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They started when the door swept open.
      'Yelena! Aleksei!' said Stasia. 'Come, come, bring the perambulator. Aleksei? What's wrong?'
      'Nothing,' he said, standing up.
      'I have found a horse,' she whispered. 'Buried in the snow.'
      Stasia gathered knives and an old saw blade and placed them beside Edith. Aleksei helped Yelena downstairs with the perambulator.
      Stasia was too elated to notice Aleksei's mood. At the end of their street was a narrow alley and ten metres up that alley, to the right, there was a cul-de-sac, invisible to passers-by and two metres deep in snow.
      'I was walking through when I spotted this,' Stasia said, pulling a freshly buried chain from the snow. She whipped the chain sending a line of snow up, winding to the unmistakable hide of a horse.
      Aleksei kept watch as Yelena and Stasia dug at the snow, careful to leave it piled high in order to quickly cover the horse if anyone came.
      They sawed parallel lines, a few centimetres apart, into the rump. Then, using the knives, gouged strips out laying them in the perambulator under a decoy pile of firewood. Edith was tucked snugly at one end. They cut enough meat for a week, then covered the horse and sprinkled flakes so that the area looked untouched.
      'I can smell fried meat already,' said Stasia.
      But as they were leaving three men appeared. They were big and well built, actually fat.
      'Bandits,' said Aleksei.
      'What have you there?' asked the one with a full bright red beard. He was filthy with grease and there was blood in his teeth.
      The other two were at the perambulator. One lifted a stick.
      'Please, it's our firewood,' said Stasia.
      He put the stick to his nose and sniffed. The moisture around his nostrils froze and thawed as he breathed.
      'I smell meat,' he said.
      He threw the wood into the snow.
      'What's this?'
      As they stuffed the meat into their pockets Edith started crying.
      'A baby!' said red beard. 'A little lovely baby!'
      As he lifted Edith, Yelena shouted out, 'There's a horse! I can show you a horse.'
      Yelena found the chain and yanked it up. The men inspected the horse. One dug around it.
      'Please give me my baby.'
      'A soft little baby? Don't you worry mamma. We will take good care of this,' said red beard.
      Yelena hit him on the head with a table leg but she was so feeble it had little effect. He punched her and she fell unconscious. The other two turned on Stasia and Aleksei and even though they jabbed and slashed with the knives, they found themselves regaining consciousness with the wood scattered and the men gone. All three sat in the snow looking around.
      The silence.
      Yelena screamed.
      'Edith! Edith!!'
      She followed the perambulator tracks but on the street they disappeared. The men must have lifted the perambulator at that point. A lone and destroyed figure, she stood at the end of the alley, her arms sticking out from her sides. Stasia and Aleksei walked towards her but she ran. When they got to the street she was gone.
      Yelena came to her senses in Sadovaya Market. How would she find Edith among the pushcarts and standing stalls, peddlers and troikas, criminals and prostitutes, the thin and pale Leningraders searching for food? The labyrinth behind Sadovaya was made up of the streets that had fascinated Dostoyevsky where, even in civilised times, you could disappear.
      It was Aleksei.
      'Mother is looking for you along the Neva.'
      Her eyes were wild like those of a hunted animal.
      'Help me Aleksei,' was all she could say.
      They made their way in to Sadovaya, listening for a baby's cry in the racket. They passed a stall selling jars filled with Badayev earth. The molten sugar in the explosions had seeped far into the ground. People had dug the earth up to eat it or to sell to traders.
      'One hundred roubles for top soil, fifty for anything deeper than a metre,' the man said.
      People sucked last vestiges of sweetness and then spat out the dirt, opening their mouths for more. The snow around the stall was black with spit.
      On they went, through stalls of wood alcohol, linseed oil for frying pancakes, bacon fat, hardtack, tooth powder for mixing to a paste and frying, library paste in bars. Bread was kept out of sight.
      Yelena began stopping people.
      'Have you seen my baby?'
      They shrugged her off. Aleksei followed close behind.
      'Have you seen my baby?'
      'Let me go you madwoman.'
      'The dogs of war have slipped their chains,' said Yelena.
      Aleksei got hold of her.
      'Yelena! Yelena. If you want to find Edith you have to calm down. In this place we have to do things quietly. Do you understand?'
      He led her away from the centre of the market through smells of vodka, cooking meat and tobacco. A woman passed over a gold watch and was given a crust of bread in return. Time and wealth had become worthless, she ate immediately.
      At a pie stall a man and woman stood out like foreigners. Their faces were fat and pink, their skin oily, their eyes cold and calculating. Customers were loath to look or even touch them as they passed over roubles and jewellery. The pies on a shelf cost four hundred roubles and the woman demanded money first. One man gave her a box filled with gold and silver jewellery, which she shuffled through with fingerless gloves before offering half a pie. He protested and she gave him the box back.
      'No, no,' he said. 'I have changed my mind. I'll take half.'
      But the woman put her hand up and moved on to the next person. As the crowd clamoured for attention, Yelena watched the man move away with the box under his coat. There was a scuffle, a few quick movements. He fell to the ground with blood coming from his side. People walked around him and the box was gone.
      There was a scent from these pies. Yelena didn't know if it came from reality or her imagination. She tried to push away the thoughts. Edith screams. Push them away. Edith naked crying. Push, push, push them away. The knife. Push! The scream. Push!! Born into her mind was the most terrible image. She retched but she was completely empty. Aleksei led her away. The thick taste of grease coated her mouth.
      'Is that a baby? Can you hear a baby cry Aleksei?'
      He couldn't hear it. A tall man stepped in front of them. He was warmly dressed, clean-shaven, he wore brand new leather boots and he looked very strong.
      'Did I hear you say you are looking for a baby?'
      'Yes, I have lost my baby. She's almost a year old.'
      'I don't wish to interfere in your business,' he said. 'But this morning I saw an old woman with a baby. This size,' he said, holding his palms out like he was measuring a fish.
      'Yes. Yes, a girl?'
      'It could have been a girl. Yes I'm sure it was now when you say it. Yes, a girl.'
      'Where? Where?' said Yelena, but the man waved both hands up and down to slow her.
      'This old woman,' he said. 'I sort of know her.'
      'Where does she live?'
      'Before the war she was forever borrowing the local babies. She could have none of her own, you see, when she was young.'
      'Where? Where does she live?'
      'Sha, sha,' he said. 'Here we speak quietly.'
      'Can you take us to her?' said Aleksei.
      'Yes,' he said but he didn't move. He merely stroked his lips with his finger and thumb.
      'I have this,' said Aleksei, producing a gold watch.
      The man inspected it and indicated to follow him into a deserted lane. At the end there was a narrower passage, which he only just managed to squeeze through. They came out amid a warren of buildings. The man led them deeper into the labyrinth stopping eventually at the bottom of a long and narrow staircase.
      'She lives up here,' he whispered and went up two steps at a time.
      Yelena had to stop four times. The man stood by the door and she had the first inclination that this might be some trick. Aleksei stayed tight to her.
      'Wait here,' said the man, opening the door and going in. Aleksei pressed his ear to the door, repeating what he heard.
      'I have two live ones outside.'
      The door was yanked open. One man dragged Yelena in. Another got hold of Aleksei and soon they were inside with blades to their necks.

      'Don't move, don't make a sound.'
      A sickly sweet scent masked a heavier rancid smell. An old woman came into the hall.
      'Looking for babies?' she asked and smiled.
      The men pushed them into a candlelit room where thighs and arms and legs hung from hooks in the ceiling. A cauldron-sized pot boiled in the centre below a makeshift chimney that had been cut into the roof. By the blacked out window hung the torsos of two young girls. Yelena remembered the poster.
      Lost: Little girl, seven years old, blonde plaited hair, in red dress and fur hood.
It gave the address and she wondered if anyone would still be there.
      But no Edith. Thank God. No Edith. The woman kneaded Aleksei's flesh.
      'Very good,' said the hag. 'Very, very good. You are a four hundred rouble boy,' she said. 'And you, she said,' looking to Yelena. 'You will be very stringy, nothing left of you. Blok! Slice them'
      The man with the new boots drew a knife.
      So here it was, the end, thought Yelena.
      'I know where the army store food,' said Aleksei.
      The man stopped.
      'A secret bunker! I can take you there.'
      'It will be guarded.'
      'All guards have been sent to the front,' said Aleksei. 'The Pioneers guard it. I guard it. There is a way in through the sewers where you would not be seen.'
      The woman and the two men closed together at the doorway and discussed in whispers.
      'There's enough to make you rich forever. I can take you there now.'
      'Let him show you Albert. We will keep his mother here.'
      'No, you can tell me where it is. Now!'
      He put the knife to Yelena's neck.
      Albert let out a puff of air and stepped back. Aleksei stabbed him again, withdrew the knife, crouched and embedded his knife in the other man's groin as he closed in. As he fell Aleksei cut his throat.
      'Aleksei!' said Yelena.
      The old crone swung a cleaver but Yelena pushed her. Aleksei moved and curved the blade around in his left hand catching her in the neck. She went sprawling into the cauldron and pieces of jellied flesh sloshed and flopped onto the floor.
      They closed the door and escaped into a still world. Too weak to run, they took a full petrifying minute to get down those steep steps. Yelena looked back and wondered how many houses like that existed in Leningrad. Alexei washed blood from his hands and arms with scoops of snow and threw his topcoat away. They found the narrow alley and burst through into Sadovaya. By the time they reached the other end of the market, Yelena had accepted she had lost Edith forever.

© Des Dillon

 This electronic excerpt of Yelena's Leningrad appears in The Barcelona Review with kind permission of the publisher and the author. It is taken from the novel Yelena's Leningrad by Des Dillon, published by Giglets Limited, Scotland, 2015. Book ordering available through and

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Author Bio
Des DillonDes Dillon is an award winning writer, born in Coatbridge, Scotland. He studied English Literature, taught English, and was Writer-in-Residence at Castlemilk 1998-2000. He is a poet, short story writer, novelist, dramatist, TV scriptwriter and screen writer for stage and radio. His novel Me and Ma Gal was included on the list of The 100 Greatest Ever Scottish Books. Six Black Candles won The Lion and Unicorn prize for the best of Irish and British literature in the Russian language (2007). His play Six Black Candles ran for six years in Kiev. And Singin' I'm No A Billy He's A Tim has been described as Scotland's most successful play of recent times.