Under a blood red sky, p.22

Under a Blood Red Sky, page 22

 

Under a Blood Red Sky
 



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  ‘I lied to Mikhail.’

  ‘It was for his own good,’ Rafik pointed out.

  ‘He knows I lied to him.’

  ‘It was to protect him. The less he remembers about the sacks, the safer he is.’

  ‘I know. But—’

  ‘Leave it, Sofia.’ There was an edge to his voice.

  ‘Sometimes, Rafik, you scare me.’

  ‘Good. Because you scare me, my dear. Like you scared Fomenko.’

  ‘Did I?’

  ‘That’s why he came himself to check up on you. It’s clear he’s not sure about you. Our Chairman likes to be in control, so yes, you worry him.’

  Sofia laughed softly and felt his answering smile strengthen the bond that had forged between them.

  ‘Are you sure this is such a good idea?’ she asked.

  They were making their way down the dusty street to the kolkhoz office. It was by far the most conspicuous izba in the village, draped with placards and colourful posters listing the latest production figures and urging greater commitment from kolkhozniki. To emphasise the point, painted in large letters above the door was the statement: First Five Year Plan In Four. No one was going to accuse Stalin of not driving his people hard. Grey clouds were creeping up on the horizon, hovering above the ridge as if waiting for a chance to slip down into the valley. There was no breath of wind to scour Tivil clean. The smell of burned wood and ash still hung between the houses like a physical presence.

  Rafik had changed into his bright yellow shirt and was walking carefully, one hand lightly on Sofia’s arm for support. She knew the effort was too much too soon, but she hadn’t argued against it. Never again would she put Mikhail’s life in danger the way she had today in Dagorsk because of her lack of dokumenti. Just the thought of how close it came, of the rifle pointed at his head, sent acid surging through her blood.

  As they passed the blacksmith’s forge, Pokrovsky raised an oily hand but Sofia only had eyes for Mikhail’s son, Pyotr, who was standing there with him. He was a small figure beside the great bulk of the blacksmith, a pair of tongs clasped in his young fist. The boy wiped a hand on his heavy burlap apron and then across his mouth, leaving a smear of grease. Sofia smiled at him but he didn’t respond.

  Rafik stumbled.

  ‘You shouldn’t be doing this,’ Sofia told him. ‘You should be resting.’

  ‘Don’t fuss. If you don’t register as a member of this kolkhoz today people will start asking questions.’ His black eyes sparked at her. ‘You don’t want that, do you?’

  ‘No, I don’t want that. But neither do I want to see you ill.’

  A drawn-out growl rattled inside his chest. ‘And I don’t want to see you dead.’

  The man behind the desk stood no chance. He was in his forties and was proud of his position of authority in the kolkhoz, the set of his mouth faintly smug. His steel-rimmed spectacles reflected the bright lamp that shone on his desk, despite the sunshine outdoors, and his hand kept fiddling with the cord of the telephone, the only one in the village. A telephone was a status symbol that he did not care to be parted from, even for a moment.

  ‘Identity papers, pozhalusta, please, Comrade Morozova,’ he asked politely. He stroked his moustache, held out his hand and waited expectantly.

  Sofia hated the office from the second she stepped inside it. Small, crowded, littered with forms and paperwork. Walls covered in lists. Just the stench of officialdom turned her stomach. She’d seen how it could warp a man’s mind till people became nothing but numbers, and sheets of paper became gods demanding blood sacrifice.

  ‘Dokumenti? ’ the kolkhoz secretary asked again, more forcibly this time.

  Sofia did exactly as Rafik had instructed her. She took a folded blank sheet of paper from her skirt pocket and placed it on the desk. The man frowned, clearly confused. He picked it up, unfolded it and spread its blank face in front of his.

  ‘What is this, comrade? A joke?’

  Rafik rapped his knuckles sharply on the metal desk, making both Sofia and the man jump.

  ‘No joke,’ Rafik said.

  Words in a language Sofia did not recognise started to flow from the gypsy’s mouth, an unbroken stream that seemed to wash through the room in waves, soft, rounded sounds that made the air hum and vibrate in her ears. A resonance echoed in her mind. She fought against it, but at the same time her eyes registered that the man at the desk wore a blank expression, as though the waves had swept his mind as empty as a beach at low tide. Sofia swore she could even taste the salt of sea spray in her mouth. She wondered if her own face looked as blank.

  ‘No joke,’ Rafik reiterated clearly.

  He walked round the desk, his bright yellow shirt as hypnotic as the sun, till he was standing beside the man. He placed one hand heavily on the secretary’s shoulder. The other slapped down with a loud crack on the sheet of paper.

  ‘Identity papers,’ he purred into the man’s ear.

  Sofia saw the moment when understanding flooded the man’s eyes. It was as sudden and savage as a punch in the stomach. He blinked, ground his teeth audibly and gave a brisk nod of his head.

  ‘Of course,’ he muttered in a voice that had grown thick and unwieldy.

  While Rafik returned to stand beside Sofia, the man rifled through drawers, yanked out forms, flourished the Red Arrow kolkhoz official stamp. But she barely noticed. All she was aware of was the tang of salt on her tongue and Rafik’s arm in its yellow sleeve firm against her own. How long it was before they stepped out into the street again, Sofia wasn’t certain, but by the time they did so, the clouds had slunk into the valley and Tivil had lost its summer sheen. In her pocket was an official residence permit.

  ‘Rafik,’ she said quietly, ‘what is it you do?’

  ‘I wrap skeins of silk around people’s thoughts.’

  ‘Is it a kind of hypnotism?’

  He smiled at her. ‘Call it what you will. It kills me slowly, a piece at a time.’

  He could barely breathe.

  ‘Oh, Rafik.’

  With an arm round his waist and taking most of his weight herself, she walked him round to the patch of scrubland at the back of the office, away from watchful eyes. With great care she eased him to the ground. He sat there trembling, knees drawn up to his chest, eyes focused on the ridge of trees beyond the river. Without warning he was violently sick. Sofia wiped his blue lips with her skirt.

  ‘Better,’ he gasped. ‘In a moment I’ll be . . . better.’

  ‘Shh, just rest.’

  Sofia wrapped her arms around him, drawing him on to her shoulder and accepting the guilt into her heart.

  ‘Thank you, Rafik,’ she murmured.

  ‘Now,’ he said in a voice held together by willpower, ‘tell me why you are here.’

  He didn’t touch her. The sinewy hands that in some inexplicable way possessed the key to people’s minds lay lifelessly on his lap. He did not even look at her. The piercing eyes were closed, no waves being sent to wash out the truth. He was leaving it up to her to tell him.

  Or not to tell him.

  29

  Sofia hurried to the stables. She wanted to reach them before Fomenko spotted her running loose instead of heading to one of his blasted brigades. The track was rough under her feet, rutted and patterned with hoof prints. She had come in search of Priest Logvinov and was nervous. He was the kind of person around whom someone always got hurt - and she couldn’t afford to get hurt. Not now, not when she was so close.

  The experience with Rafik in the office had made her doubt her own thoughts and it had taken an effort to drag her mind away from Mikhail. But it was her body that was less controllable. It kept reliving flashes of memory, the feel of Mikhail’s mouth on hers, so hard it hurt at first and then so soft and enticing that her lips craved more. She walked harder, faster, driving herself to concentrate on other things.

  She reached a cluster of dingy wooden buildings that rose haphazardly around three sides of a dusty courtyard. They
were set far back enough from the village to take advantage of the gentle slope that climbed up towards the ridge. Here, on this higher ground, Sofia caught the breeze full in her face and the scent of the forest, dense and secretive.

  ‘Is Priest Logvinov around?’ she asked a dark-skinned youth who was sweeping the yard with slow, lazy strokes. He had scabs on his head and his bare arms.

  ‘In with Glinka,’ he muttered, tipping his head towards one of the open stable doors without breaking the rhythm of the hazel broom.

  ‘Spasibo,’ Sofia said.

  The gloom inside the stable came as a relief after the harsh glare in the courtyard. It took a moment for her eyes to adjust. She inhaled the smell of horse and hay, at first seeing no one. Just a row of empty stalls, fresh straw on the floor and buckets filled with clean water. The horses were out working in the fields or hauling timber out of the woods, but the stamp of a hoof and a soft murmur drew her to the far end.

  The priest did not turn at her approach, though Sofia was sure he knew she was there. His tall scarecrow figure in a sleeveless deerskin jerkin was draped over the low door that fenced in one of the stalls, his knuckles rhythmically kneading the forehead of a small bay mare whose eyes were half closed with pleasure. Close to her side stood a black colt on spindly legs much too long for him. He must be the one born the other night. He stamped the ground in a show of bravado as she approached and rolled his long-lashed eyes at her.

  ‘That’s a fine colt,’ she said.

  ‘He has the Devil in him.’

  The colt thudded a hoof against the back board as if to prove the point.

  ‘Priest, were you here in Tivil before the church was closed down?’

  He twisted his head round to look at her. His long thin neck pulsed with a web of blue veins, his red hair hanging lank and dull, but his green eyes still burned.

  ‘Yes, I was the shepherd of a God-fearing flock. In those days we were free to worship our Lord and chant the golden tones of evensong as our consciences dictated.’

  The sadness in his voice touched her. He was a strange man.

  ‘So you were familiar with the church building inside? Before it was stripped of decoration and painted white, I mean.’

  ‘Yes. I knew every inch of that House of God, the way I know the words of the Holy Bible. I knew its moods and its shadows, just as I had known the moods and shadows of my flock as they clung to their faith. Lucifer himself stalks the marble corridors of the Kremlin and he drags his cloven foot over the hearts and minds of God’s children.’ His gaunt face crumpled. ‘An eternity of hell fire awaits those who forsake God’s laws because they are stricken with fear.’ His voice grew hoarse with sorrow. ‘Fear is a stain spreading over this country of ours.’

  ‘It is unwise to say such things aloud,’ she warned. ‘Take care.’

  He spread his scarecrow arms wide, making the colt snort with alarm. ‘Yea, though I walk through the valley of the shadow of death, I will fear no evil, for thou art with me.’

  ‘Priest,’ she said softly, ‘you don’t yet know what evil mankind is capable of, but if you carry on like this, believe me, you soon will. It eats into your humanity until you don’t even know who you are any more . . .’ She stopped.

  His green eyes were staring at her with fierce sorrow. She lowered her gaze, turned away from him and asked the question she’d come to ask.

  ‘Was there a statue of St Peter in the church before it was closed down?’

  ‘Yes.’

  ‘Where did it stand?’

  ‘Why the interest?’

  ‘Does it matter to you? I need to know where it used to stand.’

  The colt suckling and the scratch of the hazel broom over the yard were the only sounds to be heard. At last Priest Logvinov scraped a hand across his fiery beard.

  ‘They came one Sunday morning, a group of Komsomoltsky,’ he said bitterly. ‘They tore down everything, destroyed it with hammers. Burned it all in a bonfire in the middle of the street, tossed in all the ancient carvings and icons of the Virgin Mary and our beloved saints. And what wouldn’t burn they took away in their truck to melt down, including the great bronze bell and the altar with its gold cross. It was two centuries old.’ She expected him to shout and rage, but instead his voice grew softer with each word.

  ‘The statue of St Peter?’

  ‘Smashed.’ His fleshless frame shuddered. ‘It used to stand in the niche beside the south window. Now there’s a bust of Stalin in its place.’

  ‘I’m sorry, Priest.’

  ‘So am I. And God knows, so is my flock.’

  ‘Stay alive. For them at least.’

  ‘I know thy works and where thou dwellest, even where Satan’s seat is.’

  Again she had the sense of a man teetering on the edge of wilful self-destruction and it filled her with a profound gloom. Quickly she thanked him and left the stables, but as she retraced her steps down the rutted track back to the street she became uncertain as to what exactly had upset her.

  What was wrong? Was it fear for Rafik? Or was it because of Mikhail? And the way Lilya had rubbed her shoulder against him as though she owned that piece of his flesh. Were her own carefully constructed defences crumbling so easily?

  The wind seemed to ripple through her mind, stirring up her thoughts, and it carried to her again Priest Logvinov’s words. Fear is a stain spreading over this country. And then she understood. She’d heard almost the same words months ago from Anna’s mouth.

  Anna. Whose fragile heartbeats would fade away if she didn’t reach them soon.

  The church - or assembly hall, as it was now called - was the only brick-constructed building in Tivil. Grey slabs of corrugated metal tipped with soft yellow lichen covered the roof. The walls were divided by rows of narrow, tapered windows set with plain glass, though one was boarded up. A reminder of the violence on the night of the meeting. A stubby open-sided tower sat above the door. Presumably where the bell had once hung. The tower was empty now, full of nothing but warm air and pigeons.

  Sofia tried the large iron handle but the door didn’t budge. She cursed and pushed harder. Chyort! But she was beginning to realise that Chairman Fomenko was not the kind of person to leave anything to chance, certainly not the safety of his assembly hall. She took a good look up and down the street but at this hour there wasn’t much activity, just a child and his goat ambling out to the fields, but closer in the shade sat two old women. They wore headscarves and long black dresses, despite the heat, and seemed almost to be part of the landscape. As Sofia approached them she realised one was reading aloud from a book on her lap.

  ‘Dobroye utro, babushki,’ Sofia said with a shy smile. ‘Good morning.’

  The old woman with the book reacted with surprise. Her ears were not good enough to have heard Sofia’s soft footfalls. The book slid instantly under a handwoven scarf, but not before Sofia saw it was a bible. It was not against the law to read the bible but it labelled you, if you did. It marked you out as someone whose mind was not in line with Soviet doctrine, someone to be watched. Sofia pretended she hadn’t seen it.

  ‘Could you tell me who has a key to the assembly hall, please?’

  The woman who had not been reading lifted her chin off her chest. Sofia saw the milky veil of blindness over her eyes, but her hands were busy in an effortless clicking rhythm with knitting needles and a ball of green wool.

  ‘The Chairman keeps it,’ she said. She tilted her head. ‘Is that the tractor girl?’

  ‘Da, yes, it’s her,’ responded the other. She puffed out her lined cheeks into a warm smile. ‘Welcome to Tivil.’

  ‘Spasibo. Where will I find Chairman Fomenko?’

  ‘Anywhere where work is being done,’ said the blind babushka. ‘Poleena and I expect him to arrive here any moment now to count the number of stitches I’ve knitted so far this morning.’

  Both old women gave good-natured chuckles that fell into the sunlight warming their laps.

  ‘But his
house isn’t far, just the other side of the chu . . . of the assembly hall. His is the izba with the black door. You could try there.’

  ‘Thank you. I will.’

  But the black door didn’t respond to her knocks. So she retraced her steps to the church and started to circle its walls, just as she’d done before. Then it had been furtive and in darkness, her ears alert for any stray sound. This time she inspected the building openly, seeking a way in.

  Edging through weeds along a narrow side-path to the gloomy rear of the church, she came to a door, so old it looked like part of the stones. It was barely head height, half hidden behind a prickly bush, and it bore the raw marks of her knife blade around its heavy iron lock. In the daylight now she fingered the stubborn lock and wondered why it looked so well oiled.

  ‘Trying to find something, are you?’

  Sofia snatched back her fingers and swung round. Behind her stood a narrow-shouldered man in a rough smock. He was smoking the stub of a hand-rolled cigarette and had a face that made Sofia think of a rodent, small-featured, sharp-toothed.

  ‘I’m looking for a way in.’

  ‘You could always use a key, but that’s just an old unused storeroom in there.’ His expression made Sofia’s skin crawl.

  ‘I’m told that Chairman Fomenko has the key to the hall, but he’s not at home.’

  ‘Of course not. He’s out working in the fields.’

  Sofia tried to step round him but he blocked her path and gave her a slow smile that she didn’t like.

  ‘Your name, I recall from the meeting the other night, is Sofia Morozova. Mine is Comrade Zakarov.’

  Instantly Sofia’s chest tightened. She recalled Zenia’s words: Boris Zakarov. He’s the Party spy round these parts. So he wasn’t creeping up behind her by chance.

  ‘Why so eager to get inside our hall, Comrade Morozova?’

  ‘I think that’s my business, don’t you?’

  ‘If you made it mine, I might be able to help you.’

 

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