|Sep/Oct 1999 Fiction|
Two days had passed since my last meal, if you could even call it that. It consisted of murky water from the kitchen faucet and half a raw potato, the other half of which my brother ate. My mother and father put nothing in their mouths until Nikita and I had eaten; they sat at the table silently and watched us, making sure we ate "enough." I never wanted to eat "enough," though, because I felt guilty. But my "I can't eat anymore, you and mama finish it," was always met with a stern and reproachful look from my father: "No. Eat, Danya. Eat."
After the war started, mother rarely talked. Her despair resounded in every dusty corner and unwashed chair of the house. Sacks of darkness hung beneath her eyes and a harsher tone in her voice regulated the mood of the house. This affected my father, because he often gazed at the ground and I never once saw him smile. But my brother Nikita didn't seem to feel it. He was only five years old. Five years younger than me. The war didn't seem to move him much at all; the only evident change in him was the fact that he started asking a lot of questions: "Papa, mama, why aren't you eating?" "Why can't I go to the park anymore?" "Why don't we drink tea like we used to?" "Why is it so cold?"
I often found myself answering his ceaseless questions. We shared a room, and sometimes he startled me in the middle of the night when his tiny voice rose out of the blackness. He would ask me a new question, one as random as usual, and often I couldn't tell if he remained awake to hear the answer.
The Germans seized Leningrad earlier that year, and the blockade began. Food could only be brought into the city in certain quantities. No cars were allowed to pass in and out of the city. No person could be outside past eight in the evening. I'm surprised I still remember all the details. Five-hundred and fifty grams of bread per person per month. One bar of dark chocolate per person per four months. No one could survive on the prescribed amounts of food. Some grew potatoes and sold them (father bought them when he could, about once a month); others ate horses. And there were rumors that people ate parts of the dead human bodies. The streets were littered with corpses that looked like the life had been sucked out of them violently. Some were removed from the streets, but many just rotted. They lay face down and naked, strewn about the city, in dark alleys and crooked stairways, stripped of any dignity they once had. Marks were visible where stray dogs, deprived of their masters, had gnawed the rotting flesh.
About one year after the blockade began, my father fell ill and was bed-ridden for a week. It was the week when the citizens could receive their monthly rations. My mother was constantly at his side as if he were going to die.
"Danusha, you'll have to get the bread and chocolate tomorrow yourself. Tomorrow is the last day they will be giving out food," father said, then coughed violently. "I would go, but I'm too sick."
"The family identification is on the top shelf in the cupboard," he went on, stroking my head. "Don't forget it when you go. They will ask you for it."
I nodded and left the room, feeling more responsible than ever. I couldn't wait till tomorrow. I went straight to the kitchen and put the identification card into my pocket so as not to forget it the next day. On it was the name and age of each family member. It entitled us to four precise rations of bread and chocolate.
That night I hardly slept. I listened to Nikita's gentle breathing. I closed my eyes many times but all I could think about was the idea of going out into the city by myself. The thought filled me with subtle fear and a lurking anticipation.
The next day came as all days come-slowly. But hardly had the sun risen when I was dressed and ready to go. Nikita was asleep, but I could hear mother and father whispering in their room. I felt my pocket to make sure the identification card was still there and slipped out of the apartment silently.
The sky was immaculate, as if the clouds of war had drifted away. The sun illuminated the streets with a hazy brightness. Even the corpses seemed benign for the first time. Their normally dismal presence could not restrain my burgeoning joy. The streets were mostly empty except for a few people who wandered listlessly like they were on the cusp between time and eternity. I walked briskly past them to escape their glances, and also because I was eager to join the line of adults. I knew the food distribution point, and I crossed the intricate streets confidently.
At the corner of Belova and Nevsky, I saw the back of the line. No beginning was visible. The string of countless people extended to a point in the distance and then vanished. I took my place behind the last person in line, a man in a threadbare jacket who stared forward and kept his hands rigidly by his sides. Streaks of gray marked his otherwise black hair, and he somewhat resembled a German officer I'd seen hanged in January of that year-a spy, the Russian soldiers had announced. I was nine when eight of them in full military uniform were escorted to a wooden platform in Stalichnaya Square, where the life was jerked out of them. They were all calm and steeled and proud except for one who made a show, whose cries and pleas were audible from out of the heavy, black hood tied around his head. Eventually, even he was silenced. I used to think that the noose choked its victims. Later my father explained that it broke their necks.
The line moved slowly and quietly. I caught the occasional murmur but mostly everyone faced forward in silence like the man in front of me.
I still felt content on the potato my father had brought home. I wondered if these people who were waiting had fathers who brought them potatoes. My mind being off my stomach, I considered other things. I noticed the painful slowness with which the line moved, centimeter by centimeter; everybody lifting their feet as if they had weights chained to them: ghosts.
The sun became hot. I took off my shirt and tied it around my waist. The hot rays beat down on my chest and I found myself no longer excited about what I thought would have been an adventure. I could hardly wait to receive the food and hurry home to the coolness of our apartment and the comforting presence of my family. Soon I felt repulsed by the people in line. The acrid odor of the dead in the streets made one wince, and the smell of the strangers around me was similar. Just then I also felt the first throb in my stomach.
I needed a bathroom, which would mean leaving my place in line. I hadn't had a bowel movement for weeks, maybe even months. I couldn't leave the line; the men waiting behind me would quickly fill the vacant spot. They saw nothing but themselves and their need for food. My head began to spin and the nausea almost made me collapse. I struggled to stay standing and felt my knees weaken.
The man in front of me turned around, and he looked down at me with an expression of concern almost like my father's.
"Are you alright?"
"Please, mister. I have to go to the bathroom. Please don't let anyone take my place."
He put his hand on my shoulder and looked me in the eye: "Go. Your spot will be here when you come back."
I bolted off. Never had my legs carried me so fast. I untied my shirt from my waist and threw it over my shoulders so they would let me into the nearest ryumachnaya-where there was sure to be a bathroom.
I found one open but empty except for a dozing bartender so I dashed across the creaking wooden floor, found the restroom hidden in a hallway and flew into it, throwing the door shut behind me. It was remarkable how happy I felt during those few moments of relief, until I remembered the place I might have lost.
By the time I came back to line, the distance between the horizon and the sun had already begun to taper. The street was filled with the color of ripeness. The line seemed just as long as it was when I came in the morning. I sprinted in search of the spot that was mine, in search of that man. I ran and ran, for what seemed like many minutes. From the side, the line looked like a wall.
I stopped and spun around.
It was the man who was saving my spot. I had not noticed him. Sudden calmness washed over me as I walked up to the man. I felt like hugging him, squeezing him with all my might. But for some reason all I gave was a nod and a solemn "Thanks." I was startled by my own passive indifference. I felt I sounded like an adult.
The man turned around without a word and resumed his cold stare ahead. Now, we were nearly at the front of the line, and the pleasant evening insinuated the avenue. I felt flushed with joy as I did when I left the apartment that morning, yet I had spent all day in a long line, suffering.
The line led to a medium-sized shed, and a soldier with a rifle stood beside the door, out of which another soldier emerged every minute with another batch of bread and chocolate. The man in front of me received his rations and walked away without saying anything. I wanted to watch him walk away, but the soldier behind the window was motioning for me to come closer.
"Family identification pass?" he asked.
I reached into my pocket. I had forgotten all about the pass. If I had remembered it, I would've run to the bathroom more carefully. A sudden pang of fear surged through my veins as I reached into my pocket, held my breath, and felt nothing. I reached a little further and fingered the outline of the card. I handed it to the soldier behind the window and let out a sigh of relief. He withdrew into the shed and came back moments later with a loaf of bread and four bars of chocolate in his hands. He put them all in a bag for me so I wouldn't drop them on the way home. After a day spent waiting, I wouldn't want to lose a single crumb.
I began the walk home, dragging my legs like dead weights, when I noticed the sound of footsteps behind me. I turned around expecting to see a group of hooligans intent on stealing the food I had waited so long to get. No one was going to take it from me after what I'd been through. I gritted my teeth and clung to the bag as I turned around. Five of the boys from school stood there with their hands on their hips and smirks on their faces. They were all twice as big as me. The biggest spoke: "What you have there in the bag?" I gripped the bag and ran. Their heavy feet pounded the ground behind me, but I knew they wouldn't catch me. I was always the smallest in school but still the fastest. I ran and ran until I was sure I had lost them. They probably forgot about me already, I thought; there were more profitable victims in Leningrad than me. I was almost home when I sat down on a bench to rest and to catch my breath. A dirty old man with a haggard grey beard, wearing many-windowed rags, came from nowhere and sat down beside me. His dog followed like a starving ghost behind him, and it lay by his uncovered and rotting feet.
The pungent odor he brought with him made me wince but I hid my face behind my hand so as not to show it. He stared straight ahead as if he were reminiscing about a bread line. His lower lip hung halfway down to his chin and his half-closed eyes made it all a frightful sight. I wondered if he had lost his place in his line. I felt sorry for him, and slowly pulled my hand away from my face.
We sat like that until the lurid sun nearly touched the horizon. The poor man glared at it the entire time and never blinked once, didn't even squint. I thought maybe he was blind, but then knew he wasn't, because he turned his head towards me and I saw his face for the first time. His skin sagged; even the wrinkles above his brow seemed tired somehow. But his eyes had life in them.
"Hello," he managed in a wavering voice. "Do you have any food, young boy?"
I didn't know how to respond or what to do because I'd never talked to people like him before then. He wasn't surprised by my silence, though; I think he almost expected it. I reached into my bag and broke off a piece of the bread that was my family's. I placed the small mass of crumbs into the crooked hand that emerged from a sea of tatters. The old man admired it for a moment, stuck his tongue far out, then dropped it in his mouth. He closed his eyes and raised his head as if in pain: almost like his throat had forgotten the feeling of bread.
Then he lowered his head and opened his eyes again and gazed at me with a burning admiration and gratefulness, all the while stroking the dirty fur on the top of his old dog's head.
I looked at the dog and saw the minute tremblings of its dry nose. I felt sorry for it, too. Reaching into my bag, I broke off another small piece of the crusty black bread.
"No, no," the old man reached forward and grasped my wrist as I offered it to the dog. He unfolded my fingers and took the piece of bread away and dropped it back into my bag. He knew that my family was starving; he wouldn't allow a dog to eat while a fellow human was dying of hunger.
I glared at him for a moment, almost in anger, but then I reached back into my bag again. This time I broke off a piece of chocolate. I extended my arm towards the dog slowly, glancing askance at the old man, seeking some sort of approval. He knew why I was searching his face, and he nodded.
The starved creature sniffed, then cautiously ate the chocolate. It sniffed my hand some more and began licking my fingers. Then it rose to its feeble feet and turned around. It walked off without as much as a motion towards its master, and its master made no movement or attempt to stop it. The chocolate was awfully bitter but from the sight you could have thought it was sweet as honey. The dog's tail wagged as if I had offered it a taste of paradise. I wondered if it was the old man's dog after all.
I rested against the back of the bench and broke off a piece of chocolate for myself; a smaller piece than I had given to the dog. I dropped it in my mouth and couldn't remember the last time I'd tasted something so good. I felt it slowly getting smaller on my tongue. I could've easily swallowed it whole, it tasted so good. I glanced at the man beside me and he was watching the movements of my mouth so intently I felt selfish. But I knew enough food had been lost already. Nikita, mama, and papa are still hungry at home, I reminded myself.
"Don't chew it so quickly," the old man spoke all of a sudden, his eyes still fixed on my moving jaw. "Wait for it to melt away."
I nodded. Then he added: "That way the sweetness will last."
It was dark when I ran the rest of the way home, and the night made the tears that rolled off my cheeks cold.
When I got to our apartment I dried my eyes before I went in and mother asked me what I had done with the bar of chocolate. I told her it was like that when I received it. She didn't even notice the missing piece of bread.
I went to my room where Nikita was sleeping, his tiny chest rising and falling softly. I sat down on the edge of my bed and held my face in my hands. The dark night had covered the city, and silence reigned except for the occasional sounds of my mother moving about the house. My stomach throbbed persistently, like a slow torture. It was painful yet somehow pleasant at the same time. When I thought back on the day's events and how they had come to a close, tears of joy and envy trickled from my eyes.
Everyone knows that dogs die when they eat chocolate.