by Natalie Nera
Smoke obscured the view for a moment as Oksana searched for a sign. She squinted but there was no platform, only the wide blurred plain, covered in mist. This was nobody’s stop.
The voice of the guard on duty swept through the carriages: “The engine is broken!”
The announcement acted as a command people did not dare to disobey. They moved forward as one body, pushing and rushing; their fingers, arms, cries, and coughs an indistinguishable mass trying to get out. A boy on Oksana’s right brushed against her coat with his hand covered in snot and something else, something dark and sticky. A bulked out woman, obviously pregnant, paused every two or three steps, as if catching her breath. She held onto the wooden seats as she struggled to stand.
Transfixed by the scene, Oksana’s eyes were drawn back to the silhouette of the expectant woman, who was being pushed rather than making her way out: a baby inside her belly, so much life contained in that small cavity. Oksana’s own body grew roots through the rusty floor of the wagon. A hand grabbed her by the arm.
“Come on, we have to walk!”
The voice was muffled by the smoke and stomping of boots outside, audible even though they were mostly made not of leather but felt, valenki. In another world, in another life, Oksana would have thanked the unknown man for helping her leave the train, but her mind was now unable to think of any pleasantries. All she could feel was the power of the cold and wind outside as she placed one foot in front of the other. The crunching of stones, like broken glass, pierced her ears. Each time it repeated, the sound left imprints in her soul. The scorch of the frost penetrated the strips of fabric she wrapped around her feet. She had to keep moving. Her shawl had slipped, so she rearranged it to cover her ears and head.
The stranger’s voice again: “You need to keep your strength, love.”
This time, Oksana dared to lift her eyes and look at the man. He was passing her something shiny. It looked like a necklace of beads, but as his hand came closer, Oksana realised it was sugar-frosted fruit on a string.
“The journey is long.”
She smiled and mumbled, “Thank you, but I cannot accept it.”
The features of the stranger were out of focus, thanks to her short-sightedness. Her grandmother’s words sprung up in her mind: “Whatever you do, don’t be vain.” Yet vanity was the reason she only ever wore her glasses in the classroom; it was the reason she had placed them in the small suitcase, now left behind four hundred miles west. The clothes she wore now were her only possessions.
Most of the time, she found herself enjoying her vision without much focus, withdrawing into herself, finding the world less harsh when sketched only in rough outlines. But now she regretted that the new acquaintance was just a round face with a nose and a smile. He reminded her of the snowmen she used to build every year with her pupils. Oksana was not even sure of the colour of his eyes. Not that it was important.
“I am Pavel, but friends call me Pasha. You can call me Pasha.”
She could hear the vibration in his voice, virile and loud. It exuded youth and power.
You mean, we can be friends. You are trying to say that you hope to be more than friends, Oksana thought to herself. I don’t know anything about you. Why me? Why would you even want to talk to me?
Silences were filled with layers of meaning. She decided to say nothing. She stared at the horizon. The darkness was coming from the east like the Golden Horde.
Each breath hurt with burning. She watched the steam come out of people’s mouths as they exhaled. Like strokes of a painter’s brush, they marked the position of each person, apparent even to someone short of sight.
Pasha spoke again. “What’s your name?”
“You don’t say much, do you?”
“There is nothing to say.”
“That’s not true. All of us have something to say. Sometimes too much.”
Oksana shrugged her shoulders. They had been on their journey for the past three weeks, during which many trains had broken down. She tried to remember how far they had travelled. The last big city she recalled was Kuybyshev. They had not been allowed to leave the train. Oksana, focus. Counting helps. Count your miles, count the lost villages, count the lines east.
“Jesus, is there no end?” the female voice behind whispered.
Oksana’s instinct was to turn towards it; her sight allowed her to capture only general features of the speaker – a smooth, plump face and a heavily laden body. The duck gait suggested the latest stages of pregnancy. Jesus, indeed. How many pregnant women are with us? Perhaps that was the one she had spotted on the train, still alive, still going.
Everyone knew there was no end. The purpose of the journey was walking ahead. Oksana questioned what exactly ‘ahead’ meant, but the guards seemed to know. The column of people was proceeding in the direction that had been prescribed to them, and the movement was their comfort. Every time they stopped was an opportunity to dwell on their destiny.
“Do you know where we are going?” She found her voice through crystals of frost, steam condensing inside her shawl.
“Forward, that’s all I know,” Pasha chuckled. “We are less than cattle.”
Inappropriate, she argued with herself. But then, I guess nothing is appropriate in our situation.
He leaned towards her; she could smell onions and, at last, saw the charcoal of his European lashes and Asian eyes that left her body tingling. A man of two continents. He was so close she was convinced he was about to kiss her. Oksana was scared, and then angry for being scared. This was not permitted. She repositioned herself one step farther to his left.
“Now I have found you, we have to stick together.” The line was delivered as a statement, a matter of fact, which Oksana accepted. It was nice to find someone, anyone. Even though it could all be the mirage of a traveller too desperate with thirst, the image of a fountain offering an illusion that soothed her heart.
The plain was endless, not even a tree to see. Oksana began to enjoy Pasha’s company. At least she did not have to think of her feet, without sensation, squelching, and stomach that had not been filled for two days.
“My family were farmers. What was your sin?” His smile was pinned on his face. She felt his eyes searching her profile, but at the same time, she would not return the gaze she assumed he had been giving her. This could all only be in her mind. The opposite would embarrass her, and she did not want to confront it.
“I was a teacher.”
“A teacher? I thought they needed teachers?”
She wanted to say, “Yes, but not like me. Not someone who asks questions, who doubts authority, who disagrees with unfairness and injustice. Not someone who was on the list before they even arrived.”
The emptiness got hold of her for a while before she replied, “Maybe I am going to be useful here, too. Tell me, how are you so cheerful? You have been smiling and speaking half-serious, ever since we set out on our march. How do you do that?”
“Oh, well, that’s me. I am always happy, no matter what.”
He is a farmer who is cheerful even though he will never farm in this Godforsaken place. We have not eaten for two days, yet he smells of onions and has a spring in his stride. He wants to know who I am. Dammit! I want to know who you are!
It was as if he read her mind. “Oh no! You think I’m one of them?”
Pasha’s words alerted her to the proximity of their guards, their omnipresence. Her soles felt the stones once again, the rhythm of pain reminding her she was still alive. The horizon became obscured even more with pieces of ice, thrust around in the wind like shrapnel, her face pricked by thousands of needles that did not melt but stuck to the skin. It seemed to her the column of walking people had no faces, yet somehow, they all had skin, skin that hurt, and Oksana could feel it. She could feel everyone’s pain.
The rust had eaten holes in the roof of the shed where they lay for the night; wind whizzed through the cracks and sleep eluded her. She kept slipping in and out of semi-consciousness, shifting her limbs so they didn’t die of frostbite, human bodies piled around her, providing heat from breathing and desperation.
Oksana got up in the early hours and did several squats to get warm. The guards ordered everyone to prepare for their journey. The chubby woman who had slept next to her was not moving. Oksana shook her in vain. A man with colourless chunks of hair for his beard looked on and started praying. Another man with round glasses sitting on his nose pushed his way through the crowd.
“Excuse me, I am a doctor.” He bent over the woman, touched her neck, and felt her wrist for a while.
“Does anyone have a pocket mirror?”
The uniformity of the crowd was broken by a hand in a mitten stretched out with a shard of a mirror. The doctor held it in front of the woman’s nose and mouth. Seconds, minutes passed, expecting and waiting. He shook his head.
Oksana stopped staring at the corpse of her neighbour and looked around. There were perhaps thirty people lying on the floor. No time to check them all. As ordered, those who could not get up were left behind.
Wrapped in her shawl, she shuffled one foot in front of the other, no more strength, stomach strangely adjusted to hunger. No pangs, no urges or spasms to demand food that was not there. Oksana copied other people who grabbed clumps of frozen snow and put them in their mouths.
It was not until the afternoon that Pasha appeared next to her again, cheerful as ever. She could swear he smelled of vodka and rye bread with a slice of pork fat. Or perhaps her hungry senses were deceiving her.
“Nice to see you, my beautiful teacher,” he gushed.
Oksana was not sure whether she should feel flattered or offended. She hated herself for her distrust, but she was unable to detect any signs that would help her decide. Pasha’s face looked bleary and smudged – he was more of a notion of a man, a ghostly apparition, whose presence she could not quite believe.
“How do you manage it? You don’t seem to be affected by the lack of food like the others. Like me.”
Reminiscent of little girls, he giggled. “I’m who I am. I always manage.”
An enigma, she thought.
“Listen,” he added after a pause, “I want to marry you. I am going to look after you. We are going to be very happy.”
“How’re you going to achieve that?”
“Just say ‘yes’ and you’ll see.”
Silence was Oksana’s best friend. It gave her space. She needed to walk, not speak.
“So, what’s your answer?” Pasha was insistent.
“No answer. I don’t know you.” Oksana decided that sticking to the truth was best. Or at least to some of it.
“You’re cold.” The expression on his face was stuck in an odd grimace she recognised so well in schoolboys. She half-expected him to utter, “I didn’t do it, Miss.” She had to force herself back into the conversation.
“Yes, I know. I’m also hungry.”
“That’s not what I meant.”
I know, thought Oksana, determined not to give him an inch. She was not sixteen; she was a woman of thirty-five. No one had ever courted her: too upper-class for many, too poor for the others, not stunning enough and, sadly, too bright for a woman – something her grandmother had told her to hide. And yet, in an unlikely scenario, in which she was the hungriest and worst looking she’d been in her life, she was being proposed to by a complete stranger.
“Here you are.” Pasha stretched out his hand. In it was a small parcel wrapped in cloth. Oksana opened it: a piece of rye bread sandwich with cured pork fat and onions. She hated being right.
“Where did you get it?”
He shrugged his shoulders and smiled. “I would rather not share my methods.”
“You are a mystery.”
“So are you.”
“Why don’t you give it to her?” Oksana wrapped the sandwich again and returned it to Pasha. His eyes followed her index finger. Behind them walked the woman with a child growing in her belly. “She needs it more than I do.”
They observed the woman’s struggle. She kept pausing, holding her abdomen. The arms of other people continuously lifted her up and helped her forward.
Pasha smiled again. “Is it possible that you can be so good?”
Oksana’s gaze travelled with him as he fell back to talk to the pregnant woman. She could see her shaking her head, sensed her smile in gratitude, saw her taking and nibbling carefully on the precious nourishment. Pasha stayed with her, engaged in talking until the evening made the train of humans stop.
Oksana must have slipped into a much deeper slumber than usual, when someone shook her body.
“Wake up, wake up. Help me.”
She managed to pull open her heavy eyelids and found Pasha’s face near hers, his breath smelling of rot, cigarettes, and vodka.
“You have to help Lena. She’s in trouble.”
“Who is Lena?” Oksana struggled to stand; weakness embraced her body, her interrupted sleep being her only source of energy.
Pasha did not answer but dragged Oksana across the floor of resting torsos and limbs. The woman was breathing heavily. Then she paused. Again.
“She is in labour. It’s exactly like with our cows. It’s coming.”
Oksana took off her coat and folded it under Lena’s head. She was so close that she met the other woman’s azure gaze, fear palpable in her widened pupils.
“It’s going to be alright, Lena. Pasha, hold her hand.” Oksana got up and started looking into the faces of the sleepers, having to bend as near as possible in search of the dark beard with rounded glasses. Oksana was full of regrets; she’d had to live with all of them, but right now she would have liked to have her glasses back. Her task of finding a doctor amongst all the bodies on the floor certainly would have been easier.
At last. Him. Oksana shook him with the same vigour as Pasha had used to waken her earlier. She could see his clothes flapped around his torso as if they were hand-me-downs from an older and larger brother. He struggled to stumble across the room. As soon as he came closer to the woman in labour, he acted as if he’d had an injection of life. He introduced himself as Malkin and apologised for not having clean hands or any instruments. He felt Lena’s abdomen, then waited for the next contraction.
The physician talked to her. People started to wake up to her screams. Pasha’s face turned pale.
“She is thirsty, get her something to drink,” Oksana said to him. He disappeared and came back with a cup he had produced from his coat, the coat with magical powers, where anything might be found. Snow melted slowly above the candle. Lena drank a bit.
Even the guards were watching now.
Malkin wiped the sweat from his forehead. “You’re doing so well. Please do not worry. I am going to turn the baby now because it’s in the wrong position. You have to let me do it.”
Pasha nodded and smiled at Lena.
It seemed to Oksana that, if she wanted to, she could stretch her arm and touch the mother’s breath as it escaped from her lungs. Nobody talked.
All that could be heard was the panting and brisk moves of the doctor’s hands. Time ceased to exist. And then, after the baby’s cries exploded, shattering the fractals of ice, someone wrapped the purple bundle in their fur coat. It looked like one of Repin’s paintings come to life when people started chatting, laughing, hugging, and kissing each other.
“Congratulations, you are a mother now. You’ve got a son.”
Even the guards were laughing, toasting with vodka that had emerged from their fur shubas.
Oksana shifted her squinted gaze to see Pasha who stood next to her. Gleaming, he was looking at Lena, the apparition of the Virgin Mary with Baby Jesus, people making crosses, hope rediscovered in the frost and dust of the morning. The baby would deliver.
Oksana hesitated before whispering in Pasha’s ear, “You really are just a farmer’s son, aren’t you?”
He nodded. “I’m good at feeding. I’m good at getting things. I’m good at surviving.”
“No, you’re good at living.” She paused before adding, “I’m sorry.”
“So am I.”
Oksana sighed, relieved that the terror of a marriage prospect had been avoided. She could be who she knew how to be: a plain-looking spinster with education and no money. She thought she was probably too old; women of her age were already looking to have grandchildren.
“Pasha,” she whispered, “I can’t wait to teach your children. Now, go!”
She watched him until he became a stroke of an Impressionist’s brush. Picturing the future and its possibilities, her daydream became her happiness.
Slowly, her back hunched in her cardigan. She dragged her feet behind, shuffled them on the floor, not quite able to complete the steps. Her body was no longer her own, her senses stupefied.
She transferred herself across the room, unnoticed by the celebrating people.
She sat on the floor without her coat, at first shivering, then slowly accepting the numbness of her physical existence. Her eyelids fell towards her cheeks, closing the gaps of her memories.
I just want to sleep. A little bit of sleep, and everything will be fine.
Natalie Nera is the pen name of Natalie Dunn, a Czech writer who, until recently, lived in Northumberland, United Kingdom. Her work has appeared in Czech, German, English, and Romanian in publications such as Mslexia and Euonaia Review. Her two novels, Úspěšná smrt Davida Dostála and Smrt s vyhlídkou, were published in Czech in 2011 and 2013. Natalie also edited a poetry anthology in 2017 before undergoing her MA in Creative Writing at Newcastle University, pushing herself to write creatively in her second language. She primarily focuses on prose and, more recently, literary translations. Natalie now lives in Prague with her British husband and two young sons, and you can learn more about her work by visiting her website.