Under a Blood Red Sky, page 30
‘Give me one good reason why I shouldn’t put a bullet between your ribs.’
Anna stepped quickly between them, blocking his view of the figure still at the water’s edge.
‘Ah, pretty one, so you want to play, do you? I tell you what,’ his mouth spread into a wide wolfish grin that revealed teeth as crooked as his nose. ‘I won’t put a bullet through your disrespectful friend if you give me a kiss from those luscious red lips of yours.’
Anna felt a hot rush of fury, less for the guard’s abuse of her than for the fact that he made her want to kill him in cold blood. That raging desire frightened her. She started to move towards him.
‘Nyet! No, nyet!’ It was Sofia. She was rising from the ground, uncurling like a snake, the axe already swinging in her hand.
But Anna threw herself forward before Sofia could reach him, clasped her arms round the guard’s hard-muscled neck and pressed her lips on his mouth. It tasted foul, of tobacco smoke and onions and acid lust. She wanted to spit, to bite, to rip his face off with her teeth. But his lips were opening under hers, yawning into a pair of cavernous jaws that started to devour her. She fought to pull away but his arms were strong around her, jerking her body into hard contact with his. Their coats were bulky between them but his hand pushed in, squeezing, pinching, prodding at her breast. His tongue rammed into her mouth, huge and choking. She couldn’t breathe.
‘Enough!’ Sofia’s voice, ice cold.
Abruptly he was gone from Anna. His smell still clung to her body but he had backed off and was staring at Sofia. She was standing with his rifle in her hands. She had snatched it from him while his mind and his hands were in his trousers.
‘Shoot him,’ Anna hissed.
‘Hush,’ Sofia murmured soothingly. Her face was bone white. ‘Here,’ she said to the guard and threw him the rifle.
Anna was sure he would shoot them both but some deep part of him had lost its nerve. He stared grimly into Sofia’s cold eyes, spat an oath at them both, then leapt on to the boulder and disappeared back to the Work Zone.
Anna bent over and vomited the taste of him from her mouth.
A soft hand touched the back of her head. ‘Anna.’
Anna straightened, wiped her mouth on her sleeve. ‘How many more years of this can we take? We should have let the bastard shoot us.’
‘No, Anna,’ Sofia said fiercely. ‘Don’t ever think that.’
‘Why didn’t you kill him while you had the chance?’
‘Because they’d all have been down on us like a pack of hounds, tearing us to shreds and relishing every second of it. Men such as these enjoy their work. When I was very young and my father was out performing his priestly duties in Petrograd with me on his back, men just like this one - except they wore the Tsar’s colours instead of Stalin’s - came to our house and killed my mother and six sisters.’ Her eyes had darkened and the shadows beneath them had sunk into deep purple hollows.
‘Sofia,’ Anna said quietly, ‘not all men are like that.’
Sofia laughed, a harsh scathing sound as chill as the melt water. ‘So how in God’s name do you know which ones you can trust?’
Dagorsk July 1933
Mikhail wasn’t frightened of the pain. Of course it would be bad, he was under no illusion about that, but they hadn’t brought him here to kill him. Not yet anyway. So they’d make sure he survived the beatings. No, what frightened him was the degradation. The humiliation. Their obscene seizing of his sense of self and wiping the floor with it, ripping him apart mentally.
They would be expert at it, he was in no doubt of that. And he knew he was a proud man, too proud maybe. Would he, Mikhail Pashin, the person he knew so intimately and had learned to both love and hate with a passion over thirty years of life, would he survive? Not his body. Him. His self.
That’s what frightened him.
The cement floor was wet, freshly hosed down. Barefoot, Mikhail was marched into the empty cell by two warders, hands cuffed behind his back. The door swung shut with a heavy metal clang. The warder with the lean face and impatient eyes locked it with an iron key that was attached to his belt by a chain, then he turned a smile on Mikhail. Except it wasn’t a smile, it was a baring of the teeth. The second warder sniggered in anticipation. He was a solid big-muscled ox of a man with almost no forehead, and broad beefy fists which he flexed and unflexed while the pupils of his vodka-shot eyes grew huge with desire. An objective part of Mikhail’s mind registered that these two men were well chosen for the work. But the subjective part of his mind, the part that knew how to hate, hated them as bastard brutes who needed to be put down the way you put down a mad dog. He could smell the rabies on them.
Fight or yield? It would make no difference. Two heavy rubber nightsticks and a metal bar would be the victors. Fists that were chained behind your back were no fists at all. He had no weapons, except his hatred. His heart was pounding but he kept his breath steady and his body braced for the first blow. Casually he spat on their freshly hosed floor.
The metal bar swung. He ducked and it whistled past his ear, but from the other side a fist sledgehammered into the exact centre of his chest. He made no sound. A brick-hard rubber stick slammed on to his mouth, blood exploded on his teeth and he spat out a sliver of something white.
‘Is that all you’ve got?’ he taunted.
The next blow crashed down on the spot between his neck and his arm, sending pain searing through his skull. Neither his shoulder nor arm would move. With a bellow of rage he rammed his head into the lean one’s jaw and had the satisfaction of hearing a sharp click as something snapped. A high scream, like a pig’s squeal, issued from the warder. Immediately a crunch from the metal bar to the back of Mikhail’s legs brought him buckling to his knees. Then it came, the real pain. Again and again, blows like rain. To his back. His ribs. Knees. Kidneys. The nape of his neck. The soles of his naked feet. Worse. To his testicles. That pain was special. White hot. A steel furnace, flames leaping and scorching his every nerve-end, a throbbing sickening agony.
‘Confess!’ one of the warders roared in his ear.
He was disintegrating. He could feel the parts inside him coming loose.
‘Devil curse you, you bastards,’ he spat through blood.
An explosion of pain registered in his brain, but he could no longer tell where it came from in his body. At long last, he let go. He stopped holding the parts together. He couldn’t breathe.
Sofia hitched a lift back to Tivil. Pyotr swung himself up on the back of the cart beside her, relieved to catch his breath. She’d set a punishing pace on the road that he couldn’t match. It was as though the visit to the prison had knocked all the air out of him. Old Vlasov had come clattering up behind them with his horse and two-wheeled cart, empty now that he’d delivered his load of logs to the bakery in town. They jumped on and Pyotr threw himself on his back among the sawdust where he wrapped an arm tight across his eyes, hiding from the world outside. Hiding from himself and from his betrayal.
He didn’t look at Sofia but he could feel her seated next to him, upright and alert, hugging her knees. The road was rough, the sky grey-bellied. When Pyotr eventually rolled on to his side he saw a flight of swallows dipping over the river, but today he had no interest in them and he studied Sofia instead. Deep in thought, she had the knack of being very still, so still she became almost invisible, like an animal in the forest. He wondered what made her like that.
She turned to him, her gaze coming from somewhere far away.
‘I didn’t mean it.’
‘I know you didn’t.’ Her voice was gentle.
‘He is my father.’
‘Of course he is. He loves you, Pyotr, and you love him.’
‘You won’t . . .’ He hesitated.
‘No, I won’t tell him.’
Pyotr grunted a kind of thanks. ‘He’s been . . . better.’
‘Better than your real father, you mean?’
‘Yes. He never beats me and more than anything he wants me to have schooling. He says it’s the way forward for Russia. And he doesn’t get drunk.’ He laughed. ‘Not all the time anyway.’
He hadn’t meant to say it to her. Any of it.
She studied him solemnly. ‘Your father is a loyal citizen of Russia.’
‘Yes, he is.’
‘Don’t doubt him.’
‘He’s read all Lenin’s and Stalin’s writings, like The State And Revolution, and I’m always pushing the latest pamphlets under his bedroom door for him to read at night when he gets home.’
She smiled. ‘I bet he appreciates that.’
‘Who are you trying to convince, Pyotr? Me? Yourself? Or the men in the interrogation room?’
‘Papa will be released if he is innocent,’ he insisted.
‘And is he innocent? Or did he take the grain off the truck? What do you believe?’
The question knocked a hole in Pyotr’s chest, letting in the confusion once more. He threw himself back on the floor of the cart and this time wrapped both arms across his face.
‘I don’t know,’ he muttered.
Instantly she was on him. Snatched his arms away, so that he was looking up into her fierce blue eyes as she leaned over him.
‘It doesn’t matter,’ she snapped, ‘whether he’s innocent or guilty. Can’t you see that? What matters is that he’s your father. He loves you. You owe him, this man who took you in as his own son when you were tainted by the kulak label of your miller father.’ She dug her fingers into his arms. ‘You owe him everything. That’s what matters - love and loyalty.’
Abruptly she released him. Pyotr felt as if he’d been run over.
‘Not,’ she added softly, ‘a power-frenzied devil with a moustache and a withered arm who gets his thrills by signing death warrants in the Kremlin.’
Pyotr sobbed. The thoughts in his head were crashing into each other. Then suddenly she was close again, her breath brushing his cheek.
‘Help me, Pyotr. Help me get Mikhail out of that stinking prison.’
The village was coming into sight when she spoke again.
‘Pyotr, tell me about Lilya Dimentieva.’
‘What about her?’
‘She and your father are . . . friends.’
‘What is she like?’
‘She’s all right.’
‘And the child, Misha?’
‘What about him?’
‘Is he . . . your father’s?’
‘No, of course not, don’t be stupid. Misha’s father was killed in an accident when he was clearing trees off the high field last summer.’
‘Papa helps Lilya out when she needs it, like when Misha broke her window. And she cooks us meals sometimes.’
‘She’s easy to like.’
He watched the colour rise into her cheeks, slowly at first and then faster, darker. She looked away, and Pyotr was sorry. He hadn’t meant to hurt her.
Sofia left Pyotr outside the kolkhoz office. She hurried past the pond where two boys were making a lot of noise trying to capture a duck, and up to Rafik’s izba. She burst into the cottage, calling his name.
No answer, the place was empty. Where was he? She had questions to ask and time was trickling through her fingers too fast.
Sofia spun round. Outside on the step stood Elizaveta Lishnikova, the schoolteacher, and in her hand she carried a book. Her grey hair was pinned up tidily in a pleat at the back of her head and her grey narrow-waisted dress was as immaculate as ever, but there was something about her that made Sofia’s heart miss a beat. It was in the crispness of her manner, in the shine of her eyes, a bright expectation. She knew something that Sofia did not.
‘Comrade Lishnikova, I intended to come and speak to you today.’
‘Well, I’ve saved you the trouble.’ The woman held out the book. ‘Here, I’ve brought you a gift.’
Sofia accepted it, surprised. It was a good quality copy of Dostoyevksy’s The Idiot.
‘Thank you, comrade.’
‘I expect you’ve read it.’
‘Yes I have, but I will enjoy reading it again.’ She thumbed through the soft pages thoughtfully. ‘Spasibo. But why should you bring me a gift?’
The long face with its fine bones seemed to shift slightly. ‘I thought you might need it. Something to calm you before tonight.’
‘Tonight? What’s happening tonight?’
‘Ah,’ Elizaveta hesitated, then smiled politely. ‘I see, you don’t know yet. Excuse my mistake.’ She turned to leave.
‘Comrade,’ Sofia said sharply, ‘I was coming to thank you for the offer of a job at the school.’
The teacher raised her elegant eyebrows expectantly.
‘I would like to accept,’ Sofia continued.
‘Indeed? That would be a help to me but Rafik tells me you will soon be gone.’
‘Why do you say that?’
‘Ah, comrade, you must ask Rafik himself. But let me tell you this, that man knows more than you and I put together.’ She laughed, a clear low-pitched sound that belonged to a younger woman. She started to move away.
‘Tell me,’ Sofia called out after her, ‘what happened to your previous assistant teacher?’
Elizaveta Lishnikova froze for no more than a second, but Sofia spotted it.
‘He left,’ the older woman said.
‘Yes.’ Sofia thought she was going to finish it there, but she continued stiffly, ‘He spoke out of turn one day and a pupil reported him.’ She shrugged. ‘It happens.’
‘Was it Yuri? The pupil who reported him?’ Mikhail had told her on the train about Pyotr’s friend.
Elizaveta said nothing but she sighed, and a layer of her brightness faded. Without another word, she walked away.
Sofia tried to make sense of it. The schoolteacher’s message had unnerved her. Tonight? What did she mean? Why did her mind need to be calmed? What was going to happen tonight?
Suddenly she was frightened. She felt the fear cold and hard in a tight ball just under her heart and she rubbed a hand there to release it.
Anna, oh Anna. I’m not strong enough. I can’t do this.
She sat down in Rafik’s maroon chair, dropped her head in her hands. All the misery and suffering of the last four months when she’d battled halfway across Russia, footstep by footstep, crushed her so that she could barely breathe. She remained like that for a long time, till her fingers grew stiff in her hair, and the whole time she thought hard. About Mikhail. About Anna. About what she was about to lose. And at last, when the pain became manageable once more, she rose and walked over to Rafik’s carved wooden chest against the wall, the one he had drawn her shoes from, the one she’d never opened. The lid was carved with serpents. She lifted it.
She didn’t know what she’d expected but it certainly wasn’t what stared up at her.
Two bright black eyes and fur whiter than snow, sparkling like ice. She touched it. It was the complete pelt of an Arctic fox, beautifully tanned to such perfect suppleness it was hard to believe the animal wasn’t still alive. She stroked the soft fur and gently lifted it out. Underneath lay a folded pile of white sheets, and beside all this whiteness a bundle in the corner sang out. It was a bright red piece of material.
She snatched it up, almost expecting to find blood on her hands from the scarlet fibres, and could feel something weighty inside. Cautiously she unwrapped it. A single pebble tumbled on to her lap and she felt disappointed. She’d expected something . . . more revealing, but she picked it up and examined it anyway. The pebble was bone-white with silvery veins running through it, but otherwise quite ordina
Her mind grew calm and she breathed more easily. Whatever was going on here, the fear and weakness of a few moments ago had drained away. It was strange. Maybe Rafik had handled this stone so often that he’d left a small piece of himself in its silvery veins. Was it Rafik’s strong spirit that was steadying her, or was it something rising to the surface from within herself? She was uncertain.
With a shake of her head she bundled the pebble inside the red cloth again and returned it to its position in the chest. She needed to find Rafik but, as she stepped out of the house, she heard the sound of hooves and glanced up to see Chairman Fomenko astride a long-boned black horse heading down towards the kolkhoz office. He reined the animal to a halt in front of her.
‘Good day, Comrade Morozova.’
Sofia gave him a cold hard stare. This man was the young boy soldier who had killed Anna’s father in cold blood sixteen years ago and also shot Svetlana, Mikhail’s mother. She wondered for the thousandth time whether Mikhail was aware of the truth and whether she should tell him.
‘You haven’t yet attended my office, as I requested.’
‘I was in Dagorsk today.’
‘Did you find out what has become of Comrade Pashin?’ His broad shoulders seemed to block out the morose charcoal sky.
He studied her for a moment in silence. The skin around his eyes creased with a concern that surprised her. ‘Tomorrow morning then. Eight o’clock at my office.’
‘Comrade Morozova,’ he said in a gentler tone, ‘may I suggest that you eat something?’
‘What do you have in mind?’ she asked. ‘Grain?’
Instead of cursing her as she expected, he laughed. The sound of it made her want to claw his tongue out.
Other author's books:
- The Russian ConcubineThe SurvivorsThe Red ScarfThe Guardian of LiesUnder a Blood Red SkyThe LiberationThe Far Side of the SunThe Concubine's Secret
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