Dilara Akarca

Надежда - Hope

It was still dark outside as I woke up. The world had not yet opened its eyes and sometimes it felt like it would never wake up. I looked out of the old train window up into the sky. My eyelids felt like weights as I struggled to keep them open, but I saw a few stars scattered across the expanse and couldn’t help but gaze into them. Then I remembered a phrase my papa used to say, Ведь, если звезды зажигают — значит — это кому-нибудь нужно; After all, if the stars light up, that means someone needs them. Thinking of him hurt too much and I whispered to myself, “I need them, I need the stars, I need you” before closing my eyes, trying to stop the tears.

“Breathe,” I told myself, the air was cold, sharp and I could see my breath as I exhaled, shivering. Sometimes it helped to imagine being somewhere else, sometimes if I pretended hard enough, I believed myself. I tried to remember my last good memories, before the war began. We were at my grandparents’ house in the village for a few weeks in the beginning of summer. By the time we came back home, in just a few days on July 22, 1941, Hitler invaded the Soviet Union. I remembered being a little embarrassed when we first came to the village. Since I only spoke Russian in the city I couldn’t speak Tatar very well, but soon it got easier. My grandma and I were always like best friends, we talked about everything, she never judged, and gave the best advice. I remembered how she taught me a phrase one day, “и ходайм ярдэменнэн ташлама, биргэненэ рэхмэт”. I thought about it, asking God to never abandon me and to be grateful for everything I have been given. It was the only time in my life someone mentioned God to me. I didn’t really know what to think, but it felt like I would be protected, I could talk to someone and maybe I would be heard. My grandma said, “Never forget these words, keep them in your heart, and you will never be alone.”

I loved it in the village, being surrounded by nature. Waking up in the mornings, feeling the warmth of the sun through the windows, hearing the roosters beginning to crow. We were having a special dinner, my grandma was making бэлеш for us, it was a meat pie with potatoes. You would open the pie in a specific way, first taking off the flaky top and then giving each person a piece with the filling. The best part came last, it was the bottom of the pie, the dough soaked in flavor would still be crispy on one side but warm and savory on the other. The food, the people, the language, it was all part of me I had forgotten. Coming to the village always felt like coming home to a place where in some ways I truly belonged. 

 My grandparents had a beautiful house which my grandpa built; the windows framed with colorful ornaments. You could walk down to the Kama River, and in the evening watch the sun set over the horizon. The evening air smelled strongly of sagebrush, there was a soft breeze playing with the water. I remembered just how much I didn’t want to leave on our last day for some reason, but Papa smiled at me gently and said, “We’ll be back soon enough, don’t worry, everything will be alright.” When he smiled, his eyes did too. I don’t know how but his warm brown eyes could smile, fix anything, make everything better.

 Now they were gone. Our family was a whole, now broken. Sometimes it felt like we were all pieces of my heart now ripped away. Papa and my older brother were at the front lines, Gulya my sister training to become a pilot, and my mama broken inside no longer seemed alive. Even before I left, I couldn’t imagine living without Papa. That was not a reality, I didn’t remember reality without him. He was always there no matter what, but now he’s not here. Now he’s not with me.

Mama and I were evacuated from Moscow after Nazi Germany invaded, spending months in a boxcar, which should have been transporting cattle, not people. Remembering those months felt like reliving a nightmare. So, I did my best to not remember. I thought I would die in the boxcar but one day we finally arrived in Alma-Ata, the capital of Soviet Kazakhstan. I was so happy at first, relief flooding my chest, but then we realized that there was nowhere to go. There were thousands, maybe millions, of people evacuated from the entire Soviet Union, and every inch of space to live in was filled. I was heartbroken when I understood that we were stuck living in the boxcar.

 The stars were now gone, the sky was a deep purple slowly lightening, fading as I tilted my head back. I should start getting ready I thought, soon everyone will wake up and the lines will get too long. We lived with ten other people, packed like sardines. There were a few aluminum army cots where people slept, a few small bags and suitcases tucked under them but that was all there was space for. Outside there was a clothesline strung from one end of the boxcar to the other where an array of frozen clothes hung. I quickly dressed, stepping outside letting the wind do my hair, I noticed that now the sky was the color of soot. It was always gray lately, and I thought, “Even the sky has given up”. I inhaled, held my breath, and walked into the small outhouse, which was the home of thousands of flies but at least I was the first one there this morning. After that, I walked to the old pump which would screech when you pushed down. The water was freezing, burning my fingers, but still I washed up and filled a bucket with water to boil. We were lucky to have a small kerosene stove, this way we could cook and make tea in the mornings, but I didn’t feel lucky. I gave the bucket to mama but didn’t say a word. We didn’t talk much anymore. Sometimes I wished this coldness between us would end but other times like today I was just angry.

Where had my mama gone? Who would wake up early on Saturday mornings to make us коймак-pancakes, who always stood straight with the kind of confidence which showed that no one would mess with her. My mama who had the voice of an angel soft and melodic, which would calm you instantly, and wrinkles from laughter around her eyes used to be so full of love and happiness.

 Things changed when we stepped onto the train wagon. Before it was different, we still fought from time to time, but spending weeks in a train wagon changed us. I was no longer her little child, I didn’t depend on her, couldn’t. I was angry that she grew quiet and pale, it shouldn’t have been like that. We should have been there for each other but there was silence, louder than any scream I’ve ever heard. I didn’t have time to be angry, time was running out. Time was always running out, days faded into weeks, which seamlessly faded into months, I was always losing time, but right now I had to leave, or I would be late for school and after having a cup of tea I stepped outside and started walking.

People on the streets passed each other and it felt as if they were all carrying heavy weights. Everything felt impossible, too much, too heavy, too hard, I just wanted it all to disappear, to be little again, or maybe to feel little again when I had everything. The streets were strangers, not familiar faces. I could see the mountains in the distance, and there were so many trees, so many leaves of different colors hitting me in the face, yet it felt empty. There weren’t enough buildings, and it felt small, instead of rows of apartments there were houses, it wasn’t home. I was used to walking along streets bustling with life, lined with large office buildings and stores. Here I had a strong feeling that something was missing.

I came to school for the first time in this strange new place, and the empty feeling faded, there were so many kids, too many. I guessed that many were evacuated like me, and then I realized that there were kids from all over the country. Some were Kazakh but there were Ukrainians, Russians, Koreans, Jews, Lithuanians, and it was so incredibly loud. I walked into the bathroom to get away from the noise, there were a few minutes until class started. A real bathroom, never in my life had I expected to think of a bathroom as such a luxury and yet here I was. In a second that feeling left and in turn came utter shock. What had I become? I was staring into a mirror but that couldn’t be me. I rubbed my eyes, but that girl didn’t change. I was scared. I looked so pale, so thin, my eyes looked like hollows, and it felt like all the color that was once in me was drained. The bell rang, so I hurried to class. I left, but the uneasiness didn’t.

I sat near the back of the classroom, trying to become invisible. It was clearly overcrowded, but class started the same way it did back home. We all stood as the teacher walked into the classroom, she greeted us the same way my teacher did back home, and we greeted her too. That was a comforting feeling, we were covering the same thing, in the same language, even the classroom looked the same. I stayed at school for as long as I could, since I couldn’t stand the boxcar, I had to sleep in. There it was always dark and chaotic, at night people cried and snored, the smell was nauseating. It reminded me of those weeks we were when we were always on the train tracks, the weeks my childhood ended. I used to be pretty, twirl in skirts, feeling like a princess. Now I looked like a ghost. I went through so much change, so quickly. I couldn’t be certain about anything except at school. At school you knew what would happen, and there was always something to do. The walls were white, everything was clean, everything had a reason and I liked that. There were more kids, so it felt cramped in the classrooms, but that didn’t change the orderliness much. I didn’t want to leave but it would get dark soon and I had to get to the train station before it was too late.

As I was walking, I decided to stop in a park just for a little bit. The trees were tall, their branches now almost fully bare crisscrossing the ashen sky. My hands were red and numb, but I still took them out of my pockets to feel the snow beginning to fall. It wasn’t pretty snow, mixed with rain, but it was something. The tiny snowflakes drifted onto my hands melting instantly creating small pools of water. I closed my eyes letting the cold sink into my bones and for half a second, I forgot. Forgot the pain in my heart, always reminding me that Papa was far away, the pain that I could not let go of, because I simply couldn’t. However, standing in the park I felt something that I hadn’t felt in ages, I was in complete oblivion for just a tiny moment. When I opened my eyes and realized what had happened, I began to cry and couldn’t stop, I didn’t understand why but it felt strange and good at the same time.

When I finally calmed down it was actually starting to get late. So, I took a deep breath and kept going walking through the streets. I saw her from the corner of my eye, it was getting dark, I didn’t even know this person, I thought. There were quite a few people on the street they were all looking straight ahead, faces sunk, it was cold. However, there was an old lady, her hair as white as the snow, hunched over with bags who looked around. That was weird. She was walking slowly taking her time, there was nothing rushing her, but I could see that she was struggling. And yet, she was struggling in the calmest way I had ever seen, not panicking, she was smiling just a bit, which surprised me. I decided to walk up to her, I could take a few bags, lighten her load.  

“Вам помочь? Я могу взять одну сетку.” - Do you need help? I can carry a bag.

“Tүсінбеймін қазақша сөйлейсің бе” - I don’t understand, do you speak Kazakh?

I paused, maybe I should leave, but then I thought to try to speak in Tatar.

“Мин бер сөмкә көтерийме, булышыймы?” - Would you like me to carry a bag?

And then the lady’s face changed from solemn to a smile.

She said, “иә иә рахмет,” - Yes, thank you,” and my face lit up too as I understood.

I always thought that Kazakh was a very different language. I was really surprised inside because I thought everyone knew Russian, that was the only language you were really allowed to speak. I’ve never heard another language in the city. Then I thought that Kazakh and Tatar are both Turkik languages so it made sense that I understood a bit.

I thought of my grandma as I came closer to the train station, the lady reminded me of her. I thought of the phrase she taught me. Was God really with me? Where was my grandma now? Had she been evacuated, or was she safe in the village? Did she know where we were? I didn’t know. Maybe I could write her a letter, though who knows if she would actually receive it? I finally came, thankfully before mama did, it was now dark outside. I could just make out her figure walking in. The light from the moon shone, unveiling her face, she looked so tired, the few wrinkles on her face had deepened, her lips were cracked, bleeding a bit from the cold, I hadn’t noticed that before.

Before falling asleep I thought a bit about today, the smile on the old lady’s face when she understood me, somehow that feeling melted the pain just a bit. I exhaled, letting the exhaustion take over me, letting myself sink into it. My eyelids opened, I had fallen asleep, it was still night, but I was wide awake. Carefully with a quilt over my shoulders I got up and looked outside. I could feel the cold escaping the cracks around the window. As I unlatched one corner of the material covering the window, I saw that it was snowing again, hypnotizing my eyes; I could hear the wind and it sounded like a melancholy lullaby but instead of words there were a thousand snowflakes.

About the Author:

Dilara Akarca is a freshman at QSI International School of Astana. She is half Tatar (an ethnic group in Russia) and half Turkish, has spent her childhood in New Jersey and currently lives in Kazakhstan. She loves to learn, read, paint, write, and use her writing to express her feelings. Dilara wishes to share what she finds interesting with others through her stories and hopes to keep publishing her work.