Moscow but Dreaming

Chapter 44

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“Where are your brothers?” he asks.

“Gone. Evacuated, the boys and Valya.” (She is hoping that Yasha is not looking out of the window, like he often does— seeing her coming and going. She is too afraid to look herself and betray him.) “I have to be at the factory.”

“I’ll walk you,” he says.

She wraps her arm under his, gingerly, and they walk arm in arm, step in step, in silence. The sun is out and the river sparkles, and all the while her fingers are working, working, to wind the ragged black thread Olga Petrovna gave her through the buttonhole of his sleeve.

He doesn’t seem to notice as they walk, or even as he kisses her goodbye, his mouth moist and cold, lips liver-colored, pressed against hers for one suffocating moment, and then he is gone— walking away toward the embankment, the left bank. He never even noticed that the factory gates were closed.

She waits for the black thread to unravel and lets it slack as he disappears from view. Then, she follows him. They walk again, step in step, separated by a length of black woolen thread. It hangs like silk of a monstrous spiderweb, like a curving meridian line—she imagines it as a thick jagged crack in white ice, running across lake Ladoga, separating her from the evacuated and the saved, a thick woolen thread, fuzzy and itchy, that connects her to him without ever touching. Cleaved, in both senses of the word, along the embankment.

He leaves the embankment near the Admiralty, and goes west. West and west and west, crossing streets and bridges, and Svetlana is so busy keeping the thread in her hand not too taut, not too slack, that she doesn’t even notice the names of streets and rivers—Moika, Fontanka, all the same.

She doesn’t know this place, and the thread is no longer pulling or unraveling. She is looking at a low metal fence. “What is this?” she asks herself, but a passerby mistakes her bewilderment for curiosity.

“Volkovskoe Lutheran Cemetery,” he says, and wraps his wind-chapped face in the wide collar of his thickly padded canvas coat. “Only they’re not burying anyone—the ground’s frozen solid.”

“I know,” Svetlana whispers, and follows the thread, along the fence, through the ornate grate. Her feet are numb and her fingers tingle as if it’s a live wire, not a woolen thread she’s holding. She follows it, unyielding and fateful like the needle of the compass, until the thread snakes across already frozen clumps of dirt, strewn about as if thrown by hooves and paws, and disappears under a tombstone, empty of any names save for a lone star in its left upper corner.

10.

Svetlana did not remember her way back home. Even the hunger retreated, giving place to profound, impossible resignation. It was the second time that year that her world tumbled upside down, and everything that she knew was right was proven to be otherwise: first, it was her secret, unexamined belief that she would be all right that came to an abrupt end in August; now it was . . . she refused to name it even in her mind, no matter how the imagined Olga Petrovna tried to claw through her thoughts, through the erected mental wall of distracting thoughts and resonant determination to not think about that, you mustn’t think about that, you mustn’t think that word, you mustn’t.

“Call it by its name,” Olga Petrovna insisted, her face clear in Svetlana’s mind despite her decisively squinted shut eyes. “It will destroy him.”

No, not destroy. Make him human.

“And then what?” Svetlana wondered aloud. No one ever seemed to know the answer, it seemed—once you made those creatures human, you killed them, the wisdom went. Otherwise, you couldn’t touch them. But could you let them live?

“I’m hungry,” Yasha said the moment she got home. “Can I go where Vanya went? They say there’s food there.”

“Soon,” she promised. “Come now, we’ll sleep and the time will go by faster. Before you know it, you’ll be in some village in Ukraine, and it’ll be warm, and they will have fresh milk in clay jars, and plums and apples and cherries you can pick off the tree.”

“And bread and butter,” Yasha sighed.

11.

Human arms are a thin thing, especially the arms of a girl starved half to death—such a trifling thing, such an easy barrier to bypass. It didn’t matter how much Svetlana hugged Yasha to her in her sleep—just to keep him, until next day, next week, when maybe they would have a place for a larger boy who would soon be large enough for labor, for digging graves in frozen cemeteries and for hauling buckets of sand onto the roofs.

She woke up because the heavy suffocating presence on her chest and the emptiness of her arms, the sticky trace of something cold on her fingers, and a loud, wet chewing. Soup and dumplings, she thought in her fogged-up mind, bread and butter and treacle, before she heard cartilage and a long whistle of a windpipe suddenly too wide for breath.

It was so dark that even with her eyes wide she couldn’t see—but she shut them again, and covered her face with her sticky hands, and screamed, “Upyr, upyr, leave him be!” as loud as she could. In the dark, she flailed, looking for something to hold onto, but there was only darkness seeping between her fingers.

12.

It takes one a while to get used to talking about oneself in third person. I am Yasha, and yet not entirely. I sleep in the Volkovskoe Lutheran Cemetery, even though we’re not Lutherans or even German. I wish Ilya was here with me, to explain things, to tell me why I was always so cold and why my own sister wouldn’t look at me, wouldn’t call me by my name.

That night, he didn’t eat me up like he did my mother—he left just enough of a soul glimmer that I woke up under the pile of frozen bodies and clawed my way to the surface. Even though people were hollow-eyed and starving, many wanted to take in an orphan, so I survived without him.

I only learned what happened to him a few days later, when there was an air raid. What that old bat, Olga Petrovna, said about upyr becoming human for a while was true. What she didn’t know was that once human, the upyr would seek death—he would go to the roof of some apartment building and wait for the German bombs among the giggling, gossiping girls and the buckets of sand. He would die a hero’s death, he would cover an incendiary bomb with his own body and save everyone, and the newspaper would write about him. People would know his name.

And so I wait by my sister’s door and beg her, I beg her for the word and a shot from my father’s pistol, so that Vanya could finally have a hero for a brother.

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