“The Factory” originally appeared (as “Sugar in Wartime”) in a contemporary children’s anthology (“Moon City Review’s Special Volume of Contemporary Children’s Literature” (2012), Moser & Chaston, Eds.)
Caleb True’s short fiction has appeared in many places, most recently The Sonora Review, The Madison Review, The Valley Review, Whiskey Island Magazine, and elsewhere. He lives in Washington D.C., and holds an MA in history from the University of Massachusetts. Find him online at Calebtrue.tumbler.com.
My mother and I watch a column of fresh soldiers march down Nevskii Prospect. They avert their eyes, refuse to look at us. We are apparitions of death to these men. The Germans are four kilometers away. To the north, the Finns. These men are marching to the German front.
I remember, standing and watching these men, when I was fourteen and my mother took me to this same street, to a small French café. Now the Prospect is a canyon of jagged edges and broken glass. The first blizzard turned the Prospect into a series of ice caves. Those bombed out of their apartments on the upper stories built fires in the ruins of entranceways. One of those entranceways had been the French café. In there, five years ago, my mother and I had sat in our finest dresses tasting desserts. It was a special outing without my father, and my mother shocked me by pointing out men in the café and asking how I found them. No one will judge you, she said. You’re a woman now.
My mother’s voice was different then. Her face was plump. Her voice soft. She had a good job and my brother wasn’t in the army yet. I was about to enroll in school because, as my mother proudly declared, Comrade Stalin knows the importance of educating women and men alike. In that café, my mother leaned in close. You’re a beautiful girl, she said, and she was right. I had curves at fourteen. Slender calves. Dark, bright eyes. My mother said I had her legs, but I could see she had the stilts of a grand piano. My mother must have been pretty when she was younger. The waitress brought us a small dish. I had never seen crème brûlée before. It looked like filthy brown ice. What is it, I asked my mother. Try some, she said. It’s a French decadence. She took a spoon and shattered the surface. There was cream inside. I tried some. The ice was so sweet. It’s not cold, I said. It’s sugar, said my mother, burned into a sheet by fire.
The last of the soldiers turn the corner, disappear. A wind blows up. The crowd of shambling onlookers turn their backs to the gust. I shiver and my mother jerks her head. Time to go home. I follow my mother’s vagabond form through the streets. She has lost most of her middle over the past few months. Since we shared crème brûlée on The Prospect five years ago, my mother has lost all her contentedness, all her glow and optimism. Her body followed suit. It was strangely sagging now, having gained so much weight in a normal womanly way, over two decades, and having lost it again, so fast and at an age when skin does not stretch anymore.
My mother slices my bread ration. Things looking up, she says. She hands over the piece. This is too much, I say. She ignores me, goes into the living room. I am going on watch, she says. See you in the morning. I follow my mother to the back door, where scaffolds lead to the roof. My mother has two buckets of sand with her. If an incendiary bomb were to come down on our building, my mother would put it out with the sand. She lifts one bucket, placing it in front of her, one level up on the scaffolding, then lifts the other, then herself, one foot at a time, panting. She turns to me. Go and rest.
The Germans bombed the food warehouses first. In the earliest days of September, once Kiev had been destroyed, and Lvov, and Minsk, the Germans sent in their bombers and set our city on fire. They didn’t bother the troop transports, the trains of firewood or the gun emplacements setup along the mouth of the Neva. They bombed the food and the neighborhoods. They put shells in the courtyard of the winter palace, destroying the fountain and killing all the gardeners. My father worked in the factory sector, and he said when the bombs hit one warehouse, you could smell baking bread in the streets for a few moments, until the smell turned to burnt bread, to carbon and the sickly sweet smell of something ruined. There was a legend that the sugar processing plant had been hit by an incendiary bomb, flash-liquefying eleven tons of sugar within a few seconds before hardening it into carbon slag. All the supply routes in the city were cut off by November, and what food was left was locked up in bank vaults to be rationed day by day.
I was worried, sitting in the café with my mother five years ago, that the desserts we ate would make me fat. No good socialist boy will marry a fat girl, I said. Eat, eat, said my mother, you are fourteen. If you don’t fatten up at least in some places, no good socialist boy will want you anyhow! She lowered her voice, and said to me something about how even the fat girls have men waiting to love them, the world can be a very cold place sometimes.
I sit in the living room, bundled in a blanket, nourishing the slice of bread that is my dinner and lunch and breakfast. I have my knees pulled up to my chest. My left arm holds my legs close. The blanket covers me; just my right hand pokes out, holding the bread slice. I nibble at it, taking mouse bites. I stare out the window. On the iced-over walls of the building across the street, I see a reflection of the rooftops. I see figures moving around up there. One of them is my mother. Two nights ago it was forty degrees below zero, and she kept watch all night. She says the Germans do not bomb when there are people out watching. It is superstition, I know, because truly they want everyone in the city to die. But it is like a pot of water. Watched, it seems never to boil. I nibble at my bread, turning the piece over with my fingers. There are bits in it I cannot eat: rocks, wood shavings, unidentifiables. I let these bits soak in my mouth for a while then spit them out. Under the blanket, I hook my thumb and forefinger around my calf, just below the knee. My fingertips touch. Night comes on slow with barely a change in the color of the sky. It is grey for hours, then the world darkens. Time passes and the sky brightens again. With the rising sun comes shelling from the south.
I startle awake, shaking loose a cascade of inedible bread bits. I’m on the floor, cocooned in my blanket. Outside, the morning sledge-puller passes by. A single soldier follows the sledge-puller. My mother comes in from the kitchen. She draws the shades. Go to the back of the house, she says. She grabs me by my arm and lifts me from my crouch, from the folds of the blanket. I do not resist as she leads me to the kitchen and shoves me in the pantry, closing the door. Mother does not want me to see the sledge-pullers. She does not want them to see me. She knows that if they see me, they will put me to work. Make me a sledge-puller. I told my mother once that if it is my duty to be a sledge-puller, I would do it. When I said that, she glared. You are not to participate, she said.
The sledge-pullers only became a daily thing when the bread rations were cut for the fifth time. My mother was allocated 125 grams. I was allocated 125 grams. It was rumored that my father, still at the factory, was getting nearly 700 grams, but we had not seen him since November. To conserve energy, all the factory workers had stopped returning home to sleep at night, sleeping instead on the shop floor beside their work. We had no idea if my father was alive or not. Every time a sledge-puller came by, I thought about my father and if he was warm enough. The sledges were always full. Many pairs of feet stuck out from beneath a tarp. The sledge puller would stop and knock at intervals along our street, at doors, at window frames, sometimes at a slab of ice acting as barrier between shelter and snowdrift. The sledge-puller was looking for the dead, or for young people like me who could be sledge-pullers. The soldier with the gun was there to help people volunteer. It was rumored that the soldier’s gun was unloaded to save bullets.
I know better than to ask if father is going to come home at some point. I know he cannot, at least until he can be fed enough to both make the trip and perform his labors. In the spring, my mother would say. Father will come home in the spring.
Today it is mid-afternoon. My mother and I play chess in the kitchen at the back of the house. We are playing on a burlap sack. We drew the chessboard on the burlap sack with a piece of coal. The original board, a finely carved maple thing, was split for firewood. The kitchen is bare, but there is a loaf of bread in the steel breadbox, and a half-shaker of salt which we put to our tongues to alleviate hunger pangs. The salt makes my taste buds squirt and my heart race, but I try not to use it because I don’t want my mother to think I am hungry. The last time she thought that, she went across town to the bombed out warehouses searching for food, risking arrest.
When my mother is asleep or out on watch, I listen to the radio. The radio reminds us that we are heroes for staying alive. All I have done is exactly that. Stay alive, nothing more. Play chess. I at times feel helpless. My mother won’t even let me haul corpses. The radio reminds us to occupy ourselves. To live the revolution day-to-day. Keep a diary. Keep sane. Resist the Fascists. Resist the fires. Share warmth. Conserve food. Conserve fuel. Resist death. My mother snorts. She says she has been through worse things. When she was a toddler, the Neva flooded, killing her aunt and uncle. When she was a young woman, like me, she spent a winter in an apartment overlooking Nevskii Prospect during the civil war. All you could do, she said, was steal food, try not to get shot, and make love slowly to stay warm. When I was your age, she said to me, there was no ration. Only theft. With Yudenich and the Whites marching on the city, your father and I stole fifteen loaves of bread and a sack of sugar from an abandoned bakery. We snuck the food up to our apartment, and did not leave the bedroom for a month.
Sometimes, if I brush the radio dial with a finger, I can catch, for a moment, the pirate signal from the Germans, crackling with static. They also ask us to resist. In Prussian-accented Russian, they say that Comrade Stalin has left us to starve to death, that no relief will come. Declare the great city of Petersburg an open city, and we will bring you grain and sugar! Freedom! Fuel! The Germans would only acknowledge the city’s imperial name. If my mother caught me listening to the Germans, I don’t know what she would do.
One time in mid September, caught underground during a raid, I asked my mother if we were going to die. The bombs stomped around above us. Dust came down, the sound of a nearby fire grew louder. God will protect us, my mother said. When she said that, I looked at the others in the basement. They hadn’t noticed, or had otherwise simply understood, given the circumstances. Mother, I hissed, how can you speak of God? How can you deny the utility of life? The words came so quickly. They were words from school, from dialectical materialism, from a German no less, and my mother’s hand shot from her coat and clamped onto my forearm. She didn’t say a word, she just glared at me, and, as the bombs shook the eaves and dust sprinkled our hair, I could see through her eyes to a place before the revolution, where people didn’t have to trade God for hope, hope for dialectical materialism, the triptych for the Central Executive Committee.
It is the end of another day. My mother is hauling sand buckets to the roof for watch. She props herself up, hand to knee, gasping for breath. Please, mother, let me help you. I can take watch tonight, I said. I reach to relieve her of a bucket. No, she spits, shrugging me away, losing her balance. She comes down hard on the slats crisscrossing the scaffolding. One bucket overturns, sending sand into the air. Idiot, cries my mother, hauling herself back up. Mother, I say. Please. Go back in the house, my mother says. I stand my ground. The rations are improving, I say. I have the energy. I can do watch. I can pull a sled. Please mother, I say, this is so selfish! My mother gets to her feet with great effort. She takes a deep breath. Go inside, she says.
I leave the house, skirting the building so my mother can’t spot me. I haven’t been out since the troops marched through town, days ago. I head in the direction of the factory district, determined to find my father. He would understand my desire to work. I cut through the center of town. The night is silent, the searchlights trace crosshatches on the low cloud cover. I emerge from between buildings onto the great square before the Winter Palace. Enormous guns pointing at the sky surround the palace like saluting stumps. Oval shadows, deep craters in the snow, dot the square before the Winter Palace. Approaching the rims of each crater, I notice familiar pale forms in stacks. No one has the energy to dig graves anymore. Major craters are repurposed. Without intending to, I scan the faces for my father as I hurry past.
My mother tried to protect me from all the death at first. She gave up when she realized it was hopeless, too obvious. Every day I more closely resemble those in the craters, those on the sledge. My breasts have shrunk to deflated pigs’ bladders. My collarbone threatens to push through my skin, and I can’t stand upright for more than a few minutes at one stretch. What I can’t see, I told my mother, I can smell. Even the coldest days of winter cannot hide the stench when the winds blow right. My mother shot me a pitying look when I told her that. To my mother, I had become this young woman, something that has to do with talking frankly about sex. But she was not yet ready, I think, for me to become an adult, something that has to do with talking frankly about death. Still she hides me in the pantry every time the sledge-pullers pass by.
I aim for the last factory I knew of where my father worked. It was tucked in along the easternmost edge of the factory district, near the food warehouses that had been targeted. If he’s still there, he’ll just be lying down for the night. I don’t notice it at first, but everything is abandoned. The buildings stand, but are shells. Winter winds blow snow in and out of doorways. I skirt the district, following the canal. I move in among the husks of factories, searching for something. I come to a building that appears intact. Glass windows on its façade unshattered. A poster above the main double doors of the factory celebrates a steadfast and noticeably plump integrated workforce. One man holds a bread paddle across his shoulder like a rifle. The woman has her fists on her hips and a bonnet on her head. Another man carries a sack. The idea of carrying anything made my arms ache from the shoulders down. I go inside to find not a factory full of sleeping men, nor my father, but an enormous frozen mass. I am in the sugar processing plant. The legend is true. Above me hangs a conglomeration of the upper four stories, destroyed, fused into an enormous boulder of charred sugar. Icicles hang from the walls and from the boulder. Sugar explosions have frozen in place, amber blooms in the air. The floor beneath me is a warm brown color like crème brûlée. The floor, had it not been frozen solid, would have sucked my shoes off from the stickiness.
I kneel to lick the floor, when I hear the drone of German planes. Silence, in an instant, is replaced by a whole host of sounds. The big guns in front of the Winter Palace let loose. A dog somewhere starts barking. Men, who I hadn’t seen or heard or seen footprints of, anywhere near the factory, begin hollering at each other. The threat of death brings the desolate place to life. The air rumbles, the ground quakes. I can feel the reload recoil of the Winter Palace guns in the soles of my feet. Icicles and an amber sugar star from high above tinkle to death on the floor. The enormous boulder of blackened sugar quakes ominously. I move to the far corner of the factory, out from beneath it. There is a crash and a closer boom and I am thrown off my feet. There is a flash, I blink, and suddenly find myself facing half the building ablaze. Light flickers. Heat radiates. Sirens go off, and I hear machine gun fire, it seems, right outside the building. I try to get up, but my hands are glued to the ground. The floor is melting. I pull my hands out of the slop and lick them. The sugar makes my taste buds squirt and my heart race. I lick every one of my fingers, then started wading, with difficulty, across the floor towards the wall of fire. I don’t consider the danger. I am mesmerized by sweetness and heat. I am an insect in the mouth of a carnivorous plant, swimming in sugar, stupefied by decadence, twiddling the plant’s feelers from the inside out. Another bomb bursts behind me. Another wall of flame goes up. I throw off my coat, wading forward. I reach down as I wade, bring to my lips another finger of burnt syrup. There is grit and glass in the syrup. Unidentifiables. I feel the bits with my tongue and spit them out. Then a man bursts into the plant. I see him through the shimmering heat. He starts towards me, then shrinks away from flames eating up the entranceway. He beckons for me to get out of there. I shake my head, No. Out there, nothing but coldness and sledge-pullers, craters and dry bread. How much bread, I think for a moment, licking my fingers clean. How many grams? How much firewood had mother and I spared whenever nights hovered at a tolerable zero? Another explosion brings a wall of glass down, sending me to my knees. One knee is bloody. Syrup mixes with blood on the floor. I swirl it pink and gold with a finger, then bring it to my lips. I look towards the door. The man is gone.
I was not rescued by anyone that night. I must have fallen asleep at some point, relaxed by heat, nourished by sugar to the point of ecstasy and headaches. By morning the fire was out, the heat swallowed up again by the cold, by the snow and ice, by silence. I unstick myself from the floor and wander home. When I round the corner to our street, I come upon the sledge at rest. The guard with no bullets stands beside the sledge, rifle slung round his shoulder, hands crammed in his pockets. He must have seen me coming or very nearly smelled me. He turns, his eyes widening at the crystallizations all over my coat. He traces the stain on my coat from where it dusts my heels to where it meets my hair. Then he finally looks at me. I hug the coat around myself more tightly and take two steps back. It is all I can do to prevent the guard dropping to his knees right there and sucking my hem, lapping the burnt sugar like a dog. Just then my father comes out of our building. I cry out. My cry breaks the guard’s hypnosis. I run to my father. Slam into him. He holds me. Father, I say. I tell him I’ve been searching for him all night. I got caught in the sugar factory during the raid and had to stay there till morning. I tell him mother wouldn’t let me do anything, she was so weak yet she wouldn’t let me do anything at all! My father holds me close. I can hear his heart beating and feel every jutting rib. You’ve done everything you possibly can. I look up at his cracked face.
Later I learn that my mother had been giving me her portion of the rations. Her 125 grams. My mother consumed little more than tea with glue shavings for weeks, hauling buckets, watching rooftops, ushering me to the back of the house when the sledge-puller came looking for the dead, or the able-bodied to haul the dead. My mother made me think things were getting better before they actually did get better, in January, when Lake Ladoga froze solid and trucks with food could make it into the city. My mother refused to let me work. She refused me any part in the war effort. She wanted me only to pray, if I would, even if the praying had to do with dialectical materialism and not God. She had wanted, as I wished, that someday again boys would gaze justifiably at my beauty, and hunger, like a guard with no bullets, for the mere hems of my coat.