Every day Vera is up at four o’clock in the morning, bundling up in her valenki and woolen coat, wrapping a scarf around her neck so high only her eyes show. She gets in whatever queue for food she can find; it isn’t easy just getting in line, let alone actually finding food. The strong push the weak out of the way. You have to be careful always, on guard. That nice young girl on the corner could steal from you in an instant; so might the old man standing on the stoop.
After work, she comes home to her cold apartment and sits down to a meal at six o’clock. Only it is not much of a meal anymore. A potato if they are lucky, with some kasha that is more water than buckwheat. The children complain constantly, while Mama coughs quietly in the corner. . . .
In October, the first snow falls. Usually this is a time of laughter, when children run out to the parks with their parents and build snow angels and forts. Not in wartime, though. Now it is like tiny specks of white death falling over their ruined city. Its pretty white layer covers all their defenses—the dragon’s teeth, the iron bars, the trenches. Suddenly the city is beautiful again, a wonderland of arching bridges and icy waterways and white parks. If you don’t look at the crumbling buildings or burned-out heaps of brick where once a store had stood, you could almost forget . . . until seven o’clock. That is when the Germans drop the bombs. Every night, like clockwork.
And once the snow starts to fall, it never stops. Pipes freeze. Trolleys come to a stop and remain stuck in the accumulating snow. There are no tanks or trucks in the road anymore, no marching troops. There are just poor, bundled-up women like Vera, moving through the white landscape like refugees in search of anything resembling food. There is not a pet to be seen in Leningrad these days. Rations are cut almost every week.
Vera trudges forward. She is so hungry that it is difficult to keep moving, difficult sometimes even to want to keep moving. She tries not to think about the seven hours she spent in line today and focuses instead on the sunflower oil and oil cakes she was able to get. Behind her, the red sled she drags glides through the deep drifts, catching every now and then on things hidden in the snow—a twig, a rock, a frozen body.
The corpses began showing up last week: people still dressed for the weather, frozen in place on park benches or on the stoops of buildings.
You learn not to see them. Vera cannot believe that this is true, but it is. The hungrier and colder you get, the more your vision funnels to where you can’t see anyone beyond your own family.
She’s four blocks from her apartment and her chest aches so much that she longs to stop. She even dreams of it—she’ll sit on that bench and lean back and close her eyes. Maybe someone will come by with some hot, sweet tea and offer her a cup. . . .
She draws in a ragged breath, ignoring the gnawing emptiness in her belly. Those are the kinds of dreams that get you killed. You sit down to rest and just die. That’s how it happens in Leningrad now. You have a little cough . . . or an infected cut . . . or you feel sluggish and want to stay in bed for just an hour or so. And then suddenly you’re dead. Every day at the library, it seems, someone fails to show up. In that absence they all know: they’ll never see that person again.
She puts one foot in front of the other and slowly makes her way in the snow, dragging her sled behind her. She has come almost a mile from the Neva River, where she collected a gallon of water from a hole in the ice. At the apartment, she pauses just long enough to catch her breath and then begins the long climb to the second floor. The gallon of water she’d had on the sled feels icy cold against her chest and the cold makes her lungs hurt even more.
The apartment is warm. She notices instantly that another chair is broken. It lies on its side, two legs missing and the back hacked up. They cannot all sit at the table now, but what does it matter? There’s precious little to eat.
Leo is wearing his coat and his boots. He is sprawled on the kitchen floor, playing war with a pair of metal trucks. At her entrance, he cocks his head and looks at her. For a second it is as if she’s been gone a month instead of a day. She sees the way his cheeks have caved in on themselves, the way his eyes seem too big for his bony face. He doesn’t look like a baby boy at all anymore.
“Did you get food?” he says.
“Did you?” Anya says, rising from her place on the bed, carrying her blanket with her.
“Oil cakes,” Vera says.
Anya frowns. “Oh, no, Mama.”
Vera’s heart actually hurts when she hears this. What she wouldn’t give to bring home potatoes or butter or even buckwheat. But oil cake is what they have now. No matter that it used to be fed to cattle, or that it tastes like sawdust or that it’s so hard that only an ax will cut it. They use shavings to make pancakes that are barely edible. But none of that matters. What matters is that you have something to eat.
Vera knows that comfort will not help her children. This is a lesson she has learned since the snow began to fall on Leningrad. Her children need strength and courage now, as they all do. It does no good to cry or whine for that which cannot be had. She goes over to the fallen chair and breaks off another leg. Cracking it in two pieces, she feeds it into the burzhuika and puts the water she brought home in a pot to boil. She will put yeast in it to fill their bellies. It won’t help, of course, but they’ll feel better for a while.
She bends down, feeling the hot popping in her joints at the movement, and puts a hand on Leo’s curls. His hair, like all of theirs, is stiff from dirt. Baths are luxuries these days. “I have some more of the story for tonight,” she says, waiting for his enthusiasm, but he just nods a little and shrugs.
It is wearing all of them away, the cold and the hunger. With a sigh, she gets back to her feet, rising like an old woman. She glances across the room at her mother, who is still in bed. To Anya she says, “How is she today?”
Anya stands there, her pale, thin face so drawn that her eyes seem to protrude. “Quiet,” is all she says. “I made her drink water.”
Vera goes to her small, serious daughter and picks her up, hugging her tightly. Even through the bulk of her coat, she can feel Anya’s boniness, and it breaks her heart. “You are my best girl,” she whispers. “You are taking such good care of everyone.”
“I’m trying,” Anya says, and the earnestness in her voice almost makes Vera feel ill.
Vera hugs her again and then lets go.
As she crosses the room, Vera can feel her mother’s eyes on her, following her movements like a hawk. Everything about Mama is pale and shrunken and colorless except for those dark eyes that hold on to Vera like a fist.
She sits down at her bedside. “I got some oil cakes today. And a little sunflower oil.”
“I am not hungry. Give mine to our babies.”
It is what Mama says every night. At first Vera argued, but then she started to see Anya’s cheekbones, and heard the way her son cried in his sleep for food.
“I’ll make you some tea.”
“That would be nice,” Mama says, letting her eyes drift shut.
Vera knows how hard her mother has worked to stay awake in the hours that Vera is gone. It takes every scrap of Mama’s will and courage simply to lie here and watch her grandchildren during the day, though she hasn’t gotten out of bed for more than a few minutes at a time in weeks.
“There will be more food next week,” Vera says. “I heard they’re sending a transport across Lake Ladoga as soon as the water freezes. Then we’ll all be fine.”
Her mother says nothing to that, but her breathing doesn’t even out, either. “Do you remember how your papa used to pace when he was working, how he muttered words to himself and laughed when he found what he wanted?”
Vera reaches out to touch her mother’s dry forehead, strokes it gently. “He used to read his poetry to me sometimes, when he was working. He’d say, ‘Verushka, when you are old enough to write your own stories, you’ll be ready. Now listen to this. . . .’ ”
“Sometimes I feel him in here. And Olga. I can hear them talking, moving. I think they’re dancing. There’s a fire in the stove when they’re here, and it’s warm.”
Vera nods but says nothing. More and more often lately Mama sees ghosts; sometimes she talks to them. It is only when Leo starts to cry that she stops.
“I’ll add a drop of honey into your tea. And you need to eat today, okay? Just today.”
Mama pats Vera’s hand and sighs quietly.
Every day that winter Vera wakes thinking one of two things: it will get better today or it will be over soon. She doesn’t know how it is possible to believe simultaneously that her situation will improve and that she will die, but there it is. Each cold morning, she wakens with a start and reaches for her children, who are in bed with her. When she feels the slow, steady beating of their hearts, she breathes easily again.
It takes courage to get out of bed. Even wearing every piece of clothing she owns and layered beneath all their blankets she isn’t warm, and once she climbs from bed, she will be freezing. While they sleep, water freezes in pots in the kitchen and their eyelashes stick to skin, sometimes so hard that blood is drawn when they open their eyes.
Still, she eases the blankets back and climbs out over her children, who moan in their sleep. Mama, on her other side, doesn’t make a sound, but she shifts almost imperceptibly to the left. They all sleep together for warmth now, in the bed that had once been her grandmother’s.
In stockinged feet, Vera goes to the stove. It is not far; they have moved their bed as close to the burzhuika as possible. The remaining furniture is cluttered together, unimportant except for the wood from which it is made. She grabs an ax from the closet and hacks through the last of the bed that was once her own. Then she starts a fire in the little burzhuika and puts water on to boil.
While she’s waiting, she kneels in the corner of the kitchen and pries up a floorboard. There, hidden in the dark, she counts up their stores. It is something she does every day, sometimes four times a day. A nervous habit now.
A bag of onions, a half a bottle of sunflower oil, some oil cakes, a nearly empty jar of honey, two jars of pickles, three potatoes, and the last of the sugar. She carefully takes out one large yellow onion and the honey, then replaces the floorboard. She will boil half an onion for breakfast, and add a drop of honey to their tea. She has just measured out a small amount of tea when there is a knock at the door.
At first she hardly recognizes the sound, it is so foreign. There is no talking in Leningrad anymore, no neighbors stopping by. Not here, at least, where their whole family is together.
But there is danger. People who will kill for a gram of butter or a spoonful of sugar.
She reaches for the ax again, holds it to her chest as she goes to the door. Her heart is beating so fast and hard she feels dizzy. For the first time in months, she forgets that she is hungry. With a trembling hand, she reaches for the doorknob and turns it.
He stands there like a stranger.
Vera stares up at him and shakes her head. She has become like her mama, hungry enough and sick enough to see ghosts. The ax falls from her grasp, thunks on the floor at her feet.