When you’re older, and settled down here in the Amber Chamber.
I can’t settle down with my brother! cried the Amber Girl, and the look of resentment she shot them, her delicate features frozen into a sullen mask, told them it was time to leave the Amber Chamber.
It’s too late for her to be a changeling, said the woman.
Don’t you think she kind of already is one? asked the man. Where has our charming baby gone?
The Amber Girl balanced on the dog’s back to punch a hole in the wall up by the carved choir of amber babies. The air of the real world outside rushed into the room, dulling everything within and making them itch. They said to the Amber Girl, you go first and we’ll light the fire, but she said, Not a chance. I’m not leaving you behind. I’ll feel guilty and it will be like I never left. The woman lit the fire while the man went first, creeping into the world. The woman followed, holding the dog, and finally the Amber Girl came, her braid almost catching in the last smoldering gasps of the fire behind them. She brushed the ashes off the tips and kept walking.
So this is what it’s like to feel old, said the man as their knuckles swelled and their hair thinned. Their backs curled in and their shoulders bent as if they were folding up wings, and they held on to each other to steady themselves. They wouldn’t accept any help from the Amber Girl.
Once they came to the fork in the road, the village one way, the city the other, the man said, If we were to keep you, you’ll turn to dust.
What if I kept you? said the Amber Girl. Somebody else has probably moved into your house in the village anyway. Why don’t we start over in the city together?
Why don’t you send for us when you want us? said the woman, thinking, if you want us, and you probably won’t. She said, The village will be like a holiday after so much time in the Amber Chamber. They each gave the Amber Girl a papery kiss on her forehead. The woman pressed the last of the food, a hard yellow cheese and yellow grapes, into the Girl’s hand. The man tucked the woman’s arm into his, but they didn’t start down their road until the Amber Girl began down hers.
Every time she looked back, they were still waving, her father almost foolishly, her mother sharply as if she were saluting. The Amber Girl wasn’t going to take the dog, but he wouldn’t turn back even when she threw stones at him. He walked with her once she relented, his paws crunching in the dry road of summer. They shared her cheese together as she planned herself a future in a field of sunflowers. In the Amber Chamber, they would have been arrayed as a court, bending to her whim. In the field, they turned their heads away from her and toward the sun.
When she got to the edge of the city and saw the tiny stars sparking off of the trolleys racing along their wires, she was drawn to the electricity, and as they walked beside the tracks, the sky grew brighter and brighter until she almost thought she was back in the Amber Chamber once again. An impossible city, glowing as if made of frozen fire, rose up before her. As she stepped into the electric, humming world, even the dog lost sight of her in the press of the crowd.
Carrie Messenger lives in West Virginia. Her work has appeared most recently in Crab Orchard Review, Ecotone, and Fiction International. Her translations from Romanian have appeared in Circumference, The Review of Contemporary Fiction, and Words Without Borders.
“In The Amber Chamber” was originally published in Cry Baby (TLR Fall 2013)