Lit Hub: Excerpt from On the Sickle’s Edge
As the train pulled into the station and passengers began stepping down, I watched people on the platform staring at me—a very short middle-aged woman with a red and green woven bag, jumping down from the train with the nimble step of a dancer. What they didn’t know is that I could have done it in my sleep, that I had spent years jumping down from moving trains all across the Soviet Union. Maria Ivanovna had given me a round-trip voucher which I used when I got on the train. As a result I didn’t have to identify myself as a railway employee, and I realized that this was the first time I had traveled anywhere as a passenger.
My instructions were to go to the station entrance, where a military presence had been assigned since the explosion. Four soldiers in camouflage fatigues stood at the main entryway, two on each side, each with a rifle slung over his shoulder. Large, dour boys, boots planted wide, looking around them for menacing civilians. I approached one of them and looked up at him.
“I was told to speak to one of the soldiers about picking up my granddaughter, who was orphaned in the explosion last week. Can you help me?”
While I was speaking, he looked over my head, distaining to glance at me. But when I was through he lowered his eyes, and his expression softened.
“Speak to that soldier over there,” he said, pointing at one of the other uniforms. “He’s in communication with the base.”
I gave the other man my name, and on his shortwave radio he announced that I had arrived and was waiting at the station for my granddaughter.
“It shouldn’t be long,” he said. “They will bring her to you.”
“They?” I asked. “Who? I thought I would be able to go to my granddaughter.”
“I’m sorry, Mother,” he said. “No civilians are allowed. One of our off-duty comrades will bring the child to you.” He smiled. “There are several little ones waiting for family to come. All the nurses want to take care of them.”
“How many?” I asked.
“I’m not sure,” he said. “Seven or eight.”
Seven or eight children orphaned in the explosion, I thought, and young nurses bringing them one by one to meet whatever family had come for them. If they were lucky enough to have family. Children being handed over from one stranger to another. I had no knowledge of who Darya was, of her likes and dislikes. I would have no chance to see where she and my daughter lived together with the father I had never met, or to collect the clothes and toys Klara had accumulated for her. And no memento of Klara, either.
I supposed Darya was the best memento I could have. But it would be like receiving a newborn baby with no preparation—only this newborn was already two-years-old, with her opinions, patterns and habits. I steeled myself to take possession of a frightened, screaming child.