(This is the beginning of chapter 7 of my novel-in-progress “The Sun Eaters.” The book was birthed by a flash fiction story with the same name that was published in 2012 in The Monarch Review (Seattle).
The novel follows the story of two brothers, 14 and 10 years old, struggling to survive winter, hunger, and ideology in an Eastern European country just post WWII. The story is narrated by the younger boy, a child with a vivid, colorful imagination whose retreat into books and faerie tales helps him to make sense of war and atrocities around him, and whose most-trusted confidante is a talking fish.)
We ran together on the frozen motherland like an inseparable duo of disoriented, insane, but discrete hyenas. During the day we foraged for anything that could be eaten. At night we took shelter in empty pig pens or cow barns, all the time making sure no one would see us and turn us in to the officials, who would ship us out to either orphanages or work camps. That is where all the little ones left behind went to die.
There were others like us subsisting in the shadows of the low, winter sun: children, starving, orphans, piss-poor, ill-dressed, home-made shoes or rags tied around their feet in the manner of shoes. Some dying from tuberculosis or dysentery. Others living with pneumonia, coughing up liquified guts and bile and epochs of cruelty and the violence their fathers bestowed upon them with belts, shovel handles, tree limbs, chains. From time to time Vladi and I would come across half-smoked, hastily rolled cigarettes abandoned by their owners in what seemed like a curious, sudden urgency. Like our Ma, they were probably collected by government men in unmarked vans, their only fingerprint left behind: an unfinished butt. We’d smoke to kill the hunger that was always there roaring in the guts.
Many times, biding our hours during blistering winds in vacant outhouses, jealous thoughts would birth themselves and quickly spring roots all inside my head; thoughts of those more fortunate children who had fathers, even if those children were beaten. At the very least they had fathers. And surely among the bad days of screaming and hitting there must have been plenty of good days. And so…it’s really only the good days we remember, anyway. It’s how it is.
“Now you’re thinking like a backwards donkey,” Vladi would say. “You don’t know what you’re saying. You don’t know what hard, weathered leather feels on your skin. You don’t know how painful it is, so much so that you piss your pants by the time the second blow arrives. You don’t know anything, you egg.”