“The Fire Fades” – Rocco Bristow ’25

The siege had come upon them like a blizzard, fierce and relentless. Leningrad, a jewel of the north, was now a fortress of solitude, its citizens warriors in a battle they scarcely understood. The Pozhar’s had once sat at a table abundant with food, laughter, and frequent debates. Now, they gathered around a flickering flame, their voices a mere murmur against the howling wind that seeped through the cracks of their frosted palace.

Yet, within these cracking walls, the spirit of Leningrad endured. Kostyor’s stories were not mere whispers against the cold; they were the embers of a culture that refused to be extinguished. Zola’s trembling hands were not a sign of weakness but a testament to the care that sustained their neighbors’ hope. Roman’s solemn scavenging was a silent vow to protect his family, and Nadia’s dreams were the seeds of the future, awaiting its inevitable bloom despite the frosted air.

As the first winter of the siege wrapped its icy fingers around the city, the Pozhar family drew closer, their breaths mingling in the frigid air, their hearts beating a defiant rhythm against the encroaching silence. They were a microcosm of Leningrad itself: battered, yes, but unbroken. As the siege tightened like a vice around the city, the days and nights began to blur into a monochrome tableau of gray. The once sound streets of Leningrad were now silent, save for the crunch of snow underfoot and the distant rumble of artillery. The city, encased in ice, seemed to hold its breath, waiting for an unforetold reprieve.

Kostyor, whose lectures had once filled auditoriums, now spoke in hushed tones to his kin, his words painting pictures of a Russia filled with plain fields and summer sun. Each story he told was a lifeline, a reminder that the world was once larger than the confines of their dimly lit room. Zola, her face drawn from worry, still managed to smile for her children, her love a warm shawl wrapped around them. She tended to the sick, her skills as a nurse more vital than ever, each life she saved a quiet victory against the beast’s shadow that loomed outside their door.

Roman, growing lean and tall, had become adept at navigating the treacherous streets in search of fuel and food. He learned the art of barter, trading what little they had for a handful of precious grains or a lump of coal. His youthful dreams had been set aside, replaced by the grim determination to see his family through each day.

And little Nadia, who had once danced through the rooms of their home, now moved with the careful steps of one who has seen too much. Her doll, threadbare and faded, was a silent witness to her whispered hopes and the lullabies that no longer graced her lips. She always gripped the doll with such tenacity to never let go, a reflective action of the city’s people.

One evening, as the darkness crept in earlier than ever, the family gathered around their meager fire, the flames casting an otherworldly glow on their faces. Roman broke the silence with a voice that cracked like the ice on the Neva.

“Father,” Roman began hesitantly, his eyes reflecting the turmoil within, “there’s talk in the streets. The retirement home at the edge of our district—they’ve got stores of food. Not much, but enough. They say it could be… borrowed.”

Kostyor’s face, momentarily illuminated by the flickering flames, hardened. “Borrowed?” he echoed, the weight of the word heavy in the air. “You mean stolen, son.”Roman’s jaw clenched, the shadows playing across his features making him seem older, more worn. “Is it theft if it saves us? If it saves Nadia?” he countered, desperation sharpening his voice. “We’re not the only ones starving, Father. And what good is our morality if we die with it?”

Kostyor rose, the light casting tall, distorted shapes onto the walls of their cramped room. “And what good is our survival if we abandon who we are, who we’ve been?” Kostyor’s voice was firm, his stance unwavering even as it shook with the cold. “We are not warlords feasting on the weak. We are the Pozhars, and we must not prey on those even more vulnerable than ourselves.”

The argument hung in the air, thick as the smoke from their dwindling fire. Roman looked away, a muscle working in his jaw, while Kostyor stood still, as immovable as the city around them. The battle lines were drawn not with guns or swords, but with the moral choices that defined them in this frozen siege, where the heart fought as fiercely as the body.

Roman’s eyes, once full of youthful certainty, now carried the heavy burden of his convictions. “And what of the common good?” he challenged, his voice a mix of anger and despair. “Marx teaches us to look after each other, to share the burdens and the bread. The retirement home—it’s hoarding resources while the people starve. That’s not the way of the proletariat; it’s not just!”

Kostyor’s reply was measured, each word deliberate. “But to take without giving is not the way of a just man, Roman. And it’s certainly not the way of a Pozhar. Yes, we must look after each other—that’s beyond question. But there is no honor, no righteousness in robbing the elderly of their sustenance. That’s not communism; it’s chaos. It’s the law of the Urals.” The fire crackled between them, the only sound as the argument fell to a simmering silence. Roman grappled with his ideals clashing against his father’s ethics. The teachings of communism that spoke of sharing among all seemed so distant from the reality of their struggle. Kostyor, steadfast in his belief in individual morality over any political ideology, saw the greater danger in losing one’s moral compass even amidst the direst circumstances.

In the silence, heavy with unsaid words, Kostyor reached for the wisdom of the past, a treasure that still lay within him despite the cold and the hunger. “Dostoevsky once wrote,” he began, his voice steady, “‘The mystery of human existence lies not in just staying alive, but in finding something to live for.’ We mustn’t lose ourselves to survive, Roman. If we forsake our principles for bread, we forsake our very souls.”

Roman’s gaze lingered on the dying fire, the embers like the fading pages of the books they once read together. Dostoevsky’s words, spoken through his father, echoed in the hollowness of their situation. Kostyor’s invocation of the great writer served not just as a defense of his stance but as a reminder of the culture and identity that the siege had not yet stripped from them.

The quiet that followed was filled with a mutual respect, a shared reverence for the depth of their plight, and the complex human truths that literature so often captures. Kostyor’s reference to Dostoevsky was a bridge between his moral philosophy and Roman’s revolutionary ideals, suggesting that the essence of humanity was more than mere survival—it was about preserving the core of what makes us human, even in the darkest times. Roman, sensing the gravity of his father’s reference to Dostoevsky, sought to meet it with equal measure from another giant of Russian literature. “Tolstoy,” he countered, his voice ringing with a newfound resolve, “believed that the truth of our humanity is found in the way we care for one another. In War and Peace, he writes of the shared suffering and shared joy being the very essence of life.”

He took a breath, the cold air filling his lungs, as if drawing strength from the very words. “If we have the means to alleviate suffering and we choose not to act—what truth does that speak of us? Tolstoy might argue that by helping ourselves to help others, we are not petty thieves, but rather keepers of our brotherhood, of the very society we strive to preserve.”

Kostyor listened, the lines of his face softening. Roman’s invocation of Tolstoy’s ideas on communal responsibility and the moral imperative to act for the greater good offered a poignant counterpoint to his own moral stance. It was a delicate dance of ideologies, with each author’s insights shining light on different facets of their dire predicament.

Kostyor, feeling the tension between his own moral convictions and Roman’s passionate plea, turned to the wisdom of another revered Russian writer to find common ground. “Chekhov,” he said, his voice a calm balm to the heated discourse, “once wrote, ‘Wisdom… comes not from age, but from education and learning.’ In these trying times, we must educate ourselves not just in the ways of survival, but in the ways of humanity.”

He continued, looking intently at his son, “Chekhov believed in the complexity of human nature, that the goodness of a man could be found in his actions. ‘Man is what he believes,’ he said. By holding onto our beliefs in truth and goodness, despite the hunger and the cold, we affirm our humanity.”

Roman’s defiance slowly waned as he considered his father’s words. “And our actions,” Kostyor concluded, “must reflect our beliefs. To steal, even from those who might have more, would reduce us to mere survivalists, betraying the very ideals that give our struggle against this siege its meaning.”

In the end, it was Chekhov’s appeal to the better angels of their nature that bridged the gap between Kostyor’s moral code and Roman’s revolutionary zeal. The shared understanding of their circumstances, framed by the wisdom of literary greats, brought father and son to a silent agreement. Their path would not be one of theft, but of maintaining their principles, even in the face of such overwhelming adversity.

“Tonight,” he said, “we shall journey to the lands of Prince Igor, where the rivers run with honey and the mountains pierce the sky.” His fingers, seeming frostbitten from cold, turned the pages of an imaginative book, his eyes scanning a page within his mind. Zola leaned in, her hand finding Kostyor’s in the dim light. “Tell us, my love, of the great feasts and the songs that filled the air,” she urged, her voice a melody of its own amidst the stillness. Roman watched his father, the stories stirring something within him—a flicker of defiance, a spark of the boy he once was, who dreamed of adventures and heroes. A side locked away since the shells first slammed the city.

And Nadia, her eyes wide with wonder, listened as the walls of their home faded away, replaced by the vast steppes and soaring eagles of her father’s tales. For a moment, the siege was lifted, and the family was free, their spirits soaring beyond the reach of war and want. As the fire dwindled to embers, the Pozhars held onto each other, their bond unspoken but as strong as the walls of their beloved city. They were a family, a unit of hope in a world fractured by chaos. And in that room, with the cold pressing in and the night deepening, they found their fortress, their will to endure etched in the whispers of their breaths, mingling with the smoke that rose to the heavens.

As the silence settled over the Pozhar family, the chill of the encroaching night seemed to press against them with renewed vigor. The tension from the earlier argument still lingered like the cold; it was a tangible presence among them. Kostyor, looking at the weary faces of his family, knew that the time had come for a different kind of sustenance — one for the soul, not the body.

He shifted slightly, the movement drawing the eyes of Zola, Roman, and little Nadia. “Let me tell you a story,” Kostyor began, his voice weaving through the cold air, casting a spell of warmth. “A story from a time long past, about Prince Igor, a figure as grand and as enduring as Mother Russia herself.”

The family drew in closer, the fire’s glow reflecting off their faces as Kostyor continued. “Prince Igor was not just a ruler; he was a man of the people, a leader who cherished the land and its folk. His tales are not merely of battles and power but of the spirit of our nation, the beauty of our lands, the richness of our culture.”

He cleared his throat, and with each word, the walls of their shelter seemed to recede, giving way to the expansive steppes and the flowing rivers of the Rus’. “In this tale, we travel to a time where the rivers did indeed run with honey, and the mountains touched the very heavens. Where the air was filled with the sounds of peace and prosperity.”

The fire crackled, punctuating Kostyor’s words, as he began the story of Prince Igor’s campaign, a story immortalized in the epic tales of old. It was a story to remind them that they were descendants of a great and enduring lineage, a people who had faced adversity before and prevailed.

The fire had dwindled to its last cinder, casting a final, flickering light upon the faces of the Pozhar family. Kostyor’s tales had woven an invisible tapestry around them, a shield against the biting cold and the relentless hunger that gnawed at their bellies. In the glow of the dying flames, the family found themselves on the precipice of sleep, that small death that promised a temporary escape from their trials.

Zola, her eyes heavy with fatigue, whispered a prayer for the morrow, her voice a soft lullaby for her children. She had become the firekeeper of their hope, the guardian of their dwindling flame of resilience. Her hands, once delicate and reserved for the tender work of healing, were now calloused and rough, badges of her unyielding determination to keep her family whole.

Roman, his body sprawled near the remnants of the fire, lay in a fitful slumber, his dreams a jumble of the day’s scavenging and the stories his father told. In his mind, he walked through a Leningrad untouched by war, a city of laughter and light, where his biggest worry was the next day’s exam or the smile of a girl he fancied.

Nadia, curled up beside her brother, clutched her doll to her chest, a talisman against the darkness. In her dreams, she was not the Nadia of the siege, but a princess in a grand palace, her days filled with feasts and merriment. She danced with Prince Igor in a glimmering castle with her friends she hadn’t seen in what felt like a lifetime. Her father’s stories had become her reality, a world where the siege was nothing more than a shadow, easily banished by the morning sun. Kostyor watched over his family, the sentinel in the silent night. His heart ached with love and sorrow for the burdens his children bore. He knew the stories were not just for them, but for him as well, a reminder of the man he used to be, a professor who ignited the minds of his students with the passion of Russian literature, now reduced to a keeper of embers.

As the night deepened, the cold crept in like an uninvited specter, its icy fingers probing for any warmth left in the room. Kostyor rose quietly, gathering the last of their belongings—a few books that had survived the culling for fuel. With a heavy heart, he placed them on the dying fire, the pages curling and blackening as the flames consumed the words of Dostoevsky, Chekhov, and Tolstoy.

The sacrifice of knowledge to the god of warmth was a silent testament to their desperation. Yet, as the fire came alive once more, Kostyor felt the presence of these great authors standing with them, their spirits defiant against the darkness, their words living on in the hearts of those who heard them.

The renewed fire pushed back the night, and for a moment, the room was filled with a golden light, a fleeting reminder of the day. The Pozhars, each lost in their own dreams of a different life, slept on, unaware of the quiet heroism of their father, who watched over them with a love as fierce as the winter storm raging outside their walls.

As Zola carefully tended to Nadia, extracting a shard of shrapnel from the young girl’s arm with trembling hands, her eyes caught the faint outline of the last book they had spared from the fire. It lay open, its spine creased and worn, a silent witness to the family’s ongoing battle not just against the cold, but against the encroachment of despair.

With the delicate precision that belied her frayed nerves, Zola removed the shrapnel, all the while her mind repeating a line from Dante’s “Inferno,” a quote that seemed to resonate with their current ordeal: “Abandon hope all ye who enter here.” The words were a grim echo of the darkness that had descended upon Leningrad, an unwelcome shadow over their once vibrant city now reduced to rubble and ration lines.

Yet, as she whispered the quote, it was not an admission of defeat but a recognition of their harsh reality. Her voice was steady, her hands sure, as if in speaking the words, she was disarming them of their power to wound, much like the piece of metal she had just removed from her daughter’s flesh.

The book, a vestige of better times, remained unscathed, untouched by the flame that had consumed so many of their possessions. Zola would not let it burn, not tonight. It stood as a testament to the resilience of human thought and spirit, to the enduring power of the words and stories that had once brought them joy and now offered a silent strength.

In the muted glow of the candlelight, Zola finished bandaging Nadia’s arm, her actions gentle but resolute. The quote from Dante hung between them, a stark reminder of the siege, but in Zola’s heart, it transformed from a harbinger of doom into a declaration of resistance. They would not abandon hope, not while they could still fight, still care, still dream of a life beyond the siege, a life where books were read for pleasure, not burned for warmth, and where healing came without the price of pain.

The fire’s warmth ebbed as the night pressed on, and in the dimming light, Nadia’s small frame seemed to shrink even more, her once rosy cheeks now pallid, her eyes hollow. She lay curled under the threadbare blanket, each breath a shallow, laborious effort. The sight of her in such a state clawed at Kostyor’s heart, etching a pain deeper than the biting cold. Roman, his earlier fervor now a quiet desperation, watched his sister with an intensity that spoke volumes. “Father,” he whispered, the word barely carrying across the room, “we must do something. She won’t last another week.”

Kostyor, his face a map of anguish, wrestled with the decision. The morality he clung to, the lessons of literature and history, now pitted against the stark reality of his daughter’s fading life. The firelight played across his features, casting him in a battle of shadow and light, reflecting the turmoil within.

Finally, he nodded, the movement small but seismic in its implications. “Go,” he whispered, his voice rough like the bark of the trees that no longer graced the city. “Go, but not to steal, Roman. Go and plead our case. The retirement home, they are our people too, part of this besieged heart of Leningrad. Ask for their help, for Nadia’s sake.”

Roman’s eyes met his father’s, a silent promise passing between them. He rose, his movements deliberate, the weight of his mission anchoring him to the ground before he took his first step towards the door.

In that moment, Kostyor relinquished a piece of his tightly held principles, allowing the dire necessity of survival to steer their course. It was a gesture of ultimate trust — in his son, in their community, and in the enduring hope that even in the darkest times, compassion could be found and mercy given.

As Roman disappeared into the night, Kostyor returned to Nadia’s side, whispering tales of a brighter time, of Prince Igor’s legendary feasts, where no child went hungry, promising a future where such stories would be their reality once again.

And so, the night passed, the Pozhar family bound together in the heart of a besieged city, their spirits unbroken, their hope a flame that refused to be extinguished. As the first light of dawn crept through the cracks in the shutters, it found them there, an incantation of endurance, a family forged together by the fires of love and the shared belief that this, too, shall pass.