Authors: Lara Prescott
By the time the
made landfall in Ceylon, we were inseparable, and held tight to each other in the back of a thick-wheeled truck that jettisoned us through the jungle to the port at Kandy. Surrounded by tea plantations and electric-green terraced rice paddies that spilled down from the hills, Kandy, though just across the bay from the terror unfolding in Burma, felt as far away from the war as one could get.
Many of us would remember our time in Kandy fondly. And when we’d write each other—or, if we were lucky, catch up in person—we’d reminisce about the many nights spent under a sky so large and so dark the stars would reveal themselves in layers. We’d recount slicing papayas off the trees surrounding the thatch-roofed OSS offices with a rusty machete, or the time an elephant got into our compound and had to be enticed out with a jar of peanut butter. We’d recall the all-night parties at the Officers’ Club, dangling our legs in blue-green Kandy Lake and yanking them back out when we disturbed some bubbling creature lurking beneath. There were the throngs of monks making their way to and from the Temple of the Sacred Tooth Relic, the sweaty weekends in Colombo, the leaf monkey we’d named Matilda who’d given birth in our food hut.
I’d started out as MO support staff—filing papers, typing, that sort of thing. But my career trajectory changed when I received an invitation to attend a dinner at Earl Louis Mountbatten’s lavish residence up on the hill, overlooking the OSS compound. It was the first of many parties I’d attend and the first time I’d discover that powerful men would willingly give information to me, whether I asked for it or not.
That’s how it started. That first party, I’d squeezed myself into a low-cut black evening gown Bev had packed “just in case,” and by the end of the night, a Brazilian arms dealer who’d been chatting me up let slip that he believed there was a mole within Mountbatten’s staff. I reported the tip to Anderson the next day. What the OSS did with that information, I have no idea. But I was soon inundated with more dinner invitations, set up with visiting people of import, and given questions to ask loose-lipped men.
I got good at my new job—so good I was given a stipend to purchase gowns we’d have shipped in with our toilet paper, Spam, and mosquito repellent. The funny thing was, I never thought of myself as a spy. Surely the craft took more than smiling and laughing at stupid jokes and pretending to be interested in everything these men said. There wasn’t a name for it back then, but it was at that first party that I became a Swallow: a woman who uses her God-given talents to gain information—talents I’d been accumulating since puberty, had refined in my twenties, and then perfected in my thirties. These men thought they were using me, but it was always the reverse; my power was making them think it wasn’t.
“Wanna dance?” Bev asked.
I wrinkled my nose as Bev shimmied her hips. “To this?” I yelled over the Perry Como. Bev didn’t care. She took hold of my arms and moved them back and forth until I gave in. Just as I was getting into the swing of things, someone shut off the record player with a scratch. From the back of the crowd, someone clinked his fork against a glass, and the rest of the crowd joined in until the entire boat sounded like a chandelier in a windstorm.
“Oh boy,” Bev said. “Here we go.”
The men began with the toasts:
To Frank! To Wild Bill! To the Old Standby Stooges! To the Otherwise Sad Sacks!
Then came the songs we used to close out the night with back in Kandy: “I’ll Be Seeing You” and “Lili Marlene,” followed by their not-so-secret clubs’ songs from Harvard and Princeton and Yale. Bev and I always snickered at the drunken musicale that rounded out every party—but that night, we couldn’t help but link arms and join in.
The toot of an approaching tugboat come to tow us back to the marina interrupted the third round of Yale’s “ ’Neath the Elms.” We yelled for the tug captain to come join us for a nightcap. Not very happy to be dragged out of bed to come and rescue the drunken lot of us, he and another man went to work tethering the
Back on dry ground, the men debated whether to head to the Social Club on Sixteenth or the twenty-four-hour diner on U Street. Bev and I said our goodbyes in front of the black sedan her husband had sent, promising not to let so much time pass before seeing each other again. “Are you sure you don’t need a ride?” she asked.
“I could use the air.”
“Suit yourself!” She blew me a kiss from the open window as the car pulled away.
Someone tapped me on the shoulder. “Can I walk with you?” asked Frank. “I could use some air too,” he said, his breath minty with a hint of tobacco. He seemed perfectly sober. I wondered if he’d been sipping Coca-Cola the whole night. “We’re going in the same direction, right?”
Frank lived down the street from me, but in terms of real estate, his Georgetown town house was light-years away from my small apartment above a French bakery. “Indeed we are,” I said. Frank wasn’t the kind of man who’d ask to walk a girl home with ill intentions; he’d never made a pass at me as long as I’d known him. If Frank said he wanted to talk, he usually wanted to talk business. He signaled to his driver, who was standing by the open door of his black sedan. “I’ll be walking tonight,” he called out. The driver tipped his hat and closed the door.
We walked away from the Potomac, through downtown Washington’s sleeping streets. “I’m happy you came,” he said. “I hoped Beverly could talk you into coming.”
“She was in on it?”
“Is she ever
in on it?”
I laughed. “No, I suppose not.”
He was silent again, as if he’d forgotten why he’d asked me to walk with him.
“You could’ve told your driver to go home earlier, before making him wait all night.”
“Didn’t know I was gonna want to walk,” he said. “Not until I made up my mind.”
“Made up your mind?”
“Do you miss it?”
“All the time,” I said.
“I envy that. I really do.”
“Do you wish you’d stopped? After the war?”
“I never used to think about the
” said Frank. “But now…I’m not so sure. Things aren’t as black-and-white as they used to be.”
We arrived at the bakery. The lights were on, the morning baker already loading baguettes into the oven. I’d chosen to live there not only because it was in my price range when I started at State, but also because I love the smell of fresh-baked bread even more than I like eating it.
“I hear you’re looking for a new line of work.”
“Can’t keep a secret from you, Frank.”
He laughed. “No, you really can’t.”
“Why? Have you heard of something?”
He gave a tight-lipped smile. “Well, I’ve got something that may be of interest.”
I tilted my ear toward him.
“It’s about a book.”
Respected Anatoli Sergeyevich Semionov,
This is not the letter you’ve long sought. This is not about the book. This is not the confession that would prove the crimes you’ve assigned to me. Nor is it a plea for my innocence. I am innocent of what I’ve been accused of, but not of everything. I’ve taken a man for my own, knowing he had a wife. I’ve failed at being a good daughter, a good mother—my own mother left to pick up the pieces I’ve left behind. All that is over now, and yet still I feel the need to write.
You may believe every word I write with this pencil I traded two sugar rations for, or you may take it for a work of fiction. No matter. I’m not writing for you; you are only a name at the top of my letter. And I will never send this letter. Each page will be burned as I finish. Your name is a mere salutation to me now.
You said I didn’t tell you everything during our nightly talks, that I left great holes in my “stories.” As an interrogator, you must know how unreliable memory can be. One’s mind can never get the entire story straight. But I will try.
I have this one sharpened pencil. It is smaller than my thumb, and my wrist already aches. But I will write until it wears down and turns to dust.
But where to start? Should I begin with this moment? How I spent my day, my eighty-sixth of the 1,825 days it will take to make me a rehabilitated woman? Or should I start with what has already transpired? Do you want to know about my six-hundred-kilometer journey to this place? Have you been on the trains that go to nowhere? Have you visited the windowless wooden boxes they kept us shivering in while we waited to be shuttled to the next location? Do you know what it’s like to live on the edge of the world, Anatoli? So far from Moscow, from your family, from every warm thing and every kindness?
Do you want to know that during the final stage of our journey, the guards forced us to walk? How it was so cold that when the woman walking next to me collapsed and they pried her boot from her foot, she left her smallest toe inside? Or how I shared a train compartment with a woman with two skinny braids that ran the length of her long back who claimed to have drowned her two small children in the bath? How when someone asked her why she did it, she replied that a voice that still won’t shut up had told her to? Should I tell you how she woke up screaming?
No, Anatoli, I won’t write to you of these worries. Really, for what you must know, these details would likely bore you, and I do not wish to bore you. What I wish is for you to keep reading.
Let me go back.
After Moscow, we arrived first to a transit camp, run by female guards—a slight improvement over the conditions where you and I met. The cells were clean and cement-floored, and they smelled of ammonia. Each woman in our cell, Cell No. 142, had her own mattress, and the guards turned the lights off at night and let us finally sleep.
But not for long.
Days after arriving, they came at night and emptied out Cell No. 142. They boarded us onto the trains and told us the next stop, the only stop, was Potma. The train was dark and smelled like rotting wood. Iron bars separated each compartment from the corridor, so the guards could see us at all times. There were two metal buckets in the corner—one our toilet, the other full of lye with which to cover our mess. I claimed a spot on an upper berth, where I could lie down and stretch my legs. And if I tilted my head just so, I could see a sliver of sky through the cracks in the ceiling. If it wasn’t for that tiny sky, I wouldn’t have known when it was day or night, or how many days and nights had passed since we boarded.
It was night when the train came to a stop.
It looked more like a manger than a train station. But instead of sheep or donkeys, men in worn army uniforms with dogs that resembled stout lions awaited us on the platform. The guards yelled for us to get out, and we looked at each other wildly. When no one got up, a guard grabbed a young woman with short red hair by the arm and told her to get in line. We followed in silence.
The guard at the front held up a hand and the march commenced. As we left the platform, we realized there would be no other train or truck to take us the rest of the way. I pulled the sleeves of my coat to cover my balled-up hands. They were warm then, but they wouldn’t be for long.
We cut a path through the virgin snow, following the train tracks until they stopped and disappeared into white. No one asked how long the march would be, but that’s all we could think about. Would it be two hours or two days? Or two weeks? Instead, I attempted to focus on the footsteps of the woman in front of me, whose name I never knew. I tried to fit my own footprints neatly inside the ones she’d left behind. I tried not to think of the way my toes and fingers had begun to tingle, how the snot in my nose dripped and froze in the dimple above my upper lip—the same dimple Borya often touched with a fingertip when teasing me.
It was something out of Doctor Zhivago. Yes, Anatoli, something out of the book you long to read. Our march felt as if it had sprung from Borya’s mind. The moon was full and illuminated the snow-covered road, casting a silvery glow on our footprints. It was a deathly beauty, and maybe if I’d had any sense left in me, I would’ve run out into the woods that lined the road, running and running until my body gave out, or until someone stopped me. I think I would’ve liked to die there, in that place that felt as if it were conjured from Borya’s dreams.
First, the guard towers—each capped with a dull red star—peeked out from the tops of the tall pines in the distance. Then, as we got closer: the barbed wire fence, the barren yard, the lines of barracks, a thin plume of smoke connecting the gray sky to each building’s chimney. A malnourished rooster walked the fence’s perimeter, its beak cracked, its red comb mangled.
I cannot speak for all of us, but I’d spent every second, every minute, every hour, every day of our four-day march dreaming of warmth. And yet, when they herded us through the barbed wire fence and we were allowed to warm ourselves by the fires burning in tin drums in the courtyard, I’d never felt colder.
On the far side of the yard, forty or fifty women stood in a line, holding metal plates and mugs, awaiting dinner. They turned when we approached and appraised our pale faces, our full heads of hair, our hands: frostbitten, yes, but uncalloused. We looked at their jaundiced faces, their kerchiefed or shaved heads, their broad, hunched shoulders. Soon it would be like looking into a mirror. Soon it would be us standing in line for dinner while a new group of women began their rehabilitation.
A dozen female guards appeared and the men who’d marched us there turned and silently walked back into the snow. We were led into a long building with a cement floor and stove. There, the guards instructed us to strip. We stood naked, shivering while they ran their fingers through our hair, then across our bodies, lifting our arms and checking under our breasts. They made us spread our fingers, our toes, our legs. They stuck their fingers in our mouths. I began to warm up, but not from the wood stove. I burned with an anger I still have not yet begun to process. Have you felt such an anger, Anatoli? An anger burning somewhere inside you that you can’t pinpoint but that can overtake you like a match to petrol? Does it come for you at night, as it comes for me? Is that why you’re in the position you are in now? Is power, no matter the cost, the only cure?
After the search, we got in another line. There’s always another line in the Gulag, Anatoli. They handed us pieces of lye soap, just slivers, and turned on the showers. The water was cold but felt scalding hot on our frozen skin. We air-dried and were dusted with a powder to kill whatever we may have brought with us.
A Polish woman with beautiful wisps of flaxen hair framing her otherwise bald head sat at a table mending smocks the color of an overcast day. She looked us each over and pointed to either the stack of smocks on her right or the stack on her left: large and larger.
Then a woman with prominent ears and an even more prominent nose who didn’t even attempt to guess our right size gave us shoes. I stepped into the black leather shoes, and as I went to walk, my heels came out. It would take a month of saving up my sugar rations until I could barter with another prisoner—not for a new pair of shoes, which would have cost me at least five months of sugar, but for a ream of tape with which to fasten them to my feet.
The guards split the line into three and I followed my line into Barrack No. 11. I’d live there for the next three years, Anatoli, shuffling my feet so I didn’t lose a shoe.
Barrack No. 11 was empty, its current residents still at work in the fields. A guard pointed to the empty bunks, three layered on top of each other, in the back of the room, farthest from the wood-burning stove. We ducked under the clothesline strung from wall to wall, where women had hung their washed but stained socks and underthings. The building smelled of sweat and onions and warm bodies. It smelled of the living; a small comfort.
I placed the wool blanket I’d been given onto the top bunk, second from the back. I chose that bunk because a petite woman I’d noticed on the train took the one below it. I guessed her to be around my age, midthirties, with black hair and delicate hands, and I thought perhaps we could become friends. Her name was Ana.
I never made friends with Ana. Nor did I make friends with any of the other women in Barrack No. 11. At the end of each day, we were exhausted and needed to conserve our energy to get out of bed and do it again the next day.
That first night in Potma was quiet. All nights were like that, only the howls of the wind to soothe us to sleep. Sometimes we could hear the cry of a woman who’d succumbed to loneliness ring out across the camp like an air raid siren. The woman would be quickly quieted—how, we could only imagine. And although no one spoke of those cries, we all heard them, and we all silently joined in.
My first day in the fields, the earth was hard and frozen, and the pick too heavy for me to raise above my waist. My hands were blistered within half an hour. I used all my strength just to pierce the soil—just a chip, the width of a finger. The woman next to me was having better luck, having been given a shovel that she could step on, so that her weight would force its tip into the ground. But I had only a pick, and a few cubic meters of earth to be upturned before I’d be given my ration for the day.
That first day of my rehabilitation, I didn’t eat anything.
My second day of rehabilitation, I didn’t eat again.
On my third day, I still could make but a few dents in the earth, so was denied rations yet again. But a young nun broke off a piece of her bread and handed it to me as I passed her in line for the bathhouse. I was thankful, and for the first time since the men had taken me in my apartment in Moscow, I thought that maybe I should start praying.
The nuns of Potma fascinated me, Anatoli. They were a small group from Poland and tougher than the most hardened criminals. They refused to back down when they didn’t agree with a guard’s order. They prayed aloud during morning reveille, which infuriated the guards but gave me comfort, despite not being an overly religious woman myself. Sometimes the guards would make an example of their insolence by dragging one out of line by her smock and making her kneel in front of us. One nun was forced to kneel like that for an entire day, her bare knees pressed into the rocky soil. But she never gave in, never asked to stand—praying the whole time with the serene smile of a Holy Fool. They used their fingers to count beads on invisible rosaries, even as their faces burned under the unforgiving sun, even as urine trickled from their smocks and cut a path through the dirt.
Once or twice, the guards threw the whole lot of them into the punishment block—the first barrack built at the camp, where the roof had half caved in and the cold air rushed in, along with insects and rats.
It was hard not to be jealous of the nuns, even though their sentences far exceeded my own. They had one another, and no need for word from the outside world, something the rest of us craved. Even when they were separated, they never succumbed to the dark loneliness that plagued us all. They had the company of their God. My only faith was put into a man: my Borya, a mere mortal, a poet. And having been unable to contact him since the men took me from my apartment, I didn’t know whether he was dead or alive.
By the fourth day of my rehabilitation, a thick callus had developed on my once soft hands and I could finally grip the pick. I swung it overhead and into the earth with surprising force. By day’s end, I’d turned over my assigned piece of earth and was finally given rations, of which I could eat only a few bites. My body had adapted faster than my mind. Isn’t that the way it always works, Anatoli?
Those first few terrible days, then weeks, then months, then years, passed—not in days on a calendar but in holes dug, number of lice picked from my hair. They passed in blisters cracked and calluses made from shoveling, in cockroaches killed under our bunks, in the number of visible ribs. And there were only two seasons: summer and winter; each as punishing as the other.
I learned what human bodies need to survive, how very little we require. I could survive on eight hundred grams of bread, two cubes of sugar, and soup so thin it was hard to tell whether it was actual food or seawater.
But the mind takes so much more to survive, and Borya was never far from mine. I used to think I could feel it when he thought of me—that the tingle I felt whispering across the back of my neck or down the length of my arms was him. I felt it for months. Then one year passed without that feeling, that tingle, then another. Did that mean he was dead? If they sent me to the Gulag, surely what they did to him must’ve been even worse.