Last Saturday there was a dance in the canteen. Those prisoners who knew how to play an instrument brought them along and played something for us. I was wearing the light grey dress I left home in, do you remember it, Mama? Whatever happened to Bill’s insignia, that I gave to Bela for her to play with? If she’s still got it, even though she might not show it off to anybody, it has got ‘US Navy’ written on it, and could still get you two in trouble. Can you see how I’ve changed, Mama? Before I wore that insignia as if it were a piece of jewellery, so that everyone could see it; the fact that Bill gave it to me had turned it into something to be treasured. And now I’m as fearful as a little old lady.
Though not really! Now I’m going to tell you something which will show you that Valya knows how to look after herself, that nobody’s a match for her! You’d be amazed! I’m going to write it down like it was a novel, with dialogue, which is how I’ve got used to writing to you:
After the dance, I took the dress to the locker, where I put it on a hanger and smoothed it down with care. A few days later, when I was in bed, dog-tired after work, a friend, Tamara, came to see me:
“Hi, Valya. You’re going to be a rich woman. Zinaida Mefodievna wants to buy the dress you were wearing at the dance.”
I could have done with the money, I could have exchanged it for something to eat and so stop wandering about everywhere like a famished pauper. No! How could I even have contemplated that? This is the dress I wore when I was free, you made it for me, Mama, using one of Papa’s suits, Bill touched it when he pinned the insignia on its lapel, the insignia Bela still plays with …
“No way, Tamara, I’m not selling that dress no matter what the price!”
I didn’t say why. I’d got used by then to not revealing any personal information to my friends. I’m writing to you alone, Mama, you are my confidante and confessor.
“Have you really thought this over, Valya? You know that somebody would have to be a complete lunatic to get on the wrong side of the senior doctor, because that person would never be given any more sick leave or even be recognised as being sick.”
“I know that, Tamara, but there’s simply nothing to be done. This dress means a lot more to me than if it were mere clothing. You can tell Zinaida Mefodievna that I would love to sell it, but that this dress has sentimental value, for me.”
“Message received, so I’ll pass it on. But Zinaida Mefodievna will be furious and she’ll make sure you know it.”
“Tell her what it means to me.”
“Of course I will. But you’d better make sure you don’t fall sick again, that doctor’s as bloody-minded as they come!”
I stopped thinking about it. I could hardly have done otherwise, given that during the next few days they assigned me to a particularly tough job. When we marched back to our hut after the first day, I stumbled a couple of times. The guard was on the point of setting the dog on me, and when, a moment later, it happened again, he was about to shoot me for attempting to escape. I don’t know how I got through it alive.
Not long after, a transport arrived with new prisoners. They weren’t political, it’s easy to deal with the politicals, they’re subtle, sensitive. These were regular criminals, thieves, murderers and so forth, and they hate the politicals: they play all kinds of dirty tricks on us, and make us do their every bidding, by main force. The Saturday after work there was a recital of songs and poems and as I was the moderator, I put on my light grey dress. I got back to the hut too late to take to dress to the locker, which was already closed, so I hung it up over my bed. In the morning I got up early, before reveille, and saw the dress had gone. I asked the night lookout, but she didn’t know what had happened, she swore she hadn’t seen anyone come into the hut. Suddenly, I had a revelation. Like someone possessed, like a madwoman, I made straight for the shoe workshop and got hold of a long, sharp, pointy knife. And with this knife I ran to the place where the recent arrivals from the transport were being held. I found out who their leader was: a thief going by the ridiculous nickname of Ninka Moscú.
She was in bed. I crept up to her, keeping the knife behind my back. I looked her straight in the eye:
“Give me the dress, you miserable bitch!” I screamed.
She started to try and talk her way out of it.
“Give me the dress, you cow!”
She began to look around for help.
I put the knife to her throat:
“Shut up and give me the dress! Right now, you’re going to put it back right where it belonged. Have you got that, you stupid tart?”
Ninka looked at me, her eyes wide open. She nodded.
I returned the knife to the workshop. The next morning, the dress was in its place.
That’s a Valya you don’t know, right, Mama? I don’t even recognise myself, me who used to blush whenever I heard someone swear. Am I still myself? Or have my circumstances turned me into someone else? I can’t stop asking myself who I am. Will you recognise me at all, when we see each other again?
Hugs and kisses to you both,
When Ninka gave me back the dress I spent the entire day asking myself, as I worked, what I should do with it. An inner voice whispered: “Now that it’s been in the clutches of that thief, the dress won’t bring me any more good luck. Give it away, its charm is gone!” So then I didn’t hesitate to sell the dress to the doctor.
My instincts proved to be correct: with the money I got from the doctor I bought food, got some strength back and recovered somewhat. The doctor was so grateful, she assigned me to the hospital building as her personal secretary. Which is how I turned into a person of influence! All of a sudden, I was responsible for people’s fate, and plenty made an effort to get into my good graces. The doctor had the job of deciding which work category would be assigned to each prisoner, and so I, as her secretary, registered each category on a form. At once, I found out loads of things about each prisoner and learnt something new, Mama: knowledge is power. I’d never realised it before, because I’d never been so close to a position of power.
But, you know what, Mama? People are malicious and envious. Somebody grassed to the camp administrators about how I’d got to my comfy position. They immediately sent me to work on the railway. And it’s two hours to get there and two hours to get back, every day.
Mama, I’m including a letter for Nina. I haven’t got her address, so please find it out and send her this letter, but read it beforehand.
I think about you and Belochka loads and send you both a thousand kisses
Summer arrived. It was light day and night, only in the small hours did the sky dye itself with violet tints before quickly giving free rein to the sun, which slowly made an effort to unstick itself from the horizon, above which it then remained for some twenty hours. Nobody knew when it was day and when night, we didn’t sleep and collapsed from exhaustion like flies at the end of summer. I dreamt every day of the huge, hairy mosquitoes, which, though they don’t sting as much as the smaller ones, are quite revolting. And at night, they turned into sort of fuzzy angels that buzzed around my head. All told, the nights were somewhat quieter, the insects didn’t wreak as much havoc as usual.
Yet again, they posted me to a different camp to do different work with different people. Part of our punishment also involved constantly having to get used to new people, with their various foibles and different habits and there was nothing we could but take it on the chin, which in such extremely difficult conditions, as not just exhausting but feels like a superhuman task.
I was assigned to the brick factory. Working next to me was a tall, good-looking blonde man, visibly older than me. He introduced himself and kissed my hand, as if we both not just two dirty, lice-ridden, hungry and sleepy wrecks, wrapped in rags, who, for fourteen hours a day, were hammering away at bricks together, but rather were relaxed, perfumed young people, who had met each other at a reception, she in a cocktail dress and with a glass of champagne in her hand, and he in a dark suit with a silvery tie:
“Valentina Grigórievna Íyevleva. A pleasure to meet you. Your name’s just like that of a well-known composer from Estonia.”
“That’s me,” he said, and I got the impression he was starting to blush.
Anatoly Vanieyev, Heino’s neighbour in the factory, entered the conversation. The three of us went off to the canteen together and soon we became inseparable. Once I recited several poems of mine to them, which I composed for pleasure before going to sleep or on the long walks to and from the workplace, so as to keep my mind occupied in some way. Heino Ilmer hesitantly offered to set them to music. They were then performed during our Saturday concerts. I convinced Anatoly to recite Derzhavin. Standing before the audience, his shirt unbuttoned, his bass voice boomed as he gesticulated with both hands:
I am a king, I am a slave,
I am a worm, I am God,
And we all understood that he really was both king and God, although the camp did all it could to turn him into a slave and a worm. Suddenly we realised we were all kings and gods, no matter how hard the camp tried to stamp on us as if we were worms and force us to take on the hardest of tasks as if we were slaves in irons. We gave a round of applause to Derzhavin and to Anatoly. But above all, to all of us, and each one of us, to him or herself.
The thirty-first of December. During work, Heino invited me to a little New Year’s party. I knew I’d have to sneak out of my hut, which was locked down at ten pm. I told Heino he could count on me. I made a dummy out of rags, placed it in my bed, and covered it with the blanket. Then I jumped over the barrier and ran to the entrance, where Heino, Anatoly and a few others were waiting for me. We stole along the streets, a girl slipped on the ice and twisted her ankle, but didn’t say a word and, courageous, headed on through the shadows.
We were welcomed by the warmth and the shadow-and-light play of candles, which had been sent, especially for the occasion, by Anatoly’s parents, from Leningrad; they had thrown in a sponge cake, nougat and apple strudel with walnuts. From Estonia, Heino had been sent pork and goose lard; we smeared this on bread which had been brought by his room-mate, and sliced with a country bread knife. We accompanied the banquet with hot water that had several tea leaves and some sugar in it. At midnight, we toasted and hugged, then sung and recited poems. I gave them a rendering of:
It’s a long way to Tipperary,
it’s a long way from home …
accompanying myself on a guitar someone had brought along. I couldn’t have imagined the effect this song would have on me. I started to cry like a little girl: first they took Bill away from me, who I will never see again as long as I live, then they separated me from my daughter and mother. They forced me, violently, to interrupt my studies and to be under the constant vigilance of armed guards and their dogs. I am twenty years old and see no future before me, I feel old, I can think only of death.
“You can’t know the future for sure, Valya” Anatoly told me, “You’ve only a few more years left in the camp; they’ll pass by, and life will start again.”
“What life? My daughter won’t even recognise me. I get the feeling that Bela has forgotten me.”
“A child never forgets its mother, ever!” said Heino.
“She was tiny when they hauled me out of my house that autumn night and locked me up, she was only two. I have a hunch that if we ever meet again, Bela will have changed, as if she had never even been my daughter.”
“Don’t go putting any stock on hunches, Valya” Anatoly chided me, as he served more hot water, “You’d disappoint me,” he wagged a menacing finger. “We are rational beings. Homo sapiens sapiens.”
“Dreams and hunches have never let me down,” I said, feeling tired, “When they took my father away one morning, the previous night I’d dreamt three men had entered the house wearing helmets and medieval armour and I woke up, terrified. My dreams can predict the future.”
“Uh-huh. And what have you been dreaming about recently? Are you going to let us into the secret?” Anatoly whispered, somewhat facetiously: he was pretending not to break the mysterious spell of the moment, yet made it clear that he didn’t believe there was any kind of secret to be revealed.
“I don’t really know. When I close my eyes, I can’t see my mother. I think I’m going to lose her.” I was whispering too, but for a different reason from that of Anatoly; I was afraid that if I said it aloud, it would come true.
“You are just calling out in vain to someone who doesn’t exist,” he said, realising at once that this was exactly what he shouldn’t have said. To dispel the unpleasantness he’d made everybody feel, he added, quickly, by way of a joke:
“What about your daughter’s father, don’t you see him in your dreams, either? That wouldn’t be a bad thing, eh, lads? Maybe Valya has finally stopped dreaming about the American sailor in his white uniform, then finally we’ll be in with a chance!”
Someone in the shadows picked up on the joke:
“Valya, say I were to dress up as sailor in white, would you pay any attention to me?”
Heino made as if he hadn’t heard this last comment. He looked at me, questioningly.
I answered, for him alone:
“When I close my eyes, I see Bill somewhere, surrounded by fog. But it isn’t a clear image, I can barely make it out.”
I remembered vividly what Mama had told me the last time we saw each other, when she’d visited the camp. That Bill, after leaving Arjangelsk, had been looking for me. By phone, maybe too in other ways. Here and now, at this New Year’s party, I knew for sure that the letters the inspector had shown my during the interrogation were not fakes. They were the letters Bill had written and sent to me.
“Bill in his white uniform?” a male voice laughed from out of the darkness. I paid no attention.
“Do you want to know how I see him, in my dreams? I see Bill looking at me,” I said, quiet, thoughtful, “Nobody’s got eyes like his: blue like when a storm threatens. He looks at me, then turns and leaves.”
The others were quiet, someone started to strum the guitar and sing one of Yesenin’s poems, softly. Lena, who’d twisted her ankle, offered to read my palm. I thought, I don’t feel like it. It scared me. But when I saw that the others really thought this would be a worthwhile distraction, that they were looking at me inquisitively, encouragingly, I gave in and, without really wanting to, offered Lena my hand.
“Ahead of you is a life full of changes, adventure, hope and disappointment, Valya.”
That frightened me.
“Don’t look at me as if I’d just started World War Three. I can see from your hand that your life will be long and interesting, that’s all.”
“What about the changes and disappointments?” I asked, still scared.
“You will meet people and be separated from them, you will know happiness and grief, and will have friends and enemies. Including female enemies, and then some!”
“But you could say that about any woman, Lena,” Heino said, gently.
“You’re right, but Valya will have all this in spades. Life will try to consume her. It’ll always be doing that. But Valya is strong and will be able to see the beautiful side of everything. Another person would be broken by this kind of existence, but in her case, life will be appreciated to the full.”
“This prophecy strikes me as being most odd. You’re not being specific,” Anatoly said, yawning.
“I could be specific, but I don’t want to be,” Lena said in her defence, “I see that Valya can sense intuitively who will disappear from her life and who will remain.”
“Heino’s right: what you’ve said is valid for everybody,” Anatoly shook his head.
But I nodded, slowly, to myself. I had always thought my life would be something like that. My mother had also told me just that, the night they took me away. Lena read my palm well.”
Somebody knocked on the door. We fell silent. Each person frozen in the middle of whatever he or she was doing: Heino with the plate of smeared bread that he was offering to us, Lena with an unlit match that she was about to light a new candle with, Anatoly with his index finger raised, having just cut himself off in the middle of fresh joke. We looked at each other, shocked. There followed several hard, noisy blows.