A raindrop caressed Iryna’s cheek, and she turned away from its gentle touch, wishing to return to the warm burrow of sleep. Reluctantly, she opened her eyes to the colourless morning, breathing in the scent of rain on matted leaves.
“Lev,” she whispered, shaking the frail boy. “Wake up.”
Lev moaned and shifted closer to Iryna’s skeletal frame.
“We must go.”
Lev opened his eyes, empty caverns of despair. He obediently stood up and straightened his threadbare jacket over his bulging stomach while Iryna flicked leaves from her damp skirt.
“We’ll let Mamma sleep.”
Iryna crossed herself.
Lev stared at the motionless mound of their mother. His thumb slid into his mouth as he solemnly contemplated leaving her to rest while he and Iryna went on.
Was it only a year ago their bellies had always been full of bread, creamy butter, and yellow cheese from Mamma’s overflowing pantry? The farm had been fertile and productive, the barns full of livestock.
Then Stalin’s men had come.
They’d shouted at Iryna’s father. A gun had thundered in the yard. Papa lay in a crimson pool.
The men took the animals and food. Other men came to gather the crop, but because of their inexperience, the harvest had rotted in the fields. Mamma’s breasts had shrivelled in grief and hunger, and Baby Yekaterina had died. Mamma said perhaps there would be hope in the city.
“Iryna?” Lev’s plaintive voice broke Iryna’s reverie. “I have to... “
“Go in the tall grass.”
Lev scampered away on spindly legs.
“Iryna, look!” Lev’s shrill voice disturbed the dank air as Iryna tended to her own needs. She leaped through the scraggly grass to where Lev was squatting in the underbrush. He’d carefully overturned a flat rock. White grubs squirmed in the grey dawn.
“Lev, you clever boy.”
“Three for you. Three for me.”
Each child selected grubs from the soil, popped them into their mouths, grinning gingerly while they chewed and swallowed quickly.
Thank You, Father...
“Come on, Lev. Maybe we’ll get to Kharkov today.”
Lev rose to his feet, fatigue pooling in his huge eyes as he put one foot in front of the other.
How many days had they been walking? Fifty? One hundred and fifty? Long enough for the road to gnaw away the soles of their shoes. Long enough for gnawing hunger to evolve into a relentless quest, consuming every effort, every thought.
On they went.
“I see a house.” They crouched in the brush, watching for signs of life. No dog would bark a warning or welcome; dogs had disappeared long ago. No smoke coiled from the chimney.
“May I help?” Iryna and Lev jumped. Behind them stood a gaunt woman holding a pitchfork. She was wrapped in a filthy shawl, bristling with dry grass, dirty hands grasping the tool. Her wrinkled face was creased with grime.
Iryna felt faint with fear. Hot urine trickled down Lev’s leg.
“Come. I’ve abandoned the house. Too dangerous.”
The children followed her into the woods to a tiny, rough building hidden in the trees.
The woman boiled water on a spirit stove and steeped tea using a concoction of leaves and berries. When she handed each child a mug, they gulped the steaming brew greedily.
“Slowly, slowly. Tell me, where are you going?”
“Why not stay with me until the collectivization settles and the famine’s over?”
It was tempting. Iryna sipped her tea and glanced at Lev who was nodding sleepily. The woman handed them flatbread. Iryna’s eyes widened.
“Ground pussywillows. Good, yes?”
Iryna nodded. Lev crammed the whole piece in his mouth at once. Immediately, he began to heave. Chunks of bread cascaded down his jacket in a deluge of tea.
The woman dabbed at Lev with a rag -- a small, stained sweater, Iryna saw. Her skin prickled.
“Mamma,” Lev whimpered in distress.
“We must go,” Iryna declared.
“Stay. I have food, herbs.”
“No.” Iryna shepherded Lev away from the hut and the sinister truth she was certain she’d perceived.
At the forest’s edge, Iryna brought up soured tea.
“Hush. We’re fine.”
The children found leaf buds and more succulent grubs before settling down under a pine tree. Clinging together, they counted the flickering stars through the branches, matching them to promises of love, warming themselves at the fire of comfort and consolation.
By morning, Lev was stiff in Iryna’s arms.
Iryna shed no tears. Lev was finally feasting... at the Father’s table.
Note: Holodomor - The Ukrainian Famine (1932-33) was a ‘man-made’ famine intended to bring the Ukraine into submission to Soviet rule. An estimated 5 - 7 million people died, but not before many resorted to eating dogs, cats, horses, rodents, grass, and bark. Reports of cannibalism were not uncommon.
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