The following is from Neville Frankel’s novel, On the Sickle's Edge. Frankel pursued doctoral work in English literature at the University of Toronto and is the author of The Third Power. He received an Emmy for his work on a BBC documentary, The Mind of a Murderer: Part 1. Frankel is a 2013 Jewish Book Council Author and has participated in speaking engagements around the country. He lives outside Boston with his wife Marlene.
As the train pulled into the station and passengers began stepping down, I watched people on the platform staring at me—a very short middle-aged woman with a red and green woven bag, jumping down from the train with the nimble step of a dancer. What they didn’t know is that I could have done it in my sleep, that I had spent years jumping down from moving trains all across the Soviet Union. Maria Ivanovna had given me a round-trip voucher which I used when I got on the train. As a result I didn’t have to identify myself as a railway employee, and I realized that this was the first time I had traveled anywhere as a passenger.
My instructions were to go to the station entrance, where a military presence had been assigned since the explosion. Four soldiers in camouflage fatigues stood at the main entryway, two on each side, each with a rifle slung over his shoulder. Large, dour boys, boots planted wide, looking around them for menacing civilians. I approached one of them and looked up at him.
“I was told to speak to one of the soldiers about picking up my granddaughter, who was orphaned in the explosion last week. Can you help me?”
While I was speaking, he looked over my head, distaining to glance at me. But when I was through he lowered his eyes, and his expression softened.
“Speak to that soldier over there,” he said, pointing at one of the other uniforms. “He’s in communication with the base.”
I gave the other man my name, and on his shortwave radio he announced that I had arrived and was waiting at the station for my granddaughter.
“It shouldn’t be long,” he said. “They will bring her to you.”
“They?” I asked. “Who? I thought I would be able to go to my granddaughter.”
“I’m sorry, Mother,” he said. “No civilians are allowed. One of our off-duty comrades will bring the child to you.” He smiled. “There are several little ones waiting for family to come. All the nurses want to take care of them.”
“How many?” I asked.
“I’m not sure,” he said. “Seven or eight.”
Seven or eight children orphaned in the explosion, I thought, and young nurses bringing them one by one to meet whatever family had come for them. If they were lucky enough to have family. Children being handed over from one stranger to another. I had no knowledge of who Darya was, of her likes and dislikes. I would have no chance to see where she and my daughter lived together with the father I had never met, or to collect the clothes and toys Klara had accumulated for her. And no memento of Klara, either.
I supposed Darya was the best memento I could have. But it would be like receiving a newborn baby with no preparation—only this newborn was already two-years-old, with her opinions, patterns and habits. I steeled myself to take possession of a frightened, screaming child.
I sat on a bench outside the station to wait, watching travelers coming and going, all in a rush to get somewhere fast. Pensioners huddled in groups around me, having emerged like reptiles from the darkness of their caves, to bask in the June sunshine. They smoked, turned their faces to the sun, talking sports scores loudly and everything else in muted voices, mouths hidden behind their hands. It was like this, I imagined, in every city in the Soviet Union, when the sun came out on a June afternoon. But I was not out to enjoy the weather, and I watched the road for a military vehicle to appear, a vehicle from which a uniformed woman would emerge carrying a little girl.
Several camouflaged trucks drove by without stopping, soldiers under the canvas cover in the back. Non-military vans stopped outside the station to drop off boxes, and I saw how hard the porters and baggage carriers worked, scurrying back and forth from the road to the rail track. They pushed carts and two-wheeled carriers loaded with packages and suitcases, followed by well-dressed Communist Party members keeping a close eye on their belongings. It was a grueling job, and I breathed a sigh of relief that I had left it behind me.
A small, two-door van painted military green pulled up in the area marked for police vehicles. The doors opened, a uniformed soldier emerged from each door, and walked over to the soldiers at the main entrance who had been so helpful to me. I didn’t hear what they said, but one pointed to me. The two newcomers looked towards me and approached. I met their eyes as I rose to greet them.
“Grandmother?” one of them said. “Are you Yelena Petrovna Lebedev?”
He removed his cap, perhaps out of respect. But I think he was puzzled. He scratched his stubbled scalp. Both young men towered over me, and it was clear that I was not what they expected, a tiny woman in a shabby brown coat, carrying a bright woven bag.
“I am. You have my granddaughter?” I asked.
“What is your granddaughter’s name?”
“Darya,” I said. “My daughter—Darya’s mother—was Klara Vasilyevna Lebedev. Do you have her?”
“Yes, but before I take you to her, we need to make sure you are approved to receive her.”
I pulled the certificate from my pocket and handed it to him.
“Will this do?” I asked.
He unfolded and read it, carefully refolded it and handed it back to me. Then he smiled.
“Come, Grandmother. We have a lovely little girl for you. A delight. If the Ministry had not found you, my comrade or I would have been happy to take her. And you will have to pry her out of the arms of the nurse assigned to care for her.”
I picked up my bag and followed him to the back of the truck, and he opened the tailgate and glanced in. Then he turned back to me and put his finger to his lips.
“She’s sleeping,” he said.
Before I looked into the truck I reached into my bag and pulled out Klara’s worn, stuffed bear and held it under my arm. Then I looked into the truck to see a woman in a nurse’s uniform sitting sideways on the bench. She looked up at me, smiling, a pretty young woman with blue eyes and straight fair hair.
“Yelena Petrovna?” she whispered. “Darya’s grandmother?” she whispered.
She introduced herself as Irina, and looked down at her feet.
“Here is your angel,” she said quietly.
I climbed up on the back step so that I could look down into the bottom of the truck. There she was, sleeping in a bed of blankets on the floor. Long eyelashes, round, smooth cheeks, apple-red; she was sucking her lower lip in sleep. Full lips, just as Klara had. Her little fists were clenched. I could see how fine her skin was, and how soft.
“I made sure she had a long nap,” said Irina. “I didn’t want her to be tired when she met you.”
“Thank you,” I whispered. “Let her sleep a little —I have so many questions for you before she wakes.”
“What questions, Grandmother? I don’t know whether I have any useful answers—I don’t know much about her.”
“How is her eating? What foods does she like?” I asked. “And her sleeping—does she go through the night? She must miss her mother. Are there nightmares? How does she like to be comforted?”
I wanted to communicate to this young woman the importance of the moment, to let her know she was the connection between Darya’s past and her future. That once we separated, the connection would be broken. In the few moments before we parted, I wanted all the knowledge she had.
“How is her speech? Does she have many words? Does she like to have her hair brushed? And what about baths? Her mother used to love warm water in the little tub…”
“I’ve only known her three days,” said Irina, taking my hand in hers.
She smiled at me. I remember her pretty, smooth face, unlined and unworried, trying to comfort this anxious old woman.
“She’s happy and calm. She loves her food—so far she eats whatever she can get her hands on. She already drinks from a cup. They said she was toilet trained—but she seems to be regressed a little so we put a diaper on her. She’s a good sleeper, and when she awakes, a comforting hand and a lullaby puts her right back to sleep. She doesn’t have many words, but she knows how to communicate what she wants.” She leaned forward and put her other hand around my shoulder. “Maybe she doesn’t yet realize what’s happened—and even if she could, would she understand that her life has changed? I suppose this changes your life, too,” she said. “But how lucky she is to have you!”
She rose to her feet and jumped from the truck, and then reached in and gently pulled the bed of blankets towards the lowered tailgate. As she did so, Darya opened her eyes. They were green, as Vasily’s had been, and more than the color, it was as if he looked at me through her eyes. It was shocking, to see the depth and calm of his soul, clear and wise, peering out of her pink, unformed face, still warm and drowsy from sleep. Then she rolled onto one elbow and pulled herself to a sitting position, and opened her mouth to yawn, showing a mouthful of perfect little teeth. Suddenly all my doubts disappeared. She was mine, and at that instant I knew we would be fine. I had promised myself that I would not cry at our first meeting, and I didn’t—instead I smiled, showing the love I felt in my heart, but I cannot deny that there was moisture in my eyes, and a lump in my throat as I reached for her, my arms wide.
“Come, Dashinka,” I said softly, “come.”
She looked for a moment from the young soldier to me and back again, trying to make sense of the situation. And it looked as if she made a decision. She opened her arms towards the young woman.
My heart fell as Irina scooped her up. Of course I understood—she was a pretty young woman, she was familiar, and I was unfamiliar, old and wrinkled.
“Dashinka,” she said, turning the child to face me. We were two paces apart. “This is your Babushka. She’s come to take you home with her. And look what she has for you.”
I reached under my arm, withdrew the stuffed bear, and tickled her nose with it. She smiled uncertainly and looked back at Irina. Then she turned and looked at me. Her glance moved across my face, and something like recognition came over her. She reached for the bear with one hand, and with the other she reached for me.
“Mama,” she said.
I heard Irina’s surprised intake of breath.
“She recognizes you,” Irina said, handing Darya to me. “Did her mother look like you?”
“Yes,” I said, kissing her cheek. She smelled of wet diaper, but we would soon change that. In my woven bag I had brought two diapers just in case. But beneath the wet diaper, I smelled the sweet little girl smell I had all but forgotten. “We looked very much alike—we had the same eyes and cheekbones. Didn’t we, Dashinka? We looked very much alike, your Mama and I. But I am not her—I am Babushka. Can you say that? Babushka.”
She clung to the bear, but she was not uncomfortable in my arms. My heart was full, and I was ready to take her home. Irina walked me back to the track, carrying my bag and a canvas carrier containing Darya’s clothes and what toys could fit.
“Good-bye,” said Irina, her eyes filling. “You be a good girl, and listen to Babushka.”
“Thank you, Irina, for taking care of her,” I said. “We’re going to be fine together.”
She smiled and waved as she turned quickly and walked back to the truck, and we were alone for the first time.
“I’m going to put you down now,” I said, “because you’re a big girl and you know how to walk, don’t you?”
I sat on a bench as we waited for the next train, and she stood beside me and watched with big eyes as I went through all her clothes and repacked both bags so that I could manage them. I was thankful to see that Klara had taken good care of her. Her clothes were bright and clean, pinks and purples and light blue and yellow; she responded to my voice, smiled, was interested in what I had to show her. I changed her diaper, and we had a drink of water and some bread and jam.
When the train finally came and we boarded with the help of a young man who carried my bags, she was tired again, and I pulled out a book to amuse her. She sat on my lap, and it was difficult to know which one of us was more entertained as she pointed with her chubby forefinger at pictures of puppies and kittens, trees and tractors, apples and whales and seagulls. I sounded out the name of the picture, and she looked back at me with a little crinkle of concentration between her dark emerald eyes, and with a serious expression she repeated the word.
“You don’t want to frown, Dashinka,” I murmured, smoothing out the crinkle between her eyes. It was something left over from my own childhood, when Esther would smooth my frowns away. They thought in those days that frowning as a child would result in a permanent early wrinkle. In response she twisted around in my arms and solemnly traced the wrinkles between my eyes.
After a while she yawned, snuggled down on my lap and fell asleep in my arms. As we rolled home towards Moscow, I felt happier and fuller than I could remember. I would bring up this child as Klara would have wanted me to. Without hovering, I would watch her like a hawk; guide her, without being directive; love her, without smothering. I grew up not loving myself, and was unable to give the gift of self-love to Klara. But I was determined that whatever else she became, Darya would grow up loving herself.
There was no force on earth strong enough to make me avert my eyes or my attention from this child, not for an instant. Not Mother Russia, waiting patiently with her ever open, always salivating maw; not even Death snarling at my heels. I made a vow that I would be wholly present at every step of this child’s life.
I have done everything in my power to keep that promise. Vasily would be proud.
From ON THE SICKLE’S EDGE. Used with permission of Lavender Ink. Copyright © 2017 by Neville Frankel.