The Baker’s Daughter

There was never enough food. Definitely not for the prisoners, and now, even the prison guards and their dogs were hungry. She could hear them whining at night.  Ever since the railroad had been snowed under and the big storm had washed away the main railway, they had had to rely on trucks coming up over the permafrost.  Now that it was spring, the snow was too soft and gave way.  The trucks had not come in two weeks. But the air was filled with the dizzying, delightful smell of green things pushing through here and there. Small flying insects swirled like confetti in the prismatic sunlight above the glistening snow.  Hope seemed possible.

Natasha had not always been this thin.  Most of her life she had been overly plump; the only daughter of her village’s baker, she always had freshly-baked bread, long twisted pretzels covered in pearl-sized salt crystals that melted on your tongue and cracked like candy between your teeth, delightful piroshkies made by her mother in a well-stocked kitchen. There, child-sized lidded jars were filled with preserved meats, pickles, and dried fruits; the cold cellars right outside the door were crammed with cabbages, fat potatoes, roots, and apples from the summer.  This was where she went in her dreams now: her childhood home.

When Natasha was twenty, she had gone to the city to live with her uncle’s family.  She had trained as a secretary, and could type, take notes, and do some math. In the city, she could get a good job until it was time to marry.  In the city she could meet a good prospect for a husband; there were many aspiring young men, government officials. It was an exciting time, with lots of parties, theater to go to, concerts and parades. The new communist government had many grand parades and all the officers and young men were dashingly decked in resplendent uniforms.

So when Misha Viktor Popov chose her to escort him, it was as if life’s plan was perfecting itself. She spent all of her savings to buy fabric on the black market—her aunt, a great seamstress, could sew up the latest fashions, with their scandalously short hems which flared out when you danced and showed your calves—and to pay for shoes.  She was delirious with delight.  Misha was very ambitious, which she kept assuring her family was a good thing. Someday she would be a very important woman as his wife. Her influence would keep all the family protected, provided for.

Misha was also very serious. In the beginning he had brought her to parties where women swirled to the music in perfect time, like figurines in her father’s chiming wall clock.  She had had caviar for the first time, a taste she swooned for ever after, and tall-fluted glasses of bubbling wines floated by. They also went to concerts to see and be seen with the other young officers. The music or drama was always a government-inspired commission, touting the new communism, the proletariat struggle and rise, the dawn of a new day.  She felt very important and very certain of what was right. She even started lecturing her parents on what she had learned.

Soon, however, Misha was spending a lot of time going to meetings.  Initially Natasha came along, but it was rather boring.  The men would sit in one room, smoking and drinking. At first they drank beers, then those were chased with fiercely strong liqueurs bought on the black market, and soon they would be slamming fists on the table, yelling and rolling their eyes.  She was in the next room with wives and girlfriends, making talk.  Some of them she liked, most she didn’t.  They were too self-absorbed and only wanted to talk about themselves.

That was all she knew, so when the soldiers burst into her uncle’s flat in the middle of the night and dragged her away to the police station, she had no clue.  She could honestly tell them that she knew nothing, but they didn’t believe her—or if they did, they didn’t care.

Her trial and sentencing went by with dizzying speed.  She hadn’t understood the process, or even the words, or why they insisted she knew Trotsky.  She had never met him.  They didn’t believe her. They sent her on a train, a train that took a week to get her here, a train that took many stops, a train where she had to sleep on the floor with some straw and other wailing women; a train with no food, no heat, no light. Now she was in this place.  All winter long, the winds wailed.  When it wasn’t storming they were forced to go and work, dig into the rock-hard soil to try to level places for buildings.  She didn’t like the work and tried to hide in the buildings, but then she missed the sun on her face, the only warmth there was.

There was no food for weeks. Sometimes they gave them broth, or potatoes to chew on.  Sometimes they let them out to forage when the snow melted a little. She didn’t recognize her own hands—they were long and skinny.  Her once-pretty nails were black and ragged, with blood bruises where she had hit herself with a hammer.

She would have run if she could have. However, she did not know in which direction to go.  The wilderness around them was vast, with no signs of civilization. Sometimes others did run.  They tried to get them and bring them back with the dogs. Usually they brought them back. Sometimes they didn’t, and she wondered if they had gotten away. More likely, they had frozen.  The nights were horribly cold. The women huddled together for warmth—you couldn’t sleep otherwise.

Many people had died that winter, maybe because they had not been as plump as she had been.  It was almost spring, however. Maybe summer would be warm.  She dreamt of summer.  Maybe her family would come find her, visit her. Food would come on the railway.  She had hoped.  But then the food had not come for weeks now.  There were only three women left in her bungalow.  The guards were hungry, the dogs were hungry; the whole earth, it seemed, was hungry.

So that morning, she had heard the guards talking.  She always tried to eavesdrop, to see if she could figure out how to get to them.  One of them liked her, she had thought.  He was shouting at his captain. He was not happy.

The captain had said, “One of them, we have to . . . one of them.” She heard something muffled about how they had to eat, and then her guard had said, “No, no.” The captain hissed an order, which she didn’t understand.  A chill went down her spine. She knew without hearing that they would kill one of them today, and she knew that it had to happen because there was not enough food.

When the guard came to her after that, she was terrified. But he was gentle and nice, like always. “Here, I am going to let you go look for food up on the mountain.” He gave her a stick to scrape the snow with. “There are shoots coming through the snow, and you can maybe find some.  If you find something good, will you bring it back to me and share?” He smiled his broken-toothed grin at her.  He smelled of vodka, the only source of sustenance left for them.  She nodded, took the stick and ran out the gate.  She knew she had to be back before dark or freeze, so she hurried, slipping through the snow toward the mountain path.  As she went, she passed the dogs behind the fence, who barked at her.

She hurried toward the southern side of the hill, where the sun was warmest and snow was melting. For a good hour she climbed, the cold air stinging her panting lungs.  She did not have much energy, having lost so much weight, but soon she found a small meadow with small spots of melted earth showing through. Large pines with low limbs rimmed the area. They reminded her of the pines she used to climb back home. She ran over and licked the sticky sweet sap that was dripping down on one.

She realized she was up above the cliff looking over the camp because she could still hear the dogs yelping, echoing up from below.  She knew the light was going quickly, so she got to work digging at the spots of green earth. It was hard work, and she slipped and fell a few times with the effort of trying to dig up the small leaf spring plants and roots.  Some she knew from home, most were strangers.

As she worked, she reflected on the conversation earlier. She had grown close to the other three women, and was sad one of them would die.  She wondered how they would do it—would they have a firing squad?  Would they use poison?  She had heard about prisoners dying after “eating” and thought that was a possibility.  She felt a little relieved, though. With one less mouth…

Her fingers were bleeding now, but she had a long straight root. She straightened up and bit ferociously on it, mud and all. For a second she was struck by the beauty of the light across the hillside.  She realized she might not have much time left, so she thanked the earth and chewed slowly and savoring the feeling of something in her stomach, and the intense life energy rising up her spine.

The energy spread out to the rest of her back, making all her hairs stand on edge.  Simultaneous with hearing the cries of the hounds getting louder, she remembered what she had heard the captain say: The dogs have to eat.

She turned instinctively and saw, some hundred meters away, the lead male dog sniffing the tree where she had licked sap. He hadn’t seen her yet. She turned and saw a tree she could climb.  It was twenty meters away. Her clothing was heavy with wet snow. She was weak. She might not make it, but still had a chance.

She ran.