Excerpt from David Demchuk’s The Bone Mother

ONE

THE THIMBLE FACTORY

BORYS

My brother Sergyi and I were married in a small ceremony in our village church. Such things were possible then that now are not. This was in the years before the war, during the movchanya, what some call the silence, or the blight. We were farmers, our families too poor to be considered by the very few women our age. And we were good companions, and had been intimate since we were children. And so our bond was blessed.

Shortly after, we received the notice, and Sergyi left our farm to work at the thimble factory, as our father had when we were very small. Seventeen months later, Sergyi fell ill from pneumonia and died. The car from the factory arrived to take us to the funeral, but Mother refused to go. She instead asked that we hold a remembrance in town. The factory could not deny us this, but of course would not provide the body. He would be buried in the small graveyard just outside the factory gates. No matter. We held our own memorial. Our mother sat with me at the service, an arm’s length from where Sergyi and I had stood before the priest.

She reached over and squeezed my hand. “You may pass slowly through a valley dark and drenched with tears, but you must not rest there,” she said. “These things happen.”

Within two days, I received word from the thimble factory that I was to come and fulfill Sergyi’s five-year contract, which had three years and seven months remaining. This dismayed my mother, who would be left to tend our farm with her aged sister, whose entire being had curled into the shape of a claw. But it was an inevitability. My mother pleaded with me to stay with the farm, and offered to send herself in my place. This would not be accepted, as we both knew. The work was difficult and arduous, and unsuited to an elderly woman. I offered to send her money to hire a hand but she refused. She would have no other me on the farm but me.

We sat and ate our supper, a pale broth of cabbage and potato with scattered shreds of mutton drifting through it. I feared the meal would be our last together. The next morning, letter in one hand, a pasteboard valise in the other, I hired a driver to take me out into the countryside and up to the factory gate.

While the Grazyn Porcelain Factory also produced fine china for homes, hotels, and restaurants, near and far, it was celebrated the world over — as we in the village were frequently told — for the exquisite porcelain thimbles that had been manufactured for centuries using closely-guarded techniques developed by the Grazyn family. Every tsaritsa since Anastasia Romanovna had received a priceless Grazyn thimble as part of her wedding dowry. The factory produced only three hundred and thirty thimbles a year, each painstakingly formed from a special paste, then glazed and fired by hand. The workers lived there, ate there, slept there, for the duration of their contracts, and were then sent home with lifelong pensions — enough to clothe and house and feed their now-estranged families.

I realized as I rang the bell that I had known many such workers over the years, but that none had ever spoken of their time there. Even our father was silent on the matter, and we learned early on not to raise the subject.

After a moment, the door opened, and I was ushered inside. My belongings were taken from me, and I was led to a locker room where I was handed a pair of grey overalls, a fine-fitting pair of lambskin gloves, a kerchief for my hair and a cotton mask for my face. I changed and was taken to the factory floor, given a curt cursory tour of the front of the factory, where the thimbles emerged from the kiln, ready to be glazed and fired. Then, wordlessly, I was taken into the back of the factory. It was filled with boxes and crates and bins of human bones, boiled and scrubbed and gleaming.

Across the room, two men shovelled the bones into a huge metal grinder where giant stone burrs crushed them into coarse powder. The powder was sent through a series of furnaces, sifted and combed and ground between each, until what emerged at the end was a trickle of fine white ash.

The Grazyn family had provided our livestock and produce, chosen our grains, paid for our doctors and medicine, built and repaired our housing. They had given us our schooling, our training, our church, our cemetery. And not just for our village, but two others besides.

We all had been raised and fed and nurtured to become these bones.

“Sergyi was with the shovellers,” my guide said to me in a dry, distant voice. “We need three, or we fall behind. You must take his post. Can you do the job?”

“I can,” I said. I reached for the shovel hanging on a nearby hook — his shovel, I realized — and took my station, and went to work.

 

Excerpted from THE BONE MOTHER. Copyright © 2017 by David Demchuk. Published by ChiZine Publications. Reproduced by arrangement with the Publisher. All rights reserved.