By Lia Pripstein-Lane
It was dinner time at the Dubnyarskys. Roza was stirring two shriveled potatoes, belly up inside the murky water. She watched them attentively so as not to overcook them. Her husband Samuil, ten years her senior, slumped in his chair under the weight of his blanket. His hair was mostly white and his eyebrows hung low like rainclouds before a storm. He poked a stick in the burzhuika stove, turning the wood to make the fire last. A metal pipe was fastened to the side of the burzhuika like a crooked arm turned upward. Occasionally, rattled by the heat, it crackled with tiny explosions. The sound would startle Sasha who shuddered slightly but did not move his eyes from the pot.
Sasha, their twelve-year-old, was Roza’s only child, a gift from God bestowed in the twilight of her childbearing years. As a young girl she had wanted many children, but circumstances got in the way: the Great War and the Revolution and her plain features deterring even the least desirable suitors. Her own family was large - three brothers, four sisters and numerous cousins who had spent their childhoods in and out of each others’ homes. That life was long gone. They had scattered to all corners of the earth, some went as far as America. Fate brought her here, to Leningrad, to become a wife and a mother.
Their room, the smallest in the two-room communal apartment, seemed to grow larger as it emptied of furniture. The table had been burned weeks ago, at the start of winter. Next would be the wooden bench that now held their plates and bread rations. The other room in the apartment belonged to their neighbors, a family of four that perished one by one in the course of a month. After Kiril, the last one to die, was picked up by the city defense volunteers, Roza refused to go into that room. She didn’t want to rummage through their possessions like a grave robber, looking for valuables that could be exchanged for food on the black market. It wasn’t just her scruples holding her back. She imagined hearing them on the other side of the wall, living their ghostly lives among their belongings. She had the crazy notion that death, like a virus, was still in that room, awaiting its next victim.
Samuil thought she was out of her mind. "The dead are dead," he said. He could do that, close his heart shut and pretend to feel nothing. That was his prerogative, given all that he had lived through. He warned her they couldn’t afford her foolish sensibilities and she yielded. It wasn’t as bad as she had feared. They found some warm clothes, an elegant bedroom set and a handful of books with notes in the margins. They burned the books first, attempting to chop up the rest for kindle. The neighbors’ furniture was well-made, heavy and thick and hard as a rock. The little they managed to cut or break off burned beautifully, giving off faint smells of oak and cherry.
The burzhuika rumbled noisily, struggling to digest the remains of Sasha’s bed. He hadn’t used it since October when they moved him into theirs. It was warmer this way. Sasha didn’t seem to mind. Roza wished her son would adjust to the rations with equal resolve. She could see how tormented he was, haunted by his hunger as if possessed by the dybbuk. He could think of nothing else, his eyes darting around, constantly searching. Her own hunger had dulled by now. It shrank along with her stomach, becoming small and manageable, a peanut-sized hole inside her she could plug with a finger. Having lived through the shortages of the Civil War, her body reverted to tightening and tying and strangling every craving.
Her husband showed even greater discipline. He divided his daily bread into three equal parts to be eaten at morning, noon and night, and never once strayed from his schedule. She knew Sasha tried to imitate his father but often could not resist the temptation. He’d eat off his portions, a little at a time, until all was gone and he had nothing left for dinner. School had been closed since the fall and he was too young to work at the factories. And what is a boy his age to do? He was alone for the entire day. Too weak to go out into the courtyard, he was bound to their room, reading or looking out the window. Eventually he would find himself in front of the cupboard where their palm-sized slices lay in wait. The bread tasted of linseed and sawdust but that made no difference. The intensity of her son’s hunger often terrified her. Sasha would chew up a brick if he could. Once, after consuming all of his, he pecked at his father’s ration, for which he was beaten miserably, in spite of her tears.
The potatoes were almost done and Roza’s face perked up. "Soon" she murmured in Sasha’s direction. He looked up and smiled. How thin he was: his neck but a twig bent under the weight of his head. At his age, when his body was growing, he needed food, more than the rest of them.
Samuil wouldn’t hear of it. She was reprimanded for giving in to their son, for sharing her rations with him. "We each have to do with what we’ve got," he insisted, as if they were comrades in the Red Army ranks. She couldn’t fault him for his hardened soul. His first wife and children were killed in the Civil War and nothing could make up for it, not even Sashenka. He had buried his pain deep under muscle and bone. She recognized it sometimes in his sigh, like the aftermath of an old illness escaping his lungs. At the sound of it her heart welled up with sorrow, the tears he wouldn’t shed. He wasn’t a bad man, old-fashioned perhaps due to his age and lack of education, but a decent man nonetheless. His sternness with Sasha was meant to toughen their son, and in times of peace she would welcome it. But this was war.
Sashenka. She observed his gaunt face, touching on his wide forehead, his straight nose, his cheekbones made sharp by sunken cheeks. He was as handsome as her husband had once been but he was all her, soft-spoken and gentle. "Mama dear, go to sleep," he’d beg, "You’ll ruin your eyes sewing so late!" Such a kind boy, always looking out for her. He was her life and without him…she faltered. She couldn’t think of that.
In her pocket she carried a gray pancake of oats and cabbage stumps. She often saved something from her lunch at the factory, a piece of bread or once a patch of skin with some meat still on it. The factory workers were fed slightly better, and how much did she really need? At night, when the three of them crammed fully clothed under blankets and coats, she would reach into her pocket for the special treat. Slowly, so as not to awaken her husband, she would slip the food into Sasha’s mouth. He’d take it, whatever it was, munching in his sleep and smacking his lips like a baby. "Shh," she’d whisper, savoring every sound.
Roza prepared to divide the potatoes. She could sense them watching her every move. She wondered if she could get away with cutting a slightly bigger piece for their son. Just then there was a knock on the door. The knife in Roza’s hand froze and she looked at her husband in terror. In regular times a knock at that time of night could mean only one thing – an NKVD arrest. But surely these days, when they were encircled and starved by the Germans, surely now the NKVD had better things to do?!
Samuil shook his head from side to side, motioning for her not to move. Sasha did not stir, his eyes fixed on the potatoes. They waited. Perhaps the intruders would leave. But no, another knock. That wasn’t the police. The knocks were weak, hesitant.
"Thieves," Samuil whispered and his eyes darted at their meal. She understood. She cut the potatoes up in a hurry – at least they would have eaten their meal. The fork clanked against the plate and Samuil’s eyebrows narrowed at her awful clumsiness. Too late, they were overheard. There it was, the third knock.
"Don’t open the door," Samuil commanded.
"It doesn’t sound like thieves," She didn’t mean to contradict him and rushed to add an explanation. "Maybe someone is in trouble…"
"We’re all in trouble. Don’t open."
"Mama," Sasha pleaded with her, unable to wait any longer.
She gave him his portion and served her husband. Sasha popped the scalding spud in his mouth before she could stop him. He chewed it greedily, not bothered by the burns on his tongue.
It was quiet now. "Perhaps they left," and just as she said it there was a fourth knock and she thought she heard voices. Children! She dashed to the door without thinking. Her husband shouted "Stay where you are!" but she was already in the hallway. She knew he wouldn’t follow her on account of his swollen legs, and to her shame she was glad of it.
She pressed her cheek to the door and asked, "Who is it?" The fear crept up her spine. What if her husband was right and it was a plot to rob and kill them? There were rumors of cannibals in the city hunting for prey in the streets…"Oh God," she thought, "what have I done?"
"Roza Dubnyarsky?" the strained voice behind the door broke into an adolescent squeak.
"We’re your cousins, Mendel Feinstein’s sons."
One by one she undid the brass locks her husband had put in for protection. The pious Mendel who lived but a tram ride away but never paid her a visit. The one who carried the shtetl, complete with strict kosher laws and archaic rituals, into his Leningrad basement apartment, condemning himself to a life of poverty. What could have made him send his children out in the dark of night?
In the doorway were the two boys, scruffy as stray kittens. They had no winter boots and their coats came too short at the sleeves. Yeruchim, the elder, had a hand-knit cap that no longer fit him. Berl, the younger, was wrapped in a woman’s shawl.
"Our parents are dead," said Yeruchim.
Mendel and wife, dead, gone, added to a long list she’d been keeping: colleagues, acquaintances, neighbors, since the end of November, like petals blown off by the wind. And she was still here, clinging to life like a parasite, determined to survive.
Yeruchim looked a lot like his father. She couldn’t remember the last time she’d been to see them, maybe a year ago, maybe more. How they had grown! Why, Yeruchim was almost Sasha’s age.
Yeruchim squeezed his brother’s hand with frostbitten fingers and gave her a hard stare as if she had already turned them away. Poor souls, she thought, guessing hers was not the first door they had knocked on.
"Come in, warm up inside!" She took them by their stiffened hands. They weighed nothing and almost flew in when she pulled at them. They followed her through the dark hallway into the room where Samuil and Sasha were waiting. In the dim light cast off by the burzhuika she noticed Yeruchim’s sidelocks growing from his temples and curling behind his ears. Mendel and his orthodoxy, he wouldn’t even let the boys go to school! Such absurdity! He was always stubborn, the most stubborn and petulant of all her cousins. She bit her tongue for thinking ill of the dead. What did their differences matter now?
At the sight of the boys Samuil’s frown grew deeper. "My cousin Mendel, may he rest in peace," she said. "These are his boys, Yeruchim and Berl. You remember." They didn’t. Sasha stared at their sidelocks with hostile curiosity. Boys were like that, sniffing suspiciously at anyone out of the ordinary. Still, she was ashamed for her son. It had been weeks since he’d seen kids his age. He could have been a bit friendlier.
Roza made the boys comfortable next to the fire. She noticed the food was gone except for her own plate, which had been deliberately covered. Berl glanced at the plate and lowered his eyes. Yeruchim avoided it entirely, staring intently at the flames.
She wrung her hands. Gathering up courage she turned to the boys and asked: "Have you eaten?" That was a stupid question and one not asked in a time of blockade. Samuil threw her a furious glance. He seldom raised his voice in front of strangers but she could never be sure. Quickly, before her husband said anything, she uncovered the plate and moved it toward the boys. "Eat."
Yeruchim picked up the potato and held it out to his brother. Berl nibbled at it with his molars, turning his head sideways. His front teeth were missing and in the gap she glimpsed dark bloody gums. Berl mashed the food with his tongue, his face twisting as he moved his jaw side to side. Sasha burst into a series of coughs at this repulsive spectacle, disguising his nervous snickers.
After a few bites Berl leaned back in exhaustion and Yeruchim consumed the rest, chewing quickly and decisively. He took Roza’s bread and fed it to his brother, a crumb at a time. When the boys were done Yeruchim lowered his head, mumbling something under his breath. Praying, Roza realized, vaguely recalling the words of the blessing over the meal.
She made tea, the one thing they still had plenty of, and sipped from her cup, filtering the aftertaste of the river through her teeth. She thought back to her childhood in an attempt to extract a sunny memory of Mendel. She recalled a celebration in one of the homes, a bunch of them kids under the table, giggling and stuffing their faces with sweet almond bread. Was Mendel with them? She remembered wearing her blue shabbos dress to shul and throwing candy at the bar-mitzva boy from behind the women’s barrier. Was that Mendel or another cousin? Everything was vague, scraps of life pulled from the depths of oblivion. Would she too be forgotten?
Sasha was now offering Yeruchim a leather belt cutoff to chew on. "It feels good in your mouth," he said as he handed it to the boy. Her son will mourn her, she reassured herself, he will not forget.
At least Mendel died at home with his family. In this she found solace. Home, family, the first words that came to mind every time she was seized by a violent cough or leaned in exhaustion, braced by anonymous walls on her way home. She never allowed herself to stand still for more than a moment. She passed by the ones that sat down to rest and never got up, frozen to stoops or buried in snowdrifts by the side of the road. They were like warning signs, prodding her on. To die among loved ones, she told herself as she forced her feet forward, not in the street like a dog.
Roza asked the boys how they were getting by, careful not to bring up their parents. But Yeruchim was eager to speak of his mama and papa. He told them how their mother had died and how they nursed their father in his last days, soaking his bread in warm water to make it easier to digest. "Papa," whenever he uttered the word he seemed to halt, letting it linger until it died out. "Papa, Papa." It had a sad sound to it, a childhood slipping away.
"…and then we buried Papa."
"You buried him?" Samuil interrupted, "Where?"
"At Volkovskoye cemetery, in his own grave." There was a hint of pride in Yeruchim’s voice. He told them how they carried the body into the street with the help of a neighbor, and lay it on their two toboggans tied together. How they crossed Ligovka and Rasstanaya Streets, dragging their load all the way to the outskirts of town, Yeruchim pulling in front and Berl pushing in the back to help navigate snowdrifts and sludge. Roza stared at them in disbelief. How did they manage? Why, Berl could hardly stand!
"The caretakers had the grave ready for him," Yeruchim said, "They put him in and I said the kaddish…"
"How much did you pay them?" Samuil asked with a slanted smile.
"The rest of Papa’s bread and some money…"
"You fools!" Samuil smirked. "You’ve been swindled. As soon as you left they took him out and threw him somewhere to make room for their next client. That’s how they make a living. Giving away your father’s bread and for what? What were you thinking?!"
Roza clutched the chair. There was a rush of blood to her ears, deafening, as if she were deep under water. Why did he say that? Even if it was true, why did he hurt them so? She darted a helpless stare at her son but Sasha just shrunk in his seat, afraid his father might turn on him next. Berl was dabbing his eyes with his sleeve, letting out small stifled sobs through tightly pursed lips. Only Yeruchim didn’t seem afraid. He was staring at Samuil with a strange expression, looking through him, as if he was not really there.
"We said the kaddish on his grave." Yeruchim said. Then, turning to his brother, he put his arm around the sobbing boy. "Don’t cry Berl. We said the kaddish." Yeruchim’s face was illuminated by occasional flickers of fire. How thin he was – nothing but bones. His skin so tight around his skull his eyes seemed to pop out of their sockets. And yet, despite his malnourished look, he radiated a certain beauty. There was light in him as if he had been touched by the Almighty.
She felt the pressure of tears in the bridge of her nose. "Your kaddish has opened the gates of heaven." She said. She wasn’t overly religious but at that moment she believed it was true. She could almost see the divine presence of the shekhina hovering over the boys.
"Well," she spoke quickly before emotions overwhelmed her. "Now you’ll stay here with us. I will make the bed for you in the neighbors’ room. With enough blankets it’ll be quite warm."
"I will help you," Samuil offered. Her heart jumped for joy. He wanted to make up for his outburst. Even his dormant heart was not indifferent to the plight of the orphans. Deep inside he was kind, a good man her Samuil was!
They shuffled into the neighbors’ room. The windows were draped as required by law but she was used to the darkness, her eyes making out the bed, the armoire and the chest with a big hole where drawers used to be. Enough kindle. If they use it sparingly it may last a while. Now they were five, a big family…
The door shut behind her.
"They can stay the night but tomorrow they must leave," she heard Samuil say.
"What do you mean?" She couldn’t see his face, only the spot where the darkness thickened into the shape of a man. "Where will they go?"
"That’s not my concern. In the morning you tell them to go. I told you not to open the door. You defied me."
She gulped. "But how can we? How can we, Samuil? That would be a crime, a sin."
"They have nothing. We’ll have to share our food with them."
"No!" She raised her voice, startled by her own impertinence. "I will not allow it."
His shadow contracted against the grim background. He staggered towards her, painfully lifting his useless legs, one then the other, like a badly assembled machine. Her body stiffened. She prepared for the blow, in the head, across the face, she closed her eyes…
"Rozochka." His voice was soft like years ago, when he used to make love to her. He’d whisper in her ear, "Turn here, like that my good girl," careful not to wake up Sasha.
"Think about it my dear, I beg of you." He was now pleading with her. "We barely have enough for ourselves. I’ve already lost one family." There it was, the sigh rising from the depths of his soul. His children, his wife, the life he buried – she reached for his hand in the dark. "Samuil," she whispered. It was true what he said. They had little to share but they’d pull through. Just a few more weeks until spring…
"Rozochka," he whispered. He could be tender, making her feel loved. "Who are these boys to you, really? Some distant cousins you’ve barely ever seen. And who is to say they’re not thieves who would kill us in our sleep for our bread… Rozochka…"
She jerked her arm away, nauseated by that sweet tone of his. She wished he’d scream at her instead, call her names.
"I will not send them away." Her voice was firm, coming from a place she never knew existed. "They will stay here with us."
"You stupid bitch!" He hissed, backing into the wall to keep his balance. "I’ll kick you out of here along with those boys. You will never see Sasha."
She laughed. She could no longer take him seriously.
"And who will take care of you? Your legs are swollen, you can barely walk. Soon you’ll be bound to the bed. What will become of you if I go?"
She heard his rapid inhales and imagined his face red with fury. "You ungrateful trash," he raged, "I only married you out of pity."
He was trying to hurt her, but she was beyond his reach now.
"You married me so you’d have someone to take care of you," she said, "and I’ve been doing that, and I’ll keep doing that until one of us dies. But the children are staying."
He didn’t reply but she sensed her words made an impression. If she hadn’t been shaking so badly she’d have managed a smile.
Sasha opened the door, carrying an oil lamp. "Mama, Papa. What’s taking so long? The little one fell asleep already."
"Sashenka!" Samuil groaned in pain as he detached himself from the wall and moved towards their son. He put his hand on Sasha’s shoulder as if he’d always greeted him this way. "There is something we need to ask you."
"After all," he added for her benefit, "it’s his bread, too."
By the feeble flame of the lamp Roza watched the play of light and shadow on Sasha’s face. Samuil had never asked for Sasha’s opinion before. Everything had been determined for him: his clothes, his diet, even his hobbies. And now, all of a sudden, he wanted their son to decide. "These boys," he explained to Sasha, "your mother wants them to live with us, to share our fire and food. What do you say to that?"
What he said was true, and yet there was something sinister in the way he said it, as if he were a hunter laying a trap. But she knew her boy. He was not like his father.
Sasha glanced at her and she nodded. Go ahead, she spoke to him in her mind, tell him.
"I think…" Sasha hesitated. Samuil huffed with impatience at their son’s dawdling. "If they have nowhere else to go…"
"Are you willing to share your food?" Samuil thundered but abruptly changed his tone. "Think about it carefully, son. You’re almost thirteen, a man by all counts."
"Stop it, Samuil!" her voice erupted in a shriek. "Take your time Sasha, think it over. These are lives we’re talking about."
The lamp trembled in Sasha hands. He looked at her, then at his father. Her heart sank. What were they doing to him, pulling him in opposite directions like a rubber band? She should put an end to this right now. Tell him to return to their room, Mama and Papa will be out shortly. But she didn’t. Something stopped her, perhaps Samuil’s hand on their son’s shoulder, gripping it with pale bloodless knuckles like a drowning man, or the wobbling in her stomach, unsure and sickening, as seconds dragged on. Sasha straightened his back, his shoulders pulled down by his father’s weight. He filled up his lungs and exhaled loudly. The flame fluttered for a moment and died, unable to survive the sudden gust of air. The furniture lurked in the dark, thick and unrelenting like the forest that bore it. They stared out blindly, confronted by the vapor of their breath. Roza wanted to reach out and grab her son’s arm, to pull him to her as she did when he was in trouble. "My baby," she’d coo at him. "My sweet little one." No matter how old, five or eight or twelve, he would lean his head on her chest, laying into her the weight of his sorrows. If only she could hold him now, protect him.
She couldn’t move, paralyzed from head to toe, a block of ice frozen to the floor boards.
"The little one is sick, very sick…" Sasha’s voice was coming from far away. "I think it’s just a matter of days, weeks at most…" She tried to make out his face, but saw only his eyes, blinking and glistening white like signals she failed to understand. "I th, thi, th…" He stuttered.
"Sasha, Sashenka," she pleaded silently.
The voice was on again but this time it sounded different and for a moment she wasn’t sure if it was her son or her husband who spoke.
"They need to go. We don’t have enough for ourselves and I can’t share. I won’t. Any less will kill me, I just know it. Mama," Sasha appealed in his sweetest voice, "surely, you don’t want me to die?"
She gripped her belly with her forearms. There was no pain, only a sense of loss, an emptiness worse than starvation. The men kept talking, the words "morning" and "city orphanage" breaking through the blockade in her head. Samuil said something in a half tone. Was he speaking to her? She didn’t listen anymore. She couldn’t stand the sound of their voices.
"Get out," she groaned, "get out of here!"
They fell silent but she could still hear them breathing. "Get out," she whispered, her legs giving in underneath her. They moved to go. There were the footsteps, Samuil’s slow shuffles followed by Sasha’s obedient step. The door creaked open and closed shut behind them. Oh, blessed silence!
She groped her way to the bed and fell on the bare mattress. The boys were waiting in the other room. She needed to get up and make the bed for them but she felt she was sinking, weighed down by the stiffening air.
The cold pinched at her face. The chill would never go away, she knew, not in the morning, not even in springtime. Outside the wind howled like a hungry beast. A snowstorm was coming. The window frame rattled as if someone was tapping with bony fingers, asking to be let in. Then it stopped. The room grew perfectly still. She imagined Kiril in his last moments, lying in this bed much like her, eyes wide open towards the pitch black ceiling. Not a patch of sky, not a star, just the darkness of hell all around.
She felt for the pancake in her pocket. She had forgotten all about it. She pulled it out slowly, careful not to crumble it. It was small, lost in the palm of her hand. She held it out in front of her and finally, as if executing a verdict, shoved it in her mouth and swallowed. It vanished inside her, giving her no satisfaction. There was no more hunger, no sensation of any kind.
"Perhaps this is what it’s like," she thought.
Perhaps she was already dead.
Copyright © Lia Pripstein-Lane 2011
Lia Pripstein-Lane was born in Leningrad and immigrated to Israel at the age of seven. After her IDF service Pripstein-Lane travelled to St. Petersburg, Moscow and Siberia asa community organizer and participated in Steven Spielberg’s Shoah documentation project, interviewing Holocaust survivors from former Soviet territories. She studied philosophy, literature and history at the Hebrew University in Jerusalem and Business Administration at Tel Aviv University. After several years working in Israeli High-Tech Pripstein-Lane moved to New York, where she took up creative writing. She lives with her husband and daughters in San Diego, California, and is presently at work on a novel.