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.