Back then, we woke up when ever we pleased. No rooster calls. No chorus of cowbells.
Misha got up before me to take care of Mama, easing her gaunt frame from her bed to a bare wooden stool near the stove. It was summer, but she still felt cold. He brushed her ash-colored hair that continued to fall out in matted knots. Mama wore a nightgown smeared with dirt and collected grime of the past several months, mostly spent on her knees in what was the garden, searching for anything to eat. Around the house, Misha only wore his soiled underpants and a shirt missing the bottom three buttons. Mostly I wore an oversized shirt Papa left behind on his trip to Sevastopol. He didn’t come back.
“Its okay, Mama. Zhenya and I are going to find something big today,” Misha whispered to Mama day after day. A hardened fourteen year old, Misha was the kind the Komsomol admired: good-looking, strong and perpetually optimistic. Like everyone else in our oblast, his body had thinned out, ribs sticking out like rows of wanted crops. Blonde and blue-eyed, he always drew compliments everywhere we went.
“Don’t worry. We’ll find something really good today.”
We never did. Most days we came up with only handfuls of millet and some bones with traces of meat or marrow. He still promised. One day, Misha woke me up before the sun had come up. He put a thin, white index finger to his lips. My clothes were at the foot of the bed Misha and I shared, already set out and folded, still stained. I stood up and quietly dressed as Misha paced around the room like a dog. Our bedroom was small, only furnished with a small dresser and a chair missing one of its legs. The window no longer held any glass, so we covered it with an old feed bag.
“Hurry up, Zhenya. We need to go.”
I yanked up my underpants and trousers that were two sizes too big and tied the rope I used as a belt.
“Where’s my shirt?” I whispered. Misha surveyed the room and shrugged. There weren’t too many places to look and if it wasn’t in the bedroom, it was gone. Probably stolen. We shuffled out of the bedroom and passed by Mama’s room. She was sleeping, but her breath sounded wet and labored as if she were gargling. On church-mouse steps we got to the stove near the kitchen. Rusty pots and dull knives were scattered around the area. The other casualties. Misha took one large knife and put it in the waistband of his brown trousers.
“Just in case.”
“In case of what?”
“We might need it. Protection. Maybe we’ll find something really good today. You never know,” he said as he walked to the front door. With its missing slats, the door looked like a begger’s mouth. The sun slowly ascended over the hill, creeping up the sky like a slug, light passing through abandoned farm equipment and illuminating the landscape full of nothing. Where the wheat was now only black dirt. Rotting dogs, cats and cattle scattered like an unfinished chess game. Misha simply coughed.
“What are you looking at? We have to go!”
“Stop saying that,” he said trotting up the dirt road away from our house. “Why?”
“You don’t have to be sorry. God willing, everything will go back to normal. Don’t dwell on it.” Misha continued walking and I ran to catch up with him. He was so much bigger than me, taking long and deliberate strides while I galloped behind, clinging to him like the smell of cigarette smoke. We continued in silence, hitting the fork in the road that would bring us into the village or to Taras Pond. Both desolate options. The village was all but a shell of what it once was and the pond barren of fish or plants. Even though summer was here, the trees were stripped of leaves. Boney.
Misha kicked a stone down the dirt road, sighing. A slight breeze carried a cloud of dirt and yellowed grass across the path.
“I know. Me too,” Misha said.
“Do you believe in God?” I asked. He stopped walking and turned to face me. His eyes were dull and unexpressive. It was as if I were looking into the back of his head.
“Do I believe in God or should I believe in God? At the Komsomol, I was taught never to believe in something as foolish and imaginary as an all-powerful being who is able to control everything, but that man controls his own destiny. I guess I would have to believe that because,” he said gesturing to empty fields, “look at what man has done here. God gave Job trials. God was also merciful. Not man.”
The sun was in full blaze when we got to the pond. The water looked murky, full of decaying moss and the skeletons of long-dead fish. I crouched on the bank and tried to skip stones, watching as each and every pebble I threw puttered across the surface of the water. We used to come down here all the time and play, back when people came here to bathe or to have a small picnic.
Misha stood up and started to take off his shirt, his haggard frame coming into view. He undid his trousers and let them fall to the earth.
“I need to wash these clothes. They smell.”
“That water doesn’t look like it will clean them that well.”
“It’s better than nothing. You should wash your trousers.”
I looked down and noticed the material looked hardly visible under the stains. I slowly took them off, watching as Misha stood by the bank with his clothes in one hand and that knife in the other. He was once as fit and muscular as any other boy in the village. Nude, his skin looked like parchment wrapped around bone, something the butcher gave to Mama all months prior. My belly had ballooned out a bit in the past couple of months. Misha trotted into the water with a thin smile on his face. 1 grinned too, remembering different times.
When I joined Misha in the soup-like water, he swam a bit closer to me and started to wash my back. Our little tradition: we took baths and since I was the younger brother, he’d make sure my back and neck were both clean. We used to stay in the metal tub until our fingers were wrinkled. He’d show them to me and pucker his face, pretending to be Maria Ivanovna, the bent-over schoolteacher. Mama would then scold us for staying in the tub too long. This time the sensation on my back felt strange. Instead of soft brushes from healthy fingers, the touch felt grating like something from a toolbox. I winced and made a little sound in the back of my throat. He stopped, both of us turning to stone. Flies zigzagged around our slick shoulders. Misha’s arms fell over my chest and his forehead fell onto my collarbone. I didn’t turn around, trying to maintain composure. He sniffed loudly, deafening in the silence. He yanked his head off me and started toward his pile of clothes. 1 stood in the pond with my head down, a Patriarch in silent prayer.
Misha washed his clothes the best he could, scraping and slapping them with the knife. I sat on the bank letting the sun dry me. Several minutes later, Misha got out of the pond and tossed me my trousers.
“I did the best I could.”
“Thank you. You didn’t have to.”
“It was the least I could do,” he said, breaking eye contact with me. I brought the trousers to my face and found them to be substantially cleaner.
“Where are we going to look for food?” T asked while slipping on my trousers. Misha looked up and pointed to the other side of the pond. It was a wooded area, full of skeletal trees, its leaves picked clean in the spring. I never went there alone.
“That place is scary,” I whined. Misha smiled.
“There are a lot of scary things, but that isn’t one of them.”
“But you always told me about the boars and the…”
“Don’t worry. If there are any left, they’ll be weak and easy to kill.” Now fully dressed, Misha rubbed his eyes with his palms and started down the path towards the forest. I sulked, but followed. As we made the right at the fork in the road, Misha stuck out his arm to block me.
“What?” I asked. He didn’t answer. I scanned the path and saw nothing, just the grass on either side swaying slightly in the breeze. Poking my head over Misha’s arm, I saw it. Off to the side of the path some meters ahead appeared to be a dead animal. The grass was taller around this area, obscuring the majority of the animal’s body.
“What is it?”
“1 don’t know,” he responded. He took out his knife and began to approach it. Even though Misha could have handled anything thrown his way, 1 didn’t take my eyes off of the animal. I was eager to help. As we drew nearer, the picture started to become clearer. What looked like mud stains became a filthy dress. What looked like fur became hair. Soon, we stood over a dead body. 1 clutched Misha’s left hand and tried not to scream. He told me that he had seen many dead bodies at funerals, but he never allowed me to go see them myself no matter how much I begged. Confronted with one, I wretched and squirmed. A thin stream of bile launched out of my mouth.
“Zhenya, stand back,” Misha ordered as he used his foot to push the corpse on its back. The body was a young woman’s, anywhere from seventeen to twenty-five. During these times, it was nearly impossible to place an exact age on anyone. She had wispy brown hair the color of the surrounding dirt and a thin, upturned nose. Her face was slightly sunken, but not nearly as much as some of the still-living townspeople. From the looks of it, her death wasn’t painful. No agonized face like the ones we had seen. A lone gunshot wound at the side of her head told us her story. Executions were commonplace. She looked at peace with the apparent verdict.
Misha turned to me, frowning.
“Zhenya, listen to me…” He started. As he explained, my eyes widened and tears began to form. He dried the tears that poured down my face with the back of his hand. With a kiss to my forehead, Misha spun around and knelt down next to the body. After a few attempts to take her dress off, he stood up and took out the knife. Misha took the knife to the fabric in between the woman’s breasts and made a small cut. Using both hands, he tore the dress apart, leaving her naked. Misha wasn’t fazed by her breasts or the triangle of pubic hair; he simply wiped his brow with his wrist and coughed. The knife was now aimed right at her hip joint.
“Forgive me,” he said. I turned away as I heard the sound of steel against bone. Misha was conducting an obscene symphony, each grunt accentuated by tendons snapping and cartilage popping like the bodies of beetles under a foot. Long whirring sounds like a saw on a tree acted as a scherzo before slowly melting back into the grotesque refrain. Misha stopped and tossed the leg aside. Small pools of blood seeped out of the wounds and met at his bent knee. 1 panicked and leapt onto the grass. Misha began work on the other leg, hacking and slicing through fat, tendons and bone. It was sickening.
After severing the legs, he wiped the blade on the grass and stood up, panting. Misha then sat on the woman’s torso and grabbed her right arm. The blade sank in right above the armpit and the noises started all over again. Each move of the knife made her breasts bob from side to side like lillypads in a storm. Misha paid no attention, continuing to work the arm out of its socket. When the arm proved too stubborn, he got on his feet and pulled the arm out of the body like a tree root. The arm snapped out and he tossed it with the legs near the woman’s head. I looked at Misha, watching him sweat and toil over this body. By this time, he wallowed in chunky blood and bone splinters. He wasn’t finished.
With the dead woman’s eyes closed shut, it still looked like she was sleeping despite the fact that three of her limbs were placed beside her like stacked wood while Misha worked on the last limb. I sat down on the grass and put my head in my hands, not wanting to witness the grand finale. The symphony continued playing while I hummed a folk song. I heard a dull thud of the last limb, thankful that it was over. I poked my head up and saw that he was about to start flaying her torso.
“Stop it! Stop it!” I screamed as I ran towards Misha. He looked up, startled. I pitched myself into bloodstained arms. “We have enough! Just stop it!” The sun-warmed blood pressed against my nose and cheeks, making me cry harder. He guided me onto my feet and tried clean off my face and chest.
“Okay. I’ll be back.” Misha carried the rest of the woman to a small bush down the path while I just gazed at the limbs. One of the hands had two fingers folded into the palm while the index and middle fingers stuck out nearly straight. I fidgeted with my hair, coating myself with more blood. Misha returned, resembling a soldier home from the battlefield.
“You take the arms and I’ll take the legs. Let’s go home.”
I hesitated until Misha picked up the legs and started to make the walk back towards home. I picked up the arms and placed them across my forearms, the way I had carried dogs or cats. The skin felt strange as if I were touching the skin of a plucked chicken. I jogged to catch up with Misha. Once back at his side, he glanced at me and let out a long breath.
“I’m sorry. You shouldn’t have seen that.”
“Don’t be,” I said. We picked up our pace and we made it back home when the sun was starting its fall over the hills, but still maddeningly high enough to cast a menacing shadow: two boys with abnormal limb counts. Misha opened the door to the house and let me go in first. Mama was sitting right by the stove, eyes opened and staring directly at me. I was paralyzed, but Misha spoke for both of us.
“Look, Mama,” he said. Without a word, Mama stood up and shuffled to the kitchen area and got out a giant pot. By the stove, a tub of murky water with some millet seeds, edible grasses and roots added by Mama for flavor. She took an arm from me and laid it on the counter, withdrawing a paring knife from her apron’s pocket. Delicately, she diced the fingers on the hand and fed the pieces into the pot. Once she had finished with one hand, she took the other arm and repeated the process. Misha helped Mama put the pot onto the stove. Mama looked at the pot and smiled. She gestured for us to come close and we moved towards her stool. With the knife at one of the fingerless palms, she dragged the blade to the top of the forearm and picked the skin up, sniffing it before tossing it in. The exposed muscle had a fine layer of coagulated blood resting on top like a lusterless glaze. Arm in lap, she said, “You found something big today.”