By Elise Blackwell
Published by Little Brown & Co
May 2003; 0-316-73895-6; 133 pages
It is not so uncommon for those near the end of their lives to run their mind's hand over the contours of those lives. Perhaps that is all that I do here as I reach across the populated spaces of time, geography, and language, reach from a comfortable New York apartment to a city once and again called Saint Petersburg.
The anniversary of our wedding day fell on the last of the early summer's white nights, and I could still believe that we would be fine. We dined at a restaurant that had been better a few years earlier but was still very good. Our window overlooked the Neva. The Peter and Paul Fortress lifted from the center of the river. Its bastion tilted slightly over the water, seeming more precarious than fortified, pointing askew to a sky more bright than light, a sky the creamy white color of the anona tree's sweet custard apple.
Alena's voice floated lighter on the air than it had in a year, and we ate well, sucking the delicate saltiness from the leg casings of huge crabs, spooning caviar directly into our mouths and sliding it down our throats with a white-grape wine that was just too sweet but good nonetheless.
I kept the check from Alena. She believed that the loss of her salary and the approach of Hitlerite Germany's young soldiers meant that we should hold tight to our money. Like the smell of rain before drops hit the skin, the coming war told me to spend, to have whatever I could now, before it could no longer be had. It would be later that I would learn to hoard crumbs like a miser.
I desired to go straight home and make love to the only woman I was allowing myself, the only one I really wanted. But Alena had heard on the radio the poet Vera Inber, whose account of the long days and nights ahead would secure her fame and favor, and wished to attend a reading she was giving.
We walked along Nevsky Prospect, which had widened with the crowds out to enjoy the last night of the year when the sun would go to the horizon but no lower. I held Alena close, by her arm, and then closer, my arm around her waist.
Every fabricated thing in Leningrad, from the antique ornaments atop monument gates to the nouveau wire poles, pointed upward, elegant, futile.
The small hall where the reading was held was full and very hot and smoky, something I would savor often in memory but did not enjoy at the time.
I remember few of Vera Inber's words. But those of the reputationless poet who preceded her have remained long with me. Tall and sturdy, he had been a sailor before he seized a pen. He appeared hale on first glance, but the gray folded into his face and the depth and yellow of his eyes gave away some disease of the internal organs.
He read several poems, none of them particularly to my taste, in a strong voice that was decidedly more naval than poetic. The last is the one I remember. It was called "The Shipwreck Survivor." I offer it now to begin my own story.
I never saw the poem on paper, so I do not know how the sailor-turned-poet broke his lines. But I recall each word as spoken:
"The ones who drown never change the facts, but those who survive the sea in their lungs must send their stories on words, words like small leaky boats, across the distance, cold, and currents of that water."
The volunteers of the opolchenia, including my Alena but not myself, scurried like rodents. Shelters appeared, and trenches. Young women pierced their skin wrapping barbed wire around obstacles built to prevent tanks from penetrating the city. We all waited for the attack and prepared to defend our city block by block, building by building, hand to hand.
But the tanks never rolled in. They stopped outside the city, and how much simpler it would have been had they kept coming.
In early September, the first Hitlerite shells descended - graceful and even hesitant from their high loft. Then Junkers rose and fell, rose and fell, leaving behind deposits of incendiaries like so much fatal silt.
When they hit the Badayev warehouses, the cramped lines of wooden buildings burned fast, and the fats stored within their boards radiated red heat, turning the close sky to embers and filling the air like summer cooking.
What did not burn were a few thousand tons of sugar, which instead melted through the floor planks to survive, shaped and imprinted by the cellars, as a hard candy. This candy was broken into chips that would be prized and sold for money and sex in the months that followed.
But so much would be passed off and paid for as food.
Among the many thousands of specimens housed at the institute were several hundred tubers. Small and large. Smooth and warty. White, brown, yellow, purple, and blue. Lidia, my longtime sometime lover, had helped collect the blue potatoes on an expedition to Ecuador and Peru. I had, against my preference, stayed in Leningrad with Alena.
Lidia collected more than the institute needed, and when she returned, we spent an afternoon in her apartment, peeling, cutting, frying, and feeding the blue chips to each other, licking salt and oil from each other's fingers and the corners of each other's mouths.
Among its many fine qualities, in addition to its deeply earthy taste and sublime color, that particular species of Peruvian blue potato is resistant to the potato blight that starved a million Irish men, women, and children.
Heat was gone by the end of September, and all the pipes in Leningrad froze. Until the snow came, we had for washing only muddy Neva water, carried by hand in pails.
When we made the decision not to eat the obvious, it was not made all at once but by something like attrition. But it was formalized at a particular moment of a particular day. Before that, we could have still backed away, allowed our unofficial resolve to erode.
Efrosinia was known well throughout the institute only for her brilliance. I could not have told you if she was married or single, where she had been born, nor how she spent her leisure. She was a woman of few extraneous words.
Only once had I seen her verbally agitated - happily so, over research results that were better than she had dared to hope. She had reported them to me rapidly, even breathlessly. When she stopped speaking, it was abrupt. She tucked some loose hair behind her ear, looked up at me from that cut angle, turned, and walked away. It was the only time I had seen her speak unnecessarily.
Some months later, when the findings that had so animated Efrosinia appeared in the very best international journal and caused a stir across the Atlantic, she said nothing but acknowledged our congratulations with only a nod.
So it was surprising, to say the least, that she called a meeting - invited everyone. She invited those of us who had been at the institute with the great director, and she invited the horrid blend of libelers, quacks, opportunists, and mere quietists who had come in since.
And everyone came, nearly filling our large conference room. Efrosinia said what we had been saying tentatively to one another. "We will not eat from the collections, then. We will protect them at all cost."
Efrosinia spoke no more that day. It was others who debated, though the debate was less than I might have thought, less than I might have wanted. Perhaps I wished for a loud din of opposing voices in which to conceal my meek objections to the noble plan. I said nothing.
My Alena spoke briefly in favor of the plan. Vitalii spoke elegantly and - the only one to do so - at length. Even then we all knew that he would be the first to die.
It was not that he was the smallest or weakest. Indeed he was tall and as hardened off as a plant that had never known the indoors. He had been an alpine skier of some renown and had taken an Olympic medal and other awards during the 1920s. He still had the great, wide shoulders, and now, in middle age, plenty of extra pounds around his once athletic waist.
We knew that Vitalii would be the first to die - not, as I have said, because he was the slightest or most vulnerable, not because he had the fewest stores. We knew because it was plain on his face, as plain as the square outside in the bright winter sun on one of Leningrad's thirty-five cloudless days, plain for all but him to see.
Would he have been so brave and clear in our deliberations, the staunchest advocate of martyrdom, our standard-bearer, had he known he would not only die but die first of all? No, I believed then and believe even now.
But Vitalii and Efrosinia and, yes, my Alena, carried that day.Copyright © 2003 Elise Blackwell
Reprinted with permission.
A spare and haunting story of love, memory, and appetite from one of modern Europe's darkest times.
Traveling to the world's remote places, a daring scientist has spent his life collecting rare plants for the Soviet Union's premier botanical institute. From the Saharan desert to the mountain passes of Afghanistan, from the rivers of South America to the Abyssinian interior, he has feared no danger to recover specimens that trace back to the ancient civilizations of Babylon and Assyria. Even at home with the wife he reveres, his memory brims with the beautiful women and luscious foods he has known in exotic climes.
But when German troops surround Leningrad in the fall of 1941, he too becomes a captive of the city. With food supplies dwindling, residents strip bark from trees, barter priceless antiques for bread, and trade sex for sugar. In the bleakest hours of the hunger winter, the institute's scientists make a pact: no matter how desperate conditions become, they will protect the precious cache of seeds that is their gift to their country's future.
Based on true events from World War II, Hunger is the powerful story of a man's confrontation with the riddle of his own morality. What is the meaning of cowardice or bravery, honor or betrayal, when life hangs on the smallest of decisions? Is survival the ultimate victory or the ultimate loss?
A stunning debut by a remarkable new writer, Hunger is a beautifully crafted exploration of the choices people make in extraordinary circumstances.(back to top)
Elise Blackwell has worked as a journalist, instructor, freelance writer, and translator. Originally from southern Louisiana, she lives in Princeton, New Jersey, with her husband and daughter. In the fall (2003), she will join the creative writing faculty of Boise State University.