The Bath Lot­tery

Prairie Fire - - TABLE OF CONTENTS - EYA DON­ALD GREEN­LAND

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.

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