© Joylene Nowell Butler 2008
ALL RIGHTS RESERVED
A Collective Farm outside of Moscow
Marina slipped past her and scrambled over the hearth. Papa couldn't protect her when Mother shouted like that; he couldn't protect himself. Safety waited under the table. Careful not to disturb Papa’s icon of Christ, she lifted the faded linen tablecloth and scuttled underneath. The dirty floor was rough, but she was practiced at scooting back against the wall without getting a sliver.
Mama shouted again. "Vam idiot dyrak!”
“I’m not an idiot,” Papa said. "I won't do it."
"No, Papa," Marina whispered. He shouldn't argue when Mama shouts. He shouldn't make her angrier. She hurt him the last time. She sliced him.
Marina hated the memory. The village healer had to come and bandage Papa's arm. It was the first time she ever felt shame for her Papa. She overheard the healer scold him, calling him a weakling to let his wife rule him. The healer said the neighbors laughed at Papa because he wasn't a man.
Marina hated the village healer now. She didn't want her back here. Papa, don't make Mama angry.
Red-hot coals sizzled in the fireplace, but a cold wind penetrated the wall behind her. She stuffed the hem of her dress in her mouth to keep her teeth from chattering.
“Vam idiot dyrak! You've humiliated me again," Mama yelled. "You're nobody. You're the low nothing of a man."
"I am SOMEONE!" Papa roared in a voice Marina didn't recognize. "No more tests on my daughter."
The tests! Would Papa protect her from them at last? Marina hated the gray-haired man in the long white coat who stabbed needles into her head. She would cry out in pain, unable to help herself. She would scream until she went to sleep. The pain would still be there when Mama woke her, even though the needles were gone. Mama would shush her and tell her to be a good girl, a quiet girl. Marina would smell burning straw for days, and the other children would know what had happened to her when they saw the bruises on her face and the fresh shaved spots on her head. They said she deserved the punishment. They suffered the needles only once. But Marina had it done three times. She wondered why Papa allowed it. Now would he finally stop them from punishing her?
Soaked in the shadowed light shining through the worn tablecloth, she shivered so badly the skin on her back felt as if it might peel from scraping the wall. She changed her mind about Papa being quiet and now wanted to yell, Yes Papa! Be brave this time. Tell Mama, no more tests.
"You stupid little man," Mama shouted, her big feet spread wide. "Don't you understand what these tests mean?"
Papa stepped back and bumped the table. Marina gasped. She imagined the icon wobbling on the tabletop. The icon kept them safe and fed. It kept the monsters who scratched at the window at night from hurting her. Papa promised it always would. But if it fell and broke, who would protect them?
She held her breath and waited for the icon to topple over and roll off the table. She peaked out from underneath the tablecloth, hoping to catch it if it fell. Mama leaned toward Papa. Her eyes bulged from her head.
"The tests show that at five years old she is already a prodigy," Mama said. "How often must I explain this to you, idiot. With a prodigy we can leave here. We can leave this, this plywood yurt. We won't have to plant potatoes in spring or break our backs in the summer. We won't have to freeze in this winter's hell. We'll live as we did before the war, before you turned into an imbecile."
Papa spoke, but Mama raised her voice over his. "You listen good, Anton. You will send a letter to Comrade Kurenkov, and you tell him you made a mistake."
"I will not." Papa’s shoes stepped closer to Mama. "I will take my daughter away."
"What? What did you say?"
"I'll take her away. You will be left behind here. We’ll go far away, where you can't--"
Mama shrieked. Papa cried out. His legs crumpled, and he thumped to the floor. His muddy shoes slammed against the coal box next to the door. A knife dropped beside him. Marina clasped her hands tight across her mouth and stared in horror at the blood sopping into the dirty floorboards. A terrible smell mixed with the rising dust. So much blood. So thick. So red. Creeping like sticky syrup across the floor.
Mama's feet stomped away from the table.
Marina wondered if she should pour the pitcher of blessed water over Papa to help him. But Mama needed time to lose her rage. Papa had explained it to Marina many times. 'Hide until you're sure Mama is herself again.' She listened for sounds of Mama's anger. It was dead quiet.
Refusing to look at Papa, she closed her eyes. The room was so still she could hear the wind breaking the icicles hanging from the roof outside. She heard faint bubbles in her chest. No. The sound was not from her breathing. She opened her eyes and gulped for air. Papa, laying on his stomach, stretched out his hand toward her. A single tear trickled down his cheek. "Help me, Masha," he wheezed.
Marina tried to retreat, bumping her head on the underside of the table.
"Look what you made me do. You stupid fool," her mama whispered.
She inched forward. An explosion from the far side of the room shook the house; just as when the farmers shot crows from the sky. Marina jumped and slammed her shoulder against the leg of the table, then braced herself until the thunder in her ears stopped. She waited for Papa to move. He didn't. She listened for Mama to tell her to come out. Mama didn't speak.Marina hugged her knees. Icy wind sang through the crack in the wall behind her. The room grew dark.