I decided to leave on the day I was given a baby with my bottle of
vodka. On a dark January morning we stood waiting in line under the
high, blank wall of the factory, under the tall chimney that meant so
much to us. Ypsilanti spoke of times to come. Vladimir ruminated over
his missing mother. Alexsei closed his hands in prayer. And in the
grey light of dawn I unbuttoned my trousers and pissed onto the
pavement. That was the day we sixteen-year-old boys were to become
A weak bulb shone miserably over the entrance to the factory. A torn
flag hung from a rusted pole. We shuffled in line up the steps and
into the marbled hall, into the smell of the place, which was so much
like the smell of the river that ran through the town. Someone
coughed, and we moved forward in line to where Gregor, the foreman,
stood on his rostrum, poised to present us with the bottles of vodka
that were to make us men.
I hated Gregor, his bloated presence, his position that my father
should have held. I hated him for his imported white shirt, his
infringement of the dress code, and I loathed him, not for his vanity,
although there was much to be made of that, but for the pomp he
invested in the ceremony. None of this, I thought, was his to give.
Yet, in spite of myself, I was grateful that he summoned such
ostentation. Behind him on the wall were hung faded paper decorations,
curled with age, sorrowful remnants of a less bureaucratic time,
pinned there just for us, on this one day in our lives.
With pride our fathers had told us what was to come for as long as we
could remember. But they did not tell us about the babies. They forgot
to tell us that.
A record played a scratched, tinny flourish of trumpets, and Alexsei,
first in line, stood, smiling, ready. Before Gregor turned as we
expected to the shelf for the first bottle, he did something curious.
He gestured towards a curtain and, stroking his nose, he waited as a
laundry basket was wheeled, squeaking and squealing, along the floor
to the rostrum. I thought I heard something then, a cry or a whimper,
but I dismissed it. Nothing could disrupt this day that was ours.
Gregor reached down into the basket, his arms, then his head,
disappearing. We all wanted to laugh, but not one of us did. Then he
straightened, clutching a bundle. I thought at first that this was a
joke, something we would all share now that we were about to become
men. But then I saw the look on Gregor’s face as he placed the baby in
Alexsei’s arms and I knew I was mistaken. I knew that none of us would
escape our fate. Only then did he present Alexsei with his bottle of
vodka. I looked at the labels on the bottles on the shelf, the blue
wolf, the bent tree, the motif that was woven through our lives. My
father said that if you evaded the wolf, the bent tree was always
there to get you. I looked at the laundry basket, the sleeping baby in
Alexsei’s arms. And I was afraid for something I did not understand.
Soon I was standing under Gregor’s sweating face. He bent to me and
whispered of his respect for my family. Your father will be proud of
you, he said, and he lightly stroked my hair. I saw a pen in his top
pocket, a blue stain where it had leaked. He turned to dip his head
into the basket, but it skidded from him, and I was relieved, buoyed
by the idea that some family connection, some sleight of hand on his
part, had spared me this thing. But a minor official pushed at the
basket in a flat-handed manner, and Gregor rose, his face red, and
placed the baby in my arms. For you, he said.
Afterwards we stood outside on the pavement. No one spoke. I looked at
the empty road, the flag on the mast. I felt the wind whipping cold
against my legs, and I realized that this was how it had always been.
We were fools not to know. There had been so many ways to find out. A
baby squealed; another cried with urgency. They were waking up from
whatever soporific dose they had received.
We walked quickly to Pietro’s bar. Pietro stood waiting, excited, his
diseased chest pressed against the zinc counter. He had already poured
the colourless liquid, brimming in thick glasses, ready for our
entrance. By now my tongue was swollen with shock, my throat sore, and
I could not speak. We collected the glasses and sat at the tables, but
no one would take a first sip. We waited under the high chandelier for
Pietro to say something, to tell us that now was the moment to drink.
I adjusted the baby in my arms and was grateful for its silence.
Pietro raised his glass and downed the liquid in one gulp, and we all
shouted for the relief of it and did the same. I remember it tasted
like no vodka I had ever drunk before. I savoured the aftertaste for
the enlightenment it might bring, but soon it grew sour in my mouth.
A song, someone said, but the knife sharpener was not there and no one
that day had the courage to lead.
We left with our babies in our arms, our bottles unopened, shining in
our hands in the wet light of morning. I turned the corner by the bar
and looked down to the river where Pietro now stood, a dog at his
feet, ducks around him pecking at the cobbled yard.
Father, who did not have to work that day, lit the fire early in the
afternoon. He spat into the grate, wiped his mouth with his sleeve,
and leant on his elbows to gather what heat he could. I saw his mean
mouth and was afraid. I asked him why I had not been told before. He
said there had been no need. You deal with trouble when you meet it.
Doing this made you a man. Talking would have made no difference.
Mother said a two-headed calf had been born that morning and that it
was a sign. She took the baby from me, but angrily, selfishly, I
snatched it back. It began to cry, and my sister cried along with it.
My mother asked if it was a boy or a girl. I shouted at her for her
pettiness. Since when is sex a mean and petty thing, she said.
These are strange times, I said. My father warned against
sentimentality and said that I knew what I had to do. I said that I
knew no such thing. He drew back the curtain on the shelf and lifted
down his bottle of vodka, the bottle that had been his for life, his
from the day he was sixteen. I could see nothing in it. For the first
time I realized that I never could remember seeing liquid in it.
He poured what he called his measure, lifted the empty glass to his
lips. You must nurture your vodka, he said, as I have nurtured mine.
He held up the glass to the light. As for the child, he whispered, you
must kill it. You must kill it, as I killed mine. As we all did. All
of us who became men.
No hooter sounded at the factory for the shift that evening, and in
the lull, in the space where it should have been, in the silence that
hung like the mist hangs by the river, I said to my father that I did
not believe him. I said that he must do it if such a thing had to be
done. He raged and said that no son of his would remain a child. I
looked at my mother, but she would not look at me. The child cried and
Mother stroked its face and said this thing, this thing. I was afraid
to let it go.
The streets were empty the next day, the factory silent. Some of the
boys went to a field out beyond the onion patch and stretched a length
of string between two sticks. They hacked with picks at the frozen
soil along this straight line and all the time they did this they
shouted and screamed, their voices loud in the cold air to drown out
the cries of their babies. When the holes were big enough they planted
the babies in them up to their necks. Held them down, rooting them
firmly, shovelled in earth, stamped on it, flattened it with the backs
of their spades. When it was done I thought the necks of the babies
were like leeks and perhaps the boys would see some redemption in
this. Alexsei sobbed and said a prayer over the head of his baby and
over the heads of the babies of the others, but they did not thank him
for this. It is just good husbandry, they said, you cannot fault it,
and they complimented themselves over the sound of the crying. I was
jealous of them, but I would not hack at the frozen soil. My hands
were too cold, my body too stiff. Besides, I thought the sound of the
babies was like the sound of wind howling in the barbed wire, the wire
far away at the boundary of the town, the fence that keeps the wolves
Afterwards we sat in Pietro’s with our glasses in our hands and looked
towards the big window, out through frosted patterns, out to the cold,
deserted, familiar street. The boys who were now without babies would
not talk to us. They said they were men now. Jobs were waiting at the
But not until all the babies were gone.
Mother said I should sex the child to see what we should call it, but
I would not have it. Father said it was getting late and that he had
never heard of such a thing. He said if I knew what was good for me I
would kill it before the day was out. I asked what was a good time of
day for killing babies, but he would not answer me.
I fed it in the kitchen when no one was there. I gave it bread soaked
in goat’s milk to suck on, and it stopped its crying. As it sucked I
inserted my finger into its fist and felt the small, almost
imperceptible pull of life.
The next day five boys sneaked out early in the morning, out beyond
the peat moor where the soil was sodden, to the barbed wire fence far
off by the dead trees, and there they left their babies for the
wolves. It was a natural thing, they said, the way things had always
been done. I pictured the moor, the hard, cracked earth beyond it,
frost on the wire that stretched from one twisted post to another. I
pictured them trailing down the final slope, their footsteps green and
clear on the grass in the white of the morning.
The factory remained empty the next day. No smoke rose from the
chimney. The streets were silent. In the bar the boys talked quietly
as they drank vodka. The old men huddled in the corner by the
television whose picture was only snow, whose sound was the low roar
of lost souls. Under his breath Pietro offered me what he called an
attractive price for my child. He cleared his throat. Be certain, he
said, it will not trouble you again.
Constantin sat by himself fashioning a boat from wood and cardboard.
His smile was fixed and his back straight. He stood up, tucked his
screaming baby under one arm, his boat under the other. We followed
him down to the river. There were black shadows around the trees,
water sucking at the bank. He lowered his baby into the boat and
pushed it off. We watched the craft bob at his feet. For a moment I
thought it would not move, that it would stay where it was, shaming
the boy. But then the slick, black-coated river, the river that never
froze, not even in the most severe of times, took it and slewed it
away from us.
There was much drinking in the bar after that. Only two babies were
Vladimir walked home with me, our babies in our arms. We stopped in
the lane off the road. He touched my face, and I turned away. I have
to do it, he said. He kissed me on the cheek, and I thought that
perhaps honesty was to be found only in the textures, the physicality,
the surface, of the material world. I watched him disappear into the
Father stopped me by the door of the house. He put his hands to my
throat and pushed me against the wall. You idiot, he said. There is
something far worse than the killing of a baby, something far more
terrible. Tell me, I said, I need to know. Not killing it, he said.
He turned from me and spat, and I was left with the crying of the baby
and nothing else. Father smashed his empty bottle, the one he had kept
for all of his adult life, he smashed it that night. In the morning I
saw the pieces of glass, the torn label. I lifted what was left of the
bottle’s barrel to smell it, but there was nothing to smell. Father
took me aside. Please, son, he said, his eyes shining, kill the baby
for all our sakes.
I went to Pietro’s. Vladimir was there, and his baby was gone. He
cried, but he would not talk to me. Pietro plied him with vodka. I
took my baby home. I looked at its red face, its tiny clenched fists,
and I knew that I hated it, it was nothing to me. Father was right. My
duty was to kill it. This thing came unheralded into my life; I had
not asked for it, nor did I have to look after it now.
Slowly, heedless of its screaming, I stripped off the cheap cotton,
the sodden, fouled sheet that swaddled it, to know in my anger what
the creature was. I saw a small cleft in the raw skin, red between her
legs. I saw sores on her stomach. I turned her over and peeled the
sheet from the backs of her legs, and she screamed louder at its
lifting. I took a cloth from Mother’s cupboard, wrapped her in it. I
walked out of the house, past Pietro’s, the factory, down to the
I stood on the bank. The black of the water, the urging of the
current, reminded me that she did not have a name. I moved farther up
to where the river churned under the stone pillars of the bridge, and
I stopped there.
What had made our lives come to this? Then, suddenly, I started, I
crossed over onto the fields. She was screaming still, fuelling my
anger. What was it to be, the water or the field? Or some unknown
method of disposal I had yet to discover? I passed the blackened
faces, the row of dead babies. I saw something white, some poor
creature, skewered to a thorn bush.
I kept my distance. I stumbled over furrows into the onion patch and
trudged on. She cried, but there was a softness in her that I felt
through my arms.
I crossed the final fields, stopped, and looked back at the town. The
tall chimney of the factory pushed up, strident, into the sky. No
smoke was rising from it. But even so, I would have to walk a long way
before it disappeared from view. I looked at the rusted barbed wire of
the fence in front of me. What was it to be?
Then I stepped over into foreign land. I stumbled and almost dropped
her but managed to hold on tight. She cried, jolted by my fear, and it
was good to feel her. I was afraid for her. She was still without a
name. I shouted because that was all I knew. I tried to think but I
could not clear my mind. I walked and walked and could see no end. I
walked, my feet jarring against the frozen ground, and there was
nothing to tell me what she might be called. As I walked I began to
believe that if I travelled far enough there would be a name, a name
that had been there all along, her name, and only her name.
I trudged on and on, the baby in my arms. A name. We needed a name. We
walked and walked. A heron lifted its head, slowly hammered its wings
against the air, strained to climb away from us. Frozen reeds
clattered at the edge of a small stream. I tripped, my ankle jarred,
but I managed to stay upright. On and on, through it all, we walked
and walked. On and on.
A name. We needed a name.