The little girl was me, Sloe. I was Rosita. (I had to give up my name, I'll explain why when I get to that part.) That tractor ride is my oldest memory. I think about it often and I treasure all the details, because I can't remember anything from the time before. I have been told things, and I've seen photographs, but I can't remember my father's face. It's as if my life began that day, under the wide blank roaring sky, with the nice guard who smiled, the coldness; my cherry red coat. The strangest thing is remembering that I didn't know there was anything wrong. When I realized that my shoes were too thin for the snow, I was frightened because my mama had made a mistake--and Mama never made mistakes! I didn't know what had happened to us, I didn't know what was going on at all.
Excerpted from Siberia by Ann Halam Copyright © 2005 by Ann Halam. Excerpted by permission of Laurel Leaf, a division of Random House, Inc. All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
I didn't know anything: I was only four.
I don't remember what I saw when my mother put me down, but I know how our hut must have looked when it was empty. I know that Rosita saw a rather long, narrow room (I thought it was big, until I knew it was our whole house), with a concrete floor. At one end there was a dark green enamel stove, with a chimney going up the wall. Beside the stove there were wooden sliding doors shutting off an alcove in the wall, that turned out to hold the bed Mama and Rosita shared. Along the edge of the cupboard-bed, the floor was covered by a kind of raft of wooden planks, gratefully warm to your feet compared with the concrete (which was like walking on gray ice, winter and summer). On the other side of the room there was a dark green sink, with a strange kind of spout standing by it and no taps. The walls were dusty bare planks, in places cracked so you could see the earth-bricks behind them. There was no ceiling, just the naked beams of the rooftree, and a shelf going all around, where the roof and the walls met.
Halfway down the room was a partition, with sliding doors like the bed-cupboard, but dark green and shining like the stove and the sink. Through there, Rosita would find the workshop where her mama was going to spend hours and hours, every day, turning out nails from scrap metal. The nails were to be used in the making of huts like ours, and furniture for huts like ours, in prison Settlements all over the wilderness: but the little girl didn't know that. She didn't know what the red light on the wall in the workshop meant either. She thought the machines were more ugly toys, and she hated it when Mama insisted on playing with them. All she wanted to do was to get out into snow, into the wild emptiness. . . . But if she had to stay in, why wouldn't Mama play with her?
When we arrived our hut had nothing, not even a mattress for the boards in the cupboard-bed. Mama had a wad of start-up vouchers, better than the normal paper money of the Settlements (which was called scrip, and which would hardly buy anything, as we found out later). We went to one of the big buildings with our wealth, and bought a mattress, a table and two chairs, an oil lamp, and some lamp oil. There was enough to pay for delivery of the table and chairs. Mama dragged our mattress home herself on a sled, with me sitting up on top in my thin little baby shoes; then she returned the sled to the store. We had to go to another building for food supplies and kitchen things. We didn't have to buy fuel for the stove. The heat came through pipes, from a smoky, stinky brown-coal power station. We didn't have to buy water either. It came out of the spout by our sink when you pumped the handle . . . except in the worst part of winter, when we had to melt snow and boil it.
We thought we'd done well on that first shopping trip. In fact it was weeks before we had everything we needed. Mama didn't know how to live like this. She didn't know that you needed chemicals to drop down the hole in the earth closet, to keep it from smelling bad. She didn't know what a can opener was. We didn't know we needed vegetable seeds; or a sack of grit, to keep in the bin by our door. There was nobody to tell us these things. No neighbors came round to help us. We didn't have any friends until much later.
There were no warm clothes or thick-soled shoes for a little girl in the store that month, and there was only one clothing store, so I had to stay indoors. Mama spared an hour a day teaching me to read and to play with numbers. The rest of the time I was very bored, and I sulked a lot. I spent hours pressed against the workshop partition, crying for her to come out. But the nights were cozy. I loved being tucked up with my mama, under our new rough blankets, between our new, scratchy sheets. On one of those nights (this is my second true memory, the second treasure) I woke feeling cold and Mama wasn't with me. I sat up and dug out my socks, which I'd kicked off in my sleep (we slept in our socks, for extra coziness). I pulled them on and got down onto the raft of planks. The workshop partition was open a crack: I could see a moving shadow. Mama was playing in there, in the middle of the night. The stove was burning low. I went padding over, with the icy cold piercing through my socks and my little pajamas, and peered through. My mama was at work but the machinery was silent. She was crouched down on the floor, under the bench. In front of her she had a round white case; it was open. I could see tubes and droppers in a rack, and a row of glass dishes, all very small, like glassware for a doll's house. As soon as I saw these things, I wanted to play with them. They were so neat, so small, so perfect: and I loved the way Mama looked like a child, a little girl like me, playing down there on her knees, under the grown-up things. She had a strip of white gauzy stuff over her nose and mouth, and her fingers glimmered, as if they were coated in magic. I saw her take the droppers, and drop something liquid into each of the dishes. . . .
From the Hardcover edition.