That’s how the days went. I had nothing to wait around for, but I shared in the wait of the others as they stood by the sidewalk; inexplicably happy when they were called upon. Afterwards, knowing that there was no way anyone would notice me, I retraced my steps back home, slightly bewildered by their joy.
It was the cold season and, perhaps because of that, the days were short in Yelnia. My mother smoked over the stove, so placidly that she almost seemed to be dreaming. She sweetly opened her beautiful eyes, then slowly closed them; it was her way of saying hello. I left her to enjoy her cigarette, and went into the room where the kids were asleep, next to the man who became my father. I took off my shoes, gazed at the photo of my grandfather, and, shifting some legs aside, I laid down to sleep among the three of them.
Back then, clouds were –or seemed to be– white streaks on a chalkboard erased by a kid’s hand at the end of a school day. I’d stick my head out the window to watch the line of ragged-looking people that ran from the corner to the large municipal building. Every now and then, one of the men would recognize me from afar and wave, so I’d walk down and stand with him until he was allowed to enter the building, at which point I would wish him good luck and return home, from where I watched him drag along a worn-out sack that everyone else gazed at.
When I woke from my dream, the man had left. On his pillow, there would always be a sweat stain the size of his head, which never failed to repel me a little. I never stayed up to wait for him, since he could be gone until the next morning, or even a few days, after which he would come back with some groceries and leave them on the table, while mom smiled at him and we rushed to open them. I never knew what his job was. Mom said that he worked at the docks, hauling goods, but when we asked him, he made up the most ludicrous jobs a man could do, from putting feathers on birds, to chasing off dogs, to roaming the streets to wake up workers in the early evening. He had all the answers in the world, so we bombarded him with questions until he got fed up and, half-jokingly and half-seriously, ordered us to play outside. I loved his stories, where the devil went to the small peasant villages and did all sorts of evil tricks.
As the winter worsened, the lines around the building got longer and the supplies started to become scarcer. Few as they were, they now had to be distributed among a lot more people. It made sense because, with the cold, came the freezing of the river, which left the workers on the harbor without a job. On top of that, the hardness of the frozen soil hindered cultivation, forcing farmers to abandon their parcels of land to come to the city. Eventually arguments on the line began to erupt, which sometimes had to be broken up by the municipal guards with force, in a desperate attempt to keep the peace. My mom prohibited from hanging around the people anymore. Now I could only watch them from my window.
None of us went to school– it was too small to fit the large amount of kids that roamed around the streets– but mom taught us how to read and add or subtract when she could and with the little that she knew. She taught the three of us: Ganya, the youngest; Kostya, the middle child; and I, Lev. At the time, I wanted to be a writer like my grandfather, though the quality of my education was off to a bad start. For instance, while mom was busy cleaning or serving the neighboring houses, the three of us sat together outside, lined up along the sidewalk. We watched time pass by without doing anything else. We left our spots a few times because, touched by our good behavior, the ladies of the house wanted to treat us to a snack. But, it’s fair to say, most of the time we had to go back home with nothing. It wasn’t because they were cold-hearted, it was just that food was short for everyone.
One afternoon, after coming back from an errand, I found Gav, that was the man’s name, under the eave of the train station. He was playing cards with a group of guys and pretended not to notice me when I got closer. It took him almost a week to come back. That day he came with the news that the workers in the factory were on strike. They were joined by the farmers who wandered the city and the workers from the harbors, both of whom were without work. According to him, they refused to work without food, under the cold of that winter, and refused to cooperate to support a war that we waged in Europe more than three years ago and which they knew was hopelessly lost. It was a surprise for me to hear that, since Oleg, the old customs officer, taught us every so often in his booth that we must respect the Russian homeland like our mother, and the Tsar like our father. We should feel happy to belong to a time where our empire was the largest and most important in the world, where our navy ruled from the Pacific to the Baltic, our army was fiercely combating the Prussians, and our eagle thrust its claws deep into the heart of the sinister Habsburg bird.
Days later, alerted by a informant, a few workers from the union followed Gav from the bodegas in the municipality to a tiny tavern where he was meeting up with one of the servants of an officer that was dressed like a mujik. The workers burst into the bar, and before anyone could say anything, they dumped out the tiny sack that Gav left on the table he was sitting in. They found out at that moment that he had been stealing provisions meant for the officers. This enraged them more than if they found out he was a spy, and they began to pummel him with the hunger and frustration that they felt.
Gav barely got out alive, as the racket alerted and prompted the municipal guards to enter the locale. Making the most of the confusion, he slipped off into the military barracks, where he collapsed panting and lost consciousness. The soldiers wanted to throw him into the street, afraid that the angry mob would destroy the building. But the officer, the one who was secretly sharing his provisions, fired into the air, and took him inside again, not thinking to treat his wounds, leaving him to his fate. Lastly, he ordered an artillery discharge, which scattered the people crowding around the place.
Rumors slowly spread around town, aggravating an atmosphere which, in itself, was already agitated. Just a few hours later, as the train entered the station for its last trip and a pack of dogs brawled in the market street, two explosives went off. One in the customs office, which scorched and killed Oleg, the officer; and the other very close to where Gav took refuge, injuring three guards. At night, a squad of soldiers raided the offices of the union, and for the workers they couldn’t capture, they shot in the back as they tried to escape.
Meanwhile, the news continued on its way to reach the house. Maybe the snow and the wind played a part in slowing down the messages, getting them lost in the flurries and labyrinths of the cold. Klara, one of mom’s friends, finally brought it, pulling me by the arm as soon as she recognized me on the street. Mom dissipated into her seat and took a while before she could articulate a word. Some neighbors formed together to stone the house, but they refrained when Ganya, the youngest of us, stood in front of the door in what looked like a show of defiance or blunt condemnation. Embarrassed, they retreated and lost themselves in the dark facades of their houses.
That night, a bit saddened, I remembered the day before Gav had taken me to the market. He gave me coins so that I could pay and had me carry the groceries to the house. He was proud of me and let mom know. A bit after we talked for a bit, while mom fixed up some food in the kitchen, the kids played outside, and the smell of dinner joyfully stimulated our noses. He asked me what I wanted to be when I grew up and said that I had the makings of an official, since I was naturally nosy and prying. He didn’t hide his smile as he said this. He later added that I would be a writer, since I liked his stories about Sorochyntsi, and I had no qualms about accepting lies.
I found out later that Gav woke up at dawn inside the barracks and dragged himself into a corner where he went unnoticed. He was feeling his wounds and straightening his bones with infinite sympathy for his body, but without losing his dignity. The darkness made the time very unclear. There, he overheard the officers talking about how it was time to lay down their arms and join the workers, since other uprisings had taken place across the country and the high command did not have sufficient men to suppress them. The majority of the army was away fighting in Europe and unhappy with the state of the war. They would join the town and promised to liberate the workers from the union and hand over Gav, along with the official who saved him. That was the message that left the barracks and was thereafter accepted by the crowd gathered by the docks.
Mom sent me to go to Ms. Olga to tell her that she didn’t feel good enough to work when I saw a couple of soldiers dragging Gav out of the barracks. The sky was so pale that the snowy land seemed to extend infinitely. It had snowed since the early morning; a light snow that barely coated the area, without sticking, creating this feeling of pure levity. I stood paralyzed. Making their way between the shouting and congestion of the people, the soldiers brought Gav up on a scaffold they had made especially for the occasion, using crude planks brought from the harbor and the tavern where they attacked him. Also present was the officer in his tattered uniform, handcuffed beneath the gallows. Upon being asked what his final words were, Gav looked for me in the crowd and screamed, “The man in the photo, he’s not your grandfather, he’s a writer: his name was Gogol!” Having said that, the ramp opened up and his body fell heavily towards death, which I witnessed without blinking.
From then on, I have not been able to deny Gav as my father, even if the other boys and adults kept bothering me; even if my mother only did it for the rations, even if, like today, they leave me alone in line for the municipal building of Yelnia or even block me from forming with them.
And that’s all I have to say about him.