Prelude

Mila sat on her bed by the open window, legs folded to the side, mending a rip in her blouse. A juniper-scented sea breeze tickled her shoulders. Outside, the Crimean steppe stretched north and Mount Falcone towered over the rocky descent into the Blue Bay.

The other camp counselors huddled by the mirror at the opposite end of the room. These girls were a decade younger than Mila.

“Fresh load of peaches came into the village shop,” one of the girls, Tasha, said. “I heard from Dmitro, the cook, who heard from Serhij, the truck driver.”

Tasha wore a triangle of white cotton underwear and a spaghetti strap tank top. She was brushing her hair and applying blush to her cheeks. Mila wasn’t sure why these girls needed to get made up to go to sleep. But this was perestroika and the Soviet woman was changing. Plump, modest, and sometimes pretty was out. Thin, sexy, and always beautiful was in.

“Just imagine! Ripe, juicy peaches,” Tasha continued, one shoulder forward, head cocked, as if posing for a photograph. “They won’t deliver them here. Not enough for all the kids. But Dmitro promised to get me one tomorrow.” She tried to fluff her hair though it bounced only momentarily and fell back down, thick and flat.

“How do you know he’ll do it?” one of the girls asked. “Nobody’s allowed away from their posts during camp session and Dmitro’s no exception.”

Tasha put her hand on her hip. “I promised him a little something in return,” she said, prompting giggles.

“What a little slut,” somebody said under their breath.

Shifting on her thin mattress later that night Mila thought of peaches. She could almost taste them on her tongue: the soft fuzz of the skin, the meaty sweetness of the fruit, and the rugged surface of the pit with juice nestled in its miniature canyons. Mila recalled the few times in her life that she could eat this fruit at leisure. Visits to her grandmother’s village in southern Ukraine and vacations to Crimea with her parents—all of this was now in the distant past.

At home in Kharkiv she didn’t have access to peaches. Not to say that no one had. Certainly some people did, the way that some people in her country had husbands, caviar, single-family apartments, cars, and jobs that paid a decent salary. But Mila was a single mother, lived in a communal flat, and made a scant living as a music teacher. She could only count on apples and pears. Also strawberries, sometimes.

Mila recalled the six grueling months she’d spent teaching piano to a child who was so tone deaf he couldn’t sing a nursery rhyme. In exchange, the student’s mother got Mila a voucher for her daughter to attend a Young Pioneer camp here, in Crimea. The catch was that Mila had to work as a counselor, unpaid. Well, big deal. She’d clean toilets if that was necessary. She wanted Asya to breathe this sea-salt air and eat fresh, sun-kissed food, like peaches. Wasn’t this the very reason to have worked so hard?

Mila sat up in her bed and looked out the window to the moonlit wilderness. There was no point in asking Dmitro, the cook. He wouldn’t be interested in what Mila had to offer in return. Unlike Tasha, her tits hung low, her ass was dimpled, and her face—with chapped lips and a lined forehead—had seen better weather. Maybe in some distant, foreign land thirty was still considered young. Not here. Ten years between them, ha! In this part of the world that was enough time for a woman to turn into a roach. Mila imagined herself vividly then, a dirty insect crawling, hurriedly, until someone had the decency to smash her dead.

No, Dmitro wouldn’t be useful. She was going to get that fruit all on her own. She wanted her thoughts on record. May the communist Gods hear this and may they mark my words, she thought. She was going to get Asya that peach if it killed her.

~

The sound of the horn sent Mila flying out of bed. Her heart pounded as the white camp building walls momentarily turned bloody-red in front of her eyes. She’d overslept.

She put on her white mended blouse over a dark blue skirt and slipped her feet into a pair of sandals. The obvious mission was to get her squad of girl-campers cleaned and ready for morning exercises. Yet now she had a secret plan forming in her mind. Her body felt energetic, determined. She was fierce, like the red flag but with the image of a ripe peach replacing the hammer and sickle.

In the girls’ building things were in usual disarray. A couple of her younger counterparts were trying to get the campers to pull up their blue shorts and tuck in their white tee-shirts. The girls, ages seven through nine, were crusted from sleep and slow in daydreams. Asya sat on her heels amid her bed sheets, biting on a fingernail.

This was not the day to be late for anything, Mila thought.

“Listen up.” She widened her stance to shoulder width and placed her hands on her hips, the way she’d seen female party officials preside over crowds. “You will all get yourselves organized right this minute,” she ordered. But the children looked skeptical—a true Soviet creature was hard to imitate. “You will do this for the love of your country,” she added.

Nightgowns and blankets flew up and thin limbs twisted and turned. Clothes on, sandals Velcro snapped, chests out, necks tall—the girls lined up faster than Mila could have imagined. They walked past the boys’ building, the cafeteria, and the dance platform, their feet shuffling over the sand-mixed gravel.

Ny davaj, davaj, quickly!” Mila hurried the kids inside the bathroom quarters, forgetting, at times, that some of the girls she was rushing were counselors themselves. She sorted them three per faucet along the metal bucket sink, discretely making sure that Asya wasn’t the last in line. Now all she could do was hope that there’d be enough water and that she’d get everyone’s braids done in time. She never understood why girls needed long hair—knots and lice were all that was good for.

Mila imagined herself vividly then, a dirty insect crawling, hurriedly, until someone had the decency to smash her dead.

Mila watched over Asya out of the corner of her eyes. Her daughter stood in front of the sink with no intention of using it. She looked up at the ceiling, tucking strands of her short, wavy locks behind her ear. Her golden complexion and her faraway blue eyes seemed out of this world. How, how would Mila make a person—a functioning, surviving member of society—out of a child who preferred to live atop her forehead in her own thoughts? But this was neither the time nor the place to deal with Asya. In fact, any behavior that reminded the girls that Mila was Asya’s mother was inappropriate. Mila couldn’t make notice of Asya’s shortcomings or achievements. It was best not to visibly notice her daughter at all, for fear that she would inadvertently show her some sort of preference.

“I better see some toothpaste on your teeth,” Mila said. This could have been addressed to any of the girls standing nearby, but Asya took it personally and complied.

“Ready. Me too. I’m done!” the girls announced, one by one, as they each finished the ritual. They stood in line, their freshly-washed faces glistening, teeth sparkling, and thick braids hanging long over each shoulder. So beautifully put together, Mila thought, looking them over before she sent them out into the world. She wondered how much dirt such prettiness could endure before it gave. Lucky they were young.

And the horn sounded again. It amazed Mila to see the squads enter into exercise formation within seconds. She imagined it would take much longer to herd animals into any sort of position, but with people—kids!—it was simple. A bit of routine added to a lot of fear was all that was needed.

The sun was almost over the trees and she could spot it moving from the kids’ dusty sandals and up their legs. Mila paced between rows adjusting a hand here, a posture there.

“Necks, ladies, always mind your necks!” she reminded the girls. “Shoulders, keep those straight,” she told the boys. She said these things methodically, that’s what she was supposed to say while the kids squatted, raised their arms up, and lunged forward on their skinny legs. Meanwhile, what she thought of was how she was going to get that peach.

The village grocer was up the hill from where camp buses dropped them off, near the sharp and rocky descent to the beach. And since a healthy tan was how the administration demonstrated to parents that their children had been successfully looked after, there existed an unofficial camp policy: three hours at the beach, no matter the weather. If Mila was going to make a run for it, she had to do it while the kids were out by the sea. But how? The longest she had ever seen any counselor slip away was for a cigarette break. She often held the fort, watching over the little swimmers, while Lariska—another older counselor in charge of a boys’ squad—went up the rocks for a smoke. At the thought of this Mila stopped; the details of her scheme were becoming clear. She quickly counted the number of times Lariska had had to take a break, undetected, since camp began. That’s once per day for the last three weeks. Lariska owed her a favor.

By the time she arrived at breakfast with her squad, the dining hall was filled to capacity. The room reminded Mila of a train station with its tall ceilings, the pressing crowd, the deafening echo, and the communal dread of waiting—in this case, for food. She searched for Lariska’s messy blond hair and thick body. Lariska was a big woman and some of her always threatened to spill out of her blouse and onto whoever stood nearby. When Mila finally saw her, Lariska was bent over a boy, helping him with something on his plate. They were all the way at the other end of the room, near the stage curtain. There were rows of long tables filled with loud children to get through before Lariska was within reach. But first, Mila had to trick her girls into eating their hot cereal.

Tasha could be trusted to take charge of this task. Mila noticed that of all the job responsibilities, standing over little girls and making them eat their oatmeal was Tasha’s favorite. She never ate her own breakfast. Come to think of it, Tasha never ate much of anything at all, except for those rare occasions when they got sugar biscuits or cherry preserve with their tea. But there was a certain spark in her eyes when she placed her hands on the table and stared down at the girls, saying: “Oh, yes you will. You will eat it and you will eat it now.”

Tasha carried hot plates from the serving station to the table.

Podi suda, Tasha,” Mila said, calling her over. “Can I count on you to make these girls eat well today?” She eyed Tasha with the sort of confidence she knew Tasha would respond to. “Just look at them, they’re skinny.”

Tasha was now barking at the girls while they brought spoons full of slimy, watery oatmeal to their lips. And Mila began to move toward the other end of the room, inconspicuously, of course. She needed to act like she was still overseeing what went on at her own table. She needed to assume the well-practiced position of any seasoned Soviet woman—applying herself to many impossible tasks at once. Mila felt her body balloon upward and her limbs stretch between two ends of the room, the crowd of children and counselors milling around at her feet. She imagined herself elevated above her circumstances and in control. Just then, she was interrupted by Herr Director, as she liked to call him, who summoned her to order with a gentle clearing of his throat.

Milochka, dorogaya,” he said, calling her ‘darling.’ “Hurrying somewhere?”

Mila scraped herself off the ceiling. “Not at all,” she lied.

“You’re the person I wanted to see,” he said, wiping his moustache with the side of his hand. His breath smelled of fried potatoes and vodka—what he would have had for breakfast in his personal quarters. “Tell me about rehearsals. We’ll impress parents with musical skill on Visitor’s Day, won’t we?” He looked down at Mila, though he was half a head shorter.

“Of course,” Mila said, feeling the rage twist in her chest. The children she was tasked with organizing into a choir weren’t musically inclined. She could quote that well-known saying that “a bear had stepped on their ears” so they couldn’t hear pitch. But in this case the quote didn’t apply; the bear had mauled those ears off completely.

Herr Director raised his brow. He expected a stronger affirmation, she guessed.

“Kids will sing beautifully,” Mila said, nodding her head and clasping her hands by her waist. She spread a gentle, obedient smile across her lips. And they will, she thought. Was there an alternative? She was going to swing her magic wand and force them to make music. And if that failed, well, then she would split herself open; she would shed her own skin; she would come out of her shell and become their voices and their ears. She would do what was necessary, as always, and she would get the job done.

Umnich’ka. Good girl,” he said and winked, pinching her cheek.

Mila swallowed the spit that came up her throat and held her smile. For Herr Director to flirt with the younger counselors would have been creepy. But in her case she was sure he felt he was doing her a favor.

Mila noticed Lariska out of the corner of her eye and made a motion in her direction. The spot on her cheek felt hot and itchy from Herr Director’s coarse fingers. Put it out of your mind, Mila, she told herself. What was at stake was more important than her pride.

“We need to talk,” she said, squeezing herself into the small spot on the bench between Lariska and one of her boys.

“All ears,” Lariska said. Her lips were greasy with milk and bits of oatmeal were stuck to her upper teeth.

“I need to disappear for a bit today,” Mila said, trying to read Lariska’s reaction. But her face was steady, freshly moisturized and plump. “I need to do this while the kids are at the beach.” Mila noticed the corners of Lariska’s eyes narrow, clumps of mascara from her lashes falling into the crow’s feet below.

“Your group of fifteen plus my group of eleven,” Lariska said, collecting the oatmeal remains onto her spoon. “A lot of kids to watch if you’re gone a while.”

“Good thing we have each other,” Mila said. “I’m always happy to watch your squad while you smoke. Addiction is addiction, I understand that.”

Lariska’s eyes widened. Mila could see her thinking, calculating. This was a good time to throw in the reward: “Now don’t blab this,” Mila said, “but I heard they brought in some peaches to the grocer. You watch the kids and I’ll get you a fresh one.”

“What if someone notices? The other counselors? The Director?”

“You’re smart, you’ll figure this out,” Mila lied.

Lariska wasn’t smart and was old enough to know that. Still, somewhere between the promise of reward and the praise, she gave in.

“Anybody drowns and we’ve never had this conversation, understand?” she said.

Mila did understand but walked away as though she didn’t hear. If anybody drowned, what Lariska had to say about it would be the least of her concerns.

~

The bus was packed with two squads of kids and seven counselors in the back. Two more buses followed behind, down the dusty road. Everyone’s insides went up and down with each bump. Mila always had to be prepared for someone to get sick during this short trip down to the beach. But she loved the ride. As the path wound in and out of the trees, around the grey mountain, through fields of yellow wild flowers, and out toward the open waters, there was never enough for her eyes to enjoy. This was also when Mila could have Asya nearby. Her daughter never actually got carsick, but Mila warned that she might and thus kept her on the seat at her side.

Asya’s face was glued to the window and Mila hugged her by the waist in a way that nobody could see behind the tall backrest. They knew every corner, every color, and every glimpse of the sea on that journey.

“Now left,” Asya whispered.

“The flowers on the right,” Mila answered.

“Mama, look! The view out to the sea,” Asya said.

Asya could look out the window all day long if Mila let her. Sometimes she wondered what her daughter thought of during all her daydreams. Mila was sensible. She knew that she had to teach her daughter to snap out of it and become the cutthroat citizen she would have to be in order to survive. But on this ride she could imagine they were someplace else. She could imagine that the rest of their lives they would journey on like this, quietly looking out only to what was beautiful. Mila leaned over Asya, as if to adjust the small opening in the bus window, and kissed her daughter’s forehead. I have a surprise for you, little girl, she thought.

~

The small foot path twisted and curled between rocks and prickly shrubs. Mila held her breath. Coming down this path with the kids was always dangerous—one off-footed step and they would all go tumbling down. Once at the beach, Mila had to get them changed into their bathing suits and out to sea. She was still hurrying one of her slowest girls out of the bathroom, still adjusting the straps of her suit, when it was time for the first swim. Mila grabbed hold of the girl’s hand and they rushed toward the shore. She sent her into the water but then stayed behind, taking extra time to arrange the kids’ clothes on camp blankets.

Mila pulled up the hem of her skirt and tied it in a knot at her hip, the way the counselors did before entering the water. She took her white panama hat out of her canvas satchel and fitted it on her head. This was her mother’s hat, and before that it may have been her grandmother’s. She shifted the hat around until she found the spot on the brim where the fabric was least worn. It was a relief to feel the shade from the sun.

She did all this deliberately slowly, to make sure that the ring of counselors around the swimming children formed without her. She walked into the water up to her upper thighs, her satchel in hand, and came up behind Lariska.

Poriadok?” Mila whispered, asking if the plan was still on.

“Three o’clock,” Lariska said, motioning with her head to the left.

A figure was approaching them along the shore. At first Mila could only see it as an outline. It could have been anyone, a vacationer from a nearby hotel, perhaps. But Lariska’s face looked tense and her lips were pursed and Mila didn’t want to take any chances. She watched on until the figure came into focus. The slow stride; the measured, confident steps; the muscular shoulders; the small yet imposing stature; the mustache; the frightening eyes; the deliberately sly half-smile; the stately white beret. Herr Director, Mila thought. He chose this day to enjoy a leisurely little stroll. Well, that’s what you get for thinking this would be easy.

She watched him walk by and offer courteous nods in their direction. He acted as if he wasn’t there unannounced, checking on their performance; as if he merely happened to be there, matter-of-factly running into them on his way somewhere. Mila strained to keep her face from twisting into a frown. When he passed them, there was a moment of indecision. There was no way to tell what his plans would be. He could walk on for a few more minutes and decide to return to where the kids swam. His plan could be to observe the entire three hours, to see how the counselors brought the children out of the water and laid them on their backs for mandatory sunbathing. But maybe he had no such intentions. Maybe he would stroll along the beach until he felt tired and then made his way up the rocks to where his driver waited in the dark blue Volga.

Mila looked over at Lariska who shook her head, no. And Mila wanted to be reasonable and listen to the advice, yet she couldn’t. Who cared what happened next if there was a moment to act now? Who cared about the future when today, right this very moment, a ripe peach lay waiting for her daughter to enjoy? Mila clasped her hand on the handle of her satchel, rounded her shoulders and sunk her head. She walked through the water toward the shore, never looking back.

~

It was hard to believe that the shack she stood facing was a functioning store. Like everything in Crimea, it seemed rugged and shabby. Mila placed her hand on a rusticated bronze door handle and caught her breath. Her legs ached from the climb and from hurrying up the dusty road. Her feet were peppered with dirt and bloody where the sand had gotten into her sandals. Her neck and arms were scorched by the sun. Don’t you dare look hurried and desperate, she thought, and pushed the door open. Inside, the thick, uneven stone walls kept the air damp and cool. Mila waited as her eyes adjusted to the darkness. “Dobrij den,” she greeted, squinting to see if there was anyone there.

She breathed in the oven-baked warmth of rye bread, the smoky buttered whiff of roasted corn, and the sweetness of ripe tomatoes. No, the shelves weren’t full. Because even on this contended territory, in a place which her country acquired by force, even here the Soviet disease was palpable. Still, the place felt different. The austerity of emptiness was greater in the large, brightly-lit stores of mainland Ukraine. But here Mila felt a certain sense of promise.

She approached the counter. “Dobrij den,” she repeated, this time noticing the small, bird-like woman sitting behind the register. The woman nodded in response and smiled, toothless, the tanned skin of her face folding into countless lines and ridges. She had high cheekbones and distinct, upward-slanting dark eyes. How many of her kind were left, Mila wondered, certain that some fraction of Tatar blood ran through this woman’s veins.

“I heard you might have some peaches,” Mila said.

Nod.

“Could I buy some?”

“All sold yesterday,” the woman said, still smiling. “It’s summer, they’ll bring more. Don’t worry.”

“I’d like to buy some now, could you check in the back? Perhaps there are a few left?”

“Perhaps,” the woman said, and remained seated.

Mila drew several rubles from her wallet and placed them on the counter covered by the palm of her hand. There was no one else in the store, but she wanted to be careful. She slid her hand forward, the money scratching over the wood surface.

“You like peaches?” the woman asked, leaning over the counter but not reaching to take the bribe. “Ti otkuda?” she asked.

“From Kharkiv,” Mila said, crumpling the money in her fist. “It’s for my daughter. Please. She’s never even tasted one before.”

“Daughter? How old?” the woman said, and then added: “Not much fruit where you’re from, da?”

“She’s seven, in first grade. So pretty,” Mila said, noticing something soften in the expression on the woman’s face. “Just wish she ate better. Well, you raised your own kids, I’m sure you know.”

The woman nodded and her smile disappeared somewhere inside her wrinkles, under the heavy lids of her eyes. She got down from the stool she sat on and tried to make her way to the back room. She couldn’t bend one of her legs but had to thrust it out in front of the other to make each step. Her body bounced back and forth and her movements reminded Mila of a roly-poly doll with a rounded bottom instead of legs. Each time it looked like it would tip over and fall, yet it sprang back up. Mila wondered how many years this woman had left in her. How much longer would she survive, like the conflict-torn land she lived on, moving back and forth between balance and the tipping point?

Though it had only been minutes, it seemed like hours had passed and Mila didn’t know when the woman would return. A quiet solitude hung over her, the weight of expectation alternating with the fear that her plan might fail. Finally, the woman reappeared; her small hands folded under two large, golden peaches. She placed them on the counter and climbed back up her chair.

“You look like you need one too,” the woman said, crossing her arms over her chest.

Mila slid the money back into her bag and picked up the fruit. They had a freshly-sweet smell of something young.

“Enjoy,” the woman said, and motioned with her eyes to the door.

Mila thanked her and hurried out. If anyone ever gave her something, she knew to take it and run.

~

It must have been past two in the morning when Mila felt it was safe to crawl out of her bed. The younger women had settled down with their gossip and fallen into a quiet sleep. All she could hear was the come and go of the sea and her own heartbeat. She pulled her satchel from where she’d hidden it behind her bed since their return from the beach. Lariska had stuffed herself with her share, hiding behind the stage curtain after supper. Now it was Asya’s turn to eat.

Mila didn’t wear her sandals to avoid making extra noise. She crossed the yard toward the girls’ building feeling every bit of gravel under her feet. In the absence of daylight the low, white houses seemed to fade into the darkness.

Wake up, Asya,” Mila said, stroking her daughter’s shoulder. She kept her other hand over Asya’s mouth in case she screamed.

Asya’s body was soft and warm under the blanket and when she finally got up, shivering in her small nightgown, she looked up at Mila with eyes full of bewilderment. No matter, Mila grabbed her daughter’s hand and dragged her across the room, circumventing the other campers’ beds.

“What about my sandals?” Asya whispered, but Mila shushed her. What was she talking about—sandals? When was that girl going to learn the difference between the kinds of moments when she did and didn’t have the time to look for her shoes? Mila could feel the anger come up to her cheeks but she held it back and hurried Asya down the corridor to the bathroom.

Once inside, the familiar stench of old urine permeated the walls. It was a small room with one squat toilet and a rust-covered sink. This was where the girls came for a night-time run. It was also the only room with a lock. Mila pushed down the latch.

They faced each other behind the closed door, both barefoot, feeling the cold and the dirt of the tiled floor. Mila took the fruit out of her bag and handed it to Asya. She noticed it had lost its sun-kissed scent. She wanted her daughter to grab it, to bite into it, the juice squirting over her cheeks. Instead, Asya simply ate it. Mila watched her daughter’s jaw move with precision, each chew crisp and audible in the small space between them.

This should have been a happy moment, Mila thought. Her daughter executed the task beautifully, sending all those valuable vitamins and minerals into her system. This should have felt triumphant—the hardship was behind her and the prize was in her daughter’s hands. And yet, Mila wasn’t sure what it was that she had won. What was the point of getting that fruit, she thought, if it had to be eaten in the gutter?

“I’m done,” Asya said, as she swallowed, and handed Mila the pit.

It was time to go, but Mila hesitated. Perhaps all her life she’d been right there, barefoot and in the dirt, behind the locked door. She pulled her daughter close and held her, wishing they could be back on that bus, moving hundreds—maybe thousands—of kilometers into the unknown.

 

by Olga Breydo

 

Olga Breydo received her MFA in Creative Writing from The New School in New York. Her work appears or is forthcoming in Slice Magazine, Joyland Magazine, Joyland Retro, The Cossack Review, Bodega Magazine, and Los Angeles Review. Her critical essay, “Nabokov’s Space-time,” was longlisted for the 2015 Notting Hill Editions Prize, her short story, “Torre Flavia,” was nominated for a Pushcart Prize, and her short story, “Cherry Preserves,” was a finalist in the 2018 New Letters Prize for Fiction. She teaches in the First-Year Writing program at Eugene Lang College for Liberal Arts, The New School.

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