Her grandmother’s stories about the drawing of the shirtless man with the fire in his eyes didn’t add up. But every time Anya pressed for details, she would either wave it off as ancient history or pretend she didn’t remember.
Didn’t remember? Anya was aghast. How could a woman forget such a man! One that she’d obviously had such strong feelings for—passion in the blazes of charcoal, hatred in what could only be a bullet hole singed into the center of the page (it was too big for a cigarette burn). Her grandmother didn’t smoke but did have a formidable pistol, a relic from the war, and she was quite proud of it. Yet…if she had such fury for this man that she’d use his image for target practice, why save what remained?
Many nights, when she was weary from her studies but too agitated to sleep, Anya pondered her grandmother’s mysteries. The break in the timeline of her life between bohemian art teacher in Kyiv to shuffling babushka bringing day-old bread and yellow blooms standing in for sunflowers. “Someday, you will tell me,” Anya often said, and her grandmother would give her that same secret smile.
That afternoon, Anya promised herself not to be so easily dismissed. She set a fine little teatime table for the two of them, at its center an apple tart she’d just warmed in the oven, and after the mealtime blessing, she was thinking of how to start the conversation.
“This is nice,” Grandma said, pointing to the plate with her fork. “And you made it yourself? Apples from that tree out back?”
Anya blushed. The lot behind her building was private property, but she’d never seen any interest in the fruit other than the woodchucks and rabbits enjoying whatever fell within their reach, so what was the harm in picking a few? Or at least she’d told herself that at the time.
“Y-yes, I made it. But I should have asked first.”
Grandma gave a tired smile, a press of her cool hand across Anya’s. “Tateleh. Unless you are taking from those hungrier than you, there is no need for shame. And I know, it is far more tempting to hope for forgiveness than ask for permission.”
In her grandmother’s weary eyes, Anya guessed at some of her history. Of a woman who did what she normally wouldn’t in the name of survival. Of the permissions she hadn’t asked, of the forgiveness she hadn’t or wasn’t granted.
“Eh, if it still weighs on you, make him one of these with the fruit. He would be foolish not to forgive you.”
“Grandma, tell me about the man.”
“What, your neighbor there? We’ve never met.”
“Ugh. No! The man in the portrait.”
Grandma studied a bite of tart on her plate, her wiseass smile melting.
“Was he my grandfather?”
The old eyes speared hers. “What kind of lies did your Russian mother fill your head with?”
Anya dropped her gaze to the napkin in her lap.
A sigh came from across the table. Grandma had to know bringing up her mother was dirty pool. There was no forgiving what that woman had done. “Fine,” her grandmother said. “You want me to tell so I’ll tell. I don’t know.”
Anya could only blink in response.
“What. There was a war. Things happen in war.”
The permutations were like a series of punches to Anya’s stomach. “You were… What my teachers said about the Russian soldiers—?”
“Enough,” Grandma said. Then with a softer voice, “Enough talk. Look around you. The sun is shining. The birds sing. We have this wonderful tart made with stolen apples. So, we eat.”