FOUR FOR THE PRICE OF ONE

 

Mark Perakh

As it could be expected, the strange last name of Ilya Barakhokhlo supplied an inexhaustible source of jokes both for the camp’s inmates and the warders. Its simplest version, also easier to pronounce, Barakhlo, which came to mind at once when this odd name was pronounced, provided a lot of fun, since this word in Russian means, depending on the context, either personal belongings, or, more often, any low quality stuff. While conducting searches, the warders would routinely move a hand over both Barakhokhlo’s belongings and his head, and ask, "Is that all your barakhlo?" and chuckle happily. Some more sophisticated versions included such pearls as Khokhlo, a distorted Khokhol, the derogative reference to Ukrainians, even though he was not an Ukrainian; or Bara-Bira, a similar reference to Tatars, even though he was not a Tatar; Barakholka, meaning a flea market, often shortened to simply kholka, a horse neck, which inevitably led to a desire to strike upon his neck; in some even more complex versions the characters from the odd name were combined in various permutations with words, usually not included in literary dictionaries, but nevertheless quite common in the everyday Russian vernacular.

Usually Barakhokhlo endured these exercises in wit stoically. He would though eagerly explain the origin of his name to everybody willing to listen.

According to the story told by Barakhokhlo, he was born in Bessarabia, at that time still a part of Rumania, and lost his parents at a very early age. He knew almost nothing about them, except for their being Russian, their last name being either Timokhin or Teryokhin, and his given name being Andrey.

When he was four years old, a rug merchant from Bucharest, a Turk by origin, whose name was Selim Barak-Oglu, adopted him, and named him Ismail. Soon after the end of the war, foreseeing the inglorious collapse of his business in the new, socialist Rumania, Barak-Oglu managed to repatriate to his native Turkey. One year later, living with his adoptive parents in Istanbul, six year old Ismail had already mastered the Turkish street vernacular, although with a Rumanian accent, and still remembered some two dozen Russian words.

Usually, at this point of his narrative, the listeners would request to say something in Turkish, and Ismail would shoot a sentence sounding more or less like "Vair Banay Eermy Para Tautly Sharap," which, he explained, meant something like "Give me some sweet halvah for twenty kopeks." The mention of halvah inevitably caused a sigh of admiration among his listeners, who by and large survived in the camp on soup, this magnificent name denoting rotting cabbage cooked in water.

Then Selim’s wife died of cancer. In a few months Selim married again. His new wife, who was just five years older than the thirteen years old Ismail, from the very first day displayed a strong dislike for the adopted blue-eyed tow-head. Ismail spent more and more time in Istanbul streets. When he was hungry, it was easier to steel a few tomatoes, or apples, and a pita bread in the Istanbul Bazaar, than to run for a meal at home where his young adoptive mother never tired of complaining about his insatiable lust for food. After a while, Ismail almost never showed up at the home, where his absence did not seem to cause any worries.

The street gangs did not accept him because of his weird accent, and he had become a lone street urchin, in a war with the rest of the world. There were thousands of street urchins in the bazaars and by-streets of Galata and Istanbul, who fought constantly for a place under the sun. Ismail frequented the piers of Galata, where from time to time he could earn a few coins by carrying suitcases of English and French tourists from taxis to the ferries. There were not enough tourists and suitcases for the hundreds of boys who rushed to every arriving taxi or bus. The tow-head speaking with an odd accent who often managed to be ahead of his competitors, often invoked envy among the barefooted mob. More than once, having earned a handful of copper coins, Ismail found himself surrounded by angry competitors who attempted to wrest his earning. In one of the skirmishes, next to Sirkesi pier, he lost a tooth, and after all, only he alone was detained by the police. The police beat him up once again, held him throughout the night in a wet basement, and in the morning kicked him out to the street.

Talking to vagrants, Ismail found that the man who had knocked out his tooth was often seen in Yenikapi district. He wandered the streets of Yenikapi for several days, until finally came across his enemy. Having waylaid the man in a dark by-street, Ismail hit him on the head by a stone. The man, a vagrant of middle age, fell to the ground, and a red puddle oozed from under his dusty graying hair. Ismail touched the man gingerly by the toes of his bare feet. The man did not react. Shuddering, Ismail ran along the dark passage, hurrying to get out of the alien for him district, and did not slow down until he reached the house of Selim Barak-Oglu, in Beyoglu district, on the other side of the Halic bay, which Europeans call the Golden Horn.

Selim was not at home. His wife, at the sight of Ismail, shouted, "Dirty miscreant, when will Allah take you away?"

Ismail waited until the woman went to the backyard, where she busied herself with hanging laundry to dry, and walked into the kitchen. He found a knife, then climbed to the second floor. In Selim’s room, having worked the knife into a chink between the desktop and a drawer, he fished out a few copper and silver coins. Never before had he stolen money from his foster father. Descending back to the first floor, he found under the mattress on which he slept when at home, the sole document he owned, a certificate indicating his name and birth date. Then he walked out to never come back again. He had still one month to go until his sixteenth birth day.

He thought he’d killed the vagrant in Yenikapi, and therefore the streets of Istanbul did not belong to him anymore. He’d heard that in the motherland of his parents all were equal, there were no rich and poor, and one would not be blamed for a Rumanian accent.

He walked along the Galata waterfront, looking at the ships that lined the numerous piers. Having covered several kilometers along the Golden Horn, he finally found what he was searching for. At one of the piers there was a freighter on whose flagstaff a banner hung similar to that of Turkey, also red, but with a sickle and hammer instead of a crescent and a small star. The pier was cordoned off by a wire fence. Next to the wire gate, on a folding chair, a sentry was napping, an old man with a dirty brown fez on his head. Beyond the fence, stevedores moved in a file, up a plank ladder with heavy sacks on their shoulders, and back down without the sacks. A Russian seaman watched them from the deck. This Russian who was wearing a dazzling all-white attire was a creature from another, happy planet. His sparkling attire, so much different from the dirty dark robes of the stevedores, portended a sparkling, happy life for Ismail in the country of his forebears.

For several hours, Ismail watched the progress of loading. From time to time, stevedores walked to a wall next to which their belonging rested in a heap on the ground, and drank water from bottles. About once every hour the Russian seaman would abandon his post for a few minutes, and a deck hand, who otherwise was painting the white walls of a deckhouse, would replace him. While the white-attired man walked away from the ladder, and the deck hand, dropping the brush into a pail, prepared to replace him, nobody was watching the stevedores, at least for a brief moment.

Close to noon the stevedores, one by one, sat down on stones. It was their hour of a short rest. A boy appeared from the near-by coffee shop, balancing a copper salver on his left hand, and on the salver rocked cups with coffee. In his right hand he carried a straw basket with two dozen flat pitas. The old man in a dirty fez rose slowly from his seat and pulled out the bolt on the gate. The boy ran to the pier. Balancing his tray, he walked from stevedore to stevedore, who picked the coffee and pitas. The boy stored behind his cheek the copper coins paid by his customers.

The rest was over, and the stevedores resumed their tedious movement up and down the ladder.

Ismail walked around the coffee house and squatted under a tree next to its back door. In about half an hour, the same boy showed up in the door and poured slops to the ground. Ismail beckoned the boy, showing him coins. The deal was concluded in a couple of minutes.

About four o’clock, the stevedores took one more rest. The boy appeared from the coffee house, with the same tray and basket. Ismail met him in the street. The boy went back into the house, richer by a few lira, and Ismail, carrying the salver and the basket, approached the gate to the pier. The sentry opened one eye and looked at Ismail without any signs of curiosity. He opened the gate, and Ismail walked to the pier.

While the stevedores drank their coffee, Ismail took a seat on a stone, next to them. This time it turned out a little harder to conclude the deal. Ismail had to hand over all of his coins, including those the men owed for the coffee, and to turn his pockets inside out to show that he had no more money. Having received the money, one of the loaders handed over to Ismail his bandanna and a belt which, being wrapped around the loader’s head, would hold the thirty kilogram of a sack on the man’s shoulders. The man took the tray, and walked to the gate. The sentry opened for him the gate, displaying no interest to the exchange. The stevedore walked to the street and headed to the coffee house.

The rest was over. The loaders, one by one, approached the stack of sacks . Placing the belts under the sacks, they skillfully lifted the sacks to their shoulders and walked evenly toward the ladder, the loops of the belts around their foreheads. Watching the men, Ismail attempted to lift the sack the same way, but the heavy sack, filled with something sand-like, slid out from the loop of his belt. Two of the stevedores approached him silently and laid the sack on his spine. One of them took a position ahead of Ismail, and the other behind him, and they walked to the ladder as a threesome. Ismail’s legs quivered under the load, and the men slowed down their movement.

On the ship’s deck, the man in the dazzling attire was looking, yawning, at the sparkling smoothness of the Golden Horn. From the corner of his eye, he watched the loaders who, apparently, for him all had the same face. The stevedores dropped the sacks into a black hole of a hold, where each falling sack raised a cloud of a gray dust.

Having dropped his sack, Ismail looked around. Over the starboard, above the farrago of cranes, he could see the foggy silhouettes of the mosque’s domes, the Sulaimanie mosque to the right, and Hagia Sofia to the left, fringed by the green belt of the Gulkhane garden. This was Istanbul, the city where he knew every nook and cranny, and which now had already become an alien place, a place he wished to be as far from as possible. Wiping the sweat from his forehead, he descended to the pier. The same two men loaded another sack upon his spine.

After about ten tours with sacks on his shoulders, Ismail felt that his heart was about to jump out of his throat, but the seaman in the dazzling attire still yawned, rocking from one foot to another, and staring at the white combs that have now broken the smoothness of the Golden Horn.

When he climbed the ladder for thirteenth or fifteenth time, and he thought he would not be able to make even one more step, the Russian seaman finally shouted something to the sailor who was painting the structure, and Ismail realized that it was the time to act. Having dropped his sack, Ismail looked at the Russian who was walking away, and dove into the gaping blackness of the hold. In the cloud of raised dust, he rolled over the heap of sacks and clambered into a corner between the sacks and the hold’s wall.

"Hey, you," somebody said in a low voice from the deck. "Hold it." A contour of a man appeared on the bright background of the sky above the opened hatch. The man dropped into the hold a small packet. Ismail reached for it. It was a pita wrapped in paper. Then the man dropped something else, which turned out to be a bottle with water, tightly stopped with a cork.

The loaders continued dropping sack after sack into the hold. After a while, Ismail fell into a half-sleep, his mind still registering the clapping sounds of feet on the deck, the dull thuds of falling sacks, and sometimes sounds of voices of people who, he thought, must have been speaking in Russian.

Then he woke up, having realized suddenly that there were no more sounds of footsteps, and it had become completely dark in the hold. He scrambled to the hatch, now closed. A faint stream of cool air wafted in through a chink between the hatch and its frame. Then somebody stepped on the hatch, the iron plate clanged, and the stream of air died out.

He drank a little from the bottle and tried to stretch out. His legs met a sack, and his head met another. Half bent between the sacks, he sang in a low voice a Rumanian song he remembered from his childhood. Then he fell asleep again, and when he woke up, the even rambling of an engine working somewhere in the womb of the ship, and the sounds of lapping waves, and the sensation of tossing, told him that the ship took off. Mentally, he kept saying Kara-Deniz, Kara-Deniz, Kara-Deniz, as if this incantation could force the ship to head toward Kara-Deniz, the Black Sea, rather than toward Ak-Deniz, the Mediterranean. The path to the land of his ancestors, where a bright and happy future was in store for him, ran via the Black Sea.

The tossing became stronger, and he realized that the ship left the Golden Horn behind and entered the Bogazi, Bosporus. He could not determine whether it turned east or west, and continued to mutter his incantation.

The pitching rose even stronger, the sacks were falling under his body, his head dove down and then flew up, and at each swing everything inside him rose to his throat. He tried to sit up, but a fit of nausea forced him to stretch out on his back again. In this position the nausea seemed to be a little easier to endure. He drank tepid water from the bottle. Now he wished to be back to Istanbul, where he would have to look around at all times, in fear, but there would be no torturing nausea.

He did not know how much time elapsed in the state of half-sleep, interrupted regularly by explosions of nausea, when finally the exhausting pitching ceased. It could mean that the ship had crossed the Sea of Marmara and entered the quiet waters of the Dardanelles straits. If this was indeed true, then he had lost and would not reach the country of his ancestors. Now, when there was no pitching any longer, he thought that any place in the world would be safer for him than Istanbul. At the first chance he would get out of this hold and to a shore, in whatever country that shore happens to be. His eyes had so much accustomed to the darkness that he could discern now a faint gray strip where the hatch edge apparently did not adjust quite tightly to the frame. Then this gray strip disappeared, and he knew the night had come. He fell asleep again, and when he woke up, the ship was rolling, but the nausea did not return. He finished the water and chewed the dry pita. He could not endure any more the scorching sensation in his abdomen. He clambered into a corner and let out a hot stream which rustled quietly on the wall.

The edge of the hatch had become gray again, and the hold warmed up, gradually becoming hotter and hotter. Another day had come, and he knew that the ship must be far away from Istanbul, either in the Mediterranean, or in the Black Sea. From here they would not return him to Istanbul. Hunger, thirst, heat, and darkness suddenly became intolerable. He could not wait any longer, he had to get out from the hot darkness to the open air, light, food, and water, whatever consequences it could entail.

His knees on the sacks, he started to knock at the hatch with his fists.

"Hey, enough, damn. We can hear you, bastard!" came a shouting voice from the deck.

At this point of Ismail’s narration, his listeners usually divided into two groups, skeptics and enthusiasts. Some skeptic would interrupt Barakhokhlo, "Come on, stop telling fibs. At that time you did not know a rap in Russian. How did you know what they said?" To that, some of the enthusiasts would reply, "So what if a fib? It’s interesting though, isn’t?" Even though for the skeptics this part of Ilya’s story cast a shadow of doubt on the entire story, for the enthusiasts the following notion had a much larger weight, "Anyway, his name still is Barakhokhlo. What, could such a name exist by itself? Never! Somebody had to invent it. So, if you don’t like the story, get out and let us listen." Moreover, both the skeptics and the enthusiasts held the firm opinion, that the most expressive part of the Russian language, comprising the word usually not printed in literary dictionaries, must be universally understandable all over the globe, hence facilitating the comprehension of the rest of the talk.

The hatch banged, opening up and Ismail scrambled to the deck. He found himself in front of two sailors, one of whom, as he learned later, was the boatswain, and the other just a deck hand. Without a warning, the boatswain slapped Ismail from the right, and the deck hand added the same from the left. Ismail’s head swung left, and then right, responding to the first greeting from the country of his forebears.

A man in the white attire shouted from the bridge, "Hey, on the deck, what is this noise?"

"We’ve caught a spy!" shouted the boatswain.

"Fuck he’s a spy! Don’t you see he is just a stowaway? Kick him out back to the sea. Let the bastard swim back to the Turks."

"True," the boatswain said pensively. "Let’s kick him out to the sea, right."

"Of course, kick him out to the sea," the deck hand said. "What the hell do we need Turks?"

"Maybe, though," the boatswain said, "just give him a good beating and force to work? We’ve two deck hands in the hospital. We need hands."

"Hey, did you ever see a Turk working? They all sell fruit in the bazar."

"Not a big deal," said the boatswain. "First thing, he’s not a Turk. There are no tow-head Turks in the entire world."

"Not a Turk?" the sailor said doubtfully. "Who the hell may he be then?"

"Devil knows," the boatswain said. "Even some Eskimo may be a tow-head."

"Eskimo?" the deck hand said, opening wide his mouth. "No, I’ve never yet seen an Eskimo on a ship. If he’s an Eskimo, he’ll never know to work!"

"Not a big deal," said the boatswain. "We’ll give him a nice beating, he’ll learn. And in Odessa we’ll transfer him where he belongs."

The boatswain’s opinion won. The nice beating was duly performed with gusto. And in Odessa they indeed transferred him to where he belonged.

The senior investigator of the Odessa Regional KGB, Captain Krasnozhon did not believe a single word in the story told by the youth from Turkey, translated for him by a Turkish-speaking trusted interpreter. Captain laughed heartily when the interpreter explained that the fool wished to be considered Russian and to be named Andrey Timokhin or Teryokhin. Some three years earlier, such a Turk would be a nice find for Captain Krasnozhon, very useful to further the Captain’s career. Some three years earlier Captain Krasnozhon could beat out of the Turk a confession of being a spy for Turkey, USA, Israel, Japan, and Costa-Rica, in one round! But now, in 1956, when the most notorious enemies of the people were being released from the Gulag, the Captain’s superiors did not care a rap about a snotty Turk who did not know even three words in Russian. Without the Special Commission, which used to dispatch the enemies of the people so promptly to the camps, prisons and executioners without such nonsense as a trial, now every investigator was supposed to prove the subversive action of the accused! How could he prove that anybody in his right mind would send a spy who was deaf-and-mute in Russian? The beloved KGB of the Captain, and with it the entire country, rolled into an abyss, and Captain Krasnozhon rolled with it. How could Captain Krasnozhon know that in a few years the new, wiser leadership would raise his beloved organs to a new height?

Having dealt with the file of Ismail Barak-Oglu for a week, Captain Krasnozhon realized that he would not extract anything useful from this case. Mentally spitting, he wrote a Determination, establishing that the case of Barak-Oglu did not belong to the KGB, and that the detained man was to be transferred to the office of the Prosecutor for the further criminal prosecution in regard to the illegal crossing of the State Borders of the USSR. When compiling the Determination, which later was also signed by the head of the Investigative Division of Odessa Region KGB, Major Goloushko, and by the Chairman of the Odessa region KGB, Major General Kotikov, and to which an official stamp was affixed, Captain Krasnozhon, in a way of a friendly joke, transliterated the name Ismail Barak-Oglu, son of Selim, from Latin to Cyrillic characters, as Ilya Solomovich Barakhokhlo. Envisioning the jokes that would follow the Turk throughout his further life, because of that name which sounded in Russian like a mockery, Captain Krasnozhon felt a semblance of satisfaction. Transferring the detained to the Prosecutor’s office, Captain Krasnozhon commented the youth’s wish to change his name to Timokhin as follows, "Do you see these three signatures and the stamp? Now it would be easier for you to be born a second time than to change the name. Translate!"

Translating the Captain’s comment, the Turkish speaking interpreter added his own comment, "Maybe some foolish Russian wench, whose name is Timokhina, will marry you, and you’ll take her name, then you will be Timokhin."

In a due course, the file in regard to the illegal crossing of the State Borders of the USSR by I. S. Barakhokhlo had reached the court. Judge Kuzko, and the people’s assessors Ptueva and Kiskin, with the secretary Dueva, and with the participation of a defender Goldfeld, assigned by the court, conducted the proceedings in the state of overwhelming yawning. The maximum penalty for the illegal crossing of the state borders, in whatever direction, in the absence of exacerbating circumstances was up to three years of deprivation of freedom in camps of general type. However, because this time the court needed an interpreter, the process took twice as long as Judge Kuzko considered fitting only three years in camps. Displaying a creative attitude to his duties Judge Kuzko easily found a way to justify the time spent on the proceedings. Like Captain Krasnozhon, Judge Kuzko was not happy with the new trends in the judicial practice. It had reached such a level that some especially impudent defenders dared to contradict the judges! Judge Kuzko knew how to defend the sacred right of the judges to uphold the justice in the interests of the state. Expanding the accusation supplied by the prosecution, judge Kuzko additionally charged the defendant with stealing the state property. To the question, timidly asked by defender Goldfeld, what state property the Court had in mind, judge Kuzko explained that he meant the cost of the transportation on a state owned ship. Defender Goldfeld, even more timidly, commented that, in his humble opinion, this notion extended the concept of stolen property a little too far. Judge Kuzko disdainfully advised the defender that the latter should think before speaking.

Unanimously, the court sentenced Ilya Barakhokhlo to three years of deprivation of freedom for the illegal crossing of the state borders of the USSR, and to five years of deprivation of freedom for the theft of socialist property, both terms to be served concurrently, altogether five years in camps of general type. Accounting for the defendant being not a citizen of the USSR, the court authorized the Gulag authority to determine the type of the camp matching the defendant’s legal status. Hence, at the beginning of ’57 Ilya Barakhokhlo found himself in Eastern Siberia, at the Taishet-Lena railway, in camp 04 situated in the village of Chuna.

During the three years in the camp, four events took place which determined Barakhokhlo’s further fate.

First, in about six months he had quite decently mastered the language which in that camp, mainly populated by the people of non-Russian origin, and ruled by half-literate officers of the Gulag, was supposed to be Russian.

Second, on the first day of his seventh month in the camp the KGB representative in the camp, in the camp slang referred to as God-parent, Captain Sitchikhin, summoned Barakhokhlo and told him that he would be happy to help this inmate, after his release from imprisonment, to get the Soviet citizenship, change the name to Timokhin, assist in finding a good job, and would generally gladly take care of the former Turk, whom, as it transpired, Captain Sitchikhin liked very much as a Russian, a patriot, and generally a very nice fellow. All what Captain Sitchikhin wanted in return, was just a small favor. Russian patriot Barakhokhlo would only write, from time to time, short notes to Captain Sitchikhin reporting a wrong behavior on the part of inmates, who, unlike Russian patriot Barakhokhlo, all were, of course, sworn enemies of Russia and of socialism.

Russian patriot Barakhokhlo said that he would be honored to have a chance to assist Captain Sitchikhin in his noble pursuits, were it not for his poor Russian.

Captain Sitchikhin frowned, and in a completely different, stern tone said that Barakhokhlo’s notes would not be printed in literary magazines, and therefore his Russian would be more than adequate. Furthermore, besides measures designed to encourage those who had realized what their duty was, Captain Sitchikhin had at his disposal also a wide variety of penalties for those stubbornly refusing to respond to his requests. Barakhokhlo had found the Captain’s last argument to be very persuasive, therefore he had signed a promise to inform Captain Sitchikhin on all harmful trends among the inmates, signing his reports, for the sake of secrecy, as Borisov. While leaving the Captain, Barakhokhlo said to himself that he would never write any notes for the Captain.

Third, during the second year in the camp, working, as almost everybody else in Chuna, in a woodworking factory, and having constantly to handle wood, Barakhokhlo had discovered that he had a talent for carving wooden figures. It began when he noticed on the freshly planed wood, which he had never seen either in Rumania or in Turkey, patterns that sometimes looked like people or animals, sometimes like flowers, sometimes like faces, or buildings. These patterns began coming to him in dreams, appeared before his eyes during head counts, they troubled him, invoking a strong desire to cut them out of planks, to imbue them with three dimensions, to separate them from the faceless background of the silent, inert plane, to force them to have an independent, unpredictable life.

The inmates were strictly forbidden to possess knives. However, in the woodworking factory, where every day worked almost two thousand inmates, and about the same number of free inhabitants of Chuna, most of them former inmates, who’d finished their terms and settled in the village, there was so much of iron in various shapes and forms, that to make knives of every possible size was a routine, everyday affair. To carry a knife from the factory into the adjacent camp’s zone was also not a problem. Two thousand people crossed the checkpoint between the camp and the factory twice every day. To conduct a body search of each of them twice a day would take many hours every day. The salary of the captains and lieutenants depended on the fulfillment of plan’s quota in the factory. Therefore the search of inmates passing from the factory into the camp was conducted not more often than once every two to three weeks. If the search, either at the checkpoint, or in the camp’s barracks, revealed knives, they were taken away, and the knives’ owners subjected to penalties, but in a few days the inmates once again had the forbidden knives and used them to cut their nails, to divide the bread ration, to sharpen pencils, and sometimes to settle the scores.

Barakhokhlo had rapidly learned the ways of the camp. He made several knives with wooden handles, and, not to risk their loss in searches, hid them in the factory. His work was with a crew that unloaded heavy wooden logs from railway flatcars. Whenever he could snatch a few minutes of free time, he would carve the figures that tortured his imagination. These figures he would carry into the camp and hide them under his mattress, one of four on a two-level pallet, hundreds of which filled out, in four rows, the barracks which smelled of the crude brand of tobacco, the so called makhorka, and of wet felt boots.

During one of the big searches, a barracks’ warder Burdyaev, a wrinkled old creature, who was counting hours till the day of his retirement which would be in less than a year, unearthed the carved figures and stared at them for a long time.

"Hey, Barakhlo, can you make a box with a carved picture on its lid?"

Barakhokhlo shrugged.

"And where are you hiding your knives?"

Barkhokhlo remained silent. He knew that he could not avoid now a few days in a condey, the punishment cell, the standard retribution for possessing a knife or tea, also strictly forbidden to inmates. To his surprise, Burdyaev did not say a word about kondey. He put the wooden figures into his pockets.

In a few days, while driving the inmates from the barracks to a political session, Burdyaev made a sign to Barakhokhlo to stay. When they were alone in the barracks, Burdyaev fetched from under the flap of his coat a small wooden box, on whose lid there was a crudely carved picture of a deer pulling a sledge.

"Can you make something like this?" Burdyaev said. Inspecting the box, Barakhokhlo immediately understood its construction. He knew he could carve a much better picture.

"With good knives, yes." Barakhokhlo said.

"You’ll get knives," the warder said. "Hold, this is for you," and he handed over to Barakhokhlo a small packet of loose tea. "Just keep your tongue behind the lips."

In a few days, Burdyaev, again finding a moment he was in the barracks alone with Barakhokhlo, gave Barakhokhlo five knives of various sizes, whose blades could be retrieved into the handles.

From that day on, Barakhokhlo’s life in the camp changed drastically. First, Burdyaev managed to arrange for Barakhokhlo’s transfer from the loaders’ crew to the factory’s power plant, where his assignment was to take care of a reserved diesel-dynamo set. This job left plenty of free time which he could now use to carve the wood and to make boxes for Burdyaev. Second, he had now inexhaustible source of the forbidden tea.

Warder Burdyaev knew his pedigree not further back than to an orphanage in Irkutsk. Lovingly raised by the Party and brought up in the spirit of self-negating devotion to the cause of peace and socialism, and, furthermore, giving all of his energy to the noble cause of building communism, he nevertheless could not fully withstand the treacherous sprouts of remnants of capitalism in his consciousness. His interest to carved wood was due not that much to his love of art, but rather to his persistent mulling over a tantalizing problem, how to put aside some money toward his upcoming retirement. Of four rules of arithmetic, the division was for Burdyaev one of the incomprehensible mysteries of the universe. He could though handle some multiplication as he knew the multiplication tables up to five. He handled addition quite well, especially if the quantities to be added were in rubles and kopeks. Warder Burdyaev was also not completely alien to Physics, explaining, given an opportunity, that an electric bulb would light up if a plus and minus meet in there. "This’ like a man and a woman. They meet, and kids get out, you get it?"

Burdyaev himself had no kids, but he had a woman. That woman, who responded to a gentle name of Nyusya, weighed 280 pounds, spoke in a deep bass, could handle an ax like a professional lumberjack, and had no difficulty in swallowing a half-liter of vodka in two gulps.

A 50-gram packet of tea cost Burdyaev, in the village general store, 57 kopeks. Boxes, made by Barakhokhlo, who received one or two packets of tea for a box, Nyusya Burdyaeva would take to Irkutsk, where she would deliver them to a middleman, at eight, or ten rubles a box. The middleman, who officially was registered as an artist-woodcarver, working at home, would then submit the boxes to a legally registered cooperative named "Baikal Artisans," at 18 rubles 23 kopeks a box. In the cooperative, the boxes would be covered with a lacquer and delivered to the state, fulfilling the state-approved planned quota, receiving for each box 32 rubles 12 kopeks. The state would sell the boxes in special stores catering to foreign tourists, at 20 or 25 US dollars a piece.

In underground toilets at Moscow railway stations, having locked himself in a stall with a seller, a buyer could acquire US dollars at 12 rubles per dollar.

The forbidden tea served in the camp as a universal currency. Now Barakhokhlo had become one of the camp’s moguls.

Fourth, in the beginning of his third year Barakhokhlo discovered Tanya. The wife of one of the officers, lieutenant Teryokhin, Tanya worked in the camp, as did most of the officers’ wives. Three times a week she served as a cashier at the camp’s store.

In the village of Chuna, imbibing more than medicinal amounts of alcohol, preferably vodka, but in the absence of such, also a moonshine, and lacking the latter, any other alcohol-containing stuff from perfume to antifreeze liquid, had been regular entertainment of 97 percent of female and 95 percent of male population. Lieutenant Teryokhin had in this village the reputation of a drunkard.

For long, Barakhokhlo did not pay attention to Tanya. He was preoccupied with just a struggle for survival in the hostile environment of the camp, with whose rules and habits he had not yet been familiar. He was preoccupied with his dodging the attention of Captain Sitchikhin who persistently demanded material from his recalcitrant recruit. He was preoccupied with the aching muscles, overworked by the logs he unloaded, and with never ceasing sensation of empty, eager stomach. Now, when he could exchange tea for lard, cookies, sometimes sausage, and other victuals that other inmates received in parcels from their relatives, the hunger did not torture him any longer, and his job at the power plant did not exhaust him as the logs unloading before. And the nineteen year old Barakhokhlo, who had never yet known a woman, had discovered that he was a man.

One day, standing in front of a counter, behind which Tanya Teryokhina sat, inspecting a ledger that contained the inmates’ accounts, Barakhokhlo recalled the words of the Turkish speaking interpreter in the Odessa KGB, "If some fool of a wench by the name of Timokhina married you and you took her name, then you would become Timokhin."

He was not sure, was his parents’ name Timokhin or Teryokhin. It seemed funny that Tanya happened to be Teryokhina. He had still about four months to go until his parole release. The notion of marrying Tanya was preposterous. She was a married woman, and a wife of an officer of the camp’s administration. The administration, being constantly in contact with the inmates, remained a separate layer, not mixing with them, like water and oil.

Tanya found Barakhokhlo’s name in her ledger. "You’ve in your account 37 rubles, Barakhokhlo,"said Tanya. "Have you chosen what to buy?"

"You know, I am not really Barakhokhlo. My father’s surname was Teryokhin. Or, rather, Timokhin."

"Really? I am Teryokhina through my marriage. My maiden name was Timokhina."

"A-a?" Barakhokhlo stared at Tanya. Only now he really noticed her. Never before had he seen such a white skin. Never before had he seen such transparent, light-gray eyes. She was both Teryokhina and Timokhina! It could not be by a blind chance! This was fate! Destiny! He should have wind up in this camp to meet this woman!

"Can it be we’re relatives?" asked Barakhokhlo.

"Oh, I am from a village of Timokhino, Irkutsk region. In our village a half of families are Timokhins, and the other half, Raskudaevs. What, every Timokhin must be a relative?"

Without answering, Barakhokhlo walked out of the store’s barracks.

From that day on, he showed up at the store every Monday, Wednesday, and Friday, which were Tanya’s scheduled days in the store. While other inmates were choosing what to buy from the store’s offerings that included makhorka, stale bread, canned beef, notepads, pencils, and envelopes, Barakhokhlo would lean over the counter, as close to Tanya as the counter allowed, soaking in the smell of soap that wafted from Tanya, and staring at her eyes. From time to time he would squint at the salience of her breasts which stretched her tight woolen sweater. How could he fail to notice for so long the extraordinary beauty of this woman?

Evidently having fun at the sight of the obvious passion of an inmate, Tanya usually would knit, her eyes downcast, but sometimes she would shoot a glimpse at Barakhokhlo, and then something hot would explode in his chest, and he would have a hard time to overcome the powerful desire to hug her shoulders and to glue his mouth to her warm, pink lips.

"Tell me something,"  Tanya would say, without slowing the movement of her plump arms that held evenly rocking knitting needles. And Barakhokhlo would tell her about mosques of Istanbul, about fights in the streets of Uskudar and Pera, about torturing tossing in the dark womb of a Black Sea ship… Tanya would listen silently. Even though she knew already almost everything about the so far not very long life of Andrey-Ismail-Ilya, she seemed to be enchanted by his story, and eager to learn more about it. After a while, Ilya mustered enough courage to start asking her about her life, and gradually she started telling more and more about it.

"What will you be doing this evening?" asked Barakhokhlo on one of the Fridays.

Not surprised any longer that an inmate could ask such a question of a free woman, and a wife of an officer, she answered, "You know, every Friday we all gather in somebody’s apartment."

"And what will you do there?"

"Come on, you know. Drink of course."

"And you too?"

"Sure. If I’ll not, they will scoff at me."

"Do you like to drink?"

"What is it in it to like, in that bitter stuff?"

"Then why?"

"I told you, they will poke fun at me… Just, I drink but not as to be drunk."

"How?"

"Before going to the party, I swallow a slab of butter. Then you don’t get drunk."

"A slab of butter? Isn’t it nauseating?"

"I keep it first in cold water. Then I take it, a hard slab. Of course, it’s loathsome, but better than to get drunk. And I can’t refuse to drink. They will make a fool of me, say that I keep my nose up, that I pretend to be of higher class, and all of that. I tell you as a secret, my lawful, he’s really drunk through and through… Because of his binges, he is not really a man any more."

The frankness of Tanya invoked in Ilya’s chest a warm, sweet sensation.

Between his comings to the store, the smell of Tanya’s soap constantly followed him While on his shift at the power plant, or when carving wood and making boxes for Burdyaev, he constantly thought about Tanya. In a few months he would be released from this camp, and then Tanya must become his wife, whatever the price.

Secretly from Burdyaev, he started working on a box that would become the pinnacle of his art. A day will come when he will give this box to Tanya. The box will be octagonal. On four of its eight side walls there will be pictures from his life: the contour of Hagia Sophia on one side, the contour of the ship that had brought him to Odessa, on another side; the cell of the internal prison of the KGB in Odessa, on the third side; he, himself, coming out of the camp’s gate toward his freedom, on the fourth. On the other four sides he will make pictures from Tanya’s life, as he imagined it. On one side there will be the image of a Siberian village sunk in snow, among the eternal Siberian cedars. He did not yet know, what to depict on the remaining three sides. But he knew that on the octagonal lid there will be a picture of a wedding, he and Tanya holding hands and looking at each other, and around their heads there will be an inscription, its salient letters made of oak, saying, Timokhin and Timokhina, forever.

There would be no mention of lieutenant Teryokhin in this creation. Ilya knew about the existence of a lieutenant. He knew that the lieutenant was listed somewhere as Tanya’s husband, but in his mind this fact was not really connected to Tanya’s life, as if lieutenant Teryokhin was just an inconsequential, incidental detail, some fleshless shadow, which would disappear as soon as he, Ilya, and Tanya are together.

A day had come, though, when lieutenant Teryokhin had suddenly converted into a creature in flesh and entered Ilya’s mind, as an obstacle to his future with Tanya.

That Wednesday, Ilya, as usual, was waiting for Tanya next to the entrance to the store. A few minutes before six, as usual on Mondays, Wednesdays, and Fridays, a female figure, wrapped in a gray shawl, appeared on the threshold of the guard house, and a jolt in his heart told him that this was Tanya even before his eyes had recognized her. Turning her face away from the wind that carried prickly snowflakes, Tanya rapidly walked from the guard house to the barracks where the store was located. Kicking away the snow from her felt boots, she removed a padlock from the door, while a soldier, who was smoking a self-made cigarette - a pinchful of makhorka wrapped in a piece torn from a newspaper - held a few inmates away from the door. Having checked that the padlock had not been tampered with, Tanya nodded to the soldier. The soldier dropped the smoldering butt to the ground and moved a foot to squeeze it into the snow, but two inmates at once dove toward the butt, and the one who happened to be a little brisker than the other, grabbed the butt and soaked it in between his lips. His competitor swore, the soldier spat, and waved, allowing the inmates into the dark cave of the store.

While other inmates elbowed each other at the counter, surveying the goods on the shelves, Ilya leaned over the counter toward Tanya, who sat there, her face away from the counter. The door of the barracks knocked at its jamb, under the jolts of the Siberian wind, and at each of its swings the weak bulb, that hung from the low ceiling above Tanya’s head, blinked. The wind howled sadly outside, and the timber walls shook. Tanya did not look at Ilya.

"Tanya, what is it?" Ilya said in a low voice, so that other inmates would not hear him

"What it?" Tanya said, and covered her face with her palms.

"Hey," Ilya said. He took her palms and moved them away from her face. Her left eye was black, framed by a swollen bruise. At the left corner of her mouth, a red comma bulged, and another red comma ran over her cheek, her beloved, sweet cheek, toward a blond braid, that fell over her ear, the ear he so desperately wished to take into his lips.

"Who?" Ilya said, tightening his fists.

"Who else? My lawfully wedded one, who else?"

Ilya moaned. "Tanya, I’ll be out in four months. I’ll marry you, then nobody will ever touch you. I promise. And I’ll take your name, Timokhin."

Tanya chuckled, and at once groaned grabbing her cheek. "Ilya, I am an old scold, I am already 24. And you’re just a boy. You need some nice young girl."

"I need you, only you!" Ilya whispered. "Only you!"

"Stop it, and be quiet. Don’t you understand that I’ve a husband?"

"Some husband! He’s a lowlife drunkard," Ilya whispered.

"He is. But who among your ilk, men, isn’t?"

"He beats you up.-"

"Yes. But he’s my lawfully wedded one, isn’t he?"

"So, will you endure him forever?"

"Ilya, try to understand. Had we met in some other way, everything between us could be very pretty. But as it is… I’ve a husband. If he knew how we talk to each other, he would shoot me. He keeps his two-barrel rifle always loaded. Just he’s a drunken fool, he would not imagine I can do it with an inmate."

"Tanya, when I am released you must leave him. I’ll marry you."

"Enough of whispering," one of the inmates said. "We’re here to make purchases."

"Go, Ilya," Tanya whispered. "Go, and forget those crazy ideas. Maybe I wish I could respond to you as you say. Only I am married, so there is nothing in this for us, me and you, not now, not ever."

The wind banged the door of the barracks behind Barakhokhlo, as he bolted out of the store. Only now, squeezing his hands into the gloves, he noticed that his nails had cut into his palms. Tanya’s words still sounded in his ears. Lieutenant Teryokhin, until now a nebulous creature that existed somewhere outside his relationship with Tanya, suddenly transformed into a preposterous, unjustified, irremovable obstruction in his way to Tanya, to his proper name, to happiness.

Preposterous? Yes. Unjustified? Yes. But irremovable?

He did not hate lieutenant Teryokhin, as one would not hate a hill that juts up in the way of a road to be built. Such hill has to be leveled off, without regret, but also without hate. It has to be leveled off not because it’s hated, but because it’s of no use for the road under construction, and moreover, it impedes the progress of construction. Where a road should run, a hill nobody needs is subject to annihilation, even if at first glance it seems to be irremovable.

While working with the diesel, or when carving figures on wooden planks which would be parts of a box, or during head counts, he constantly mulled over the problem of somehow getting rid of lieutenant, who had so preposterously become a massive rock, obstructing the way to Tanya, a black rock in the shape of a drunken man.

If he could waylay the lieutenant in a dark passage, holding a prepared heavy stone, as once in a deserted corner of Yenikapi, the preposterous block on the way to happiness would be removed. But there were no dark passages in the camp, and lieutenant Teryokhin never walked alone anywhere in the camp.. There were many dark corners in the woodworking factory but lieutenant Teryokhin never showed up in the factory.

When, before being transferred to the power plant, Ilya worked as a loader, there was in his crew a Chechen by the name of Aslan. Tall, lanky man, very quiet and slow-moving, Aslan, as the rumors went, had killed in Kazakhstan, where Chechens lived after being deported from their native Chechnya, a man who had cheated on him in some underground deal. The man turned out to be a remote nephew of some big shot in the Party. The prosecution had no proofs of Aslan’s guilt, but, accounting for the kindred feelings of a Party big wheel, the exoneration of a deported Chechen was out of question. A witness was produced who testified that he overheard Aslan say that for the Chechens there was no difference between the Czarist regime and the Soviet one. Aslan got eight years. The Chechens were all Soviet citizens, but, on the account of their supposed hatred of all Russians, they were routinely kept in camp 04, with non-Soviet citizens.

During breaks, Aslan would take a seat next to the Turk. He would ask about the mosques of Istanbul, about the morning calls to prayer sounding from the minarets, about Moslem holidays, about pilgrimages to Mecca… He used to call Barakhoklo either Ismail, or Turk, but never Ilya. He soaked in every word of the Turk, and thanking for the story, placed his hand over his heart.

Now Ilya remembered Aslan. Even though the behavior of Chechens did not seem to differ from that of other inmates, they were surrounded by an invisible wall of fear, stemming from their reputation of desperadoes who never hesitated to make use of a knife, for even the most insignificant reason.

The same day, at an evening hour, Ilya asked Aslan out from the barracks. They ambulated around the barracks. They stood there, away from the light falling from the klieg lights that shone upon the barbed wire fences and upon heaps of snow which were piled at the barracks’ timber walls to keep the barracks warm.

"Hold it, Aslan,-" Ilya said, handing over to Aslan two packets of tea. "A gift to you."

Aslan turned the packets labels toward the light. "What is it that you want, Turk?" he said. "Just say it. I take no payments."

"I wish you took it. What I want is…You know lieutenant Teryokhin?"

"Hey, I see what you want, Turk. Forget it!. Don’t you want to live? You know, for a murder in a camp they execute you automatically."

"I know, just nobody should find out."

"No, my friend. I know, everybody thinks that for us, Chechens, it’s nothing to kill a man. Whoever says this, knows nothing about Chechens. We revenge spilled blood, that’s true. If there is blood between me and some other man, I’ll find him and kill him, and after that, let it be whatever it will be. But your lieutenant owes me no blood. Such things one doesn’t do even for best friends."

Ilya remained silent, staring at the dark snow.

"I’ll give an advice though," Aslan said. "Nobody within the camp is suited for such a task. You can’t ambush that lieutenant in the camp, without somebody or other noticing it. It must be done in the village, in Chuna. Some free man, or an inmate who is allowed to walk outside the camp, you see? There are many of them, in the village, who would do anything if the price is right. Look them up in the factory, maybe you’ll find somebody. Just be careful not to run into a stoolie. Here is your tea."

"Keep the tea, Aslan, and thanks for the advice."

From that day on Barakhokhlo stopped exchanging tea for other victuals. He saved the tea now, hiding it behind the exhaust pipe of the diesel. He feverishly made boxes, using every available minute, and warder Burdyaev praised his diligence. Every Monday, Wednesday, and Friday he still hung around the store, ogling Tanya. In night time he hardly could sleep, tossing on his pallet, and the three inmates who shared with him the shaky contraption, swore and threatened to kick him out of the barracks.

One day, right after the regular head count, a soldier beckoned Barakhokhlo and said, "Wait here, lieutenant wants to talk to you."

Lieutenant Teryokhin appeared in the guard house’s gate. Despite frost, he wore boots made of thin calfskin, his smoothly shaven cheeks glistened, and a smell of soap, the same soap used by Tanya, wafted from him. He seemed to be sober. Apparently, his toes felt the bite of the frost, and, while approaching Barakhokhlo, he made dancing movements with his legs, knocking one foot on the other as if attempting to perform a solo number from a classical ballet. Unwillingly, Barakhokhlo chuckled.

"You laugh?"  whispered the lieutenant. "You dare to laugh? I’ll make you laugh right now! You, Barakhlo… I hear you ogle my wife, do you? Look, snake, I’ll make mincemeat of you and mail it in a package to a garbage heap. Understood? Not a step toward the store, you pig. Or you’ll bang right to a kondey, and rot there."

Not waiting for a reply, the lieutenant turned and walked to the gate.

Now Ilya knew he could not wait any longer.

Same evening, he found in the factory a free inhabitant of Chuna village, a former inmate, who had behind him several sentences which, as the rumors went, were for robberies, burglaries, vagrancy, participation in criminal gangs, and a lot of other similar achievements. In his papers his surname was given as Kostin, plus a dozen other monikers.

Kostin etc, a hunched, one-eyed, and almost toothless creature, worked as a guard at a tool shed.

"That lieutenant?" Kostin said, peering with his sole eye at Barakhokhlo. "Yeh, why not? It’s for us just hydrocarbon, no problem. Maybe you want somebody else? Don’t be shy, tell me."

"Look Kostin, if you betray…"

"We’ve no interest to betray. Your Turks or other Muslims will cut my throat in no time. Then I‘ve a reputation to uphold. Somebody else may need me, right?"

"So, what will you charge?"

"What is there to get from you? For the sake of my kindness, I’ll have from you only two jars of glucose and twenty teas, then we’ve a deal."

This way the deal was sealed. The value of lieutenant Teryokhin’s life was put at two half-liter bottles of vodka and twenty packets of tea at 57 kopeks a packet.

"When will you have it done, Kostin?"

"I see you’re fast. Don’t worry, just bring the stuff, next day it’ll be over."

"Well, you must know that he’ll be alone at home only between six and nine on Mondays, Wednesdays, or Fridays evenings, you got it? Only at those times, Kostin!"

"For us it’s all the same. Don’t worry, Muslim."

Next day, after having changed the oil in the diesel, Ilya fetched from behind the exhaust pipe the octagonal box, not yet fully finished. Using a knife, he gouged from its lid the letters Timokhin and Timokhina, and inserted instead small squares of oak wood.

In the evening, handing to Burdyaev the next finished box, Barakhokhlo said, "Citizen Superior, I need two bottles of vodka."

"What? Are crazy, or what? They will kick me out of my position!"

"I need vodka, that’s how it is."

"I thought you were a Turk, but now I see you’re really Russian. Longing for vodka? I understand, of course! Just, no way!"

Sighing, Barakhokhlo pulled away the corner of the blanket on his pallet, revealing the octagonal box.

"A!" Burdyaev said, extending his hand toward the box. His eyes blazed up.

"No," Barakhokhlo said. "First vodka."

"What? Refusing to obey orders? Disobeying administration? Let me have it, at once, inmate Barakhokhlo!"

"No," Barakhokhlo said. "Go, report to whoever you want. Let them find out who supplied the knives for me, who sells my boxes, and to whom… It’s fine with me."

"Oh, you." The warder was silent for a while. "Well, let’s be friends. See, ask for anything else. I’ll get it for you. Not vodka. I can’t vodka."

"Yes, you can," Barakhokhlo said. "Tomorrow."

"What are you doing to me?" Burdyaev wept. "What are you doing to me, snake? Well, you won. Let me have it, tomorrow I’ll get vodka for you."

"First vodka, then you’ll have it"

Next Thursday Barakhokhlo handed over vodka to Kostin. And started waiting.

Friday had come. In the camp, everything remained as always. Barakhokhlo tried to catch every rumor, expecting news about the lieutenant’s fate. But the engine of camp’s rumors remained silent, producing only the usual nonsense about the imminent amnesty, the amnesty which the inmates constantly expected to be announced every minute, but the minutes passed, and the amnesty still was somewhere in the very near future.

On Friday Barakhokhlo saw lieutenant Teryokhin walk from the guard house to one of the barracks, looking very much alive, and evidently happily drunk.

Suddenly Barakhokhlo felt an upsurge of hatred. What right did the lieutenant have to be alive, three days after two bottles of vodka and twenty packets of tea had been duly paid for the elimination of that obstacle in the way to the future happiness of Andrey Timokhin?

On Monday, having barely endured the hours until the noon break, Barakhokhlo rushed to the tool shed.

"Kostin, snake, what’s the matter?"

"Hey, is it you, Muslim? Listen, he was not at home. Then, he has all kinds of arms. A two-barrel rifle always loaded, you know…"

"Didn’t you know that before?"

"Well, Barakhlo. Bring ten teas more, and a jar of glucose, we’ll have a deal."

"I can’t vodka. I give you more tea, after the job is done."

"After the job devil will find you. No, bring it now. How much you have?"

"I’ve five packets more, that’s all."

"Just for you, let it be five. The job will be done, high quality. Don’t worry, Barakhlo."

On Tuesday Barakhokhlo delivered to Kostin the last five packets of tea he still had. And started waiting again.

On Wednesday, as the six o’clock was approaching, the stress gnawing at him intensified with every minute. After he’d finished his shift in the power plant, and returned to the camp, he aimlessly ambled around the barracks, without coming to the mess, from which the smell of rotting cabbage wafted, as usual. Close to six, Tanya, as usual, appeared from the gate of the guard house and walked to the store. At this moment Kostin must be somewhere next to the Teryokhin’s dwelling. Barakhokhlo tried to imagine how Kostin knocks at the door, and lieutenant Teryokhin opens it, and Kostin at once swings his arm, his hand holding a wide-bladed knife. Then his imagination stopped, and returned again to that vision of Kostin in front of the house which he’d never seen and which in his mind looked as a tower made of carved wood with fancy dormers on the roof and wrought iron gratings in the windows.

"Soon, Tanya, soon," Barakhokhlo whispered. "I’ll help you to get rid of him. You’ll be free."

Hours passed. Tanya walked out of the store and to the guard house. In a few minutes she would be at home and find out that there was no more a lieutenant Teryokhin.

The camp was quiet. The klieg lights shone above the fences. A sentry on a watch tower, dully lit by a swinging lamp, was yawning, widely opening his black mouth.

Barakhokhlo approached the guard house, listening. Surely, Tanya must have already discovered that she was free!. Why there was no signs of alarm, why was the village behind the fences so quiet?

Barakhokhlo walked slowly toward his barracks. Kostin, apparently, made a fool of him.

He climbed on his pallet, lay prostrate and did not move, without sleep, until the gray Siberian dawn started percolating through the dirty windows covered with snow up to a half of their height

On Thursday, having barely survived the endless hours until the noon break, he rushed to the tool shed.

"Hey, it’s you, Muslim, Turk," Kostin said, his muddy eye staring at Barakhokhlo. "Need something?"

"Need? What about our deal?"

"What deal? What is it you’re barking about? Between us can’t be any deals."

His sole eye was watching Barakhokhlo’s movements, his hand under the flap of his stitched coat, where he surely had a knife.

"You’re scum though," Barakhokhlo said almost calmly.

"Who are you to me? You’re even not a thief. Were you a real urka, you know. You’re just a mujik. For us, urkas, to make a fool of a mujik, it’s a sacred matter."

Suddenly, Barakhokhlo turned to a shelf and picked up a heavy iron wrench. Kostin jumped up, fetching a knife from under the flap of his coat, but the wrench already was hitting his arm. The knife fell and Barakhokhlo kicked it away. Dropping the wrench, Barkhokhlo hit Kostin with his fist on the urka’s ear. Kostin dropped to his knees. Barakhokhlo kicked the man with the tip of his foot, spat toward the man, and, turning away, said, "Such a box wasted because of you! Just try to harm me, I’ll mash you and feed the mush to mice. Got it? Glucose!"

Only now Barakhokhlo realized that his encounter with Kostin was observed by two men who worked in the tool shed, repairing a table saw.

"You’ve caressed him really nice," one of the workers said. "I don’t know what your deal with him could be, just everybody knows, for them to take advantage of whoever is not a thief, is like for a Gypsy to steal a horse, the most rewarding feat. He’s real scum, didn’t you know?"

From that day on, Barakhokhlo seemed to have lost interest in anything. Only the image of Tanya still followed him day and night. He ceased making boxes, and responded with silence to warder Burdyaev’s swearing and threats. Just recently a camp plutocrat, possessing seemingly unlimited supply of the camp’s currency, the forbidden tea, now he returned to the staple of a soup made of rotting cabbage and a porridge cooked from a cereal unknown anywhere in the world but continuously supplied to the camps, and having the taste of concrete mixed with engine oil. In a few days, his pants had become loose on his waist. He had to support them with a length of a rope.

In the power plant, he was thinking of Tanya, and was mulling painfully over the ways to dispatch the lieutenant anywhere, either in this or, better, in the other world. He knew he would never be able to replace Tanya with any other woman. His thoughts were far from his job, and a few times he missed the scheduled oil change for his diesel. Then he failed to notice a leak. The plant’s supervisor soon discovered that the inmate assigned to take care of the diesel, either pretended to be stupid in order to cover his laziness, or engaged in a deliberate sabotage. He complained, and the camp’s commander transferred Barakhokhlo back to the crew of loaders. Now he again unloaded logs, in his old crew, together with Aslan.

When a freight train carrying logs arrived in the factory, the crew of loaders would be summoned at any time, day or night, as every hour of the flatcars standing idle would cost the factory a demurrage in thousands. Having started unloading, the crew would stay at work until all flatcars would be unloaded, and this could take ten, twelve, fourteen, and even eighteen hours. Ilya’s working hours thus often coincided with Tanya’s work in the store, but Barakhokhlo was even glad when this happened because it had become a torture for him to see Tanya, a torture he could not force himself to avoid voluntarily. If in those hours he found himself at work, it seemed easier to move the giant logs than to stand in the store’s twilight, just one step from Tanya, so close and so unattainable.

Each flatcar was served by a team of eight men. Two of them - the Upper ones, kept precarious equilibrium on the very top of the pile of logs, stacked on the flatcar and tied around with a wire. Using wire-cutters, the Upper cut the wire loops, and, one by one, cautiously rolled the logs over the edge of the stack. Their main concern was not to let the log drop uncontrollably, pulling with it other logs. To work as an Upper, one had to possess an almost acrobatic sense of equilibrium and to lack the fear of height. Two others, the Middle, were standing on the flatcar, at the bottom of the stack. Their task was to direct the five hundred pounds of a rolling log onto two thick wooden rails that rested on the concrete platform, the rails’ tops leaning against the flatcar. The Middle had no tools except for a pair of gloves and their biceps. Two Lower armed with wooden stakes, worked on the platform, receiving the logs on the rails and pushing them away from the flatcar. Finally, two more crewmen, the Stackers, rolled the logs to the other edge of the platform and stacked them there.

Now and then, accidents happened at each of the four positions. Sometimes an Upper would lose equilibrium and fall from the stack. The Middle one could be swept down by a falling log. The Lower could happen to get under the log that was lost by his coworkers above him. It was much easier to replace an injured or killed inmate than to get busy with such a boring and tedious affair as the installation of devices that would make the work safer, more so since these crewmen were just inmates, and most of them even not Soviet citizens.

That Monday the freight train arrived about five PM. The twilight came soon after the work started. The work continued under illumination by fuming torches whose quivering light hurled humongous shadows over the concrete platform along which lined eight flatcars. To unload just four of them took more than seven hours. After a short rest, the crewmen reluctantly resumed work, obeying the cursing foreman.

Following the foreman's order, Barakhokhlo took the position of a Middle, a Korean by the name of Pak complementing the pair. The foreman send to the top of the stack two more Koreans, while Aslan and an Iranian by the name of Hikmet filled the positions of the Lower. The accident happened about three hours later, when the Eastern sky started already change from black to gray, displaying the serrated contour of pines' tops. After more than ten hours of unloading, the crewmen worked as if half asleep, and the curses and threats of the foremen had no effect any more.

At this time the height of the stack on the flatcar dropped almost in half. The feet of the Upper Koreans now were at the level of Barakhokhlo’s face. Having pushed a log toward the wooden rails, Barakhokhlo closed his eyes for a moment. A faint feeling of danger forced him to shudder. He opened his eyes. A few feet from him, on the top of the stack, a Korean man, waving his arms, was rocking on a shaky log a half of which was overhanging above the emptiness. It was obvious that the man would not be able to hold the log which was sliding unstoppably from under his feet. The other Upper Korean, who was at the opposite edge of the stack, just started running over the logs toward his mate. His feet slid on the round shaped logs. He extended his hands toward his partner, obviously being too far and too late. The falling log rotated under the feet of the first Korean man. The log’s butt that was pointing toward Barakhokhlo, moved over an arc, away from him. From the corner of his eye Barakhokhlo saw that his partner Pak had already jumped down to he platform and was dashing away from it, but both Lower, Aslan and Hikmet, stood there, their faces away from the flatcar, not seeing the plunging log. To his and Pak’s shouts, they started turning their faces, but some instant subconscious calculation in his mind told Barakhoklo that they had not enough time to realize what was occurring above their heads, and that they happened to be right in the path of the five hundred pounds of a tumbling log. His hesitation lasted for a fraction of a second, and, pushing himself away from the flatcar, he dove toward Aslan and Hikmet. The parabola of his fall, having touched Hikmet tangentially, led his body right into Aslan. They both fell, and, half-stunned by his encounter with concrete, Barakhokhlo rolled on the platform, pulling Aslan with himself, away from the path of the roaring logs.

The torches still burned; their quivering, uneven light mixed with the dull grayness of the dawn. The crewmen surrounded Barakhokhlo and Aslan who still remained prone on the concrete. Next to the feet of Aslan, who was untouched by the fallen logs, Hikmet moaned, prostrate, and a bloody spot widened slowly from under his oddly twisted leg. Pak trotted back and forth, murmuring in Korean. One of the Upper Koreans sat there, on the top of the disordered stack, whispering something, while his partner lay on the concrete, next to flatcar, a log across his chest. All over the platform, scattered logs, not rolling any longer, lay in a pattern of fan.

"Enough gaping!" the foreman barked."-Lift it, now!"

Less than an hour later, the injured had been dispatched to the camp and the foreman announced the new assignments. Aslan's and Barakhokhlo's bruises and scratches did not impress the foreman. The train had to be unloaded.

Now Barakhokhlo became an Upper, together with Pak, while Aslan moved to be a Middle.

Having observed for a while how his men worked in the new arrangement, the foreman said,

"Hey, Chechen, listen. This Turk, ah? He'd saved your life though. You owe him some vodka. Isn't it a pity vodka is not allowed in the camp?"

On Tuesday, in the middle of the day, Barakhokhlo woke up on his pallet, sensing all of his bruises and abrasions, the telltale evidence of the events of the previous night. Next to his pallet, Aslan stood.

"Let’s talk outside," the Chechen said.

They walked out of the barracks.

"I owe you, Turk," Aslan said. "When you need me, just tell me. Wherever I'll be, I'll come and do whatever you may need. Get it? Anything you say, I'll do it."

"You know what I need, Aslan," Barakhokhlo said. "Just as you’ve said, it can be done only by somebody in the village, not by an inmate."

"By Allah, do you still dreaming of that woman?" Aslan said. "What is it in her so special? There are million of them, better ones. You'll find a girl without a husband, won't you?"

Barakhokhlo remained silent. He knew that there was no other woman like Tanya anywhere in the universe.

"She doesn't want you," Aslan went on.

"She wants me, I know! She wants me very much! Only that drunken bastard of a lieutenant is in the way. If there were no lieutenant she would be mine."

"Hey, Turk, you're mad. Well, do you know anybody in the village?"

"I gave Kostin two bottles of vodka and a pile of tea."

"A!" Aslan said. "I know him. So, he took it and then cheated on you, right?"

Barakhokhlo shrugged.

"Turk, I owe you my life. Let's us visit Kostin. I'll make him do it. For me he'll do!"

"How can you force him, Aslan? He is not afraid of anybody, half of the village are his cohorts. Always carries a big knife."

"His knife is nothing against my knife."

Two days later the crew was summoned again to unload a freight train. The twilight was descending when the file of crewmen, all in their dark stitched coats, their faces downcast, walked from the camp into the factory yard. As soon as the guards, having counted the heads and made pencil notes on the wooden planks, closed the timber gate, separating the factory from the camp's zone, Aslan and Barakhokhlo, who brought up the rear, sprinted sideways and hid behind a stack of planks. When the crew turned a corner, heading to the railway platform, Aslan and Barakhokhlo ran toward the tool shed.

Kostin turned his head when he heard their footsteps. His muddy eye stared first at Aslan, then at Barakhokhlo. His hand was under the flap of his coat.

"Don't do it," Aslan said, pointing to the Kostin’s hand."We are here just to talk, in a friendly way."

Kostin silently moved his eye from Barakhokhlo to Aslan and back.

"I’ve heard, Aslan went on, "that you’d promised something to my brother." He pointed to Barakhokhlo. "I heard you ‘d received a payment. Have I heard it correct?"

Kostin did not answer.

"I’ve heard you’d cheated on my brother. Have I heard it correct? No answer? No answer means yes. Don’t say anything if you don’t want. I don’t want words from you. I want deeds, you get it? If you did not want to do it, you did not have to promise. As you’ve promised, you’ll do it. Either tomorrow, which is Wednesday, or the latest on Friday. Between six and nine in the evening.You’ll do it and that will be all there’s to it. If you don’t I’ll have to pity you. You now why? Because you’re a nice man, and I am not very happy to cut a throat of a nice man. I’ll have no choice, I’ll have to cut your throat. Don’t hope to run away. Do you know about our Chechen customs? We’ll find you on the other end of the world. Get it?"

Almost imperceptibly, Kostin nodded. His eye moved over the ground without any expression.

"So, Kostin, remember, tomorow or Friday, between six and nine. That’s the only time he’ll be at home alone. Nod again."

Kostin slightly bowed.

"Good," Aslan said. "I knew you for a reasonable man. I’m sure you’ll not disappoint me. Be healthy, my dear."

They walked away, and then ran toward the railway, as the foreman must have already discovered their absence, and it would be unwise to make the foreman angry.

On Wednesday, close to six, Barakhokhlo approached the store. On its door, there was a piece of paper tacked, on which Barakhokhlo read, Today the store will be closed. Walls painting.

So, he’ll not see Tanya today. Tightening the rope that held his pants Barakhokhlo walked slowly back to his barracks.

The same evening, close to seven, Kostin walked slowly on a path that skirted the rows of dark pines. On the other side of the path, there was a long barracks along which a narrow wooden terrace was attached. From the terrace, two dozen identical doors, with a narrow window next to each of them, led to apartments occupied by the officers of the camp administration. Each door opened into a small anteroom, behind which there was a slightly larger kitchen, and behind the kitchen a little larger living room also serving as a bedroom.

Soft snowflakes descended slowly on the path, upon which yellow quadrangles of light lay that fell from the windows. Kostin counted the doors. The apartment of the Teryokhins was the fourth from the corner. Kostin looked around. There was nobody on the either side of the path. Kostin stepped onto the terrace and peered into the window. There was no light in the anteroom, but he could see through the half-opened door that there was somebody’s shadow on the kitchen’s wall.

Walking on his toes, Kostin approached the fifth door from the corner. The window there was dark. Nobody? He walked back, now to the third door. He heard sounds of music, apparently radio, from that apartment. Now he walked again to the fourth door. He listened for a while, then knocked at the door and stepped aside.

"Who?" a man’s voice sounded from behind the door. Kostin remained silent.

"What’s that, did I hear it or not?" lieutenant Teryokhin said behind the door.

Kostin waited a minute, and knocked again.

"Hey, who’s there?" said the lieutenant. The bolt clanged and the door started to move on its hinges. Kostin stood at the wall, hidden by the opening door. Teryokhin swore and stepped to the terrace, bending his neck to look behind the door. With a brisk upward motion Kostin plunged his knife into the lieutenant’s neck and, holding knife in the fully extended hand, far from himself, trying to eschew the drops of the lieutenant’s blood, twisted the knife in the wound. At that moment he heard a sound that forced him to change on the spot his plan of action.

That evening the crew was again summoned to unload a train. As soon as the crewmen’s file passed the gate and walked onto the factory’s grounds, Aslan and Barakhokhlo once again hid for a while and then rushed to the tool shed.

"So, it’s you, " Kostin said. "It’s now already over three hours after it was done. In the morning the entire village will know. For us it’s just glucose."

"No traces?" Aslan said.

"I’m not a greenhorn.  We leave no traces, ever. Don’t worry, nobody will learn about you."

-"Nobody saw you?" Aslan said.

"Nobody. Just you said he would be alone at home. He wasn’t."

"Was he not alone?" Barakhokhlo said in agony.

"Neh. His wench turned out to be at home. Came from the room right at the moment."

"What?" shouted Barakhokhlo.

"Don’t worry, Barakhlo. She will not tell."

"What?" shouted Barakhokhlo again.

"I am telling you, don’t worry, Barakhlo. I took care of her right after the lieutenant. By the same knife. Two for the price of one. We leave no trace, never."

Barakhokhlo shook and shook Kostin, and Aslan, trying in vain to tear off Ilya's hands from the neck of the urka, who was already wheezing, said hurriedly, "Stop it, Turk, we’ve to rush, the foreman surely is already looking for us."

 

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