Prologue: Stulchyn, The Ukraine, January 1920 Prologue Stulchyn, The Ukraine January 1920
Horses do not trample children, not even dead children. That’s why I wasn’t afraid. Not at first.
I heard the Cossacks before I saw them. I was in the henhouse. Ma had sent me to collect eggs for breakfast. I was placing them in a rush basket lined with straw when the thunder of hooves, the snorting of horses, harsh shouts, and the metal clang of swords reached me. Soon there were other sounds—women and girls weeping, the screams of men and boys.
I ran to the window of the coop and saw a dozen soldiers in the distance. Even though I had never seen them before, I knew who they were. Ever since I was a baby, I’d heard stories of the Cossacks, the czar’s special troops, and their terrifying attacks.
I couldn’t stay in the chicken coop. The Cossacks would come for our plump hens and anything else they could eat or stuff in their saddlebags, including me. I was five, old enough to know that the Cossacks’ taste for little children was as strong as their thirst for vodka.
But where could I go? The river was too far, the banks too steep. I would fall in and freeze. I wore my nightie with the blue and red flowers and the red hat my bubbe had knit for me. Running was no use. I must hide. But where? I could sprint to our cottage where Ma, my sister Bekka, and baby Yossel were, but the soldiers would catch me. I was the fastest girl my age in our shtetl, our village, but no girl can outrun a horse. There were no forests, no trees to conceal me. Because it was such a cold winter, Count Oshefsky, who owned our village, had ordered the woodlands chopped down for firewood: first the ash, then the pines, then the birch, then the oak.
The Cossacks were headed for our village square. I could see the hoofprints, big as dinner plates, their horses left in the snow. I smelled the stink of the pig fat they used to grease their saddles. I watched through the window of the coop as two Cossacks left their comrades and approached our cottage. One was old with rings of fat around his neck. In his hand, he held a pine torch, which he touched to the roof. Whoosh, and soon it was orange flames. I expected Ma and Bekka to run out with baby Yossel in their arms, but no one appeared. Had they escaped? Or worse, were they trapped inside? My fear turned to anger, and I wiped away the salty tears that dripped down my cheeks.
I yelled at them to go away, but they paid no attention. I straightened and, through the window, threw eggs, warm from the broody hens, at the soldiers. One hit the hindquarters of a horse, making him skitter and buck. I ducked down again. Through the window, I saw the other soldier, a young man around Bekka’s age, force his horse in a circle, sawing the iron bit back and forth until its mouth was torn and bloody, and trot toward me. I made myself as small as possible. The Cossack looked more like a dybbuk from a nightmare than a man. His eyes were cold and blue. His lips curved up like a scimitar. A papakha, the traditional hat made of sheepskin, sat high on top of his head like a drum, and from his neck swung a leather pouch, probably filled with the bones of small children. He whirled his nagaika, his whip, over his head. His stallion reared up, hooves pawing the air like drunken peasants throwing punches outside the village tavern. But before he could reach me, his comrade with the torch shouted to him, and they both galloped toward the shul. I started to panic, afraid for Pa, who attended morning prayers.
I let out the breath I was holding. Desperate, I snuck a peek through the the loose boards in the back of the hen house. A few feet away, I spotted the carcass of my bubbe’s cow, Laska, twenty feet away. The fawn-colored Laska with her soft brown eyes had died of old age when the ground was too frozen to bury her. The vultures and crows had picked her bones clean. An idea swooped into my head. The Cossacks would not see me curled inside Laska. I murmured a broche, a prayer, in thanks. She had given me her rich milk. Now she would give me the gift of her bones. God and Laska would keep me safe.
I hiked up my nightie to my knees, opened the door of the coop, and ran, crouching low. Laska’s carcass was a white mound, covered in snow, straw, and chicken droppings. I tugged aside her skull. Luckily, I was small for my age. After wiggling and squirming, I jammed myself in, as snug as an egg in its shell. My head, covered in my red cap, stuck out of the opening where Laska’s calves used to come from. I was safe, but what of Ma, Bekka, and Yossel? And Pa? Where were they?
I shouldn’t look, but I couldn’t help myself. I pried apart two ribs and peered out to see the village square, where the Cossacks were shouting and waving their swords and pine torches. Despite the cold, sweat trickled down my back.
Uncle Tubal and my cousin Saul ran past, their peyot, sidelocks, fluttering around their ears. Their prayer shawls flapped, the fringes whipping back and forth underneath their jackets.
Rabbi Avram sat propped against the stump of an oak. His clothes were streaked with horse dung and filth. He hugged the Sefer Torah, the Holy Scroll, to his chest. Someone had cut off his sidelocks and beard, leaving bloody slashes on his cheeks and chin. I opened my mouth to call to him. Then I noticed his guts spilling out of his belly like the measuring tape tumbling out of Ma’s sewing basket.
I forced myself to look away, bile in my throat, as sparks shot into the air like giant fireflies. The timbers of the shul caught fire, smoked, smoldered, and then crashed to the ground with a thump. If I squinted, I could see inside the shul. The altar cloth my mother had embroidered with gold thread curled up in the heat. The candle-sticks were gone. The silver kiddush cups were gone. My breakfast porridge turned hard in my belly.
The Cossacks fanned out, setting fire to the straw roofs of cottages, attacking our neighbors with bayonets as they rushed out of their homes. My friend Rachel had a wound on her neck and she staggered through the snow, calling for her ma, leaving a trail of blood behind her. I saw more things I didn’t want to see. My cousins Betta and Zofia lay in the snow holding hands, as though they had dropped to the ground in the middle of a game of statues. The horses swerved to avoid them.
I shut my eyes and kept them closed for a long time. Laska’s ribs poked into my back and legs, but I pretended they were Ma’s arms hugging me tight. It will be over soon, Giddy. Ma always said this when bad things happened. Any minute, she would come and scoop me into her arms. Until then, I would be brave. I imagined myself snuggled in her bed, wrapped in a goose-down quilt, dreaming of a warm spring morning, golden wheat rippling in the field, and new lambs bleating for their ewes in the meadow.
When I opened my eyes again, all was still except for the boom boom of my heart and the odd snap of burning wood. Had the Cossacks ridden off?
The wind had stolen the heat from my body. I shivered in my nightie and red knitted cap. I was turning into a block of ice. It was not possible to survive outside in the winter in our mountain village unless you were fat or had lots of furs to wrap yourself in. I was not fat.
No matter how I twisted, I couldn’t pry apart Laska’s ribs. I had slipped inside easily in the morning sun, but now the cold had frozen her solid. I tried to squirm my way out, but her bones were as hard as the iron hoops around a barrel. Maybe I hadn’t been so smart to hide inside Laska. It was no use surviving the Cossacks’ attack if I froze to death. I tried to get free, but my arms and legs were stiff. I gripped the little finger of my left hand in the palm of my right and squeezed. Sometimes this helped me stay calm. More time passed. I had to pee.
I craned my neck, trying to see if anyone was around to help, but there was no one.
“Ma,” I called softly at first, then I cried louder, “Help me, Ma.”
“Giddy?” A faint voice carried across the wind.
“Ma?” I yelled.
“Giddy! Where are you?”
“I’m here! I’m here!”
I peered out between Laska’s ribs. Relief flooded me at the sight of my ma running toward me with baby Yossel tucked under her arm like a loaf of challah.
But then the air once again filled with the peaty smell of horse. The two Cossacks from before returned and galloped toward me.
“No!” Ma screamed. “Stop! Leave her alone!” But they didn’t stop. She picked up a piece of smoldering timber and hurled it at the soldiers. It hit the older one in the back of the head. His face darkened and he turned his horse toward her. I watched as he bent down, seized her by her braid, and swung her onto his saddle as if she weighed no more than me. Yossel flew out of her arms like a melon falling out of a huckster’s wagon, then rolled a few feet. His head came to rest with a wet thud against a rain barrel.
I strained against Laska’s ribs, folding my legs under me so I could thrust my way out. It was no use. I let out a scream. I clawed at the bones, breaking my nails and bruising my cold-clumsy fingers. I flung my body against Laska’s bones, but the carcass didn’t give way. I gashed my arms trying to reach between the ribs, like bars of a cage. Blood soaked my nightie.
All I could see were a horse’s hooves approaching. The horse didn’t know there was a girl inside this heap of cow bones. He would trample me for certain. I wet myself. My pee warmed me for a second, and then everything went black.
I came to hours later. The sun was low in the smoky sky, the taste of copper was in my mouth, and Ma’s arms were around me as she rocked me back and forth. Her clothes were torn and there was blood everywhere, on the snow, on Ma’s skirt, and there was Pa, walking toward us, his head low, his hands splattered with blood. But the Cossacks had gone. They had galloped away with the candlesticks from the shul, our red hens, and my childhood.