by Mark Perakh
I died when the dull Siberian dawn was replacing the long and dark night. It was spring time but the sloped strips of the yard between the camp's barracks were all covered by lead-like plates of snow.
The most recent snowstorm had lasted for three days, the blows of the North-Eastern wind shaking the screaming walls of our barracks. The hundred or so of us, state criminals, huddled around the stove in the middle of the barracks, where the wild flame from pine logs was scorching our faces, while an ice crust remained intact on our backs.
In such weather the soldiers themselves stayed in their guardhouse, close to a stove and, if lucky, to a bottle of vodka. Only the guards-on-duty, clad in long, double sheepskin overcoats, perched on the guard towers.
But now the storm was over. A silence, deafening after three days of a ceaseless roar of wind, fell on our frozen zone, on the barracks whose low slanted roofs propped heavy snow slabs, on the barbed wire fences and on the eternal dark pines lined up on the slopes around the camp.
The inmates usually tried to stick to the dim wombs of the barracks, until a stern order of a soldier would force them outside, for work or check. Yet I, even accustomed already to the stench of the machorka-tobacco and of dirty prisoners's boots, and of sweaty, rarely washed bodies, craved every mouthful of fresh air.
When the timber door banged closed behind me, I was alone on the dully gleaming snow, my footsteps croaking in the vastness of the gray Siberian air.
After three days of forced immobility in the smoky darkness of the barracks, my legs were weak and my knees trembled, and the knife-cold air made me giddy.
My usual route, the total of two hundred steps, was, first, around the barracks' hoar-frosted walls, and then along the wavy strip of the forbidden zone, zapretka, that dug-over band of land running next to the barbed wire fence.
Something unusual was occurring around. Every motion seemed to slow down, long intervals of silence separating the strangely prolonged clapping sounds of my footsteps. Behind the fence, a puff of snow departed noiselessly from a pine twig and descended very slowly, as if some mysterious force were supporting it against gravity. My vision acquired an unnatural sharpness, and far away in the forest I saw a single dark-green pine needle that was slowly twisting about its invisible axis, floating downward at an almost non-existent speed.
The continuing giddiness forced me to close my eyes and, without any apparent reason, I saw vividly in my mind a scene from a documentary I happened to watch many years before and seemed to have completely forgotten until it reemerged this morning in my mental vision with a larger-than-life brightness. It was the image of the once famous world champion runner Emil Zatopek. I did not see him fully now, just his powerful legs which moved at an agonizingly low speed, the enormous muscles of his calves and thighs bulging slowly at every step and flattening again. Mesmerized by this vision of amazing power and invincible health, I felt for a while as if these were my legs that strained in a tremendous effort, my muscles bulging and flattening, and the path moving toward me at a hypnotizingly slow speed, as if invisible wings held me in the air between the potent pushes of my feet upon the iron-hard ground.
Then I reopened my eyes and saw myself again on the snowy path next to the zapretka.
I finished one round about the fenced-in yard and started another. I used to circle the zone twenty times in a row, trying to get as much as I could of the pine-soaked air.
At the fence corner a guard tower stood, its four thick wooden legs wide at the ground and slightly narrowing toward the plank platform whose three outer sides were walled but the fourth one was open toward the barracks. There, some five meters above me, a young soldier rocked, his face dimly discernable within a cocoon of fur, icicles hanging from around his mouth. His hand, in a cotton-padded mitten, held a rifle whose black-metal barrel was whitish now in a hoar-frost indicating that the lad had stood there for a long time.
He was a good boy, this soldier. His gray eyes, set wide in his red-cheeked roundish face, looked trustingly at the world. Never in his so far short life had he insulted or offended anybody and neither did he want to. In his village, on the shores of a small picturesque river, far away, in central Russia, he had even been slightly despised by his more flamboyant street friends because of his reluctance to take part in neighborhood fights and night forays into kolkhoz fruit gardens. There he grew up among the wide flat fields, a shy and kind boy, until, at eighteen, he was called up for the defence of the Motherland. His assignment happened to be to the detachments that served as guards in prison camps. He loathed his job in this Siberian hole. Even after eighteen months in this service, the sight of the rows of prisoners in their dirty grey garb, and of the awkward slow motions of their formless short-legged bodies, and of their skewed barracks sunk in snow, all this still had a nauseating effect on him.
Despite the daily brainwashing sessions where the political officer explained the vicious nature of those state criminals confined within the fence, and told the blood-freezing stories about their despicable anti-governmental crimes, this lad on the tower had no hatred of inmates. If anything, he felt a faint compassion at the sight of the gray files of prisoners, their faces downcast, as they were led to and from the rock quarry.
There, in the village of his childhood, a girl waited for his return. On his platform, elevated above the uneven cross of four barracks hanging askew on the lead plate of snow, the soldier, in his dreams, was with his girl, his frozen mouth sensing the softness of the girl's fresh and warm lips. His hand in a clumsy mitten held the rifle's flat, but in his mind his palm rested on his girls' resilient round buttocks....
Every soldier, if carrying out all his duties properly, was entitled to one two-week vacation a year. The nice lad on the tower had used up his vacation time and would not have another one for at least the next seven months....
Sometimes he dared to dream of leaving the detachment without permission. He knew he would be caught in no time and wind up there, within these hated barbed wire fences, to spend years in that stinking prisoner's garb, fighting permanent hunger and working the rock quarry...
Yet there existed a chance to earn an extra two-week leave. If some mindless prisoner tried to escape, and, after a warning shot, the guard's second bullet stopped the fool within the zapretka, the award for this "exemplary performance of duties" would be two weeks at home. Such opportunities lent themselves occasionally when a desperate inmate, ultimately fed up with his miserable existence, deliberately jumped on the zapretka to end his term right here and now.
I looked at the lad rocking on the tower and then lowered my face, so the sight of the fence and of the zone would not interfere with my thoughts. I walked evenly, the echo repeating, with a delay, every slap of my prison boots on the hard snow, when an extraneous tap distorted suddenly the even sequence of my footfalls. I lifted my eyes. A paper-wrapped lump, the size of an oak leaf, lay now right at the foot of the guard tower, within the forbidden zone.
I looked up and met the eyes of the young lad on the tower.
"Hey, you," the soldier said, his young voice ringing oddly clear in the ferocious cold. "Pick it up." He nodded toward the packet.
I stopped walking. The packet lay just a step from the boundary that separated the path I was walking on from the zapretka. If I stretched my hand, I could have reached the packet, my feet remaining outside the forbidden strip.
I looked again at the slightly snub-nosed, kind face of the soldier and thought I saw a smile under the pale contour of his yet never shaved, ice-gripped russet mustache.
"There is bread there," he said. "I would not eat it after it fell on the ground. You may pick it up."
I felt how my mouth filled with the taste of bread. The sensation was irresistibly genuine. I thought I saw this piece of bread clearly, as in a miracle, through the wrapping paper. A good chunk of bread, about half the size of my daily ration... In the state of a permanent hunger which never abandoned a prisoner, a chance to get an additional piece of food could easily entice even the most cautious camp survivor into a hopelessly crazy undertaking. But now, there was this chunk of the life-saving bread, real, just a step away, and I had only to stretch my hand over a small piece of the forbidden strip.
The soldier on the tower had never had bad feelings about the inmates. This was the first time he felt some anger. Because of this formless figure down there, the soldier had no choice but to remove one mitten. The mittens were too clumsy so he could not handle his rifle properly with his hands inside the mittens' warmness.
The frost bit his naked hand at once. But the figure down there was irritatingly slow. The soldier had to wait until the inmate's torso, with its hand stretched toward the packet, was half within the zapretka.
I did not hear the shot. The lead slug, pushed by the force of the charge's explosion, slid from the barrel into the fledging morning. On the background of the pale golden dawn, triangular waves were spreading from both sides of the bullet through the frosted air while a tongue of red flame vibrated at the rifle's muzzle. It was impeccably beautiful, this very slow motion of a hot lead slug, this perfect geometric precision of the gradually spreading air waves, and this red cone of flame on the bluish-golden Eastern sky...
While the bullet was digging slowly into my weakening body, I was descending toward the wavy ground, my hand still stretched out to the packet.
"Mama," I cried, my lips not delivering a sound. "I never knew there could be such pain."
Then my face met the snow, unexpectedly soft and friendly.
The lad on the tower shot once more, this time into the air, the fake warning following the bullet that did the job. The door of the guardhouse swung open and an officer, reeking of vodka, his crimson face glistening toward the rays of the dawn, appeared there.
"What the hell," he shouted. "Why shooting?"
"Nothing," the lad on the tower said, forcing his numbed hand back into the mitten. "Just a Jew. Tried to escape."
The officer looked at my body. He saw that my feet were still beyond the forbidden zone. He saw my hand stretched toward the paper-clad lump. He understood what had happened. But this was just a Jew. One Jew less, big deal.
"I see," he said. "Well, I write a report, you get your extra two weeks of leave..."
I lay on the ground, face down. A file of glossy-black ants was crawling along my neck. Their tiny antennas stirred in the air, probing the path incessantly. Scarlet flecks twinkled on their lustrous bean-like gasters and shaggy cone-shaped mandibles. I did not sense the tickling touches of their minuscule cranked legs.
The ants were not expected to survive in this land of permafrost. But they did somehow, against all odds. They had survived in frost and snow, and they were creeping now, slowly but persistently, across my dead neck.
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