by Mariya Deykute
The Great Patriotic War came to visit me again today. I was throwing out wild raspberries. A week ago I had scrambled up the treacherous rocks of Narbona Pass to fetch a cupful. “Eat them,” my husband said. “Later,” I replied. The cup sat in the car on the trip back, full of small red not-spheres. They sat in the fridge for a week. “Should I toss them?” my husband asked. “No, I’ll make something with them,” I said. But today I found that white mold had claimed them, fuzzy rotting snowflakes. I threw them out and took the trash to the dumpster, lest my husband see. If he had asked, I would have lied and said I had eaten them. Raspberries are my favorite berries, after all. It’s hard to explain to anybody that I didn’t eat them because of the War that ended before my mother was born.
Back when we lived in a warren of rooms on the bank of the Oka, my grandmother used to hide small slivers of candied orange under her bed, fold sugar into her pockets. The War lived in her room. It nested in her voice, in the foot where the bones never grew together right, in the insomnia that left her pacing the linoleum halls, past my room, and back again. War whispered her to sleep.
My mother is a miracle of the War. Ninety percent of the boys my grandfather sat next to in class never came back to father children. I am a miracle of the War. When I lay awake and listened to my grandmother measure time with her two canes down the hallway and back again, I thanked the War. I conjured it in my mind. I thought we must have been special, somehow, to survive it. Chosen, somehow. Hand-picked, even. I felt the Great Patriotic War sit on my bed, stroke my hair. It whispered stories of the brave pionery. Of the partisans. Of the horrible fascists. Of how brave my grandfather was, how special. How I was special, too. How I must be ready to fight, to sacrifice, to save. It’s a pity that I’m a girl, but that doesn’t matter. I must be the best soldier.
I really wanted to eat the raspberries in the car, right after I picked them. Had they been abundant around us, I wouldn’t have given them a second thought. But we live in the desert now, the mountains our only escape into something of a forest. To find wild raspberries there, while the heat beats the grass yellow below, was a miracle. And miracles must be saved. Must be preserved, even if they rot.
Once, when I was nine, I forgot about the War, and got too rowdy at dinner. I dropped a piece of bread onto the floor after waving it about. I picked it up and went to throw it away — it was a small piece, just a finger of crust. My gesture was so automatic (cleanliness, godliness) that the pain confused me at first. Canes across my wrists. My grandmother, shaking as she hit me, screaming, until I scrambled under the table, all dangle-legged, and she left the kitchen. When I stopped rubbing, rubbing, rubbing my wrists, I could hear her muffled sobs behind the wall. I had remembered about the War, then. I had gotten up, washed my face and knocked on her door and apologized through the wood. In time, she forgave me.
In the only picture of my grandfather I ever saw (it hung in my grandmother’s room, next to the cuckoo clock, next to the red corner with the icons and blessed candles), he was young and wearing his uniform and medals. He was among the War-blessed, so it made sense to remember him this way. He went to Berlin, and came back. He succeeded in living, even if he never lived to the present. While my grandmother was beside me, lamb-skinned, wrinkled and ailing, while she made dresses for my dolls and porridge for me, he remained the soldier on the wall. His gaze mixed with the gaze of God the Father and the Blessed Virgin and the Baby Jesus, and they watched me carry out my duties. Every family I knew had a patron saint of the Great Patriotic War. It was the kind of sainthood that needed no religion, only prayer. Men who never returned were best for it, but others would do, as long as they were remembered as soldiers first, and men — second. It’s strange to me now that I never saw my grandparents’ wedding pictures, or a picture of him in his miner’s hat, or even his childhood photos. This was not important. He was the benevolent Soldier, sent to watch over us and prepare us for the nameless War that was yet to come.
There was never any doubt that another war would come: something to test us, some faceless enemy to conquer. This is why it was important to know what it meant to go hungry, to scrimp, to save, to hide. This is why those of us who left, who settled elsewhere, who learned the enemy languages, were not just emigrants, but traitors.
At the dumpster, I want to hold up my fist clutching wild raspberries, clutch them so hard the juice runs down my fist, and yell to my more patriotic comrades: I’ve betrayed nothing. Nothing has been left behind. The same obligation you carry out, I carry out. I make decisions because of the War. I let raspberries rot. I take the bread out to the pigeons, but never the trash can, even when it’s minus 20 outside. I refuse to get my son a Russian passport because he may be drafted to fight in the New War. I bawl when war songs come on. The War sleeps with me in my marriage bed, whispering as I watch my newborn son reaching for my grandfather’s photograph. See? See? See?
The dumpster swallows the raspberries without complaint. When my grandmother died, my mother found all the money we’d sent her under her pillow, safe. All the chocolate she’d been gifted — safe, and brittle and tasteless. The dress we thought would be lovely to wear, unworn. It didn’t seem strange. The War is coming, you see. There will be time for sweet, beautiful things. Later, later. After.
It’s clear what the War chose us for. Why it left some alive. It didn’t want to die. Didn’t want to rot in the ground, pass from our children’s memories. Nobody wants to be forgotten. What other sign of loyalty could you want from me? I ask it in the dark. I am haunted by you. I am your house. Just turn away for a while. Just don’t notice my son. Just let me eat.
Mariya (Masha) Deykute is a Russian-American poet, translator, playwright, essayist and teacher, born in Pushchino, USSR and raised in Brooklyn, NY. She is a graduate of the UMass: Boston MFA program, and while she currently lives and teaches in the Republic of Kazakhstan, she calls New Mexico home. Mariya writes about imaginary countries, nostalgia, the persistence of history and wilderness that exists alongside and inside all of us. Her work has recently appeared in Cholla Needles, Incessant Pipe, Soundings East and an anthology zine about Tove Jansson. At the moment Mariya teaches rhetoric, composition and creative writing at Nazarbayev University and is working on completing a poetry manuscript and translating contemporary Kazakhstani poets.
Featured photo courtesy of Silvia Wineland.