Frigid winter air ripped through a valley where a small village abutted a long-frozen river, buried amidst a sea of would-be verdant conifers had they not been snowed over. The air carried with it thin, wispy trails of smoke sucked out of the chimneys of the huts and houses. The smoke tangling and swirling, becoming evanescent and then inextant, faded into the harsh gray clouds that hung ominously close to the tops of the hills forming the valley. It was the night of New Year Celebrations in a small town in Russia, 1942. In one of the huts two young boys schemed their resolutions and wishes for the new year.

The boys sat on the ground next to the hearth, the dirt and grime on the floor of no concern, because the rags they wore bore the same likeness in the stains and smells the clothes carried. The two were waiting ravenously for a culinary speciality they had recently come up with, a soup of boiled water and potato pieces, spiced by needles from the surrounding forest’s pines. They had tacitly agreed that the needles themselves were not enjoyable eating, but the flavor they provided livened up an otherwise bland dish. 

The younger one spoke, “Alexy, what are we going to do tonight?” He brushed the brown hair that had made its way down his face and now tickled the end of his tiny nose back to its proper position. A cat sitting nearby, entranced by the flicking motion of the hair, jumped into the young boy’s lap. Alexy, two heads higher, and of a more chiseled makeup turned to him and replied, “Make our wishes for the new year, Emil. The adults are doing the same.” Alexy got up and stirred their special soup, mixing everything around until a tiny whirlpool developed in the center of the pot. He smiled as he watched the needles and potatoes rise from the depths of the pot at the outer fringes and then tumble inwards toward the central point, all the while spinning around and around and around, before plunging under the surface and back down into the depths of the soup. Alexy sat back down and scratched his face. Seeing his nails caked with mud he wiped them on his clothes, and then carefully folded the cloth to push out the dark black sludge from underneath his fingernails that had recently congealed from the warm air it had come into contact with over the pot. Satisfied, he took a turn petting the cat in Emil’s lap, acquiring new dirt in the places he had just cleaned and picking up ginger hair that the cat shed gratuitously. 

“I don’t like wishes,” stated Emil meekly, his face still turned towards to fire. “None of mine came true.” The cat purred atop his lap. 

“You made big wishes,” said Alexy, “like seeing Mama and Papa again.” He remembered how his parents had a premonition of a coming war and sent he and his brother away to a village at the edge of Siberia. He could still feel his mother’s warm, tender hands at the train station handing him a singular, shiny ruble, imploring him to hide it, keep it safe, and use it to return home to Leningrad when he thinks it is safe. He and his brother waved from inside the carriage as the train began to chug forward along its rails. Their father stoically stood at attention as their mother waved back to the two of them, before she turned and buried her glistening face in their father’s jacket. That was 1 year ago by his memory. 

“Maybe make smaller wishes,” implored Alexy. Without getting up he stretched over to pick up a poker and tended the fire by nudging the logs serially, but indiscriminately.

“I made small wishes too, but none of them came true,” said Emil.

“That’s a lie, Emil, you wanted more cats to play with. Snowball had kittens,” returned Alexy. He smiled reasoning that he had won; the beautiful, white-haired cat he called Snowball had a litter of kittens only a month ago, and the thought of which would surely make bring a grin to Emil’s face too.

Emil’s visage lightened. “You’re right Alexy, they’re so warm and tiny. It’s a wish come true. Thank you, Snowball.” He brought his face down to kiss the cat on his lap, getting golden ginger hair on his face and lips. Emil laughed, and then sneezed, and then laughed again, little hairs now floating gracefully in the air. 

“Emil, that’s Carrot, the orange one,” said Alexy, “not Snowball.”

The levity dampened, Emil replied, “Ah,” and apologized, “I should have known.”

For a moment they were quiet, listening to the purr of Carrot and the crackling of the fire intermittently accompanied by the howling wind outside. 

“I have a new idea, Emil. Let us make only wishes that will, through our work on the farm, come true,” posed Alexy. 

“I like that,” said Emil, “I will go first. I will become stronger, like you brother, so that I can churn more butter, so that we don’t have to sell it. So we can eat some.”

“How nice that would be with bread, very clever, Emil! Now me. I will learn to trap birds, and small animals in the forest, and we can use them in our special soup.”

“I very much like that, Alexy.” Emil’s smile started to return. “I will practice songs with the elders, so that we can sing them together while we wait to eat.”

“My turn,” said Alexy gleefully, “I will find the best mushrooms to pick come autumn, and we will cook those too!” Alexy stood up, enlivened by the thoughts of how the coming year would be. Emil started to hum a tune he had heard while being walked through the village. 

“Sing, Emil!” implored Alexy. Emil pieced a song together from memory, a patchwork of poem and parable, and Alexy began a dance he had seen in a harvest festival. He twirled and jigged, and both of their faces became defined by the sincere smile that had them laughing and giggling and singing. Their joyous tune took over the room, and to the chagrin of the cat in Emil’s lap, rose in volume to drown out the immensity of their past year’s wishes not coming true. Alexy spun again, and his hand knocked into the pot of soup atop the fire, spilling much of the contents out and down into the depths of the fireplace. Alexy quickly took hold of the pot, searing his calloused hands, and righted it before the whole soup could drain. 

“Alexy, what happened?” questioned Emil, frightened at the hissing sound and the abrupt end to their joviality. Alexy’s eyes were squeezed shut and tears flowed out as he bit the side of his hand desperately trying not to cry out in pain. His fingertips immediately blistered and oozed. Alexy ran to the door of the hut, opened it, retrieved some snow in his aching hand, and returned to the hearth. He stood for a moment, tending his burns.

“I spilled some of the soup,” answered Alexy, “but it is now ready to eat.” He tossed aside the snow and delicately dished out all that remained in the bottom of the pot into one of the two bowls he had prepared for them. Alexy carried the bowl cautiously, being prudent of the location of his fingers and their corresponding burns and blisters. He handed the bowl to Emil, and fetched a spoon for him as well, and then sat down with an empty bowl and spoon. Emil started to slurp the soup down.

“This is the best yet, Alexy,” said Emil between spoonfuls.

“The soup, or the New Year?” questioned Alexy.

“Both,” said Emil, “both are good.”

“The soup is truly delicious,” stated Alexy, feigning the sound of him eating by dragging the spoon across the sides and bottom of the bowl. “Did you have any more things you want to do next year?” asked Alexy. “Yes,” said Emil, “I want to see you again, brother.”

January 24, 2020 02:08

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RBE | Illustration — We made a writing app for you | 2023-02

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