Under a blood red sky, p.13

Under a Blood Red Sky, page 13

 

Under a Blood Red Sky
 



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  ‘So would I,’ she whispered.

  The woman struggled to sit up, her bird-like chest straining against the first rumblings of a coughing fit, and closed her eyes.

  ‘Hell couldn’t be any worse than this place,’ Anna murmured. ‘Could it?’

  The next day one of the guards called out to her. ‘You! Come here.’

  The evening ordeal was finally over. The poverka, the roll-call and counting of heads, was a process that dragged on and on sometimes for hours, even though the prisoners could barely stand after a hard day’s labour in the forest. It went on until the numbers that were lined up in rigid rows in the Zone tallied with the numbers on the lists in front of the Commandant. The procedure was repeated rigorously every morning and every night, and every morning and every night somebody died. The German Shepherd dogs on chain leashes watched with gaping jaws for any movement in the rows.

  ‘You.’ The guard called to her now. ‘Number 1498. Come here.’

  When a guard chose to summon you out of the pack, it meant nothing but trouble. Anna tugged her scarf tighter round her ears to shut out the sound of his arrogant command and concentrated on keeping moving. She folded herself into the back of a group of prisoners as they shuffled their way at last towards the shelter of the huts, out of the biting wind that froze the breath on their lungs. The night sky was a vast velvety cat-black expanse overhead, spangled with stars and lit by a full moon that painted the faces beneath it with ugly colourless shadows. It transformed the long huts into coffins.

  Anna heard the rattle of a rifle as a bullet was loaded into the breach. She swung round and faced the guard. He was young. Barely shaving. She’d caught him watching her before, his gaze crawling greedily over her skin, worse than the lice. He swaggered over to her across the icy ground, his rifle tucked snugly under his arm, its tip pointed straight at the spot between her legs to which his eyes kept sliding, even though she was bundled up under a skirt and a padded jacket.

  ‘Number 1498.’

  ‘Yes.’ She stared at the black patch of ground at his feet and linked her hands behind her back, as was required of prisoners when addressed by guards.

  ‘I hear you are willing to sell your soul.’

  Her heart thudded. Her eyes leapt to his face.

  ‘Is that so?’ he asked, a sly smile tilting his mouth.

  ‘It was a joke, nothing more. I was hungry.’

  Loathsome informers, the stukachs. Like the yellow-toothed rats, they were everywhere, swapping a scrap of information for a scrap of bread. No one could be trusted. Survival in the camp came at a high price.

  The guard stroked the barrel of his rifle against her cheek, scraping one of the lesions and forcing her to turn her face aside while he pressed the muzzle under the knot of her scarf at her throat. The metal was brutally cold on her skin. She could feel her pulse slowing at its touch.

  ‘Are you hungry now?’ he asked.

  ‘No.’

  ‘I think you are lying, prisoner 1498.’

  He smiled at her and licked his chapped lips. His back was to the nearest floodlight, which cut a yellow swathe through the darkness of the Zone so that his eyes appeared as deep black holes in his head. Anna wanted to push her fingers into them.

  ‘No,’ she said.

  ‘I don’t want your soul.’

  ‘I didn’t think you did.’

  ‘So will you sell your body instead, in exchange for a good breakfast?’

  From the depths of his greatcoat pocket he drew a package wrapped in brown greaseproof paper. Slinging his rifle over his shoulder, he unwrapped the packet and held it out to her. The wind tried to snatch it away, making the paper’s folds crackle and snap. It contained two speckled eggs and a thin sliver of pork. Anna almost sobbed with desire. Her eyes feasted lovingly on the sight of the eggs, on their plump brownness, on the delicacy of the speckles in greys and whites and liver-browns, on the perfection of the curve of the shells. She didn’t even dare look at the meat.

  ‘So will you?’

  He had moved. He was standing beside her now, his breath coming fast and forming small dense clouds of desire in the moonlight. Saliva rushed into Anna’s mouth. There were women in the camp, she knew, who took favours from a guard, who sought one out for protection. Such women did not have lesions on their face or death in their eyes and they worked in the camp kitchen or in the camp laundry, instead of in the killing fields of the forest. Was it so bad? To want to live?

  Reluctantly she dragged her eyes from the beauty of the eggs and stared at the guard’s expression. Now she could see clearly the look of loneliness in his young face, the need for something that felt like love even if it wasn’t. He was trapped here the same as she was, about the same age as herself, cut off from all he knew and cared for. Russia had robbed them both and he was desperate for something more. A little human contact. A stamping of self on a blank faceless world. It could help them both survive. Her famished body swayed imperceptibly towards his strong young frame.

  ‘A good breakfast?’ he whispered temptingly.

  ‘Go fuck yourself,’ she snapped and swept away into the darkness.

  19

  Tivil July 1933

  That night, Tivil was stripped naked and raw. That’s how it seemed to Pyotr.

  ‘Stay indoors, Pyotr. And keep the house locked.’

  Those were Papa’s words. With a frown he lit himself a cigarette, ruffled Pyotr’s hair and was about to disappear back out into the chaotic night when he stopped abruptly. He looked across at Sofia Morozova, assessing her. Mikhail Pashin had kept a firm grip on her arm, as well as on Pyotr’s, when they left the assembly hall and had marched them both straight to the safety of his own home. Now he was leaving them.

  ‘Will you do something for me?’ he asked her. ‘Take care of my son tonight?’

  ‘Of course. I’ll guard him well.’

  Pyotr wanted to die of shame but his father nodded, satisfied, and stepped out into the road. A cold drizzle was falling as he pulled the door closed behind him and Pyotr could see the raindrops like diamonds in his father’s dark hair. He tried not to be frightened for him. They were left standing in the tiny porch where boots were kept, the fugitive and himself, just the two of them alone in the house, eyeing each other warily. Pyotr picked up the oil lamp that Papa had lit on the shelf by the door and walked into the living room with it. He was hoping she wouldn’t follow, but she did. Right on his heels.

  Neither spoke. He placed the lamp on the table and headed straight for the kitchen. There he poured himself a cup of water, drank it down slowly, counted to fifty in his head and went back into the living room. She was still there. She was leaning over the half-constructed model of a bridge on the table, one of the tiny slivers of wood between her fingers. Dozens of them were scattered over the surface, little lightweight girders.

  ‘Don’t touch,’ he said quickly.

  ‘It must take a lot of patience to make.’

  ‘Papa is building it.’ He shuffled nearer. ‘I help.’

  She gazed at it, very serious. ‘It’s beautiful.’

  He stared at one of the elegant wooden towers. Said nothing.

  ‘What bridge is it?’

  ‘The Forth Bridge in Scotland,’ he lied.

  ‘I see,’ she nodded.

  ‘Don’t touch,’ he repeated.

  She put down the piece of wood and looked round the room.

  ‘You have a nice house,’ she said at last.

  He wouldn’t look at her. Of course it was a nice house, the nicest in the village. A huge pechka stove provided the heart of the izba, which had good-sized rooms, a large kitchen and a handsome samovar decorated in Hohloma style. The house was light and airy and the furniture was smart and factory-bought, not hand-hewn. He glanced around proudly. It was a house fit for the director of a factory, with the best wool runners on the brown-painted floor and curtains from the Levitsky factory’s own machines. Only now did it occur to Pyotr that it might seem
rather untidy to an outside eye.

  ‘May I have a drink?’ she asked.

  He looked at her. Her cheeks were pink. Maybe she was hot. He didn’t want to give her a drink, he wanted her to go, to leave him alone but . . .

  ‘A drink?’ she repeated.

  He scuttled back into the kitchen just as the cuckoo clock struck ten, and quickly he poured her a few drops of water in the bottom of the same cup he’d used. He didn’t bother washing it. But when he hurried back into the living room she was crouched down in front of the three-cornered cupboard where Papa kept his private things. In one hand was an unopened bottle of vodka, a shot glass in the other.

  ‘That’s Papa’s.’

  ‘I didn’t think it was yours.’

  ‘Put it back.’

  She smiled at him, a very small curl of her lips. Pyotr watched her unscrew the cap and pour into the glass some of the liquid that looked like water but wasn’t. He didn’t know what to say. She carried the bottle and the untouched vodka over to the armchair and sat down in it. She raised her glass to him.

  ‘Za zdorovie! ’ she said solemnly.

  ‘That’s Papa’s chair.’

  ‘I know.’

  ‘How can you know?’

  ‘There are lots of things I know about your father.’

  She tipped her head back and threw the shot of vodka down her throat. Her blue eyes widened and she murmured something.

  ‘I’m going to tell,’ he said quickly.

  ‘Tell what?’

  ‘Tell Chairman Fomenko that you’re a fugitive.’

  ‘I see.’

  She poured herself another shot of vodka and drank it straight off. She closed her eyes and licked her lips, breathing lightly. Her eyelashes lay like threads of moonlight on her cheeks.

  ‘What makes you think I’m a fugitive?’ she asked without opening her eyes. ‘I was just taking a break on my journey south, resting up in the forest.’ Quietly she added, ‘You have no proof.’

  He said nothing.

  ‘I don’t want trouble,’ she said.

  ‘If you don’t want trouble, why did you go to the meeting tonight?’

  ‘To find you.’

  His stomach lurched.

  ‘I had no idea when I met you in the forest that you were Mikhail Pashin’s son.’

  Pyotr just stared at his shoes. He’d forgotten to clean them.

  ‘Where is your mother?’

  He shrugged. ‘She left. And never came back.’

  ‘I’m sorry, Pyotr. How long ago?’

  ‘Six years.’

  ‘Six years is a long time.’

  He looked up at her. Her eyes were wide open now and filled with an emotion he couldn’t make out. There was a sudden shout in the street and running footsteps. Pyotr felt a desire to be out there.

  ‘Are you really a tractor driver?’ he asked.

  ‘Yes.’

  ‘Honestly?’

  ‘Yes.’ She smiled at him and he felt the sweet honey once again slide down his throat. She leaned forward, chin propped firmly on her hand. ‘Pyotr, please. We can be friends, you and I.’

  He could sense the strands of her web twisting through the air towards him, so fine he couldn’t see them but he knew they were there. In her drab clothes she looked so harmless, but he recognised the determination in her, the same way he recognised the coming of thunder behind the grey skirts of a storm cloud. He turned and ran out of the house.

  Elizaveta Lishnikova stood in the doorway of the schoolhouse. She watched the boy race up the street as if his shirttails were on fire and disappear into the night. A light drizzle was falling but still she stood there, tense as she listened to the shouts and cries of panic that tore through the village. Black shapes moved stealthily through the darkness and she caught sight of a fragile stick of a child creeping along the side of the fence that bordered the school. Her heart sank for the little one.

  ‘Anastasia,’ she called out. ‘Come here.’

  The girl hesitated, eyes wide with fear. Under her arm she clutched a bundle of material.

  ‘Come here, child.’ Elizaveta inserted a touch of her head-mistress tone into the command.

  The girl sidled through the front gate and scurried up the path, her hurried footsteps like the pitter-patter of a mouse’s tiny feet. She hunched in front of Elizaveta, her head hanging down, an expression of dismay on her narrow little face. The bundle in her arms was wrapped inside a piece of striped pillow ticking and covered in damp patches from the rain.

  Dear God, are we reduced to using our children to do our dirty work?

  ‘What are you doing wandering around loose tonight, Anastasia?’

  ‘The soldiers came to our house,’ the child whispered. Her nose was running and she wiped it on her sleeve.

  ‘All the more reason to stay at home with your parents, I’d have thought.’

  ‘My father told me to . . . take something,’ she sniffed, ‘. . . and run.’

  She clutched the ‘something’ closer to her bony chest and the material moved in protest. The unmistakable squawk of an angry chicken issued from it.

  ‘Why bring it here to the school, Anastasia?’

  The top of the mousy head nodded vigorously. ‘Pyotr told me to. He said . . .’ Her small voice trailed away.

  ‘What did Pyotr say?’

  ‘He said the soldiers won’t search the schoolhouse for food.’

  ‘Did he indeed?’

  ‘He said it’s the safest place to be tonight.’

  ‘I see.’

  The hopeful eyes looked up at her, wet straggles of hair stuck to her cheeks like rats’ tails.

  ‘Very well, Anastasia. This once you may go into the classroom. Sit there in the dark and make no sound. Keep your bundle quiet, too. Wring its damned neck if you have to.’

  The pale face looked up at her with a gaze of adoration that Elizaveta knew she didn’t want or deserve. All she could think of was that a chicken was not worth the risk she was taking. A man, yes. A chicken, no. For one brief moment, her mind flitted back to a time thirty years ago when her father’s gleaming dining table would have boasted six roast chickens for one family supper alone, with the scraps thrown to the dogs at the end. Now she was risking her life for just one of the stupid creatures. The world had turned upside down.

  In the street a pair of OGPU troops were forcing their way into the house opposite. Elizaveta stepped quickly back into the hallway and Anastasia popped through the door and ducked into the schoolroom. Once inside, she became suddenly livelier and held her head at a more confident angle on the stalk of her neck as she grinned up at Elizaveta.

  ‘Pyotr was right,’ Anastasia chirruped. ‘He’s always right.’

  Elizaveta sighed and turned her attention back to the street. Chairman Fomenko was just striding into the house opposite with a sharp word on his tongue and Elizaveta felt an urge to go out there and rap her cane across his hands. What did the man think he was doing? You can’t bleed a village dry and still expect it to work for you. Yet sometimes the blasted man astonished her with his unexpected gestures of generosity, like when he personally drove one of the kolkhoz carts to take all the schoolchildren to the May Day celebrations in the next valley, or when he dug up his own vegetable plot to provide a party for the whole village on Stalin’s birthday, with soup and black bread and boiled chicken.

  Off to one side she caught sight of a flash of blonde hair in the torchlight. It was the stranger, the gypsy’s so-called niece. Now why was she running about in the dark? And right near the church, too. Elizaveta’s heart thumped in her chest. Was the girl leading the troops to the church? Would they discover the chamber?

  Pokrovsky, where are you?

  Dear God, that was one of the reasons she’d not married. It was always the same. When you need a man, he’s never there.

  Rafik fought them with his mind, one by one. He drew no blood, except in his own brain, but he raged.

  The uniforms came. In ones an
d twos and threes. Their heads full of dry lifeless straw that he could ignite with a touch of his finger and a look from his eyes. He manipulated their feeble thoughts. House by house he turned them back, bought time for goods to vanish from larders into the forest’s sanctuary. Sacks of grain, haunches of pork, slabs of cheese, they all slipped away into the darkness. But the uniforms crawled everywhere, too many for him. The pain started when six faced him at once. Six was too many, they drained his strength, but when he saw the woman in the house weeping, entreating the stone faces to leave her family something to eat, he knew the cost the village would pay if he stopped.

  So he didn’t stop - and now he was paying for it. A red hot pain erupted inside his brain. He staggered in the street, tasted blood.

  ‘Zenia,’ he breathed.

  Before the sound was out of his mouth, his daughter was there at his side in the shattered darkness, a tiny vial of green fluid in her hand. Her gaze sought his and he saw her fear for him trapped in her eyes, but not once did she tell him to cease what he was doing.

  ‘The potion won’t stop the damage.’ She soothed his temples with a cloth that smelled of herbs. ‘But it will mask the pain, so you’ll be able to continue. If you choose to.’

  Her black eyes begged him not to.

  He touched his daughter’s cheek and tipped the dark green liquid down his throat.

  20

  Sofia was desperate. She couldn’t find the boy. She slipped between the izbas, hugging the darkness, avoiding the torches and the swaying lamps and the voices giving orders. She searched everywhere but he was gone.

  In the chaos around her she seized the shoulder of a woman who was hurrying from her house, a scarf hiding her face from the troops that had fanned out through the village.

  ‘Have you seen Pyotr Pashin?’

  But the woman scuttled past her, bent double over a sack clutched in her arms, and melted away into the forest. In the centre of the single street, blocking any movement, was a hefty truck, growling noisily and edging its way from house to house. At the back it had an uncovered flatbed that was already piled with more than a dozen sacks of various shapes and sizes, men in uniform hurling them up to a pair of young soldiers who were efficiently stacking them. Sofia tried to edge past it.

 
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