Hearing it told, it is like a bad omen spoken in reverse. In the rising voice of a resigned tide, “Everyone died over there. One after the other in ’42. Grandma, Grandpa, Aunt, Brother.” He shakes his head as resignation shifts into disbelief. “Is that what you wanted to hear?”
… But in war, nothing among civilians could be certain. Disease spread quickly within the communal flats. Hacking coughs echoed through the apartments at all hours of the day. Children and the elderly were particularly susceptible. Raya’s mother knew she wouldn’t recover and did her best to stay out of the way, holing herself up in the corners of the apartment, shooing the children away. She died after a few weeks, weakened by starvation, coughing up blood, alone, while her daughter and grandchildren were away.
Raya buried her grief along with her mother, hid it deep in her spirit, woven into a tightly wound ball that at first had settled into her throat and then traveled into the abdomen where it would stay rotting her away at her emotions. Dwelling was weakness. She had to stay strong.
Sophie, Raya’s eldest sister, consumed by the grief of her mother’s death succumbed to a similar fate, leaving Alla and Simon to Raya’s care.
In early ‘42, the children fell ill one by one. Oleg’s condition was worst. Being older, he had spent more time out in the cold air with his mother among the strangers and market stalls, hawking matchbooks and yarn to passersby. One night, after a long fit of coughing, he breathed a final deep sigh, rolled over and left the world. A deafening silence set in and stayed there, leaden, in all of the remaining brood. Natan, too young to recall the details of his brother’s death, would carry the lingering feeling of something having been torn away from him for the rest of his remaining years.
In the midst of the ailments and the starvation that befell the refugees, news drifted in from the front sporadically. By late ‘43, news had arrived that Kyiv was liberated and the evacuees were invited back to help rebuild their fallen city. Their task was to breathe new life into the historic birthplace of the Russian Empire. One could forgive these listless people, having been stranded in the rear of the Soviet Union, for being wary of the news.
Raya, for one, had started to acclimate to life in Central Asia. She was among new friends, at least of those that remained. She journeyed out of Kyiv, never expecting to return and now the news of reoccupying the once great capital put her ill at ease. Soon, orders started coming in to relocate people back via the train they came. Raya received the slip under her door midweek while she was out with the kids and set it aside.
Caring for the three children on her own left her little time to work, but she woke up before sunrise every morning to collect the rations doled out by the army, fed her children, and sold the remaining portion of goods at the market stalls that she borrowed from generous and compassionate traders. The days passed like this and often the only thing to do was keep moving forward.
As winter closed in around them, the arid air brought in a new round of ailments. Natan’s persistent cough, first attributed to an allergic response to the dust kicked up by the hordes of people travelling through the markets, now turned out to be something more severe. At first, Raya thought this cold would just pass, having been strengthened by the sickness that had surrounded them for years, but Natan soon developed a fever that she struggled to subdue.
Doctors were in short supply. They carried their empty medicine bags around like vestiges of a more prosperous time, no longer able to offer any relief, just convey their status.
“Raya,” Doctor Levsky, said gravely on his most recent house call, holding her trembling hands between his, “There is nothing we can do for him here. Please, take him back to Kyiv. They are sending doctors and medicine there to help the people that are rebuilding. It’s the only chance for his survival.”
Raya knew deep in her heart that this was her only option. She had waited too long to be told to take it. She recalled the slip under her door and the ticket that she received. She had stowed it away in a small bundle, but as the days for departure approached she became less and less sure that it was the best choice.
It was true that at first she didn’t think surviving here was an option. But over time, her feet grew steady. She, who had never been alone in the world, had figured out a way to outlive the diseases and infections that claimed a life a week in the small confines of the town. She was raising and nurturing the children she had borne and those left behind by her sister.
Kyiv held few treasured memories for her. It was where her husband disappeared, and it was where poverty choked her with its clenched fist, where the government stepped on her chest and kept her from getting up. She had decided that the best chance for her family to begin anew would be out here, in the East, and she let her return ticket expire.
But now, hearing Dr. Levsky make his pronouncement, as if sealing Natan’s fate to an early grave, her pallid complexion grayed. There was no way she, who struggled to sell enough at the market day after day to keop a roof over her children’s head, could afford to buy a new ticket.
The doctor walked over to his medicine bag, as if having read her mind, and pulled out a ticket.
“Take this, Raya,” he said handing it to her. He hung his head, “I have nothing to go back to. Take your children. Save them. If they give you any trouble, tell them that you are my cousin. They will take anyone willing to go back. The train leaves tomorrow. Please go.”
Raya reached for the ticket. She whimpered and began to sob into her hands. She couldn’t fathom the loss of another son. Having buried her mother, her sister, her eldest son, having learned of her husband’s disappearance on the front, Natan was her last reminder of a life before the war.
“I’ll be all alone with three children. I’ll be returning to nothing ,” she wailed.
The doctor put his palm on her head, as if to soothe her. “You’ll be returning to hope.”