Excerpt from Chapter 3

As the train worked its way from the city into the countryside, Mija stared at the changing landscape and listened to the clickety-clack of the wheels. The houses got fewer and farther between. They reached the first farms. Fields of newly planted crops flowed past and then forests of white birch trees showed up a few meters from her window. Next, a small lake shimmered with sunlight. A barn appeared and Mija watched a white stork lift out of its nest on the roof. The long, black-tipped wings beat faster and faster as it rose and disappeared.

Laima’s head fell onto Mija’s shoulder, and she snored a little with every third or fourth breath. She moved closer to Laima to better prop up her companion’s head. Mija twisted the long ends of her woven wool belt. When the two pieces were intertwined all the way to the end, she untwisted it and started all over.

Mija dozed and the past images she feared the most returned. She was twelve, the age her daughter was now. Her father and brother were at a neighboring farm, helping to bale hay. She saw the Russian soldiers through the front window as they marched toward the farmhouse. Mija had run inside to fetch a cloth for her mother, who had cut her hand on the edge of the hoe. Her mother and older sister, tending the vegetable garden, had their backs to the approaching men. Mija was confused, not knowing if she should stay where she was or run to her mother. She stayed.

As the soldiers, a group of about ten, approached the women, Mija saw their sneering faces and heard them yell, telling her mother and sister to get undressed. She heard her mother scream, “Take me, leave the other one alone.” The response was raucous laughter as they surrounded the women. The leader strode up to her mother and ripped her dress at the neck. Another soldier went for Mija’s sister, Anna. Both women screamed. A third soldier put up his rifle as though to shoot and yelled for them to shut up. The first soldier pushed her mother to the ground.

Mija decided to hide. She went out the back door and ran to the vegetable cellar, only a short distance away and not visible from the front. She struggled with the door but got it open enough to get under it and felt her way down the steps in the dark. Down there, she couldn’t hear anything and was glad. In the far corner, she burrowed into a pile of potatoes until she was covered, but still had a small space to breathe. So much time went by that her arms and legs cramped, but still she didn’t move. She heard the tramp of feet above and someone threw the door open. Mija held her breath.

“The same old rotten potatoes down there, nothing more,” yelled the soldier.

Another yell came from further away, “We could use some potatoes.”

A third voice yelled, “We already have too much to carry.”

An argument broke out and Mija thought for sure she would pass out. Then the leader yelled that they were all a bunch of monkeys fighting about rotten potatoes, and if anyone wanted any, they could carry them themselves. That ended the argument and the cellar door slammed shut. She gulped in long breaths.

The sound of tramping feet got quieter and then disappeared altogether. Mija didn’t move for what felt like hours more. The musty smells of dirt and potatoes lined her nostrils and filled her lungs until she felt damp from the inside out. When she heard her father yelling her name, she clambered out from under the potatoes and pushed open the cellar door.

“Mija!” He ran to her and grabbed her in a bear hug. “Did anyone hurt you?”

She hugged his waist. “No, Papa. I hid as soon as I saw the soldiers. What about Mama and Anna?”

“I put them to bed and sent Feliks to get Doctor Liepins.”

As the months went by, Mija’s sister retreated into a shell of her former self. If Anna had to talk, she spoke in a soft monotone. Mija sometimes heard Anna muttering to herself, but the words were never clear enough to understand. Less than a year after the attack, Anna got sick and was gone in a matter of days. The doctor said she died from pneumonia. Her mother never talked to Mija about the attack just as Mija never told anyone that she saw the beginning of the brutal assault.