Under a Blood Red Sky, page 45
‘What are you crying for?’ It was the guard.
‘So stop making those whining noises.’
Whining noises? Was she whining? She put a hand over her mouth and became aware of the sounds now trapped in her head. Shrill whines, like a dog. Her heart started to quiver.
Who was dead?
The workday was finally over. The grate of saw and the bite of axes ceased, backs were flexed and muscles coaxed back into life as daylight trickled away behind the trees. It was at that time of day that the forest began to change, its black depths wreathed in mist and edging closer, its earthy breath more rank and menacing. Prisoners averted their eyes and guards didn’t turn their backs on it - it made them nervous. That was when the rifle shots shattered the silence of the Work Zone and two guards dropped dead among the wood chippings.
The crack of another shot rang out, then three more in quick succession. Another uniformed body crumpled and a brigade of women prisoners started to scream. Panic flared. No one knew where the shots were coming from and people started to flee for cover in all directions. Guards fired wildly into the trees but four more grew scarlet flowers on their chests. Voices shrieked orders, heads ducked, arms flailed.
Anna stood and stared into the forest. Using all her strength she started to shuffle towards it.
Anna took no notice and pushed herself through the trees.
‘You!’ The voice came again. ‘Stop!’
Only death would make her stop. All around her prisoners were taking advantage of the chaos and seizing their chance at freedom, their skeletal figures flitting into the forest like fleeing ghosts into the grey mist that enveloped it. She caught sight of Nina and Tasha disappearing far ahead of her and she envied them their speed. A hand yanked her almost off her feet and she lashed out, but her blows were weak. Her captor was the grey-haired guard, his face a mixture of fury and terror, his mouth working in an effort at control. Without hesitation Anna pointed a finger at the sinister depths of the forest and screamed.
That’s all it took, one brief second. The guard turned his head and she swung the hand axe that was still in her grasp. The flat of the blade connected with his skull. His fingers slid from her arm and she hurried on into the mist.
Anna had no idea how he found her when there were so many fleeing women in rags. So little visibility among the trees and so much panic. She could barely breathe and in her haste she had stumbled and fallen. She was forcing herself to stand when he called her name.
She peered through the dank curtain of mist and a tall man in dark clothes rose out of it. His long-fingered hand was extended towards her and she saw a white stone balanced on its palm. It was Death drawing her into its embrace.
‘Anna Fedorina? I’ve been shouting for you. Someone told me you were back here.’
‘Yes. I’m Anna Fedorina.’
‘Come with me.’
‘Sofia sent me.’
Anna started to shake. ‘Sofia! ’ she shouted.
She looked frantically among the shadowy trunks. Was Sofia dead? Had she sent Death’s Messenger to fetch her too?
‘Come quickly,’ Death’s Messenger whispered in her ear.
Without knowing how, she found herself on his broad back being transported at speed through the shadows. She rested her head on the Messenger’s damp head and it occurred to her how like a human’s was the hair of an angel.
Sofia was waiting for her. She was so beautiful. Anna didn’t remember her being so bewitchingly beautiful. She was propped up against a small grey horse, a pistol in her hand to defend the animal against all would-be thieves and on her face a look of grim determination. Anna felt a fierce eruption of joy flood through her body at the realisation that Sofia wasn’t dead. Thank God, she isn’t dead. Sofia opened her arms and Anna fell into them.
Neither spoke. They clung together. Inhaling each other’s breath and letting their hearts hammer against each other’s. Dimly Anna was aware of voices shouting in the distance but she took no notice, just held Sofia tight and felt tears hot on her skin.
‘You’re free now,’ Sofia whispered.
The familiar sound of her voice gave Anna a sudden surge of strength that cleared her mind. She lifted her head and, without releasing her hold on Sofia, asked desperately, ‘Where’s Vasily?’
Death’s Messenger was called Mikhail. Even so, Anna would always think of him as Death’s Messenger in her own mind because he’d killed her father. Mikhail confessed that fact to her himself at their first stop for rest in the forest, and she wanted to tear out his heart there and then. To slice it into forty-one ragged pieces, one for each year of Papa’s life, but she couldn’t. It was clear he’d given that heart to Sofia and Anna would steal nothing from her friend.
‘Thank you for rescuing me, Mikhail,’ she said with cool politeness. ‘The debt is repaid. A life for a life.’
But she was glad to see the Messenger’s grey eyes remain tormented, and pleased that he felt the need to ask, ‘How many guards were killed back there?’
‘A handful compared to the number of prisoners you released.’
‘Still too many.’
‘No, Anna’s right,’ Sofia said, brushing her hand against his in a gesture of comfort. ‘You’ve given those women a chance at life.’
‘If they make it to freedom.’
‘Some will, some won’t. We will.’
Mikhail nodded stiffly. He lifted both women on to the grey horse’s back once more and set off with a long loping stride.
‘What does Vasily look like?’
They were lying on a blanket together, but Anna couldn’t sleep. Her thoughts wouldn’t stop. The moon was a giant disc in the sky, bigger than any moon she’d ever seen in the camp, the night breeze was full of secrets instead of stale and fetid, and the fresh smell of forest creatures made her giddy. It swamped her senses. She muffled her cough in her scarf and kept her eyes wide open. To miss even a single minute of her freedom would be a sin. They had travelled all night and hidden unseen among the trees by day under a green canopy of branches. They heard tracker dogs in the distance but none came near.
‘Is he still as I described to you?’ Anna asked.
‘He’s tall,’ Sofia said gently. ‘He stands very upright and swings his shoulders when he walks as if he knows exactly where he’s going. You feel he’s in control. Not just of the kolkhoz but of himself.’
‘Is he still handsome?’
‘Yes, he’s still handsome.’
‘Tell me more.’
‘Well.’ Sofia smiled and Anna could hear her picking her words carefully as she gazed up at the stars. ‘His eyes are the kind of grey that changes shade with his mood and they are always observant. He’s watching and thinking all the time.’ Sofia laughed softly and something in the laugh made Anna wonder if it was Vasily she was talking about. ‘He can be quite unnerving sometimes. But he gleams, Anna.’
‘With belief. His certainty of the future he’s building gleams like gold.’
‘Tell me again what he said.’
‘Why? It only hurts. Just remember that he gave the jewels for me to use to help you.’
‘I want to hear it again, what he said.’
‘He said Vasily is dead and gone . . . We must put aside personal loyalties . . . This is the way forward, the only way forward.’
Anna closed her eyes. ‘He’s right. You know he is.’
‘Anna,’ Mikhail spoke in a low voice so as not to wake Sofia, ‘she is not as strong as she pretends.’
‘You mean the wound in her stomach.’
‘She won’t tell me how it happened.’
Mikhail sighed. ‘It was a group of soldiers
A soft rain was falling, muffling their voices as it pattered on the canvas stretched over their heads. Anna was sitting upright in her effort to breathe quietly beside Sofia, who was fretful and restless in her dreams. Mikhail stroked her shoulder, a gentle touch so tender that it made Anna want to cry.
‘Sofia mentioned a dog,’ she prompted.
Mikhail nodded. ‘Yes, there was one, an unwanted stray that she adopted and fed. It was extraordinary. When the shot was fired, it leapt in front of her and died from the bullet.’
‘Maybe it just jumped up with excitement.’
‘But she was hit in the stomach anyway.’
‘Yes, but only a shallow wound. The bullet went through the dog first and then into her. An old man we were with at the time - the one who let us take one of his rifles - removed it and stitched her up. He said she was very lucky because at that range the bullet should have ripped holes through her vital organs but . . .’ He brushed the tangle of pale hair off Sofia’s sleeping face and the lines of his mouth curved and softened.
‘But I don’t believe it was luck.’
‘So what was it?’
‘Something more than luck.’
For a while they were silent, watching the rain, then Anna whispered, ‘Mikhail, where are we going?’
A shadow crossed his features. ‘To Tivil, because I have a son there. Sofia and I have it all planned . . . we’ll collect him and after that we’ll use the remaining jewels to buy tickets for all four of us, as well as travel documents and new identities. And medicines for you. We’ll go somewhere safe and start a whole new life down by the Black Sea, where it’s warm and your lungs can heal.’
‘My father had a dacha down there.’
The mention of her father silenced him and she regretted it. They sat for a long time listening to the wind in the forest and Sofia’s murmurs in her sleep.
‘Will we make it, Mikhail? To Tivil?’
‘The truth is . . .’ he paused and leaned closer, ‘it’s unlikely, Anna. But don’t tell that to Sofia. She is so determined to make it and I’ll do everything in my power to get us there, I swear, but we’re fugitives. Our chances are . . .’ He didn’t finish.
‘I have only four shells left for the rifle.’
‘And the pistol?’
‘Two bullets.’ Something seemed to loosen inside him and he shuddered. ‘I’m saving them.’ He looked at Anna and then at Sofia, and it was obvious what he meant. ‘Just in case,’ he murmured, lowering his head to kiss Sofia’s hair.
No wonder Sofia was beautiful. To be loved like that would make anyone beautiful.
‘Thank you, Mikhail,’ Anna whispered.
‘Can you taste the air, Anna?’
It was night. A three-quarter moon lit their path through the forest and Mikhail walked ahead with the rifle while the two women rode the horse. For hours Sofia had walked stride for stride at his side but now she was seated behind Anna, holding her firmly in place. Anna couldn’t recall how or when that had happened. Dimly she had a memory of falling off.
‘Yes, I can taste it.’
‘What does it taste of?’
‘Of wild animals and wild birds and wild berries. Of nothing in cages.’
‘Of clean water and soap and scrubbed fingernails.’
Sofia laughed. ‘Wrong.’
‘It tastes of hope.’ Anna took in a great mouthful of air, then leaned back weakly against Sofia’s warmth behind her. ‘Sweeter than honey on my tongue.’
Anna sighed. She didn’t mean to, but when she saw a sliver of moonlight fingering the soft brown hair that rippled in the shadows ahead of them, it sent a shiver of longing through her. She loved Vasily so fiercely. Would she ever stop missing him? Even though he’d made it plain he didn’t want her, didn’t yearn for her the way she yearned for him, she knew she could never let him go.
‘Shall I tell you what the air tastes of, Anna?’
In the dark Anna nodded, and the muffled sounds of the horse’s tread faded to nothing. Sofia’s breath was hot on her ear and Anna could smell excitement in it.
‘The best taste in the world and the worst. Sweet and sour in the mouth at the same time. It’s the taste of choice. You can choose, Anna. Do you remember how? I had to relearn after all those years without it. It was frightening at first, but now,’ Anna could sense her friend’s gaze seeking out Mikhail in the dark, ‘I’m not frightened to choose any more.’
Anna tipped her head back on a bony collarbone.
‘There’s something else,’ Sofia said, as if the contact had triggered the words, ‘something I wasn’t going to tell you but now I feel I have to.’
‘Something I kept to myself because I didn’t want it to hurt you by raising your hopes.’
A pause during which, somewhere nearby, an animal snapped a twig and made both their heart rates jump.
‘Vasily keeps a lock of your hair under his pillow.’
Anna’s breath stopped. She coughed, wiped blood from her mouth with her sleeve and felt something roar into life inside her. She stuck out her tongue to savour the cool night air and it tasted of happiness.
Nights merged. Anna could no longer separate them from days, as darkness settled in her mind and refused to lift. She could feel her body shutting down and she fought it every breath of the way.
‘She can’t travel any further, Sofia. It’s killing her.’
‘Mikhail, my love, we can’t stop. It’s too dangerous.’
‘Dangerous to stop and dangerous to go on. You choose.’
Sofia’s voice dropped to a fierce whisper, but Anna heard the words as she lay strapped to the horse’s back.
‘She’s dying, Mikhail. I swear on my love for you that I won’t let her go without seeing him one last time.’
The horse walked on and each step jarred Anna’s lungs, but she didn’t care. She was going to see Vasily. Sofia had sworn.
Tivil January 1934
‘A horse is coming.’
Pyotr stamped his valenki in the snow. ‘I can’t see any horses,’ he complained, screwing up his eyes to peer into the white fog that lay like a sheet over the valley.
‘They’re coming,’ Rafik repeated.
‘Is it Papa?’
Rafik frowned, his black eyebrows twitching under his shapka. ‘It’s him - and he’s not alone.’
‘How do you know, Rafik?’ Pyotr asked.
But Rafik didn’t answer. He and Zenia were standing with hands linked, muttering strange words that made no sense to Pyotr. To the boy it seemed that the words turned into something solid in the cold damp air, rising like his breath to merge with the fog over Tivil. He didn’t like the feeling. He began to throw snowballs to warm himself up.
They’d been waiting there an hour and his fingers had frozen, but that didn’t worry him. What worried him much more was that his hopes had frozen. He could feel them caught in a hard icy lump inside his chest. He’d been curled up at home in front of the warm pechka, the stove, when Zenia had come bounding in, cheeks glowing, bundled him up into his shuba coat and dragged him out into the snow. Over recent months he’d never quite grown used to the gypsy girl’s sudden bursts of energy. Often he wondered if it had anything to do with all the strange herbs she ate.
‘Pyotr, come on, he’s waiting for us.’
‘Who?’ He trotted alongside her, pulling on his varezhki, woollen mittens, his boots crunching through the snow.
‘Zenia, wait a minute.’ Pyotr was baffled. ‘What does he want with me?’
‘I am hurrying.’
‘Your father is coming home.’
Pyotr sobbed, a strange animal sound he
His excitement had cooled. The wind and the snow and the sound of ice cracking on the river had stolen its heat. They’d been waiting on the road into the village for so long now, but nobody had come and he’d started to believe they were wrong. Though Rafik had given him a smile of welcome when he’d first arrived, now the gypsies paid him little heed. They talked in intense low voices in a tight huddle, excluding him.
‘When’s Papa coming?’ he asked again.
Soon had come and gone.
But now Rafik said urgently, ‘A horse is coming.’
Pyotr was the first to hear the whinny of the horse. He straightened up and stared out past Zenia, wrapped in her thick coat and headscarf, into the shifting banks of fog where the road should be. It was like floating into another world, unfamiliar and unpredictable.
The word drifted, swirling and swaying towards him through the air.
‘Papa!’ Pyotr yelled, ‘Papa!’
Out of the wall of white loomed a tall figure in a filthy coat. At his side hobbled a small grey horse.
‘Papa,’ Pyotr tried to shout again, but this time the word choked in his throat.
He flew into the outstretched arms, burrowed his face into the icy jacket and listened to his father’s heart. It was real. Beating fast. The cloth of the jacket smelled strange and the beard on his face felt prickly, but it was his Papa. The big strong familiar hands gripped him hard, held him so close Pyotr couldn’t speak.
‘What’s going on here?’ his father demanded over his head.
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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