Today's Reading

(The copy in this email is used by permission, from an uncorrected advanced proof. In quoting from this book for reviews or any other purpose, it is essential that the final printed book be referred to, since the author may make changes on these proofs before the book goes to press. This book will be available in bookstores March 2020.)

1950. Russia

A freezing January night. Snow blows into drifts all around Lobachev Row in this small town north of Moscow. It shrouds the windows of the dom, blocks its doorways, lines the branches of the chestnut and lime trees in the lane. Ice lies thick on the canal. No barges have moved along it for over a month now, though the nearby rail line is kept clear and the occasional goods train still trundles past. At this dead hour, three in the morning, sensible citizens are fast asleep. There is silence but for the distant creak and clank of a snowplough working through the night. There will be extra wages for the driver and whichever street-sweeping gang is following the machine.

But now there is another sound, drawing closer, that of a vehicle engine. Headlights appear. A militia truck is arriving. Brakes squeal as it skids to a halt, raising flurries of snow.

The coarse voices of the militiamen echo in the stairwell of the dom, their boots stamp and scrape, there is the ring of metal striking metal. Doors are pounded, names demanded—some apartments have lately been subdivided, yet again, and their numbering changed. Behind the doors sleepy, frightened voices reply; the men move on. Three flights up, a young man is woken by the din. He starts upright on the ancient sofa that doubles as his bed. His name is Pasha Kalmenov. He is twenty years old.
In the darkness of the room a shadow flits past. His mother is already awake and on her feet, drawing her shawl about her shoulders and chest. The shawl is black, embroidered with tiny blue cornflowers. Her hair, streaked with gray, tumbles loose over the shawl, her long winter petticoats and shift trail along the floor, issuing soft sounds with each step.

"Please, dear Lord," she mumbles. She crosses herself before the holy icon on the wall and kisses the crucifix in Christ's hand, careful as always not to kiss the face of Jesus since that was what Judas did. "Dear Lord Jesus, protect us. Don't let it be us."

Pasha rubs sleep from his eyes. "Protect us, Mama? Why? Whatever's going on, it's nothing to do with us. We've done nothing wrong."

She shakes her head. "No need to have done anything wrong, Pashenka." She has faith in Christ and she trusts the Father of the Great Soviet People, Josef Vissarionovich Stalin, whose portrait watches over them from the opposite wall, but she has also lived through the purges. She knows about boots stomping on stairs in the middle of the night and doors being thumped, she knows the sound of rifles being readied.

She jumps as a fist pounds the thin door. "Kalmenov!" a voice bellows.

There is more pounding, from something harder than a fist this time; perhaps a rifle butt. Pasha fears that the door will cave in if they keep this up.

"Pavel Pavlovich Kalmenov—we know you're in there!"

At the sound of his name, Pasha feels something shift in his stomach, as if a great stone has suddenly descended toward his bowels. He searches hurriedly for his clothes in the darkness.

Mama moans, torn between her two saviours, Jesus and Josef Vissarionovich. 
"Open the door, Mama," Pasha tells her. "It's a mistake. We'll straighten it out. Don't worry."

The words sound hollow even to him.

Mama tugs her shawl tighter and slides back the bolt. She mumbles another prayer as she does so, having opted for Christ over Josef Vissarionovich.

The sound of the bolt magnifies like a gunshot in the moment of stillness that has fallen. The door bursts open. By the light of their torches Pasha can see that there are four of them, gangling boys no older than himself but made self-important by their uniforms. Their red faces are burning with the cold, their eyes remind him of the dogs he watches skulking around the meat market: barren and dull, stupid; but dangerous. Their racket must have woken the whole dom. He supposes this is their way, to tell everybody that something is going on and they are in charge of it.

The stone is pushing harder at his bowels.

"Marya Kalmenova?" one of them, a junior sergeant according to his stripes, barks at Mama. "You took your time."

She dips her head. "I apologize, comrade officer. Please excuse the delay. I was asleep."

"Why are you apologizing, Mama? There's nothing to apologize for."

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