The last notes of the symphony reverberated through the auditorium, fading away slowly with the charm they had woven. A profound silence followed, but music’s spell still warmed the hearts, still raised the spirits. No applause could be heard; the musicians had not expected any. For a moment, everyone remained seated, delaying the homecoming to reality, gathering the strength to stand up. A few spectators finally rose, then others. The musicians themselves headed to the loges, dragging their instruments behind them.
Andreï turned to Oskana. She was smiling, not with this on-the-spot short laugh he was still able to spark off from time to time, but rather with a tiny wrinkling from the corner of her mouth showing a more profound joy. He took her hand and helped her on her feet. Her moves were touched with a grace he had not seen for months. They melted in the rustling crowd slowly flowing down the stairs to the great hall. This buzzing of conversations was refreshing to the ear after such a long period of rubbing elbows with silent spectres.
They scattered in the pleasant August night. The city was still damp after the rains of the day before. The weather was warm, so warm that trees had been undressed. They were getting some fresh air without their coats of bark and leaves. The web of their dry branches was trying to grab the moon between knobbly fingers. On the ground, the abandoned rails of the tramway were glittering like threads of drool left by some giant snail.
Andreï was walking on air seeing Oskana so radiant. He would have danced along the sidewalk if he had been able to. His beloved slenderness and milk-white skin had always made his head spin. Of course, she had never been so thin before. Her pale complexion made her glow like an opal in the shadows. She would turn twenty-two the day after but he decided to mark her birthday that very evening. He had dreamed about it for so long that he wanted the celebration to be an enchanting event. No other night had been so promising for ages and he would not let the opportunity pass. He caressed her on the scruff, running his fingers between the bronze hair curls getting loose from her chignon. She slightly thrilled, closed her eyes and let her chapped lips unbend voluptuously. He bent toward her and murmured:
“I have a surprise for you.”
She cast him an interrogative glance from her wide eyes, which sparkled as strongly as ever from within their hollowed sockets. He just winked in answer. The rest of the way, she hummed a ditty whose faintly whispered lyrics could not be understood. This was unimportant: the tune was swinging and accompanied them to their leprous building. Oskana preceded him in the dark staircase since she was better at avoiding unsteady steps. She led them up to the third floor without stumbling once and barely had to fumble to find the lock. They closed back behind them.
Andreï pulled the table toward the window to let moonshine flow over it. Groping his way along, he opened the sideboard and took dishes that had not been used for almost a year. He laid on the table and even bothered to artistically fold the napkins. Startled, Oskana asked:
“What the hell are you plotting here?”
“Just sit down. You will see.”
He rummaged through a drawer and grabbed a nail puller. Then, he went to the farthest corner of the little apartment and ducked to meticulously unfasten one of the parquet’s planks. A niche stuffed with hay had been laid out beneath. Andreï took from there an object wrapped in a piece of cloth and brought it to the table. He ceremoniously unwrapped it, revealing a small can of food and a candle. Oskana took the can in her trembling hand and exposed it to the swooning light from outside.
“Aubergine soused with garlic. But… How?”
Andreï plugged the candle on a tin-plate holder and stroke the match he had kept for the occasion.
“I’ve hidden it on purpose right after the restrictions had started.”
He dragged a few slices of stale bread from his big pockets.
“And I’ve managed to save that these last days.”
Oskana was at a loss of words. She nibbled her lower lip. A tear ran down her cheek. Andreï opened the can. The powerful scent immediately filled the room, making their starving stomachs roar. Still they took their time to spread the glittering green and black slices on the bread, tenderly squeezing them with the edge of their knives in order to relish the texture, in order to appreciate the gloss. They enjoyed their feast, gazing into each other’s eyes in the golden glim of their last candle’s flame. Later, they would recline, Oskana huddled between Andreï’s arms, and they would watch the light dying slowly. They would not have the strength to do anything else before nodding off, but this was not important. A symphony in their heads, a few subs, loving caresses… They had escaped the siege. Tomorrow, German bombs would fall again, the famine would strike again and later on, the frost of the winter would come back to harass them too. But they knew they would overcome it all in the end.