This is an excerpt from the beginning of my novel Crossing Paths. The novel takes place in the tiny Baltic country of Latvia. The book starts at the June 1940 Song Festival, which is a very important event in Latvia. My main character Mija was at the festival and it was during the Song Festival that Russian troops first crossed over the border and killed border guards. And although this is a novel, it’s historically accurate. This event is the beginning of what will be four years of occupation and war in Latvia. This section takes place on a train. Mija and her sister-in-law Laima are on their way home after the Song Festival. The city of Riga is mentioned – Riga is the capital of Latvia. And Mija’s husband is an officer in the Latvian army. Hopefully that’s enough set-up for you to understand what’s going on.
As the train worked its way from the city into the countryside, Mija watched the changing landscape and listened to the clickety-clack of the wheels. The houses got fewer and farther between. They reached the first farms. Fields of newly planted crops flowed past and then white birch trees showed up only feet from her window. Next, a small lake shimmered with sunlight. A barn appeared and Mija saw a stork lift out of its nest on the barn roof. Its long wings beat faster and faster as it rose and disappeared.
Laima’s head fell onto Mija’s shoulder and she snored a little with every third or fourth breath. Mija moved closer to Laima to better prop up her head. She twisted the long ends of her woven wool belt. When the two pieces were intertwined all the way to the very end, she untwisted it and started again. She thought about the border attack and wondered if her husband was called back to duty. He was in the middle of a three week leave.
Past images flooded her mind. The last time she saw Soviet troops in person it was World War I and she was twelve, the age her daughter was now. She saw the Russian soldiers marching toward their farmhouse; saw the soldiers out the window as they appeared over the horizon. She had run into the house to fetch a cloth for her mother, who had cut her hand on the edge of the hoe. Her mother and older sister were tending to the vegetable garden and had their backs to them. Mija was confused, not knowing if she should stay where she was or run for her mother. She stayed put. Her father and brother were at a neighboring farm, helping to bring in the hay.
As the soldiers, a group of about ten, approached the women outside, Mija saw their sneering faces and heard them yell, telling her mother and sister to get undressed. She heard her mother scream, “Take me, leave the other one alone!” The response was raucous laughter. The leader strode up to her mother and ripped her dress at the neck. Another soldier went for Mija’s sister, Anna. Both women screamed. A third soldier put up his rifle as though to shoot and yelled for them to shut up. The first soldier pushed her mother to the ground.
Mija decided to hide. She slipped out the back door and ran to the vegetable cellar, about twenty feet away and not visible from the front. She struggled a little with opening the door, but got it open enough to get under it and felt her way down the steps in the dark. She couldn’t hear anything down there and was glad. In the far corner, she burrowed into a pile of potatoes until she was covered, but still had a small space to breathe. It seemed like she was there for hours. Her arms and legs cramped up, but still she didn’t move. She heard the tramp of feet above and someone threw open the door. Mija held her breath.
“The same old rotten potatoes down there, nothing more!” yelled the soldier.
Another yell came from further away, “We could use some potatoes!”
A third voice yelled, “We have too much to carry as it is!”
An argument broke out about the potatoes and Mija thought for sure she would pass out. Then the leader yelled that they were all a bunch of monkeys fighting about rotten potatoes and if anyone wanted any, they could carry them themselves. That ended the arguing and the cellar door above Mija slammed shut. Mija took a deep breath.
The sound of feet got quieter and then disappeared altogether. Mija didn’t move for what felt like hours more. The musty smells of dirt and potatoes lined her nostrils and filled her lungs until she felt damp from the inside out. When she heard the voice of her father yelling her name, she clambered out from under the potatoes and pushed open the cellar door.
“Mija!” He grabbed her in a bear hug. “Did anyone hurt you?”
She hugged his waist. “No, Papa. I hid as soon as I saw the soldiers. What about Mama and Anna?”
“I put them to bed and sent Feliks to get Doctor Liepins.”
Anna was never the same and turned into a virtual mute. If she had to talk, it was in a soft monotone. Mija sometimes heard Anna muttering to herself although the words were never clear enough to make out what she was saying. Less than a year later, Anna got sick and died. They said it was from pneumonia. Her mother never talked to Mija about that day just as Mija never told anyone that she saw the beginning of the brutal assault.
Mija kept the nightmare of that day locked inside and had never shared it with another living soul. Once in a while, something would trigger that memory and she would relive it instantly. Most of her thoughts about it revolved around her inability to stop the rapes. She would think, I should have taken Papa’s rifle and shot them. I was a coward for hiding. It didn’t occur to her how badly they were outnumbered. It didn’t occur to her that at the tender age of twelve she did the best thing she could do in saving herself. The responsibility that she put upon herself weighed heavy on her heart.
Two long years after the day that Mija hid in the vegetable cellar, war was over and Latvians had their freedom. Treaties were signed. The country flourished in its newborn democracy. Both World War I and the subsequent War of Independence became a distant memory. Until now, until World War II touched them, until today, twenty years later.
The train whistle brought Mija back to the present. The conductor walked through their car and yelled out “Elste, next stop Elste!” One more stop and they’d be home. As the train came to a stop, several people got up to leave. The train car was about half full now. Mija wanted to stretch. She waited until the train started again, moved Laima’s head against the back of the seat and wiggled into the aisle. She’d take a walk up and down a few times.
She walked to the front of the car and then started back. A man sitting in the third row said to the man next to him, “I believe they had it planned all along. So many Soviet tanks in Riga this morning…..”
Mija interrupted, “Excuse me, sir. Did you say tanks in Riga?”
The man replied with a deep voice, “Yes, tanks. And plenty of Soviet soldiers. I walked by them myself on my way to the train station.”
“Any fighting?” Mija asked.
“More like celebrating. There were hundreds of people cheering them on. Idiots. If I hadn’t already been leaving, I would have made plans to leave.” He shook his head.
My God, Mija thought, was Peter right? Are we done for? She said, “Surely only a small minority would welcome the Russians. I agree with you – it must have been planned ahead of time. May I ask where you’re going?”
“To my parent’s farm in Aleksa. I was going home for my cousin’s wedding. But now……” He shook his head, “No, I’m not going back to Riga.”
“Good luck to you.” Mija said.
“And to you, madam.”
Mija returned to her seat with a dry mouth and pounding heart.