Mythical Birds and Foreign Traditions
The soft humming of the light and the distant sounds of music fill my ears. Cloth runs against smooth wood and cold metal, and a faint smell of oil fills my nostrils. I pull the the charging handle back once, twice, three times before releasing it and listening to it slide back into place with a satisfying snap. I put the Kalash to the side and pick up a few magazines as well as a bucket of ammunition, absentmindedly reloading them and placing them into a neat stack. A light knock at the door brings me back into reality. I slowly stand up running my hand over the handle of the blade on my waist and make my way to the door. Another knock, this time slightly louder, comes from the door just as I open it. The person jumps slightly with their hand still raised.
“Oh, Dimitri! I wasn’t sure you were home. I’m so happy you are though. I have something exciting to show you! Can I come in?”
Samara Federov. Who else would it be? I take my hand off of my knife and step aside, allowing her to walk into my small home. Well, more like a small room with minor furnishings. Stone walls with a few scattered posters and drawings. A desk with books and papers strewn about with a potted plant sitting on in it. An old bench seat scavenged from one of the derelict train cars serving as a bed. And several small boxes and bags filled with various odds and ends. A lone lightbulb hanging from the ceiling. Home sweet home.
“You know, we really need to get this place decorated for Christmas. It’s only a little over a month away you know”, Samara says while looking around. “Put some colored lights up along the walls, maybe hang some decorations from the ceiling. Oh, maybe we can even put some ornaments on Lazarus!”
I look over at the potted plant on my desk and try to imagine it with ornaments. I shake my head slightly and look at Samara, unwilling or unable to curb her enthusiasm.
“Maybe later,” I say carefully, “But didn’t you say you wanted to show me something?”
“Huh? Oh right! Sorry, Christmas time is just so exciting. Okay, have you ever heard of the holiday Thanksgiving?”
“No.” I say after a bit of thought.
“I didn’t think so. Nobody else has. But I found this book, see,” she says, taking out a book. The cover has two groups of oddly dressed people eating some strange food on it. “It talks about a holiday they celebrated in America. These two groups on the front were apparently the ones who started it. And families would all come together and eat a ton of food like potatoes that were hit with a hammer, brown sauce…stuff, gelatinous red stuff made from something called a cranberry, and turkey.”
“What’s a turkey?” I ask with interest.
“It’s apparently some kind of big bird that walked on the ground.”
“Like a bat? They have big, walking land bats on the surface? No wonder we aren’t allowed up there.”
“Well, apparently they would kill them and then…um…stuff their backsides with food before cooking it.”
“That sounds barbaric!” I say, slightly taken aback.
“Well, apparently it was tasty. Anyways, Thanksgiving is apparently celebrated on the last Thursday of November. Which means we missed it! But only by a week. So I was thinking that we could celebrate Thanksgiving today. You, me, and mom. Wouldn’t that be fun?”
I look at Samara’s smiling face and I sigh. Arguing would be pointless. She’s already made up her mind. After telling her it sounded like a wonderful idea we agreed to go to the market to try to find some food for our Thanksgiving feast. I stood up and grabbed my old army jacket and ushanka. After putting them on Samara and I walked out of the door and began making our way to the market.
The Labor Battalion was busy scurrying around the hallways under supervision of a few guardsman. They were carrying boxes filled with decorations and ornamentation as well as various posters and banners. They were stacking them along the side of the hallway before heading off to the storage rooms to get more. I look inside one of the boxes against the wall and see coiled strands of Christmas lights and garland. Two guardsman are talking among themselves at the entrance to the market.
“Did you hear? The boss says they’ve gone all out this year for the holidays. They’re even going to set up a big tree in the market. Light it all up nice,” the first guard says.
“Where the hell are they going to get a tree?”
“Oleg said they were making it. Out of wood and metal. Then they’ll paint it green.”
“Ah, what the hell does Oleg know? I just hope we finally get the day off this year. Damn war has us stretched thin. I’d like to spend the day with my wife.”
“Yeah, so would I.”
The two guardsman laugh as we pass by. The market is as bust as ever, with stalls and stands pack to the brim with all number of goods. Shops selling trinkets and toys are much busier than usual, while the shops selling food are sparsely occupied. People are buying gifts for their families, and the market seems a bit happier than usual. I look over at Samara who appears to be eyeing the various food stalls, squinting her eyes in concentration. I clear my throat slightly and she jumps.
“So, what’s the first thing on the list?” I ask.
“Well, I’m guessing potatoes would be the easiest to find. They usually have some at Babushka’s Pantry.”
We make our way over to Babushka’s Pantry. Assorted jars, boxes, and cans filled with produce sit on the counter of the shop. A sign sit’s above it with “Babushka’s Pantry” painted on it in simple lettering. A kindly looking old lady, Babushka, sits behind the counter on an old wooden chair. When Babushka see’s us she smiles warmly and stands up.
“Samara my dear, how good to see you. And Dimitri too, my, what a pleasant surprise. What can I help you two with today?”
“We were hoping you had some potatoes ma’am.” I say politely, garnering an amused smile from Babushka.
“Always so polite. Why yes, some potatoes actually just got here from Tekhnologichesky Institut today. I’d be more than happy to sell you some.”
“Thank you very much. We’ll take three please.” Samara says with a smile.
“Ah of course. And because you’ve been such polite young folks, you can have a fourth one on me. What do you say?”
“Thank you so much. God bless you.” Samara says shocked.
“And you as well dear. Now run along, I know how busy you young people are.”
The two of us take the potatoes and make our way to a fairly calm area of the market.
“Okay, we need to get the next item. Hmm, I don’t think they’ll have any turkeys down here. But we can get some pork. It’s probably just as good. I think we can get some from there, “The Scullery”.” Samara says.
We make our way over to a small store a bit away from the last one. Fresh and dried meats are displayed on the counter. A sign hangs above the counter with the words “The Scullery” painted elegantly on it. Another smaller sign sits next to it, reserving the right to refuse service to customers for any reason. I look behind the counter and see an elegant looking red haired woman looking at the crowd with a bored expression on her face. When she see’s us walk up to the counter she raises an eyebrow before standing up straight and forcing a smile.
“Welcome to The Scullery. Is there something I can help you with? Since my employees are apparently worthless and can’t be bothered to do even show up to work, let alone do what I ask?”
Samara and I are both taken aback a bit. The woman maintains her smile, but her eyes seem to be daring us to say something wrong. Samara is the first one to speak.
“U-um, we were hoping to get some pork, if that’s okay with you.”
The woman eyes soften and she seems to relax a bit.
“Sure, I’ll get right on it. How much do you need?”
“I guess about two pounds? Please.”
The woman nods her head and after giving her the money, begins skillfully cutting the meat with a large knife. Seeing this woman brandishing a knife sends chills down my spine. I really don’t want to get on her bad side. After chopping up the meat she wraps it up and hands it to us. Samara and I both thank her as a begins yelling outside of her store. The woman sighs and begins walking out back towards the child and the two of us leave quickly before things escalate.
The two of us make our way back to Samara’s home. It used to be an old office and if fairly large by station standards. Homemade Christmas decorations already hang outside of the house. A guardsman is stationed nearby, nodding to Samara and staring at me as we make our way to the door. Samara knocks on the door lightly, and a woman’s voice can be heard saying “Coming!” from inside. I hear the door unlocking and soon afterwards it swings open and a woman in her mid 30’s stands in the doorway.
Sonya Federov, Samara’s mother. The two look strikingly similar, down to the red hair, freckles, and even the same height. She makes a noise that sounds somewhere between a gasp and a squeal when she see’s me, quickly pulling me into a tight hug. I instantly tense up, becoming rigid as Mrs. Federov slightly sways from side to side while hugging me.
“Dimitri, it’s so good to see you! Ah, I’m so happy you’re here!” She slowly releases me with a beaming smile. “Please find a seat! Oh, look at this mess. I can’t imagine what you must think about us, haha. We’ve been trying to get all the Christmas decorations set up, but between you and Samara doing errands and my husband busy all the time it’s been slow going. But, enough about me, what about you? Samara said you were getting the supplies for this holiday thing?”
“She already told you?” I ask, somewhat surprised.
“Oh yes, I’m rather excited actually. I’ve done my best to make what Samara was asking for. I’ve made the brown sauce with meat drippings and I wasn’t sure how to make the red cranberry sauce without cranberries so I just did what I could with mushrooms. Now that you guys are back I can begin cooking the pork and potatoes.”
I nod to her as I feel my stomach growling at the thought of a good meal. I look around briefly as Sonya starts preparing the potatoes and meat under Samara’s supervision. Contrary to what she had said, the house was hardly a mess. A few boxes were scattered about, filled with decorations and the like, but both the floors and walls were very clean. To the left of the doorway was a small living area. I walk over there and take a look around. There is a small and worn couch with a table next to it. A small record player sits on the table, quietly playing an upbeat Christmas song. Some framed posters sit on the wall, along with a tricolor flag. White, blue, and red stripes going horizontally. A small kitchen area sits on the opposite side of the living area. Sonya and Samara are happily chatting while cooking over there. A small eating area sits near to the kitchen with four chairs and a simple table for eating. Parallel to the doorway is a new addition. Wooden walls split the one large room into three, with doorways leading to Samara and her parents rooms.
I decide to make my way over to Samara and her mother, offering to help out however I can. Sonya asks me to set the table, directing me to some silverware, well, tin eating utensils, and plates. I place them down around the table and make my way back to the kitchen. The food smells wonderful, and the rumbling in my stomach is a reminder that I haven’t eaten yet today. I begin taking the food to the table with Samara, putting some on the plates and then bringing the dish back to the kitchen to save room. Finally all the food is on the plates and the three of us sit at the table together.
“So, I guess I’ll say grace.” Samara says, looking around at us. Samara and Sonya close their eyes and clasp their hands together, reciting the prayer I’ve heard so many times during meals with Samara. While I don’t take part, I sit patiently for them to finish, watching as Samara finishes the prayer and makes the sign of the cross. I pick up my utensils, ready to eat, when I hear Samara softly clear her throat. I look up and see both her and Sonya looking at me and I begin to feel extremely self conscious.
“What?” I ask with genuine confusion.
“It’s Thanksgiving. We have to all say what we are thankful for before we eat.” Samara says as Sonya nods slowly. I put my utensils down and they both nod.
“Well I am thankful that you two are both here with me. That you are both alive and well. And I’m thankful for the metro, and all it does to protect us from the surface. And I’m even thankful for my husband, as busy and stubborn as he is.” Sonya says before gesturing towards Samara.
“I’m thankful for my family. And I’m thankful for Dimitri too. I’m thankful that no matter how bad it might get, I have my best friend looking out for me. And I’m thankful for God and all of his gifts.” Samara says with a smile before nodding towards me.
I think for a moment. “I’m thankful that there are those who think of me as somebody who matters. I’m thankful that there are those who care whether I live or die. And I’m thankful for all that you have done for me. You’ve done more than I think you truly know.”
Samara’s cheeks turn a slight shade of red and Sonya’s eyes begin to tear up. “That was beautiful,” Sonya says quietly. I shrug slightly and pick up my utensils and begin to eat.
Everything was wonderful. The pork and potatoes were fantastic and the mushrooms were cooked just right. The brown sauce that Sonya made was delicious, and she was extremely excited to hear it. Samara looked like she could hardly lift her fork and Sonya looked the same. I, on the other hand, felt good. Like I had just eaten a proper meal for the first time in weeks. That might actually be the case, I thought to myself.
After cleaning up the table and enduring another round of hugs from Samara’s mother I went to make my leave. Samara made her way over to me and stopped me at the door. She seemed to stare at me for a few seconds before giving me a light hug.
“Thank you for helping me with this. It means a lot.” She said softly before releasing me.
“Yeah, it was a lot of fun. I’m a bit disappointed we didn’t get to eat a land bat, but that’s alright. We should do it again next year.”
“Haha, that sounds great. And I’ll be at your place bright and early tomorrow. We need to get that place, and you, into the Christmas spirit!”
I let out an audible groan, garnering a laugh from Samara and her mother. I make my way out the door and begin the walk back to my home.
Stories of mythical birds and foreign traditions. What a day.