The three of them leave the apartment, closing the door behind them, hearing the lock click into place. From the other side, there is crying almost immediately.
Vera looks at her mother. “I cannot just leave them here, locked in—”
“From now on, you will do many unimaginable things,” her mother says tiredly. “Now let us go before it is too late.”
Outside, the sky is a beautiful cloudless blue and the lilacs that grow beneath the first-floor windows scent the air. It seems impossible that war hangs over Leningrad on a day like this . . . until they turn the corner and come to the bank, where people are jammed together in a crowd at the closed door, waving their passbooks in the air and screaming; women are crying.
“We are too late already,” Mama says.
“What is happening?” Olga asks, pulling nervously at her hair again, looking around. Beside her, an elderly woman makes a moaning sound and thumps to the ground in a heap. In seconds she is lost amid the crowd.
“The banks are closed for now. Too many people tried to take out their money.” Mama chews on her lower lip until blood appears and then leads them down to the grocer’s. Here, people are leaving with whatever they can carry. The shelves are practically empty. Already prices are doubling and tripling.
Vera has trouble making sense of this. War has just been announced and yet the supplies are gone already and the people around her look dazed and desperate.
“We have been here before,” Mama says simply.
In the store, they have only enough money for buckwheat, flour, dried lentils, and lard. Carrying their meager supplies back through the crowded streets, they make it to the apartment at just past six.
Vera can hear her children crying and it breaks her heart. She opens the door and scoops them up. Leo throws his arms around her neck and hangs on, saying, “I missed you, Mama.”
Vera thinks then that she will never again follow her mother’s advice about this one thing: she will never leave her children alone.
“Where is your papa?” she asks Anya, who shrugs her small shoulders.
He should have been home by now.
“I’m sure he’s fine,” her mother says. “It will be difficult to get through the streets.”
Worry gnaws at Vera, though, sharpening its bite with every passing minute. Finally, at eight o’clock, he comes into the apartment. The side of his face is dirty and his hair is damp with sweat.
“Verushka,” he says, pulling her into his arms, holding her so tightly she cannot breathe. “The trolleys were full. I ran all the way here. Are you okay?”
“Now we are,” she says.
And she believes it.
That night, while her grandmother snores in the hot darkness, Vera sits up in her bed. The big crisscross of tape and newsprint on the windows lets only the merest light through. Beyond it, the city is strangely, eerily silent. It is as if Leningrad itself has drawn in a sharp breath and is afraid to exhale.
In this shadowy darkness, their apartment seems even smaller and more jumbled. With three narrow beds in the living area and the children’s cots in the kitchen, there is barely room to walk in here anymore. Even at mealtimes they cannot all be together. There isn’t enough room at the table or chairs to go around it.
Not far away, Mama and Olga are awake, too, sitting up in their bed. Beside Vera, Sasha is as silent as she’s ever seen him.
“I don’t know what we’re supposed to do,” Olga says. At nineteen, she should be thinking of love and romance and her future, not war. “Maybe the Germans will save us. Comrade Stalin—”
“Shhh,” Mama says sharply, glancing over at her sleeping mother. Some things can never be said aloud. Olga should know this by now.
“Tomorrow we will go to work,” Mama says. “And the next day we do the same, and the next day after that. Now we must go to sleep. Here, Olga, roll over. I will hold you.”
Vera hears the squeaking of the tired bed as they settle down to sleep. She stretches out beside her husband, tries to feel safe in his arms. There is too little light to see his face clearly; he is just gray and black patches, but his breathing is steady and sure and the sound of it, in rhythm to the beating of her heart, calms her down. She touches his cheek, feels the soft stubble of new growth, as familiar to her now as the wedding band she wears. She leans forward to kiss him, and for a moment, when his lips are on hers, there is nothing else, but then he draws back and says, “You will have to be strong, Verushka.”
“We will be strong,” she says, holding him in her arms.
Two nights later they are awakened by gunfire.
Vera launches out of bed, her heart pounding. She falls over her mother’s bed as she tries to get to her children. Gunfire rattles the thin windows, and she can hear footsteps in the hallway and people screaming.
“Hurry,” Sasha says, sounding surprisingly calm. He herds them all together while Mama takes as much food as she can carry. It is not until they are outside in the street, huddled with the crowd of their neighbors beneath a pale blue sky, that they understand: these are Russian antiaircraft guns, practicing for what is to come.
There are no shelters on their street. It is Mama who organizes the people in her building: tomorrow they will go to the storage area in the basement and make a shelter.
Finally, amid the sound of gunfire and the preternatural silence between bursts, Sasha looks down at Vera. Leo is asleep in his arms (the boy can sleep through anything) and Anya is beside him, worriedly sucking her thumb and caressing the end of her blanket. It is a baby habit that was long gone before the start of the war and is now back.
“You know I have to go,” Sasha says to Vera.
She shakes her head, thinking suddenly that this gunfire means nothing; the look on her husband’s face is infinitely more frightening.
“I am a university student and poet,” he says. “And you are the daughter of a criminal of the state.”
“You haven’t published any of your poetry—”
“I am suspect, Vera, and you know this. So are you.”
“You cannot go. I won’t let you.”
“It is done, Vera,” is what he says. “I joined the People’s Volunteer Army.”
Mama is beside her then, clutching her arm. “Of course you are going, Sasha,” she says evenly, and Vera hears the warning in her mother’s tone. Always it is about appearances. Even now, as the gunfire explodes all around them, a black van prowls in the street.
“It is the right thing to do,” Sasha says. “We are the Soviet Army. The best in the world. We will kick the Germans’ asses in no time and I will be home.”
Vera feels little Anya beside her, holding her hand, listening to every word, and so, too, their neighbors, and even strangers. She knows what she is supposed to feel and to say, but doesn’t know if she has the strength for it. Her father had once said to her much the same thing: Do not worry, Veronika Petrovna, I will always be here for you.
“Promise you’ll come back to me,” she says.
“I promise,” he says easily.
But Vera knows: there are some promises that are pointless to ask for and useless to receive. When she turns to her mother, this truth passes between them, and Vera understands her own childhood. She will have to be strong for her children.
She looks up at her husband. “It is a promise I will hold you to, Aleksandr Ivanovich.”
In the morning, she wakens early; in the quiet darkness, she finds her one photograph of them, taken on the day of their wedding.
She looks down at their bright and smiling faces. Tears blur the image as she takes it out of the frame and folds it in half and then in half again. She tucks it in the pocket of his coat.
She hears footsteps behind her, feels his hands on her shoulders.
“I love you, Veruskhka,” he says softly, kissing the side of her face.
She is glad he is behind her. She is not sure she has the strength to look him in the eyes when she says, “I love you, too, Sasha.”
Come back to me.
In no time at all, he is gone.
Vera and Olga are lucky in their jobs. Olga works in the Hermitage Museum and Vera in the Leningrad Public Library. Now both of them spend their days in dark, quiet rooms, crating up masterpieces of art and literature so that the history of the Soviet state will never be lost. When work is over for the day, Vera walks home by herself. Sometimes she goes out of her way to see the Summer Garden and remember the day she met Sasha, but it is getting harder and harder to recall. Already the face of Leningrad is changing. The Bronze Horseman is covered in sandbags and wooden planks. Camouflage nets hang over the Smolny; gray paint has been splashed over the golden spires of the Admiralty. Everywhere she looks, people are busy—building air-raid shelters, standing in line for food, digging trenches. The skies overhead are still blue and cloudless, and no bombs have dropped on them yet, but it is coming and they know it. Every day the speakers blare out reports of the advancements of the German troops. No one believes that the Germans will reach Leningrad—not their magical city built on mud and bones—but bombs will fall here. They have no doubt about that.
On her way home, Vera stops by the bank and withdraws the two hundred rubles she is allowed for the month, and when she has her money, she stands in line for three loaves of bread and a tin of cheese. Today she is lucky; there is food at the end of her long wait. Sometimes she gets to the front of the line only to see it close.
When she finally gets home at eight o’clock, she finds Anya and Leo playing war in the living room, jumping from bed to bed, making shooting sounds at each other.
“Mama!” Leo cries when he sees her. His face breaks into a gummy grin and he runs toward her, throwing himself in her arms. Anya is close on his heels, but she doesn’t hug Vera so tightly. Anya is aggrieved by this business of war and she wants everyone to know it. She does not like spending her days in nursery school and not coming home until six o’clock, and then with “smelly Mrs. Newsky from next door.”
“How are my babies?” Vera asks, pulling Anya into her arms anyway. “What did you two do in school today?”
“I am too old for baby school,” Anya informs her, scrunching her face in concentration.
Vera pats her daughter’s head and goes into the kitchen. She is at the stove putting water on to boil when Olga comes into the apartment.
“Have you heard?” she says breathlessly.
Vera turns around. “What is it?”
Olga glances nervously at Anya and Leo, who are playing with sticks. “The children of Leningrad,” she says, lowering her voice. “They’re being evacuated.”
On the morning of the evacuation, Vera wakens feeling sick. She cannot do it, cannot put her babies on a train bound for somewhere far away and then just go on with her life. She lies in bed, alone, as private a time as exists in this crowded apartment, staring up at the rust-stained, water-marked ceiling. She can hear her mother turning restlessly and Olga snoring quietly in the bed only two feet away.
“Vera?” Mama says.
Vera turns onto her side.
Mama is looking at her. They are close, in their side-by-side beds, almost close enough to touch. A threadbare blanket falls from Mama’s shoulder when Olga rolls over. “You cannot think it,” she says, and Vera wonders if one day she will know what her children are thinking before they do.