His thoughts of a happy future interrupted, Mark knew he was lost.
“Lost, I’m positively lost.” Saying it aloud, Mark couldn’t keep himself from smiling in spite of being unable to see the dirt road leading to the train station. He’d taken his chances leaving Masha’s, his fiancee’s, dacha late at night. Mark knew he had to make the last train to see his parents before their trip to America. An invitation to lecture at Princeton University meant a lot to his father, but made Mark uneasy. It wasn’t hard for a world famous doctor and psychologist to become a foreign spy in the eyes of the NKVD.
Dense woods surrounded Mark with complete darkness and, surprisingly, deafening silence. A city man, he’d always imagined the summer forest full of living sounds with a star-lit sky and a shining moon. But, not tonight. Lost in his thoughts, he’d missed the spot where the dirt road took a turn. Lighting a match, Mark looked at his watch. Blinded by utter happiness, he’d been walking for an hour instead of 20 minutes, without paying attention to the softer ground under his feet. Mark lit a second match to see the way back to the dirt road, but total blackness around him refused to reveal the path. With a few matches left, he fished a cigarette from a pack and sat with his back to a wide tree trunk. Its base, covered in soft moss, reminded Mark of the old color-faded rug hanging on the wall next to Masha’s bed. He sank his fingers in the cool velvety fibers and could smell the perfume in Masha’s hair. His cheek brushing softly against her breast when he leaned to kiss her hand, her not moving away.
Blissful, he fell asleep resting his head on the dry bark of the tree.
Dew drops on his face and loud trills of a nightingale brought Mark back to reality soon after the rising sun painted what he could see of the sky a tender pink. He rose stroking his stiff neck, stretching. Six in the morning meant he could still make it home before his parents left. Concentrating on finding the train station, he pushed all thoughts from his mind and started on a wide path that brought him here the night before.
How beautiful the forest was with the light straining through leafy branches! Happy, how happy he was to be alive! This was 1939, and Mark was 23, on his way to a successful and fulfilling career. He’d followed in his father’s footsteps and became a doctor. Once he finished graduate school and received his own lab at the institute, his happiness would be complete.
A nearby train whistle jarred Mark from his reveries and made him struggle through thick bushes toward the sound. Reaching the railroad tracks, he saw the sun and knew in which direction to walk. Humming “My Favorite Town,” he looked at the azure sky, not a cloud in sight, and tripped on a rock, but managed to stay vertical. Mark lifted the offender, but dropped it when he saw a small square of paper. “Please, deliver this letter to Sofia Feinberg, Lenin Street 14, apartment 5. Thank you.” Folded many times. In neat small rounded handwriting. Water-stained and faded in places, words, still readable, looked solid, as if their writer had thought about each letter before scribbling it on paper.
A 10-minute walk from his apartment, Lenin Street was on his way to the hospital where Mark had scheduled afternoon rounds. He thought about dropping it back on the ground, but stuffed the letter in the inside pocket of his jacket and resumed walking. The sheer feeling of happiness irrevocably gone, Mark strained hard not to think about the fate of thousands of such letter writers, who’d disappeared, swept like dust by a giant broom. Years of this monumental dust collecting throughout the country yielded tons of letters tossed out of train windows, all traveling to Siberia. How incongruous this find felt with Mark’s disposition to be happy!
He reached the station and bought a ticket. Hungry and thirsty, he found babushka selling milk and eggs near the tracks. The milk, still warm, coated his throat with hope.
“Papa,” Mark called entering the apartment. “Are you here?” No reply. Checking the dining room table, in case a note waited for him, he strolled through the rooms breathing in the usual calm and quiet. For some reason, today his home didn’t evoke the same reaction as it always did: no sign of peacefulness penetrated him. Restless thoughts flooding Mark’s mind, he heard the screeching of tires and imagined a black voronok near wide heavy door of his building. Sounds of hurried clanking steps banged in his ears. No. No. It’s a thing of the past. Arrests have stopped already. The tidal wave that devoured multitudes of innocent people and uprooted so many families had subsided. Safe as he could ever be, Mark only needed to get rid of the letter burning his pocket.
Not wasting any time, he ran down the wide marble staircase. Pausing only to buy a box of chocolates for his date with Masha later that night, Mark made his way to Lenin Street, a noisy populous thoroughfare full of mothers pushing baby carriages and children playing hopscotch. It enveloped Mark with an ever present human desire to forget the grief and sorrow and return to normal life.
Taking two stairs at a time he raced to the third floor and stopped in front of the door with a brass “5” and a half dozen nametags with numbers on them. Mark scanned the names and found “Feinberg – 6”, the least noticeable nametag of all. He rang the bell and waited. Not hearing any sounds behind the door, he rang again, twice. This time, he heard an irritated man’s voice: “Who is there?”
“I am here to see Sofia Feinberg. Is she home?”
The door opened a crack and a gray, hung-over face revealed itself together with an unwashed sleeveless undershirt and long black briefs.
“Are you blind? Or, can’t you read numbers, damned intellectual? The whore’s number’s six!”
“What does it mean her number’s six?” Mark had no idea what the drunkard was talking about.
“Son of a bitch! Ring six times to see the Jewish whore.” He slammed the door shut.
Stunned, Mark pressed the bell six short times and waited. The door opened soundlessly and he saw a thin young woman with long black curly hair. Dressed in once stylish, but now nearly threadbare brown dress, she stepped aside to let him in and led him through the vast communal corridor, overcrowded with furniture, suitcases, bicycles, and such, to the farthest door on the right.
“Sorry, I’ve never been to a communal apartment before,” Mark whispered to the young woman.
“Papa, Papa!” He heard as they made their way through the threshold of the woman’s room. A little black haired boy with his mother’s eyes ran to Mark with his arms raised. “Mama, Papa’s finally home!”
Embarrassed and blushing, his mother hurried to pick up the boy.
“Don’t mind him, please. He can’t remember his father.” She paused and searched Mark’s face. “What can I do for you?”
All he wanted to do was leave, deliver the letter and run, far away from this poverty stricken room, from the noises behind these thin walls, from the sorrows in the eyes of this woman, but he stayed, as if nailed to the worn-out parquet tiles.
“I have something for you,” he said, took the letter from his pocket and offered it to the young woman. She slowly lowered her son to the floor and almost unwillingly extended her hand to accept the unexpected gift.
Mark’s gaze never left her eyes that seemed to instantly fill with tears.
“Please, sit down.” Sofia, her son’s fingers in one hand, motioned with the letter to an ancient armchair near a bookcase. Mark obeyed. The moment he sat in the chair he felt a strong desire to open a book and marveled at the comfort and familiarity of the place.
“I’m telling you, it’s Papa,” the boy said quietly to his mother who still stood near the table, the letter yet unread.
“Darling, this is…”
“Mark Aleksandrovich Tarasov.” He extended his hand and shook hers softly. “I found it next to railroad tracks outside the city. You see, I was lost, and had to spend the night in the woods.” He fell silent.
“Thank you, very much.” Sofia sat and unfolded the letter. She did it fast, in one movement, so not to prolong the torture.
To give her privacy, Mark turned to the boy and smiled. “What’s your name?”
“Sasha, I am named after my grandfather who died in the war. Are you sure your name is Mark and not Joseph? You look just like my father. And his name was Joseph.” The little boy didn’t smile, just looked at Mark with diminishing hope.
“Sasha, my little one.” Sofia rose from the table, tears glistening on her young and bright face, a calm, solemn face, as if she’d put her past suffering behind and prepared herself for the future. “Sasha, here’s a photograph of your father, come look. You see, he had dark hair and dark eyes. He didn’t look anything like Mark Aleksandrovich here.” She looked at Mark and smiled. “Can I offer you tea?”
Already late for the morning rounds, Mark gazed at her innocent and beautiful smile, unable to tear himself away from the room. What kept him there rooted to the worn-out furniture, to the familiar-from-childhood smell of books, to the dark eyes of the woman with a boy’s head on her shoulder? “Thank you, I would love some,” Mark said noticing the child’s long curled eyelashes trembling, the boy nearly asleep.
Sofia carried her son to the couch and covered him gently with an afghan.
“He is so easily excited,” she said at the door. “I’ll be right back with the tea.”
“Let me help.” Mark followed her. He wanted to see the kitchen, and even more than that, he wanted to show the other inhabitants of the apartment that she was not alone. Since when wasn’t she alone? Since half an hour ago?
“No, please, it’s nothing. I’d rather do it myself.” She pulled the door closed and left Mark alone in the room with the softly snoring boy.
With nothing to do, Mark looked at the framed photographs on the wall. They looked like many photographs on many other walls of his friends’ and relatives’ apartments. Family portraits, men in military uniforms, girls, boys, couples. Yes, there they were, Sofia and her husband Joseph, in a boat, she smiling and he laughing at the camera, embracing her, holding her hand. Another one, of the three of them, with Sasha a tiny baby. How happy and alive they looked. He stared at the last one, of Joseph leaning on a tree trunk, looking away from the camera. Did he feel his fate approaching? Did he know?
The door quietly opened and Mark could hear grumbling voices behind Sofia who quickly shut it and rested a teakettle on a hotplate. She brought two cups, saucers, and a sugar dish from a cupboard and poured tea. Then, as an afterthought, she retrieved a small dish of jam and arranged the table.
“Sorry, we have nothing else. I didn’t know you were coming.” She sat.
Feeling strangely at ease, Mark sat opposite her. Then, he remembered something and ran to his doctor’s case near the door. The chocolates intended for his bride, for Masha. The irony of the situation suddenly revealed to him what lay ahead. “I almost forgot.” He placed the box on the table and took his cup.
“This is Joseph’s room. They took him away when Sasha turned one,” said Sofia after a short silence. “First, his parents, then his brother, then him. My parents died when I was 12. I lived with an aunt, but she died last year. I’m lucky they let me live here.” She needed to say all this. “Four months ago a woman came to see me. Our first visitor in a year. She told me Joseph died in camp.”
“How did she know?” Mark wished he could take Sofia in his arms and comfort her. Why couldn’t he stop looking at her? Her soft solemn voice and almost black, but radiant eyes made him forget everything.
“She’d managed to find out where her husband was sent and traveled there. It helped to bribe the guards. They gave the couple two hours together. The husband begged her to find me. I suppose, I’m lucky to know. Thousands have no idea whether or not their loved ones are alive.” Sofia stirred her tea and looked at Mark. She picked a chocolate square and smelled it. “I haven’t tasted chocolate since… Sasha doesn’t even know what it is.” She placed the candy on her plate and reached for the letter. “Joseph wrote about his illness. He knew he didn’t have long to live.” Her voice broke, but she didn’t cry. “I am grateful for what you did in spite of the risk to you and your family.”
Mark couldn’t tear his gaze away from her fingers, they caressed the sad gift he’d brought her. “Sofia, let me tell you about myself.” He paced quietly from the table to the window and back. “This morning I thought I had it all figured out, I had a great career path to follow and a bride from a distinguished family.” He sat again and took her hand in his. “Now, I’m happy I found the letter, because it brought me to you.”
He knew the risks he was taking –– associating with the family of an enemy of the state, and the danger to his career and that of his father, to his comfortable future with Masha. No, there was no future there. His future was right here, sitting across from him and sleeping soundly on the couch.
Notes: NKVD – secret police; People’s Commissariat for Internal Affairs
Dacha – a summer house
Voronok – a car used during mass arrests
Born on Sakhalin Island in the Far East of Russia, Elina Zismanova grew up in northern Russia beyond the Arctic Circle. She moved to the U.S. in 1980 and now lives in Highland Park with her husband and four daughters.