Chapter 4: Family Photo
The thought of seeing Stitches in a few days gave Roza some hope to cling to as the car weaved through a city turned over to war. The streets were inundated with military vehicles. At the direction of Red Army traffic wardens, mostly women, the black Packard turned awkwardly around X-shaped steel tank traps. Waves of ghostly human beings streamed along the snowy footpaths, their grey faces masks of grim determination. Even after the victory at Stalingrad, Moscow was girding for German attack. Signs indicating bomb shelters and enforcing nightly blackouts showed how near the danger still lay.
It was not the city Roza had expected to return to; there was little sense of home here, the place where she’d grown up. She had been more welcome in the Air Force barracks at Monino, where she’d billeted east of the city. With a lack of accommodations for women, they’d made her sleep in a coatroom, but at least she still felt connected to the Air Force and her comrades at the front.
“Don’t be so glum.” Dmitriev nudged her shoulder. “I’ve arranged a little surprise, just for you.”
Dmitriev’s strained levity made her nervous. There was no surprise he could offer that she was interested in.
The car halted before the entrance to the recently opened ZiS metro station, named for the nearby massive automobile factory now churning out all sorts of war material. After they exited the car, Dmitriev guided her past crowds filing down the stairs. Roughly shoving a woman aside to speak with a ticket collector, he flashed a letter, and a guard was summoned to escort them farther into the depths of the station. Queuing commuters who wore the ubiquitous mask of defiance against the invaders turned nasty glares on Roza. In response, she puffed out her chest, displaying more fully the Order of the Red Banner. She had earned this privilege.
The large pink marble-clad concourse of the station was cluttered with supplies for use in air raids. Folded metal cots, blankets, and large canisters of water had been piled up between the pillars, narrowing the already congested hall. War-themed mosaics adorned the walls. Dmitriev greeted a cluster of officials emerging from a side door.
Roza gasped to see who was with them, alarm flooding her mind. No, not her.
“Ah, my little surprise,” Dmitriev trumpeted.
The plump middle-aged woman with fading blonde hair smiled at Roza. She held her arms out, though she maintained a haughty demeanour. Roza only just managed to force a smile.
“I arranged for your mother to be relieved from her shift,” continued Dmitriev. “Thank you for obliging, Yelena Borisovna. And Kulik, your things are being transported to her apartment. You’re going home.”
Roza’s heart skipped a beat and her body twisted into knots as she struggled to show the happy face Dmitriev wanted.
“Hello,” Roza said. “Mother.” She’d almost messed up and called her Aunt Yelena. She exchanged a quick double kiss with her, wary of Dmitriev scrutinizing their relationship. All this time away from Moscow had dulled the constant fear of her true parentage being discovered. Of some careless slip letting the world know that she was really the daughter of an “enemy of the people.”
Dmitriev crossed his arms, frowning. A bright flash startled Roza and she reflexively tensed and scanned her surroundings for threats. It was only a photographer accompanying the officials.
“It’s not like this is for Pravda. It’s for The Woman Worker,” Dmitriev said. “They want images of a strong family.”
The reporter accompanying the photographer clasped her hands in contemplation. She had a narrow face and pointed nose, and when she tilted her head Roza thought of a mouse sniffing at cheese.
She moved Roza and Yelena around like store mannequins. “You should be embracing each other. Both arms,” she barked. “No, not that way. Over here. Let’s try this instead.”
Roza felt the cold coming from her aunt with each change of position, and the feeling was mutual. After the series of poses, the reporter’s lips curled.
Roza noticed Dmitriev’s eye twitching in exasperation. She kept a straight face but laughed inside. If she couldn’t get what she wanted, then he couldn’t either.
Dmitriev cleared his throat. “I’ve seen this before. Sometimes the reunion of families under wartime conditions can be difficult. Kulik, perhaps you should spend a night at home with your mother first. Warm up to each other.”
The reporter nodded. “I can work with that. We just need to show the transformation after you get home.”
Dmitriev waved the magazine crew away, put his hands on his hips, and approached Roza and Yelena. “We’ll do a much better job tomorrow, won’t we?”
“The struggle continues, Comrade Colonel,” Roza quipped.
Dmitriev sent them with his driver to Yelena’s apartment, which was nearby. He admonished Roza to get a makeover from his secretary later. After arriving at a four-storey housing block, the driver dumped Roza’s suitcase on the sidewalk and left the two women without a word. They trudged up the stairs in silence. Roza lagged behind the other woman, carrying her suitcase, dragging out her steps.
It had been a year and a half since she’d had to show daughterly affection toward the woman. She was out of practice and not in the mood to try harder. When the State had turned against Roza’s father, Roza, her little brother, and her mother were left friendless and homeless in Moscow. Yelena was only too eager to remind everyone she wasn’t a blood relation; Roza’s mother was the sister of Yelena’s husband. Only later, when it proved useful, did Yelena take Roza and her brother in, pretending to be their mother.
On reaching the top landing, her steps still echoing in the drafty stairwell, Roza felt a wave of trepidation wash over her. “Does Zhora know I’m here?”
Yelena shrugged, then moved to open her front door. Roza’s heart pounded at the thought of seeing her little brother, but as the door swung wide the other woman spat, “He likes to stay overnight at the ZiS plant.”
Roza relaxed involuntarily, forced to admit to herself that she was relieved. “The ZiS plant?”
“The boy’s thrown himself into the war effort.”
In the foyer, Roza’s eyes darted around the familiar layout of the apartment, roomy by Moscow standards. “I’m sure you appreciate the extra money but he should be in school.”
“Not so loud,” Yelena snapped. From the kitchen and dining area that opened out from the foyer, Roza noticed an older couple in dusty, dark clothes watching her curiously. “The schools shut down when the Fascists were on the doorstep, so he found work at the factory. He wouldn’t go back when they reopened. Maybe you should have done the same, but instead you pranced off on your adventure with the aeroclub.”
She spoke as if Roza’s evacuation from Moscow had been a picnic, as if all her experiences at Stalingrad counted for nothing. Perhaps Yelena hadn’t bothered keeping up, hadn’t read any of Roza’s letters, which she was supposed to have relayed to Zhora, but it was doubtful she’d passed them on.
Without acknowledging the couple, Yelena motioned toward a long bench beside the stove. “You can sleep there.”
Roza put down her suitcase and glanced at the door to the old room she’d shared with her little brother.
Yelena leaned in close. “If you want to, you can ask to sleep on the floor in the Mandelbaums’ room. Just keep an eye on your things.” She gave a knowing glance that dripped with disdain, which Roza did her best not to acknowledge. “Lord knows they’ve taken up all the available space in here,” she said a little louder.
Roza smiled weakly at the Mandelbaums. Though they weren’t much older than Yelena, their skin was splotchy and withered. Even before she’d left Moscow, refugees had been trickling in to the apartment block, to be placed in the few homes that had extra space. She’d envisioned that the apartment would be the same, though with Yelena’s husband in the army and Zhora at the factory, it had become a prime candidate for shared housing.
She tried to suppress her surprise at the newcomers. “Where are you from?”
After a long pause, the man replied, “Vitebsk.” With the name Mandelbaum, they were lucky to be alive. The town was in Nazi territory, and stories had trickled out of a terrible massacre of its Jewish population.
“Settle yourself in,” said Yelena. “What’s another body in here? Fine thanks for my husband putting his life on the line.”
“Uncle Kolya delivers military mail,” Roza snapped. “Anyway, if this is too cozy for you, why not move to Vitebsk? I’m sure the Mandelbaums will trade you their home. The Nazis have lots of space in their lands.”
Yelena put a hand on her heart, playing up being offended.
Roza picked up her suitcase. “Well, you needn’t worry about one more body. I’m going to stay with my mother.”
This ends the four chapter preview of Raven’s Shadow. If you like what you see and would be interested in obtaining and reviewing an Advance Reading Copy, please contact the author.