Natasha looked down the road, which on either side were izby, as the homes of the narod were called. Loose fitting logs with mud, animal dung and straw filling in the cracks. A window, if it could be called such, was usually just a crude hole with oiled paper or a dried bull’s bladder stretched over it which allowed just the smallest bit of light into the miserable little hovels and adding some depth perception, as if those who lived inside could understand such a concept. The roof of such a dwelling consisted of dirt, straw and various pieces of brush that might cover it. The girl could see smoke streaming out of the cracks in each home might have alarmed some but to her or those that lived there, it was nothing unusual. They needed fire to keep warm, everyone knew that. It never occurred to her that a home should have a chimney. She had never seen one.
Natasha was twelve years old and standing in the rain, another thing she gave little thought to. She had been collecting food her small basket contained some potatoes, stale bread, and two small carrots which she was bringing home to her family or what was left of them. Not an unusual situation, at least not in this place.
It was September and their small village had suffered a diphtheria epidemic, which claimed the life of her father and two younger brothers. Disease in the village was as natural as the rising of the sun. They could almost tell the seasons from it, and used it to gauge events in their lives. The year before it had been cholera which took her uncle and grandmother, such things were the will of God and not to be questioned. Many families had been completely wiped out, their names gone with death. Now it was just Natasha, her mother and older brother, Fedor.
Natasha looked no different from any of the other children in the village. Her face was rather plain she wore a simple homespun dress that exposed her thin legs and a kerchief over her head which covered her short cropped blonde hair. A course shawl draped over her shoulders completed her practical style of clothing. She was barefoot which she didn’t mind. She liked the mud between her toes. She was short for her age and was often teased by the others about it which caused more than one bloody nose. Still, no one could argue the fact that little Natasha was a hard worker who complained very little.
Natasha walked down the road to her izba, enjoying the feel of the mud as her feet sank into it, soft wet, brown dirt that that gave way to an object’s own weight. As she walked, she heard a bark which caused her to stop and turn around and see the animal that had been following her, a small dog with no name. The girl clapped her hands with joy, “Hello dog!” she said. The animal eagerly ran to her wagging it’s tail. Squatting down she scratched the mongrel behind the ears which caused him to roll his head, saliva dripping from his tongue. Natasha showed the dog a small frown, “I wish I had something to give you, but I don’t,” she said simply. The dog seemed to understand this but cared little. He enjoyed the little girl’s company as she his.
“I wish you were my dog but Mama says we can’t have a dog.”
The dog cocked his head to one side and gave her a look that resembled a knowing frown. After a few minutes she stood up and bade the dog goodbye. She walked to her home, after all there were people waiting for her and it was getting late.
If she had known any better, the small izba would have repelled her but she did not and it did not. No one living there noticed the smell, whether they were walking about or entering a home. The smell was part of the normal state of things, that’s all.
“I’m home Mama,” said Natasha setting her basket down on a hard wooden bench, the scene was a familiar one repeated in one izba after another. Inside the dwelling not that there was much to see anyway, were three long wooden benches which were used as tables and beds. Livestock consisted of a sow and two piglets, three sheep, two lambs and a goat. Her older brother sat on one of the benches, drinking vodka and picking his nose. He was unhappy, a fact that he did not even try to hide. Life was cold and dreary. Fedor felt his work and life meaningless, his only escape was the alcohol he consumed in the evening making his days a constant blur and a throbbing headache. His unshaven face seemed to show a perpetual scowl, his eyes always appeared half open and glossy. His surroundings did nothing to improve his mood. The smell of smoke, sweating, dirty bodies, human and animal excrement blended into one terrible odor. A dark layer of soot covered the surfaces of the home making it impossible to stay clean and adding to the darkness and the gloom.