Galina walked downstairs, trying to resist an urge to run. Part of her was expecting Raya to rush out the door and grab her by the sleeve. A ridiculous thought. Galina knew that Raya would never so much as stick her head out. She walked to the door and pushed the cold iron handle down. The door gave in slowly, scratching the stone floor and making a tired screech, the last sound before the silence of the outside.
It was beginning to get dark, but still the contrast between the soft, dusky light of the street and the semidarkness of the staircase was great. Galina had to shield her eyes for a moment. Their deserted street with a few pale stone buildings, a few leafless trees, and broad rough sidewalks, was wide and airy. Galina threw her head back and inhaled hungrily. At last, she could breathe!
The declaration of war with Germany three months ago, in June, although completely unexpected, didn't shake Galina. Somehow she didn't see the war as a great tragedy, as a disaster rushing into their lives and destroying everything. For her, it was more like an unwelcome change in her daily life, requiring some practical adjustments. Galina made her husband, Sergey, dig a big hole in the empty plot of land behind their building and construct a little cellar there, while she was buying potatoes, drying them in sheets of newspapers, and storing them in big sacks. Galina also bought large quantities of salt, soap, oil, and matches; glued stripes of paper to the windows to protect them from shells; made sure that she and Tanya had enough warm clothes; and determined the shortest route to the air-raid shelter, counting the number of steps. She didn't feel shaken--on the contrary, she felt energetic and alive, something that hadn't happened to her in a very long time. She also felt proud of being able to keep calm and make rational decisions at the time, while everybody else seemed to lose his head. Galina didn't feel shaken even when she saw her husband off to the front. They were stuck in the middle of the crowd of men going to the front and the howling children and women who were clutching the men's coats. Sergey was silent. The only words he said were about Tanya, that it was good that Galina didn't let her come along, that it would have been too upsetting. Galina thought it was good too. She saw a glimpse of Raya nearby, howling like the others, with her hands tightly locked on her husband's back. "Don't they understand?" Galina thought, starting to feel annoyed. "It's war, men are supposed to go."
Toward the end of the summer, when there was a clear prospect of the town being occupied, the evacuation started. The factory equipment was packed hastily in plywood boxes and put on freight trains along with valuable workers and the families of those soldiers who were members of the Communist Party. All the others (families of non-Communist soldiers, retired workers, and invalids) were supposed to follow in a few days. But in a few days, the town was cut off. Galina and Raya stayed, because neither of their husbands was a Communist.
The prospect of staying in the occupied town seemed uncomfortable to Galina, but not catastrophic, especially since Soviet newspapers said that the Germans treated the civilian population with decency. She had read it just a few weeks before the war. Galina made more practical adjustments: she buried all her modest valuables in the ground next to the potato sacks, she bought more soap and matches, she got rid of Tanya's red tie and a folder full of newspaper clippings about Stalin. Galina managed to keep her calm.
Raya was another matter. As soon as it was announced that the town would be cut off, she went into a feverish, panicky state. She spent the whole first day running around the station, grasping at anyone who would talk to her, begging the railroad officials to take her and Leeza on a freight train, trying to convince them that trains must run, simply because she, Raya, must leave. She continued to do that until she was forced away from the station along with the crowd of other desperate people. But, unlike them, Raya didn't give up after that. The following days she spent running around the town, attempting unthinkable measures to get her and Leeza out of town. She tried to bribe some truck drivers to drive them east. She tried to bribe a clerk in the city passport office to forge documents for them. She walked to the small villages to the south of town and asked everybody there if they could take her and Leeza out on horseback. When she came home from her day trips, the soles of her shoes were worn through and her feet rubbed raw. She slumped onto a couch and burst into hysterical sobs, unable to calm herself even in front of Leeza. Raya was Jewish. That explained a lot of things, Galina thought.
Excerpted from There Are Jews in My House by Lara Vapnyar Copyright© 2003 by Lara Vapnyar. Excerpted by permission of Pantheon, a division of Random House, Inc. All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
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