I wrote this story for the first round of this year’s NYC Midnight Flash Fiction. I drew historical fiction, which has to be one of my favourite genres. My object was a rope and the setting had to include a seized plot of land. This story came to me very quickly as it instantly made me think about post-revolutionary Russia and the subsequent famine in Ukraine after collective farms were introduced. I had just come off the back of teaching the Stage 6 Modern History national study of Russia, and it was cool to be able to use some detailed historical knowledge to write a piece of fiction.
This is a sobering little story. I used the colours of the Ukrainian flag – the blue of the sky and the yellow of the grain- as a motif. As it was less than 1000 words I used the three part structure; three subsequent years to show the progression of the plight of one Ukrainian farming family. I didn’t know how this story would be received- I felt my tone was a bit contrived- but in the end I placed at the top of my heat. Enjoy.
The Bear and the Squirrel
There is an old Ukrainian folk tale about a squirrel and a bear. The bear ignores the squirrel and brushes him aside. When later the bear is caught in a trap, the squirrel chews through the tangle of rope. Even though the squirrel is small and weak, he saves the life of the mighty bear.
The bear is Russia. The squirrel is Ukraine. The year is 1930.
There is a sound that wheat makes when the breeze blows in late autumn and the grain is groaning on the stem; a soft sweeping whisper. The fields had turned pale yellow as if the wheat were a golden belt separating the black loam soil from the endless blue of the Ukrainian sky. Katya had been cooking all day and had prepared a large loaf of bread to bless tomorrow’s harvest. The kitchen was filled with the smell of sweet and sour soup, pickled vegetables, smoked pork sausage and potato dumplings. Outside the window she could see her two boys. Artem was sharpening a scythe, always dutiful and planning ahead, but the younger boy Alex had draped a red scarf across his chest and was pretending his rake was a shotgun. ‘Comrade Alex’ she called, ‘the revolution can wait until you’ve been fed. Call your father.’
In the lamplight Katya noticed how strong the boys had become and how much the younger looked like his father Ivan. The family ate slowly in silence out of respect for the food, for family. Their neighbours the Solvetsky’s had packed up and left their farm one night, convinced to move onto a collective farm. A team from the kolkhoz had come and harvested the Solvetsky’s wheat a few days ago and Katya had watched the strange mechanical harvester. In the past it had been old Solvetsky and his boys, using scythes, with the girls following behind with twine to tie the bushels. It felt as if the ripples of change were finally reaching them from Moscow. ‘Papa…we aren’t going to join a kolkhoz, are we?’ Ivan frowned at Alex and shook his head.
‘No. I hope not.’ Katya felt her breath catch in her throat and she studied her husband’s face.
‘You hope not? I thought it was optional.’
‘They say it’s optional. And then they come in the night and ask you again.’
The boys began to hear stories from the neighbour’s children, of people refusing to hand over grain and livestock, of one man who made a stand and was shot in front of his wife and daughters before they were put on a train to a labour camp. The wheels of revolutionary reform kept turning and a few boldly coloured posters started appearing around the village. In one, men and women laboured side by side in the field under a glorious Ukrainian sun, and behind them were rows of barns in the style of the kolkhoz. There was a growing expectation that all men had to carry the motherland towards prosperity. Stalin’s first five-year plan was to drag Russia out of the dark ages, with a focus on heavy industry, and grain was the only commodity the country had to sell the world.
A year later the soft swish of ripe grain on the stem swept across the night-time landscape, but this time it was peppered by the cries of sheep, pigs and cows being slaughtered. It hadn’t taken long for the kolkhoz farms to become full, as they were increasingly seen as the only option. More farmland was swallowed, amalgamated into collective farms, and more machinery replaced manpower. Farms were ravaged, livestock herded off, granaries plundered for a dwindling supply of seed. As production targets increased the people grew hungrier and people were by the communists as too many mouths and bellies to feed. Families chose labour camps only over a bullet to the head, and the reports from the camps were grim. Shrinking skeletons, starvation and the very depths of human depravity lurked in the frozen shadows of the camps and Katya, curled against Ivan’s warmth in the weak light of early morning, made him promise never to take them there.
The meal that night was extraordinary. The boys ate so much meat that their bellies bulged and Alex could barely move from the table. Usually when Ivan slaughtered an animal they helped make sausages, or salted the meat before air drying as a means of preservation and to flavour a year’s worth of soups and stews. This time the animal carcasses were slung up and their blood dripped out onto straw in the barn. The boys were directed to drag all the sacks of seed grain and potatoes into the barn as well, along with jars of pickled vegetables and jams, every skerrick of food they had left. Katya had Ivan construct an outdoor fire pit where she roasted a leg of lamb and both of the suckling pigs. A chicken stew bubbled on the stove inside and a crudely carved lump of steak sizzled in a pan for Ivan. When would they taste meat again?
After the meal was finished the family said their farewell. At midnight the barn fire gave off the defiant scent of burning fur and charred grain and something almost intangible; the smell of burning memories, play, happiness.
This year, the feast had been replaced by famine. The heavy blue sky of the Ukrainian flag searched for the golden band of yellow ripe wheat, but was met instead by a landscape of broken dried stems and clods of dried earth, as if the crust of the earth was peeling back to reveal to reveal so many skeletons. Yet still Russia rushed towards progress, more hungry than the people she had forgotten to feed.