Mila leaned back against the wall, sideways to the table, and propped one foot on the chair with her knapsack. She surveyed the room very carefully: like a policeman, Galyna thought. At last, satisfied, she turned and smiled at Galyna. “Do you know what I feel?” Mila asked. Galyna shook her head. “I feel free — free for the first time since the Red Army took over the control of the region where we partisans had fought for two years.” She paused, considered Galyna and added softly. “You cannot understand that can you?”
“I don’t know…” Galyna replied cautiously. She remembered feeling terrified after her father’s arrest — afraid of a knock on the door, afraid of the ringing of the telephone, afraid of the people on the street. She remembered how she stopped talking to everyone and stopped looking people in the eye. She had not been brave. She had never stood up for her father, never defended him. She had condemned him publicly like they wanted her do. She had called him a traitor and said that he deserved to die. And even when the stranger who said she was her grandmother collected her at the train station in Helsinki, she had not trusted her for a long time. She had thought they would find her somehow, take her back, and send her to Siberia. Not until they got to England did she start to feel free, but only gradually.
“You don’t have to tell me anything,” Mila said into her thoughts. “Just let me talk. Please. I am so alone in Karlshorst. There is no one there I can talk to. Grisha… sometimes I think he understands. He’s a good man. An honest and brave man. Yet, when I try to talk to him, he just says ‘Don’t talk like that, Milushka.’ Or, ‘You know better than to say such things.’ He never tells me what he thinks. For a while, I thought we could be happy together. But how could I spend my whole life with a man who will not tell me what he truly thinks? Who will not let me say what is in my heart and mind?”
Galyna looked at Mila and they knew that they did understand each other, yet Galyna was still afraid to speak. She had learned her lessons too well and at too tender an age. Besides, she had not been a partisan who had learned to kill her enemies. She looked down at the revolver still held casually in Mila’s hand.
“Two days before the meeting of the ACC where we met,” Mila spoke so softly Galyna had to strain to hear her. “I received a message from my grandfather. It did not come by mail. He’d scribbled it on pages torn from a book and sent it with a conscript from our village who’d been assigned to the battalion guarding Karlshort. The boy found me and gave me the message, telling me in a whisper that what he wrote was true — before running away without telling me his name. Do you want to know what my grandfather wrote?”
Galyna nodded vigorously; she was hardly breathing.
Mila continued in her almost inaudible voice, “He wrote to tell me that my niece, my sister’s three-month-old baby, had starved to death. She was not the only one in the village. They are all starving, he said. It is worse than during collectivization. He said there are no cattle left alive. He said they have no bread. They eat only potatoes and roots….” She fell silent, her hand stroking the pistol. “When Marshal Sokolovsky hosts dinners, he serves mountains of caviar, paté, game, turkey, lobsters and oysters….”
The waiter arrived with tall glasses of tea in metal holders. It was steaming hot. The two women held the glasses under their noses, breathing in the scent of the tea and letting the hot moisture stick to their faces. Mila started speaking again. “My sister weighs less than 70 lbs, my grandfather says. He says she is always cold because they have nothing but rags to wear. They don’t live in Moscow, you see, or Kyiv or even Kharkiv. They are just peasants. Former Kulaks.”
A shiver went down Galyna’s spine despite the hot tea she clutched in her hands.
Mila looked over at her. “You understand?”
Galyna nodded. She almost gasped out that her father had been a teacher near Kharkiv, that he had spoken out against collectivization. For that, he had been arrested for treason and disappeared into a gulag. She wanted to tell Mila, but she couldn’t overcome twelve years of silence. All she managed was to whisper, “You are Ukrainian, too.”
“Did you have brothers?”
Mila looked at Galyna with a sad expression. “You put that question in the past tense.”
Galyna looked down, “It is just that ... one hears, everywhere, about Soviet casualties….”
“You are right. I had three brothers. They are all dead. But I don’t know who killed them. Maybe the Germans. Maybe not…. I think Nikita may have sympathized with the Germans. I don’t know what happened to any of them…. Do you have brothers or sisters?”
Galyna shook her head. “Unless you count the children of my mother’s second marriage, but I don’t count them.”
“Your father is dead?”
Galyna made a gesture. “Somewhere.”
Mila nodded. She understood. For several moments they sipped their tea in silence and then Mila spoke again. “My sister and grandparents have no warm clothes. Do you think we could buy something here in the West? Good things, made in the West. Things that will last,” she emphasized.
“Potsdamer Platz is the biggest barter market in the world. You can buy anything there if you have something to sell.”
With a smile, Mila reached into her backpack and removed three Matryoshka dolls. “I have these, after you’ve taken the one you want, I can sell the other two and these.” She dumped a handful of German iron crosses on the table. “I heard the Americans like to buy them,” she explained.
Galyna nodded and reached out for the Matryoshka dolls. She inspected them carefully, treasuring the details on even the smallest doll. After comparing, she made her choice and asked, “How much do you want for it?”
“A pair of warm boots for my sister, or a fur hat for my grandfather, woollen underwear for my grandmother — things I can send home.”
“We’ll go to the black market. I have cigarettes from the NAAFI and with your Iron Crosses, I’m sure we’ll find what you’re looking for.”
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