By Daniel L. Link
Grigory turned to find the source of the laughter, the pain in his knee forgotten. A man was running his way, rifle in hand. He froze. The wheels of his cart came to rest between cobblestones, but he held on, rather than raising his arms in the air.
“You there,” the guard gestured with the rifle. “Don’t move.”
A passing man lowered his eyes and hurried away.
The guard’s smile was broad, white puffs of steam escaping with each chuckled exhalation. His exuberance puzzled Grigory, who didn’t see anything in the cold, drab day that should have him in such good humor.
“Let me see,” he said, pointing the rifle at Grigory.
This time he did put his hands up, but the guard waved the gun again.
“The cart,” he said. “Let me see in the cart.”
“It’s just potatoes.” Grigory took one corner of the burlap tarp and yanked it back to reveal half a cartload of potatoes, with a small child nestled in the middle. He gasped.
“Ha!” The guard shouted triumphantly. “I saw her sneak in there.”
He was right, it was a girl, no older than eight or nine, her dark hair cropped close like a boy’s. She looked to Grigory, her icy blue eyes filled with dread.
“Out with you, now.” The guard grabbed her by the tunic, and Grigory heard fabric tear as he wrenched. “Good job, comrade. We’ve been looking for her all week.” He turned to the girl. “Come, girl. The Cheka will want to talk to you.”
A chill went through Grigory. He couldn’t fathom why the secret police would be interested in one so young, but he knew he should stay out of it.
“Wait,” Grigory said, unsure what he was doing. “This isn’t the girl you want.”
“No?” the guard said, eyebrow raised.
“No, she can’t be. She’s a friend. She helps with the potatoes.”
He didn’t let go of the girl, just stared at Grigory, incredulous.
“Sir, believe me. She sleeps in there sometimes, but truly, she’s the daughter of a friend who died in the war. She helps me in exchange for food. We help each other.” He added, “I have a bad knee.”
“What’s her name?”
“Nika,” he said, blurting out his youngest sister’s name.
The man demanded the name of his dead friend. That was easy; Grigory had many dead friends.
“If you’re lying to me,” he said. “I’ll return, and you can both hang.” He pointed to the palace, where the nephew of the Czar once lived, that formerly proud symbol of his country now corrupted by death and ruin.
“Why?” Nika asked when they were in Grigory’s cottage. “You risked everything to save me.”
“There has been enough killing. Besides,” he said, sitting by the hearth and poking the fire, “I could use the help.”
For a solid month they worked close together and Grigory found he liked her company. Nika never offered her real name, but she told him she was wanted for theft and that her parents had been killed by the Reds.
“Where’s your family now?” Nika asked.
“Dead,” Grigory told her. “Everyone. My father, brother, and I all fought in the Great War. Alexei died, but Papa and I came home. Then, it was war with the Bolsheviks.”
“You’re a White?” Nika asked. “Like my parents?”
“I’m not anything. Red, White, it’s no matter. My father was a Cossack, and he was killed by the Reds. My mother and sisters starved, and I escaped. Now, I grow potatoes.”
On impulse, Grigory pulled a metal band from his pocket.
“This was my sister’s. It’s all I have left of my family,” he said rolling the band between his fingers. “I want you to have it.”
Nika’s eyes were wet as she put the large ring on her finger.
“Keep eating,” he laughed. “It will fit in no time.”
“Is it iron?”
“No, steel. It’s much stronger. There is an old proverb. ‘The same hammer that shatters glass forges steel.’ Have you heard it?”
“The world needs more blacksmiths, and less broken glass, that’s what I think.”
“Can anything break steel?” Nika asked, admiring it.
Grigory nodded. “Hunger.”
The trees were bare, the wind off the Oka biting, signifying the end of autumn. On the way home from market, Grigory let Nika go ahead while he pulled the cart alone. The remaining potatoes were small and shriveled, making the load light.
He watched her run, swinging a stick, laughing. Her hair was longer and she had put on weight. She was hardly the girl Grigory had first brought home. He smiled.
At the end of the bridge, two guards approached, one grabbing her by the neck, shouting. Grigory dropped the cart and ran to her, his aching knee screaming.
“Officer,” Grigory said. “Perhaps I can help.”
“Perhaps you can,” the guard said. He turned to Nika, tightening his grip. “Is this the man?”
“Yes,” she said. “This man is a traitor,” Nika pointed her stick at Grigory. “A fascist Cossack dog.”
“Well done, little one,” the guard said, then gestured to the man beside him. “Seize him.”
Grigory didn’t fight as the man took him by the arm. “Why, Nika?” was all he could say.
“Her name’s Anna,” the guard told him. “This girl has sniffed out more of you Whites than the Cheka. Good work, child.”
He saw no emotion on her face as he was dragged toward the palace, no sign she felt anything except the nervous twisting of the steel band on her finger.
Daniel Link is a writer of flash fiction, short stories, and novels. He lives in Northern California with his wife, who supports him in his obsessive writing. Twitter: @DanielLLink