The Forever Winter

The Forever Winter

First in Group • Ghost Story / Dance Studio / A drop of blood

Synopsis: In the aftermath of the 872 day siege that left Leningrad in devastation, a war correspondent returns to his home city in search of lost family and stories of survival.


I was on assignment when Nazi forces blockaded all roads into Leningrad. I returned a thousand days later, to try to find my family. I never found them, but I did find others with stories to tell. 


“How did you survive?” 

It’s the same question I ask everyone.

Lilya is quiet a long time. She won’t meet my eyes. One of her canine teeth peeks out from under her lip. 

She taps her foot against the bare wood floor. “There used to be nice carpet here. We had to burn it, like everything else.”

It’s almost an answer.

“I’m glad you’ve come. We need art and beauty back in this city. Why not start with the ballet?  With the spirit of the dancer.”

The Academy has become a shrine. Lilya guides me down the poorly lit hallway, it’s lined with portraits of fresh faced girls who once filled this place with life. 

“She still dances,” Lilya points to a brightly freckled girl with a sharp collarbone and a sharper bun. She touches the next frame. 

“I was a mediocre dancer,” she says. “My mother used to say my heart was too heavy for flight.”

I can see it, the burden that weighs her down. It’s in her unsmiling mouth and abyss-struck eyes. The protruding eye-tooth marring her somber beauty.

Lilya moves up the corridor, gesturing as she goes. “Disappeared. Dead. Dead. Karina, she still comes. But her sister Violeta is dead. So many. Dead.”

I hold up my Graflex and Lilya nods. The flashbulb flares and I know the girl’s faces will be invisible under the glare. As I aim again, I catch Lilya with a wistful face, her fingers resting on her own portrait.  I know, it’s the right photograph. 

“I knew people were monsters, even before. Because of dance…so I should not have been surprised. Come. See the dancers.”

A curtain made of a faded and fraying bedsheet hangs in the door frame. This city is missing so many doors. Doors, and people. Gone. Anything that could be eaten or traded for food, everything that could be burned—gone. 

But mirrors don’t burn. There are so many that it takes me a moment to realize there are only a handful of girls in the room. I’m surprised by the stillness. I’d expected an exultant energy that would communicate itself through the photographs, giving the article a bit of triumph. But it’s not here. 

A grizzled woman in a scraggly shawl plays a steady tune on a skeleton of a grand piano. The lid is gone, replaced by another bit of linen to keep the dust out. It chimes hollow and sad from the corner as a stern instructor claps and corrects posture and form. The girls try to stand straighter as she passes. 

Adeen, dva, and tree, and chteerie. Helena—chin up-up-up!”  

The barre is new and the fumes of fresh varnish and polished brass crowd the room. I prepare a few shots of Lilya—the girls, like flowers, sway in the background. She whispers to me about foot position, arm structure, and how one dancer appears like she’s working too hard. 

“It must look effortless,” she tells me.

“I’m distracting them,” I say to Lilya, after drawing their attention with the camera, but she waves her hand at me. 

Her gaze goes past the girls, past the mirrors. “Young girls, they all want to be prima ballerina. But they don’t know that they will trade everything for it. Everything. What it takes, the physical… emotional sacrifices. And you must have the charisma to captivate, the right body type. And face, the smile of pure enjoyment. The prima, must be perfect.”

“Can I quote you on that?”

She gives me a wry look. “I give it to you. No credits for me.”

We continue. I take photos and make notes. The costume room is cold and barren. The prop room has been ransacked a thousand times over. Everything useful is gone. 

 “The siege is over, but the desperation continues. Everyone is still so hungry.”

“The war will end soon.” I try to reassure her. And myself too.


Lilya leads me into the courtyard. The March sunlight is thin and pale—but trying—like the girls dancing upstairs. “This is where we hold ceremonies each year. You know, it’s really beautiful under the snow…”

I look through the camera for the beauty that must live here in greener seasons. 

“Now that the corpses are gone.”  

The flashbulb explodes with a bright yellow hiss. The air crackles and smells of burnt spice.

“That will be a good photograph,” Lilya says, almost smiling at me. 


I didn’t write about Lilya or the Academy. I published survivor stories from the hospitals and factories. My photographs showed the stalwart Russian people persevering, rebuilding, and reclaiming their lives. The Winter Palace enduring. Victory.

The Academy photos were developed in my makeshift dark room and I never showed them to anyone, despite their depth. They depicted the crushed and crippled world of the arts. How it labored under a lack of vitality and verve. The miserable piano, the missing frocks, the portrait wall of dead potential. The story was there.

Then the last photo came to life under the fixer bath and I choked, sucking in the acrid air, my head swimming. It took me a long time to understand it. Lilya’s words like a skipping record.  

Everyone is still so hungry.

Out in the courtyard, right where I’d aimed the last shot, was the emaciated corpse of a woman. Horrible to behold, her face almost unrecognizable in its distortion, her limbs gone, a single drop of blood frozen to her cheek. Her crooked tooth silently gave me her name. The heavy hearted Lilya.

I went back through the other photos. She was in none of them.

The hallway photograph, the one I knew would be right for the article, was just a series of blank frames—except one. 













{1751}  There is something so infectious about the tone and cantor or wartime narratives that have always gotten my ear; one part disaster narrative, one part blunt trauma PTSD style communication, and even a strange poetic distance that suggests the mental states, a strange fantasy type of communication. Also, great depiction of the haunting beauty of destruction. Great job.  

{1816}  The people and setting are sad, but rich in detail to reveal the terrible things that happened here. It’s hopeful though how they still have music and dance. Life goes on and these people still find joy in it. The imagery is vivid especially withe burnt sensory details.  

{1610}  ~ Great line: “It’s almost an answer.”

~ A stunner: “My mother used to say my heart was too heavy for flight.”

O ~ Your images of missing doors and the reason why totally grounded me in your locale!

~ I loved, “But mirrors don’t burn,” especially as a war correspondent is a type of mirror: a Witness.

Also impactful: “Now that the corpses are gone,” and “…the portrait wall of dead potential.”

~ Ah! Your thread of Lilya’s snaggle-tooth came to a grueling climax!  



{1751}  I wonder one thing, however…if the girls are reacting to the flashbulbs, why wouldn’t they also react to seeing him there alone, with no guide? Wouldn’t the woman at the piano react similarly? Also, why do they not notice him speaking seemingly to himself? I wonder if you could rectify this in some way, such as having another attendant there to greet and guide him but having the final interaction be with Lilya, but this is only a suggestion.  

{1816}  This sounds awkward and pulled me out of the story with reference to the “canine” specifics. “One of her canine teeth”. You don’t need to be so specific just mention she bites her lip or something to evoke anxiety or that she has crooked teeth that stick out. It’s not clear at the end then – the reporter was led along by a ghost? Were all the girls ghosts then? Ground us better in this surprise ending – give us clues along the way so we can believe this.  

{1610}  ~ Whoa! You set up a dual goal in your logline, the more intimate one being that the war correspondent finds his lost family. And then, in your very first paragraph, you tell the reader that he never found his family – THUD! You hook the reader and then you release them when you want to have them rooting for you throughout.

~ This description doesn’t work for me:

“abyss-struck eyes.” An abyss is concave and pulls one in, not a yang site that strikes one’s eyes.

~ In the world of Journalism, a study was done which determined that the beginnings and endings of paragraphs are what impact and stay with the readers most. This line of yours is too good to mulch in the middle of a paragraph:

“The March sunlight is thin and pale—but trying—like the girls dancing upstairs. “



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