Spoiler and Warning: I consider this a very sad story, as well as a spoiler to the Tooth and Tail Campaign. If you are especially sensitive or wish to complete the campaign first I advise against reading.
My name is Valdek. I used to live and work on a farm owned by the businessman Bellafide. I had a calm and steady life, working the rake and plough day after day, delivering much needed food for my brothers who would, sadly, end up in Bellafide’s pantry.
Everything changed however. Kept as meat and slaves by our oppressors we rose up and dealt a decisive blow against them, at a time when they were weakest. We suddenly found ourselves free, as all those who previously wished us harm fled, West and East. But although our stride was strong, and we took much of the old Empire resistance stiffened, and our revolution turned into a war. A war for our very survival.
At first all was going well. What remained of the Empire too weak to truly resist us, but as winter approached disaster followed disaster.
The Autumn and war ruined the crops, those fighting at the front needed uniforms, guns, ammunition. Like an engine that ran out of fuel all came to a standstill, and we waited. We waited for the spring, when our crops would grow once more, when the war could continue.
Seeing so many able handed outside of the cities our leaders called us to the factories. To make guns, large and small, to continue the fight for freedom in any way we could. And so with my wife Anna we came to Ploshchok. Both of us received our assignments. I worked at a munitions factory, Anna at the hospital where the sick from the front were treated.
We were given a small flat, just to ourselves, previously belonging to a squirrel family. It was small, squalid, but it was our home.
This is where our story begins.
I slept soundly next to Anna, beneath some old blankets we managed to find. The winter was cold, unwelcoming. We still managed to keep ourselves warm. The floor boards creaked whenever any one of our neighbors moved, but we got used to it. We had no other choice.
Then came the ringing from the street. The foreman was waking us up for work.
“It is six in the mornin’! Time for work!” is what he shouted, every single day. He rang his bell as he walked down the street, wearing his familiar brown suit and brown cap, with a scarf tightly around his neck. He shouted and he called, like a rooster at first sunlight, but it was still dark. The sun did not wish to grace us with its rays just yet.
I grumbled and opened one of my eyes, still in Anna’s embrace from the night before. She opened hers as well.
“Good Morning.” I started plainly.
“Good Morning.” came her answer.
I brought my head up briefly to plant a kiss on her cheek, inevitably disturbing our blanket cocoon.
“Let us not keep the foreman waiting.”
There was little time for food or pleasantries. As the crops failed we were given small rations, but ever since the height of summer I managed to pickle some foods, that I kept hidden under our flat’s floorboards. Some pickles, some plums, a little bit of every vegetable and fruit I found at the time. Something savory, something sweet. Something to enjoy during these cold winter mornings with Anna.
We parted ways, locking the door to our flat and went to work.
I joined others, like me, out in the street. Although it was dark, with most lamps extinguished to save precious fuel, I could see the factory’s chimneys in the distance. It was a military industrial complex, where different materials were brought in, goods taken away. All reclaimed after its previous owners.
Most of the city was in disrepair however. I saw the skeletons of cars, long ago abandoned, destroyed. Doorways smashed open, missing windows. In some places I could still hear the crunching of glass against hooves, there was nobody to clean it up.
What was present however were posters, megaphones. Soon after everybody would get up we would hear the speaker’s voice, telling us when the soup kitchen would be opened, what was being served, how our work helped us all. United, of one mind. There were, however, orderlies present as well. On occasion I saw them drag away suspects, traitors, from which nobody heard from again.
Surely, they knew what was best.
The factory itself hosted numerous tables, machines. I was assigned a workstation where I would press down a bullet onto its lower casing. The end of the cycle. After that all the ready bullets would be carted off and sorted, into magazines, or boxes. At least, that is how it was explained to me. All I had to do is make sure I did not throw incomplete bullets into the wrong cart, and just continue working.
Everybody here was dedicated to their work. We worked in silence, there was no time for breaks, or even meals. Our men at the front needed these, and if they ever ran out everything would be lost. It was grueling, boring work, but necessary.
I often reminded myself of the farm. Even when I worked under Bellafide it was a small corner of heaven. The apple orchards, wheat fields, and smaller farming plots with a selection of other edible plants.
Here, day in, day out, put a bullet in its casing, pull down the lever, and repeat.
At least it was warm in the factory, from the constant work of the machinery. We were lucky however, some of the other factories lacked sections of the roof, or walls.
The day passed, it was always hard for me to tell how much time it has been. The factory manager would call out today’s results of our hard work. We were always meeting our quotas, but urged to do ever more.
We could, if every once in a while there was no shortage of coal and other materials. The situation once became so dire that pots were collected to make bullet casings, and old shoes became pistol holsters.
All I could think of was coming back home to Anna. I was used to hard work, but it was my eyes and nose that suffered the most. There was dust everywhere. Some of the other workers coughed constantly. I usually pulled my scarf around my snout to keep myself somewhat safe. It did not always work, but was better than nothing.
We came in the dark, we left in the dark. Some headed for the soup kitchens, but when I saw just how long the lines already were I knew there was no food to give, again.
Back home I did not find Anna. It must had been another terrible day at the frontline. She never told me of the sick and wounded at the hospital. She always seemed sad when I mentioned it at all. After returning home I decided to give her a special treat, something I have been saving for the next time Anna would be away for so long.
In the corner of the room I moved a floor board to unearth our stash. From it, in the deepest reaches, was a small box that I took out. I opened it, and within was the last chocolate plum. I found a box full of them in this very flat, the previous owners must had forgotten about it or abandoned it as they fled. At first me and Anna wanted to eat all of them, but as the rations were becoming smaller we tried to save our own supplies. Anna most likely forgot about this last plum.
I took out this last little chocolate plum and hid it in my pocket. It was too cold for it to melt. I waited now for her return.
A voice of a violin came to my ears. I looked out the window, into the street, and under one of the still burning lanterns I saw a young girl playing her instrument. It was a melody to an old folk song. Yet, although it was meant to be a happy song seeing the girl standing there, alone, in the cold, made me feel anything but.
I sighed to myself and went out of my flat, down to the street, to speak with her.
By the time I reached the ground floor I could hear a feint wind howling, single snowflakes ending their descent. The girl was gathering her things and about to leave. I ran up to her and at first she looked at me, scared.
“What are you doing out here?” I asked.
“I was looking for someplace to practice. My father does not like to listen to my violin…”
In truth, I was not looking to know. I could see that she was hungry, tired. She most likely toiled as hard as any of us, and yet she used what little time she could to practice instead of resting. I reached into my pocket and produced our last chocolate plum, offering it straight to her palm and then putting a finger to my snout.
At first she did not understand but she looked at the plum and her eyes widened. She put it in her mouth straight away, about ready to swallow it in one go.
“No no. Not so fast, savor it…” I urged her. Who knew when would be the next time we could taste such delicacies.
She hugged me in thanks, speechless, wordless, perhaps out of happiness, or the plum in her mouth. I only patted her back in turn.
“Go now. It is starting to snow.”
And our paths parted here, the girl running back home while I headed back to my own flat.
Though I waited Anna did not return, and it was getting late. I was forced to curl myself up in our bed and try and get some rest. I closed my eyes and listened to the howling wind just outside our windows, frost soon covering the glass.
When the foreman’s shouts and ringing woke me up I could feel Anna next to me. I opened my eyes to see her completely exhausted, and so hard asleep that even the foreman could not wake her up. I brought out my hand from our blanket cocoon and rested it on her cheek, trying to gently wake her up.
“Anna, it’s morning.” Her response was a mumble. I tried again and this time I heard her words more clearly.
“They moved the injured… elsewhere… I have a day off.”
That came as a surprise to me. Time off? No work? The injured taken away, and the hospital closed? I did not know what to think of it, but Anna was not one to lie. I left the cocoon but made sure she was still tightly encased in it. Though I was starving I whispered into her ear before leaving.
“Eat my half of the pickles, you need the strength for today.”
As I left the apartment for the first time since my arrival here I walked up to the foreman.
“Excuse me.” I said.
The foreman looked to me and for a brief moment seized to ring his bell, and looked to me with a wide, if tired smile.
“Yes my friend! How can I help you?”
“Is it true that the hospital is closed?”
The foreman scratched his chin slowly.
“Ah yes, heard something about it. Apparently the sick are moved to another hospital, outside of the city. Not rightfully sure why, but it must be a good sign.”
“Good sign? Why is that?”
“Well, maybe the war is going even better? Less wounded, less need for hospitals. That’s always good!”
I could not argue with that logic. Perhaps the rations would be over soon, and life would return to normal? One could only hope.
Once in the factory we learned of a powder shortage, that lead to the factory coming to a temporary standstill. Nobody knew when work would resume so I decided to explore the factory, something I never did before. Passing through one of the smaller rooms, with all manner of small components to make bullets and shells out of I spotted boxes filled with differently sized rings. I did not know their exact purpose, but I presumed that every one was used for a differently sized contraption. I looked through them and, out of boredom tried to fit one of them upon my fingers. Most of them were either too large or too small but, lo and behold, one was of just the right size. This gave me an idea.
I took one of the rings, not like anybody would truly mind and brought it over to my workstation. There, with tools, I managed to carve out on the outer surface, “Anna + Valdek”. It wasn’t masterwork craftsmanship but at least it was legible. Stuffing the ring into my vest pocket we waited in the factory for an hour longer, before the manager announced that work will resume on the next day.
I left the factory once again, to see the same, lengthy, line to the soup kitchens present. I did not want to waste my time, I wanted to spend what little time I could with Anna.
When I return home I still found Anna there. She seemed genuinely surprised!
“Valdek! What are you doing here?” she asked.
“The Factory ran out of powder so we were given a day off.”
“Look what I got for our rations today!” and she showed me a few slices of rye bread, most likely with a good mixture of sawdust. Both of us knew exactly what to do. But as I was about to head to our stash, and take out something to decorate our plain bread with I heard the violinist play again.
“Wait my dear. I have an idea.”
I left the flat briefly and went down to the street again. It was the same girl, playing the same melody, if a bit happier now. I walked up to her and she greeted me with a smile.
“Would you like to join me and my love for lunch? We would really love your company.”
“I do not see why not.” The girl answered, and she joined us in our flat.
We covered the windows, letting in just a bit of light in, as the frost and snow was still just beyond, as well as the weary eyes of our neighbors. We uncovered our stash to the girl, shared what little food we had. Plain rye bread became food fitting of a queen, and as we ate the girl played.
In our little flat, during this one day that we all could enjoy a bit of peace, we also had a ball. As the girl played I danced with Anna. We laughed and we sang, and even the neighbors did not seem to mind.
As the sun began to dawn the girl had to leave, so we gave her a small parting gift, what was left of our pickle jar. She thanked us and headed home. Me and Anna were alone once again.
Reaching into my pocket I just remembered about the ring. I stood next to Anna, who was looking out the window, watching more snow fall upon the street, and embraced her, showing her the ring.
“For you, Anna.”
She looked to me, then the ring. We hugged, we kissed, and then she tried the ring on. It was a perfect fit.
“Shouldn’t you have one as well?” she asked, and I nodded.
“The next time I have the chance I will make another one, but as you are dearest to me please hold onto this one.”
A joyous, momentous occasion. A bright light in this otherwise dark, and cold winter day.
My work in the factory continued, but the winter became even harsher. Water pipes burst, and they could not be replaced. Snow was gathered and melted, furniture broken down for fuel, trees chopped down. Eventually wood was becoming so scarce that some tried to cannibalize the very buildings they were living in. Miraculously though more food reached the city, instead of being given out as rations people were asked into the soup kitchens for their fills.
What surprised me, and shocked me was that meat was added to the soups. I saw small chunks of it flowing in our murky, watery meals, but none else seemed to mind. Only Anna seemed to share my sentiment, but there was little choice. Our stash was almost depleted, and if we did not wish to starve the soup kitchens were our only source of nourishment now.
As the winter dragged on we met at the kitchens together after my work and ate together with the others. But an epidemic soon spread. From the cold some fell ill, and since everybody met in the kitchens the disease spread quickly.
I was fortunate enough not to catch anything, but Anna, my poor Anna, could not leave the flat.
All that I could I did to keep the flat a bit warmer. I tried to bring her warm soup from the kitchens, but every time I reached the flat it was already cold. I even tried to make a stove, out of what metal I could find, and use the floorboards for fuel. It helped, but only a little.
I was worried for Anna. The only hospital that was about was closed down. No medicine was available, and even less doctors and nurses.
But one day, in the middle of my shift, I heard a call from the manager.
“Attention everybody! Our leaders are aware of the epidemic sweeping through the city! They have decided to offer us aid and in the coming days all those sick will be taken away to hospitals around the country! Speak with your Foremen for details!”
I felt such relief! When the shift ended I headed over to the foreman, responsible for my street. He was already mobbed by many other concerned people so he was gathering the names and addresses of all those who fell ill. Though it took well over a few hours to finally add Anna’s name to the list I was promised that she would be taken away in the coming days.
I told Anna of the grand news.
“You will be well soon Anna. You will see!” I said, as I sat by her side. Our bed was now just a mattress, its frame used to fuel the stove. She was tired, with a high fever, but she smiled up to me as I held her hand.
It was such a tiring challenging time, but we would make it through.
It did not take long for me to learn when somebody would come to pick up Anna. I spoke with the factory’s manager and he agreed to allow me to take just a few hours off on the day Anna would leave for the hospital.
On that very day a few hospital ambulances arrived, as well as trucks with red crosses painted upon their sides. There were many ill, but what was a bit of discomfort in exchange for health?
The nurses and other aides present helped everybody onto the trucks. I managed to get Anna onto one of the ambulances, instead of the trucks, and I gave her a farewell kiss.
“As soon as I learn where you will be hospitalized I will write to you, I promise.”
Though she was still very much sick, wrapped up in all the blankets we could spare from the flat, she answered quietly.
“I love you.” and kissed me on my cheek.
I waited nearby until the ambulances and trucks left, feeling much lonelier, but with hope.
In a passing truck I could hear the sound of a familiar violin, and then it was no more.
My life became far emptier than I first imagined. I could not get much rest at night, as I was always thinking of Anna. Every morning I would ask the foreman for any adress to send my letters to, but every time he would not be able to tell me anything. Eventually he began accepting my letters, saying he would send them the following day.
Four days passed and I still received no response from Anna. Maybe she was still at the hospital, too weak to write? That must had been it.
At least the food was plentiful, even if it was meat. The lines to the soup kitchens ceased to exist and everybody but me was happy.
On the fifth day, after work, I went to the kitchens and asked for a bowl. It was the same broth for everybody. Sitting down at one of the tables I began toying with the small chunks of meat in the soup, thinking what manner of delicacies Anna might had been fed at the hospital, what gentle and loving care-
What was that? Something in my soup?
I peer down, and try to wave away the murkiness with my soup. Something shines at the bottom of the bowl. A terrible dread and horror grips me but curiosity is stronger. I plunge my spoon within and begin to scoop out the objects along the bowl’s wall. I begin to see it, but cease to believe it. A metal ring. With a trembling hand I take it out and examine it. Nothing on the surface as I rotate it, and then I see the first “A”, then an “N”.
I close my eyes, and open them again.
“Anna + Valdek”.
I throw my soup down and begin screaming in pain. Everybody looks at me at first as if I were a madman and then I shout.
“You killed her! And you are trying to feed her to me! My Anna! My beloved Anna!”
Everybody freezes as orderlies rush into the kitchens and drag me away, as I shout and kick. They hit me with batons but my voice cannot be silenced, until they beat me so hard that I pass out.
I now find myself in a cell. A dark cell, that is cold from the wind that makes its way within through the open, grated window. I am sitting in a corner, rocking, still grasping Anna’s ring. I cry and I yelp but no merciful god can hear me.
I hear footsteps outside my cell, but I do not look up.
“Valdek. We have searched your home and found illegal contraband. Hiding food for your own sake is treason against us all.”
I still do not look up.
“You will be summarily shot, at sunrise for your crimes.”
“And what about your crimes?! The murder of our own people, the murder of my own wife?!” I yell at the guard.”
He looks at me coldly, with no hint of emotion or sympathy.
“A few sacrificed for the good of all.”
I do not and cannot sleep. My mind is taking me back to the farm, where I and Anna grow our crops, where the sun is bright, the air is warm. We talk about our day, our lives here. What they would be.
I close my eyes, only to open them and find myself in the courtyard, behind the prison. I see my brothers before me, standing at attention, and I feel Anna in my palm, still with me.
The officer gives an order and their rifles come pointed at me, loaded with the very same bullets I helped to make.
I want to scream. I want to tell them, of all the injustice, of all the crimes, of all the sorrow I have come to feel. But nobody would listen. Nobody would care.
As I slip down the pole, my heart and lung punctured, as I drown in my own blood I continue to hold onto Anna, even as my eyes glaze over and my body coughs up its last.
I will never let go of you Anna. Never again. I will see you soon.