I did not recognize the woman in the store window.
Her hollowed cheeks and sunken eyes bore little resemblance to the happy secretary in the family portrait by her bed. Grey streaks wound through matted brown hair emerging from her wool cap. She leaned on a battered walking stick, her thin hands clutching it from within the sleeves of a snow-flecked coat that draped over her narrow shoulders.
This was my reflection, 483 days into the German blockade of our once beautiful Leningrad.
My son and husband were on the front lines. My young daughter and mother clung to life in our flat. Only I remained strong enough to walk the streets and scrounge for food.
Two autumns past, we’d watched from our rooftop as the city’s vast food storehouses burned under the rain of Nazi bombs. Days later, the last rail connection to the rest of the Motherland fell. Few realized then the significance of those events. The Germans had closed the circle, locking us away to starve.
By winter’s start, no food remained. We began consuming anything remotely edible — leather book bindings, fur coats, even old wallpaper paste. The brutal subarctic cold made it all the worse, attacking our shriveling bodies. Death ran rampant. People would sit to rest on a bench or under a tree and simply never wake again, their coats and ration cards stolen before their bodies had even cooled.
No pets, rats, or birds were left by spring. Summer and autumn passed with little improvement. Then winter returned.
Had God forgotten us?
Memories of normalcy eroded with every moment, urging us all towards madness. For some, that point was long past. The gaunt boy wandering outside our apartment, repeating “black bread” throughout all hours. Our newlywed neighbor Magda curling up in bed with her sweet husband, whose body froze solid a week ago. In the ration line yesterday, I’d met a surprisingly cheery man dragging a covered children’s sleigh. When the rough blanket caught on a runner, it revealed the bluish corpses of his two twin girls. “Sleeping,” he whispered, hastily recovering them.
We were becoming ghosts. People simply wasting away to nothing — mind and body.
Except for the monsters.
Those who had chosen a path of unimaginable evil. Unlike most beasts of darkness, they remained obvious in a city of living skeletons.
The fat ones.
Rumors abounded of their methods. People lured into dark corners, following strangers with irresistible promises of meat or bread. Children, women, men — suddenly vanishing. Usually it was the healthier ones who were still somewhat strong, sent out to scavenge and never returning to their families. Tales of cooking smells in the dark of night regularly followed each disappearance.
A man had appeared beside me, his reflection misshapen by a bulky coat and fur hat.
“Could you use something to eat?” he asked softly.
“Comrade, we all could,” I said, studying him. His face was cloaked by a crimson scarf, only his electric blue eyes exposed.
“My sister just passed away. I still have some pork she’d saved. You… look like you could use it.”
I glanced about. There was no one in sight except for a few old women shuffling to and fro, carrying bundles. The bright afternoon yielded no cause for suspicion. He sounded earnest, and the mere thought of real pork sent my mind reeling.
“I accept your kindness, sir.”
He nodded and led me around the corner, down a narrow path between two brick buildings. Boarded windows lined the walls. We stopped before a simple wooden door.
As he calmly undid the locks, a sudden gust loosened his scarf.
What I saw terrified me.
His cheeks were full, the skin pink and supple. In normal times, he would have been a young, athletic man. Now he was a predator, aglow with life in a time of death.
Sucking in a breath, I took a step back, only to freeze in horror. My eyes had inadvertently wandered over a pair of loose boards on a window to my right. In the shadows beyond, marbled slabs of meat dangled from steel hooks. They could have been beef or pork upon cursory inspection, save for the piece ending in a distinct human foot.
So it was true!
The man was oblivious to my reaction. Summoning all the energy within my weakened body, I raised my walking stick and brought it down hard across his neck. He staggered, his forehead striking the door frame. Again I hit him. He fell groaning.
God forgive me, I prayed.
Then I called out.
From around the corners of the path came a group of women, my friends and neighbors. Knives flashed as they unwrapped their cloth bundles. The oldest one, Elena, touched my shoulder and nodded, then silently directed the others. They dragged the prone man inside while I stood watch, just a tired mother resting on a stoop. Sickening, wet sounds escaped the open door.
“I told you he was one of them,” someone hissed.
I glanced over my shoulder. The hooks were empty now. I heard cloth tearing and smelled blood.
Within minutes, the women began filtering out. Each held a noticeably larger bundle. A younger girl stepped outside and vomited in the snow. Recovering, she clutched her own package tightly and kept walking. Each woman calmly went her way, fading into the pedestrian traffic.
Elena emerged last, two bundles under her arm. She handed one to me and walked away.
I looked down at the package, adjusting the wrapping to hide the seeping blood. This was life, I told myself. Life for my daughter and my mother, who would never know its origins.
The sinner had become the fruit of his own labors. But was it a sin to partake of that fruit?
Shuffling home, I prayed for divine guidance. In the stark silence that followed, I believed I found my answer.
What went unseen could not be judged.
God had simply averted His eyes.
Mark Rossmore‘s eclectic background includes aviation, creative direction, music, web design, theatre, and video production. Currently an FAA air traffic controller in training, when he’s not talking to modern day flying machines he’s conjuring up stories of times and technology past — and those that could have been. His published work includes short stories as well as non-fiction articles for major aviation publications. 2009 also saw the release of his first album of original rock / steampunk music. Now living in Pensacola, FL, he is currently working on his first novel. Visit his aviation and writing blog at http://PinguinoMalo.BlogSpot.com.