Previous Challenge Entry (Level 4 – Masters)
Topic: Cat and Dog (09/04/14)
By Ann Grover
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I was old enough to remember the days of abundant bread, pickled cabbage, milk, and sausages. Those days were gone, ever since the government had sent tow brigades to our village, taking everything in sight. Grain. Horses. Cows. Tools. They dug up gardens and raked out barns for the smallest onion or kernel of grain. People were taken away, or worse, for hiding a potato.
I don't know where the food went after it was loaded on the wagons. Away, that's all.
My sisters and I went to the forest to look for food. We ate anything we could find, leaves, stems, and roots. Acorns. Nettles. Once, I found a turtle.
I should tell about Yeva. She was very clever at finding food. I sometimes followed her, and when she found a mouse, I'd hunt for its nest, to gather its tiny cache of seeds. Most times, though, she brought mice to our step, laying them there and licking her paws nonchalently. And not just mice, but sparrows, pigeons, gophers, and even frogs. Such a cunning hunter was our Yeva.
Since I mentioned Yeva, I must also tell about Bohdan, my beloved dog. He disappeared near the beginning of the raids, after the cattle and chickens and pigs had been taken. My mother said it was for the best. I lay in bed facing the wall, too upset and weak to cry, picking at splinters of wood. They tasted of pitch and smoke. Bitter.
In the spring, grass sprouted and buds swelled on the trees. The brigades continued, and one day, gunshots boomed. Several men from the village were dead, including my father. "Enemies of the people," they were called. Why, I didn't know.
My mother seldom spoke after that. In awful silence, she ground up acacia tree bark and made bread from the coarse flour. She cooked soup with grass, flavoured with a mouse or two from Yeva. Then, our mother forbade us to leave the house, for there were hideous rumours about children who'd gone missing.
Soon, Yeva's provision wasn't enough. My brother, still suckling at my mother's dry breasts, whined pitifully between meager swallows, his belly swollen, his legs like scrawny sticks. My sisters' bellies swelled, also. They lay in bed, trying to keep warm.
Not long after, Yeva vanished. I was afraid for her, for I was not na´ve about the fate of cats and dogs any more. I was afraid for us.
One morning, Julija, who slept closest to me in the bed, was stiff and cold. The baby was silent. We carried their bodies to the edge of our yard, where they'd be picked up and hurled into a cart and taken to the death pit. My mother did not cry.
Julija and Dmytro. Safe with God.
But, where was God? Our icons had been shattered, our church destroyed. The priest was dead. Were our prayers also dead and broken?
Two days later, Maryska. Then Leysa.
There was only me left. Without me, my mother would be free, for it was love for her children that kept her breathing. Her eyes became sunken, dark holes, and her hair fell out. She had not even the strength to tie a rag around her naked head.
One evening, as the sun was dying, I heard faint whimpering. My mother and I were huddled together, our bellies distended, waiting, hoping for the end. I sat up, but she did not move. Until she took a shallow breath, I believed she'd been taken to God, too. I heard another whimper.
I crawled to the door. On the step was a dog, ribs protruding like bent twigs, paws bloodied. Bohdan, come home again. Where had he been? Gathering all my strength, I pulled him inside and held him across my swollen legs. My mother dragged herself to us and placed her hand on Bohdan's scabbed head.
"Anton," she whispered.
I knew what must happen. Bohdan made it both simple and difficult. He licked my fingers, once, twice, and closed his eyes.
We survived, my mother and I. Bohdan saved us, returning as we were taking our final breaths, surrendering himself like a sacrifice on an altar. On the doorstep where Yeva had placed her small offerings.
Yeva. Life. Bohdan. God's gift.
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