It feels weird to share a wagon with horses. They nicker, and snort, and clip-clop behind their wooden barrier. The odor of hay and manure drifts towards the people stuffed in the other half of the wagon. Lyova doesn’t mind—horses smell, they can’t help it. People smell too, and after a week on a train in stifling heat, it’s worse than horses.
When they were told to move to this other train today, to this split wagon, Lyova couldn’t care less, but he noticed that Vera, his sister, was upset. And now she still shudders at each and every neigh.
“Mommy, ponies!” her daughter Elmira squeals, pointing with her tiny finger.
“These are not ponies, these are tall, strong horses,” Lyova says.
Vera bends close to him and whispers into his ear, “Keep your eyes open. What if they get spooky when the train starts going? What if they smash the fence?”
“These are Army horses. They don’t get spooky,” Lyova replies, without lowering his voice. “And it’s not a fence, it’s a barrier.”
“Oh really?” Vera rolls her eyes.
She thinks she knows everything, but what does she know about horses? Not that Lyova knows much more, but he’s not afraid. He’ll be seventeen soon. Damn, if he were nineteen, he’d be in the Red Army now, like his two brothers, like Vera’s husband—fighting the Germans. He heard people in the wagon saying that the drafting age will be reduced to eighteen. Even so, the war may be over before he’s old enough.
Vera says they’re lucky to be on this train. Some luck. She says many people have stayed behind; there were not enough trains to take everybody who wanted to leave Vitebsk. They only got on this train because Vera worked part-time at the clothing factory, at their medical station. Vera is a doctor, same as Sasha, her husband, and that’s where they got together—at the medical school.
Come to think of it, without the revolution she could never be a doctor and she could never marry Sasha. She’d be a housewife, like Mom, and she’d marry a Jewish shoemaker, like Dad, or a tailor, or some other Jewish tradesman guy. Surely not a Tartar, like Sasha, not the son of an architect whose family used to live in a multistory house. Now their house is divided into tiny apartments for lots of families, but Vera says it’s not their fault if they were born nobles. Well, she’s right. Lyova likes Sasha and his mother. Sasha’s architect father is dead. Why do fathers always die early? Architects, shoemakers, all of them.
They left Vitebsk on July 7, and Fritzes took it three days later. When they heard the news, Vera said, once again, “We were so lucky to get away,” and hugged her daughter and cried a bit, when she thought nobody was looking. But Lyova knew she didn’t want to leave—that’s why she cried. She hated leaving her mother-in-law behind, and she couldn’t take her with them either. Vera told him about this herself while they were still in Vitebsk, waiting at the train station, not because Lyova really needed to know, but because she needed to tell somebody.
“Don’t sulk, Lyova. Do you think I’m happy to leave?” she said. “You think I want to go away without Sasha’s mom? But she can’t make it on this train. It would kill her. I’m a doctor, Lyova, I know. She has a heart defect, a very bad one. I can’t take her. I wanted to stay with her. Sasha is crazy about his mom. He never went to sleep without kissing her goodnight. And she deserves it. She’s kind and clever. She knows many languages; she even taught Elmira some German.”
“German?” Lyova grimaced.
“Yes, German, why not? It was before the war started. You don’t expect her to teach Elmira Latin, do you?”
Lyova shrugged. He thought about French, but decided it wasn’t worth mentioning.
“Anyway, I told her, ‘Mother, I’m not leaving. I’m staying with you.’ And she said, ‘You must leave. You can’t stay here.’ And you remember this Varvara, their old nanny, she said, ‘I remember how it was in 1914, when Germans were here. Pretty decent people, these German soldiers. Germans are no trouble.’ But Sasha’s mom, she didn’t want to listen. Lyova, you know what she did then? She begged me on her knees, yes, on her knees! She cried, “They’ll kill you all, all your family. I know. Please, go away. Save the child. Save the child.’”
And so they’re on the road now, running away. They haven’t got much food with them because they didn’t plan to leave, and they have little money because Vera didn’t have time to collect her salary. Their food lasted for three days. Now, when the train stops, Lyova tries to get some potatoes, or bread, or a glass of milk for Elmira from locals, with money or in exchange for their scarce belongings. Vera says they have to be very careful with money and everything. The train is bound for Saratov, and it may take a long time to get there. It has been more than a week since they left, and so far they only got to Kharkov. People say it will be safe to stay in Saratov because it’s so far away from everything, but Mom is not convinced.
“What will we do there?” she asks nobody in particular. “Homeless, hungry, among strangers…”
“Don’t you worry, Mama,” Vera says. “I’m a doctor. I’ll get an appointment somewhere. We aren’t going to be homeless. We aren’t going to starve.”
Mom sighs and looks into the window. Vera was born in 1917, in the year of the Great October Revolution, and she’s only twenty-four now, but she’s a real doctor, diploma and all. Lyova loves to read, but he’s not crazy about studying. And anyway, with the war going on, who needs school and homework. But he can’t deny it’s handy to be a doctor. People from this clothing factory, they seem to respect Vera a lot; some even share their food with her. “Take this for your little daughter,” they say.
“Lyovushka,” Vera says, and at first Lyova doesn’t hear, lost in his thoughts about the train, doctors, and everything else. “Lyovushka,” she repeats. “Where’s this notebook of yours?”
Lyova has a couple of notebooks in his sack. He gives Vera one of them, and she starts writing.
“A letter? To Sasha?” Lyova asks.
Lyova knows she has already written him a letter about how they left Vitebsk and how Sasha’s mother is not with them. Vera was all red-eyed afterwards. But of course, one letter might get lost. Besides, now she can tell him they’ve reached Kharkov and soon will be moving out for Saratov.
“May I write him too?” Lyova asks.
“Of course, if you want to.”
“No, I’ve got a better idea.”
“I’m going to draw a picture of Elmira. A portrait.”
“Oh, really,” Vera says.
One of the notebooks has a pretty good paper, smooth and plain, neither checks nor lines, and not too thin either. Lyova digs out a pencil and sharpens it with his little penknife, a present from Sasha.
“Look at me, Elmirochka,” he tells his little niece, and she stares at him with her wide greenish eyes, Sasha’s eyes. It’s funny, Sasha’s mom has narrow, slit-like eyes, like on this portrait of Genghis Khan from his history textbook, but Sasha’s eyes are not nearly as narrow.
Lyova remembers watching his elder brother, Mosya, drawing a picture of his daughter, and how her eyes were the first thing to appear on the page. He too starts from the eyes—it makes sense, eyes being the mirror of the soul and all.
“Uncle Lyova, will you show me the picture?” Elmira asks.
“Sure, but you must sit still and wait till I’ve finished. It’s a portrait, not just any drawing. It takes time.”
Elmira sits still. She’s a quiet, thoughtful child. Well, thoughtful isn’t quite the right word for a tiny four-year-old girl. Lyova keeps working on her eyes, all the while thinking about a better word, but nothing better comes to his mind. Other kids fuss, and cry, and demand water or food. Elmira doesn’t cry much and she almost never makes a fuss. She just sits there quietly, watching them all with her big eyes, listening. She loves stories; Lyova has already told her all the fairy tales he can remember. Now he has to invent something new. Sometimes he’s too tired to invent, so he cheats, retelling her Treasure Island or The Three Musketeers.
If Lyova had to pose for a portrait when he was a kid, he wouldn’t last long. Him, sit still? No way, not even when he was seven years old, not even for a fancy painter with all these colors and brushes and canvas. He could sit through a photo portrait, on a good day.
Vera has finished writing her letter. She returns the notebook to him and says in her strict doctor’s tone, “Lyova, it’s getting dark outside. You’ll ruin your eyes.”
“But I haven’t finished yet. I want you to put this portrait into your letter.”
“I can put it into the next letter. Anyway, we don’t know if the letters will reach him. It would be a pity if your drawing gets lost, wouldn’t it? Lyovushka, run along now and drop my letter into the postbox, will you? Hurry up, please. What if the train starts moving?”
Lyova sighs and runs along. People at the station say there are lots of Army trains with troops and tanks and guns forming or passing through, so the civilian trains like theirs are going to stay behind for a while yet, till all the important trains are on their way.
“Comrades, the station commandant said it could take twenty-four hours to get our train from the sidetrack,” a little bald man in a baggy brown jacket, his dark tie hanging askew across his greyish shirt, tells the crowd. “We must be patient and stay put on the train.”
“Who’s that?” Lyova asks a woman who used to be in the same wagon with them, before they moved in with the horses.
“Comrade Orlovskiy, director of the factory.”
The next morning they’re still at the same place, on the same sidetrack. As the heat settles in, horses and people get restless, but all they can do is wait. Lyova takes out Elmira’s portrait and works on her cheeks, and chin, and nose.
“When will you show me?” Elmira says.
“Wait a little more, please. I still have to draw your hair.”
“I can’t sit still.”
“Well, move around a bit then. But don’t look at it yet.”
What do you know, even Elmira can’t sit still all the time.
“It seems like we’ve got an artist here,” Vera says, for the first time trying to catch a glimpse of his painting, but Lyova quickly snatches it out of her sight.
“Be quiet. I’m trying to do my best.”
There’s a commotion at the entrance of the wagon. “Is Doctor Yakubovskaya in this wagon?” somebody cries. “Yes,” others reply. Vera jumps up and hurries to the entrance—somebody must be needing a doctor.
“What is it?” she cries.
“Verochka, we’ve seen your husband at the station. He’s with the Army train that arrived this morning.”
“Don’t worry, he’s coming here. He’ll be here any moment now.”
“Thank you,” Vera says. “Thank you so much. I can’t believe it.”
Vera jumps out of the wagon, and Lyova joins her on the wayside. People are coming and going, civilians, soldiers, officers, hurrying all around them. Vera and Lyova don’t spot Sasha till he’s almost upon them, running. He hugs Vera hard, kisses her on the lips. He’s pale and thin, but alive and unharmed. He shakes Lyova’s hand, then hugs him too.
“Hi, Brother,” he says, and they get up into the wagon.
Elmira is beside herself with joy. They hug and kiss, and after a while, Sasha puts her on his knee and says hello to his mother-in-law. Vera sits down beside him, and he holds her by the shoulders with one hand. He looks around, searching for somebody.
“Mother stayed in Vitebsk, with Varvara,” Vera says. “I didn’t want to go, but she begged me to leave. Sasha, you know she can’t make it on the train, in conditions like this.”
Sasha’s face is white like a pile of fresh snow, and he grits his teeth so hard that everybody can hear the rasping noise. Vera lowers her head, then looks at him again.
“Yes, I know,” he whispers, but his teeth are still clenched.
“Daddy,” Elmira says, “You know, Mommy lost her consciousness.”
She’s all proud she knows this new word: consciousness, but Mommy doesn’t share her enthusiasm about this exciting event.
“It was nothing,” she says, “just the heat.”
Sasha tells them his army unit is being relocated because they lost many planes in the very first day of the war. (He’s with the Air Force, and not just a soldier—he’s an Army doctor, and Army doctors are officers.) He says he can’t stay long, he must go back to his train. He gives them three cans of meat and a big loaf of bread; must be his rations.
“Two cans will do,” Vera says. “Leave something for yourself.”
When they say their farewells, Lyova turns away and grits his teeth, like Sasha did. It helps, a little bit.
“Lyova,” Sasha calls out. “Come say goodbye, Brother.”
They shake hands again and hug.
“Uncle Lyova, where’s my picture for Daddy?” Elmira says, pulling on his trouser leg.
The portrait—he forgot all about it.
“Right, where’s the picture?” Vera asks, holding back tears. “Have you finished it?”
“Almost,” Lyova says and opens the notebook with the drawing.
“Show me, show me,” Elmira says.
They all gather around him to look and to praise his drawing.
“Lyovushka,” Vera says. “This is wonderful. Thank you!”
“Thank you, Lyova,” Sasha says. “But you forgot to sign it. Painters always sign.”
“I’m not a painter.”
“Come on, painter, sign or I’ll be late.”
Lyova picks up his pencil and writes “Lev Frumin, July 1941”, then adds a long fancy strike beneath Frumin.
Sasha folds the painting and places it into his breast pocket, with his military card and a couple of family photos. “It will be close to my heart, always,” he says.
After he’s gone, Vera turns her face to the wall and sobs, and Elmira starts crying too. Lyova tries to distract her with a fairy tale, but for once she’s not interested. Soon there’s a shout that the train is going out. The little bald man was right—it has been twenty-four hours, twenty-four hours of waiting, of hope, of despair, of meetings and farewells. At least Lyova didn’t waste these twenty-four hours just sulking, and sitting around, and thinking about food. Even though he’s not a painter, the drawing came out pretty good, and now it lies in Sasha’s pocket, close to his heart.
Lyova doesn’t know yet that in 1943 Vera will receive a letter from an Army captain, Sasha’s friend. He will send her Sasha’s military card, his family photos, and Elmira’s portrait, taken from his heart—all pierced by the same bullet.
Irena Pasvinter divides her time between software engineering, endless family duties, and writing poetry and fiction. Her stories and poems have appeared in online and print magazines (Every Day Fiction, Bartleby Snopes, Bewildering Stories, Fiction 365 and many others). Her poem “Psalm 3.14159…” has been nominated for the Pushcart Prize. She is currently working on her never-ending first novel. Visit Irena at sites.google.com/site/ipscribblings.
WHY WE CHOSE TO PUBLISH “The Pierced Portrait”:
Fabula Argentea loves to publish historical pieces that thrust the reader in a past setting and bring that setting to life through the characters. Irena Pasvinter’s wonderfully resonant story shows us the personal struggles of a family in the unsettled times of war, where sometimes the hope for a brighter future is the only thing that can push aside the dark clouds of despair.
We also invite you to check out Irena Pasvinter’s website to learn more about the real story behind “The Pierced Portrait.”: sites.google.com/site/ipscribblings
Very touching story, it was very special reading for me as I know the author and her family personally
Almost everything there in this story is true, especially the events that seem the most unlikely: https://sites.google.com/site/ipscribblings/home/the-pierced-portrait