It still smelled the same. I could understand that the fortress was still there. I could take the fact that though animals had come and gone through the tunnels, the inner structure was the same. I was all right with hearing the same whistling of wind across the entrance that I had heard long ago, and the same crackling of fire when I lit the former gathering place. And the drawings. My hands traced across the flickering, firelit pictures my brother and I had made across the bottom of the walls. I was even all right with those. But it still smelled the same.
The scent of dried blood and fresh meat from a surprisingly good hunt; my father’s musk that held a strange hint of hazelnut; my mother’s perfume of commanding power and grace; the unmistakable farm stench from sharing the rooms with animals that had managed not to die. I knew this must all be in my head - those smells could not have lasted the decades. How could I still taste them, flittering in my nostrils and grazing my tongue with every breath? It was almost like it had happened yesterday.
Emmy stood strong, head held high as she refused to give in to her childish impulses. They told her to curl up in the corner, weep soundlessly until she could no longer, and sleep forever so that when she woke up, she would realize this was all a dream. Stupid, though, she knew these thoughts were, and so Em tried as hard as she could to look like her mother. Tough, demanding, in control.
Merili had long ago stopped trying to keep his own composure, and she hugged one arm around him tightly as he wept into her shoulder. He had run out of tears, but his body still shook and moaned. “Tchtch. Be strong, bratishka.” Mer sniffed a bit, stepping away from his sister, though his face was still a mess. While Em held so much love for her slightly younger brother (only a few minutes, but she always held this above his head), and wished to hug and cry with him, Em knew she had to be the stronger one of the pair.
“Come, Merili. We must bury her.” Their father was suddenly standing before them, waving for his son to follow. Though generally a jovial, fat, and jolly man, the winters had taken a hard toll on him as well. He was skin and bones, hunched over at the shoulders.
“Yes, Papa.” He sniffed again. While he was clearly distraught, Mer was physically larger than his twin sister, and, traditionally, it was the men who buried the dead. The two bent down to pick up the tjótja, but before they left, their father turned to the other twin. Even in hard times, he tried to stay happy, but something in their pa’s eyes was lost. They were dull and dead of their usual gleam - serious, for what was probably the first time since Em was ever able to see them. Almost automatically, she was paying attention.
“Embrylor, stay here. She needs you.”
I followed the cave walls, closing my eyes and feeling out the winter home. The memories were so sharp, the layout so detailed in my mind, I had to remind myself that fifty years had passed. Drawing the heavy fur coat tighter around my body, my subconscious lead my feet to a room that automatically filled me with a flood of emotions. Fear, weakness, grief, desperation - a torrent of feelings that I had never wanted to ever feel again. That I had not felt in half a century. The brain was such a strange organ, and, despite the promise to myself that I would keep out of this crevice in the underground home, it had carried me right to the last place I last wanted to be.
A small child, dwarfed by furs that trailed the ground and fell on top of her hands, walked as tall and gracefully as she could, slipping down the hallway and to the room dug the very deepest into the ground as possible, with a blazing fire keeping the walls aglow. She poked her head inside, watching her role model heaving out breaths as she tightly grasped the hands of the two remaining sisters, their servant flitting around the room in distress. They were the only ones that were not buried in the line of six graves - five aunts and an older brother. Pieces of the family they would never be able to get back.
Everyone had been trying to keep their outward appearances strong, no matter how horrible they all knew this situation was, but the room still stank of fear. Cold-blooded, they were not made for this Russian winter, and babies even less so. No one had high hopes for what this labor would bring.
“Em? Emmy?” The words came out with barely a breath to spare in saying them, but there was still something so utterly commanding and yet loving about them. Exactly what Embrylor admired and cherished about her. But what also made Em’s strong composure waver as she tried to take a shaky breath in, desperate to stop the rivers of emotion coursing through her blood.
The young girl ran forward, hugging the obviously pregnant woman tightly. “I’m here, Mama.” Her hair was patted and smoothed, soft cooing sounds reaching her eyes.
“Tchtch, do not worry so, milaya moya. Stay strong” The only one in the room not reeking with worry was Em’s mother, and that only made Embrylor increasingly more sad. How would anyone stay strong when the toughest of the family was gone? As if her mind had been read, Emmy was pulled closer to her mama’s body, sweet but firm words of comfort whispered in her ear. “I will never leave you, lyubimaya moya. Never. I promise that.”
I sank to my knees, burying my hands in the dirt in front of me. This is where it had happened - the very spot she had been laying. An unmistakable stench filled my nostrils until my eyes began to water. The scent of Death. But not just the dying of prey, or of human males that needed to learn their place. No, this was the Death of one that had life to live. I bit my lip, trying to hold back the emotion that she would not have shown. She would have had composure. Had our roles been switched, Mama would have been so much stronger than I could ever be.
The small child’s hand was dwarfed in the callused, wrinkled fingers of her papa, holding tightly on to her at one side, and her brother at the other. New tears were streaking down Merili’s face, whereas the other two tried to remain stoic, watching the very thread and strength of their family sink into the ground with her last child. A newborn boy. He would never have a name.
Em’s eyes narrowed, her body shaking with a new emotion as dirt and snow began to pour down on the box. She muttered inaudibly.
“What is it, moya printsessa?”
“She promised!” her little mouth shouted with all the rage in the world. Wrenching her hand from her papa’s grasp, Emmy ran away from the gravesite, tearing into the forest and throwing herself into the caves and down to her room. Tears ripped from her eyes and she tore at the dirt, kicking and screaming. “She promised!”
It was like it had happened to someone else.