(Ukraine, Village of Chervoy, 25 January 1933)
BOOK EXCERPT: 'CHILD 44': By Tom Rob Smith, A Novel
Courtesy Grand Central Publishing
The Wall Street Journal, NY, NY, Fri, December 21, 2007
CHAPTER 1: SOVIET UNION
UKRAINE: VILLAGE OF CHERVOY
25 JANUARY 1933
Since Maria had decided to die her cat would have to fend for itself. She'd
already cared for it far beyond the point where keeping a pet made any
sense. Rats and mice had long since been trapped and eaten by the villagers.
Domestic animals had disappeared shortly after that.
All except for one, this cat, her companion which she'd kept hidden. Why
hadn't she killed it? She needed something to live for; something to protect
and love-something to survive for. She'd made a promise to continue feeding
it up until the day she could no longer feed herself. That day was today.
She'd already cut her leather boots into thin strips, boiled them with
nettles and beetroot seeds. She'd already dug for earthworms, sucked on
bark. This morning in a feverish delirium she'd gnawed the leg of her
kitchen stool, chewed and chewed until there were splinters jutting out of
her gums. Upon seeing her the cat had run away, hiding under the bed,
refusing to show itself even as she'd knelt down, calling its name, trying
to coax it out. That had been the moment Maria decided to die, with nothing
to eat and nothing to love.
Maria waited until nightfall before opening her front door. She reckoned
that by the cover of darkness her cat stood a better chance of reaching the
woods unseen. If anyone in the village caught sight of it they'd hunt it.
Even this close to her own death, the thought of her cat being killed upset
her. She comforted herself with the knowledge that surprise was on its side.
In a community where grown men chewed clods of earth in the hope of finding
ants or insect eggs, where children picked through horse shit in the hope of
finding undigested husks of grain and women fought over the ownership of
bones, Maria was sure no one believed that a cat could still be alive.
Pavel couldn't believe his eyes. It was awkward, thin, with green eyes and
black-speckled fur. It was unmistakably a cat. He'd been collecting firewood
when he saw the animal dart from Maria Antonovna's house, cross the
snow-covered road, and head toward the woods. Holding his breath, he glanced
around. No one else had spotted it.
There was no one else about; no lights at the windows. Wisps of smoke, the
only sign of life, rose from less than half the chimney stacks. It was as
though his village had been snuffed out by the heavy snowfall; all signs of
Much of the snow lay undisturbed: there were hardly any footprints and not a
single path had been dug. Days were as quiet as the nights. No one got up to
work. None of his friends played, staying in their houses where they lay
with their families huddled in beds, rows of enormous sunken eyes staring up
at the ceiling.
Adults had begun to look like children, children like adults. Most had given
up scavenging for food. In these circumstances the appearance of a cat was
nothing short of miraculous-the reemergence of a creature long since
Pavel closed his eyes and tried to remember the last time he'd eaten meat.
When he opened his eyes he was salivating. Spit ran down the side of his
face in thick streams. He wiped it away with the back of his hand. Excited,
he dropped his pile of sticks and ran home. He had to tell his mother,
Oksana, the remarkable news.
Oksana sat wrapped in a wool blanket staring at the floor. She remained
perfectly still, conserving energy as she devised ways of keeping her family
alive, thoughts which occupied her every waking hour and every fretful
dream. She was one of the few who'd not given up. She would never give up.
Not as long as she had her sons.
But determination itself wasn't enough, she had to be careful: a misjudged
endeavor could mean exhaustion, and exhaustion invariably meant death. Some
months ago Nikolai Ivanovich, a neighbor and friend, had embarked on a
desperate raid upon a State granary. He had not returned.
The next morning Nikolai's wife and Oksana had gone looking for him. They'd
found his body by the roadside, lying on his back-a skeletal body with an
arched, stretched stomach, his belly pregnant with the uncooked grain he'd
swallowed in his dying moments.
The wife had wept while Oksana removed the remaining grain from his pockets,
dividing it between them. On their return to the village Nikolai's wife had
told everyone the news. Instead of being pitied she'd been envied, all
anyone could think about were the handfuls of grain she possessed. Oksana
had thought her an honest fool-she'd put them both in danger.
Her recollections were interrupted by the sound of someone running. No one
ran unless there was important news. She stood up, fearful. Pavel burst into
the room and breathlessly announced:
-Mother, I saw a cat.
She stepped forward and gripped her son's hands. She had to be sure he
wasn't imagining things: hunger could play tricks. But his face showed no
sign of delirium. His eyes were sharp, his expression serious. He was only
ten years old and already he was a man.
Circumstances demanded that he forgo his childhood. His father was almost
certainly dead: if not dead then dead to them. He'd set off toward the city
of Kiev in the hope of bringing back food. He'd never returned and Pavel
understood, without needing to be told or consoled, that his father would
Now Oksana depended upon her son as much as he depended upon her. They were
partners and Pavel had sworn aloud that he'd succeed where his father had
failed: he'd make sure his family stayed alive.
Oksana touched her son's cheek
-Can you catch it?
He smiled, proud:
-If I had a bone.
The pond was frozen. Oksana rooted through the snow to find a rock.
Concerned that the sound would attract attention, she wrapped the rock in
her shawl, muffling the noise as she punctured a small hole in the ice. She
put the rock down. Bracing herself for the black, freezing water, she
reached in, gasping at the cold. With only seconds before her arm would
become numb she moved quickly. Her hand touched the bottom and clutched
nothing but silt. Where was it?
Panicking, she leaned down, submerging all of her arm, searching left and
right, losing all feeling in her hand. Her fingers brushed glass. Relieved,
she took hold of the bottle and pulled it out. Her skin had turned shades of
blue, as though she'd been punched. That didn't concern her-she'd found what
she was looking for, a bottle sealed shut with tar. She wiped away the layer
of silt on the side and peered at the contents. Inside was a collection of
Returning to the house, she found that Pavel had stoked the fire. She warmed
the seal over the flames, tar dripping onto the embers in sticky globs.
While they waited Pavel noticed her bluish skin and rubbed her arm,
restoring the circulation, ever attentive to her needs.
With the tar melted, she tipped the bottle upside down and shook. Several
bones snagged on the rim. She pulled them free, offering them to her son.
Pavel studied them carefully, scratching the surface, smelling each one.
Having made his selection he was ready to leave. She stopped him:
-Take your brother.
Pavel thought this a mistake. His younger brother was clumsy and slow. And
anyway the cat belonged to him. He'd seen it, he'd catch it. It would be his
victory. His mother pressed a second bone into his hand:
Andrei was nearly eight years old and he loved his older brother very much.
Rarely going outside, he spent most of his time in the back room where the
three of them slept, playing with a pack of cards. The cards had been made
by his father from sheets of paper sliced into squares and pasted together,
a parting gift before he'd set off for Kiev. Andrei was still waiting for
him to come home. No one had told Andrei to expect anything different.
Whenever he missed his father, which was often, he'd deal the cards on the
floor, tirelessly playing patience. He was sure if he could just finish the
pack then his father would come back. Wasn't that why he'd given him the
cards before he left? Of course, Andrei preferred playing with his brother,
but Pavel no longer had time for games. He was always busy helping their
mother and only ever played at night just before they got into bed.
Pavel entered the room. Andrei smiled, hoping he was ready to play a hand,
but his brother crouched down and swept the cards together:
-Put these away. We're going out. Where are your laptys?
Understanding the question as an order, Andrei crawled under the bed to
retrieve his laptys, two strips cut from a tractor tire and a pile of rags
which, when bound together with string, served as a pair of makeshift boots.
Pavel helped tie them tightly, explaining that tonight they had a chance of
eating meat as long as Andrei did exactly as he was told.
-Is Father coming back?
-He isn't coming back.
-Is he lost?
-Yes, he's lost.
-Who's bringing us meat?
-We're going to catch it ourselves.
Andrei knew his brother was a skillful hunter. He'd trapped more rats than
any other boy in the village. This was the first time Andrei had been
invited to accompany him on such an important mission.
Outside in the snow Andrei paid special care not to fall over. He often
stumbled and tripped, for the world appeared blurred to him. The only things
he could see clearly were objects he held very close to his face. If someone
was able to make out a person in the distance-while all Andrei could see was
a blur-he put it down to intelligence or experience or some attribute he'd
yet to acquire. Tonight he wouldn't fall over and make a fool of himself.
He'd make his brother proud. This was more important to him than the
prospect of eating meat.
Pavel paused by the edge of the woods, bending down to examine the cat's
tracks in the snow. Andrei considered his skill in finding them remarkable.
In awe, he crouched down, watching as his brother touched one of the paw
prints. Andrei knew nothing about tracking or hunting:
- Is this where the cat walked?
Pavel nodded and looked into the woods:
-The tracks are faint.
Copying his brother, Andrei traced his finger around the paw print, asking:
-What does that mean?
-The cat isn't heavy, which means there'll be less food for us. But if it's
hungry then it's more likely to go for the bait.
Andrei tried to absorb this information but his mind drifted:
-Brother, if you were a playing card what card would you be? Would you
be an ace or a king, a spade or a heart?
Pavel sighed and Andrei, stung by his disapproval, felt tears beginning to
-If I answer do you promise not to talk anymore?
-We won't catch this cat if you talk and scare the cat away.
-I'll be quiet.
-I'd be a knave, a knight, the one with a sword. Now you promised-not a
Andrei nodded. Pavel stood up. They entered the woods.
They'd walked for a long time-it felt like many hours although Andrei's
sense of time, like his sight, wasn't sharp. With the moonlight and the
reflective layer of snow his older brother seemed to have little difficulty
following the tracks. The two of them continued deep into the woods, farther
than Andrei had ever gone before. He frequently ran in order to keep pace.
His legs ached, his stomach ached. He was cold and hungry, and although
there was no food at home at least his feet didn't hurt.
The string binding the foot rags to the tire strips had come loose and he
could feel snow edging under the soles of his feet. He didn't dare ask his
brother to stop and retie them. He'd promised-not a word. Soon the snow
would melt, the rags would become sodden, and his feet would become numb.
To take his mind off the discomfort he snapped a twig from a sapling and
chewed the bark, grinding it down into a coarse paste which felt rough on
his teeth and tongue. People had told him bark paste sated feelings of
hunger. He believed them; it was a useful thing to believe.
Suddenly Pavel gestured for him to remain still. Andrei stopped midstep, his
teeth brown with bits of bark. Pavel crouched down. Andrei copied him,
searching the forest for whatever his brother had seen. He squinted, trying
to bring the trees into focus.
Pavel stared at the cat and the cat seemed to be staring at him with its two
small green eyes. What was it thinking? Why wasn't it running away? Hidden
in Maria's house, perhaps it hadn't learned to fear humans yet. Pavel drew
his knife, cutting the top of his finger and daubing with blood the chicken
bone his mother had given him.
He did the same with Andrei's bait-a broken rat skull-using his own blood
since he didn't trust his brother not to yelp and startle the cat. Without
saying a word the brothers parted, heading in opposite directions. Back at
the house Pavel had given Andrei detailed instructions so there was no need
to talk. Once they were some distance apart, on either side of the cat,
they'd place the bones in the snow. Pavel glanced at his brother, to check
that he wasn't mucking up.
Doing precisely as he'd been instructed, Andrei took the length of string
from his pocket. Pavel had already tied the end into a noose. All Andrei had
to do was position the noose around the rat's skull. He did this and then
stepped back as far as the string would allow, getting down onto his
stomach, crunching and compressing the snow. He lay in wait.
Only now, on the ground, did he realize that he could barely see his own
bait. It was a blur. Suddenly afraid, he hoped the cat would go toward his
brother. Pavel wouldn't make a mistake, he'd catch it and they could go home
and eat. Nervous and cold, his hands began to shake. He tried to steady
them. He could see something: a black shape moving toward him.
Andrei's breath began to melt the snow in front of his face; cold trickles
of water ran toward him and down his clothes. He wanted the cat to go the
other way, to his brother's trap, but as the blur got closer there was no
denying that the cat had chosen him. Of course, if he caught this cat then
Pavel would love him, play cards with him, and never get cross again. The
prospect pleased him and his mood changed from dread to anticipation.
Yes, he'd be the one to catch this cat. He'd kill it. He'd prove himself.
What had his brother said? He'd warned against pulling the snare too early.
If the cat was startled all would be lost. For this reason and the fact that
he couldn't be sure exactly where the cat was standing Andrei decided to
wait, just to be sure. He could almost bring the black fur and four legs
into focus. He'd wait a little longer, a little longer . . . He heard his
Andrei panicked. He'd heard that tone many times before. It meant he'd done
something wrong. He squinted hard and saw that the cat was standing in the
middle of his snare. He pulled the string. But too late, the cat had leapt
away. The noose missed. Even so, Andrei pulled the lank string toward him,
pathetically hoping that somehow there might be a cat on the end of it. An
empty noose arrived in his hand and he felt his face go red with shame.
Overcome with anger, he was ready to stand up and chase that cat and catch
it and strangle it and smash its skull. But he didn't move: he saw that his
brother remained flat on the ground. And Andrei, who'd learned to always
follow his brother's lead, did exactly the same. He squinted, straining his
eyes to discover that the blurred black outline was now moving toward his
The anger at his little brother's incompetence had given way to excitement
at the cat's imprudence. The muscles in Pavel's back went tight. No doubt
the cat had tasted blood, and hunger was stronger than caution. He watched
as the cat stopped midstep, one paw in the air, staring straight at him. He
held his breath: his fingers clenched around the string and waited, silently
urging the cat on.
Please. Please. Please.
The cat sprang forward, opened its mouth, and grabbed the bone. Timing it
perfectly, he tugged the string. The noose caught around the cat's paw, the
front leg was snared. Pavel leaped up, yanking the string, tightening the
noose. The cat tried to run but the string held fast. He pulled the cat to
Screeching filled the forest, as though a creature far larger was fighting
for its life, thrashing in the snow, arching its body, snapping at the
string. Pavel was afraid the knot would break. The string was thin, frayed.
As he tried to edge closer the cat pulled away, keeping out of reach. He
cried out to his brother:
Andrei still hadn't moved, not wishing to make another mistake. But now he
was being given instructions. He jumped up, ran forward, immediately
tripping and falling facedown. Lifting his nose out the snow, he could see
the cat up ahead hissing and spitting and twisting. If the string broke, the
cat would be free and his brother would hate him forever. Pavel shouted, his
voice hoarse, frantic:
-Kill it! Kill it! Kill it!
Andrei staggered up and without any clear idea of what he was doing bounded
forward and threw himself on top of the cat's thrashing body. Perhaps he'd
hoped the impact would kill it. But now, lying on the animal, he could feel
the cat was alive and wriggling underneath his stomach, scratching at the
grain sacks that had been stitched together to make his jacket. Keeping
himself flat on the cat to stop it escaping, he looked behind him, his eyes
pleading with Pavel to take charge:
-It's still alive!
Pavel ran forward and dropped to his knees, reaching under his younger
brother's body only to come in contact with the cat's snapping mouth. He was
bitten. He jerked his hands out. Ignoring his bleeding finger he clambered
to the other side and slid his hands under again, this time arriving at the
tail. His fingers began creeping up the cat's back. From this line of attack
the animal had no defense.
Andrei remained motionless, feeling the struggle play out underneath him,
feeling his brother's hands nearing the cat's head, closer and closer. The
cat knew this meant death and began biting at anything-his jacket, the
snow-crazed with fear, fear which Andrei could feel as vibrations in his
stomach. Imitating his brother he cried out:
Kill it! Kill it! Kill it!
Pavel snapped the animal's neck. Neither of them did anything for a moment,
just lying still, breathing deeply. Pavel rested his head on Andrei's back,
his hands still tight around the cat's neck. Finally he pulled his hands out
from underneath his brother and stood up. Andrei remained in the snow, not
daring to move.
-You can stand up now.
He could stand up now. He could stand side by side with his brother. He
could stand proud. Andrei hadn't disappointed. He hadn't failed. He reached
up, took his brother's hand, and got to his feet. Pavel couldn't have caught
the cat without him. The string would've broken.
The cat would've escaped. Andrei smiled and then laughed, clapping his hands
and dancing on the spot. He felt as happy as he'd ever felt in his entire
life. They were a team. His brother hugged him and the two of them looked
down at their prize: a scrawny dead cat pressed into the snow.
Transporting their prize back to the village unseen was a necessary
precaution. People would fight, kill for such a catch, and the screeching
might've alerted someone. Pavel refused to leave anything to chance. They'd
brought no sack with which to conceal the cat. Improvising, he decided to
hide it under a pile of sticks. If they encountered anyone on their way home
it would appear as if they'd been collecting firewood and no questions would
be asked. He picked the cat out of the snow:
-I'm going to carry it under a pile of sticks, so no one can see it. But if
we were really collecting firewood you'd be carrying sticks too.
Andrei was impressed by his brother's logic-he would never have thought of
that. He set about gathering wood. Since the ground was covered in snow it
was difficult finding any loose sticks and he was forced to rake through
with his bare hands. After each sweep he rubbed his fingers together,
blowing on them. His nose had begun to run, snot collecting on his upper
lip. He didn't mind, though, not tonight, not after their success, and he
began to hum a song his father used to sing, sinking his fingers back into
Experiencing the same shortage of sticks, Pavel had moved away from his
younger brother. They would have to separate. Some distance away he saw a
fallen tree with branches protruding at all angles. He hurried toward it,
placing the cat in the snow so that he was free to snap off all the dead
wood from the trunk. There was plenty here, more than enough for both of
them, and he glanced around, looking for Andrei. He was about to call out
when he swallowed his words. There was a noise. He turned sharply, looking
The woods were dense, dark. He shut his eyes, concentrating on that sound-a
rhythm: the crunch, crunch, crunch of snow. It was getting faster, louder.
Adrenaline shot through Pavel's body. He opened his eyes. There, in the
darkness, was movement: a man, running. He was holding a thick, heavy
branch. His strides were wide. He was sprinting straight toward Pavel. He'd
heard them kill the cat and now he was going to steal their prize. But Pavel
wouldn't let him: he wouldn't let their mother starve. He wouldn't fail as
his father had failed. He began kicking snow over the cat, trying to conceal
-We're collecting . . .
Pavel's voice trailed off as the man burst through the trees, raising the
branch. Only now, seeing this man's gaunt face and wild eyes, did Pavel
realize that this man didn't want the cat. He wanted him.
Pavel's mouth fell open at more or less the same time as the branch arced
down, the end slamming against the crown of his head.
He didn't feel anything but he was aware that he was no longer standing. He
was on one knee. Glancing up, head cocked at an angle, blood streaming into
one of his eyes, he watched as the man lifted the branch for a second
Andrei stopped humming. Had his brother called out? He hadn't found that
many sticks, certainly not enough for their plan, and he didn't want to be
told off, not after he'd done so well. He stood up, pulling his hands out of
the snow. He stared into the forest, squinting, unable to see even the
nearest of trees as anything more than a blur:
There was no reply. He called again. Was this a game? No, Pavel didn't play
games, not anymore. Andrei walked in the direction he'd last seen his
brother but he couldn't see anything. This was stupid. Something was wrong.
He called again, louder this time.
Why wasn't his brother answering? Andrei wiped his nose on his coarse jacket
sleeve and wondered if this was a test. What would his brother do in this
situation? He'd follow the tracks in the snow. Andrei dropped his sticks and
knelt down, searching the ground on his hands and knees.
He found his own footsteps and traced them back to the point where he'd left
his brother. Proud of himself, he switched to his brother's footsteps. If he
stood up he couldn't see the footprints, so, crouching down, with his nose
only an arm's length from the snow, he carried on, like a dog chasing a
He arrived at a fallen tree, sticks scattered all around, footsteps
everywhere-some deep and large. The snow was red. Andrei took a handful,
crushing it between his fingers, squeezing it and watching it turn to blood.
He didn't stop shouting until his throat hurt and his voice disappeared.
Whimpering, he wanted to tell his brother that he could have his share of
the cat. He just wanted him back. But it was no good. His brother had left
him. And he was alone.
Oksana had hidden a small bag of powdered cornstalks, pigweed, and crushed
potato peelings behind the bricks of her oven. During inspections she always
kept a small fire burning. Collectors sent to check that she wasn't hoarding
grain never looked beyond the flames.
They mistrusted her-why was she healthy when the others were sick, as though
to be alive was a crime. But they couldn't find food in her house, couldn't
brand her a kulak, a rich peasant. Instead of executing her outright they
left her to die. She'd already learned that she couldn't beat them by force.
Some years ago she had organized the village resistance after it was
announced that men were on their way to collect the church bell. They wanted
to melt it down. She and four other women had locked themselves in the bell
tower, ringing it continuously, refusing to let them take it away. Oksana
had shouted out that this bell belonged to God. She might have been shot
that day but the man in charge of the collection decided to spare the women.
After breaking down the door he'd said that his only orders were to collect
the bell, explaining that metal was necessary for their country's industrial
revolution. In response she'd spat on the ground. When the State began
taking the villagers' food, arguing that it belonged to the country and not
them, Oksana had learned her lesson. Instead of strength she feigned
obedience, her resistance remaining a secret.
Tonight the family would have a feast. She melted clumps of snow, bringing
it to boil and thickening it with the powdered cornstalks. She added the
remaining bones from the bottle. Once they were cooked, she'd grind them
down to flour. Of course she was getting ahead of herself. Pavel hadn't
succeeded yet. But she felt sure he would. If God had given her hardship
he'd also given her a son to help.
All the same, if he didn't catch the cat she promised herself not to become
angry. The woods were large, a cat was small, and anyway anger was a waste
of energy. Even as she tried to brace herself for disappointment she
couldn't help becoming giddy at the prospect of a meat and potato borscht.
Andrei stood in the doorway, his face cut, snow on his jacket, snot and
blood running from his nose. His laptys had completely come apart and his
toes were visible. Oksana ran over:
-Where's your brother?
-He left me.
Andrei started to cry. He didn't know where his brother was. He didn't
understand what had happened. He couldn't explain. He knew his mother was
going to hate him. He knew it was going to be his fault even though he'd
done everything right, even though it was his brother who'd left him.
Oksana's breath was snatched from her. She brushed Andrei aside and hurried
out of the house, looking to the woods. There was no sign of Pavel. Maybe
he'd fallen and injured himself. Maybe he needed help. She ran back inside,
desperate for answers, only to see Andrei standing by the borscht with a
spoon in his mouth.
Caught red-handed, he looked at his mother sheepishly, a line of potato soup
dribbling from his lip. Overcome with anger-anger at her dead husband, her
missing son-she ran forward, knocking him to the ground and pushing the
wooden spoon down his throat:
-When I pull this spoon out of your mouth tell me what happened.
But as soon as she pulled out the spoon all he could do was cough. Enraged,
she shoved the spoon back down his throat:
-You useless, clumsy, stupid boy. Where is my son? Where is he?
She pulled the spoon out again but he was crying and choking. He couldn't
talk. He just kept crying and coughing and so she hit him, pounding her
hands on his tiny chest. Only when the borscht was in danger of boiling over
did she stop. She stood up, moving the soup off the fire.
Andrei whimpered on the floor. Oksana looked down at him, her anger melting
away. He was so small. He loved his older brother so much. She bent down,
picked him up, and set him on a chair. She wrapped her blanket around him
and poured him a bowl of borscht, a generous portion far larger than he'd
ever had before. She tried to spoon-feed him but he wouldn't open his mouth.
He didn't trust her. She offered him the spoon.
He stopped crying and began to eat. He finished the borscht. She filled the
bowl again. She told him to eat slowly. He ignored her, finishing a second
bowl. Very quietly she asked what had happened and listened as he explained
the blood in the snow, the dropped sticks, the disappearance, and the heavy
footprints. She closed her eyes.
-Your brother is dead. He's been taken for food. Do you understand? Just as
you hunted that cat, someone was hunting you. Do you understand?
Andrei remained silent, staring at his mother's tears. In truth, he didn't
understand. He watched at she stood up and left the house. Hearing his
mother's voice, he ran to the door.
Oksana was on her knees in the snow, staring up at the full moon:
-Please, God, give me back my son.
Only God could bring him home now. It wasn't so much to ask. Did God have
such a short memory? She'd risked her life to save his bell. All she wanted
in return was her son, her reason to live.
Some of the neighbors appeared at their doors. They stared at Oksana. They
listened to her cries. But there was nothing unusual about this kind of
grief, and people did not watch for long. (Copyright by Tom Rob Smith)