The Found Letter
Mark’s thoughts of his happy future interrupted, he knew he was lost.
“Lost, I am positively lost.” Saying it aloud, Mark couldn’t keep himself from smiling in spite of being unable to see the dirt road leading to the train station. He’d taken his chances leaving Masha’s parents’ dacha so late at night over the women’s protests.
“Why can’t you stay the night? We’ve got plenty of room.” Yelena Mikhailovna admonished her, very possibly, soon-to-be son-in-law. “Ivan will give you a ride to the city in the morning and you’ll have a nice chat on the way.”
“Thank you, but I have to get home tonight.” Mark knew he had to make the last train to see his parents before his father’s trip abroad.
“You never spend time with me, always in a hurry.” Masha pouted her lips. She wasn’t used to the word “No.”
Dense woods surrounded Mark with complete darkness and, surprisingly, deafening silence. A city man, he’d always imagined the summer forest full of living sounds and a star-lit sky with a shining moon. But, not tonight. Lost in his thoughts, he’d missed the moment when the dirt road took another turn. Lighting a match, Mark looked at his watch. He’d been walking for an hour instead of twenty minutes, blinded by utter happiness, not paying attention to the softer ground under his feet. Mark lit a second match to see the way back to the dirt road, but the total blackness around him refused to reveal the path. With a few matches left in the box, he fished a cigarette from a pack and sat with his back to a wide tree trunk. Its base, covered in soft moss, reminded Mark of the old color-faded rug hanging on the wall next to Masha’s bed. He sank his fingers in the cool velvety fibers and could smell the perfume in Masha’s hair. His cheek brushing softly against her breast when he leaned to kiss her hand, her not moving away.
Blissful, he fell asleep resting his head on the dry bark of the tree. Dew drops on his face and loud warbles of a nightingale brought Mark back to reality soon after the rising sun painted what he could see of the sky a tender pink. He rose stroking his stiff neck, stretching. Six in the morning meant he could still make it home before his father left. He started on the wide path that brought him here the night before and pushed all thoughts from his mind, he needed to concentrate and find the train station.
How beautiful the forest was with the light straining through leafy branches! Happy, how happy he was to be alive! This was 1939, and Mark was twenty-three, on his way to a successful and fulfilling career. He’d followed in his father’s footsteps and became a doctor. Once he’d finished graduate school and received his own lab at the institute, his happiness would be complete.
A nearby train whistle jarred Mark from his reveries and made him struggle through thick bushes toward the sound. Reaching the railroad tracks, he saw the sun and knew in which direction to walk. Happy again, humming ‘My Favorite Town’, he looked at the azure sky, not a cloud in sight, and tripped on a rock, but managed to stay vertical. Mark picked up the offender, but dropped it when he saw a small square of paper. “Please, deliver this letter to Sofia Feinberg, Lenin Street 14,
A ten-minute walk from his apartment,
He reached the station, bought a ticket from a tired-looking young woman sitting in the window with cracked peeling paint of an undetermined color. Hungry and thirsty, he found babushka selling milk and eggs near the tracks. The milk, still warm, coated his throat with hope.
“Papa,” Mark called entering the apartment. “Are you here?” No reply. Checking the dining room table, in case a note waited for him, he strolled through the rest of the rooms breathing in the usual calm and quiet. For some reason, today his home didn’t evoke the same reaction as it always did: no sign of peacefulness penetrated him. Restless thoughts flooding Mark’s mind, he heard the screeching of tires and imagined the black voronok near the wide heavy door of his building. The sounds of hurried clanking steps banged in his ears. No. No. It’s a thing of the past. Arrests have stopped already. The tidal wave that devoured multitudes of innocent people and uprooted so many families had subsided. Safe as he could ever be, Mark only needed to get rid of the letter burning his jacket pocket.
Not wasting any time, he ran from the apartment and down the wide marble staircase. Pausing only to buy a box of chocolates for his date with Masha later that night, Mark made his way to
Taking two stairs at a time he raced to the third floor and stopped in front of the door with a colorless brass “5” and a half dozen nametags with numbers on them. Mark scanned the names and found ”Feinberg - 6”, the least noticeable nametag of all. It didn’t make sense, there was no “6” in the address. He rang the bell and waited. Not hearing any sounds behind the door, he rang again, twice. This time, he heard the shuffling steps and an irritated man’s voice.
“Who is there?”
“I am here to see Sofia Feinberg. Is she home?”
The door opened a crack and a gray, obviously hung-over, face revealed itself in an unwashed sleeveless undershirt and long black briefs.
“Are you blind? Or, can’t you read numbers, damned intellectual? The whore’s number is six!”
“What does it mean her number is six?” Mark had no idea what the drunkard was talking about.
“Son of a bitch! Ring six times to see the Jewish whore.” He slammed the door shut.
Stunned, Mark pressed the bell six short times and waited. The door opened soundlessly and he saw a thin young woman with long black curly hair. Dressed in a once stylish, but now nearly threadbare brown dress, she stepped aside to let him in and led him through the vast communal corridor, overcrowded with furniture, suitcases, bicycles, and such, to the farthest door on the right.
“Papa, Papa!” Mark heard as he made his way through the threshold of the woman’s room. A little black haired boy with his mother’s sad eyes ran to Mark with his arms raised. “Mama, Papa’s finally home!”
Embarrassed and blushing, his mother hurried to pick the boy up.
“Don’t mind him, please. He can’t remember his father.” She paused and searched Mark’s face. “What can I do for you?”
All he wanted to do was leave, deliver the letter and run, far away from this poverty stricken room, from the noises behind the thin walls, from the sorrows in the eyes of this woman, but he stayed, as if nailed to the worn-out parquet tiles.
“I have something for you,” he said, took the letter from his pocket and offered it to the young woman. She slowly lowered her son to the floor and almost unwillingly extended her hand to accept the unexpected gift.
Mark’s gaze never left her eyes that seemed to instantly fill with tears and he thought of that long forgotten summer of his childhood when the small river near his parents’ dacha was flooded and the water spread through the village, where he and friends, euphoric with this new view of the world, played the cruiser Avrora in the middle of the street, taking turns as captain and seamen.
“Please, sit down.”
“I’m telling you, it’s Papa,” the boy said quietly to his mother who still stood near the table with the letter yet unread.
“Darling, this is…”
“Mark Aleksandrovich Tarasov.” He extended his hand and shook hers softly. “I found it next to railroad tracks outside the city. You see, I was lost, and had to spend the night in the woods.” He fell silent.
“Thank you, very much.”
To give her privacy, Mark turned to the boy and smiled. “What’s your name?”
“Sasha, I am named after my grandfather who died in the war. Are you sure your name is Mark and not Joseph? You look just like my father. And his name was Joseph.” Little boy didn’t smile, just looked at Mark with a diminishing hope.
“Sasha, my little one.” Sofia rose from the table, tears glistening on her face, a calm, solemn face, and at the same time young and bright, as if she’d put her past suffering behind and prepared herself for the future. “Sasha, here a photograph of your father, come look. You see, he had dark hair and dark eyes. He didn’t look anything like Mark Aleksandrovich here.” She looked at Mark and smiled. “Can I offer you tea?”
Already late for the morning rounds, Mark gazed at her innocent and beautiful smile, unable to tear himself away from the room. What kept him there rooted to the worn-out furniture, to the familiar from childhood smell of books, to the dark eyes of the woman with a boy’s head on her shoulder? “Thank you, I would love some,” Mark said noticing the child’s long curled eyelashes trembling, the boy nearly asleep.
“He is so easily excited,” she said at the door. “I’ll be right back with the tea.”
“Let me help.” Mark followed her. He wanted to see the kitchen, and even more than that, he wanted to show the other inhabitants of the apartment that she was not alone. Since when wasn’t she alone? Since half an hour ago?
“No, please, it’s nothing. I’d rather do it myself.” She pulled the door closed and left Mark alone in the room with the softly snoring boy.
With nothing to do, Mark looked at the framed photographs on the wall. They looked like many photographs on many other walls of his friends’ and relatives’ apartments. Family portraits, men in military uniforms, girls, boys, couples. Yes, there they were, Sofia and her husband Joseph, in a boat, she smiling and he laughing at the camera, embracing her and holding her hand. Another one, of the three of them, with Sasha a tiny baby. How happy and alive they looked. He stared at the last one, of Joseph leaning on a tree trunk, looking away from the camera. Did he feel his fate approaching? Did he know?
The door quietly opened and Mark could hear grumbling voices behind Sofia who quickly shut it and rested a teakettle on a hotplate. She brought two cups, saucers and a sugar dish from a cupboard and poured tea. Then, as an afterthought, she retrieved a small dish of jam and arranged the table.
“Sorry, we have nothing else. I didn’t know you were coming.” She sat.
Feeling strangely at ease, Mark sat opposite her. Then, he remembered something and ran to his doctor’s case near the door. The chocolates intended for his bride, for Masha. The irony of the situation suddenly revealed to him what lay ahead. “I almost forgot.” He placed the box on the table and took his cup.
“This is Joseph’s room. They took him away when Sasha turned one,” said
“How did she know?” Mark wished he could take
“She’d managed to find out where her husband was sent and traveled there. It helped to bribe the guards. They gave the couple two hours together. The husband begged her to find me. I suppose, I’m lucky to know. Thousands have no idea whether or not their loved ones are alive.”
Mark couldn’t tear his gaze away from her fingers, they caressed the sad gift he’d brought her. “
He knew the risks he was taking - associating with the family of an enemy of the state, and the danger to his career and that of his father, to his comfortable future with Masha. No, there was no future there. His future was right here, sitting across from him and sleeping soundly on the couch.