Vera sees the way they look at each other, the knowing sadness that passes between mother and daughter, and although it scares her, it comforts her, too. They have been through this before, her mama and her babushka. War is nothing new to Peter’s city. They will survive as they have survived before, by being careful and smart.
The city becomes one long line. Everything is disappearing, especially politeness. Rations are consistently being cut, and often there is no food to be had, even with a ration card. Vera, like everyone else, is tired and hungry and afraid. She wakes at four in the morning to stand in line for bread, and after work, she walks miles to the outskirts of town, bartering with peasants for food—a liter of vodka for a bag of withered potatoes; an outgrown pair of valenki for a pound of lard—and digging up whatever forgotten vegetables she can find.
It is not safe and she knows it, but there is nothing to be done. This search for food is all there is. No one goes to the library anymore, but Vera must keep working there to keep her worker’s rations. Now she is on her way home from the country. She moves quickly, keeping to the shadows, with her precious bag of potatoes hidden inside her dress like an unborn baby.
She is less than a mile from the apartment when the air raid alarm goes off, blaring through the nearly empty city streets. When it stops, she can hear the planes buzzing, growing closer.
She hears a loud whistling and starts to run for one of the trenches in the park to her left. Before she is even across the street, something explodes. Dirt and debris rain down from the sky. One building after another is destroyed.
And then . . . silence.
Vera gets up slowly, her legs unsteady.
The potatoes are okay.
She crawls out of the trench. Dusting herself off, she runs for home. The city is burning and smoking around her. People are screaming and crying.
She turns the corner and sees her apartment building. It is intact.
But the building next door is demolished. Only half of it remains; the other side is a pile of smoking, pulverized rubble. As she draws near, she sees a living room in perfect shape—green flowered wallpaper still in place, a table still set for dinner, a painting on the wall. But no people. As she stands there, the chandelier above the table shudders and falls, crashing across the dishes on the table.
She finds her family in the basement, huddled alongside their neighbors. When the All-Clear sounds, they go back upstairs and put the children in bed.
It is only the beginning. The next day Vera goes with her mother and the children to the market, where they search for a burzhuika. Without such a stove, her mother says, they will have problems come winter.
They find one deep in the back of the market, in a stall run by the kind of people Vera normally would never see. Swarthy, drunken men and women wearing jewels they surely hadn’t owned a week ago.
Vera holds her children close, trying not to make a face as the man’s vodka breath washes over her.
“This is the last one,” he says, leering at her, swaying.
Mama takes off her wedding ring. The gold shines dully in the morning light. “I have this gold ring,” she says.
“What good is gold?” He sneers.
“The war won’t last forever,” Mama says. “And there’s more.” She opens her coat and pulls out a large jar full of white sugar.
The man stares at it; sugar is like gold dust now. Baba or Mama must have stolen it from the warehouse where they work.
The man’s ham-sized fist snakes out; his fingers coil around the jar and pull it back.
Mama hardly seems to care that her ring is gone, that a man like that has possession of it.
Together, the four of them drag the stove and pipe back to their apartment, pull it up the stairs in clanging bursts. When it is up and in place, its vent going out the window, Mama clasps her hands. “That’s that,” she says, coughing.
The stove is a small, ugly thing, cast iron with a pair of drawers that jut out brokenly. A long metal pipe goes from the stove, up the side of the wall, and out through a newly cut hole. She finds it hard to believe that it is worth a woman’s wedding ring.
“That was a lot of sugar,” Vera says quietly as Mama walks past her.
“Yes,” Mama says, pausing. “Baba brought it to us.”
“She could get in trouble,” Vera whispers, moving closer. “The Badayev warehouses are watched. Almost all of the city’s food stores are there. And both of you are employees. If one of you gets in trouble—”
“Yes,” Mama says, looking at her hard. “She is still there now, working late. She will be the last one to leave.”
“You do not yet know,” Mama says, coughing again. It is a hacking, bubbly sound that unaccountably makes Vera think of muddy rivers and hot weather.
“Are you okay, Mama?”
“I am fine. It is just the dust in the air from the bombings.”
Before Vera can answer or even think of what to say, the air-raid alarm sounds.
“Children!” she screams. “Come quickly.” Vera grabs the coats from the wall and bundles her children up.
“I don’t want to go to the basement,” Leo whines. “It stinks down there.”
“Mrs. Newsky is the one who stinks,” Anya says, and her frown turns to a smile.
Leo giggles. “She smells like cabbage.”
“Hush,” Vera says, wondering how long this childhood will last for her babies. She buttons Leo’s coat and takes his hand.
Out in the hallway, the neighbors are already lining up for the stairs. On all of their faces is the same look: a combination of fear and resignation. No one really believes that being in the basement will save them from a bomb falling on their building, but at a time like this, there is no other salvation, so they go.
Vera kisses each of her children, hugs them fiercely in turn, and then hands them over to Mama.
While her family and neighbors go down to save themselves, Vera goes up. Breathing hard, she runs up the dirty, dark staircase and emerges onto the flat, litter-strewn roof. A long pair of iron tongs and several buckets full of sand are in place along the short wall. From here, she can see across Leningrad to the south. In the distance are the planes. Not one or two as before, but dozens. At first they are tiny black dots, dodging between giant barrage balloons that hang above the city, but soon she can see their shiny propellers and the details on their tails.
Bombs fall like raindrops; in their wake, puffs of smoke and flashes of fire.
A plane is overhead. . . .
Vera looks up, sees its glistening silver belly open up. Incendiary bombs drop out. She watches in horror as one lands not more than fifteen feet from where she is standing. She runs for it, hearing its hiss. Her foot catches on a piece of wood and she falls to the ground so hard she tastes blood. Scrambling back up, she reaches for the gloves in her pocket and puts them on, shaking, trying to hurry; then she grabs up the iron tongs and tries to use them to pick up the bomb. It is an intricate task. She takes too long and fire catches on the wooden beam beneath the bomb. Smoke rises up. She positions the tongs on the bomb—the heat on her face is terrifying; she’s sweating so she can hardly see. Still, she clamps the handles and lifts the long bomb, and throws it off the side of the building. It lands with a thud on the grass below, where it can do no real damage. Dropping the tongs, she runs back to the small fire started by the bomb and stomps the flames out with the soles of her shoes, then pours sand on it.
When the fire is out, she drops to her knees. Her heart is going a mile a minute and her cheeks feel singed by the heat. If she hadn’t been here, that bomb would have burned its way down through the building, falling from floor to floor and leaving fire in its wake.
The basement is where it would have ended up. In that tiny room jam-packed with people. With her family . . .
She stays there, kneeling on the hard surface of the roof as night falls. The whole city seems to be on fire. Smoke rolls upward and out. Even after the airplanes are gone, the smoke remains, growing thicker and redder. Bright yellow and orange flames flicker up between the buildings, lick at the smoke’s swollen underbelly.
When the All Clear finally sounds, Vera is too shaken to move. It is only the thought of her children, who are probably crying now and afraid, that makes her move. One shaking step at a time, she walks across the roof and down the stairs to her apartment, where her family is already waiting for her.
“Did you see the fires?” Anya asks, biting her lip.
“They are far away from here,” Vera says, smiling as brightly as she can. “We are safe.”
“Will you tell us a story, Mama?” Leo says, popping his thumb in his mouth. His eyes lower sleepily and reopen.
Vera scoops both her children into her arms, settles one on each hip. She doesn’t bother to brush their teeth, just puts them to bed and climbs in with them.
At the table in the living room, Mama sits down and lights up her one cigarette for the day. The smell of it is lost in the overwhelming scent of the city burning. There is something almost sweet in the air, a smell like caramel left too long on a hot stove.
Vera tightens her hold on her children. “There is a peasant girl,” she says, trying to sound calm. It is hard; her thoughts are tangled up in what could have happened, what she could have lost. And she would swear that she can still hear that bomb whistling toward her, rustling impossibly in flight, and banging down beside her.
“Her name is Vera,” Anya says sleepily, snuggling close. “Right?”
“Her name is Vera,” she says, thankful for the prompting. “And she is a poor peasant girl. A nobody. But she doesn’t know that yet. . . .”
“It is good you tell them your story,” Mama says to Vera when she comes back into the kitchen.
“I couldn’t think of anything else.” She sits down across from her mother at the rickety table, putting one foot on the empty chair beside her. Though the windows are closed and blacked out, she can still taste ash on her tongue, still smell that strange burned sweetness in the smoke. The world outside can only be seen in patches, in places where the newspaper droops limply away from the glass; the view is no longer red, but rather a dull orangey gold mixed with gray. “Papa used to tell me wonderful stories, remember?”
“I prefer not to remember.”
“Your baba should have been home by now,” Mama says, not looking at her.
Vera feels a sharp clutch in her stomach at that. With all that has gone on tonight, she’d forgotten about her grandmother.
“I am sure she’s fine,” Vera says.
“Yes,” Mama says dully.
But in the morning, Baba is still not back; she is one of the thousands who are never seen again. And news moves through the city as ruinously as last night’s flames.
The Badayev warehouses are burned; all of the city’s food stores are gone.
Leningrad is isolated now, cut off from all help. September drips into October and disappears. The belye nochi is gone, replaced by a cold, dark winter. Vera still works in the library, but it is for show—and ration cards. Few people visit the library or the museums or theaters anymore, and those who do come are looking for heat. In these darkening weeks, when winter’s icy breath is always blowing on the back of your neck, there is nothing except the search for food.