This is the very first short story of mine ever to be published when it appeared in the hard copy of The Tarepian Rock two years ago. Stalin’s purges have always been an object of great fascination to me, especially as one of the lesser-discussed genocides in our world’s history, and even though I was fifteen when I wrote this, all of the issues presented in this fictional story continue to exist (in varying forms) in the world today.
The thunderous pounding on the front door split through the still atmosphere of our apartment as my family sat, huddled and shaking, willing ourselves to disappear. My eyes glanced up to my whispering parents, and then down to my younger sister Alina, whose eyes were wide and filled with terror. I wrapped my arms tighter around her small body and put my head over hers. I concentrated on the one single ray of moonlight shining through the kitchen window. It illuminated the room and part of the hall as if trying to prove that even in moments such as these, things could still be beautiful. Papa was no longer sitting on the floor, but was elevated in a crouch, holding Mama’s hand and trying to calm her as she sobbed into her arms. He moved over to me, not letting go of Mama, and knelt down, putting one hand to my face.
“My beautiful daughters,” he leaned forward and kissed my sister’s head, then looked at me.
“He will cover you with His wings;” he whispered, “you will be safe in his care…you need not fear…”
His voice broke, and he pulled us all to his chest as Mama began to cry even harder.
Holding us only for a few short seconds, Papa straightened himself and stood tall. The blue eyes and sandy blonde hair that looked so much like my own shone in the moonlight as he looked down on his family one last time. Finally, with a calm and steady pace, he carried himself to the front door and didn’t look back.
The moments following were a blur as the door swung open and the butt of a Soviet gun was swung into my father’s temple. Soldiers and NKVD flooded into our small home in torrents, destroying everything in sight, seemingly searching for something. Someone.
The commanding officer screamed at Papa, who responded solemnly and respectfully, as if he hadn’t even taken notice of the slow stream of blood trickling down his face. I couldn’t tear my eyes away, but as Mama grabbed Alina and I by our arms and silently pulled us along the hall, she didn’t take a second glance.
The frozen metal steps of the fire escape creaked as if threatening to betray our escape while the three of us descended, and it was when we had just reached the bottom that the shouts from above became noticeably closer. Within seconds we found ourselves crouching as still as statues underneath the stairway.
It really will be a shame, I thought to myself, if they catch us and we’ve got to climb all the way back up again.
The officer leaning out our third-story window stomped around on the landing and scanned the area before returning inside to alert the commander (and Papa) that we hadn’t been seen.
The gunfire that resounded afterward nearly deafened me, and as we sat for what felt like an eternity, my mother’s delicate features didn’t reveal any emotion at all. As we listened to my sister cry, we both knew that Papa was gone.
The odds of our escaping the city were slim, even slimmer considering everyone would recognize the wife and daughters of one of the most intelligent and well-known Russian writers of our century. Russia was filled with Stalinist sympathizers, desperate to please and earn war-time credit no matter who they had to turn over. But we persevered nonetheless, moving through the silent streets in the early Spring morning, willing ourselves to walk faster toward our goal.
It was a time later that the painful cramping in my legs ultimately brought me out of my delirious dream state. I had been remembering the hours I’d spent with Papa discussing our favorite books. We read every kind of literature, and then we would sit together and discuss it. Mama and Alina would go to the kitchen to bake when our conversation became too dull for them, and then return with whatever they had cooked up, trying to coax us into discussing something more day-to-day than our philosophical minds would typically allow. All that was gone now. There were no books, there was no food, and Papa was not with us. He was peaceful, though, I think, probably still lying by the bookshelf, right where we’d left him. Papa with the books, the books with Papa. Right then, I didn’t know of whom I was more jealous.
It took all my will to open my eyes and slowly recall where I actually was. We had walked for about two hours to our destination at the outskirts of town. My family’s saving grace was an old, rickety truck leaving to transport ‘medical supplies’ to the Soviet camp a few hours away. It was worn down, with shaky wooden doors covering both the back entrance of the truck and the fact that the cargo was, in truth, a band of helpless refugees.
Our God-sent deliverer was an elderly man and retired veteran named Nicholas who had been no less than a father to my own Papa. His wife had long-since died, and his only son was grown and leading his own life with his own family in America. Nicholas hated the man who was Joseph Stalin, and his only wish was for a free Russia. He’d offered Papa any assistance he needed when we first learned that we were in danger, and Papa had provided him with the list of people who were in the cab with us now. We were all ‘Intelligentsia’ (Intellectuals), or children of, in my case.
I met eyes with my mother, sitting across from me and holding my sister in her arms. She offered me a weak smile as I tried to stretch my already aching back.
“Thank God someone’s finally decided to wake up,” a voice barked at me from the other end of the cab.
“Tell your mama here that I’m right in saying you should’ve left the little girl behind.” I glanced over and saw the agitator, an older, angry looking woman, pointing a finger at my sister with an annoyed expression.
“She’ll only slow you down.” she finished.
How could any woman, whom God created with a natural instinct to care for and protect children, say something so horrible?
“You know, you should be thanking God,” I responded, “because He and my Papa are the only reason you’re alive.”
“Nina,” my mother drew my attention away from the woman.
Nina was the pet name Papa used to call me, saying that Katarina was too long for him.
I returned my glare to the brown eyes boring into me from a few feet away. If looks could kill, hers would’ve made the NKVD’s job infinitely easier. But she didn’t say anything further.
Hours passed in relative silence before Alina woke up and began to squirm, complaining that she was cold. Mama and I both removed our top layers to cover her, but nothing seemed to be enough.
“Just make her stop already! I can’t listen to this anymore!” The irritable old man seated next to Alina whined.
Why did Papa choose these people to save?
“Then move.” I responded vacantly. I knew my mother would scold me, but I wasn’t willing to tolerate any more attacks on my now-broken my family; no matter how small.
At that moment, it seemed that everyone in our small space began to argue. To my surprise, my mother said nothing to me, but pulled out a paper from her pocket and began to read.
“I will save those who love me
and will protect those who acknowledge me as the Lord.”
A hush fell upon the cab.
“When they call to me, I will answer them;
when they are in trouble, I will be with them.”
The reading was interrupted when the cab came to a screeching halt and we were nearly thrown over each other. The sudden and all too familiar sound of shouting Soviet officers stopped every heart in the space, and the footsteps coming toward the back of the truck were merciless hands tightening around my throat. The faces around me began to blur as I thought of my father’s death meaning nothing. My mother’s closed eyes reminded me of how happy we all used to be. Alina’s peaceful, sleeping face made me think of the day she was born.
She’s too young to die.
In that moment, I prayed harder than I ever had before.
“You will be safe in His care,” I recited, “you need not fear…”
And as if by an angel, the cab began to move. We discovered later that the commander in charge of the crossing was ‘old friends’ with Nicholas from his service in the army years before and had waved him through without trouble. The people around us burst into tears of joy and prayers of thanksgiving, grabbing and embracing whoever was nearest them. We were as good as safe now; and, like nothing had happened, my mother’s voice penetrated the chaos as she finished her prayer.
“I will rescue them and honor them.
I will reward them with long life;
I will save them.”
There wasn’t another argument after that. We spent the next hours praying and reminiscing. We rejoiced that we had made it, and cried for those who hadn’t. We knew that God could still choose to take us, but He could let us live. We lost count of minutes and hours, days and nights, but somehow we had all found peace.
It appeared to be morning when we awoke to the lock being torn off of the door responsible for holding us inside our voluntary prison. No one had noticed that we’d stopped, and although we were calmer now, our fear was still apparent. The doors swung open and sunlight flooded in. Everyone froze, paralyzed, and there wasn’t a sound to be heard. Suddenly, a figure appeared. Nicholas, our angel in disguise, stood before us with a smile that said everything and more.
Everyone filed out, haste considered before safety. The bright blue sky nearly blinded us, but I had never seen so many people so overjoyed at finding themselves alone in a vast and unfamiliar place. Rolling green hills, tall swaying trees, and little flowing streams surrounded us. There were no sounds but the birds flying overhead. No gunfire, no shouting, no soldiers tearing families apart.
I looked up at Mama. Her long brown hair was pulled back in the same fashion it had been when we had first fled, and wisps of it were blowing in the wind around her face. She looked down at me with sparkling green eyes and smiled a beautiful, bittersweet smile. I moved my gaze to my sister with her crazy wild brown curls that matched Mama’s and her bewildered expression and I knew that this is what Papa had given up. I closed my eyes and imagined everything that I would do, everything my baby sister would do because of our Papa’s sacrifice. I closed my eyes then, and I finally knew. I knew that through everything, God never abandons us; and if God is with us, we are never alone.
A thousand may fall dead beside you,
ten thousand all around you,
but you will not be harmed.