Gray dirt, blue sky. The potato skins had white eyes.
“Why do we bury them so deep, Irina Petrovna?” the boy asked. “What if they’re not strong enough to sprout?”
“We’ll just hope they are,” Irina Petrovna said. “But you’re a smart boy and you’re right. The skins are too thin.”
“Did they used to plant the whole potato before the war?” the boy asked.
“Yes, they did…”
“Whose garden is this?” the boy asked.
“The tractor driver’s,” Irina Petrovna said. “He was a tank driver in the war.”
“The Third Division Tank Battalion broke through enemy defenses southwest of Przemyśl and advanced, suppressing the enemy infantry with fire…”
“What are you mumbling?” Irina Petrovna asked.
“Just something I remembered,” the boy replied. “Mass tank strikes have played a crucial role in our troops’ advancement to the border with Germany… What was he fighting for with his tank?”
“I don’t know… You can ask him when he comes,” Irina Petrovna said.
“You mean he’s back?” the boy asked. “Why isn’t he planting his own potatoes, then?”
“He plows the collective farm,” Irina Petrovna said. “We’re planting his potatoes in remembrance of…”
“In honor of the victory,” the boy said, “and so he’ll remember us when we’re gone.”
Blue sky, gray dirt. The potato skins have starchy insides.
“Irina Petrovna, is it true boys and girls will study separately in town?”
“Yes, it’s true,” Irina Petrovna said.
“Why?” the boy asked. “I’ll be bored without Nadia, without Olya and Oktyabrina.”
“They say co-education is bad for children,” Irina Petrovna said. “They start kissing too early.”
“I’m almost done with third grade,” the boy said, “and I haven’t felt like kissing anyone. Nadia Yuzhakovaya is my friend… it’ll be tough if we’re at different schools. It’s nice sharing a desk with her. She keeps me out of trouble.”
“Every child is different,” Irina Petrovna said. “Still, I think it’s silly.”
“Me too,” the boy said. “Who came up with it? It’s hard listening to grownups when they make you do such silly things, isn’t it?”
“Yes, you clever boy,” Irina Petrovna said. “But maybe you will study with the girls…”
“With Nadia Yuzhakovaya?” the boy asked quickly.
“I don’t know,” Irina Petrovna said. “Aren’t you afraid of cutting your hands? There’s a lot of glass in the dirt.”
“No. I’m digging carefully… the dirt is soft… Do you mean it?”
“You know,” the boy said. “I’m begging you, no details, just tell me the truth: ‘maybe’ or not really… Irina Petrovna! Irina Petrovna…”
Gray sky, blue dirt. The potato skins have black eyes.
“… Fine, Irina Petrovna,” the boy said. “I won’t ask again. It’s just that Nadia told me she really, truly is going away.”
“Nadia’s aunt needs her,” Irina Petrovna said. “Listen, I’m worried about your hands. Go get a stick from the fence to dig with, like the others.”
“I have an aunt,” the boy said. “And an uncle, too. And our house wasn’t bombed, and I remember the address… The Mikhailovs have no one, and they’re going away…”
“Yuri was called up at the factory,” Irina Petrovna said. “He’s of age and supports his brothers and sisters. When you grow up…”
“I’ll never listen to anyone but you, Irina Petrovna. I mean it.”
“Then listen to me now and get a stick from the fence.”
“Okay, Irina Petrovna,” the boy said and walked far, far away to the edge of the garden where the fence hadn’t yet been dismantled for firewood. He loosened a stick and watched the twigs quiver at the fence’s far end, by the house. A red-haired man in an army uniform came out of the house and the boy thought it must be the tank driver. The man looked at the boy and walked slowly to the fence. The medals on his army uniform swayed and jingled.
The boy yanked the stick out and waited for the tank driver. The tank driver had a pink face and squinty eyes. He walked slowly. His unbelted army shirt dangled over his long legs. He was saying something, but the boy couldn’t make it out.
“Damn it—,” the tank driver said. “Goddamn you, you bum!”
“What?” the boy said, though he knew he should run.
“Destroyed the whole fence, you little sons of bitches!” the tank driver said sharply, and stretched one hairy arm out toward the boy.
Wide blue sky. Wide gray earth. Feet sticking in the dirt, because it’s dry.
“The skins will sprout,” the boy thinks, for some reason. “The rain will beat down on the earth and their eyes will sprout…”
Wide sky and wide, wide earth. The tank driver runs with heavy steps. It’s quiet, so the boy can hear his wheezing close by. The tank driver looms over him. His heavy boots hit the ground and stomp-stomp-stomp in the boy’s head. The boy glances back. The tank driver, like a tank, leaves a ploughed, smoking trail behind him.
Wide blue earth. Wide gray sky. There’s Irina Petrovna waving in the sky and the children bunched together like bushes.
Just get to the bushes, the boy thinks.
From above, from the earth, a jingling, wet weight bears down on him. A hairy fist like a cannon swings blindly in the foreground.
Then the boy runs off to the side, making a smooth semicircle in the gray dirt, and the jingling and wheezing stay to his side. The boy runs for the bushes, for the kids standing like bushes, past Irina Petrovna’s pale face.
The tank driver walks back toward the kids.
“Don’t touch that child!” Irina Petrovna shouts.
“Keep your brat under control,” the tank driver says. “He destroyed the whole fence.”
“Forgive him,” Irina Petrovna says. “He’s traumatized.”
“What?” the tank driver says, panting. “I’ll punch his head in!”
Irina Petrovna stands in front of him because he wants to run at the boy.
“He’s not all there,” Irina Petrovna said. “Leave him alone. He won’t do it again.”
“Not all there?” the tank driver repeats.
“Yes,” Irina Petrovna says, quickly. “Not all there. Now go. Get some rest. We’ll finish planting your potatoes today.”
The tank driver digs his boot into the ground.
“You’re burying them too deep,” he says. “They won’t sprout that way.”
“Fine,” Irina Petrovna replies quickly. “We—we’ll plant them shallower. Now go, please.”
The tank driver walks back slowly across the earth. The boy goes up to Irina Petrovna.
“You…” he says. “You… I’m all there. But you… you… I’m fine… You’re the one who’s not all there.”
The tank driver’s green back moves farther away.
“I’m all there!” the boy yells and runs after him.
He notices the stick in his hand and holds it ready.
“Hey,” he yells.
The back gets farther away.
“Hey, tank driver!”
The man’s neck turns slowly, like a tower. His slitted eyes flash.
“Hey, tank driver, listen—I’m all there!” the boy yells joyfully.
The tank driver extends one foot.
The boy raises the stick.
“Hooray,” I yell. “I’m all there! And you’re shit!”
The stick hits the tank driver in the chest. His leg flies out. The boy turns in the air and falls. Then he gets up and claws with swollen, dirty fingers at the man’s wet, jingling chest. “I’m all there, all there!!!…” he shouts triumphantly.
“I’ll take you to the nurse,” Irina Petrovna says. “Those scratches need cleaning. Don’t you understand he’s drunk?”
“Still,” the boy says. “You shouldn’t have said that. I’m all there. I shouldn’t have listened to you. Shouldn’t have gotten that stick. Now tell me: ‘maybe’ or really?”
“You sweet boy,” Irina Petrovna says. “It’s true. All true. And there’s nothing I can do about it.”
“Okay, Irina Petrovna, so be it,” the boy says. “I can’t listen to anyone else. I’ll only listen to you. So what if my school is all boys? I’ll mop the floor for you. I’ll go to the store for you. I’ll make lunch and get the best grades. Take me home with you, won’t you?”
“My boy,” Irina Petrovna said, “you clever boy. Caretakers aren’t allowed to take children to town with them. And that’s the truth.”
“Fine, Irina Petrovna,” the boy said. “I was just… kidding around. I get it. It’s fine.”
The boy screwed his eyes up.
The dirt was no color.
The sky was no color.
The potato skins were no way at all.