When he arose at dawn he had enough tasks to distract him from the constant gnawing at his stomach, and whatever scraps he allowed himself for the day pulled him through the afternoon. While the sun was setting, however, as he waited for sleep to steal him away again, there was nothing to divert his attention from the fact that he was soon going to starve to death.
Hunger was not a pleasant topic to dwell on, but it was far from the worst. Abbas had not left his house for more than three months. He had spent the last four days completely alone, and the cause for his isolation was the reason he was unable to close his eyes at night. Before the start of the war, he had thought that the worst of his problems was belonging to a family of immigrants. Now he was a fifteen year old Turk trapped in his house as his fellow Russian citizens waged war against his Turkish kin, while the bodies of his parents and sister lay rotting in the basement below.
Then again, Abbas was unsure if he even was Turkish. Could he truly belong to a country he had never even visited? To him Turkey was a place that held root only in his memory, in the murky visions of unknown relatives and his mother’s semi-edible plates of menemen. When he thought of home, he only thought of Russia.
But nobody else saw the world out of the same set of eyes that he did. From their perspective he was a Turk first and a person second. Growing up in a world where children were taught to hate before they were taught to accept, Abbas never really knew what it meant to belong.
As tumultuous as his childhood was, the last few years had been especially horrible for his entire family. His father had been forced to shave off his beard, one of the last few remnants of his ancestry. His mother stopped performing her daily namaz. Their condition kept deteriorating until eventually they became prisoners in their own house.
Before the war, Abbas’s grandmother used to visit them every Friday. She would bring a flower for his sister, a chocolate for him, and her matryoshka. Nobody was ever allowed to touch the beautiful nesting doll. Every single week, after lunch, however, she would place it on the table and tell them the story of the world.
The world is always changing us, she would say. We are not the same people today that we were yesterday. And as we change, so does our ruh, our soul. These souls build up inside of us, and they change us as we change them. We can show them off (and at this point in the story she would always stroke the head of her matryoshka with a wry smile) but there is only one way to make sure that the next version of our ruh is better than the last — we must pray.
Abbas could not remember the last time he had prayed with sincerity. As his life wore on, he had considered the daily prayers to be not much more than a dull chore. God seemed like such a perplexing possibility to dwell on when there were so many tangible experiences open to him. He might not believe in heaven, but heaven need not exist for there to be hell.
Abbas’s stomach seemed to be waging a mini-war inside itself. With guileless hope, he rummaged through the pantry for the umpteenth time that day, as if a steaming bowl of Borscht would be waiting expectantly for him. Instead, he was greeted with the mouth-watering sight of dusty shelves and month-old mothballs.
Hunger was a new feeling for him. No matter the empathy level they might possess, the privileged can never understand what it is like to truly want until they cross the line themselves. Abbas had seen the homeless before, of course, littering the sidewalks with their presence like any other type of debris. He might have felt a moment or two of sympathy, but his mind was quickly diverted by the world of vices he lived in.
Maybe this was his purgatory. Horses have to be broken to be tamed, and now Abbas was getting stretched to his absolute limit, getting snapped in half to absolve for his sins. It didn’t matter if this was the path to heaven. If he was indeed a matryoshka, he was cracked beyond repair. He was broken. He was done.
Out of his entire family, Abbas considered himself least qualified to be worth redemption. With parents both astute and loving, and an elder sister who was able to give more than she had, his family was larger than life. Ironically, the only way Abbas stood out amongst them was by his diminutiveness.
In a way, it was this very diminutiveness which saved him. His family had been ecstatic when they got the telegram from Ankara, smuggled to them by one of their last few allies. Abbas’s uncle was ready to pull them out of their forced captivity; all he needed was two weeks.
Their jubilation was short lived. It seemed that math was out to haunt Abbas even outside the classroom. His mother calculated that at the very most, they had enough food for eight more days. Even if her brother would be able to get into Novosibirsk, all he would find would be a room of corpses. There was no way that their meagre portions would be able to tide over grown adults. In fact, there was only enough food to satiate a boy, preferably one fifteen years old, and preferably one of the diminutive variety.
Abbas had not been able to force himself to go into the basement. He could picture it all clearly: two worn out bodies, together even in death, shrouded with an old blanket, and a third, slightly smaller one, with a face so youthful that the girl looked like she was merely asleep. Together they made the perfect matryoshka set. The overall image could almost be considered peaceful, if not for a certain oblong metal object lying inconspicuously amongst the bodies. It no longer contained any bullets.
For thirteen days, Abbas had sat in front of the door and waited. One day before the promised evacuation, he had a visitor. The stranger greeted Abbas, handed him a telegram, and left. He never saw the man again, nor anybody else for that matter. Besides the two men who had given Abbas telegrams, the only people he had seen in more than two months was his own family. Perhaps war pushes people apart, but perhaps it brings them closer to those who matter the most.
Abbas did not open the envelope until dusk. He had set it on the mantel with trembling hands, and ignored it for as long as he possibly could. He tried his best to hang on to some last withered thread of hope, but it was fruitless. It was almost as if he had turned into one of those superheroes in the stories he used to love, one who could see through things. Even before he finally read the accursed message, he already knew that his uncle was dead.
He had lived four days in a tear-fuelled haze, knowing that he was about to die. Before, when he sobbed for hours without stopping, when his sister sunk into a stupor that she could not be shaken from, their mother whispered tales of the renegades. There were Turks on their way, she said, who were coming to save them. All they had to do was wait.
Even if this tale was true, Abbas knew it did not mean much. Even if he was saved, all the help he would have gotten would evaporate as soon as he opened his mouth. As soon as they heard the Russian flowing from his lips, all he would be left with was a bullet in his head.
Abbas waited until the sun rose on his eighteenth day of isolation to act on his plan. As he walked towards the room where his family lay, Abbas was mildly surprised to feel not even a shred of fear. His matryoshka inside of him was the smallest it would ever be. He had opened the layers of himself, looking for something that did not even exist. And now he was nothing but a void.
He did not even realize that he had walked into the room until he felt the sheet underneath his bare feet. He stared at their faces for a pregnant moment, and then stretched out until he lay snug in between his family. He closed his eyes, and was struck by a distant memory that had laid half buried in his mind: one of Saturday mornings in his parents’ bedroom, when he could not have been more than six years old. They would lie squashed like sardines in a can, oblivious to the world. They would play durak, eat those disgusting salty crackers his parents adored, and talk until they could no longer stand the taste of their mouths. They would talk about anything and everything. They would talk about the future.
After a while the memories became more than Abbas could bear, and he opened his tear-filled eyes. He shifted, and his hand brushed against a cold expanse of metal. Numbly, he picked it up and held it to his face, staring right into the barrel of the gun. He sat up, ready to throw it into the dimmest corner of the room, when he glanced at the magazine and felt his heart flooding. He had been wrong. The gun was not empty- it housed a single bullet.
His eyes glazed over. Every single moment in his life, everything he had ever done, had led up to this. He opened his mouth, then paused, wanting to cement this moment in time but unsure of how to go about it.
He glanced at his mother’s still face and realized that he knew what to do. It might have been his absolution, a literal deus ex machina. It might have been the hunger taking over his brain. Whatever it was, Abbas closed his eyes and broke his silence of almost three weeks. Abbas prayed.
Dimly, he was aware of voices in the background. He opened his eyes, trying to discern the unfamiliar cadences. He listened to the shouts, listened to the thumping on his door. He closed his eyes. It might have been Russian soldiers. It might have been his Turkish compatriots. He did not know what faced him on the other side, but Abbas knew that either way, it did not matter.
Menemen is a traditional Turkish dish, somewhat like an omelette.
Namaz is the traditional Islamic prayer, which is to be done five times a day.
Matryoshka are the traditional Russian nesting dolls.
Ruh is the old Turkish word for soul.
Borscht is a Russian soup with a beetroot base.
Durak is a card game which originated in Russia.