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under the snow
She turns back briefly, thinks this isn't far enough.
She can't see her home from where she is. A rise not even big enough to be called a hill obstructs her view. But still, she knows the house is there. Too close, she thinks.
She tightens her grip on the child in her arms, and she turns and keeps running.
It hadn't been long since her husband had left for Leningrad. She'd only been alone for several weeks. And really, she had not been alone. Her brother Adrik had been by several times as had Anatolii's brother Rurik and Rurik's wife Ekaterina. Anatolii had asked both his brothers to look after Sabina while he was gone, but only Rurik had bothered. Roman was busy with matters of his own, busy with absurd plans to flee to America, busy with his dealings with the Dmitriovs.
Sabina's mother had come by once. Yalena had insisted that Lukasha bring her to see her daughter. "Your grandson will be born soon," she'd said. "Don't you want to see that he comes into the world well?" Lukasha had brought her to see her daughter- -that's how he thought of her, not as my daughter, not as our daughter, but as her daughter--but he had not gone inside himself. He had remained out in the truck for all the hours Yalena was there. Sabina was still a dishonor to him. He would not see her.
The only person who Sabina had expected who did not come was her brother Ursa. But, she understood that he had his own problems. His farm had been taken from him, given to another man. But, although he had no work, he refused to go with Anatolii to Leningrad, refused to work in the shipyards. Like Roman Lenyov, Ursa Velikov dreamt of getting out of Mother Russia, journeying to America. He did not care to find himself trapped in Leningrad as he thought Anatolii would be. But, he also did not want to be caught anywhere near Anatolii's home, anywhere near Sabina, lest Anatolii arrive back home, lest Lukasha happen by. Ursa was almost as much of a disappointment to father as Sabina was. He'd never been a hard enough worker for father. He understood this, accepted this, as did Sabina. She regretted his absence, but she understood it.
Most of the days since Anatolii had left for Leningrad, Sabina had spent alone, counting the days until their firstborn would arrive, the days until their son would come. Had Anatolii been around, she might have found it in her to beam forth even more pride than she did alone. She had done what her mother was unable to do. She had given her husband a firstborn son. Anatolii was an important man in their village, just as his father, Edik Lenyov, had been. Sabina was glad to give him what he wanted, glad to add to his position in the village. She wouldn't dishonor him as Yalena had dishonored Lukasha. Sabina would do what a wife was supposed to do. Anatolii would have his son, and if he would work in the shipyards in Leningrad, Sabina would go with him to live there, and they would take their newborn son, and life would be grand.
She held no great ideals, no great urges to escape to America like Roman Lenyov and her own brother. She knew how great Russia was. Sabina Lukashovna Lenyov had heard time and time again how great Stalin had made this place. Her father had instilled that in her even when she was an infant, even before Lukasha had gone away to fight in the war. Sabina didn't pretend to believe there was something better for her elsewhere. She had Anatolii, and soon she would have her first child, her first son. She had all she could ever want, all she could ever need.
"You'll want for nothing," Anatolii had promised her. "The shipyards are booming. There is enough work for thousands. I will find it well there."
"How can you be sure," she'd asked.
"Don't question me, Sabishka. You know my judgment is not flawed. You know I'm right."
"Yes," she conceded.
"My brother may be a dreamer, tricking himself with fantasies of America, but I have no such fantasies. I am a powerful man right her in the village. And, I will be a powerful man in Leningrad. I don't need America."
"Yes," Sabina replied. "You do not need America."
She stumbles over a fallen tree, nearly drops her newborn son. He begins to wail. She muffles his cries with her scarf. She looks back toward the house, sure that someone has seen her leave, sure that someone is following. But, somewhere inside her she knows that no one follows, not even her brother. Her face, now without the scarf to cover it, begins to hurt from the icy wind, but she goes on. She's got to get farther from the house.
Lukasha Velikov had worked for years in the timber industry, had made a name for himself, had become a famous and powerful man. But, when Stalin had asked for soldiers, he had put it all behind him, had gone to war for his country, for his Russia. He'd left his wife behind with her two children and his son. Adrik had only been a baby at the time, but Lukasha could tell that he would be great like his father before him, not fat and lazy like Ursa, and NOT a disgraceful girl like Sabina. It didn't even seem so bad to Lukasha anymore that he had had to wait through Sabina and Ursa. Those two disgraces could easily be ignored now that he had Adrik. He would go to Europe, kill as many Nazis as he could, then he would return to his family, and he would watch his son grow to be strong, prominent, powerful. Of course, he would not let his child take the easy way out, would not let him do as the Dmitriovs did. His child would work for his fame. He would not kill for it.
Sabina had watched after Ursa while their father was gone, had cared for him as her mother should have. Yalena Velikov was to have little to do with her first two children now that she had Adrik. Adrik came first. He would have food before anyone else. He would have warm blankets before anyone else. He would have anything he wanted or needed. He was his father's son. So it came upon Sabina to care for herself and for Ursa, who was barely old enough to walk on his own, barely able to withstand the freezing nights. Sabina had shared her bed with her brother, had held him tight in her arms through the night, had wrapped her blanket around them both. She had kept him alive, had kept him fat and healthy. Somehow, though she was hardly old enough to understand all of it herself, she could tell that if she did not take care of him, no one would.
As the years went on and the war went on, Adrik grew. Yalena hardly seemed to notice her two older children, hardly seemed to even care that they were around. By the time Lukasha returned from the fighting, Adrik was walking on his own, and was holding his own in playful fights with his brother. Sabina, of course, could tell that Ursa was letting the younger boy win, was letting his father have what he wanted. And, she loved Ursa for what he was doing. If only she could have found her own way to make her father proud, proud of her, proud of Ursa, proud of anything at all, life would have been so great, so joyous. But instead, she remained the dishonor, the disgrace. She remained in the shadow of her youngest brother.
And, so it had been for all her life, until finally she made her father happy by marrying Anatolii Lenyov. If there was anyone more important in the village than her father--that is, if her father would ever admit that he was not the most prominent man around--it was Edik Lenyov. He was a man to whom people came when they needed things, a man who had all the answers, a man who had himself three sons. The oldest of his sons, Rurik, was already married by the time Lukasha got it in his head to marry off Yalena's daughter. He'd married the daughter of Pavla Dmitriov that last summer. Lukasha hated himself for missing by mere months the chance to marry Sabina to Edik Lenyov's eldest son. And so, with no other option, Lukasha settled for the second oldest, Anatolii, as it was clear that the third son, Roman, was already an aimless child, a dreamer more than a worker, like Ursa. And afterall, it was always best to take the eldest possible.
That Sabina had actually liked and come to love Anatolii Lenyov had only made it easier. There was no struggle, no more disgrace by Yalena's daughter than her birth had been. And, with her married into the Lenyovs, not only did Lukasha gain notoriety and power, even more than he already had, he got Sabina off his hands, out of his house.
"Father doesn't hate you," Adrik had told her. "He loves that you will bear a son for Anatolii. He is just too busy to come to see you."
"Too busy?" She couldn't believe this. Was she not the one who had linked his name to the Lenyovs? Was she not the one who had made him famous in many villages rather than just the one? She asked Adrik as much.
"I understand what you are saying," Adrik replied. "And, you're right. But, that does not make father any less busy."
"He's taken advantage of my marriage" Sabina said. "And yet, when I am with child, when I am to bear his first grandchild, he can not come to see me?"
Adrik demurred, shuffled his feet.
"It isn't like you Adrik to be nervous about answering such things," Sabina insisted. "Don't be this way, Lukashovich. Just admit that I am nothing but a disgrace to your father, our father. Admit that, and be on your way."
Adrik hesitated. "Yes," he said finally. "Father still loves that you have joined the Lenyov family, but you are still a dishonor to him. His embarrassment keeps him away."
"Now, go," Sabina said. Adrik left.
She huddles beside a large tree, first to protect her and the child from a strong wind, then to hide from a passing truck. She's gone too close to the road, she realizes. She turns, forgetting all about the strong wind, and runs into it, away from the road. She's too frightened that she'll be seen if she crosses the road, the easier way to have gone.
It is uphill, and the snow grows deeper. She begins to feel that she might almost be far enough. The child cries again. She holds him tight against her, tells him everything will be alright. She knows that isn't true.
A wolf howls somewhere in the near distance. Sabina stumbles, drops the baby into the snow. His wails pierce the air just as the wolf's cry has. She uses her scarf to muffle the child again, looks back in the direction of the road, then in the direction of the house, sees no one. She picks up her son, holds him inside her coat, tight against her chest, and she runs as fast as she can in the deep snow.
"I'll be back before our son is born," Anatolii told her. She'd believed him then just as she'd believed every word he'd spoken to her before. When the labor pains had started, she had simply let herself think they were something else altogether. It couldn't be their child trying to come into the world without his father present. It just couldn't be. No good son, no proper son, would do that. If the child came while Anatolii was still away in Leningrad, Sabina would be a disgrace all over again, maybe not to her own father as she had been all her life, but now to her husband.
She tried to fight off the labor, tried to stave off the boy's arrival. But, there was little she could do. She just wished Anatolii was there. Then, and only then, their son could come.
"He's depending on your son," Rurik had told her. "My brother must have what Ekaterina has not yet given me. Anatolii must have a son, or the Lenyov line will come to an end. Roman's dreams of America will keep him from ever honoring our father the way he should. It is up to you."
Rurik had put out a hand and touched her swollen belly. The child had kicked right then.
"He will be strong," Rurik said. "He WILL be a Lenyov."
Sabina had smiled at this pronouncement. Were it to come true, she knew, that would be the greatest gift, to her, to Anatolii, to Edik, and to Lukasha, and to God. A strong firstborn son would be the most glorious of things. Sabina understood that.
"They've taken away my farm," Ursa said. He was on the verge of tears. He'd put all he was into that farm, had tended to it as best he could, had tried to make something of it and of himself. He was still trying to make Lukasha proud. He had not yet given up in that respect.
"Can they do that," Sabina asked him.
"Of course," Anatolii said from the doorway. "It is their farm." He directed himself toward Ursa. "That you had the time to tend it that you have had was a fortunate thing for you, but you mustn't question Mother Russia when she takes such things away. The farm was never YOURS. She always belonged to Mother Russia."
"Mother Russia, Mother Russia," Ursa said. Something in what Anatolii had said had given him a backbone usually reserved for everyone but him and of course his older sister. "Stop with your Mother Russia," he said. "I don't want to hear it anymore. Your brother Roman is right about this place. Stalin did not make us great. He killed us, took away what greatness we had. He sent our fathers to die in war. And, for what?"
"Your father came back from that war," Anatolii yelled. "So did mine. So, don't even speak to me of that."
"Was that such a great thing, sending them off to die? Sure, our father's came back, but so many fathers did not. So many brothers. So many sons. And, now Khrushchev and his lot take away our farms for no reason other than to give it to men who will still kiss their backsides. And, you expect me to say that's okay because it is what Mother Russia wants, what Mother Russia has the right to do to me?"
"You bastard." Ursa charged at Anatolii.
Ursa was a big man, but he fat, not well built as Anatolii was. Tending his farm had made him strong but not strong enough. Anatolii stepped aside and shoved Ursa into the wall.
"Stop it," Sabina cried. She rushed to her brother as he collapsed to the floor.
"Get away from him," Anatolii said. "And you," he said to Ursa, "get out of my home. And, don't ever come back here."
Ursa struggled to his feet. Sabina moved to help him up but backed away when her husband glared at her.
"I will come to see my sister whenever I please," Ursa said.
"No defector will set foot in my home."
"I am no defector."
"You are worse than Roman. At least my brother is open about his dreams of leaving Russia. At least he does not hide behind such a weak exterior."
Ursa made a move toward Anatolii, and Anatolii hit him in the face, knocking him to the floor again. This time, he allowed Sabina to help her brother up.
"Don't ever show your traitorous face around this place again," Anatolii said. With that, he left the room. A minute later, Ursa left, leaving his sister weeping.
Sabina had still been sitting on the floor weeping over Ursa being forced from the house when Anatolii came back into the room.
"Don't you cry over that traitorous pig. No man like that will ever be a great man, and he has no right to be your brother."
"But, he IS my brother, Anatolii."
Anatolii knelt by his wife, rested a hand on her shoulder. "When will you learn that Ursa Velikov is no man worthy of your tears or your love? Look to Adrik when you need a brother. Don't look at that defector brother of yours."
"Is he any different than Roman?"
It seemed that Anatolii's hand was striking her before she even finished that sentence. "My disgrace is not yours," he explained. "Don't you worry about my brother."
Rubbing her cheek, Sabina dared to look her husband in the eye and say, "then, don't you worry about mine."
He struck her again.
Sprawled on the floor, her nose and her broken lip dripping blood, Sabina cursed herself for doing what she'd done. Who was she to defy Anatolii Edikovich Lenyov? Who was she?
Anatolii came, after some time had passed, picked Sabina up from the floor and took her to their bed. He washed the blood from her face with a damp cloth then he peeled away her clothes.
Sabina would forever believe that was the night their firstborn son was conceived.
When Anatolii was to go to Leningrad to see about work in the shipyards, Sabina pleaded with him to make up with her brother. "He has yet to find work since the government gave his farm to another man," she said. "Take him with you to Leningrad."
"Take that defector to Leningrad? Are you joking with me?"
"Ursa would be a better man if he could find new work," Sabina replied. "I know you believe a man who works hard is a good man, that a man who works hard for Mother Russia is a great man. Help Ursa be a great man."
Anatolii had gone to Ursa, Sabina in tow, had asked him if he wanted to go to Leningrad to work in the shipyards, to work for the glory of . . .
"Don't say it," Ursa interrupted. "Don't tell me to work for the glory of Mother Russia. I won't work for her glory. She is a lying, thieving, whore."
Sabina barely stopped Anatolii from launching his fists at her brother. "Get away from here, then," he said to Ursa. "Leave this place, and never return. Go to America. Dishonor us all, dishonor your father as you've done all your life."
A man walked by them, a man whose body and face was a twisted, deformed parody of a man, a hideous thing that received only ridicule and scorn from the villagers. Anatolii looked at him, then turned toward Ursa again.
"I would rather take that waste of flesh with me to Leningrad than take you. God himself has turned his back on that horrific creature, and still HE would never turn his back on Mother Russia."
"He would if she turned her back on him," Ursa replied. Then, he turned and left.
Anatolii and Sabina stood there a moment longer. Anatolii watched the deformed man go on about his business. "Really," Anatolii confided in his wife, "I would kill that monstrosity before I took him anywhere. And, Mother Russia would thank me."
I would kill that monstrosity.
She remembers Anatolii saying that so clearly.
Such a man would never touch her son. She holds the child tight in her arms, spins around to see she has covered miles of ground since leaving the house.
But, it's still not far enough, she thinks. Anatolii would find him.
She treks on through the ever deepening snow.
"You should never defy him," Yalena explained to her daughter. "He is your husband. And, your son will be here soon."
"Mother, what if it is not a son?"
"Don't even say such a thing. It IS a son. You will not disgrace the Lenyov family as I have disgraced the Velikovs. You shall give them what they want."
Sabina's mother touched her stomach, an echo of Rurik touching her. "He will grow to be strong and powerful, a prominent man in the village or in Leningrad if that is where you will be. Anatolovich will be an important man, a great man. He will make his father proud. He will make YOUR father proud."
Sabina wanted that. Oh, how she wanted that. To have her firstborn son go on to greatness would be perfection itself. God's arrival in her home would barely be more perfect.
"Say it again," she said to her mother. "Tell me again how great my son will be."
Yalena obliged her daughter.
She huddles yet again, this time beneath a fallen tree. The icy wind nearly topples that tree's twin standing nearby. Briefly, Sabina wishes that it will fall, that it will take her life and the life of her son. That would make the future so much easier.
The wind dies down again. She marches through the thigh high snow, barely able to feel her legs. She fights off the awkward mix of pain and numbness in those limbs and refuses to stop.
Just a little farther, she thinks, and I can get this overwith.
"You're the lucky one," Ekaterina whispered in her ear. "I fear that Rurik loves you more than he loves me right now. He sees you, your belly full with his brother's son, and he can't help but be proud. He can't help but love you. You've given Anatolii what I have failed to give to my Rurik."
"You'll be with child eventually," Sabina said.
Ekaterina leaned even closer to Sabina's ear. "I hate you," she whispered. "I joined the Lenyovs before you did. It was my right to give them a new generation, not yours."
"Katya, I am sorry," Sabina replied.
"Don't be. You'll bring them the glory I should have. You should be proud of yourself. Just know that I am not."
This is far enough, she realizes.
She looks all around one last time, to be sure no one can see or hear her or her son.
She sets him down on the snow, careful that the blanket in which he is wrapped and her scarf, the end of which still muffles his occasional cries, are between he and the cold cold snow.
She waits. For what, she doesn't know. She just waits.
She'd suffered through the birth alone. She'd torn the umbilical cord, disposed of the placenta. She'd tied off the stump of cord on her son's belly. She'd washed the fluid from her child. She'd held her son, firstborn son to Anatolii Lenyov, firstborn grandson to Lukasha Velikov and Edik Lenyov. Alone, she'd admired him, though the potential for greatness she now realized did not lie in this child.
She held him against her for the longest time. There was something about him, something about her son, that was utterly captivating. She'd found herself unable to look away, unable to let go, though she knew she would have to do just that eventually.
But, there was also something terrifying there, something that frightened her, made her worry what Anatolii would think of his son.
"No," she corrected. "This is not Anatolii's son. This is my son. This is my shame. This is my disgrace. Anatolii will get another son, a better son, a son who WILL be great." She rubbed her nose against the boy's. "You will never be great, my son. You will amount to nothing."
Then, she turned her sight away from that disfigured little face, planning never again to look at her son, never again to think of him.
And, she knew, Anatolii would never see him.
She's waited long enough. She takes back her scarf, wraps it around her neck again.
She claws a hole in the snow, digging down all the way to the ground.
I would kill that monstrosity.
She hears Anatolii's voice only in her head but looks around briefly to see if he is there next to her. He is not.
She reaches the hard, frozen ground, and then she grabs her son. She thinks of holding him against her one more time, letting him feel the warmth of his mother's body again. But, she thinks better of it.
As she lowers him into the hole she has dug in the snow, the blanket falls away. She catches a glimpse of her son's face. She sees that horrifying creature in the village was not God's cruelest joke. No, THAT is in her hands. She sets him down, knowing that he would never be anything great, that Anatolii would be dishonored by him, that the Lenyovs and the Velikovs would both be disgraced by him.
She pushes snow back into the hole, covering her son. At first, he cries, and those cries pierce her heart. But, soon enough, he is silent, too cold or too weak to cry any longer, or maybe just muzzled by the snow.
Sabina fills the hole, stands and turns her back on that spot.
She faces the direction of her home, knowing that she can have another son for Anatolii, knowing that everything will be okay next time.
She starts walking.
Briefly, she thinks she hears her child's cries from under the snow, but it's only her imagination. She keeps going.
As much as she knows in her heart that this was the right thing to do, it still hurts with each step she puts between she and her son.
She wants to collapse into the snow herself, bury herself under the snow. She wants to die.
She wants to weep. But, it is too cold for tears.
September 25, 1998 - September 27, 1998