Jan. 23rd, 2010 12:00 pm
cheslav_oleksei: (Default)
[personal profile] cheslav_oleksei
There was a long line at the bread kiosk that morning, just like every morning.

Citizens shivered as they stood in the snow, clutching their ration cards in their freezing hands. They wore threadbare clothing, in as many layers as they could, but still, there were always one or two who collapsed and did not move again.

The men and women behind them shuffled forward to take their places in line.

Cheslav Oleksei had learned early on that the ration lines were worthless. Invariably, they ran out of bread before everyone got a share, and even if you were lucky enough to get your ration for that day, it was near-inedible, mixed with more sawdust than grain.

He eyed the line of listless citizens. Later, when the kiosk ran short, they would not even raise their voices in protest. Instead, they would simply turn around and trudge back home, only to return the next day even earlier, to try again.

"Come on, Taras," he said, gruffly. Taras stood silently at his side, watching the line.

After a second, Taras looked up at him with dark eyes, and nodded dutifully.

They left.

Cheslav was a large man, tall and broad-shouldered, built thick with muscle and well-fed from childhood. His father had been a butcher, and had insisted his children eat meat every night. In the fine Soviet tradition, Cheslav had become a butcher as well, and until the German blockade, had fed meat to his children every night.

It had been working, as far as he could tell. Although Taras was only nine years old, he was solidly built, not overtall for his age but husky, though the long, cruel months of near-starvation had made him leaner.

It was troubling. No son of Cheslav Oleksei's was going to be scrawny.

Taras trailed after him as they walked down the snowy street, avoiding the fissures in the pavement where mortar shells had cracked starburst sinkholes. He did not need to tell Taras to keep up.

They turned down a particular alley Cheslav knew.

There were men who lurked in the shadows of Leningrad like feral cats once had, only all the cats had been hunted and eaten months before. But these men frequented certain spots, rotating their locations, though those in the know could usually find them.

At least that had been true until a few weeks ago, when the men had abruptly disappeared. Cheslav had checked all the places he knew every day just in case, but the men had either moved on to other, inscrutable locations or had simply slipped back into the old brickwork, lost like ants or roaches or whatever was left still left alive in the bones of the city.

He heard a noise up ahead, and paused, cocking his head. Immediately, Taras went still as well.

Voices. Cheslav heard voices. He listened to the conversation for a few seconds, then nodded to Taras. He started forward again, making sure to scrape his boots against the ground as he walked.

The voices went quiet. Cheslav stepped around the corner.

Four men stood next to a large canvas duffle, two men holding crude clubs fashioned from castoff furniture, and another with no obvious weapons at all. The fourth man was dressed in a Red Army officer's uniform. He glanced quickly at Cheslav but did not make eye contact.

Cheslav's lip curled.

He nodded at the weaponless man, who nodded back, after a moment. The man turned back to the officer and they concluded their business in hurried whispers, and then the man handed the officer a bag with dark stains down the front of it.

Cheslav waited until the officer had left before he approached.

"What do you have?" he asked, without preamble.

There was a pause.

"Dog," the man said.

Cheslav looked at him.

There had been rat first, in the early days of the shortages. Then dog, and then finally cat. Cheslav figured pure sentimentality had kept the domesticated animals safe until there was no other choice, and cats were harder to catch than dogs.

Once, there had been horse meat, but that had been more of a fluke.

"Let me see it," Cheslav said.

The guards stirred, shifting stances, grips tightening on their makeshift clubs. Cheslav did not look at them. Instead, he held the leader's gaze. The man had bad teeth and a large mole on his forehead. Cheslav could see the blurred edge of a greenish tattoo on the man's neck, just above his collar.

After a moment, the man reached down into the duffle and pulled a bloody cut of meat wrapped in wax paper. Cheslav took the parcel, inspecting the meat within briefly.

His eyes went back to the leader's.

"We're tired of dog," he said shortly, then thrust it back at him.

Cheslav put a firm hand on Taras' shoulder and steered him away.

As they walked down the snowy streets, Cheslav felt like they were being followed.

He cut through alleys and half-ruined walls, ducking behind shoddily erected barricades. Cheslav pushed a hard pace, but Taras kept up and did not complain, not once.

Finally, Cheslav paused to let them rest in the lee of a bombed-out building that had once been an apartment. He could see remnants of furniture above, in the exposed upper floors.

Taras looked at him, panting quietly, breath misting in the air.

"Why didn't we take the dog meat?"

Cheslav shook his head.

"That wasn't dog."

"Then what was it?"

Cheslav eased an arm around Taras' shoulders, and drew his son to him, knowing it was cold.

"What do you think it was?"

A small knot of concentration formed between Taras' brows. Cheslav could see thoughts flowing behind his son's eyes, heavy and molten. Back before the war, the teachers had told him that Taras was slow, and Cheslav allowed that perhaps Taras was, but slow was not the same thing as stupid.

He saw the moment the realization hit, when Taras' eyes widened and sought his, startled, then after a second, questioning.

"It was probably someone around your age," Cheslav said, though he had no way of knowing that.

He sighed.

"Listen, Taras, this is very important. I need you to understand something. There are some things in life you can never compromise on. Never. Not and still call yourself a man, and if you're not a man, there's no point. That was one of them. You and I, were not going to be like those people. We're not going to pretend like we don't know where that meat comes from, just because we're hungry. We're not going to prey on the weakest, just because we're the strongest. We're not savages who eat other people. It's inhuman."

Cheslav gripped Taras' shoulder a little too hard.

Taras squirmed for a second, grimacing. Then he held still.

"There's another way," Cheslav said, slowly. "There's always another way. If you cross some lines you can't ever come back."

He paused.

"There aren't many lines that are like that. But the ones we have...those are important, you understand?"

Taras nodded, solemnly.

"We can talk about it later," Cheslav said. "But I need you understand why we didn't take that meat. You and I, we're better than other people, and what makes us better is that we don't compromise on who we are, ever."

Taras stared at him, steadily, dark eyes clear.

"Da, Papa."

"Good. We'll rest a while here, then we'll go home."

"Da." Taras was silent for a few moments. "But what are we going to eat?"

"I don't know," Cheslav said. "But we'll find a way, you understand?"

Taras rested his head against Cheslav's side.

"Da, Papa. I know."

Date: 2010-02-10 10:27 am (UTC)
From: [identity profile]
Excellent. One of my favorite meals, Shurik.

Sometimes the simplest things are the most enjoyable.


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