||The Famine: Chapter 2
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|A short distance away, more soldiers were setting fire to the gasoline used to incinerate the evidence. Further down --- the collapsed remains of what once was. Beyond that everyone forgets the ghosts of ashes.
Standing before the carnage, with an unfamiliar dispassion as my shield, I wondered if I should rummage through the untested pile. Would I recognize my brother’s family, even if I could would I want to see them in such a senseless state of death? Or had they turned to ashes long before my arrival?
The bones crackled a hollow drop as a few more bodies were added to the pile. I wanted to cry, but couldn’t. Instead, I lowered my thoughts and dejectedly made my way towards nearby Kryva. There I would board the next train out of Ukraine. The extra fare would be worth it to escape this sorrowful land and its haunting ghosts.
The road to Kryva was deserted. Where livestock and carts once traveled back and forth, there was nothing now, only a muted memory. Not even the reckless barking of dogs, they were usually the last to be eaten I was told. A slight wind brushed along my numb face stretching my bland escape. How could I cry, I asked myself, when I can’t even find a reason to understand such brutality by Stalin. It was a lonely walk, looking for something that was nothing. Occasional glances surrendered a needless mark from my subdued memory.
On the left there were the twenty additional acres that Petro had bought during my last visit. He had planed to grow alfalfa on the tract to feed his livestock. He had told me that despite the distance from his farm it was too good a deal to pass up. Petro was a good farmer, he would have … No, I admonished myself, he must be remembered more for being a good man, a brave and honorable man. Like the time he’d protected me from further abuse by a company of Siberian troops after the war— on a rest over stop on the way home to Siberia. Petro, only ten years old at the time stood in from of me, fists raised, ready to fight the whole platoon.
He got the butt end of a rifle across his forehead for his bravery. They would've shot him too if the officer hadn’t called for them to board the train. As they boarded the train home they laughed and reminded us how lucky we’d been….
Petro had such high hopes for his family. Irena was such a wonderful wife, and mother. They were hoping for a fourth son but Irena’s last birth was a difficult one with unknown complications. I had even forgotten that. I cursed my neglect. How could I have let my concern slip away so easily? But, Leningrad was an intoxicating city, though, despite its long winters. It will help me to forget again, I convinced myself. If not then there's always an escape to Paris, and a dream of…. who knows what.
Up ahead was Mykola Kozdoba’s house. It too looked deserted, wheat fields looted and wasting, begging to be nurtured again. I asked myself again, the confusion of growers actually starving --- and realized that terror can smash any spirit with such sadistic ease. It is perhaps mankind’s heaviest sin. It also reminded me of Sergey, a fellow student who’d suddenly disappeared one night.
A fog predicting twilight was settling its wispy fibers around me. The smell of smoke penetrated deeper. I looked back in the direction of the death pile. It was far enough behind me to erase its presence. However, I noticed a freshly lit pyre stretch its smothering tentacle towards the sky. I still could not escape its nightmare.
I hadn’t planned to stop in Kozdoba’s house but as I walked by the opened front door, I heard a faint sound, as if a spirit was trying to escape its tomb. I stepped inside.
It was mostly empty. At first I could not distinguish life from among the scattered debris. Then as if a sharp beacon had suddenly locked its beam into my line of sight, I noticed two latent eyes begging my soul with a desolate prayer. It was a small child.
I was unable to tell whether it was a boy or girl at first. And it wasn’t until the beacon had blinked its message that I even knew it to be alive. I walked towards the child, bundled under a pile of dirty rags, as if hidden on purpose, showing only its face. How big the eyes were, daring me to guess what still held them open in their cavernous sockets.
I lifted a rag to reveal a head and held my breath. It was a little girl, no older than eight or nine her hair or what was left of it was still tied in pigtails betraying her sex. Everything else challenged me to guess what species of creature this was…. Her head seemed so big, yet hollowed on both sides of her faded flesh. She made a slight squeaky sound, like a kitten meowing for her mother’s nourishment I sensed her plea. But had no food with me.
The soldiers were right, I was even too naïve to have thought to bring food with me for the journey. Wild arrangements raced through my mind; born of frustration, they concocted ridiculous schemes. I even thought of cutting off a piece of my own flesh if it would help. I felt reason slipping away. The girl’s voice stretched louder.
I noticed a slight movement under the blanket; it must have been her hand. I wanted to tell her to stop, that I had nothing and I couldn’t help her. But her eyes pleaded, compelling me to lift the blanket. What I saw made me fall on my knees gasping for air. I closed my eyes, trying to rub out the image. The distended sound of her voice made me return.
I had never seen death creep in such an eerie fashion. She lay naked under the blanket. Her skeleton revealed itself from under her transparent skin, almost bonding its texture to her flesh. Even the excruciating lesions on her skin could not promote a true surface, what was out and what was in. Her frame was sharply twisted through illusion. Although her stomach was empty, it puffed out slightly in its mistake. Only the sound of an approaching car motored turned my head.
I ran outside if only to catch a breath of relief. The car came from the direction of the camp. It’s headlights pierced through the narrow swipe of the sunset’s burning curtain. I hailed it down. It was another set of soldiers. This time an officer sat in the back seat.
“Please, you’ve got to help me, “ I begged the officer. “There’s a small child inside the house. She’s dying.”
“Yes, we know about her,” replied the officer with undisguised arrogance. “ I asked my driver to put her in the house two days ago. It had distressed me to see her every time I drove by. Besides, it’s safer for her inside, you know we’ve had reports that there’s cannibalism in some parts, so you can see ---It’s much better this way, no one has to watch her die and she’s much safer in there. And who are you by the way?”
I lied, explaining that was I was a student from Leningrad traveling through on holiday.
“You know, I’m not like the others.” the officer confessed. “The others simply pick them up dead or alive and bury them or burn them. I couldn’t do that, I wait until they’re dead.” Then he motioned to his driver, “Sergeant, relieve the girl from her misery with a bullet to the head”
The driver blinked his eyes, I could see that he had no stomach, “Sir, do we really need to waste a bullet on the dying?” Then he looked at me and I could tell.
“You’re right, Sergeant. Besides, it shouldn’t be much longer.”
“But why not help her to live, Sir?” I pressed on, perplexed by the officer’s callous fiber. “Why not help her to live. I don’t understand.”.
“Young man, if we were to feed her then we’d have to feed the others, including the ‘rebels’,” he replied. Then adding a misplaced question, “So, would you like a lift into town?”
I was too overwhelmed by his reasoning to answer right away. Shaking my head as if to reshape the logic that had served me so well prior to this day, I still had to ask, “Will you allow me to bring the girl with me?”
“Haven’t you been listening, boy” the officer raised his discomfort. “I don’t want that thing near me. I’ve just come from the disposal camp and I’ve seen enough skeletons for a day. If you want a lift then climb in if not then stand clear. But watch out for these kulaks. They’re an inhuman bunch, thinking they could deify the State.”
I looked at the driver wondering whether to seek his support. He sat erect, eyes focused on the road ahead. The officer felt obliged to explain his generosity. “If this day hadn’t gone so well for me, I would have arrested you already for incessant disrespect.” Adding a basking glow, “Ah yes, five farms, a good day.”
“Disrespect, but I only asked,” before I could finish, the officer ordered his driver to proceed without me.
“He is a student sir, doesn’t know any better.” the driver interrupted. “May I at least offer him my apple? It doesn’t look as if he has any food and you know how scarce things are in town.”
“Oh very well. After all, he is from Leningrad.” Then stressing his point he leaned his intent towards me, “ Just remember that no word of this is to be told in Leningrad.”
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