The following is from Rachel Seiffert’s novel, A Boy In Winter. In 1941, only weeks after the German invasion, a Ukrainian town is overrun by the SS. A Boy In Winter tells of the three days that follow. Rahcel Seiffert’s The Dark Room was short-listed for the Booker Prize & won the LA Times First Fiction Prize. Seiffert has also been long-listed for the Orange/Bailey's Prize for Fiction & has received an award from PEN International.
Yasia saw her first Germans in August. Before that, they had Stalin.
“Ten years, my daughter.”
Her papa held both his palms up, all his fingers spread wide, so they could see how many they’d endured, when the final order came from the Collective.
Her papa hated anyone who worked for the Soviets.
He was eating the breakfast she’d made him, sitting at the farm table with all her brothers, all of them younger, who she’d chased from their beds, and washed and fed, as she did every morning. Her mother was busy with the baby, still new and fretful; the oldest boys were sullen and sleepy and already in their field clothes; the many younger ones at Yasia’s skirts, small limbs pressed to her and waiting.
“Ten years,” her papa told his children. “But this is the worst one.”
All the collectives in the district had been told to bring in the harvest, though it was barely July. They were to work day and night, if need be. Or destroy the crop: pour paraffin on the fields and burn them. Leave nothing for the Germans.
“What have the Germans done to us, I ask you? It’s the Communists I’d set fire to,” her papa declared. “I’d walk away and leave them burning.”
Yasia’s many brothers looked at their father blankly. She did too: her papa had always toed the line, more or less silently, until then.
Years ago, perhaps half her lifetime, Yasia remembered her father’s evening mutterings about the village elders. Her brothers were already sleeping, all those who’d been born by then, but Yasia had sought out her mother’s solid form to curl against, because those were hungry times. Her mama rocked the cradle at the stove-side with her toes, and her papa muttered and stoked the flames while he called the Farm Chairman spineless. Weak-willed, weak-minded. All the names he could think of. He blows with the wind, that man; he bends wherever he sees advantage. Her mama nodded, emphatic, Yasia felt her. Especially when her papa spoke of their land being stolen from under them: harvests meant for our children’s mouths, stolen to feed Russian brats. Her father spoke his mind back then, in mutters at least, at the stove-side in the evenings. But Yasia knew that, in daylight, he did as he was bidden. He doesn’t bend with the wind, your father, but he bends under the yoke, child; that’s what her mother said about him, while her papa found less and less to say. Over the years he became a silent man.
So it surprised all his children to hear him announce his disobedience.
“I will not destroy the crop I have planted.” “Yes, Papa.”
And to see him spit Stalin’s name in the dirt as he was leaving the yard.
“What is our papa saying, Yasia?”
“Where is our papa going, big sister?”
“You all be quiet now.”
Yasia hushed them, watching him stride out to the pasture. But as soon as he was out of earshot, she sent her own curse to Moscow, to fly alongside her father’s.
She had her own reasons.
Yasia would have been a wife a year already, were it not for Joseph Stalin. She should have been married, been a mother. Instead, she had turned seventeen without the young husband, and without the fat baby she was so sure she’d be cradling this summer, as plump and soft as her mama’s many baby boys. Yasia had not seen her Mykola since he was drafted; her sweetheart had been lost to the Red Army, and though she tried just then, following her father’s example, she found no curse loud enough or harsh enough to compensate.
The Farm Chairman was at the yard gate the following morning.
The new day already hot and damp, promising a deluge, he stood dabbing at his face with his shirt tails, panting the latest. In the next village—Mykola’s village—they were up in arms. They were disobeying orders. More: they were taking back their fields, even taking back their tools so no one else could use them.
“They are breaking up the Collective. Overnight. They decided. Who on earth gave them the authority?”
The Farm Chairman threw up his palms and told them he’d been cycling from homestead to homestead since day-break, to consult the remaining farmers:
“And you, Fedir?” he entreated.
Yasia’s father pulled on his boots in answer, and set off for the village while the Farm Chairman followed him down the puddled lane, imploring: “But please, please, my friend, take back only what is yours.”
Her papa was home by midday, flushed, triumphant, with his horse and his ploughshares, which had not stood in their barn since Yasia was a child.
“Do you remember, my daughter?”
“I do, Papa.”
So rare to see her father satisfied, her father smiling; the sight of that had her brothers staring, as much as the belongings returned to them.
Her mother was certain it was the Lord’s work: “He has mercy on us after all.”
But Yasia couldn’t share in her rejoicing. Because why had the Lord, in all his mercy, not returned her Mykola?
She knew herself selfish, but she couldn’t help it. Yasia thought daily of the old crone in a headscarf she might become without him. Or worse: the old man she might have to marry, if all the young men should perish now at the hands of the Germans; so many had perished already for the Soviets.
The old men in the district divided the grain the next morning, all the crops still in the ground, and the hayricks between them. In just a short day’s back and forth, IV Stalin Collective Farm was no longer, the record books consigned by her papa to the kitchen stove.
He stirred the embers, gratified, but he muttered to Yasia and her mother: “No celebrating; not yet.”
He would let no one tempt that devil fate.
They were lucky in the end. Their farmstead was not near the main route east, the main line of retreat. It was Mykola’s village that caught the worst of it: Red Army foot troops passed through there. Turning tail in the face of the Germans, they turned on the farms, going through the barns, breaking up the ploughs, the hayforks and the harrows.
Out in the fields, they went from stack to stack with torches, setting the hayricks blazing, and the last of the beet crop that Mykola’s grandfather hadn’t brought in.
His cows were driven out too, from the milking pen into the burning pasture; beaten across their hindquarters, and set running through the flames.
Yasia stood in the yard with her mother that afternoon, all her brothers around them, watching the smoke plumes rising, grey-purple on the near horizon. She could still see the glow of the fires come the evening; they were burning as Yasia climbed into bed beside the younger ones, so she knew the flames must have caught the buildings. And then she was woken by Grandfather’s cows at first light, blundering through the yard. Stinking of bonfire, too exhausted, too frightened to return home; udders swollen and sore, they bellowed to be milked in the cool morning air.
Yasia learned, then, how it was to feel fury. Before, she had been frightened. For Mykola mainly, called away to do Stalin’s bidding; for her papa too, and what any foot troops left might do to him: he had penned the cows and then set off across the fields to help the villagers.
But the troops had already done with the place and departed, and her papa returned smoke-blackened with Mykola’s sister by the hand; he found Myko’s mother and grandfather in the hours that followed. And in the weeks that came after, they sat up long into the nights, telling of all they had seen, and worse, all that they had heard since.
The rail lines to the town had all been dynamited, and the signal boxes too. The same in Kiev, Myko’s sister whispered— but of Kiev there was so much more to tell. Whole districts were being looted, and what they couldn’t carry, the Russians were burning, or just ruining: sacks of sugar, sacks of leather, even packs of medicines they threw into the Dnieper. In Zhytomyr, the Komsomol burned down the bread factory. Such criminality. To burn bread and the grain that made it, the grain of so many hands’ harvest. And still no word, still no word from Mykola.
“We must brace ourselves,” his grandfather told them: the German invasion had yet to reach them.
When she heard the Luftwaffe planes drone, Yasia was crossing the pasture, her father’s lunch pail in one hand, and the youngest of her brothers clutched to the other. Too far from the barn, from the farmhouse, they had nowhere to run, nowhere to shelter. So she scooped up Oleksiy and laid him beside her in the grass, their faces pressed to the damp earth, her father’s milk spilled across her skirts.
But they dropped no bombs that day, the Germans; only showers of paper. Leaflets that littered the verges, sticking limp in the crop after the afternoon downpour.
The German planes had scattered Ukrainian words, and Yasia read these out loud for her father, after the planes were gone, and the worst of the rain too: she and Oleksiy found him on the pasture’s far side, catching at the papers blowing across the grass, and he thrust the wet tatters at Yasia to decipher.
We have no quarrel with those who lead a peaceful life, with those who wish Ukraine to prosper.
She had been taught just enough at the Collective school to make out that much.
“Read more. What does that say? And that part?” Her papa pointed, impatient, even eager now. “Read on, my daughter. What else do the Germans say?”
The words she found there made Yasia’s chest tight.
We have no quarrel with men who were drafted, with any who lay down Soviet arms of their own free will now.
Each damp leaflet a free pass for Red Army deserters. If Mykola found one, he had only to present himself.
All over the district, mothers and sisters found reason to hope there. Children were sent running out with fistfuls of the gathered German papers to find fathers and uncles and cousins, while the menfolk emerged, blinking, from their hiding places in the grain bins and distillery cellars.
And then, finally, after so long praying and waiting; dusk was just falling, lamps being lit in the farmhouse kitchen, when they caught sight of a caller, dust-covered, by the well in the yard.
Oleksiy pointed out of the window and asked: “Who is that man?”
“Oh, who do you think, child?”
So much thinner than before; he was properly gaunt from his long walk, from all his months of poor Red Army rations. Her poor Mykola.
His shoulder blades like sharp wings under his shirt, Yasia saw them as his mother flung open the door to him, and his raw-boned leanness had her tongue-tied, newly shy of him somehow, as his sister ran to pull him inside. Yasia had to steal away, though it shamed her; she had to retreat a while to swallow her shock, to still her heart, stealing glances at him through the knot holes in the wooden farmhouse walls, while Myko sat hunched and dripping in the tin bath his mother poured.
Washed clean again in the water she’d warmed, he sat at the table; Yasia put food in front of him, plate after plate, and this helped her, even if he ate so little, only drinking the beer she poured him; she found she could stand at Mykola’s elbow while his grandfather sat talking, talking.
Mykola’s mother and his sister sat with him too, recounting their woes, describing the charred barn and ruined beet crop, and the cows that gave no milk now: the sorry mess that was all they had left them.
Mykola said little. “Yes, I saw it.” He told them he’d walked through the village on his way here.
He must have walked and walked through other towns and villages just like it; too many ruined places; Yasia could see that from the hollows of his cheeks and temples, the sore drooping of his reddened eyelids. Still Myko’s family talked on, relentless. Until he put his head down and slept, sudden and face-down on the table, between his plate and beer glass.
But after everyone was sleeping, Mykola woke again; he came and stole her from her bed, and he lay with her in the orchard grass.
She had lain with him there before. Yasia had first known Myko before he was a soldier, when he was a boy and blond as wheat, come to help her father with the harvest. Her father couldn’t know, so they had to be careful—they were not even nearly old enough to marry then—so they’d hidden themselves among the old trees, in the long grass; far from the pasture and the farmhouse. And then they’d lain there, unbuttoned, their breath held, both of them; pressed together and hushed, lest they be discovered and this would have to stop, this press of him against her. Brown and gold after a day in the fields, chaff from the threshing caught in the down on his upper lip, it was his boy’s blunt fingers Yasia remembered most, reaching inside her dress, his eyes intent. He’d pressed his palms to her belly first, eager, uncertain, so Yasia had pulled them to her breasts; she’d pulled them where she wanted them, and she’d lifted her skirts for him.
This time it was different. Myko was no longer so clumsy, so inexpert; neither did he lie wrapped around her after-wards. And Yasia lay awake then, blinking at the back of his sleeping head beside hers. This Mykola, she thought, was not her Mykola of old.
But his sleeping face was still a boy’s, when she sat up and looked at him; his eyes closed, soft mouth open, just the way he’d always slept.
He was home, and he was safe. And he still wanted to lie with her in the orchard. Yasia thought she would feed him and they would lie here, and soon he would speak again, as he used to. Soon she would be his bride too.
So when the first German land troops arrived, she had bread and salt ready for them.
Mykola’s grandfather saw her baking, and he told her he would only wave to a German soldier to wave him on his way again.
“No more invaders.” He shook his head at her and the loaves she’d made. “What our good country needs now is good Ukrainians.”
But Yasia’s father saw her too, and after the old man went into the yard, he said she didn’t have to mind him. Her papa had tended the cows with Mykola’s mother ever since the farm was burned; they had to share the milking and the herding, because Grandfather couldn’t or wouldn’t be relied upon. He spent all his days sitting and smoking, still shocked and muttering over his losses, and Yasia knew her papa found it hard to stomach that. We all have to get on with our lives.
She walked out early, in any case, with Myko’s sister and all the youngest boys: Yasia took them long before the menfolk were awake and could do any arguing. So they were there at the roadside, a small and young crowd of them, waiting with gifts when the Wehrmacht convoys came riding.
They came in jeeps and on motorbikes, plastered with the black mud thrown up by their tyres. Did they not realise? These lands below the marshes, they are good for horseback only, or foot travel; for sledges in winter, impassable after summer storms. The tracks here were either mire or dust or snowdrifts—not meant for taking at lightning speed—and Yasia laughed behind her hand with Mykola’s sister, about how little these Germans knew of the country they had conquered in their Blitzkrieg: Perhaps Grandfather was right after all, and they should just wave the soldiers on again?
But the Germans had phrasebooks; words they had memorised from so many repetitions as they’d crossed the countryside.
“Hey, girls! Miss!” They called to them, these dirt-streaked and motorised invaders, who seemed to her to be liberators— bringers-back of her husband-to-be, their orchard secrecy; all her hopes of motherhood too.
Mud-bespattered, they halted at the roadside, pulling off their helmets and smiling.
“Bolshevik finished,” they told her. “Now Ukraina.” Wiping their foreign and well-fed faces.
“Ukrayeena,” Yasia corrected.
She saw how they looked at the swing of her skirts, and at the brown roundness of her calves, pleased by what they’d found here; all eyes on the open buttons at her blouse neck. And Yasia knew that she could please men this way, and easily, but she would not flirt, because she was as good as married now, of course.
She told them, firm; one brother at her hand, another at her hip, like the young mother she would be soon enough.
And the soldiers grinned at her as they rode off eastward.
Others are here now. More of their number, circling the town streets—and none of them are friendly.
Yasia hears the jeeps returning as she reaches Osip’s work-shop: they are still streets away, but their sirens echo shrill across the rooftops as she ducks along the lane walls.
Yasia rattles at Osip’s yard gate, flinging a handful of gravel at his shuttered windows. She took a wrong turning coming in from the outskirts to find him, and the place looks so different with all the streets empty. Osip’s grey head comes as a relief, the bulk of him too, as he opens the gate, finally. Just a crack, just enough to peer through.
“Oh! It’s you, girl.”
His eyes widen at seeing a family face. But the frown lines around them are dark.
“What have you come for?” he asks, although Yasia has stayed here so often before.
A little fatter, a little greyer even than the last time she saw him, he throws anxious glances at her muddied skirt hems and the sacks of apples she bound so hastily across the horse’s back this morning. But then the loudhailer comes blaring, and he pulls her inside, tugging the horse and its burden after her.
“Did your mother send you? Does your father know?” Osip hurries her—and then he hushes her straight after: “Not now—not so loud, girl. Don’t you hear them?”
He points behind his shoulder, as if at the sirens’ wailing, closing the yard gate swiftly behind himself.
“Only safe inside,” he cautions, and he pulls Yasia further, into the shelter of his workshop doorway.
Around her, all is as always: Osip’s low house, just across the yard bricks; his workshop behind her, with its smell of resin and sawdust. But even among his tools and benches and broken cart wheels, the familiar mess here, Yasia sees how Osip glances, nervous, up at the house fronts rising above his yard walls; she sees all those shuttered windows, and Yasia thinks of how many townsfolk must be crouched and listening behind them.
Then the loudhailer barks again: “. . . under curfew, until further notice.”
The jeeps pass far too close beyond the yard walls, and she stands with Osip as the voice announces: “Anyone flouting this order will be taken prisoner. Will be removed from here. Under the law of occupation.”
So Yasia hears now: the Germans haven’t only come giving orders, they have come to take as well. They take whatever they want, whoever they have use of. Who have they come for?
From A Boy In Winter. Used with permission of Pantheon. Copyright © 2017 by Rachel Seiffert.