Karen had first noticed the old woman a week and a half ago, and at the time she hadn't even realized the woman was dead. The old woman lay at the base of an ornate fountain sculpture. Her face was as pale as the white granite of the statues she was crumpled against, and at first Karen thought she was part of the stone sculpture. Behind the old woman rose three strong laborers hoisting a steel girder. Karen's best friend, Inna, had described enough of these patriotic statues that Karen believed she understood the symbolism. The old woman at the laborers' feet represented Mother Russia, long suffering under the corrupt capitalistic system of the former ruling czars. She lay exhausted from her labors, but her struggle had not been in vain. For she had three strong sons who embraced the new Communist regime and helped build great monuments for the people—not just palaces and cathedrals for bishops and princes, but factories and apartment blocks to ease the suffering of the working poor. Only this time the symbolism was wrong. This Mother Russia wasn't a statue; she was an actual human being, or at least she used to be. Her body lay on the iced-over water.
Karen saw the woman's cadaver every day on the way to the bakery. And she couldn't help but stop and stare. Even when it was snowing, even when the wind rubbed her cheeks like icy sandpaper, Karen would halt a moment, eyes narrowed, and wonder: How had the old woman died, and why? Had she been trying to chip away at the ice to fetch water? That made little sense. Like everything else, the fountain was frozen solid. If it was water she'd been after, she would have had an easier time gathering and melting snow.
A new theory had popped into Karen's mind. She once read a story about an old Eskimo who left his village and walked out into the snow. He knew his time had come, and he no longer wanted to burden his children and grandchildren with the task of keeping him alive. So one night he got up, trudged into a forest of white-dusted fir trees, and died. Karen couldn't remember where she'd read that story. It might have been Jack London. But she had burned her books weeks ago in an effort to stay warm, so she couldn't be sure.
Perhaps, Karen thought, the old woman had done the same thing. Perhaps she knew it was her time to die and had walked into the fountain so that others could eat her bread. But that didn't really make sense, either. If she were dying to ease the lives of the living, she would have found someplace private. She wouldn't have chosen so grand a fountain.
This left Karen with only one conclusion: the old woman had chosen the fountain for the very reason that it was grand. She knew people looked at the fountain, and she knew people would be forced to see her dead body. She wanted people to see.
But why did she want them to see her body? Karen couldn't figure it out. The woman had died to make a statement. Karen felt stupid that she couldn't understand what that statement was. Every time she looked at the corpse and failed to understand, she felt like she was letting the old woman down.
So for the tenth day in a row, Karen turned and walked on, all the more frustrated. After two more blocks, Karen should have reached her third landmark. This, too, was a dead body: an old man who must have stumbled and never gotten up. But today she saw no sign of him.
Panic crept into her mind. Had she taken a wrong turn? Should she have turned right instead of left at the fountain?
No, this was the correct corner. She was able to pick out other details that confirmed it: the metal pole for the missing street sign—stolen for firewood—was bent at nearly a forty-five-degree angle, just as Karen remembered. The storefront beyond it, once boarded up, now had broken windows bare to the elements. The glass shards still sprinkled the sidewalk in exactly the pattern she recalled. This was definitely the right place. Someone had finally cleared the old man away, that was all.
As Karen continued her journey back home, she discovered that other bodies had disappeared, too: the fat wine seller crushed under his storefront, the woman hit by a tram and left in the street, the child fallen from a rooftop while watching the sky for German bombers. Each of these dead bodies had served as a gruesome signpost for her, points on a map telling her how much farther she had to walk to get home.
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The Undesirables (Sample Chapter)Historical Fiction
(Chapter 1 only) In the winter of 1941-1942, Leningrad is under siege, and Karen Hamilton, a seventeen-year-old American musician, finds herself trapped and struggling to survive. Throughout the city, people are dying of starvation and frostbite, an...