The Bath Lottery
THERE’S A SOUND THAT THE COLD MAKES. It’s a hollow, brittle sound. Once you’ve heard it, you know the meaning of that word, alone.
The door wasn’t locked when Olga tried it, first pulling and then pushing when she understood it opened inwards. Feeling resistance, she placed both hands against it and leaned forward. The hinges groaned; the door opened almost begrudgingly, not wide, but enough to admit a stocky woman wearing a man’s overcoat and boots.
It would have been dark in the building had it not been for the shafts of light that filtered through the windows: large factory windows covered with metal grates, located high enough on the walls that they existed just to let light in—shafts of light that pooled in large patches on the concrete floor.
Now Olga moves forward into the building, clutching a heavy shawl that covers her head and shoulders, peering into the dark corners, feeling her heart beating, conscious of her exhalations into the cold air, wary in case someone is there, watching her. She seats herself cautiously on a heavy wooden crate, upturned in one of the pools of light. She pulls off the oversized boots, shakes them out, tries to rub the numbness out of her cold feet, first the left, then the right. While she rubs, she surveys her surroundings. No sign that anyone else is there.
What is this building? She has lost her sense of the geography of Leningrad in the two years that the city has been under siege. A workshop or metal forge, abandoned or deserted for years. She’s looking for newspaper, perhaps: something to stuff inside the boots
and fill up the space left by Gyorgi’s feet. If you find a newspaper, you can put it inside your coat for warmth and later you can set it alight, use it to kindle a fire to make a cup of warm water to drink before you sleep.
Or wood. You need wood to make a fire but if you have no tools or strength to break it apart, you have to leave it where it is. Dragging a piece of wood through the streets—well, you would not take that chance.
There’s not much to see here: a couple of metal grates like the ones that cover the windows, a few wooden packing crates like the one she is sitting on, some large pieces of metal heaped against the west wall, a few cinderblocks strewn by the soot-blackened fireplace.
At first glance, nothing to take home with her, but half an hour out of the biting wind is something, anyway. Pulling her boots back on her feet, she stands, tightens her kerchief, wraps her shawl more closely about her and exits, pulling the door closed behind her.
Masha remains in the darkened corner of the building where she had been standing, frozen, since she heard the creaking of the door that heralded Olga’s arrival. She had heard no approaching footsteps crunching in the hard snow, nothing to warn her until it was too late to react. She simply stood rooted in the spot where she had been, unable to see the door through which Olga had entered and then exited, unwilling to know if the new arrival was male or female. It scarcely mattered, man or woman: two years of hunger makes strangers of neighbours and family alike. Masha counts, first to 100, then, hearing nothing but with the feeling of dread still choking her, she counts on, to 200, then 300. Now the pools of light on the floor are dimming. Masha steps stiffly from the corner where she has been hiding in plain sight, unfastening her coat just enough to slide a flattened cardboard box inside, then, hugging it against her like a shield, walks around the perimeter of the room towards the door and, opening it the least amount possible, squeezes through the gap and pulls the door closed behind her.
Leningrad has become a city of old women. Even the young women look middle-aged. The middle-aged, like Olga, become men while they have their strength, and once they lose their stamina, they become old women. The women who are already old, like Masha, are the resilient ones. They have already learned to make do with nothing. When someone dies, it is almost always a younger woman, someone who had been well fed, had a softer life, someone who had not known hunger. A larger woman, leaving behind a larger woman’s clothing.
Most of the women wear men’s coats and boots now, the heavier garments left behind when Piotr or Dimitri or Gyorgi disappeared. And although this was Olga’s first visit to the abandoned building, she sensed that Gyorgi’s coat and boots seemed to know the way there. Even more than paper to line his boots, she is looking for signs of Gyorgi: not the man himself, but some intuition of where he has gone.
Olga plods in the direction of home, looking down at Gyorgi’s boots, trying not to stumble on the frozen ground, until she sees buildings and street corners that begin to look familiar. She approaches her apartment building as dusk settles, lets herself in as a blind person unerringly does. Inside, she pours herself a cup of water, sips it slowly, removes the heavy shawl from her head and shoulders, wraps it several times around her feet and settles herself on the unmade bed. It is already dark.
Irina wakes at first light and washes in the cold trickle from the tap. She wrings out the wet cloth and hangs it up to dry. She changes to her other set of clothes, rinses out the socks and underclothes she had been wearing. She doesn’t remember the last time she used a bar of soap. Dressed, hair brushed, Irina goes over to the wall beside her bed and knocks on it, five raps in quick succession: one, two, three, four, five.
She waits. Nothing. She counts to fifty, to 100. She knocks again— one, two, three, four, five—this time more insistently. No knock by way of reply. Irina’s throat tightens. She unlocks her door and steps into the hallway, turning briefly to close it behind her. A few paces takes her to her neighbour’s door. As silently as she can, she turns the door handle. The door is locked. Irina slips back into her own home momentarily, and returns to old Luba’s door, clutching a black and red flowered kerchief. Extracting a key from the folds of the kerchief, she slips it into the lock, using the kerchief to muffle the sound of the key turning. Opening the door just enough, she slips through the opening, closing it behind her.
Irina moves forward into old Luba’s apartment, the mirror image of hers. She already knows what she will find. She is relieved to see that at least Luba is in her bed, her mouth twisted open in a grimace. Irina holds the back of her hand close to Luba’s mouth. No breath. She knows the papery skin of the old woman’s cheek is cold before she touches it. “Baruch Dayan Emet.” Irina does not say the words aloud. “Blessed be the true Judge.” Thinking them is enough.
Her next thought is for old Luba’s cupboard. She crosses the floor, a few steps, opens the cupboard door and, in the dawn light, she reaches for the large lidded soup pot on the bottom shelf. She lifts the pot out
of the cupboard, then lowers it to the floor and removes the lid, setting it aside. The pot is half filled with dry earth. Spreading her flowered kerchief open in front of her, Irina roots through the soil with her fingers, extracting potatoes, brushing the earth back into the pot and placing the potatoes one by one onto the kerchief. Careful not to take them all, Irina puts the lid back onto the pot and returns it to the cupbard. She closes the door, ties the dozen small potatoes into the kerchief, and turns to thank old Luba before she exits the apartment. “Spasiba,” she mouths in the direction of the bed, and glances around the apartment once more. Irina slips out the door, locks it behind her and returns to her own apartment.
Irina, too, has an earth-filled pot in her cupboard. She adds old Luba’s potatoes to her own supply, careful to space them out so none of the potatoes touches its neighbour, and returns the pot to her cupboard. She rinses the soil from her hands under the cold faucet, drinks a cup of water, ties her kerchief around her head, pulls on her boots, buttons her coat and heads out, locking the apartment door behind her.
Irina walks quickly, head down, in the early light. It’s only a few blocks. When she reaches her destination she turns the door chime once: a short, sharp turn. Hearing the chime sound inside the building, she tightens her hand on the key in her pocket, old Luba’s key. A man’s voice inquires on the other side of the door. Irina inclines her head as close to the door as possible and replies. The door opens a crack. She slips the key through the crack to a waiting hand and gives old Luba’s name and address, then recites her neighbour’s Hebrew name. The shamas repeats the words. “Tak,” acknowledges Irina. “Baruch Dayan Emet” comes the response, the door closes and she walks away hurriedly. Better not to go home today.
This morning is not as cold as yesterday. The air is still. Heavy clouds sit low overhead, and snow has started to fall in fat, lazy flakes. The early morning mist dulls Olga’s senses. As long as she is walking, she doesn’t think of Gyorgi, doesn’t think of Galina. Anyway, what is there to think about? That girl will survive, whatever it takes. She takes after Gyorgi’s side, after all, never satisfied, always wanting more than she has received. Last summer, when Galina disappeared for one day, two days, three days, finally, Olga begged Gyorgi to go and look for her, inquire whether anyone had seen her. A week later, Gyorgi had not returned and she began to realize that either he had found her or he had not found her. So Olga just kept on going, day by day, swallowing her dread, trying to keep body and soul together. People kept to themselves.
If they passed an acquaintance and could not avoid greeting them, they said, as if by rote, “What did you eat?,” not expecting a reply. But mostly they kept their heads down so as not to have to ask.
Olga is walking west again, in the direction of the factory on the industrial side of the city. She knows that on an overcast day that it will be dark inside, but if she finds anything to burn and keep warm, it would be wise to do so on a day when rising smoke would be less visible. Her feet are not as cold today in Gyorgi’s large boots, and the soft new snow does not crunch under her feet as yesterday’s had done.
The abandoned factory looks different today, in the early hours, than it had in the evening. Olga circles the exterior, keeping her head down but surveying the building with her eyes, not wanting to appear inquisitive or conspicuous, but walking with purpose. If there was ever a sign on the squat cinderblock building with its flat roof and wide chimney, it is not there now.
Having completed her path around the perimeter, she approaches the front door. The newly fallen snow has not been disturbed. So Olga walks back to the roadway, then reverses direction and walks backwards to the front door. Anyone approaching the building in the next few minutes would surmise that someone has just left. Half an hour from now, her footsteps will be filled in with new snow. Reaching the door, she leans her back against it and enters as soon as it opens enough to admit her. Inside, she pushes the door closed.
Irina walks the early morning streets in the falling snow, filling in time until the office opens. Instinctively, she reaches into the inside pocket sewn into her coat where she keeps her documents. She extracts a handkerchief which, when unfolded, reveals a small piece of dried-out black rye bread. Breaking off a half portion with her front teeth, she lets it soften in her mouth as she counts to 100. The rest she folds back into the handkerchief and slips it into the hip pocket of her coat.
The office is on a wide, main street, flanked by low buildings. Irina is thankful for the milder weather and the snow falling from a heavy, overcast sky. She walks where the pavement is level, giving a wide berth to the occasional bundles of rags now being blanketed with snow. Soon the people with the wooden ladders will come, to lift the bundles of rags and take them away to a place where they are documented and stored, because burying the dead is not possible in a Leningrad winter.
A queue of women is already forming outside the door of the office: women who have risen early to be among the first to claim their weekly
ration coupons: 125 grams of food a day for each member of their family. The lucky women are those whose family member has not woken up in their beds: their ration coupons can be traded for wooden matches, cigarettes, vodka, socks, soap—luxuries that, unlike bread, do not dry out in a week.
Irina joins the silent queue. The office is not yet open. The waiting women look at the pavement, say nothing to each other. Irina tries not to think of old Luba. The shamas will have roused the rabbi by now, and soon they will head for Luba’s apartment, the rabbi to perform the rituals, the shamas to collect the identification documents, the remaining ration coupons, and what can easily be carried away. There will be no chevra kaddisha to wash and prepare old Luba, there will be no burial in the cemetery, there will be no shiva, no mourner’s kaddish spoken. The remainder of old Luba’s worldly goods will be left for her neighbours to take: the pot with the few remaining potatoes, the coat and boots, the bed linens left behind after old Luba is wrapped and taken away in the sheet that has become her shroud. Irina and Luba have been neighbours for twenty years, since Irina’s arrival in Leningrad. Better not to be at home today. The doors of the office open. The queue of women files inside. Irina chews and swallows the bread that has softened on her tongue, waits until it is her turn to come forward, produce her identification documents and claim her week’s ration coupons: seven times 125 grams.
Masha has been dreaming of a hot bath for weeks. Not daydreams. During the night, she is startled into wakefulness by the sound of imaginary hot water flowing fast into a metal tub. The water pipes in the apartment building where she still lives on the first floor froze and burst during the first brutal winter of the siege. Since then, she has had to carry all the water she uses into the building, lining up with the other women to fill their metal buckets from a spigot outside on the street; it never freezes because the water runs day and night. On quiet nights she can hear the water flowing from the spigot.
Even before the siege, Matvey had disappeared. “Sibir,” people said in low voices. Masha silently blames the men like Gyorgi who came to Matvey’s forge with their tools and axles and farm implements to be repaired, and stayed longer than necessary to talk politics with Matvey. Nobody can be trusted. Brother betrays brother, neighbours inform on neighbours. One night Matvey did not come home. For months, Masha could not bring herself to go anywhere near the forge, in case someone was following her. When she eventually began to walk in the direction
of the industrial part of the city, it was only a matter of time before she came closer. Before the first snowfall, Masha had walked right up to the door of the forge. It was not locked. Sick with fear, she pushed the door open and waited until her eyes adapted to the dim interior. She peered inside from the doorway, then, losing her nerve, pulled the door closed abruptly and departed.
Since then, Masha has returned to the forge, like a trespasser. The forge no longer seems like Matvey’s, and in truth she feels she no longer has a right to be there. Little by little, Masha has been carrying away small things that can easily be burned: old account books, oily rags, the cardboard she had been about to put inside her coat, like a shield, when she froze at the sound of the door being pushed open.
There has been no electricity for over a year. To cook potatoes you need enough material to start a fire and to keep it burning long enough to cook the potatoes. But first you need to have potatoes. Black rye bread and potatoes are exchanged for ration coupons, but if you buy one small potato it can easily weigh 125 grams: a day’s rations. If it is black inside, you will not know until you get it home. Nobody buys more than 250 grams of black bread at a time. If you use all your week’s coupons to buy one loaf, you can expect to find a stone baked into it.
Now that Irina has more potatoes than she has had in over a year, she is consumed with anxiety. She wonders if she should carry them with her when she goes out every day, or if there is a safer place to hide them. Maybe she could take a few at a time, in the inner pocket of her coat, where her identification documents are pinned securely. She removes three of the smaller potatoes from the pot in her cupboard, wraps them in the black and red kerchief, and puts them in her coat pocket. Old Luba’s apartment door stands ajar. It has been emptied; everything is useful to someone. Irina does not want to attract neighbours’ attention by going into Luba’s apartment, so she locks her own door and leaves early in the morning before anyone is awake.
Perhaps Masha’s visits to the forge have emboldened her. Perhaps she has come to understand that no one in Leningrad is being forced onto a train destined for exile in Siberia; the German troops that have surrounded the city with tanks and trucks and weapons and dogs are allowing nothing in, and allowing no one out. The German shepherds barking around the perimeter of the city are the only animals to be seen in Leningrad. No other dogs remain: no cats, no pigeons, no rats.
Masha is a tiny, spare woman who can make something out of next to nothing. A seamstress by trade, she has acquired a few small luxuries in exchange for her skill with a needle, usually altering items of clothing to fit a neighbour following the death of the garment’s original owner. A box of wooden matches. Some dried mushrooms. A small can half-full of cooking oil. Masha saves all the scraps of fabric. Now that her teeth have started to fall out, she is saving the ones that have gold in them.
In the early morning hours, Masha again had the dream about hot water running into a tub. She wakes later than usual and eats a piece of bread with the hard crust dipped in water and a few drops of cooking oil and a small piece of dried mushroom. With few teeth left, Masha can no longer eat a raw potato, so she has stopped buying them with her ration coupons. By the time she leaves home, it is already past nine o’clock and she goes directly to exchange her coupon for the day’s rations. Then she continues walking in a westerly direction toward the industrial side of the city.
By the time Masha reaches the forge, weak sunlight is coming through the east windows, making the building’s interior less ominous. Even when this was Matvey’s forge, Masha did not visit. It was men’s territory: loud noises, coarse voices, acrid sweat, oil and smoke. Now, with the men long gone, Masha is beginning to feel possessive about these walls. Today, for the first time ever, she will eat a meal in the forge. She sits on an upturned wooden crate, reaches into her coat and extracts half of one day’s ration from the inside pocket where she carries her documents: half of 125 grams of black rye bread, and a pinch of salt, twisted in a scrap of paper. Bread and salt: the traditional Russian greeting. Home is where you break bread. Masha blesses the forge by this simple act of eating bread and salt. She chews in silence.
Irina barters a ration coupon for two small eggs—a risky exchange. She does not want to draw attention to herself, especially on this day, but it is rare for eggs to be available and who knows how long it will be before she sees another? She puts one egg in each of the hip pockets of her coat and walks away, towards the industrial side of the city. It is not as cold today, but still she walks with purpose, aware that her three potatoes and two eggs make her a target. The morning sun is at her back. She keeps her eyes down, looking at the street to the right and left of her, watching for the shadow of anyone approaching her from behind. Mostly, Irina tries not to think. With the death of her old neighbour, Irina at forty is alone in the world. That brittle, hollow sound of the word alone. It is the
sound of cold. It is humbling how intensely one can feel hunger in a time of grief. Irina takes the morsel of dry bread from the handkerchief in her hip pocket, and because she is alone on a deserted road in the industrial side of the city, she continues to walk while making the blessing for a meal that includes bread: “Baruch ata Adonai Elohainu, Melech ha’ Olam, Hamotzi Lechem Minha’aretz,” places the dry bread on her tongue and waits for it to moisten in her mouth.
With the sun streaming in the windows of the forge, Masha finishes her portion of bread, returns the remainder to her pocket, gets up and drags the wooden crate over to a pile of discarded metal on the west wall of the forge, near the hearth. Most of the pieces are too big for her to move, but by standing on the crate, Masha gains a better view. Cautiously, because she does not want to cause the heap of metal to shift, she reaches in and pulls on the edge of a large two-handled pot until she dislodges it and it falls to the concrete floor.
Masha steps off the crate, picks up the pot and examines it. No holes. She carries it outside, fills it with snow, scours the inside with her hand, and then empties the snow. Icicles have formed on the outside of the low building. She breaks them off and collects the shards in the pot. Inside the forge, Masha is seized with purpose. She struggles but fails to pry apart the boards of the wooden crate she had been sitting on. She searches for anything that will burn: cardboard, newspaper, scraps of wood, rags, collecting them in the wooden crate which she drags to the hearth and positions under the chimney. Masha extracts the small box of wooden matches from the inside pocket of her coat, strikes one, then another, and is coaxing a flame out of a twisted piece of old newspaper when she hears the protesting groan of the door as it is pushed open.
Irina steps through the doorway, blinking as she takes in the interior of the forge. Masha, crouched at the hearth, is startled, frozen with sudden apprehension. Instinctively, she begins to count the seconds: one, two, three, four, five. As Irina’s eyes adjust to the low light, she detects first of all the slight smell of burning paper and exhales: “Baruch HaShem!” And Masha, from her crouched position in front of the fire she is nurturing, hears the Hebrew blessing from the figure standing just inside the door and stops counting. The flame on the twisted newspaper catches an oily rag and with a surprising vigour suddenly illuminates the hearth and the small figure still crouching by the fire. The two women eye each other warily for a moment. Irina slips a hand into each hip pocket of her
coat and removes the eggs, holding them out to Masha: an offering. “Pozhalsta,” she says. “Please.” Masha motions for her to come closer. Irina leans her right shoulder against the door to push it closed behind her and steps tentatively toward the hearth. Masha beckons. The fire illuminates her face and her small, spare frame. Rising, she drags one of the unused metal window grates over to the hearth. Divining Masha’s intent, Irina places the eggs gently into the pot with the ice shards. Together, they lift the window grate, place it on top of the wooden crate and lift the pot of ice onto the metal grate. Irina looks around. She drags a second wooden crate close to the fire and pats one side of it, indicating that Masha should sit. “Menye zavut Irina. Irina Kirilovna,” she says by way of introduction, and Masha replies, “Maria Ivanovna: Masha.” They sit in silence, watching the fire, watching the eggs, each counting the minutes until it is time to remove them from the water, long enough to cook them, but not long enough for the water to reach a boil. Irina stands, removes the black and red flowered kerchief from her pocket, folds it lengthwise and, holding one end in each hand, uses it to scoop the eggs, one by one, out of the hot water. Masha reaches into the inner pocket of her coat and removes the remaining piece of black bread and the twist of salt. She has already eaten her meal of bread and holds out the slice to Irina. Spreading her wet kerchief on the wooden crate between them, like a tablecloth, Irina sets the eggs on it and accepts the slice of bread. She tears it in half. Each woman passes an egg from hand to hand until it has cooled enough to peel, cracks and removes the eggshell and breaks the soft boiled egg onto a half slice of bread. Masha ceremonially sprinkles a pinch of salt on each portion, twists the scrap of paper closed and returns it to her inner pocket. Each woman picks up a piece of egg and bread and holds it aloft. It is not Irina’s place to invoke the hamotzi blessing. She is younger than Masha, and she is not in her own home. But it is the day after old Luba’s death, and it is all she can offer: “Baruch ata Adonai Elohainu, Melech Ha’Olam, Hamotzi Lechem Minha’aretz.” The women pause again, savouring the moment, and then they eat.
Why has she not come forward and made her presence known? It is so long since Olga has engaged in conversation, she scarcely trusts her voice. Exchanging ration coupons for bread or potatoes requires a single word, or a gesture. Apart from that, she lives in silence. From behind a wooden crate against the opposite wall, Olga watches the two women—tiny, bird-like Masha and tall, spare Irina—from behind. It is
not the welcoming smell of the fire that tempts her to step forward, but the slightly sulphorous smell of boiled egg. But she remains hidden, not just because she has nothing to offer to the communal table, but because of a troubling intuition that her Gyorgi knew Matvey’s forge well. So she sits in the shadows and listens.
Masha and Irina have finished their meal and, unwilling to leave the warmth of the hearth, have started to speak in muted tones. Most of what they say is lost in the cold air that separates them from Olga, but she watches them lift the pot of hot water off the metal grate. Irina picks up the black and red flowered kerchief, the one that had contained old Luba’s key, the one that had held her potatoes, the one she has spread out to use as a tablecloth. She dips the kerchief in the hot water, lets it soak there for a while, wrings it out, immerses it again, wrings it out once more and presents it to Masha on two outstretched hands: a gift. Wordlessly, Masha accepts this gift and raises the steaming kerchief to her face. She holds it against her whole face with both hands, taking in the warmth and the comfort of the woollen cloth, until her shoulders begin to shudder. Irina watches with detached interest as Masha surrenders to the heavy sobs that have enveloped her. Irina reaches over, gently lifts the kerchief away, immerses it again in the hot water and, wringing it out once more, returns it to Masha’s old hands.
“Excuse me, please,” Masha offers, once she has composed herself. “It felt like an embrace.” And then, almost ruefully, “Even more than food, I miss a hot bath. I dream about a hot bath. I hear water running in my sleep. I would go hungry gladly, if I could have a hot bath, right up to here,” and she indicates her neck, just below her chin. “At home there is no water. I have to bring it from the street.”
“At home I have cold water but no soap for so long. No soap for washing, not for laundry, not for cleaning,” counters Irina.
“And I have soap but no water. What life is this?” and for just a moment Masha hovers between laughter and tears. She rinses the woollen kerchief in the hot water, squeezes it and returns it to Irina who likewise holds it against her face until it begins to cool. Rinsing and squeezing it once more, she holds it close to the dwindling fire in the hearth and together they watch it dry.
“Ya damoy,” says Masha, “I’m going home,” and she eases herself off the wooden crate and prepares for her walk home. Irina looks down at tiny Masha and somehow conquers her reservation: “Zavtra?” she asks. Tomorrow? Masha considers the implications of Irina’s question.
“Oo menya kartofil,” adds Irina, because in fact she has more than a dozen small potatoes. Masha smiles slightly, inclines her head, and
replies, “And I, soap.” The two women button their coats, tighten their kerchiefs and walk to the door. Masha motions for Irina to exit first. Neither wants to breach the code that governs their new alliance by asking a question about where—and how—they live.
Olga counts to 100. She gets up from where she has been hidden behind a tall packing crate, makes her way to the door and, hearing no voices outside, opens it a crack. Peering out, she sees no one. Olga crosses to the hearth, lifts the pot and carries it to the door. She carries it outside and empties the remaining water onto the snow. Then she breaks off as many icicles as she can fit in the pot, fills the gaps with fresh snow and carries it back inside. She sets it down by the hearth and leaves it for tomorrow.
It is almost dusk when Olga makes her way unerringly back to her apartment building on the east side and lets herself in. Upstairs, she removes the heavy shawl from her head and shoulders, pours herself a cup of water and sips it slowly. Then she lies down on the unmade bed, wrapping the shawl around her feet, and waits for the morning.
Well before sunrise, Olga has already awoken, washed and dressed. She crosses noiselessly to the alcove that contains Galina’s narrow bed, reaches beneath it and retrieves a shallow box. These are the worldly treasures that Galina has left behind: trinkets, mostly. Certainly nothing of value. A small pot of skin cream, used once or twice and then set aside. A small white handkerchief. Olga removes these items and returns the box to its place under the bed. Next she opens Gyorgi’s drawer. She extracts a folding knife, a large handkerchief, some dried-out tobacco in a pouch. Olga does not look in her own drawer. The things she valued are long gone: some she has bartered, others seem to have vanished along with Galina. From the kitchen she adds a tin of tea, and she hesitates over a covered bowl containing two pieces of coarse brown sugar. Finally, she takes the larger one, folds it into Galina’s little handkerchief, and adds it to her stockpile. An enamel mug. A plate. The metal bucket she uses to collect water. Olga packs the items she has collected inside the bucket and covers them with a kerchief. The tobacco she slips into the left hip pocket of her coat. She pours half a cup of water and sips it, then plunges her feet into Gyorgi’s boots and heads out into a biting cold March morning.
Olga arrives at the building where she can exchange her ration coupon before it opens and tries not to attract attention to herself until a few women have collected outside the doors. Soon, an elderly man arrives and stands alone, his back to the building. Olga positions herself to his right side and, not appearing to address anyone, simply says,
“Tabak,” A flicker of interest from her neighbour and she cautiously pulls the pouch of tobacco from her hip pocket, turning her shoulder to shield it from view. Opening the pouch, she displays the contents. The old man extracts a ration coupon from somewhere on his person and they complete the exchange. They move apart; Olga lines up to await the opening of the building and the man shuffles away. Olga can smell tobacco on the ration coupon. She exchanges it for a battered tin of sardines and her own for a piece of bread. Leaving the building, she heads west.
Olga considers taking a bite of the bread while it is still moist. She decides against it. One bite will lead to another. Better to wait. Today is cold enough that it is possible to forget hunger if there is a prospect of warmth. The handle of the bucket feels as though it is cutting into her fingers but she does not switch the bucket to her other hand. She keeps her head down, listening for the sound of anyone approaching, but the farther she walks, the more deserted the streets are. She reaches the forge and wonders if she will be the first to have arrived.
Irina has already removed the black and red kerchief from her coat and unfolded it on the wooden crate, careful not to drop any of the six small potatoes she has wrapped inside it, when she hears the door hinges creak and turns, still bent over, expecting to see old Masha enter. Seeing a stranger in a man’s overcoat and boots, head and shoulders covered by a heavy shawl, carrying a metal bucket, she is startled. Irina straightens up and studies the figure at the door in silence.
“Zdrasti,” says Olga, by way of greeting. Irina watches and says nothing. Olga reaches into her bucket and extracts the tin of tea, which she holds in front of her. “Chashku chaiyu?” she asks, and it is so long since Irina has drunk a cup of hot tea she is unable to reply. But her head nods, and Olga comes slowly forward, proffering first the tea, then the enamel mug, which she sets on their makeshift table, and finally Galina’s little handkerchief, which she unwraps to reveal the jagged lump of brown sugar. Irina is transfixed. Olga sets down the bucket and empties the contents: Gyorgi’s knife, the plate, even the little pot of skin cream. Reaching into her pockets, she extracts the sardines and the bread. The bucket is empty. Olga looks at the pot full of icicles and snow that she has collected yesterday. The snow has mostly melted and pooled in the bottom, where it has refrozen. “More ice,” she says, and carries her bucket outside to fill it. She counts the icicles: adin, dva, tri, chitiri, aloud as she breaks them off and places them in the bucket. She has spoken
more words today than in a month, and she counts them, too. Tobacco, bread, sardines, hello, cup of tea, more ice, one, two, three, four. It is as though her voice, long frozen, has thawed, all in one morning.
Her bucket full, she returns to the forge. Irina is still standing by the hearth, staring at the kerchief tablecloth, then at the door. Olga deposits her bucket beside the large pot by the hearth, and adds another word to the silence. “Come,” she says, and motions for Irina to follow her to the far wall, to the heavy packing crate that hid her from Masha and Irina yesterday. It is too heavy to lift. Together they tilt it this way and that, walking it forward on its edges until it is closer to the hearth and sits in a pool of sunlight filtered through the east windows. They study it, neither sure how to break it apart, neither sure how to break through the silence that engulfs them.
Olga extracts an iron bar from the heap of scrap metal against the wall and inserts it between two boards of the wooden crate. Irina finds a second length of iron bar and follows suit. The wood does not crack but the boards begin to separate and Irina understands that they are prying a lid off. She repositions her bar close to a nail and the nail slowly releases its grip. Again. With each insertion, the lid yields with less protest.
Old Masha stands in the doorway, watching the tableau: two women, one tall and thin, one shorter and stockier, standing in a pool of sunlight, prying the lid off a tall wooden crate. Masha takes in the kerchief-covered table: the bread, the potatoes, the tea tin, the sardine tin, the plate and mug, the sugar on a handkerchief, the little pot of skin cream, Gyorgi’s knife. She pushes the door closed behind her and approaches. Olga speaks first: “Zdrasti,” she starts. Masha nods. “Menye zavut Olga.” She wonders whether to give her patronymic, Sergeyevna, as well, but decides to leave it unsaid. So she offers, simply, Olga, and Masha says nothing. Irina stands silent.
Masha unpacks her contribution: the tin half full of cooking oil, the salt, the soap, the wooden matches, the scraps of cotton fabric. She unwraps a scrap of fabric to reveal her dried mushrooms and adds this to the bounty on the table. Masha crosses to the two women and the wooden crate and makes a pushing motion with her outstretched palm. The three women lower the crate to the floor, laying it on its side, and Masha adds her birdlike strength to the effort of prying off the lid. Masha has said nothing; once she is confident what they will find in the crate, she speaks: “It should be a feed trough,” she adds, “for sheep.”
The lid separates from the crate and the women drag it close to the hearth. The lid and its crate are too big to fit in the fireplace, and too solid to take apart without tools. Together, they pull the feed trough from the crate and set it upright. It is a round-bottomed trough in a low frame, shallow, about four feet in length. Masha examines the wooden crate she and Irina used as a table, and decides to burn it and use the long crate as a table instead. They drag it into place, lift the four corners of the kerchief, and transfer the contents to the larger crate.
Olga takes the hard-bristled broom from beside the fireplace and is about to sweep yesterday’s ashes when Masha stops her. She takes the broom and breaks off three bristles. She sets them on the table. Olga has not understood. Irina looks at the feed trough and at tiny Masha. She understands. This is the bath. The three bristles are a lottery. They will draw straws for the luxury of a hot bath.
But first, a fire: Olga pulls the metal window grate out of the fireplace, the three women set the smaller crate inside and collect whatever will burn: the wood shavings from inside the crate, the broom, anything wooden, cardboard, paper, rag, the newspaper that lined Gyorgi’s boots. Nothing is spared. They pile up concrete blocks, three on each side, and set the metal grate on top, hoist the pot of ice onto the grate, and Masha takes the matches and starts a fire in the hearth.
Irina uses a few of Masha’s scraps of cloth to wipe out the inside of the feed trough. Olga empties the contents of her bucket into the trough, and heads outside to refill it with snow and ice, over and over. As the ice melts in the pot and the water slowly warms, Olga offers the enamel mug to Masha. Masha accepts, opens the tin of tea and takes a pinch of the dry black tea leaves.
She releases them into the mug. Olga tests the heat of the water in the pot and finally dips her water bucket in, extracting just enough to fill the mug. She pours the hot water over the tea leaves. Masha covers the mug with the plate and waits, while Olga goes twice more to refill her water bucket with fresh ice and snow. Finally, Olga offers Galina’s little handkerchief to Masha: a jagged lump of sugar. Masha is about to protest that it is too much, but instead she places the lump between her front teeth and starts to drink the hot tea through the sugar. It is too much. She removes the sugar from her teeth and returns it to the handkerchief. She finishes the hot black tea and returns the mug to Olga.
Now it is Irina’s turn: the pinch of tea leaves, the hot water, the lump of sugar between the teeth. Masha takes the three bristles and wraps one end in a scrap of cloth. She motions first to Irina and then to Olga to
select a straw. They compare: Masha is left with the longest straw. The hot bath will be hers. Irina returns the mug to Olga, who prepares tea for herself. Irina drops the potatoes into the pot of water on the fire. And as the air around the hearth warms, the three women first unbutton their coats, then remove them altogether. They set out the meal: Olga uses Gyorgi’s folding knife to pierce the tin of sardines. Irina uses the enamel mug to scoop the potatoes out of the hot water. Olga cuts the bread into three portions with Gyorgi’s knife and arranges them on the plate. Masha softens the dried mushrooms in hot water from the fire. Masha and Irina sit at either end of the long wooden crate, the meal between them. Olga sits on her upturned metal bucket.
“Pozhalsta,” says Masha, and they begin.
When you have been without food for a long time, two bites fill you up. If you keep eating, you become insatiable. Olga uses the last of her bread to soak up the oil in the sardine tin. Nothing remains of the meal except some cooking oil: no salt, no bread, no sardines, no potatoes. Irina fills the mug with water from the pot boiling in the hearth, but none of them has an appetite for washing the memory of food from their mouths.
Masha stands. “Wait,” says Olga. She puts on her coat and heads outside to fill her bucket with fresh snow to cool the bathwater. Even after they tip the boiling water into the feed trough and cool it with snow, it is still too hot. She goes outside once, twice more, this time bringing ice.
Masha steps behind the tall wooden packing crate and starts to fumble at the buttons of her dress. “Wait,” says Olga again. She and Irina slide the lid of the crate in front of the feed trough, leaning against it, screening Masha from view. Masha undresses and Olga holds up her coat as a shield while Irina helps her to climb into the bath. Irina passes the piece of soap to Masha, and Olga, remembering Gyorgi’s large handkerchief, hands it to Masha. The two women retreat to their table, and Olga adds some fresh tea leaves to the mug of hot water. Throwing caution to the wind, she drops the remainder of the sugar into the mug and waits until the tea is strong and black. The fire in the hearth is dying down. Irina slips into her coat and wonders whether her black and red flowered kerchief will suffice as a towel. Olga produces the kerchief she has used to cover the contents of her water bucket, and Irina nods. The gentle splashing from the bath has subsided; Irina and Olga exchange a glance and a rueful smile, imagining old Masha’s comfort.
Olga picks up the mug of tea and hands it to Irina with a motion towards the screened-off bath. Irina accepts the mug, walks over to the
screen and hands the mug around the side, saying, “Here, Maria Ivanovna. Masha. Take this. Now you will feel like you are truly in heaven.”
Olga watches from her place beside the table. Silence. Irina, again: “Masha, wake up. Here is tea for you.” She raps her knuckles: one, two, three, four, five, in quick succession against the wooden screen. Again, silence. Irina looks around the side of the screen. Masha lies on her back in the water, knees bent, eyes open, not blinking, lips parted, not making a sound.
Irina inhales sharply and makes a sound that is almost a cry. “Baruch Dayan Emet,” she says. Just that. “Baruch Dayan Emet.”
There is a sound that the cold makes. Once you have heard it, you know the meaning of the word alone.