Authors: Lara Prescott
I woke from a dreamless sleep to Mitya standing over me. “Someone is outside,” he whispered.
“Is it Borya? Did he lose his key again?”
I swung my legs over the bed and toed the floor until I found my slippers. “Go back to your room.”
Mitya didn’t move as I fumbled for my robe.
“Mitya, I said go back to bed. And don’t wake your sister.”
“She heard it first.”
Before I could ask what they had heard, there was a crash. “It’s just a branch,” I said, my voice as low and steady as I could will it. “That poplar has been dead since last winter. I’ve told Borya we need to cut it…” Another sound outside stopped me. It was quieter, muted. It was no falling branch.
The sound of the front door opening sent us both running toward the entryway. Ira was there, standing in the doorway, barefoot, her white nightgown illuminated blue with moonlight. The sight of her startled me. She was a ghostly angel—a woman now. “Ira,” I said gently. “Close the door.”
Ignoring me, Ira stepped outside. “Come out!” she called out. Mitya pushed passed me to join his sister. I grabbed hold of his nightshirt, but he shrugged me off. “Show yourself!” he yelled, his voice cracking. Movement behind the woodpile at the side of the house sent both my children tripping over themselves to get back inside. I shut the door behind them and tested the knob to make sure it was locked.
“It’s them,” Ira said. “I know it.” As she hugged herself against the wall, she no longer looked like a beautiful apparition; she looked like my little girl again.
“Who?” I asked.
“A man followed me home from the train station yesterday.”
“Are you sure? What did he look like?”
“Like the rest of them. Like the men who took you away.”
“I’ve seen them too,” Mitya said. “They watch me from behind the fence at school. Two, sometimes three of them. They don’t scare me, though.”
“Don’t be silly,” I said, but I didn’t believe my words. Mitya was prone to exaggeration, and his
very healthy imagination,
as Borya had put it, resulted in stories. He’d found a piece of Sputnik in the woods. He’d saved a little girl in his class from a wolf that had wandered onto the playground. He’d eaten a magical plant that gave him the power to jump higher than a trolleybus.
But this story I did not doubt.
had been published in Italy six months earlier, and with each new country that published the book—France, Sweden, Norway, Spain, West Germany—I could feel more eyes watching us. With each foreign publication, questions arose about why the book had not been published at home. For now, the State spoke no word publicly of the novel. Its hand was steady, but a tremor grew. I knew it was only a matter of time before they’d act.
I’d never spoken to the children about the men who sat in their black cars at the end of the drive, or the men who followed me whenever I went into Moscow. Instead, I just waited for what felt preordained—I waited for them to come for me.
I had done my best not to alarm the children. I closed the drapes, complaining of headaches. I locked the doors, saying a neighbor’s house had been broken into by some teenagers. I visited a kennel to see about getting a Caucasian shepherd, telling the man my son could learn some responsibility by taking care of a dog.
But my children were never fooled; they were too old for that. They knew to look for the truth not in my put-on smile or the words coming out of my mouth, but in my shaking hands, the bags under my eyes.
I did speak to Borya about my increasing fears, but he was distracted by the onslaught of letters from well-wishers, smuggled-in newspaper clippings of rave reviews from abroad, and requests for interviews. He was in demand—and I now had to share him not only with his wife, but with the entire world. The last time I spoke of the matter, we walked the path along Lake Izmalkovo. Borya was preoccupied with finding the right person to translate
into English. He answered my question about getting a guard dog by asking if I thought the English edition should include the poems at the end of the novel. “They’re saying the rhyme detracts from the meaning,” he said.
Everything was about the book, and nothing mattered more—not the fame the international editions had brought him, nor the looming threat from the State, nor his family, nor mine. He even put it above his own life. His book came first and always would, and I felt like a fool for not having realized that sooner.
As Ira held back tears and Mitya pretended to be strong, I was struck with the enormity of being utterly on our own. I gathered myself and peered out the window, but saw only the gentle sway of the poplars, their black shadows dancing on the gravel path.
The children jumped back, but I held still. I flung open the drapes.
“Mama!” Mitya cried.
“Come,” I said. “Look.”
The children peered over my shoulder. Outside, two red foxes stood atop a log they’d knocked loose from the woodpile. Their golden eyes met mine before they fled back into the woods.
We laughed until tears came, until our stomachs hurt. We laughed until it didn’t seem very funny anymore.
“Are you sure there’s nothing else out there?” Mitya asked.
“Yes.” I closed the drapes. I kissed their cheeks as I had done when they were little. “Now back to bed.”
The children shut their bedroom door, but I knew I wouldn’t be able to sleep. In the dark kitchen, I put a kettle on. Not wanting to wake the children, I lit a candle and picked up a newspaper.
No picture was included with the article, but I had no trouble imagining the crush of white and tan fur, the tangle of hooves, the broken antlers with their downy fuzz singed off.
TWO HUNDRED REINDEER STRUCK DEAD BY LIGHTNING ON THE PUTORANA PLATEAU.
I brought the page closer to the candlelight to see if I had read the number correctly. I had. Two hundred gone in a moment. The sky cracks open and—
The kettle’s whisper turned to a howl and I removed it from the stove. I went back to the article. The reindeer had huddled together for protection, hence the large number of dead. A shepherd from Norilsk was the first to come across the casualties. He said they looked as if they’d been shaken up like backgammon dice and scattered across the snowy mountaintop. Leave it to a shepherd to also be a poet.
How many years would it take their bodies to decompose, their bones to bleach? Would the villagers collect their antlers and display them as unearned trophies on their walls? Why hadn’t they broken from the herd and headed for lower ground? Or maybe they just did what they’d done for thousands of years. There’s no telling when the sky will open up.
If it had been men outside our door, would I have barricaded us in? Or would I have opened the door and offered myself up? Would I have screamed Borya’s name, knowing he couldn’t hear me?
“Do we have anything to eat?” Mitya asked from behind me.
“Did I wake you?”
“Can’t sleep anyway.” He went to the cupboard. In the last year, Mitya seemed to always be eating. He’d grown almost five centimeters in six months; the stool he’d once used to reach the top shelf was now a plant stand. He pulled out a bag of stale sushki and I poured him a cup of tea. He dunked his snack and ate it in two bites.
“Did you really see men outside your school?” I asked him softly.
“I think we should get a pistol,” he answered.
“A pistol won’t do us any good.”
“Two pistols, then,” Ira said, coming into the kitchen and sitting down at the table. She took a sip from Mitya’s teacup.
“Two pistols. Ten pistols. They won’t help us.”
“I’ll learn how to use it,” Mitya said. He made a gun with his hand and pointed it at his sister.
I placed my hand atop his and folded his fingers down. “No.”
“And why not? Who will protect us? I need to do something. I am the man of the family.”
Ira laughed, but my chest tightened. My boy.
“Are you excited for camp, Mitya?” I asked, desperate to change the conversation. He was to start his summer session of Young Pioneers the following week. For the last four summers, Mitya had so enjoyed his time in the woods. The summer I returned from Potma, he hadn’t wanted to go, fearing that if he left my side, I’d be taken again. He’d sobbed as I dressed him in his white shirt and red neckerchief and boarded him onto the bus. As I stood with the rest of the parents and watched the bus drive away, he didn’t even wave goodbye. But when he came home, he was full of stories of the friends he’d made, of playing Geese and Swans, raising the red flag, morning and afternoon calisthenics, and marching—he even liked the marching. For weeks he sang Pioneers songs and recited facts he’d learned about corn quotas.
Mitya raised his head. “I suppose.”
“You don’t want to go this year?”
“I’m sick of all those songs,” he said. “And I wish you’d signed me up for the Young Technicians camp instead. I’d rather be building things than marching.”
“I didn’t know you wanted to—”
“It costs extra,” he interrupted.
“I’m sure we could’ve worked something out.”
Mitya reached for another sushka. “You would’ve asked him?”
“I would have thought of something.”
“Why won’t he marry you?”
“Mitya!” Ira slapped his arm.
“You’ve asked the very same thing,” Mitya said. “Just not to Mama. People at school say things, you know.”
“What do they say?” I asked.
Mitya said nothing.
“I’ve been married twice before and don’t want to marry again,” I said, knowing they could see right through me, as they could see through everything now.
“But you love him,” Ira said. “Don’t you?”
“Sometimes love isn’t enough,” I said.
“What else is there?” Ira asked.
“I don’t know.”
Mitya and Ira glanced at each other, and their silent agreement broke my heart.
When the house was quiet, I looked in at the children, both sleeping again. I put on my raincoat and left. I couldn’t go to him; he’d be asleep. I walked along the green fence by the main road. As I walked, I thought of Mitya as a little boy, refusing to let go of my hand before boarding the bus to camp. I thought of him now saying we needed a pistol, being the man of the household. I thought of Ira, how she’d grown since that day the men took me. I thought of my children knowing, so young, that love sometimes isn’t enough. A truck’s headlights appeared in the distance. I wondered what would happen if the truck swerved off the road, if I didn’t get out of its way. The sky cracks open and—