“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.