Saturday, September 5, 2009
City of Thieves
We saw two women in their sixties walking very close together, their shoulders touching, eyes on the sidewalk looking for the patch of ice that could kill them. A man with a glorius walrus mustache carried a white bucket filled with black nails. A boy, no more than twelve, tugged a swled with a length of rope. A small body wrapped in blankets lay on the sled, a bloodless bare foot dragging along the hard-packed snow. Dragon's teeth studded the street, reinforced concrete blocks arrayed in rows to hinder the movement of enemy tanks. A printed sign on the wall read WARNING! THIS SIDE OF THE STREET IS THE MOST DANGEROUS DURING BOMBING.
The boy sold what people called library candy, made from tearing the covers off of books, peeling off the binding glue, boiling it down, and reforming it into bars you could wrap in paper. The stuff tasted like wax, but there was protein in the glue, protein kept you alive, and the city's books were disappearing like the pigeons.
That is the way we decided to talk, free and easy, two young men discussing a boxing match. That was the only way to talk. You couldn't let too much truth seep into your conversation, you couldn't admit with your mouth what your eyes had seen. If you opened the door even a centimeter, you would smell the rot outside and hear the screams. You did not open the door. You kept your mind on the tasks of the day, the hunt for food and water and something to burn, and you saved the rest for the end of the war.
"You killed him yourself?"
I opened my mouth, fully prepared to lie, but the way she looked at me, her lips curled into that smirk that both angered me with its condescension and me want to kiss her...
"The cold killed him. I just saw him falling."
Cannibals and Nazis didn't make Kolya nervous, but the threat of embarrassment did-the possibility that a stranger might laugh at the lines he'd written.
I have never been much of a patriot. My father would not have allowed such a thing while he lived, and his death insured that his wish was carried out. Piter commanded far more affection and loyalty from me than the nation as a whole. But that night, running across the unplowed fields of winter wheat, with the Fascist invaders behind us and the dark Russian woods before us, I felt a surge of pure love for my country.
"Don't look so sad. You saved my life tonight."
I shrugged. I was afraid that if I opened my mouth I would say something mawkish and stupid, or worse, that I would start to cry through a night like this one, and I was convinced that the sniper from Archangel was the only girl I would ever love.
Her gloved hand still rested on my cheek. "Tell me your last name."
"I'll track you down, Lyova Beniov. All I need is the name." She leaned forward and kissed me on the lips. Her mouth was cold, her lips rough from the winter wind, and if the mystics are right and we are doomed to repoeat our squalid lives ad infinitum, at least I will always return to that kiss.
Posted by Staci at 4:45 PM