Sofia left Pyotr outside the kolkhoz office. She hurried past the pond where two boys were making a lot of noise trying to capture a duck, and up to Rafik’s izba. She burst into the cottage, calling his name.
No answer, the place was empty. Where was he? She had questions to ask and time was trickling through her fingers too fast.
Sofia spun round. Outside on the step stood Elizaveta Lishnikova, the schoolteacher, and in her hand she carried a book. Her grey hair was pinned up tidily in a pleat at the back of her head and her grey narrow-waisted dress was as immaculate as ever, but there was something about her that made Sofia’s heart miss a beat. It was in the crispness of her manner, in the shine of her eyes, a bright expectation. She knew something that Sofia did not.
‘Comrade Lishnikova, I intended to come and speak to you today.’
‘Well, I’ve saved you the trouble.’ The woman held out the book. ‘Here, I’ve brought you a gift.’
Sofia accepted it, surprised. It was a good quality copy of Dostoyevksy’s The Idiot.
‘Thank you, comrade.’
‘I expect you’ve read it.’
‘Yes I have, but I will enjoy reading it again.’ She thumbed through the soft pages thoughtfully. ‘Spasibo. But why should you bring me a gift?’
The long face with its fine bones seemed to shift slightly. ‘I thought you might need it. Something to calm you before tonight.’
‘Tonight? What’s happening tonight?’
‘Ah,’ Elizaveta hesitated, then smiled politely. ‘I see, you don’t know yet. Excuse my mistake.’ She turned to leave.
‘Comrade,’ Sofia said sharply, ‘I was coming to thank you for the offer of a job at the school.’
The teacher raised her elegant eyebrows expectantly.
‘I would like to accept,’ Sofia continued.
‘Indeed? That would be a help to me but Rafik tells me you will soon be gone.’
‘Why do you say that?’
‘Ah, comrade, you must ask Rafik himself. But let me tell you this, that man knows more than you and I put together.’ She laughed, a clear low-pitched sound that belonged to a younger woman. She started to move away.
‘Tell me,’ Sofia called out after her, ‘what happened to your previous assistant teacher?’
Elizaveta Lishnikova froze for no more than a second, but Sofia spotted it.
‘He left,’ the older woman said.
‘Yes.’ Sofia thought she was going to finish it there, but she continued stiffly, ‘He spoke out of turn one day and a pupil reported him.’ She shrugged. ‘It happens.’
‘Was it Yuri? The pupil who reported him?’ Mikhail had told her on the train about Pyotr’s friend.
Elizaveta said nothing but she sighed, and a layer of her brightness faded. Without another word, she walked away.
Sofia tried to make sense of it. The schoolteacher’s message had unnerved her. Tonight? What did she mean? Why did her mind need to be calmed? What was going to happen tonight?
Suddenly she was frightened. She felt the fear cold and hard in a tight ball just under her heart and she rubbed a hand there to release it.
Anna, oh Anna. I’m not strong enough. I can’t do this.
She sat down in Rafik’s maroon chair, dropped her head in her hands. All the misery and suffering of the last four months when she’d battled halfway across Russia, footstep by footstep, crushed her so that she could barely breathe. She remained like that for a long time, till her fingers grew stiff in her hair, and the whole time she thought hard. About Mikhail. About Anna. About what she was about to lose. And at last, when the pain became manageable once more, she rose and walked over to Rafik’s carved wooden chest against the wall, the one he had drawn her shoes from, the one she’d never opened. The lid was carved with serpents. She lifted it.
She didn’t know what she’d expected but it certainly wasn’t what stared up at her.
Two bright black eyes and fur whiter than snow, sparkling like ice. She touched it. It was the complete pelt of an Arctic fox, beautifully tanned to such perfect suppleness it was hard to believe the animal wasn’t still alive. She stroked the soft fur and gently lifted it out. Underneath lay a folded pile of white sheets, and beside all this whiteness a bundle in the corner sang out. It was a bright red piece of material.
She snatched it up, almost expecting to find blood on her hands from the scarlet fibres, and could feel something weighty inside. Cautiously she unwrapped it. A single pebble tumbled on to her lap and she felt disappointed. She’d expected something… more revealing, but she picked it up and examined it anyway. The pebble was bone-white with silvery veins running through it, but otherwise quite ordinary. What on earth did Rafik use it for? It was absurd but the more she stared at the stone, the less she wanted to relinquish it back to the chest. It felt oddly comforting in the palm of her hand, so that she lifted it to her cheek, running its milky surface along her skin.
Her mind grew calm and she breathed more easily. Whatever was going on here, the fear and weakness of a few moments ago had drained away. It was strange. Maybe Rafik had handled this stone so often that he’d left a small piece of himself in its silvery veins. Was it Rafik’s strong spirit that was steadying her, or was it something rising to the surface from within herself? She was uncertain.
With a shake of her head she bundled the pebble inside the red cloth again and returned it to its position in the chest. She needed to find Rafik but, as she stepped out of the house, she heard the sound of hooves and glanced up to see Chairman Fomenko astride a long-boned black horse heading down towards the kolkhoz office. He reined the animal to a halt in front of her.
‘Good day, Comrade Morozova.’
Sofia gave him a cold hard stare. This man was the young boy soldier who had killed Anna’s father in cold blood sixteen years ago and also shot Svetlana, Mikhail’s mother. She wondered for the thousandth time whether Mikhail was aware of the truth and whether she should tell him.
‘You haven’t yet attended my office, as I requested.’
‘I was in Dagorsk today.’
‘Did you find out what has become of Comrade Pashin?’ His broad shoulders seemed to block out the morose charcoal sky.
He studied her for a moment in silence. The skin around his eyes creased with a concern that surprised her. ‘Tomorrow morning then. Eight o’clock at my office.’
‘Comrade Morozova,’ he said in a gentler tone, ‘may I suggest that you eat something?’
‘What do you have in mind?’ she asked. ‘Grain?’
Instead of cursing her as she expected, he laughed. The sound of it made her want to claw his tongue out.
Some instinct for danger made her skirt round the back of the village. The stables seemed the most likely place for the gypsy to be, but instead of taking the direct track up between the cabbage fields, she kept to the forest edge and climbed the slope of the ridge, breathing in the sweet fresh scent of pine. It meant she came at the stables from the back and from above. She looked down at the long wooden buildings but could spot nothing that shouldn’t be there. The courtyard was empty except for a tangle of farm ironwork in a huddle in one corner and the trough in its centre.
The solitary village street lay below, sleepy except for a hound belling somewhere and the urchins shrieking with delight in the murky pond. In the distance figures littered the fields like scarecrows with hoes in hand, while others hunched on their knees, laboriously weeding the potato ridges. Nothing strange, nothing out of place.
So why the taste of fear in her mouth?
And then she heard it, faint but unmistakable, the rhythmic cadence of a religious chant. It drifted from the wall of the stable like incense, charging the air. It was a rich golden sound that brought back her father and her childhood in a rush, but the priest and his secret flock were deluding themselves if they thought their God could combat the might of Communism. She looked around quickly. A sentry, surely the priest must have set a sentry. She couldn’t see one at first but, by moving off to her left so that she could see the approach through the cabbage fields, she spotted him. There at the head of the track stood the young boy with the scabs and the broom, but he wasn’t sweeping this time. He was arguing, arms flailing in all directions. Uniforms swarmed over him like wasps on a honey jar, poking him in the ribs, cuffing his ears.
Sofia ran. She hurtled down the slope to the back of the stables and hammered her fists on the dusty planks. Instantly the chanting ceased. She raced to a high narrow vent in the wooden wall and leapt up to it, scrabbling through the tiny gap, nimble as a squirrel. She dropped inside, blinked in the gloom and found herself in some kind of harness room, surrounded by leather and brass. She heard movement and rushed out into the long section where the stalls were situated, but there was no sign of anyone. Just a horse’s heavy nose that turned in her direction, bristling with curiosity and soft sighs. The smell of incense was strong.
‘Priest,’ she called softly.
From her right came a sound she recognised, the faint tinkle of a brass censer. The priest was standing alone in front of what looked like a solid wall of old timbers, but his appearance bore no resemblance to the way she’d seen him last. He was clothed in full Russian Orthodox regalia, a long black cassock that enveloped him with a stillness that filled the small space. Around his neck lay an embroidered stole and, on his head, a tall black hat transformed his shaggy red hair into a golden halo. But it was his eyes that had changed most. The wildness had vanished and in its place was a cool green sea of peace. The eyes studied Sofia with calm authority.
‘God be with you, child.’ He made the sign of the cross.
‘Quick,’ she urged. ‘Bistro. The soldiers are here at the front.’
He knew she could be laying a trap for him. His green eyes probed hers and something in them must have satisfied him because he pushed against one of the planks of timber. Silently, on well oiled hinges, it swung open all the way to the roof beams, leaving a tall slender gap. Sofia put her head round it. A room lay behind it, long and thin, crammed with people, scented with candles and incense and the spice of prayer. More than twenty faces were turned to her, old men with grey beards and tired eyes, old women wearing black headscarves and crosses at their necks. A large black bible lay open on a lectern.
‘Bistro. Quickly, out,’ Sofia whispered. ‘Soldiers.’
A gasp of panic and then they poured out through the gap, squeezing their fleshless bodies through little more than a hand’s breadth.
‘They’ll kill us.’
‘God be merciful.’
‘Beloved Mother of Christ, blessed Virgin, hear our prayers.’
‘This way,’ Priest Logvinov said.
He led his flock into one of the stalls, his threadbare cassock trailing over the straw and picking up stalks. One woman sobbed quietly into her handkerchief. He bent down and flipped a wooden latch which instantly released the end plank, so that it sprang open. Outside lay the rocky slope up to the forest. Sofia had to admit he was better prepared than she expected.
‘Go, my children.’
Each villager stopped to kiss the ring on the priest’s hand, ‘Thank you, Father,’ but every second of delay caused Sofia agony.
‘Faster,’ she urged. ‘Bistreye! ’
A clatter of boots sounded in the courtyard at the front and the boy lookout squealed as though struck. Sofia fought the overwhelming desire to flee up that inviting slope to the cool refuge of the trees.
‘Priest,’ she said, ‘I’ll try to delay them. Get out of those clothes and if you ever want to say another prayer again, hide that bible.’ She snatched the ceremonial hat from his head and thrust it into his hands. ‘Be quick.’
‘God will protect us, my child,’ Priest Logvinov murmured.
‘My tongue will do a better job of it,’ Sofia snapped back. She turned and raced through the stables to face the uniforms in the yard.