Set during Hitler’s siege of Leningrad, Elise Blackwell’s beautiful debut novel is the deeply moving story of one man’s confrontation with his own morality. A scientist, but a man of powerful personal appetites, unexpectedly finds himself with a choice that is informed too much by his private hungers. The danger he faces is betraying not only the woman he loves but also the principles he holds most dear.
$11.95 us / $14.95 C | Fiction Paperback | 5-1/2 x 8-1/4 | 146 pages
ISBN: 978-1-932961-50-8 | Carton Quantity: 36
OF ALL OF US who endured after Vitalii’s quick decline, Lidia was the one who changed the most and fastest. Lidia had been so beautiful that I would have married her instead of Alena had I met her first. As it was, I came very near—I fill with shame at how near—to leaving Alena for her.
But I was lucky that I did not, because the secret to Lidia’s beauty was comfort. She was at her most beautiful, witty, and generous when her skin was warmed by the sun—and food was perched between her hand and mouth.
She was so subject to strong cravings that if she got a certain kind of cake in mind, she would walk clear across Leningrad to the bakery that made it best. She would leave work in the middle of the day to steam a fig pudding, coming back hours later with a riddle inside her broad smile. If it was me on her mind, she would have me in any vacant room or, barely concealed, outside.
My enchantment with her began during an expedition to Malta, in the island’s hottest month. I would allow my arm to fall onto Lidia’s, gaze at the ribbon of her neck between her heavy black hair and white clavicle, watch her dark lips while she tore pan chocolat with her strong teeth. She could eat three at a single sitting.
My Alena, with her more subtle, almost colorless attractions, had stayed home from that trip on account of the second of the babies that never came. After it was all over, I knew that I would stay with Alena until death divided us.
Yet on many nights, after Alena and I made love or if we did not, I would lie awake and think about Lidia’s colors, her deep-bellied laugh, her vigorous appetite for sweets, her hips wide enough to pass infants.
But, as I have said, I am lucky, if you can call anyone who lived through Leningrad’s starvation winter lucky—and, in truth, we all were—to have stayed with my small, dear, strong wife. When Leningrad emptied of comfort and became only the case of a pillow on hard ground, all of its downy feathers blown away, Lidia’s attractions, physical and metaphysical, gusted away as well.
Without comfort, her clever sarcasm was deboned into mere complaint. Without sun, her translucent skin turned sallow. Our trips to warm places had always kept her touched by air and sun, kept her skin clear, its white stained pink in just the right places. After the longest winter, she yellowed like inexpensive paper, and bumps rose from her forehead and chin. She had always carried a few more pounds than she needed. They had suited her, made her stomach soft and her bosom large, while the effort of collecting kept her strong.
Though she never got as skinny as some during the starvation winter—and I have my ideas about why this was so—she went slack with lack of food and exertion.
Of course, like so many, Lidia found ways to eat. She had lost much of her charm, had lost the things that had come so close to tempting me away from my Alena, but still she was a woman and never an ugly one. For such a woman there was the possibility of associating with particular men, the kind of men who could still receive packages from Moscow with cans of evaporated milk, dried salmon, a square of chocolate.
And there was meat on the black market. Horse meat, it was said, but there could not have been more than one or two bony horses left in the whole city by the end of the hunger winter.