Tivil July 1933
Zenia dealt the tarot cards, the gadalniye karti. Her hands were quick and skilful. Each card laid neatly on the table, flicking a second and a third to overlap it. The images of noose and naked bodies and long curved sickle tumbled on top of each other. The room was gloomy, shutters closed, the air scented with a cloying ball of goose fat that hissed and spat in a dish of beaten copper. In the centre of the table sat a basket of woven birch bark, a lid of coarse netting stretched over it, a knife positioned in a vertical line across its surface. The blade pointed due east. Inside the basket something moved.
The shadows shifted and Rafik’s voice was deep with tension as he placed a hand on the knife and said, ‘Again, Zenia.’
The gypsy girl gathered the cards. Shuffled and dealt again. The same. Noose and sickle and pink-skinned naked bodies entwined in long curling loops of silvery hair.
‘The lovers,’ Zenia announced. ‘They bring death to Tivil.’
An intake of breath as a shutter vibrated, though there was no wind. Rafik picked up a teacup that stood on the table, the one Sofia had drunk from earlier in the day with Pokrovsky. At the bottom of it tea leaves were bunched and spread into intricate shapes that Zenia had studied.
‘Are you sure?’ he asked, though in his heart he didn’t doubt his daughter’s reading.
‘Yes, I’m sure.’
‘A journey for her. One that brings sorrow to Tivil.’
They both gazed at the brown envelope that lay next to the basket. On it was written one word: Sofia. Rafik felt the weight of each of the bold black letters.
‘Tonight,’ he said. ‘I will walk the circle.’
The field was emptying. Sofia stood, straightening her cramped muscles, and watched the women head back towards the village in twos and threes, their chatter adding to the tinkling bell of the cows as they ambled in for the night.
‘That’s it for today,’ the woman tending the next potato row called across to her. ‘Come on, you can finish now. Enough for today.’
Sofia shouldered her hoe. ‘So Chairman Fomenko does allow us to stop work eventually, then?’
The woman chuckled and together they trudged up the valley, talking quietly about the condition of the crop this year, while the evening sun sent their long shadows skimming ahead of them. It was as they approached the cedar tree that Sofia spotted the huddle of three children crouched in the dust at the base of its wide trunk, playing a game of some kind with small stones and a rubber ball. A pair of bright brown eyes met hers and looked away quickly. It was Pyotr. Sofia felt an unexpected tug at her heart at the realisation that he was nervous of her.
She waved to him and smiled to coax him into friendship, but part of her felt like going over there and giving the boy a good shake. She didn’t, of course. She was just as nervous of him, that’s what was so stupid. They were uncomfortable together, too well aware of each other’s weakness. He knew she was a fugitive, and she knew he hadn’t reported her. Not yet, anyway.
Sofia blinked. A skinny little form had detached itself from the group and skipped over to her. Sofia halted, and her companion from the field nodded pleasantly and walked on. She had her husband’s meal to cook. It took Sofia a moment to recognise the narrow face and uncombed hair at her side. It belonged to one of the girls from inside the schoolroom last night, one of the silent little mice.
‘It’s me, Anastasia.’
‘My mother said to thank you.’
Anastasia glanced furtively around with exaggerated care, though no one except the two boys was within earshot. ‘For the story.’
‘It was my pleasure.’
The girl grinned up at her, little mouse teeth showing. ‘We asked our teacher if you can come in again. Will you?’
Well, that explained the Pokrovsky visit. And why a number of the women in the potato field this afternoon had gone out of their way to include her in their banter.
‘Da,’ Sofia smiled. ‘Yes, I’ll come in again. If I’m officially invited.’
‘Did you hear that, Pyotr? Comrade Morozova might be coming into our school!’
Pyotr looked up from his position in the dirt. His gaze darted to Sofia’s face.
‘But you’re a tractor driver.’
‘Yes.’ She could see the uncertainty disturbing his young eyes and knew he was trying to deal with questions he couldn’t answer. Would it be so bad to have a fugitive in his school? Should he report it? What would happen if he did? Or if he didn’t?
‘Pyotr, I am many things.’ She laughed, to show him she understood. ‘Don’t-’
The other boy jumped to his feet, his knees dusty, his eyes sharp. With a sinking heart she remembered him from the meeting, the youth who looked as if he’d stepped out of a propaganda poster.
‘Has Chairman Fomenko been informed of this?’ he asked.
‘Don’t be silly, Yuri.’ Anastasia waved a dismissive little hand at him. The gesture made Sofia smile, it was so obviously copied from her teacher. ‘The school is run by Comrade Lishnikova, not Chairman Fomenko.’ She turned to Pyotr with a bright expression. ‘Isn’t it, Pyotr?’
The boy shrugged and tossed a stone high into the cedar branches.
‘Don’t take any notice of Pyotr,’ Anastasia sighed apologetically. ‘He’s sulking because his father is leaving Tivil.’
Leaving. Sofia’s heart knocked against her ribs.
Pyotr traced the outline of an aeroplane in the dust. His shaggy hair was falling over his face, hiding any expression from her.
‘Pyotr, is your father leaving Tivil?’ she asked softly.
Reluctantly he nodded. ‘He’s going to Leningrad.’
One word. That’s all it took, and the evening sky grew dark.
‘Why didn’t you tell me?’
‘This morning, Sofia, with you eating my biscuits, I had no interest in tomorrow. I was enjoying today too much to think about leaving.’
‘You could have told me.’
‘Would it have changed anything?’
‘Except make me… more aware of what I had and… of what I was losing.’
The look Mikhail gave her in response made her pulse quicken. It made the long wait alone in the dark worth every minute. The sun had set several hours ago but she had sat patiently on the edge of the stone water trough in the stableyard, listening to the contented sighs and snores of the horses while a bat flitted erratically above her head, snatching mosquitoes out of the air. She was growing used to waiting for him.
By the time she caught the steady tread of a horse’s hooves on the approaching slope, the moon had risen and the stars glimmered like diamond splinters in the great arc of black night that hung over the mountains of Tivil. The air was moist. Her skin was chilled in the breeze, her breathing fast and shallow. When Mikhail walked into the yard leading the big horse Zvezda on a loose rein, both man and animal moved with a tired step, limbs heavy and heads low. It had been a long day. He carried his jacket slung over his shoulder and a leather saddlebag hooked on to the pommel. In the colourless shaft of moonlight they seemed to drift like ghosts, silver and luminous. For one moment Sofia believed they were figments torn from her dreams. Only the metallic ring of the hooves convinced her otherwise.
His head lifted, eyes astonished. And the smile he gave her roused such a need to touch him that she forced herself to remain seated. If she stood, she might steal the rein from his grasp and slip her own hand in its place.
‘Sofia,’ he said, ‘is something wrong?’ His easy smile slipped into a frown of concern.
Instantly he strode forward. His face was divided by shadows, so that she was uncertain of his thoughts. The way he leaned over her made her sway towards him, the tip of her hair brushing his sleeve.
‘What is it?’ he asked urgently.
‘You’re leaving Tivil.’
He drew himself upright again with a light laugh. ‘Oh, is that all? I thought it was something serious.’
She swayed away from him, silenced by his indifference. He stepped aside and started to unbuckle the horse’s girth. The animal blew out its stomach with a snort of pleasure. Mikhail ran a hand over Zvezda’s thick neck, so that it gleamed in the sheen of moonlight.
‘Spasibo, my friend,’ he said softly and Sofia was jealous of the deep affection in his voice. Without looking round he asked, as though it were unimportant, ‘Did you get my letter?’
‘I gave a letter to Zenia to deliver to you. I knew I wouldn’t be back until late tonight because I had to finish writing a report. Didn’t you receive it, the letter?’ He swung round and gazed intently at her face.
‘No. I came here straight from working in the fields.’
She didn’t know what he meant by that. A bat dipped close to their heads as though listening in on their conversation, before swooping up over the grey outline of the stable roof and disappearing into the darkness. The freedom of its movement suddenly galled Sofia. She felt a spike of anger at Mikhail, who seemed to possess that same freedom, able to travel anywhere, but considered it too inconsequential to mention.
That was when she said, ‘Why didn’t you tell me?’
Now he was looking at her as if expecting a response, but a response to what? She had the feeling she was missing something here, something big. Mikhail opened his mouth to speak, but just then the horse stamped its foot impatiently and instead he gathered the reins in his hand.
‘Come on, my midnight wanderer.’
Sofia didn’t know if he was talking to her or the horse, but was content when together they left the yard and walked into the sweet-scented stable where she lit an oil lamp. Mikhail unsaddled Zvezda and started brushing him down with long soothing strokes. Sofia filled the water bucket and hay net. They worked in companionable silence, except for Mikhail’s low murmurs to the horse, and Sofia enjoyed the ordinariness of working alongside him; it gave her a sense of satisfaction she hadn’t expected. When eventually he blew out the lamp, they retraced their steps into the yard. She was taken by surprise when he stopped by the trough where she had been sitting earlier.
‘You must be cold after waiting so long.’
He took up his jacket and draped it over her thin blouse, his hands lingering on her shoulders. She could smell the scent of him wrapped around her body and it released some of the tension from her skin.
‘Tell me what was in the letter, Mikhail.’
‘I’m not sure that you’ll want to hear this.’
‘It’s about tomorrow.’
Her stomach tightened. ‘You’re going to Leningrad.’ Her voice sounded flat.
‘Yes, I am.’
‘Weren’t you going to say goodbye? Or is that what the letter was for?’
‘If you haven’t yet read my letter, how did you know I was leaving?’
‘Pyotr told me.’
‘Ah yes, Pyotr. The boy is unhappy at being left behind in Tivil.’
She stared at him aghast. His face lay in deep shadow.
‘You’re abandoning your son?’
There was an odd little pause, a kind of blink in time, then Mikhail placed a hand on her arm and shook it hard. The movement shocked her, as did his rough laugh.
‘So you think me a deserter,’ he said.
She had offended him.
‘The boy will survive.’
‘I’m sure he will.’
But will I?
‘The delegations meet for only a few days.’
‘Yes. It’s the summons to report to the Committee of Soviet Production and Distribution. An annual chore that…’ He stopped, removed his hand from her arm and stepped back. One half of his face slid into the moonlight and she could see that his cheek muscle was taut. ‘You thought I was going away for ever,’ he said quietly. ‘Didn’t you?’
‘You thought I was going off permanently to the bright city to enjoy myself without my son and without saying goodbye… to you.’
Sofia ducked her chin to her chest miserably and nodded again. Then the fact that Mikhail was coming back to Tivil in just a few days sank in and got the better of her. She looked up at him with a wide grin.
‘It wasn’t your going away that I minded. It was that I wouldn’t get to ride on Zvezda any more. I’d have to walk all the way to Dagorsk.’
He threw back his head and laughed, and the unfettered joy of it made her blood pulse. A sudden gust of wind played with his hair as if it would laugh with him. Sofia wanted to touch the long line of his throat with her fingers to feel the vibration inside it.
‘Come,’ he said.
He drew her arm through his, heading out of the courtyard and down the slope towards the silent village. Walking with him at night felt secretive and involving, as though the darkness belonged just to them. She breathed deeply, the rich damp odour of the black earth bringing a sense of belonging into the empty corners of her mind. Her fingers rested on his forearm.
‘Shall I tell you a story?’ he asked.
‘If it’s a funny one. I’m in the mood to laugh.’
‘I think this one will amuse you.’
She lengthened her stride to his. On either side, cabbages looked like shaggy grey chickens roosting for the night.
‘Tell me,’ she said.
‘Well, you recall the steep flight of stairs up to my office at the factory?’
He chuckled and she found herself smiling in anticipation.
‘My assistant, Sukov – remember the cheeky bastard who brought us our tea this morning? – he fell down them today. All the way from top to bottom and broke his leg in two places.’
Sofia halted and stared at his delighted smile. ‘What is remotely funny about that?’
Mikhail’s smile widened, but his eyes were dark and serious. ‘He was coming to Leningrad with me in the morning. Now it means there’s a train seat and a travel ticket going spare.’
The river gleamed like polished steel in the moonlight. Sofia waded into it, naked. Even the touch of the chill water on her skin couldn’t cool the heat in her blood.
One week with Mikhail. She was to have one whole week. Just the two of them. It was more than she’d ever dared hope for, much more. Just the thought of it set her heart drumming in her chest and she gazed up at the dazzling array of stars above, as if they’d been put there tonight just for her. She laughed out loud. The happiness wouldn’t stay inside, it just bubbled out into the silent night. She splashed a spray of water up towards the stars and laughed again when she heard a plop in the water where some night creature took fright at her antics.
Sleep had been impossible. She could no more close her eyes than she could close her heart, so she had come down to the river, alone and unseen, and washed away the dust of the fields from her limbs.
Anna, are you looking at this same moon? These same stars? Waiting for me. Oh Anna, I’m coming, I promise. Hold on. I’ll know. By the end of this week together I’ll know if I can ask him to help. Your Vasily. She hesitated, then spoke the words aloud this time so that her ears would have to hear them.
‘Your Vasily. Don’t hate me, Anna. It’s for you. I swear it’s for you.’
She plunged under the surface of the water, a cold black world where it was impossible to tell which way was up and which way was down.
A shadow, among many shadows. The night was full of them: the swaying of branches in the breeze, white drifts of mist rising to swallow the paths, a fox or a vole scampering on its nocturnal run. But still she saw the shadow.
She was dressed and standing on the river bank when the narrow track across the river changed fleetingly from silver to black, then again further along. Instantly she was alert and retreated into the overhanging curtain of a willow tree. From there she watched the shadow and quickly made out that it was a man, and that he was walking away from her. The moonlight painted the back of his head and sketched his long limbs, and for one breathless moment Sofia thought it was Mikhail come to seek her out. But then a wisp of light caught the long back of the ghost-dog at the shadow’s side and she realised it was Aleksei Fomenko with his hound.
Fomenko? What was the Chairman doing prowling the night? From behind the feathery veil of willow leaves she observed them, the way they strode along the wooded track without hesitation. Both man and animal knew the way.
The way to where?
There was just enough breeze to rustle the night. It shuffled the leaves and sighed among the branches, just enough to hide the brush of her skirt on a thorn or the crack of a twig underfoot as she followed them.
The dog worried her. The animal’s ears were sharp, but it seemed intent only on what lay ahead. Sofia stayed a good distance behind them, concentrating hard on the small sounds of their movement to guide her through the forest. They were tracking up over the ridge and her mind raced for an answer to explain Fomenko’s surprising night-time wanderings.
A lover? In the next valley?
It was possible. She’d heard no mention of any woman in his life. The idea of this self-controlled man losing himself to such an extent appealed to her, his desires getting the better of his quotas. That thought made her smile and quicken her pace. Around her the forest grew darker, the trees denser, denying the moon anything more than a trickle of its pale light through the thick canopy of foliage. The path beneath her feet became steeper as they passed from valley to valley and then higher into the mountains, and still the man and dog pushed on. Sofia’s pulse began to quicken. Thoughts flickered in her head. Moths fluttered against her face.
The dog whined as its claws scrabbled up a gulley. The sound of it was so familiar it made the hairs on the back of her neck rise. She became convinced she knew where they were heading.
It was strange to be in the clearing again. So much had changed for her in the last few days, yet here everything seemed the same. The hut still leaned like an old man and the boughs of the fallen tree still lay white as dead bones in the moonlight, but Sofia didn’t venture among them. Instead she sheltered in the undergrowth, tight against a tree trunk, and watched a flame flare into life in the small window of the hut after Fomenko had entered with the dog.
Was he meeting someone?
That time when she hid down by the stream and came back to find the two men in the hut and the horse outside, she was sure now that it had been Fomenko and that the dog had been Hope. But this time there was no other man. This time he was on his own, alone and secretive. Secrets always meant weakness. Know your enemy. Know his weakness. She listened to the sounds of the night, eyes fixed on the yellow rectangle of the window, but a sudden snort right behind her made her leap from her position. Her blood raced. She swung round but could make out nothing among the black shapes of the forest.
A person? A moose? Even a bear?
Damn it, she wasn’t waiting to be clawed to death. Ducking low, she crept out into the clearing, aware that she was now visible to watchful eyes. She moved silently to the window and with caution peered in at one corner, but she needn’t have worried. Aleksei Fomenko was kneeling on the dusty floor, totally engrossed. His long back in the familiar work shirt was angled towards her, but she could just see that he was bent over a hole in the flooring. A hole? She hadn’t noticed one when she slept here. It was explained by the sight of two wooden planks lying to one side, the floorboards, and next to them a candle, its flame casting uncertain light round the room. Sofia eased further along the window frame and over his shoulder she caught a glimpse of what was holding his attention so seriously. A khaki-green square object. It took her a moment to recognise it for what it was
A two-way radio, all dials and pointers and knobs. A sudden burst of static took her by surprise and she ducked down below the sill, her breath raw in her throat. A secret radio. Why did the Chairman need a secret radio?
As she crouched low to the earth, her mind struggled to find an explanation. Was it to connect him directly to OGPU, to give him a direct line to the secret police where he could betray the secrets of his kolkhozniki in private? But what was wrong with the office telephone? Did this radio bypass the normal channels and take him straight to the man at the top? She shook her head. No, she told herself, don’t get carried away. Probably just a secret lover crooning sweet-talk in his ear. She decided to risk another glimpse and slid up slowly till her eyes were again on a level with the cobwebbed glass. This time she took in more of what was in front of her: the stillness of Fomenko’s powerful shoulders, the earphones on his head, the mouthpiece he was murmuring into, the notebook open at his side and covered with lines of dense writing.
Why on earth would he need notes for a lover?
With a small sense of shock she became aware of the dog. It was stretched out on the floor, licking dirt from one paw with long sweeps of its tongue, but abruptly it stopped. Its head lifted, eyes and ears alert. It gazed at the closed door and, making no sound, it raised its lips to show its teeth in a silent snarl. Sofia didn’t know what its quick ears had picked up but she wasn’t going to hang around to find out. She pushed herself away from the hut and raced away back down the track to Tivil.