Bucharest, 1952

From A Family Album: https://alexduvan.medium.com/a-family-album-40829e212764

That winter Katia succumbed to her dreadful disease. She did not know she had cancer until her last days, when, somehow, she figured it out. Before, her questions to Galina expressed a heart-breaking ignorance of her condition: what’s wrong with me, child, what’s wrong? What monster is eating at my body and why do I ache? The doctors insisted that not knowing was better, and perhaps they were right. Hope had kept her alive. Amid pain and confusion, one stubborn idea, more than any others, sustained her. She was longing for Alexey, who had chosen to stay in Bessarabia when she and Galina had moved to Bucharest at the end of the war. Soon afterwards, Bessarabia became a part of the Soviet Union, and Alexey disappeared. Katia’s hope was to see him again, her younger son, the child she could never forget, like the weeping willow which could never raise its hanging branches, as one Russian poet once said.

The moment Katia understood she had cancer her hope perished. Her eyes glazed over, and she came alive only when the nurse administered her morphine shot. Her slim body tensed with anticipation, the loose skin on her face, neck, and arms quivered and she gasped. After the injection, her suffering would thankfully diminish for a while, and she’d ease off into unawareness. Morphine was hard to find, and there was only so much she could receive.

In a sad way, Katia’s demise was a blessing, and the grief Galina felt was softened by the thought that her mother’s suffering had come to an end. Children are expected to bury their parents and Galina, unlike Katia, knew she would be able raise her fallen branches. She would forget. Until then, one strong memory returned to her again and again, like a song.

It was winter. Galina was playing on the kitchen floor. She was five years old. Alexey, her younger brother slept in his crib.

Katia decided to take Galina with her to the market in Orhei, an hour away by cart. She picked up Galina in her strong arms and sat her at the table. “Eat, devushka, eat your lunch, and we go.” Katia’s chestnut hair smelled of lavender, as thick and long then as Galina’s hair was now.

Galina’s father worked in the fields. They owned a colt and a mare and kept the cart in the yard. They had a sheep dog called Mura, who had only one eye. Vanya, who lived in the village and was always happy to help, was their driver. His wife stayed with Alexey when Katia ran her errands. Vanya was short and stout.

At the market, the merchants talked up a storm. When it came to food and spending money, Katia was her own boss. She bought buckwheat, sugar, flour, half a calf, and a pig. The pig’s snout was black and had a ring in it. Katia bought hay for the horses, and half a cord of wood.

On the way back, it started to snow. The cart was heavy, and the mare was slow, while the colt tried to skip along. It was getting dark and in the cold air, sitting cross-legged on the bench behind Vanya, Galina ate a piece of bread covered with lard that she shared with Mura. She drank a few sips of water, wrapped herself in a thick blanket, and lowered her head onto her mother’s lap. The dog warmed her legs.

She woke up when the cart jerked and leaned hard to one side. On his feet, Vanya yelled at the horses and cracked his whip. The dog growled and tried to jump out, while Katia held him by his collar. It had stopped snowing, and icy stars blinked between broken clouds. Galina heard a long howl, like the whine of a hundred dogs gathered in one. The sound seemed close and yet far away. It seemed to be all around. The mare wheezed, and the colt bolted.

Vanya yelled, “Ho-o!” and pulled at the reins.

“The dog’s going mad,” Katia said.

“Let him run. We’re less than a mile from the village.”

“They’ll eat him alive.”

“He’ll make it, and the people will see him, hear the wolves, and come rescue us.”

Galina didn’t remember what happened next. What survived in her mind through the years was the image of their cart stopped by the Răut River, horses unharnessed and gone. On the other shore was their village, one house visible close to the water. Men ran back and forth on the bridge carrying pitchforks and flares. The remnants of a fire burned all around their cart. The hay Katia had bought, and Vanya had set aflame had scared the wolves away. Galina rested her head on her mother’s shoulder, and Katia placed her arms around her, and held onto her tight. Spi mladyenets moi prekrasny, she softly sang to her crying child.

Katia was interred at Ghencea Cemetery in Bucharest, a world away from her husband and parents who lay buried in Orhei. Snow covered the earth and the crosses, and the paths and graves looked untainted. For several days, the cold cemetery seemed a wintry paradise.

Several weeks later, a man knocked at the door and handed Galina a letter. Addressed to Katia, the letter was signed by Alexey. He was alive, in a village east of River Dniester, where he lived under house arrest. Even though he was a communist sympathizer, after the Soviets occupied Bessarabia, they had rounded him up and sent him to the Gulag. He was never told why they arrested him, or why, seven years later, he was released. It had taken him a while to locate Galina and Katia and, if they were willing to travel, maybe they could see each other again.

The man who brought the letter was in rags. He modestly accepted the money Galina offered him. He swallowed the slice of apple pie she placed for him on the kitchen table, and thirstily drank his tea. Satisfied with the way he had fulfilled his benevolent mission, he wiped his mouth with his sleeve.

“You’ll give this letter to Katia, all right?” he said.

“I will, and it will make her happy,” Galina said.

Under the pen name Tudor Alexander I have written and published five novels and one collection of short stories. Please visit www.tudoralexander.com.