Midst of War

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𝔗𝔥𝔢 𝔜𝔬𝔲𝔫𝔤 𝔊𝔦𝔯𝔩 𝔉𝔯𝔬𝔪 𝔙𝔩𝔞𝔡𝔦𝔳

“Viktoria having trouble with her ankles again, An?” the merchant asked. An old woman with gems on her frail and thin fingers, her skin sprawled with freckles yet no wrinkles, her smile was as easy as if she was the same age as the young girl that stood in front of her patiently waiting for Leyla. Leyla Ivanov, the old merchant’s name was.

“No, ma'am. I volunteered to do her shopping, it's the least I could do after she took me in…” Ana trailed off, something behind her caught Ivanov’s attention, the old merchant's hands halted from packing all of Madame Viktoria’s needs in the young girl's bag. The loud sound of stomping on gravel, shouting of orders in Russian, and the noise of wheels after wheels passing by made Ana slowly turn around. The notebook she held which had her name scribbled on the spine of it slipped from her fingers along with the bag of bought goods, all scattered around the floor about her. Sudden cold sweat started to pool above the creases of her brow, her fingers started the tremble. The Red Army has come to take someone in the city of Vladivostok, her conscience whispered in a faint voice. The lists. The General Secretary’s lists must've contained the names of several men in the city. After all, there are still a few capitalist sellers that littered markets, maybe they're here for them. Or maybe the Christians among the city are whom they seek? Thankfully, only a few in their city still believed and still worshipped a god. They shouldn't under Stalin’s rule.

The uniforms of the Soviet Army passed by one by one. Marching over the street to the right side of the shop, two soldiers disassembled from their form and positioned themselves in attention in front of Missus Leyla’s glass window panes, “What is this? The General Secretary handing away bodyguards?” Ivanov crossed her arms, walking out of her shop’s counter. Ana, who's concern had disappeared in an instant and turned her attention to the groceries she dropped at a quickened pace. Father! What if they take Father? She compacted all of Madame Viktoria’s food and supplies in her bags, one slung over her right and another slung over her left, “Ana, you go pack your purchases. Use the back door, dear.” Leyla pulled down the binds of her shop’s window and drove the afternoon sunlight away before slowly stepping outside, “What is this, soldiers?” her kind voice asked the soldiers that had recently stationed themselves on each side of her shop’s door. Ana slipped her notebook in one of the bags she had, I need to sprint like they're here for me. This brought a smile to her lips, she was once a sprinter in school. The young girl enjoyed the sharp pain in her calves, the way sprinting leaves her out of breath and sweating profusely.

“Orders from the General Secretary’s Dacha this morning,” a uniformed officer halted in front of Ivanov, the pershing cap on his head shed his eyes from the light. He scoffed that the old woman was still waiting for the two soldiers on either side of her to answer, “These idiots are not to answer your question that you posed, missus. We teach them to open their mouths unless it's a personnel.”

After everything was settled, she grabbed the crimson beret that hung on a coat rack beside the back door. It was Missus Ivanov’s but it's mine now, Missus. A devilish smirk sprawled across her face before opening the wooden door, she still can hear the conversation being exchanged between the old merchant and the soldiers at the front. Ana slipped through and was met with crates of goods and supplies that Ivanov stock, they were covered with a big cream white cloth or it's not even cream white. It's a dirty cloth, idiot. Yet the cloth was not big enough to cover the entire group of crates, several goods peep for Ana to see. She resisted the persistent neurotic impulse to steal especially without economic motive, instead she laughed at herself. I'm not a thief. She found she was surrounded with wooden fences but immediately found the door which was guarded by a bolt that Ana flicked with her finger-- the old metal thing flung to one of the crates. “Oops, I'll just let Missus Leyla know of this bolt that I surely didn't destroy,” she giggled and opened the fence’s door with a screech, she grimaced at the noise but she ignored the-- most likely ancient door and was greeted by an alley that reeked of piss and rubbish. Rats chased each other to the sewers, squeaking yet the sun that lit the alley made the way seem not so glum and grim like it looked at the owl’s hours.

Ana tiptoed through the bright alley, avoiding the greywater. Her eyes wandered around the walls that towered on each side of hers, both of her hands gripping tightly around the traps of Madame Viktoria’s grocery cloth bags as the young girl boosted her speed. The muffled sounds of establishments’ closing their doors and windows began to flood her eardrums. This is mad! From tiptoes, she began to jog until she sprinted at her full speed, no care for her shoes that sank in mud every time she stepped into cracks. Ana grinned, reaching the end of the alley. Her eyes found the civilians running to their homes, taking their children in with them as the shopping girl of Madame Viktoria turned a sharp left, almost losing her balance albeit she swiftly regained and took off to the small bridge. It was like she was flying, her feet almost not touching the ground. She looked back and saw the local market had been cleared and the marching form of the Soviet Army had dissolved one by one on every door, three GAZ military trucks followed the disbanded force along with two men who she assumed were the personnel, riding her way with white mares.

Ana ran faster with the wind blowing her hair as her feet touched the grassland part of the city, tall trees and a wee little road of stone steps. They won't follow me with those huge trucks. Giggles turned into laughter as she raced up the hill, houses in the area were a few hundred meters apart. For most of the landowners there owned lengthy and wide plots of land. Ana sped through the grasslands, passing by Monsieur Lavetev’s barn house before slowing her pace to catch her breath. She looked back one more time, heaving a euphoric sigh of relief, Aye, sprint like a felon. The young girl pulled the collar of her coat and wiped her dripping sweat on the fine wool. This time, it wasn't in her anymore to laugh, giggle and smile. All that running had taken her breath out of her lungs, her chest burned inside, calves throbbing in pain and her tongue desperate for water. With a deep sigh, Ana continued down the narrow stone road, steadying her breath, taking large inhales of oxygen and deep exhales. I'm like a fucking dog, a big heaving dog who's got her tongue out. Her eyes eager to spot Madame Viktoria’s house in the distance, even her arms hurt. She eats all of this in a fortnight?!

“Hurry, girl!” Ana heard Madame Viktoria’s voice call her in the distance. Her eagerness to see the house of the old woman she shops for was answered, the woman had her hands clasped on her chest as she rushed to the you girl, taking one of the cloth bags and her hand before she pulled Ana into a swift walk to her house. The old woman’s fingers tightened around the latter's wrist as the both rushed into her home.

“Papa!” Ana exclaimed upon setting her eyes upon her grandfather, sitting at the head of Madame Viktoria’s table. He had his hands joined together before the young girl called him which brought him to his feet at once. “Th-the Soviet Army is marching this way,” she took off the white cloth bag and settled it on the table, swiping out her book in the process. Ana awaited an answer from her grandfather, instead he paced around the dining room, his forefinger and thumb gently pinching the bridge of his nose. He does this often in scenarios he couldn't quite know what to do like this one. What if they're here to drive us off our land? Ana shivered at the thought, hugging her book as Madame Viktoria closed the door and barricaded it with a piece of wood and topped it all off with locking the metal bolts. She sauntered back to them, her quivering hands taking out the groceries Ana purchased for her. One by one, the old woman drew out the food and supplies. Vegetables, poultry, fruits and lots more. She was elderly but not as frail as Missus Ivanov. Madame Viktoria had a young soul though her body keeps her from running errands.

With as many as Missus Ivanov’s jewelry but Madame Viktoria had them expensive and beyond any person could ever afford in the city. Madame Viktoria Alexievich Barnyashev was once married to a military personnel who was taken away from her in the first world war. Since that, she developed hatred for Germans and their Christianity but wounds don't remain long on people like her. She grew fond of Ana's grandfather but Ana knew that and convinced him to court her himself and since then, the two have developed a romantic relationship. Marriage was an option the two refused to take, it was pointless anyway. To stand before an audience, for them to watch you read vows and slip rings in your partner’s fingers and after that, you have to feed your guests. There wasn't a point in that. Especially in a union where atheism was normalised by the General Secretary and his ministers. The watershed year was 1929, when Soviet policy put much new legislation in place that formed the basis for the harsh anti-religious persecution in the 1930s. Anti-religious education was introduced beginning in the first-grade in 1928 and anti-religious work was intensified throughout the education system. Children of that day, knew of no selfish god.

Ana's grandfather, Sergei Henri Smirnov served in the Soviet Army as well. He was good friends with Barnyashev’s late deceased husband in the camps. Sergei’s father was a Frenchman who travelled to the Soviet Union for research which Ana honours proudly by addressing folks with french formalities such as Madame and Monsieur. “We shan't despair. The soldiers are here for religious men,” Sergei inhaled deeply, his hands in his pockets as he looked over to Madame Viktoria with worried eyes. There had been happenings like this all over the Soviet Union since The General Secretary Josef Vissarionovich Stalin stepped into court. Siberia, it's where Christians belong, Ana sat herself on one of the dining chairs made of dark brown walnut. Thoughts swarmed in the young girl's head. I've been everywhere in the city, I've met no god-worshipping lad as I did. It was true, she knew the city more than anyone. Knew of every alleyway, street, block-- every spot. Every pub, every salon, everywhere. She's been everywhere in Vladivostok but has never met a Christian man nor woman nor child. It was the fear of Koba that made everyone turn back on their gods, on their rituals, on their shite rules. Lenin knew this would happen, she thought buckling her knees and placing her book on her thighs.

Communist was the best ideology to apply to the country -- if it's not to be abused. Encouraging insurrection during Russia's failed Revolution of 1905, he later campaigned for the First World War to be transformed into a Europe-wide proletarian revolution, which as a Marxist he believed would cause the overthrow of capitalism and its replacement with socialism. After his death and Stalin took over, that is where the fright and horror plagued the nation. The great leader they wanted abused his power by creating lists of people he wishes to be persecuted. Which the people called The Great Purge. Ana estimated the total number of deaths due to Stalinist repression in 1937–38 to be between six-hundred and eight thousand and a million and two hundred lives. The "Kulak Operation" and the targeting of national minorities were the main components of the Great Terror. He targeted enemies, he and his ministers targeted their opponents in the Soviet Union. With-- not only the help of the Red Army but with the help of Lavrentiy Beria’s NKVD, they tracked lives and sent them to Siberia, a cold and depressing place to be in. Imagine the heavy pain in your chest that will weigh you down until they line you up, make you say Long live Stalin before putting a bullet in your brain.

Everything that opposed the Communist Party of Russia underwent bowdlerization. Every article, every newspaper, every piece, every man. Everything.

“Anastasia, child. Are you alright?” Ana was awakened from her thoughts as the old woman placed a distressed hand on the young girl’s shoulder. It was warm and of a mother's. Something she desired to receive from her actual mother. I miss you, Mother. Ana nodded slowly, sending an assuring smile at Madame Viktoria before the latter gave a pat to the former’s back, “Up you go now and wash yourself before supper.”

“Both of us need to go home, Viktoria,” Sergei shrugged, not breaking eyes with the woman. A glint in his eyes. Ana knew, he loved his family more than anyone and he treats Madame Viktoria the exact same. Not that the young girl objected to their love, she actually approves of it and she herself was the one that brought them together. Her grandfather and the old woman exchanged knowing looks that Ana understood too well. They love each other so much that they understand even the slightest glance, the young girl smiled. It wasn't the time to be joyed but the moment was too beautiful to be ignored. As if they've completely forgotten about the girl between the two of them, that the both of them would run to each other and devour one another with wet kisses and tear their clothes off before chasing each other to the bedroom-- but those only happen in fictional drama books. “Dimitry will have no way to know of our whereabouts,” Sergei bit his lower lips under his silver beard. Father would know of us not. Ana began to worry as her grandfather, this happened the last time with different soldiers, heavier force to guard the city. Stricter, even. It was the same as last time, only they weren't in Madame Viktoria’s home. Her father, Dimitry Sergeivich Smirnov had been arrested for violating the city-wide curfew. He was looking for his father and his daughter. Ana hoped it wasn't like it was the last time. We need to go home.

“Phone, father,” Ana blurted out, which made the two elders look at her before her grandfather bolted to Madame Viktoria’s living room where the latter’s telephone was located.

“Anastasia, you must know you two are forever welcome in my home,” the old woman cooed, walking back to her sink and began to to wash the fruits and vegetables Ana purchased for her.

“I know, Madame. The three of us are in a lifetime debt to you,” Ana giggled, glancing at Barnyashev before she stood up and followed her grandfather in the living room. Sergei sat on the arm of Madame Viktoria’s furniture while he attempted to ring his son. The handset he held just hovered above his ear as he turned the telephone’s rotary dial. He had never been accustomed to the new devices of today. He bought one a moon ago for their own home and Ana was sure he forgot about it. Their way in the old days were fountain pens, parchment and pigeons to communicate from one camp to another. Her father had been as well, not that he followed his father’s customs. It was better with the life I had as a child was how he puts it and of course Dimitriy despises his French blood. He calls them too stagy and difficult to please just as himself. What a hypocrite, Ana joked to herself. Perhaps it was the bitterness he harvested from Mama, Ana’s grandmother Svetlana Vyacheslalovic Smirnov. She was from Gori, Georgia and was close friends with the young Josef Stalin in the days but time always separated people. Koba became the Premier of the Soviet Union upon popular demand and Mama had died of an illness.

“Hello! Dimitriy! How do I put this-- the Red Army is deploying around the city. No-- we're at Viktoria’s and, you--” Sergei halted his speaking, his brows knitted as he continued to stutter, “Listen, boy! You're not going out of the house. Do you hear me, Dimitriy?” his face calmed, taking in deep inhales and exhales. There was a bit of mumbling from the other line before Ana's grandfather sighed with relief, “We'll come back home tomorrow… good, stay there, son.” He grinned to himself, Ana heard a small mumbled I love you, Pa. I love Ana, too. Do tell her which made the young girl match her grandfather’s grin. “Tell her yourself, wanker.”

Sergei held out the handset to his granddaughter which the latter excitedly took it from his hands, “Father, you can't believe it. I ran today from the army,” it was a tad childish but it was worth telling to a father.

“Really? You are my child,” He chuckled. A gruff chuckle from a rough man and once he never acted rough against family. He went on to tell her that one of their female goats or nannies gave birth this early morning to one sweet white-fur kid, a baby goat that Dimitriy tended to, he told her that it was like having her again as a babe except she had horns and shitted brown balls. He went on for a few seconds of telling her how it went. Usually, in their barn it was Ana who tended to the animals. “Night, love. I'll fetch you two tomorrow morning, yeah-- and don't forget to remind Papa of his medications. Right. Ya lyublyu tebya, Nana.”

Ya tozhe tebya lyublyu. Father, “Ana handed back the handset to her grandfather before making her way to the backdoor, her eyes finding the fences with hordes of sheep between them. Lambs, Ewes and Rams alike voiced their greetings to the girl who shepherds them. Madame Viktoria’s black German Shepherd sped to the young girl, tackling her to the ground with his wet kisses. His furry tail wagging left and right in pure joy, his paws on her chest and her back on the grass. Ana smiled, “I miss you too, mate,” she rolled on her back and sat up. No care for the white dress she wore, all she could think of was… she felt home in Madame Viktoria’s back plot. Where trees tower over you, grass tickles your skin, the air is pure and the friends are these loud sheep and Colin, the old widow’s shepherd. Her toes curled with the grass in between them, moist and coarse. She hasn't a care in the world in that position. Wide blades are considered "coarse" or rough grasses, while narrow leaves are considered "fine-textured" grasses. The color of the grass is another area that is determined both by type & variety as well as the level of nitrogen applied to the grass.

She was thankful for the weather for being just the right temperature. She was sure Moscow would have been covered in white snow by now, frigid and not too depressing, of course. Not like Siberia, you could nearly faint merely having to gaze upon the location, even the name of it frightens citizens, even politicians. Stalin ruled by terror and with a totalitarian grip in order to eliminate anyone who might oppose him. He expanded the powers of the secret police, encouraged citizens to spy on one another and had millions of people killed or sent to the Gulag system of forced labor camps. Ruthless and usually unrestricted control. Josef Stalin ruled the Soviet Union with an iron fist. GULAG was the acronym for the Main Administration of Corrective Labor Camps. Gulag prisoners could work up to fourteen hours per day. Toiling sometimes in the most extreme climates, prisoners might spend their days felling trees with hand saws and axes or digging at frozen ground with primitive pickaxes. Siberia was horrifying, the harsh winters and vast landscapes. It was somewhere one would never wish to stay… or even see. Even the smallest motive or a word against Stalin is a one-way ticket to the most gloomy and disheartening place on earth.

Ana wanted to see more than the city of Vladivostok. She wanted to travel, to see the Red Square and watch as soldiers march past her. To witness the Premier’s speeches and addresses. Not that she wasn't content with the place here. She loves it here, she merely wants to have a glimpse of the actual Eiffel Tower of Paris, France. A peek at every trademark there is, it was her passion.

“We're staying here, lad,” Ana ran her fingers through Colin’s dark fur. The dog laid on his belly beside her and she continued to stroke just behind his left ear which he was very happy to welcome.

It wasn't the best, it wasn't the worst to be in. Peace and silence was instantly attained in the grasslands part of the city. She remembered being younger and foolish once, everything was a game she had to play. Ana had never taken anything seriously when she was younger, she had few friends that were her age, most were the elderly seeking assistance and she was too happy to oblige to their needs. But Madame Viktoria was the only one who hadn't moved away to another country. Ana shopped for her every weekend, helped her shepherd her sheep, and listened to the old woman. For everything the young girl had done, Barnyashev was certain to exchange the girl’s deeds with stories, care and sometimes money. She was the mother Ana was too unfortunate to have, the female she could gossip with, tell secrets to. Truly unfortunate, she told herself with a sorrowful smile. Her Mother would've wanted her to be happy. Ana reminisced about the tea parties, chess games and historical education Madame Viktoria provided, she never failed to do so. What Anastasia favored were the political lessons, as if the old woman expected her to be a politician, she would never… not until the gods are proven real.

She eyed the flock of sheep, their white wool thick and fluffy. It was like clouds, the young girl wanted to bolt to the fences and jump in and embrace every sheep but her calves were too sore and she would blame herself for getting the dirt on her dress in their wool.
She had a few errands for the morrow. Maybe attain a few gallons of milk from home to trade it for Madame Viktoria’s jar of honey. Perhaps even bring Colin for a short walk around the local market and persuade a few merchants for a piece of their products. Oi, that's what I'm good at convincing people to taste their goods. Ana smiled to herself, she knew it was her high cheekbones that tempts everyone, it helped her get by when she had been in other parts of the city of Vladivostok.

The afternoon was still bright with a chilly breeze blowing both Ana and Colin, her white dress was heavily stained with muck with a small part of the hem teared. Possibly it was caught through a nail in Missus Ivanov’s shop. The trees were tall, the animals were happy. Suddenly forgetting about the Soviet Army marching around their city as of now.
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