Extract from The Lace Weaver.

FictionIssue FiveUncategorised

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Birch Pattern

Lydia

‘You will be transported to Tartu station. From there, you will begin your journey to your new home. You have been granted an allowance of one suitcase each. Anyone who resists will be arrested.’

The soldier’s voice boomed in the street. Despite the cacophony of noise, his words were clear, ringing out over the heads of the people being steered into police wagons and shoved into the back of trucks. Timber crates lay heaped and broken on the footpath, cleared out so the trucks could accommodate as many bodies as possible. All the soldiers had lists. As each person came forward, they were to give their name to be checked off and then bundled into the wagon where their families were already waiting.

Ahead of me, I saw Etti freeze, her shoulders lifting as if someone had shone a spotlight on her face. But the soldier closest to her had already turned away, distracted by a question from his colleague. We hurried past him, Olga holding fast to my arm as if I might be swept away on the river of people being ferried towards the police wagons. In turn, I reached out to hold on to Etti, anxious not to lose her in the crowd. My fingers knotted in the weave of her shawl; we moved slowly until the deportees peeled away and it was just the three of us, making our way towards a courtyard surrounded by apartment blocks.

When we reached the courtyard, Etti groaned, coming suddenly to a halt, both hands pressed flat against her belly. My grip on the shawl slackened.

‘What’s the matter?’ Olga said. Her face glittered in the light from the streetlamp. She lifted an arm, swiping at her face with her sleeve.

Etti was bent double, her breathing ragged. I wound my arm around her shoulders. ‘Etti, do you need to rest?’

She shook her head. Her mouth was pinched, her face screwed up in pain. She let out a long exhalation of breath. ‘There’s no time. It’s just ahead.’ She jerked her head towards a doorway harboured one it her side by boxed geraniums. The noise of the streets – the clop of horse hooves, the grind of wheels – seemed muffled here. Nobody wailed with fear or shouted instructions. The sounds were muted, as if the blank walls and darkened windows of the townhouses clustered around the courtyard had absorbed them. Or as if there were nobody left inside.

Olga’s face appeared beside me, knotted with worry. ‘Perhaps you could wait here,’ she said to Etti. ‘Lydia and I can go.’

‘No.’ Shaking her head, Etti tried to push herself to her feet. Swaying, she let out a sharp gasp.

‘Lida, you take that side,’ Olga said, slipping shoulder beneath Etti’s arm. ‘Come now.  Quickly!’ I obeyed, helping to heave Etti to her feet. Together, we half-dragged her across the courtyard, her breath coming in short gasps. When we reached the doorway, she seemed to rally, shaking us off to stagger inside unassisted.

Although the stairwell inside was dim, lit only by a single bulb, I could smell the dust that clogged the carpet, the tobacco that had soaked into the wallpaper from years of tenancy. Together we struggled up the stairs, Etti stopping every few steps to lean against the wall, panting.

At last, we reached the landing. ‘In here.’ Etti reached past me, gripping the handle of a door painted a faded blue.  I heard her gasp. Bracing myself, I followed her inside.

The apartment was full of women. At least, that was how it seemed. Their pale faces stood out in the glow of an oil lamp on a sideboard. Their shadows stretched behind them, making dark impressions against the wallpaper. They huddled in the centre of the room as if knitted together by an invisible thread. The puddle of light thrown out by the lamp created a wide circle around them. At the edges were shards of gleaming china, pieces of glittering crystal that lay in a heap like jagged jigsaw bits.

As we entered, the women let out a sigh and broke apart. ‘Dearest!’ An old babushka wobbled forward, hands clasped together as if in prayer. She was as thin as a bird, her stockingless legs poking out beneath a grey housecoat belted around with an old piece of flowered fabric. Her faded slippers crunched on the glass fragments and she halted, looking down as if afraid to go any further. Etti moved towards her, catching up the old lady’s frail hands. ‘Helle! What happened?’

The old woman’s face crumpled. She began to cry noisily. The other women shrank together, murmuring uneasily like nervous hens in winter when the foxes circle round. They all wore plain dresses and white shawls around their shoulders. The ripe scent of sweat and onions rolled over me, mingled with the fumes from the oil lamp sitting on the floor at   their feet.

‘It was the Russians.’ Helle dabbed at her eyes with the edge of her shawl. Her eyes lingered on Olga and me curiously before shifting back to Etti. ‘They came into the building and took away the Saar family. All of them! We heard them being ordered to dress and march downstairs. Those poor children.’ Her voice cracked. She pressed the back of her hand in front of her mouth.

‘They said Papa Saar was carrying out subversive activities,’ one of the younger women volunteered. She pushed back a loose brown ringlet that had fallen across her eyes. ‘You know he was assigned to work in the bread shop last year. They said he was favouring the Estonians, giving them the better bread while the Soviets were given bread made with sawdust and old papers.’

‘That’s ridiculous.’ Etti’s face flushed. ‘How can that be possible?’

The young woman lifted a shoulder helplessly. ‘Etti, your mother argued with them!’

‘She was a force to be reckoned with.’ Helle lifted her chin. Only the slight tremble of her mouth betrayed her. ‘She said the same thing you did. That they were obviously mistaken. But oh, Etti . . . they took her.’ Fresh tears leaked from her eyes. ‘I’m so sorry. Your mother tried to fight them off. That only made it worse. They didn’t even give her time to pack a case or take her coat. Animals.’ A flash of anger suffused Helle’s tiny pointed face. ‘Then they came back in here and took everything of value they could find and smashed the rest. We gathered here to wait for you.’

‘Where did they take her?’ Etti’s face had blanched.

‘Same place as all the others.’ Helle shook her head. ‘The train station.’

Etti gasped and swayed, holding onto her belly as if it were a lifeline.

‘Perhaps they will hold everyone there until morning,’ I said, thinking quickly. ‘There are so many. It’s surely too hard to organise so many people onto trains in the middle of the night.’

The women turned to me. I felt their interest sweep over me like a searchlight in the dark. I could almost hear them thinking, who are these Russian women?

Helle moved towards Etti as if to protect her from us. Her voice was wary. ‘Etti?’

The Estonian woman drew in a long, ragged breath and waved a hand. ‘They are friends, Helle. Trying to help. Lydia and Olga. You can trust them.’

Helle’s shoulders relaxed. ‘If you are sure, dearest.’

‘I am.’

A train whistle shrieked suddenly, shrill and insistent, the sound cutting through the night. All the women turned towards the window. The lamplight picked out the sharpness of their cheek bones.

‘Too late.’ Etti’s voice was dull and mechanical. She sank slowly to the floor and remained squatting there, hugging herself. ‘She’s gone.’

‘She’s not gone yet,’ I said, but Etti did not seem to hear me. Her head was bowed, her shoulders slumped in defeat.

My mind was racing, searching for possibilities. Etti’s mother was not imprisoned yet. She might not even be on the train. If we could find someone to speak to, a guard . . . Lieutenant Lubov’s face leaped into my mind.

Kneeling beside Etti, I brushed the sparkling shards of a crystal vase to one side so that only the glittering dust remained. ‘I know someone, Etti. Someone who could help us.’ Etti raised her eyes to mine. Deep pain was etched there, but the shock of it all was keeping despair at bay.

I squeezed her shoulder.

‘You’ll have to come with me to the train station. But if this – person – is there . . . If he is where I think he will be, there’s a chance we could save her. Our only chance.’

‘We will all go.’

I looked up to find the little old woman, Helle, shuffling forward, adjusting the shawl on her shoulders, pulling it up so that it shrouded her hair. The other women did the same. They looked like brides going to church to meet their husbands. Helle shrugged at my raised eyebrows.

‘If there is a chance we can save Juudit, we must go. We will all stay together, in the shadows, and look after Etti. Judith will be easy to spot.’ Helle sighed. ‘She’ll be the one shouting, if I’m not mistaken.’

‘Are you sure you would not rather stay here?’ Olga said. Helle’s small mouth thinned to a determined line. ‘Impossible. Juudit Koppel is one of us. And the train station is not far.’

The train whistle shrieked again.

My skin tingled and sweat prickled at the back of my legs. How could I lead these women out into the chaos of the night? What had I ever done that was brave, that had prepared me in any way to march off and demand that a woman I did not even know be spared when so many others were resigned to their fate? They were all watching me, even Olga, her face a wrinkled map.

The answer came unbidden in my mother’s tongue. You  can do anything.

The lace  shawl  around  my  throat  was  a warm  caress. I touched it with my fingers, the tiny holes, the bobbles. My mother’s hands had made it and she had loved it. Like the lace shawl, I was her legacy.

‘My mother made this shawl,’ I said softly. ‘She was Estonian. From Haapsalu.’ I heard the women’s intake of breath. ‘She would not want me to stand by and do nothing. Perhaps we will be safe together. But Etti should stay.’

I knew she would protest. ‘My mother is strong headed,’ she said. ‘You may need me to reason with her.’ I threw an exasperated look at Olga but she shook her head, so I reached down and offered Etti my arm. A small grunt escaped her lips as she stood up but her face was set in determination.

‘Mama needs us,’ she said. ‘Let us go and find her and bring her home.’

‘Have you seen my husband, Meelis?’

The woman grabbed at me. Her fingernails scratched at my arms. ‘He is a tall man with blond hair and a birthmark here.’ She lightly traced the skin beneath her right eye with a shaking hand. The glare of the floodlights the Russians had set up around the small, overcrowded station gleamed on her face and on the fox-fur sable arranged fashionably about her neck. ‘He’s a policeman. They came for him a half-hour ago.’ She turned her head to look out at the long line of railway cars that ran the length of the station platform, coupled together like the ones that took oxen from their homes to the slaughterhouse factories. Thee doors of the railway cars were open, and the ones at the front of the line were already half-full. Rows of waiting people stood before them while uniformed guards consulted their lists.

I shook my head. ‘I’m sorry,’ I said. ‘We have only just arrived.’

The woman released me. ‘Please,’ she said. ‘He doesn’t belong here. Do you think they might have taken him elsewhere?’

Before I could reply, a dozen more police wagons pulled up nearby. The woman staggered towards them, craning her neck, searching for her husband among the deportees spilling from the doors.

‘This is madness.’ Olga’s mouth was pursed. ‘Madness,’ she said again, her gaze sweeping the thousands of people waiting to be herded into cattle cars. More trains waited in the sidings, half-hidden in the shadows. The noise was terrible; worried mutterings, the howls of children who could not be pacified, the rough scrape of shoes on gravel as the deportees shuffled forward to be assigned a train carriage. Then there were the noisy sobs of those who had come to bid goodbye to their families; some men, but mostly women in shawls, mothers and grandmothers who had not yet been ordered to leave but risked the displeasure of the Soviet authorities by following to say farewell. Olga hugged the bear coat closer around her even though the breeze that blew along the platform was warm and the press of bodies around us made sweat gather on my lip. ‘How do you hope to find one woman, amid all this?’

‘We’ll find her,’ I vowed, although my heart was already sinking. Etti’s arm was tucked into my own. It felt limp, as   if the bones in it had been removed. When I dared to glance at her, her mouth was turned down. She shook her head, her eyes filling with tears.

Olga was right. Finding one woman amid this chaos would be impossible.

Unless.

I scanned the crowd again, trying to separate the grey- uniformed men from the sea of deportees. When I spotted him, he turned his head, as if even from such a distance he could smell my fear. I fought the urge to fling myself behind Etti, behind Olga, and disappear into the crowd. But our gazes connected. I saw his eyes widen and then narrow. As much as I wanted to, I did not look away. I let the harsh light from the flood lamps illuminate my features. I even moved apart from the others, letting go of Etti’s arm, finding a little space of my own so that the cluster of women would not shield me. The breeze lifted my hair off my neck, teasing the tendrils that had worked free of their pins.

I saw him pause. He said something to the officer beside him, shoved the clipboard at his colleague and began to wade through the crowd towards us. There was a curious, hungry expression on his face, the same one he had worn earlier. Only now, amid this weeping, shifting mass of human misery, it seemed even more out of place. He brushed past an elderly couple, careless of the way the woman stumbled over her suitcase and had to clutch at her husband for support.

Could he hear my heart thudding against my ribs as I waited for him to reach me?

‘Lydia Volkova. You don’t take advice easily.’ His face shone in the floodlights. ‘Aren’t you afraid to be here? Someone might mistake you for a resistance sympathiser.’

I tried to speak, but my throat was painfully dry. ‘I need your help,’ I said.

‘My help? The Partorg’s daughter wants my help?’ He drew back, placing a hand on his chest, but the look of wolfish shrewdness didn’t leave his face. ‘I’m surprised! You seem more than capable of doing things for yourself. I know your father is a clever man, but I’d not expected his daughter to be so independent. And here I thought you would be tucked safely away. No need for you to witness all this.’

He waved his hand, as if his fellow officers were dividing up livestock instead of people. People jostled around us. I saw men being shoved towards the waiting carriage at the end of the train, while women were pushed together, many of them holding children tightly to save them from being crushed. I caught the flash of a man’s clear spectacles, the bright green of a headscarf, the bright burgundy of a child’s woollen jacket as people drew together and broke apart.

A woman appeared next to me suddenly, as if she’d caught sight of Lieutenant Lubov’s uniform and had been working her way towards him. She wore a frightened expression and carried a screaming toddler on her hip. The toddler’s face was brick red and blotchy, his nose leaking greenish mucus.

‘Please help me!’ she said, her voice hoarse, desperate. ‘My child is sick! He has the measles. My husband is a doctor.’ She nodded towards the end of the platform where men were being loaded into a carriage. ‘Please let us stay together!’

Lieutenant Lubov grimaced as the child shrieked. The woman tried to quieten him, but he only screamed louder. ‘There!’ the woman cried, her face lighting up with hope. ‘There is Andrus!’ I looked to where the woman was pointing. Far down the end of the train, a man was struggling against the surge of the crowd. He had a brown doctor’s bag in his hands. As we watched, he raised it above the crowd and tried to push towards us. A guard blocked his path.

Lieutenant Lubov shook his head. ‘Impossible,’ he said. ‘Men and children separate.’

The woman’s face crinkled in confusion. ‘But my child—’ She cast a look at the wailing toddler, heaved him higher up her hip. ‘I cannot look after him myself. He needs medicine!’

A man’s voice shouted. ‘Kaarin!’

The woman’s husband was holding out the bag, dangling it over the shoulder of the guard blocking his path. The guard pushed him with the butt of his rifle. The man stumbled back. The bag flew from his hands to land in the dirt at the soldier’s feet.

‘Please!’ the woman cried. ‘Please let me see him for just a moment!’

She reached out and grabbed at Lieutenant Lubov’s arm, almost dropping the toddler, who slid down her waist and wailed louder. Lieutenant Lubov’s face darkened. Wrenching his arm free, he shook his head in disgust and pushed the woman away. He seized my hand and began to drag me away from the heaving, jostling crowd towards the edge of the station where the bright haze from the floodlights was blocked by the corner of the waiting room. I caught a glimpse of the woman’s desperate face before it was swallowed up by the rest of the flock.

A curdling horror bubbled inside me. The air was charged. It would take only a moment’s panic for a stampede to occur. Forced together in these circumstances, these people were more like animals than humans. They had not been given a choice to be otherwise. This was how Stalin saw the world, I realised. And by closing my eyes, by ignoring what was right before me, I was complicit, too. Was this what Joachim had seen, experienced: this wave of terror and desperation? What cruel indignities had he been forced to participate in on his journey north?

I tried to slow my breath and my pounding pulse. ‘There is a woman,’ I said. ‘A friend. I need to know where she is.   If – if she has already gone. Or if she might be in one of the carriages here. Her name is Juudit Koppel. She was wrongfully arrested earlier this evening.’

I tried to ignore the way Lieutenant Lubov’s eyebrows formed an unbroken line over his eyes. ‘Do you think you can find out?’ I said, my voice rising. ‘Can you help me?’

He continued to stare.

‘Please, ‘I added, reminded of the woman with the shrieking child.

He took his time answering, straightening out the sleeve   of his uniform, which was, I noticed with a sharp stab of horror, speckled with dark brown stains.  Finally, he looked up. ‘I’d like to help you. Really, I would. But I’m very busy, Lida. May I call you Lida?’

His words took me off guard. I nodded, unnerved.

‘Yes. Fine.’

He flashed me a smile. ‘Lida, then. Your father gave explicit instructions that the operation is to be completed by daybreak. How will it look if I’m searching for one woman among so many others? What will your father think of me?’

He swung his head around to gaze at the mass of people.

‘So,if I help you, Lida, what can you do fo rme? What do you have to offer?’

I dreaded the softness of his voice and worse, the slow tick of his smile. It froze my thoughts and dried up all the words on my tongue. I tried to speak but even my stammering came out as nothing but a hoarse squeak. Narrowing his gaze, he leaned forward until our bodies were almost touching, his head tilted to one side as if he were concentrating hard on listening to me above the clamour of noise on the station. After a long moment, he shrugged and straightened up.

‘Then you must excuse me. There are still a lot of people to process.’ He breathed in through his nose. ‘I really can’t stand around any longer. Goodnight, Lida.’

He pivoted on his heel.

‘Wait!’ My fingers scrabbled for his jacket, slipping off the smooth material. ‘I have something. Some information. You may find it . . . useful. I’m not sure.’ I shook my head, my thoughts whirling. ‘It’s all I can think of.’

‘Information.’ He crossed his arms. ‘What kind of information?’ Behind him, in the distance, I saw Olga looking around for me, craning her head  over  the crowd  in  search of my face. I shrank back into the shadows of the  ticket booth.

‘It’s about the Partorg.’

His face stilled. ‘I am listening.’

‘I’m not his daughter,’ I said, garbling my words in the effort to get them out.

Lubov’s lip curled. ‘So, you’re a bastard,’ he shrugged. ‘What does that matter? Why should I care which man is your father?’

I closed my eyes against the crudeness of his words. ‘Not just any man.’

‘Then who?’

I watched his face change as I told him, the interplay of shadow and light transforming his features like clouds scudding before the sun. He startled me by seizing my shoulders suddenly, thrusting his face into mine. He began to march me away from the platform.

Panic rushed through my body. ‘Where are we going?’

He shot me a quick, hard glance. ‘Back to the Grey House. I’m taking you back to your father. Your real father. You’re too valuable to be out here. Clearly.’ He shook me.‘ Now that we’re friends, I think we need to stick close together, don’t you? I’m sure the Partorg will be pleased to have you safe and sound.’

I stared at him, and hatred surged through me. I knew in that moment that I was Stalin’s daughter. I was everything I hated about him: his unpredictable temper, his ability to obfuscate the truth until he believed his own lies.

I closed my eyes as the whistle screeched again. Steam hissed from the wheels. I had imagined I would feel unburdened, now that my secret was shared. Instead, when I saw the thirsty way Lubov was looking at me, I felt heavier.

‘Wait.’ With an effort, I threw him off. My arm ached where he’d gripped it. ‘The woman,’ I said, swallowing hard. ‘Juudit Koppel. You said you’d find her. You promised. If you don’t help me, I will never help you. I will fight you all the way back.’

Lieutenant Lubov shot me a long, hard look and then suddenly, he let me go. I watched him hurry away towards the train, pushing aside those unlucky enough not to see him coming. I watched his dark hair bobbing through the crowd and let out a breath.

My feet dragged as I made my way back to where Olga and Etti were waiting with Etti’s mother’s friends. The small group of women exclaimed when they saw me. Olga hurried over and hugged me, her eyes moist.

‘I thought you had been taken!’

I wanted to kiss her cheek, but there was no time. The train gave a blast, making the people on the platform push back, knocking over those behind them.

I searched desperately for Lieutenant Lubov’s face. Suddenly, it blazed out at me. He was standing halfwaydown the platform. When he saw me notice him, he lifted his arm slightly. Hep ushed someone in front of him; I caught the blur of her grey dress, silver hair falling around her shoulders as she tented her eyes from the glare of the floodlight.

Hope lifted my heart. ‘She’s there!’

‘Where?’ Etti was at my side instantly. I began to push my way forward, bumping into knees and legs, keeping Lieutenant Lubov’s face in constant view as I dragged Etti along behind me.

Panting, we reached the carriage.

They fell into each other’s arms, Etti’s sobs mingling with her mother’s soothing cries. Her knotted hands stroked Etti’s hair, coming to rest on the white triangle of shawl that hung down her back.

‘You see? I keep my promises.’ Lieutenant Lubov’s voice rang close in my ear. I looked up to find him staring down at me. He smiled, showing sharp teeth. ‘You’ll learn to trust me. Now it’s time for you to keep yours. Time to go back.’

I could not answer him. I could only stare down at the hand he had placed on my arm.

The crowd moved suddenly between us, filling the spaces we had made with bodies as the soldiers at the back began to urge them forward. I heard Lieutenant Lubov curse. Somebody’s elbow pressed into my back. The sharp edges  of a suitcase jabbed the back of my legs, almost sending me crashing to my knees.

A guard shouted and grabbed a young boy by the collar, thrusting him up into the carriage nearest us. It was so full of people crushed together that he teetered on the edge; the guard jumped up and tried to slam the sliding door shut.  The boy cried out as the guard shoved him backwards.

‘Leave him alone!’ Juudit had flung herself forward and grabbed the guard’s trousers.

Etti gasped. ‘Mama! Hush!’ She tried to shield Juudit’s body, but the older woman continued to tug at the guard’s leg. His feet slipped. He lunged out as he fell, his hand grasping a metal bar on the side of the train and holding on while Juudit continued to berate him, her voice shrill.

Gunshots cracked.

People screamed. The crowd swelled, broke apart, surged back together. Somebody shoved me against Etti and I staggered, catching her around the waist. We crashed to the ground. Stamping feet kicked up dust around us. Above me,a sea of faces blended in and out of view. Under a rain of blows, I dragged myself to my feet, pulling Etti up beside me. Soldiers ran back and forth, their rifles raised. Bullets struck the air around us.

We cowered. People fell to the ground, shielding their heads.

Somebody seized my other hand and began to drag me through the surging crowd of panicked deportees. I caught a glimpse of Olga’s frightened face, before she turned back and continued to pull me towards the back of the station. Desperately, I clutched Etti’s slippery hand with my fingers, hoping she would follow. A man stumbled into me, loosening my grip. Suddenly, my hands were empty.

‘Olga!’

She turned, smoke billowing around her head from the discharged guns.

I looked back to see Etti kneeling in the dust. People wove around her. Guards were still shouting.

I began to fight my way back to her, before I realized why she’d stopped.

Etti was hunched over her mother, her shoulders shaking. A river of blood soaked the dust and stones around Juudit’s body. Bullet holes riddled her chest. Even before I reached her, Etti had torn off her shawl and was trying to plug up the holes. I placed my hands on the shawl as I fell to my knees beside her. Blood bubbled up through the lace. When I pulled myhands away, the shawl came with them, sticking to my fingers. Juudit’s face was grey and still, her white lips parted. The cold glow of the floodlights was reflected in her wide, unblinking eyes.

Somebody tripped over her leg, sprawling in the dust beside us. Someone else’s shoe caught onJuudit’s hand as they jostled against the panicked crowd. There was the crunch of bone.

Etti began to scream.

I grabbed her wrist, and this time I did not let go, but used my own body as a weapon, driving myself against the crush of people, focusing on nothing else but reaching the edge of the station. I collided with something hard, sending pain bursting through my shoulder, but I pressed on. In the distance, I saw a group huddled beside the ticket booth. If we could only reach them…

Etti’s arm sagged in mine. I yanked it, hard.

Finally, we reached the edge of the crowd. Soldiers paced up and down, brandishing their guns, shoving people into the railway cars without consulting the lists in their hands. There was an urgency to their movements now. Some of them looked frightened, alarmed by the gunfire and the crush of the crowd. One soldier I passed could not have been older than fifteen. An old lady in a headscarf tried to speak to him as he herded her towards a carriage. I saw him glance away, pretending not to hear, his mouth trembling. Perhaps he was thinking of his own babushka. He had no choice but to obey orders. I waited until the guard closest to us turned his head, then I pulled Etti behind me, ducking as low to the ground as possible, praying that she and Olga would do the same.

The women cried out as we reached them, huddling around Etti.

‘We thought you were gone!’ Helle sobbed. ‘The soldiers told us if we went to find you we’d be taken, too. Oh, Etti! Where is Juudit?’

Etti did not answer. Helle turned to me, seeking answers, eyes wide.

‘She’s dead,’ I said.

There was a moment of silence before Helle released a sharp cry of unbridled grief.

I wiped my hand across my sweltering forehead, daring to glance back.The train was already full; they were taking no chances now, but shoving everyone into the carriages, packing them in without regard for lists or names. Poor Juudit’sbody was there somewhere, crushed beneath the crowd.

I turned to ask Olga whether she was hurt, but the space beside me was empty.

A terrible panic rose through me. ‘Where is Olga?’ Etti stared at me. Her mouth was slack, her eyes dull.

I shook her, ignoring the gasps of Helle and the other women. ‘Where is she?’ I could hear the panic deepening my voice.

Desperately, I scanned the seething mass of people crowding the station. Where was she? Doors slammed. The guards had filled their quota.

‘Olga?’ My voice cracked. I could not hope to be heard over the crowd.

As a guard approached the last van, I spotted her. The fur coat glistening. Her creased face, so familiar, like the lines of my own palm. I tried to call again, but the words were strangled in my throat.

I imagined she saw me. That one arm lifted. That her lips moved. A prayer, a proverb.

Then the guard slammed the door closed, and a moment later, the train moved off, snaking into the dark.

Somebody grasped me. Words swirled and swooped, and I tried to catch them, to comprehend what was being said.

‘We are sending you to a safe place.’ Helle. No, Etti. The girl with the ringlets. Their voices,  faces, mingled together, a blur of colour, a cloud of sound. A man’s face loomed in the darkness. A stranger. ‘This man has a truck that will take you to the edge of the forest. Go with him.’

A hand gripped mine, the palm sticky. I held on. I let myself be anchored, although I wanted nothing more than to drift away.

 

 

 

 

Artwork by Kathryn Lamont.