She wiped the sweat from her brow. Winter seemed to have disappeared, taking spring with it; summer rolled by too soon. The crops were parched, where was the rain? She prayed every night, in hopes that someone would hear her. I'm not asking for a miracle, she would whisper quietly, as though God could hear her better that way, I'm asking for rain.
Her hands ached, the feel of her sweat rubbing against the hard metal of her plow was raising blisters on already cracked skin. She winced in pain, knowing that there was no use in complaining. Work had to be done and as she learned a long time ago, there would never be anyone else to come in and do it for her.
She had to work hard. Her mama would want her to work hard.
"Mama," she pulled at the beautiful blue robe her mother wore. "Mama, is tato going to be alright?"
Her mother, who must have been the most beautiful woman in the world, stroked her cheek and smiled. "Of course tato is alright. Tato is out making sure you are safe, sonechko."
"Tato is very brave," she beamed brightly. "When he comes home, we should make him a baran. He likes baran!"
Her mother kissed her forehead. "Sonechko moja," she whispered. "We must pray for your tato. And then we can make him the best baranchyk he could eat."
She could feel her mother's kiss on her forehead, trying hard not to tear up from the sensation on her skin. A sharp sting from her hand snapped her out of her memory. Her skin broke and the blood coursed quickly, filling the cracks as though they were rivers. She hurried inside, she should have worn her gloves. She filled a cup with water and poured it over her throbbing hand. She counted to ten, breathing slowly and feeling the pain wash away, just as her mother always said it would.
She missed her mother. She missed the songs she would sing, she missed the way her oil made her smell, she missed how they would go to church together. Church must have been the one thing she missed most. She didn't have time anymore. She always had to work.
But with that work, she had time to speak with God. And she never really cared whether He listened or not. She just needed someone to talk to. Anyone.
She wrapped the cloth tightly around her hand, tying it securely in place. She walked out, her arms outstretched. "Little Brother," she hugged him tightly. "I'm so happy to see you."
He didn't return the embrace. "I'm afraid that I come to you with some bad news."
She closed her eyes, still clinging to him. No no, she thought, I'm your Big Sister and I have done nothing but help you and nothing could be wrong, no no, everything is fine, please say you are joking.
He pushed her off him gently. He walked past her and into her home. Her home. The one that she had been thrown into after living in a palace for so long. A shack. A miserable shack of a home with no running water. She had next to nothing now, almost nothing remained of the old empires. Nothing remained apart from her faith and her undying love for her people.
"Sonechko, remember," her father's moustache tickled her face, "never back down. You're stronger than you know. Never let anyone push you around. You have to keep our legacy, because when mama and tato aren't here, it will be your job to take care of all the people who live with us. You take care of them. You make sure they are happy, just like how you are happy here. With me and mama."
She nodded. "I love them, tato."
"And that, sonechko," he ruffled his moustache against her cheek, causing her to squirm with laughter, "is why you will be great."
"W-What are you doing, Russia?" she asked as she watched her brother raid her cupboards. "If you're hungry, I could make you varenyky! Or holub-"
"I'm not hungry."
"Then why are you-"
He left, all her food in his big arms, not once looking at her.
"Come back," she screamed after him, clenching her fists, not caring how much her hand hurt. "Russia, come back!" It started as a scream, but by the end of it, the sound erupting from her mouth was so shrill and loud that it hurt her own ears to hear it. She fell to the ground, her knees hitting the hard, unforgiving soil. She hid her face in her hands, trying to breathe slowly and count to ten.
But it wasn't working.
Her hands shook. They didn't even look like her hands anymore. Long, boney fingers with chipped, yellow fingernails. Those were the hands of a brittle old woman. How could she look as though she had spent the night on death's doorstep? Her hair began falling out. At first it was a few strands, but as time went on and she ate less and less, her hair fell out in clumps and if she was lucky, she wouldn't feel each hair being pulled out of her scalp.
When had Russia come to visit last? It felt like yesterday, but it could have been this morning. The days were long and the nights only hurt more; knowing that the dawn would not bring salvation.
She had given up on asking God for help. God had made it clear that He had better things to do.
She slept two days in a row, sometimes three and when she awoke, she knew she had not dreamed. She had not dreamed for nearly a year now. She did her dreaming when she was awake. Dreaming and hoping and praying that she could sleep and wake up back in her palace with her Mama and Tato.
You take care of them. Her father's words echoed between her ears day and night. She had failed him, she had failed her mother. Everything that her parents had worked so hard to give her, she had managed to lose. She was handed a beautiful, thriving nation and now? Now she was lucky if the wind blew or the sun rose.
She pulled her tattered shirt over her head, it slipped down her shapeless body. She looked hideous in the clothes Russia had given her. But in all fairness, she felt as though she would look hideous in anything. She stared in the mirror, tears coming to her sunken-in eyes as she stared at the stranger looking back at her. She brushed her hair with her fingers, hoping that she had sufficiently covered the small patch of exposed scalp.
"Eat," he ordered, shoving a plate of sausages at her across the table.
She pushed away from the table and threw up what little water was in her stomach on to her cold floor.
"You have to eat, Big Sister," he took a sausage and bit into it, humming at how delicious it was. "We do not want people to worry over nothing, do we?"
"Get out," she sobbed, her body still lurched over, as though she was not done vomiting. "Get off my land."
He got up and left, making sure to take the sausages with him. She looked up and out through the door, watching her brother feed the sausages to his dog. And never did she think she could hate someone as much as she hated her own brother. Hot tears streamed down her face, her stomach still punching at her violently. She was never going to get better. She was going to die.
How disappointed Mama and Tato would be.
So tired. She was so tired. Falling. When did she start falling? Was she on the ground now? She couldn't tell, everything was spinning. She felt as though she was on the ceiling. There she lay, naked on the cold ground, gasping for air, as though she was being choked. Her hands shook violently, she tried to calm them, but the battle in her head screamed from inside her ears. Just die, one side coaxed her quietly. Imagine how much better you will feel when you sit with Mama and Tato in heaven. You'll be with God. God will protect you.
Don't you dare die, a louder voice shrieked. You can't die. These people need you. You promised you would take care of them. If you die, they die. And Saint Peter cannot possibly admit any more of us into heaven. There simply isn't enough room.
"Matt," another voice yelled, but this one was from the spinning room. "Matt, get me a blanket! Hurry!"
She tried to focus her gaze on whose voice it could have been. She kept seeing blonde hair in amongst her spinning home. What were their names again? Who? How could she not remember? It was them. They were there. Them.
She felt someone lift her and she turned her head away, vomiting on the floor. The spinning was only getting worse.
"Come on, hang in there," the external voice pleaded. "We're here to help."
And when she awoke, the room had stopped spinning, but her eyelids felt so heavy. She was still on the floor, someone was still holding her. She still couldn't remember his name.
"She's exhausted, she's going to be asleep for a long time. You should put her on a bed."
"How long do you think she's been like this? She could've been here minutes, hours, days and no one knew. You sit and complain about how some of us don't remember you, well, this is what happens when everyone forgets about you. And I will be damned if the first thing she sees when she wakes up is an empty room."
"I'm- I'm going to go get some more blankets."
Their voices pounded in her ears, she knew them. Of course she knew them. She knew everyone. It was whether or not they knew her that was the issue.
"I'm sorry," that voice spoke again. "I'm sorry I didn't do anything sooner. I'm sorry I forgot." He pulled her closer and wrapped his arms around her, hoping to keep her warm. "Please wake up, please wake up, please wake up, please wake up-"
She squeezed his arm as hard as she could, which was barely at all and he stopped whispering. She could feel him looking at her. It was a shame she could barely remember who he was.
She felt him lift her hand and entwine their fingers. She was scared, hoping he wouldn't look at her hands. They were such old hands, such ugly hands. But God forbid he should look at her at all. She looked more like a corpse than anything. Who would wish to hold a corpse?
He squeezed her hand gently, planting a soft kiss on her forehead.
"Matt, where are those blankets?"
That's right. She remembered one of them was called 'Matt'. Oh! Her Matt. Her Mateyko. Her best friend in the world. He was there. Mateyko was there, taking care of her.
But he was running around. Blankets. Mateyko needed a blanket.
With all the strength she had, she drowsily opened her eyes and leaned her head against whoever's chest she was being cradled to. "Mateyko, blankets are in the old trunk."
"Hey," the other, familiar voice spoke cheerfully. "You're waking up! Good. You had me scared there for a while."
She smiled weakly, looking up at the bespeckled man holding her. "You are Alfred."
And in return, he managed a smile of his own. "Yeah."
"And you came to help me?" she asked, her eyes closed again. She turned her body towards him, clinging as hard as she could to his jacket. "Mій герой."
She felt his heartbeat stop for that split second, wondering if she had said something wrong.
"Yeah," he cradled her head to his chest. "I guess I am."