By Zeeva Bukai
Berta killed the man with a rock she found behind barracks C. Shaped like a potato, it fit in the palm of her hand. She could not remember how many times she had hit him, only that he fell without making a sound. Her nine-year-old stood with her face to the wall. He’d ripped the child’s skirt and her woolen stockings were torn and bunched at the ankles. She wore no coat; the afternoon wind bit to the bone. A light dusting of snow fell. Berta wrapped her jacket around the girl’s shoulders. Just that morning, the child had picked the last of the summer flowers growing behind the barracks, the blue petals in a heap, wilted and crushed.
They’d been in Kolyma two weeks, the taste of home still in their mouths. Here it was September and the ground was already hard, the permafrost beneath working its way up and the days getting shorter. Morning frost thick on the windows. Summer in the East was the length of an exhalation.
“Come,” she said.
But the girl wouldn’t budge. Berta was afraid to touch her, afraid she’d scream again and alert the guards in the watchtower with their kalashnikovs hanging from their shoulders. She’d heard they had no bullets, all the ammunition sent to the front lines, along with the prisoners. Her husband one of them. Gone. The guards didn’t need to shoot. There was nowhere to run. Beyond the barbed wire fence was the spruce forest, and beyond that, the tundra. Their one piece of good fortune: the camp was near empty. The zeks were still at work in the mines. In Kolyma, you either mined tungsten or tin, or you chopped down the spruce. She was lucky. She worked in the laundry where a fire always burned under the cauldrons.
A shallow puddle formed around the man’s head. She got down on her knees and began to dig, using her hands, scraping as much dirt as she could with her fingers. They were bloody in minutes, but she didn’t dare stop. The sharp ring of metal on rock brought her to a halt. Her daughter was there with a shovel. By the time the hole was big enough, snow fell like nettles. Berta rolled the man in, bending his body in half; he seemed asleep inside a womb.
“Don’t look,” she told her daughter, and waited for the child to turn away. Berta took a nose plier that she used for mending grommets and yanked hard to remove the gold from his teeth. She’d sell it on the black market, or parley it for food and blankets. She and the girl made quick work of filling the hole. If they were lucky, no one would find him until next summer when the ground thawed. Maybe by the then the war would end, and they would be home.
“Let’s go.” She pulled the child into her arms. Berta felt her shudder. If anyone asked, she’d say the girl was sick. In the barrack, they watched snow collect in the corners of the windowpane. A grey dusk fell, obliterating the barracks, the barbed wire fence, the forest of spruce pines. The snow outside would change the color of their new world, six inches, seven inches still beating down, but the white could not change all the things it covered.
Love this so much
Thank you for your comment. I’m so glad you liked the story.
If you enjoyed writing this you may want to read J M Coetzee. A Nobel prize winner in literature in 2003, particularly Waiting for the Barbarians. It has the same pathos and quality of writing. All in all wecould use a little less darkness in all our lives.
Sorry I didn’t respond sooner. Thank you for your recommendation. I look forward to reading it.
This is a powerful story and the realism made me shiver. Excellent writing, Zeeva Bukai. I could not tear my eyes away.
Thank you so much for your feedback. Sorry my response is so late.
Wonderful. Moving and taut and I hope to read more of your work in future.
Thank you so much for your response. So sorry my response is so late.
Zeeva, what a masterful jewel you have wrought.
Thank you so much for your feedback. I’m so glad you liked the story. I’m sorry I’m so late responding.
A wonderful, moving story. Great attention to detail, which made it real — and more sad.
Thank you so much for your feedback. I’m so glad you liked the story. Sorry for the late reply.
Great stuff. Refreshing to see a real story here.
Thank you so much for your feedback. I’m so glad you liked the story.
Powerful and haunting. Well done!
Thank you for your feedback. I’m so glad you liked the story.
The starkness of the writing matched the starkness of the story. Stark and haunting. A very different kind of story for you, Zeeva. Your writing self is like a rose opening to the sun to reveal many layered petals. Loved this.
Thank you so much, Linda. Your comment means a lot to me.
Haunting and harrowing. Very skillfully done. I shuddered with the child.
Thank you, Naomi. Your comments mean so much to me.