Alexei Andreivitch lived with his wife and her mother in a small house on the steppe, far outside St Petersburg. In St Petersburg, he had been a salesman. But because he was naturally possessed of a reserved, even sullen, character, he did not endear himself to other people, and so was a not a very good salesman. Since he was bad at business, and bad with people, he was unpopular, and at his small house on the steppe he received few letters and fewer visitors. That being the case, he had no idea who could have sent him the photograph, and certainly not the reason why.
It arrived in a plain envelope, with his name - Alexei Andreivitch - written on the front in a firm hand. Nonetheless, his wife had been the one to open it. Inside was a single photograph, rendered in muted colour. The photograph was of a young woman, a girl, seated with one leg crossed over the other. She had dark hair, cut close to the line of her eyebrows. Her arms were bare. Alexei Andreivitch's wife presented him with the photo and demanded to know who she was, and what he was doing having photographs of young women sent to him. "Tell me the truth, Alexei Andreivitch." But the truth was he did not recognise the woman. He was equally baffled by the situation and found himself lamely without answers. There was no return address on the envelope. Whatever person had put this photograph in his hands had done so to torment him, he was sure, and he wondered if he was not undergoing some test.
He studied the photo for clues. The woman was in a workshop, surrounded by tools, books and machinery. In her lap, held between her hands, was an incandescent orb, from which rays of various brilliant colour streaked and faded all the way to the edges of the frame. It resembled a miniature sun - or a lightbulb, but in the precise state in which the human eye would first observe it: a momentary, unclarified blur of white. In the photograph, the woman looked down at the object, her expression almost casual, and with no evidence of wonder. It told Alexei that, unlike him, she knew what the thing was, and that it held no fascination for her.
One more detail caught Alexei's eye, which had escaped his wife's: on the back of the photo, inscribed in pencil, was the word "Olivia." Alexei had never heard this word, but the act of reading it chilled him, as if it had touched something within him that he did know. And despite all his fear, he kept the photograph near to him for the rest of his days, under his pillow or between the pages of a book, where it would always be close to the touch.