This story was inspired by the book The Bronze Horseman by Paullina Simons. It is the first in a trilogy and at 664 pages what I would call a weighty tome! The book resonated so much with me I felt compelled to write this piece, my first short story for The 12 Short Stories Challenge 2019.
Miriam found a sled in the snow. It was hard to tell its original colour – most of the paint had peeled off, leaving patches of blue, pink, yellow. In any other circumstance, she would think about sanding it back, giving it a fresh coat of paint. But today she was just looking for something to transport Jakub’s body to the cemetery.
The council workers came to help Miriam and her sister Stella get Jakub down the steep stairs of their apartment. She didn’t know that a 12-year-old boy could be so heavy. Or maybe it was that Miriam herself felt so weak.
Jakub fit perfectly on the sled. Miriam was pleased.
She and Stella hauled him to the cemetery gates four blocks away, getting a slow rhythm up as their breath emitted steam in the frosty morning. There’d been no room for more bodies on the council truck. They gently placed him against what was left of the wooden fence; people had been using it for firewood.
The sisters stood together looking down at Jakub’s body; he appeared even smaller now that he was out in the open. There they left him in his ‘shroud’ – their last sheet, sewn together to form a kind of cotton envelope. Miriam tried not to think about what would happen when the Spring thaw came – the ground softening, the frozen bodies too, the snow melting.
They walked home gloved hand in gloved hand, not a word between them, Miriam pulling the sled behind her with her free arm. It was eerily quiet, between air raids, the snow crunching underfoot the only audible sound. On another day Miriam would have enjoyed the sun on her face, the silence, the streets washed clean with fresh snow. But not this day. And not for many days before. With a heavy heart she thought of her little brother, who had died of the cold and hunger. Neither sister was talking about this fact.
Jakub had lain on the sofa for the previous two days, blankets and coats piled on top of his frail body. They couldn’t do anything for him at the hospital; the beds were reserved for the elderly, soldiers, young mothers and small children. Jakub didn’t fit any of the criteria. Miriam volunteered there and had been trying to get matron to admit him. Matron responded: ‘do you want me to get shot?’
The sisters thought of asking their older brother Izaak to arrange a medic from the barracks, but he was on the front line, out of reach.
Miriam started sleeping with Stella now, instead of the bedroom she had shared with Jakub. They pushed her bed into the lounge room near the fireplace. It was going to be a bit cramped, but at least they would keep warm.
The same day that Jakub died, Stella removed all the mirrors in the apartment.
‘I’m sick of looking at my skinny old face. It doesn’t belong to a 16-year-old any more’.
Both girls had stopped menstruating. Miriam asked her friend at the hospital. ‘That’s just due to being malnourished. You will get them back once you start eating properly again’. She didn’t want to think about when that might be.
Not long before Mama died, just a month before Jakub, Miriam traded the sisters’ jewellery for food on the black market, in return for tinned meat and fish, bread, onions, turnips. Lately she dreamt of green vegetables and fresh tomatoes, waking up in the morning to a little pool of saliva on her pillow. She wasn’t sure how long she could walk the kilometre to the last remaining shop in their suburb in the freezing cold for their daily ration of bread.
Izaak was worried about her walking there on her own. But she could never get Stella out of bed before the bread ran out. He was in the infantry and had just been promoted to sergeant. He seemed to be the only one in the family going places, the only one capitalizing on the war; though last time he was home, they were concerned about how exhausted he looked. Then he told them why:
‘It rained for 7 days straight. We lost a few men to pneumonia. I was one of the lucky ones’.
The family eagerly anticipated each of his visits, knowing that he would share some of his rations with them. Last time it was tinned tomatoes, beans, rice and some cooking oil. It was hard not to gulp down the food, such was their hunger, which they tried to ignore. This was easy to do as long as no one was cooking in the building. The smells wafting up the stairwell on such occasions were torture.
There were not many residents left now anyway – they had either died, escaped Krakow earlier on when they could, or had volunteered their services at the front. Hence there were few able-bodied people left to dig graves in the unyielding snow. Their energy was needed elsewhere.
Returning home with the bread one morning, Miriam almost tripped over the sled. This time it was across the entrance to their apartment block with another corpse lying on it. The face and torso had been interfered with – by teeth or knives, she couldn’t tell. She also couldn’t make out the age or the sex of the deceased, due to the disfiguration. A visceral feeling stayed with her all day at the hospital. Was it wild dogs or humans? The body and sled were both gone by the time she reached home later. Only sled marks and droplets of blood remained.
Miriam had stopped crying some time ago about the devastation and loss of life. There were no more tears left. The day of the corpse, she’d held a soldier’s hand in the hospital as he slowly died from an infected gunshot wound. He’d kept muttering names – Josie, Eva, Silas. She wanted to ask him who they were.
Stella queried: ‘why don’t you stay home with me and sew blankets for the army instead of going to the hospital?’
Miriam shrugged her shoulders and replied: ‘to help the needy’.
‘So there are people needier than us?’
She didn’t answer.
What Miriam really wanted to say was: ‘Because the chemicals they use to clean the floors smell of normality, the building is heated, I get a bowl of soup for my lunch – if you could call it that – and I forget myself and my hunger in the face of all these suffering people’.
Instead she said:
‘A little boy was admitted yesterday. He was so frightened that we couldn’t get him to speak; the only survivor of a family of seven. Miraculously he was found alive in the rubble that used to be his house, clutching his teddy bear. They had to amputate his leg last night.’
Tears slid down Stella’s cheeks.
Miriam went to comfort her younger sister, putting her arm around her bony shoulders. Between sniffles, Stella whispered: ‘no-one can possibly know how hard this life is. Look at us – reduced to thinking of the next ration, the next air raid. Not the life of a teenager.’
‘Jakub didn’t even make it to teenagerhood. At least Mama and Papa don’t have to endure the loss of their youngest child. He’s with them now.’
This thought gave them both some comfort.
Miriam was thinking about getting a message to the front line, to let Izaak know of Jakub’s passing. As if he could read her thoughts, he then burst into the apartment.
‘Quick – I’ve arranged room for you all on a truck headed north to the countryside. But we have to leave NOW.’ He was using his army voice.
They stood up. Stella immediately went to the cabinet to retrieve what was left of the family silverware. They’d been keeping it for emergencies, to barter on the black market.
‘No Stella. Put it back,’ said Izaak gently, touching her hand. ‘There will be no room in the truck for anything else, other than yourselves’.
Ignoring him, Miriam collected together her precious poetry books that she’d hidden so they wouldn’t be used to light the fire.
Then Izaaks’ voice turned hoarse.
‘I said now. Put on your coats, your hats, your scarves. We’re leaving. Where’s Jakub?’
‘We took him to the cemetery yesterday. He didn’t make it.’
Izaak sat down on the sofa.
For a few long moments he buried his head in his hands, his elbows resting on his knees, muttering a few prayers. When he looked up his face looked different all of a sudden. Older.
‘Let’s go’ he said quietly, glancing around the sparse room. The table was laid for the girls’ meagre meal, just like they’d done every night since they were little. Miriam grabbed their ration of bread on the way out and shoved it in her coat pocket. She didn’t look back, only forward, to the uncertain future…