Snow whirled in soft lazy circles. Marya no longer felt the cold. She walked on, hunched over, a man’s thick black coat clutched to her chest. Beneath the coat, Elena lay strapped against Marya’s torso. Weeks of hunger had rendered her legs into sticks, lacking all muscle and fat, but now her face had regained a healthy glow.
Marya did not know how far they had walked, or how long. The nights and days blurred. Time had no meaning. The war still raged. Deep tank treads marred the crusted snow, but Marya no longer feared. She had her baby, and she had her goal: home.
Now, home was but a day away. She recognized the black skeletons of the houses, how the scorched tree branches stabbed the sky. Years ago, she had spoken with scorn of this countryside, of how it stank of cows and truck exhaust. Now she breathed in, craving that old foulness and enjoying the beauty that remained.
They could have been spared this walk, but Marya wanted this. Needed this. She loved this land, every step of it. Her feet knew this path, though much had changed.
The sun lingered on the horizon, a white orb encompassed by grey. “Mama?” whispered Elena.
“We are close. If we walked all night, we could make it.” Marya paused, shifting Elena beneath the coat. “But I want to arrive during the day. I want you to see everything. I want you to remember, for all eternity.”
“‘Member,” repeated the girl.
“I promised you that we would return home,” Marya said. “And, thanks be to God, our prayer will be answered.”
“Will there be chickens?” asked Elena.
Marya smiled. Her facial muscles felt stiff through a permanent mask of grime. “Maybe. But there will be birds in the trees. You loved the birds. They would sing you awake each morning, little one.”
“My birds!” Elena wiggled. Marya pressed a hand against the child.
“Stay there for now. We will camp soon, and I will let you down.”
The old barn was not far from the road. Snow mounded the floor, evidence of a roof as solid as a spider’s web. Marya cleared a space in the corner. She lit a fire from habit, and felt neither the heat nor the cold. Elena staggered around, legs stiff in their thick layers, and began to collect and stack chunks of wood from the floor.
“Look, Mama!” she cried, holding up a feather.
A loud boom resounded from the distance. Marya turned her head, listening. It came from the west, from the direction they walked. She fumbled beneath her clothes to pull out her cross. God would not allow them this blessing — this final, long, journey — for it to come to no result. Home would be there. It must.
“Are there birds in heaven, Mama?” asked Elena.
“Surely all of God’s creatures are in heaven, for He made them. And they are all beautiful.”
“But what about the birds that aren’t beautiful? Like pigeons, Mama. Will there be pigeons in heaven?”
“God made them, so yes, there should be pigeons.”
Elena nodded in satisfaction. “Good.” She twirled the grey feather against her thumb.
“Come here, darling,” said Marya. Elena tucked the feather within her pocket and then plopped down on her mother’s lap. Marya smoothed back Elena’s thin hair, taking in the silkiness. Somewhere in the distance, the booms continued, gunfire clattering.
She had never thought the war would come here. Never thought… everything would happen as it did. She had thought to take Elena for a brief visit to her parents in the city, but then there were soldiers, bombs, and prayers, so many prayers.
That night they rested together, neither knowing true sleep. Marya pressed the cross to her lips, one arm tucked around Elena. They fit together, mother and daughter, the hard protrusions of bone smoothed by time and clothing.
The heavens shifted from black to grey, and their walk continued. Hurried, each step familiar.
In front of their white-washed home, she set Elena down. The glass of the windows was broken, the roses dead. The tree swing creaked, moved by the breeze. It felt as if a rock lodged in her throat. Their home had suffered, as they had.
How long had it been since they died, there in the city? How long had they walked along those snow-crusted country lanes? It mattered not. Marya stroked the worn wood of the fence. Her feet were soundless, leaving no impression in the snow. She embraced the tree planted by her parents on her wedding day. The trunk was cold and solid against her, a reassuring weight so grounded in the earth. Her husband, he would be waiting for them. He would understand this delay; maybe he had undertaken this same journey himself and seen them here, back in those first months of the war.
“Mama! Mama!” Elena skipped around behind her. “Where are the birds?”
Sadness welled in Marya’s chest. “It may be too cold for them, darling. They may have all gone south.” Tears beaded her eyelashes. “Let’s go inside the house and say our farewells. It’s almost time.” Already, she felt lighter in being.
Elena pushed open the shattered front door. “Look!” she cried, clasping her hands and staring upward. “I found them!”
Pigeons lined the ceiling beams, gurgling and shifting in their roosts. The floor was crusted with waste and feathers, but Marya cared not. Elena’s smile beamed brighter than the smoke-snarled sun.
Marya sank to her knees. “Thank you, God.”
Elena turned to her. “Now we go to heaven, Mama?”
“Yes, darling. He granted us our final request. We returned home. Now we go.”
“The pigeons will take good care of our house, won’t they, Mama?”
Already the world turned whiter and faded around them. Marya clutched Elena’s hand in her own and laughed. “In their own way, little one. In their own way.”
Beth Cato resides in Arizona with her husband and son. Her work has appeared such places as Daily Science Fiction, Flash Fiction Online, and Stupefying Stories. For information on her latest projects, please visit www.bethcato.com.