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The household in which I grew up was generally lacking. Most households in the Soviet Union were at the time; the war’s cruel fingernails had scarred the blackboard of our country for some years now, and families such as my own simply struggled to survive its outcome. To be fair, we were the luckier of many. Stalingrad remained so far untainted by the pool of blood that dripped steadily from the heart of the Union; for now, at least, we were safe.
Still, food, water, and clothes were rationed carefully, there never seemed to be enough. My father and brother rose from their beds at the crack of dawn each day only to fall back upon them just as the crack shone again. My mother was tethered to her kitchen, popping Brodinsky after Brodinsky into our rickety stone oven, hoping the bread’s naturally black color hid its burnt edges. Meanwhile, I trailed several inches behind, leaving her side only to make daily trips to the market to sell whatever she had baked that day.
This was how my family and I spent our hours, our days, and our lives. We never had enough, but it was enough.
I grip with renewed hope the scrap of bread my mother places in my fingers, stuffing it into my mouth.“Is this lunch?”
“Dinner,” she says distractedly, nibbling on her nails. Her eyes flicker over to my father and brother, scaling their way shakingly down our hole in the ground. “Dmitri,” she grinds out, as my father drops to our level. “Why are your hands empty?”
His eyes flicker to my fingers, where bread was clutched only moments ago. “Stalingrad is empty.”
What my home lacked in resources, though, was made up for in opinions. For however much they loved each other (both out loud and in grudging silence) the members of my family could not be more different. Their philosophies clashed like symbols, creating a sonorous bang upon contact that stunned everyone borne to witness it. The hours I spent lingering in the kitchen listening to my mother talk rapidly over a slab of dough felt important and intimate—as did listening for the quiet phrases my father breathed out when he thought my brother wasn’t listening, or the ones my brother projected when he knew my father was.
Dinner was a congregation and my family an assembly of priests, preaching to each other and myself why things were the way they were, and how. Their gospels, however perpendicular, captivated me. Their eyes glowed in our dimly lit kitchen, their serious debates and unserious laughter more filling than any meal. Before each meal, we prayed, and after, we forgave each other what was said during the meal. We made peace.
My mother’s eyes are colorless as they bare into my father’s. “Empty?” She scoffs, her dry throat turning it into a snarling sound. “You are lazy.”
My brother drops into the hole next. “Lazy? Look outside!” He strains to yell, whispers instead. “The streets, they are filled with rubble from German bombs. Unless we eat the shells, there is nothing! The air is fire, the grass is black—we are living in a goddamn hole in the ground!”
“Don’t speak to your mother like that,” my father says.
“Don’t tell me how to speak,” my brother shoots back.
It was Sundays, though, that wrought the best of my family’s perfect cacophony. We weren’t a very religious crew, and so we spent the holy day in shared solitude. Empty baskets strung round our wrists like blank canvases, we trudged up the winding hill behind our village and toiled among the fruit trees till the sun grew dark and the wind wary. My father threw pieces of fruit for my brother to catch in his mouth, my brother laughing in between attempts. Then we settled beside some gnarly magnolia tree and enjoyed our spoils over the cutlery of hearty debate and storytelling—or in my case, simply listening. Above us, the night sky embraced our tired shoulders and soothed our drooping eyes.
“Watch your tone,” my mother says now, ice on the tip of her tongue. My brother looks away. “Eat,” she says, pushing a piece of bread toward him.
He looks at her, then at the stale, dirt-colored bread in her hands. “I don’t want it.”
“Don’t be stupid, boy, eat the bread,” she says once more, forcing it toward his mouth. He shoves away her arm with a violent movement. The bread falls from her hands and hits the soil beneath them with a quiet thud.
They stare at one another; I look between them both. Silence fills our hole until a drop of rain splatters upon the bread’s surface, joined by another, and another, until a quiet shower of rain is falling upon on our famine-wracked bodies. Above us, the sky thunders with cruel laughter.
It was beneath that night sky that my perceptions of life were laid out for me. My mother, ever the realist, would point at the moon and tell me to take notice of its ever changing shape. She explained how its cycle gave the impression of change and yet has been repeating since the dawn of time, like lunar clockwork. It was with this bitter solidarity that she filled my head with stories of her mother and her mother before her, of their hardships and the stubborn men that had caused them. She explained to me in quite simple terms the way men were and how they were the root of all problems on Earth, natural or not. Physical or not.
Sometimes the sounds that rolled off her tongue were foreign to me, but more often than not my mother was a repetitive woman. Her face, however, couldn’t be more indecisive—when she ground out “communists” her mouth never quite seemed to settle on one width, and her cheeks progressed through vivid gradients when she spoke of “the Union.” I found the blood red they settled on beautiful.
I was never able to agree or disagree with what my mother said, her words too ambiguous for me to fully grasp. Instead I found contentment in her boundless wisdom. It seemed all knowing and in turn, so did my mother.
My father slowly kneels and picks up the fallen piece of bread before rising unsteadily to his feet. He offers it to my brother. “Please, eat.”
Several moments pass before my brother accepts the bread, squeezing it in his fist afterward.
“Mama,” I speak up, and three heads turn at once. “When can we leave? When can we go home?”
My mother exchanges a heavy glance with my father. “I don’t know,” she says quietly.
I continue on. “Don’t know when we can leave, or don’t know when we go home?”
Her gaze is steady but her mouth wavers. It takes her a few moments to say what she does not want to say. “Don’t know if we have a home to go back to.”
My brother was much like a king in his own, consumed way. He held onto the reins of life with cynical confidence and conveyed this to me whenever he could. People, he said, were like stars; some shone brighter than others. He would explain to me that the only similarity between Joseph Stalin and a beautiful movie actress (“Other than the amount of product in their hair,” my father would interject, causing me into erupt into giggles) was that both were probably destined for greatness from the beginning. Such is the expected journey for men and women born into normal circumstances equipped with abnormal minds and bodies—the only way to grow, he explained, is further and further toward the sky.
It was agreed upon that the words that fell from my brother’s mouth were meaningful, but to me, they felt divine. I believed my brother could say anything and somehow it would manifest into truth.
When he scoffs, the sound is ugly and honest.
“Don’t look to her for answers. She is only lying to you. Our home is a pile of ashes.”
“Still,” he would continue wistfully, poetically, and, in my father’s opinion, more than a tad bit pretentiously, “Those of us wiser than the token Icarus are able to find pride in pursuing our mundane paths. Such is the path to happiness for most. Such is the path that has been followed, purposefully, by generations before us and coded, purposefully, into the minds of generations to come. It’s a phenomenon that so far remains unnamed—”
“It’s called communism dear,” my mother would interrupt, and the scowl my brother would shoot back was only partly out of seriousness.
Somewhere within her ash-congested lungs, my mother finds the will to scream, ice laced between each syllable.
“You be glad I didn’t let them take you away for this war. You be glad your lazy, ungrateful behind is still on this earth. God knows it could be one of the many lying across Stalingrad like meat for tomorrow’s vultures!” Her eyes bulge like bombshells. “You owe your mother all of that.”
My father liked to say that my mother and brother were always competing for the same air. “Klin klinom vyshibayut 1,” he would recite. “One fire is driven out by another.”
“I owe nothing to you!”
“You know nothing of the real world.” My mother’s voice drops. “You ignorant, selfish boy.”
My brother screams, and lightning flashes across his face.
My father’s way of communicating wasn’t quite the same. He was a slow speaking man, each word plucked from his brain carefully, like keys on a piano. When he spoke, he tilted my chin back so my nose aligned with the heavens and asked me to look into the holes that fell between stars; the stretch of blackness into which these tiny lights were sown. In these gaps, he told me, was where the truth lay. Not in the moon, not in the stars, but in everything in between.
When he began speaking, my father often could not stop; this, he held in common with my mother and brother. But while my mother’s words paved paths and my brother’s composed fierce poetry, my father’s washed over my mind like fresh water on the banks of a dried-lake.
Looking only for the things that take no looking for at all, he said quite simply, fails to take into account the vast realm of everything else, which often… is much more valuable.
A gentle hand falls upon my brother’s shoulder, a soft look upon my mother. “Both of you are forgetting this family and instead thinking of your own anger. We are all hungry. We are all tired. But we are still a family.” His eyes turn to me, and I latch onto them with equal parts hunger and hope. “We will get home, milaya 2. We will find a home, dear heart.”
I almost smile. My brother laughs. “This isn’t the time for more lies, Pap. We are going to die here. We have no way of traveling and the government will assume we are dead. To the rest of the world, we are dead. And look at us,” he pulls my scrawny arm from my side forcefully. “We are practically dead.”
“Don’t touch your sister like that,” my mother snaps, grabbing my arm with equal force and snatching it away. They don’t hear me cry out in pain. “And don’t you go on speaking like you know everything. You don’t.”
“I know more than you do.”
“Please,” my father interrupts. I look at him sadly as he places placating hands before him. They look so much frailer than they once were. “We can’t act this way. We must listen to each other.”
“Why?” my brother asks, laughing with arsenic in his voice. “God is not listening to us.” He turns to me at last. “The sooner you accept it, the better. This family will die here, in this hole. Nothing any of us say will ever change this.” His eyes bare into me. “And you know I am telling the truth.”
Time drags us along, and I do not notice that most of the food we scour is passed along to me. It doesn’t sink in until my family leaves me some days later.
They don’t mean to, of course, but I don’t realize that at first. For however much they spoke about life, my family never taught me much about death.
My father is the first to go. When his fingers grow icy in mine, the remaining fragments of my family turn their gazes away. So instead, I look to the moon, the stars, and everything in between.
I see a cemetery of constellations. I don't find an explanation.
1 Russian; “to fight fire with fire.”
2 Russian term of endearment for a girl.