The Nevsky Wall
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Chapter 11   -  Fireflies

November 10

Elena rose from her chair in the middle of the night to look in on Vasha and add scraps of wood to the burzhuika, the small cast iron stove that was the only source of heat in the apartment. The autumn nights had grown long and increasingly cold. She slept poorly in the best of times, but since the boy’s arrival, she seldom got more than one or two good hours.

During the day, Vasha was listless and would not speak. At night, Elena woke to his haunted cries. He was in bed when she left to collect the day’s ration, and he was still in bed when she returned. He ate what she put in front of him, which wasn’t much. The few slices of bread she brought home were hardly recognizable as bread anymore, consisting largely of cellulose, pine needles, and the spoiled, yeasty grain swept from the corners of abandoned breweries. It had an antiseptic smell. She still had some of the tins from Alex, and he brought more when he could, but she kept most of those in reserve against the time when there was no ration or she was too weak to collect it.

Viktor, like many in the brigade, slept at the firehouse between long, exhausting shifts. On his off days, he rode one of the few remaining trams across town to see Vasha, hoping that this might be the day that his son would emerge from the dark sadness that continued to engulf him. On one of his visits, he delivered a box of items that he’d been able to salvage from the apartment – some books and clothes and the one model plane that was still intact – but Vasha was indifferent to everything.

Elena played short passages on the piano, as much as her strength would allow, hoping to draw Vasha out. In the afternoon and early evening, before the power was cut, she read to him from Tolstoy and Danilevsky, and when the apartment was thrown into a cold darkness, she lit one of the oil candles and told him stories from when his father and his Uncle Alex were boys. It was these stories, more than anything, that seemed to capture him, and he would look intently into her eyes as she described Viktor’s football days or Alex’s habit of catching and studying frogs on their summer trips to the country.

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Chapter 11   -  Fireflies

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