ONCE UPON A TIME
He arrived at Olgino in the brutal heart of Winter, 1942, a pale, terrified child crammed into the back of a lorry along with thirty other prisoners sentenced to the gulag for various crimes against the State. The man seated on his left was a murderer, condemned to twenty years at hard labor for strangling his neighbor to death in a dispute over firewood. On his right, the dough-faced man who had dared to tell a joke about Stalin to a co-worker sobbed shamelessly, his tears freezing on his plump cheeks. Across from him, a prostitute, the lone woman in the group, mumbled to herself as she picked at her few remaining teeth. The other prisoners sat silent, numb with fear and cold; they had no tears left to shed.
Olgino, on the Gulf of Finland, had been a prosperous resort town before the Revolution. The remains of once-elegant dachas, forsaken by their fleeing owners after the fall of the Tsar, littered the coastline along which they now traveled. They passed the Primorsky Railway Station, the collapsed shell of an Orthodox church, and the ruins of a long-abandoned Mennonite community, its crumbling foundations barely visible beneath the drifting snow.
The long ride north from Kiev had lulled the child into a half-sleep, but he fought the urge to give in to his exhaustion. Pay attention, his mother had taught him when the NKVD was closing in. Always be ready to act.
The lorry slowed.
A man in the back retched, heaving up the meager contents of his stomach. The dough-faced man, chin trembling, scrubbed at his swollen face. The prostitute's eyes glazed over as her soul buried itself deep inside her exhausted body. The child stilled his breathing, and shrank quietly into the shadows.
The lorry bumped to a halt. The doors opened.
“Out! Out now! Bistreeya!” Prison guards, brandishing their Tokarev M1940's prodded the prisoners out into the snow. The child gasped as a frigid blast of air assaulted him.
“Zacknis!” the lieutenant of the guards spat. “Silence! You will not speak.” He glared at the child. “Understood?”
The child nodded.
“Line up with the others.”
He slid silently into line, eyes downcast, clutching his small satchel of possessions to his chest.
Satisfied for the moment, the lieutenant turned his attention to the rest of the prisoners. “This - -” he gestured expansively, “ - -is the Olgino Gulag. Before the Revolution, that building over there was the Summer Palace of Prince Oldenberg. It was a place of excess and decadence. Now it is a prison for the reeducation of class enemies, and a monument to the wisdom of our great leader, Comrade Stalin. Much more useful, wouldn't you say?”
Anxious heads bobbled up and down.
“You have been sent here because you have committed serious crimes against the State. You are socially dangerous criminals. You are violators of work discipline. You are enemies of the People, unworthy of the benevolence bestowed upon you by our beloved leader.” He walked down the line of prisoners, gazing into each face he passed, gratified to see their eyes lower in fear and submission. “Here, you will work off the term of your imprisonment at hard labor. Work and you will eat. Fail to meet your work quota, and - -” He shrugged without concern, as if the disposal of one life among so many did not matter.
“When your name is called, step forward. You will be divided into groups according to your crimes.” He nodded to an adjutant, who began to read off names from a clipboard. He glanced down at the child. “You, predatyl. Come with me.”
Without waiting for a reply, he set out across the snow-covered compound, striding purposefully toward the building he had identified earlier. The prisoners' eyes followed their progress, wondering at the child who had been so cruelly labeled. Predatyl. Traitor.
I have killed a man, the murderer thought. But what can a child have done to deserve such a fate as this?
The lieutenant was forced to wait at the building's entrance, as the deep snow made walking difficult for the small child. He grew visibly impatient, pacing the length of the porch in growing irritation.
“Do not ever keep me waiting again,” he snapped when the boy finally arrived, pale and breathless from the exertion.
“Izveneetya, comrade lieutenant.”
The lieutenant's smile was cold and hard. “I will overlook it this one time.” He drew himself up importantly, and began his little speech of welcome. “Our gracious leader, Comrade Stalin, who loves all children, has reserved this wing of the prison for the displaced offspring of political subversives such as yourself. You will have a bed here, and food, as long as you do your work well and without complaint.”
“Spasibo, comrade lieutenant.”
“Comrade Stalin believes that the sins of deviant parents should not curse their innocent sons. Be grateful for this opportunity to prove your loyalty to the State.” He paused to light a cigarette, cupping his hand around the match to shield it from the fierce wind that had begun to blow. “What is your name?”
“Illya Nickovitch Kuryakin, comrade lieutenant.”
“Ah, another dirty Ukrainian. Ukrainians are naturally subversive, did you know that? They are like the Jews in that regard.”
The child's gaze never wavered.
“Hmm.” The lieutenant took a long, thoughtful drag. “How old are you, Kuryakin?”
“Seven, comrade lieutenant.”
“Da, comrade lieutenant.”
“What happened to your parents?”
“My father was in the Army. He died during the Defense of Kiev.”
The lieutenant nodded, as though he had known this. “And your mother?”
He hesitated. “She - -”
Again the man nodded. His smile was feral, cunning. “How? How did she die?”
Illya swallowed the tears that threatened to spill, silenced the scream piercing his heart. Do what you must, his mother had whispered in those final moments, as the NKVD broke down their door. Survive.
The lieutenant bent down, scowling. His breath smelled of tobacco and fish. “Answer me!”
The child's face was blank, unreadable. “She was an enemy of the people. She was executed for her crimes.”
The lieutenant's eyes narrowed. “See that you don't forget it.”
“Do not worry, comrade lieutenant,” Illya answered softly. “I will not forget.”
* * *
He was handed over to the Matron of the ward, a horrid, foul-smelling woman by the name of Comrade Kulikovskaya. She wasted no time in seizing the contents of his satchel, declaring excessive ownership of goods on the part of any child in her care to be tantamount to treason against the State.
“You will not be spoiled by too many possessions here, I can promise you that,” she said.
Illya watched as his books went, one by one, into the coal stove.
“You are here to work, not to read.”
He bit his lip to keep from crying out when she discovered the small carved pony his father had whittled for his birthday, just days before his unit was called up to the Front. It was bright red, Illya's favorite color. Papa had painted the designs on it with his own hands.
“No toys,” said the Matron. “The time for play is over. Only work can set you free.” The lovely little horse followed the books into the coal stove. Illya watched the red lacquer blister and peel, watched the wood steam and hiss and catch, watched in silence as the flames devoured his last link to his beloved Papa.
She pointed to a nearby cot, on which lay a graying mattress filled with straw. “I did not think there would be a bed for you so soon, but you are lucky, Kuryakin. The child who slept in that bed died of a fever two nights ago. It's your bed now.”
At the Matron's command, Illya removed his ushanka of rabbit fur, and laid it carefully on the mattress. His coat came off next; he folded it and laid it atop the hat.
“You may keep your outer garments,” she said. But that is all.” She handed him a pile of coarse grey woolens. “This is your uniform. You will put it on now. Your old things will be donated to a family in need.” She folded her arms across her ample chest and waited while Illya stripped. He put on the ill-fitting uniform, and handed her the old garments.
“Much better,” she declared. “All that remains now is to rid you of that hair.”
She retrieved a pair of scissors from her drawer, pushed the child onto a nearby stool, and set to work with a vengeance. Illya's hair was long, and the Matron tsk-tsked as she sliced off the soft blonde locks. “We'll make a man of you,” she said. Illya watched his hair fall quietly to the floor.
When she had done sufficient damage with the scissors, she soaped his scalp with water that was icy cold. It had an odd, chemical smell, and stung terribly. Illya watched as she withdrew a long razor from the pocket of her apron, and began to sharpen the blade against the leather strop dangling from a peg on the wall. “I use this for other things as well,” she said. “See that you behave.”
“Da, Tovarisch Direktor.”
“The children in this ward are away,” she told him as she drew the blade back and forth across the stubble her scissors had left behind. It made an obscene scritching sound that Illya could hear inside his skull. “Our little Pioneers are working at their jobs, as you should be. You have missed the opportunity to join them today, so you will not eat tonight. Tomorrow you may eat, after you have earned the privilege through honest labor.”
Illya's heart sank. He was very hungry.
“You will work twelve hours each day of the week,” she went on, “picking up trash in the compound, cleaning the showers and latrines, or working in the collective garden once the weather warms. You will attend school two hours every day. When you are old enough, and if you work hard enough, you may be chosen for one of the labor crews. Those fortunate children work in the munitions factory, making bombs and grenades for the War effort.” She assessed him critically. “Frankly, I don't think you'll last long enough for that.”
She gathered up her things, pausing for a moment to regard her work. “Yes,” she declared with satisfaction. “You belong here now.”
Illya watched her shamble from the room, the heels of her sturdy shoes click-clicking on the tiled floor. Wait and see, Baba Yaga. I will outlast you.
The door closed.
Illya counted slowly to one hundred, waiting to see if the Matron would return. When it became apparent that she was not coming back, he flew into motion, examining every corner of the ward for hiding places and other useful things. Know your surroundings, his mother had told him. Observe.
He found three hairpins under a cot; they could be used to pick a lock. A shard of broken windowpane in a trash barrel might be a useful weapon. He discovered a rusted nail ready to pop out of the wall; he pried it loose, breaking several fingernails in the process. A nearly empty tube of toothpaste; useful, perhaps. He would have to see. A cotton rag. Several loose tiles in the floor beneath his bed would be excellent for hiding things he didn't want others to find.
Working with silent concentration, he wove the hairpins into the wire underside of his cot. The shard of glass he stuffed into a small tear in the fabric of his mattress, near the head of the bed, where he could reach it easily. He used the nail to work one of the loose tiles free.
He sat down upon his cot, covering himself with his coat. Glancing about once more to assure himself that he was not observed, he reached quietly for his ushanka. With care, he tore open the lining of the hat, and withdrew a small, thin book, the approximate diameter of a postcard. Narodkye Skazki, the golden writing on the cover read. Fairy Tales.
I saved our book, Mama.
He flipped though the pages, one by one, drinking in the words, feasting on the detailed illustrations, vibrant colors made more stunning by contrast with this new, grey world in which he found himself. For an instant, he could hear his mother's sweet voice reading the words to him by lamplight, could feel the warm softness of her breasts, could hear the pulse of life running through her veins as his ear nested against her heart.
The Little White Duck. Once upon a time - -
The illustration was so real, he could have reached out and touched her feathers.
The Bold Knight. In the far-off kingdom of Kazakh, there lived - -
How excited he had been to learn that the kingdom of Kazakh had been real.
Ivan the Fool. In a hut at the edge of the Great Forest - -
He picked out the owl, hidden amidst the branches of the pine tree, and the silver fox, nearly invisible against the snow.
He turned the page.
Illya, the Murom. His favorite. The story of the fragile, bedridden boy who became a great warrior, and who single-handedly rescued his village from the evil Tartars. Who rode a magic horse, and rid the roads of thieves and highwaymen, crying “I care nothing for your gold! I seek to defend the wronged and the helpless!” Who drew his strength from the land itself, and survived numerous trials by virtue of his courage and his cunning.
You are named for him, my Illyusha.
The tears came then, an inconsolable purging of grief, a desperate, keening cry for all that had been lost. Illya's thin body was wracked with sobs. His hands curled into fists that beat to death the mattress on which he lay. His mouth opened in a silent scream that went on and on, leaving him gasping for breath when it was finally over, when there was no more strength left to cry.
The room was nearly dark now. A glance out one grimy window told him that it had begun to snow again. Night was coming on. The other children would be returning soon.
Be brave, my Illyusha.
He wiped his eyes with the edge of his sleeve. Crawling under his bed, he pried up the loose tile. Carefully, reverently, he slid the book of fairy tales into its new hiding place, and restored the tile, taking care that the edges matched precisely. Using the toothpaste he had found earlier, he fashioned a kind of grout around the slab, so that it would no longer appear to be loose. He wiped the excess away with the cotton rag. As an additional measure of security, he dragged one leg of the bed over the area.
Satisfied with his work, he lay down once more, covering himself with his coat for warmth. His ruined ushanka he used as a pillow for his head. He was very tired.
His eyes drifted shut.
As night fell, he dreamed of Illya the Murom, working in the munitions factory, making thousands of excellent bombs and grenades, and blowing up all the evil Tartars and highwaymen who ever lived. Golden-haired Illya rode a beautiful red horse, whose hooves were made of fire, and wherever he went, he cried “I care nothing for your gold! I seek to defend the wronged and the helpless!” Throngs of great, ugly birds took wing at the sight of his fearsome countenance, and on a hill, a kindly old man with a pipe nodded and smiled.