Under a blood red sky, p.2

Under a Blood Red Sky, page 2

 

Under a Blood Red Sky
 



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  But now things had changed. As the snow began to fall and whiten the shoulders of the prisoners in front, Sofia turned away from them and faced Anna. It had taken her a long time to get used to the howling of a Siberian wind but now she could switch it off in her ears, along with the growls of the guard dogs and the sobs of the girl behind.

  ‘Anna,’ she urged, holding on to the rope that bound them together, ‘tell me about Vasily again.’

  Anna smiled, she couldn’t help it. Just the mention of the name Vasily turned a light on inside her, however wet or tired or sick she was. Vasily Dyuzheyev - he was Anna’s childhood friend in Petrograd, two years older but her companion in every waking thought and in many of her night-time dreams. He was the son of Svetlana and Grigori Dyuzheyev, aristocratic friends of Anna’s father, and right now Sofia needed to know everything about him. Everything. And not just for pleasure this time - though she didn’t like to admit, even to herself, how much pleasure Anna’s talking of Vasily gave her - for now it was serious.

  Sofia had made the decision to get Anna out of this hell-hole before it was too late. Her only hope of succeeding was with help, and Vasily was the only one she could turn to. But would he help? And could she find him?

  A quiet and thoughtful smile had crept on to Anna’s face. Her scarf was wrapped round her head and the lower part of her face, so that only her eyes showed, narrowed against the wind. But the smile was there, deep inside them, as she started to talk.

  ‘The day was as colourless as today. It was winter and the new year of 1917 had just begun. All around me the white sky and the white ground merged to become one crisp shell, frozen in a silent world. There was no wind, only the sound of a swan stamping on the ice of the lake with its big flat feet. Vasily and I had come out for a walk together, just the two of us, wrapped up well against the cold. Our fur boots crunched satisfyingly in the snow as we ran across the lawn to keep warm.

  ‘“Vasily, I can see the dome of St Isaac’s Cathedral from here. It looks like a big shiny snowball!” I shouted from high up in the sycamore tree. I’d always loved to climb trees and this was a particularly tempting one, down by the lake on his father’s estate.

  ‘“I’ll build you a snow sleigh fit for a Snow Queen,” he promised.

  ‘You should have seen him, Sofia. His eyes bright and sparkling like the icicle-fingers that trailed from the tree’s branches, he watched me climb high up among its huge naked limbs that spread out over the lawn like a skeleton. He didn’t once say, “Be careful” or “It’s not ladylike”, like my governess Maria would have.

  ‘“You’ll keep dry up there,” he laughed, “and it’ll stop you leaping over the sleigh with your big feet before it’s finished.”

  ‘I threw a snowball at him, then took pleasure in studying the way he carefully carved runners out of the deep snow, starting to create the body of a sleigh with long, sweeping sides. At first I sang “Gaida Troika” to him, swinging my feet in rhythm, but eventually I couldn’t hold back the question that was burning a hole in my tongue.

  ‘“Will you tell me what you’ve been doing, Vasily? You’re hardly ever here any more. I . . . hear things.”

  ‘“What kind of things?”

  ‘“The servants are saying it’s getting dangerous on the streets.”

  ‘“You should always listen to the servants, Annochka,” he laughed. “They know everything.”

  ‘But I wasn’t going to be put off so easily. “Tell me, Vasily.”

  ‘He looked up at me, his gaze suddenly solemn, his soft brown hair falling off his face so that the bones of his forehead and his cheeks stood out sharply. It occurred to me that he was thinner, and my stomach swooped when I realised why. He was giving away his food.

  ‘“Do you really want to know?”

  ‘“Yes, I’m twelve now, old enough to hear what’s going on. Tell me, Vasily. Please.”

  ‘He nodded pensively, and then proceeded to tell me about the crowds that had gathered noisily in the Winter Palace Square the previous day and how a shot had been fired. The cavalry had come charging in on their horses and flashed their sabres to keep order.

  ‘“But it won’t be long, Anna. It’s like a firework. The taper is lit. It’s just a question of when it will explode.”

  ‘“Explosions cause damage.” I was frightened for him.

  ‘From my high perch I dropped a snowball at his feet and watched it vanish in a puff of white.

  ‘“Exactly. That’s why I’m telling you, Anna, to warn you. My parents refuse to listen to me but if they don’t change their way of living right now, it’ll be . . .” he paused.

  ‘“It’ll be what, Vasily?”

  ‘“It’ll be too late.”

  ‘I wasn’t cold in my beaver hat and cape but nevertheless a shiver skittered up my spine. I could see the sorrow in his upturned face. Quickly I started to climb down, swinging easily between branches, and when I neared the bottom Vasily held out his arms and I jumped down into them. He caught me safely and I inhaled the scent of his hair, all crisp and cool and masculine, a foreign territory that I loved to explore. I kissed his cheek and he held me close, then swung me in an arc through the air and gently dropped me inside the snow sleigh on the seat he’d carved. He bowed to me.

  ‘“Your carriage, Princess Anna.”

  ‘My heart wasn’t in it now, but to please him I picked up the imaginary reins with a flourish. Flick, flick. A click of my tongue to the make-believe horse and I was flying along a forest track in my silver sleigh, the trees leaning in on me, whispering. But then I looked about suddenly, swivelling round on the cold seat. Where was Vasily? I spotted him leaning against the dark trunk of the sycamore, smoking a cigarette and wearing his sad face.

  ‘“Vasily,” I called.

  ‘He dropped the cigarette in the snow where it hissed.

  ‘“What is it, Princess?”

  ‘He came over but he didn’t smile. His grey eyes were staring at his father’s house, three storeys high with elegant windows and tall chimneys.

  ‘“Do you know,” he asked, “how many families could live in a house like ours?”

  ‘“One. Yours.”

  ‘“No. Twelve families. Probably more, with children sharing rooms. Things are going to change, Anna. The Tsarina’s evil old sorcerer, Rasputin, was murdered last month and that’s just the start. You must be prepared.”

  ‘I tapped a glove on his cheek and playfully lifted one corner of his mouth. “I like change.”

  ‘“I know you do. But there are people out there, millions of them, who will demand change, not because they like it but because they need it.”

  ‘“Are they the ones on strike?”

  ‘“Yes. They’re desperately poor, Anna, with their rights stolen from them. You don’t realise what it’s like because you’ve lived all your life in a golden cage. You don’t know what it is to be cold and hungry.”

  ‘We’d had arguments before about this and I knew better now than to mention Vasily’s own golden cage. “They can have my other coat,” I offered. “It’s in the car.”

  ‘The smile he gave me made my heart lurch. It was worth the loss of my coat. “Come on, let’s go and get it,” I laughed.

  ‘He set off in long galloping strides across the lawn, leaving a trail of deep black holes in the snow behind him. I followed, stretching my legs as wide as I could to place my fur boots directly in each of his footsteps, and all the way I could still hear the wind tinkling in the frozen trees. It sounded like a warning.’

  Sofia sat cross-legged on the dirty floorboards without moving. The night was dark and bitterly cold as the temperature continued to plummet, but her muscles had learned control. She had taught herself patience, so that when the inquisitive grey mouse pushed its nose through the rotten planks of the hut wall, its eyes bright and whiskers twitching, she was ready for it.

  She didn’t breathe. She saw it sense danger, but the lure of the crumb of bread placed on the floor was too grea
t in the food-less world of the labour camp, and the little creature made its final, fatal mistake. It scurried towards the crumb. Sofia’s hand shot out. One squeak and it was over. She added the miniature body to the three already in her lap and carefully broke the tiny crumb of bread in two, popping one half of it into her own mouth and placing the other back on the floor. She settled down again in the silence.

  ‘You’re very good at that,’ Anna’s quiet voice said.

  Sofia looked up, surprised. In the dim light she could just make out the restless blonde head and delicate pale face on one of the bunks.

  ‘Can’t you sleep, Anna?’ Sofia asked softly.

  ‘I like watching you. I don’t know how you move so fast. Besides, it takes my mind off . . .’ she gestured about her with a loose flick of her hand, ‘. . . off this.’

  Sofia glanced around. The darkness was cut into slices by a bright shaft of moonlight, slipping in through the narrow gaps between the planking of the walls. The long wooden hut was crammed with a hundred and fifty undernourished women on hard communal bunks, all dreaming of food, their snores and coughs and moans filling the chill air. But only one was sitting with a precious pile of food in her lap. Though only twenty-six, Sofia had spent enough years in a labour camp to know the secrets of survival.

  ‘Hungry?’ Sofia asked Anna with a crooked smile.

  ‘Not really.’

  ‘Don’t fancy roast rodent?’

  ‘Nyet. No, not tonight. You eat them all.’

  Sofia jumped up and bent over Anna’s bunk, breathing in the stale smell of the five unwashed bodies and unfilled bellies that lay on the bed board.

  She said fiercely, ‘Don’t, Anna. Don’t give up.’ She took hold of her friend’s arm and squeezed it hard. ‘You’re just a bundle of bird bones under this coat. Listen to me, you’ve come too far to give up now. You’ve got to eat whatever I catch for you, even if it tastes foul. You hear me? If you don’t eat, how are you going to work tomorrow?’

  Anna closed her eyes and turned her face away into the darkness.

  ‘Don’t you dare shut me out, Anna Fedorina. Don’t do that. Talk to me.’

  Only silence, save for Anna’s quick shallow breathing. Outside the wind rattled the wooden planks of the roof and Sofia heard the faint screech of something metal moving. One of the guard dogs at the perimeter fence barked a challenge.

  ‘Anna,’ Sofia said angrily, ‘what would Vasily say?’

  She held her breath. Never before had she spoken those words or used Vasily’s name as a lever. Slowly Anna’s tousled blonde head rolled back and a smile curved the corners of her pale lips. The movement was barely there, a faint smudge in the darkness, but Sofia didn’t miss the fresh spark of energy that flickered in the blue eyes.

  ‘Go and cook your wretched mice then,’ Anna muttered.

  ‘You promise to eat them?’

  ‘Yes.’

  ‘I’ll catch one more first.’

  ‘You should be sleeping.’ Anna’s hand gripped Sofia’s. ‘Why are you doing this for me?’

  ‘Because you saved my life.’

  Sofia felt rather than saw Anna’s shrug.

  ‘That’s forgotten,’ Anna whispered.

  ‘Not by me. Whatever it takes, Anna, I won’t let you die.’ She stroked the mittened fingers, then pulled her own coat tighter and returned to her spot by the hole and the crumb of bread. She leaned her back against the wall, letting the trembling in her limbs subside until she was absolutely still once more.

  ‘Sofia,’ Anna whispered, ‘you have the persistence of the Devil.’

  Sofia smiled. ‘He and I are well acquainted.’

  3

  Sofia leaned against the hut wall, shutting her mind to the icy draughts, and let Anna’s words echo quietly in her head.

  That’s forgotten.

  Two years, eight months ago. Sofia pulled off the makeshift mitten on her right hand, stitched out of blanket threads and mattress ticking, and lifted the two scarred fingers right up to her face. She could just make out the twisted flesh, a reminder every single day of her life. So no, not forgotten.

  It had started when they were taken off axing the boughs from felled trees and put to work on the road instead. It was progressing fast. The prison labour brigades were not told from where it had come nor where it was headed, but the pressure was hard and unrelenting and it showed in the attitude of the guards, who grew more demanding and less forgiving of any delays. People started making mistakes.

  Sofia had reached such a state of exhaustion that her mind was becoming foggy and the skin on her hands was shredded, despite the makeshift gloves. Her world became nothing but stones and rocks and gravel, and then more stones and more rocks and more gravel. She piled them in her sleep, shovelled grit in her dreams; hammered piles of granite into smooth flat surfaces till the muscles in her back forgot what it was like not to ache with a dull, grinding pain that saps your willpower because you know it’s never going away. Even worse was the ditch digging. Feet in slime and filthy water all day and spine fixed in a permanent twist that wouldn’t unscrew. Eating was the only aim in life and sleep had become a luxury.

  ‘Can any of you scarecrows sing?’

  The surprising request came from a new guard. He was tall and as lean as the prisoners themselves, only in his twenties and with a bright intelligent face. What was he doing as a guard? Sofia wondered. Most likely he’d slipped up somewhere in his career and was paying for it now.

  ‘Well, which one of you can sing?’

  Singing used up precious energy. No one ever sang. Besides, work was supposed to be conducted in silence.

  ‘Well? Come on. I fancy a serenade to brighten my day. I’m sick of the sound of your fucking hammers.’

  Anna was up on the raised road crushing stones into place but Sofia noticed her lift her head and could see the thought starting to form. A song? Yes, why not? She could manage a song. Yes, an old love ballad would—

  Sofia tossed a pebble and it clipped Anna’s ankle. She winced and looked over to where Sofia was standing three metres away, knee-deep in ditch water, scooping out mud and stones. Her face was filthy, streaked with slime and covered in bites and sweat. The summer day was overcast but warm, and the need to keep limbs completely wrapped up in rags against the mosquitoes made everyone hot and morose. Sofia shook her head at her friend, her lips tight in warning. Don’t, she mouthed.

  ‘I can sing,’ came a voice.

  It was a small, dark-haired woman in her thirties who’d spoken. The prisoners close by looked up from their work, surprised. She was usually quiet and uncommunicative.

  ‘I am an . . .’ The woman corrected herself. ‘I was an opera singer. I’ve performed in Moscow and in Paris and Milan and—’

  ‘Excellent! Otlichno! Warble something sweet for me, little songbird.’ The guard folded his arms around his rifle and smiled at her expectantly.

  The woman didn’t hesitate. She threw down her hammer with disdain, drew herself up to her full height, took two deep breaths and started to sing. The sound soared out of her, pure and heart-wrenching in its astonishing beauty. Heads lifted, the smiles and tears of the workers bringing life back into their exhausted faces.

  ‘Un bel dì, vedremo levarsi un fil di fumo sull’estremo confin del mare. E poi . . .’

  ‘It’s Madame Butterfly,’ murmured a woman. She was hauling a wheelbarrow piled high with rocks into position on the road.

  As the music filled the air with golden enchantment, a warning shout tore through it. Heads turned. They all saw it happen. The woman had dropped her barrow carelessly to the ground as she’d stopped to listen to the singing, and now it had started to topple. It was the accident all of them feared, to be crushed beneath a barrow-load of rocks as they plunged over the edge of the raised road surface. You didn’t stand a chance.

  ‘Sofia!’ Anna screamed.

  Sofia was fast. Knee-deep in water she was struggling to escape, but her reflexes had her spinning
out of the path of the rocks. A great burst of water surged up out of the ditch as the rocks crashed down behind her.

  Except for one. It ricocheted off the rubble that layered the side of the new road, it came crunching down on Sofia’s right hand, just where her fingers were clinging on to the bank of stones.

  Sofia made no sound.

  ‘Get back to work!’ the guard yelled at everyone, disturbed by the accident he’d caused. Anna leapt into the water beside Sofia and seized her hand. The tips of two fingers were crushed to a pulp, blood spurting out into the water in a deep crimson flow.

  ‘Bind it up,’ the guard called out and threw Anna a rag from his own pocket.

  She took it. It was dirty and she cursed loudly. ‘Everything is always dirty in this godforsaken hole.’

  ‘It’ll be all right,’ Sofia assured her, as Anna quickly bound the scrap of cloth round the two damaged fingers, strapping them together, one a splint for the other, stemming the blood.

  ‘Here,’ said Anna, ‘take my glove as well.’

  There was an odd chalky taste inside Sofia’s mouth. ‘Thank you,’ she muttered.

  Her eyes stared into Anna’s and, though she kept them steady, she knew Anna could see something shadowy move deep down in them, like the first flutter of the wing of death.

  ‘Sofia,’ Anna commanded, thrusting the injured hand first into her own glove and then into Sofia’s wet one for greater protection against knocks, ‘don’t you dare.’

  Sofia reclaimed her hand and looked at the bulky object as though it didn’t belong to her any more. They both knew infection was inevitable and that her body lacked sufficient nutrition to fight it.

  ‘Back to work, you two!’ the guard shouted. ‘And no talking.’

 

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