Cossacks and Robbers
People had been talking about it at school — little survival kits that you could carry with you wherever you went, and how they could one day save your life. There had been a report on television of a girl who had used it to escape after she had been kidnapped. She had cut the ropes that held her with a pair of tiny scissors from her sewing kit, millimetre by millimetre, and then she used a pin to open the lock of the shed she had been kept in.
‘I remembered what we had learnt in orientation lessons and found my way to a village by looking at the moss on the trees,’ the girl had said in her interview.
I made a kit for myself, in secret, stuffing some raisins into a matchbox that was by then already full and then sliding the box into its slot. There were also a safety pin, a needle with a thread, small scissors, a minuscule compass that had originally belonged to my cousin and had lain forgotten in the drawer of my desk when she went back home after spending her summer with us, a butt of a sharpened pencil, some paper I had cut into little squares, a lock of my hair, a tablet of vitamin C, some matches wrapped in cellophane to keep them dry, and a passport photograph of my mother with our address written on it. After that, I carried the kit with me wherever I went. In my pocket, or in my bra if I was wearing a skirt. I was ready for anything.
The nineties, we live in the nineties, everyone kept saying during those few years, as if they were quite astonished to find themselves alive. Scary times, difficult times, I heard in people’s conversations when I took my tram to school. Businesses sprung up and closed down, the state had divided the country property into what they called ‘vouchers’ and then gave all its citizens one each, every voucher worth ten roubles. Enterprising men here and there bought them up and made their fortunes. Meat had disappeared from shops and markets, and then, in the middle of a snowless, dark November, human flesh was found, cut into chops, sold as pork. That same week, my father went on a business trip.
He had left in the night and by the time I woke, he was gone. My mother and I were used to his absences, sometimes of a few days, sometimes, a couple of weeks. He had recently started a business and, whilst we seemed to have more money than when he had been a journalist, we didn’t get to see much of him anymore. Whenever he travelled, my father brought me presents when he returned. Mostly they were books, now that I had turned twelve and didn’t play with toys anymore. When I had been younger, I would greet each gift with shrieks and jump up and down in excitement. My father seemed to enjoy this exuberance, his face lighting up every time I did it, and so I felt it necessary to continue this way as I grew older.
I wondered what he would bring me this time but the trip seemed to last longer than usual. When I heard that he would not be back for the New Year’s Eve, I started to get anxious. About a month after my father had left, I spotted a black car following me as I walked along the main road to my usual tram stop. The car windows were blackened and its numbers were so dirty that I could not read them. I patted my chest to check that my kit was still there. As I boarded the tram, I thought I could see a man’s face staring at me through the dark glass. There didn’t seem to be anyone following me on the way back from school.
By summer, my father was still not back. We spoke on the phone almost daily, and throughout the winter and most of the spring he had been sending regular money. But it was almost July, and we had not had anything from him since May. First we sold our vouchers, for twenty roubles each. We stretched the money by living on bread and potatoes. My mother was still cheerful but her eyes had grown tired, and her face looked older. After that we borrowed from a few acquaintances but since we could not pay them back, they stopped lending.
On the day of the stone incident, I walked home from the market where my mother had now set up a stall. We had used the last of our money to buy straw hats from the wholesale market, and she was now re-selling them. The trade was good, the heat forcing passers-by to cover up. I had been sent home to fetch a folding camp chair for my mother to sit on, and as I walked through the playground, I could see children playing Cossacks and Robbers. Only last summer I had been one of them, running around the streets, hiding from the Cossacks, my heart never slowing down, my head light with adrenaline. I went past the tree I had climbed and waited on once, when everyone else had been caught. I remembered the shaking in my hands, the stump of a branch that had been cut off the summer before in order to give some light to the apartments next to it. What had started as an exciting game had by then grown into a strange, lonely wait but I refused to give up. I could see the others further up, at the playground, first only a couple who had already been caught, with a Cossack guarding them, then a few more, until the whole group gathered by the swings, chatting and laughing. I heard Roma’s voice carry towards me ‘…she’ll show up soon, then we’ll get her.’ He was on the Cossacks team that day. Stubbornly, I sat still, and eventually they grew tired of waiting and started another game, this time on the Tarzan swings, daring each other to go higher. Only Roma kept looking around, his face anxious as he searched the space with his eyes. I imagined them close to me, like that one time when we had hidden on this very tree, the colours green and yellow and blue all at once. I longed to join him and the others and yet I clung on to the stump, my body almost becoming a tree too.
When it got dark, I heard my mother’s voice calling me from the window of our apartment. I got down, jumping and landing awkwardly on my right foot, and then I crept home, taking the long way round, hiding behind trees and garages, until I reached the entrance. When I opened the foyer door, I saw Roma standing by the window, facing me. His eyes were dark and serious, and scared.
‘Your mum’s been calling for you,’ he said in a hoarse voice.
‘I know,’ I answered, not moving.
‘I was looking for you too.’
‘I saw, I wasn’t far.’
He studied my face, just like he had done that time on the tree. I waited but he stayed silent, and then he quickly turned and climbed the stairs to his apartment two floors above ours.
That was the last time I played at the playground. It wasn’t just me — other kids my age had stopped too, and not long after we were replaced by the younger generation. Sometimes I still saw my friends at the benches by the tree, smoking, or drinking in secret, but I never joined them.
I was so lost in my memories that I must have missed the danger signs. As I turned the key in the lock, I heard steps behind me and a male voice shouting for me to wait. I squeezed into the apartment and pushed the door shut, putting on all the locks we had. Then I put my eye to the peephole. It was dark on the other side — the man was holding his hand against it.
‘Open up immediately!’ he was shouting, banging on the door with the other hand. I heard our neighbour’s voice asking him what he wanted. I moved to the living room and sat on the sofa, breathing fast. The telephone rang suddenly, and I wondered whether I should pick up. It could be my father but it could also be whoever had been following me. We had had calls from them before, silent when I picked up, threatening when they got my mother. I stared at the receiver until the ringing stopped. In the silence that seemed louder in my ears than any possible noise, I sat still, waiting for something to happen. My kit was still in my pocket, and mentally I went through its contents, listing each item as if at an auction.
If I got kidnapped and locked up, I would use a pin to open the door. If I had an injury, I would sew it up with the needle and a thread. If I was starving, I would eat the raisins, one by one, to keep my strength up. I started to relax a little as I went through the usual routine of survival tips. It was then that I heard a loud pop, and then the bang of shattering glass and a whistling sound as something heavy — a stone, I realised — flew past my ear and landed on the television set, breaking it too. Slouching behind the sofa, I crawled towards the television. There was a piece of paper attached to the gray stone with a bright yellow rubber band. I opened the paper, my hands shaking, and read the words.
Tell us where he is or your daughter will pay the price, it said.
I patted my pocket, then I went into the kitchen and grabbed the folding chair for my mother. As I locked the front door, I could hear children playing in the foyer, giggling as they hid and then screaming and laughing a few seconds later, when they were found. I left the building in their midst, clutching the chair to my chest, and then I walked back across the playground, past the tree with the stump, past the Tarzan swing that had been torn down and replaced again, past Roma who was sitting on a bench with his mates, smoking, his back to me. As I walked on, I could hear his voice in the middle of a story he was telling, and the laughter coming from the other boys. I turned the corner and kept going, walking back towards the market.
It was busier than it had been when I had left. I watched my mother sell another hat for a few minutes and when she spotted me, she winked and patted her money belt. When I approached, she took a couple of notes out and gave them to me. ‘Go get a few things for dinner,’ she said. ‘Get anything you like.’ Her face looked somehow younger and there was a smile in her eyes as she sent me off.
I wandered among the food stalls, choosing treats for later — cheese, smoked sausage, fresh bread and butter, fruit and chocolates. Whenever I reached into my pocket for the money, my fingers brushed past the matchbox and I could feel the rubbery texture of the yellow elastic band that I had wrapped around the box.