The following gulag autobiographical tales "Lend-Lease," "A Pushover Job" and "Condensed Milk" are borrowed from Kolyma Tales. For those unaware, Solzhenitsyn had asked Shalamov to co-author The Gulag Archipelago, since Shalamov had lived at much crueler gulags. Shalamov refused for already he’d grown old and beat.
The fresh tractor prints in the marsh were tracks of some prehistoric beast that bore little resemblance .to an article of American technology delivered under the terms of Lend-Lease. We convicts had heard of these gifts from beyond the sea and the emotional confusion they had introduced into the minds of the camp bigwigs. Worn knit suits and secondhand pullovers collected for the convicts of Kolyma were snapped up in near fistfights -by the wives of the Magadan generals.
As for the magical jars of sausage sent by Lend-Lease, we saw them only at a distance. What we knew and knew well were the chubby tins of Spam. Counted, measured by a very complex table of replacement, stolen by the greedy hands of the camp authorities, counted again and measured a second, time before introduction to the kettle, boiled there till transformed into mysterious fibers that smelled like anything in the world except meat-this Spam excited the eye, but not the taste buds. Once tossed in the pot, Spam from Lend-Lease had no taste at all. Convict stomachs preferred something domestic such as old, rotten venison that couldn't be boiled down even in seven camp kettles. Venison doesn't disappear, doesn't become ephemeral like Spam.
Oatmeal from Lend-Lease we relished, but we never got more than two tablespoons per portion.
But the fruits of technology also came from Lend-Lease—fruits that could not be eaten: clumsy tomahawk-like hatchets, handy shovels with un-Russian work-saving handles. The shovel blades were instantaneously affixed to long Russian handles and flattened to make them more capacious.
Barrels of glycerin! Glycerin! The guard dipped out a bucketful with a kitchen pot on the very first night and got rich selling it to the convicts as "American honey."
From Lend-Lease also came enormous black fifty-ton Diamond trucks with trailers and iron sides and five-ton Studebakers that could easily manage any hill. There were no better trucks in all of Kolyma. Day and night, Studebakers and Diamonds hauled American wheat along the thousand-mile road. The wheat was in pretty white linen sacks stamped with the American eagle, and chubby, tasteless bread "rations" were baked from this flour. Bread from Lend-Lease flour possessed an amazing quality: anyone who ate it stopped visiting the toilet; once in five days a bowel movement would be produced that wasn't even worth the name. The stomach and intestines of the convict absorbed without remainder this magnificent white bread with its mixture of com, bone meal, and something else in addition-perhaps hope. And the time has not yet come to count the lives saved by this wheat from beyond the sea.
The Studebakers and Diamonds ate a lot of gas, but the gas also came from Lend-Lease, a light aviation gas. Russian trucks were adapted to be heated with wood: two stoves set near the motor were heated with split logs. There arose several wood supply centers headed by party members working on contract. Technical leadership at these wood supply centers was provided by a chief engineer, a plain engineer, a rate setter, a planner, and bookkeepers. I don't remember whether two or three laborers ran the circular saw at the wood-processing plant. There may have been as many as three. The equipment was from Lend-Lease, and when a tractor came to the camp, a new word appeared in our language: "bulldozer."
The prehistoric beast was freed from its chain: an American bulldozer with caterpillar tracks and a wide blade. The vertical metal shield gleamed like a mirror reflecting the sky, the trees, the stars, and the dirty faces of the convicts. Even the guard walked up to the foreign monster and said a man could shave himself before such a mirror. But there was no shaving for us; even the thought couldn't have entered our heads.
The sighs and groans of the new American beast could be heard for a long time in the frosty air. The bulldozer coughed angrily in the frost, puffed, and then suddenly roared and moved boldly forward, crushing the shrubbery and passing easily over the stumps; this then was the help from beyond the sea.
Everywhere on the slope of the mountain were scattered I construction-quality logs and firewood. Now we would not have the unbearable task of hauling and stacking the iron logs of Daurian larch by hand. To drag the logs over the shrubbery, down the narrow paths of the mountain slope, was an impossible job. Before 1938 they used to send horses for the job, but horses could not tolerate the north as well as people, were weaker than people, died under the strain of the hauling. Now the vertical knife of the foreign bulldozer had come to help us.
None of us ever imagined that we would be given some light work instead of the unendurable log hauling that was hated by all. They would simply increase our norms and we would be forced to do something else—just as degrading and contemptible as any camp labor. Our frostbitten toes and fingers would not be cured by the American, bulldozer. But there was the American machine grease! Ah yes, the machine grease! The barrel was immediately attacked by a crowd of starving men who knocked out the bottom right on the spot with a stone.
In their hunger, they claimed the machine grease was butter sent by Lend-Lease and there remained less than half a barrel by the time a sentry was sent to guard it and the camp administration drove off the crowd of starving, exhausted men with rifle shots. The fortunate ones gulped down this Lend- Lease butter, not believing it was simply machine grease. After all, the healing American bread was also tasteless and also had that same metallic flavor. And everyone who had been lucky enough to touch the grease licked his fingers hours later, gulping down the minutest amounts of the foreign joy that tasted like young stone. After all, a stone is not born a stone, but a soft oily creature. A creature, and not a thing. A stone becomes a thing in old age. Young wet limestone tuffs in the mountains enchanted the eyes of escaped convicts and workers from the geological surveys. A man had to exert his will to tear himself away from these honeyed shores, these milky rivers of flowing young stone. But that was a mountain, a valley, stone; and this was a delivery from Lend-Lease, the creation of human hands.
Nothing terrible happened to those who had dipped their hands into the barrel. Trained in Kolyma, stomach and bowels proved themselves capable of coping with machine grease. A sentry was placed to guard the remainder, for this was food for machines—creatures infinitely more important to the state than people.
And thus from beyond the ocean there had arrived one of those creatures as a symbol of victory, friendship, and something else.
Three hundred men felt boundless envy toward the prisoner sitting at the wheel of the American tractor—Grinka Lebedev. There were better tractor operators than Lebedev among the convicts, but they had all been convicted according to Article 58 of the Criminal Code (political prisoners). Grinka Lebedev was a common criminal, a parricide to be precise. Each of the three hundred witnessed his earthly joy: to roar over to the logging area sitting at the wheel of a well-lubricated tractor.
The logging area kept moving back. Felling the taller trees suitable for building materials in Kolyma takes place along the stream banks where deep ravines force the trees to reach upward from their wind-protected havens toward the sun. In windy spots, in bright light, on marshy mountain slopes stand dwarfs-broken, twisted, tormented from eternally turning after the sun, from their constant struggle for a piece of thawed ground. The trees on the mountain slopes don't look like trees, but like monsters fit for a sideshow; Felling trees is similar to mining gold in those same streams in that it is just as rushed: the stream, the pan, the launder, the temporary barracks, the hurried predatory leap that leaves the stream and area without forest for three hundred years and without gold—forever.
Somewhere there exists the science of forestry, but what kind of forestry can there be in a three-hundred-year-old larch forest in Kolyma during the war when the response to Lend-Lease is a hurried plunge into gold fever, harnessed, to be sure, by the guard towers of the zones.
Many tall trees and even prepared, sectioned firelogs were abandoned. Many thick-ended logs disappeared into the snow, falling to the ground as soon as they had been hoisted onto the sharp, brittle shoulders of the prisoners. Weak prisoner hands, tens of hands cannot lift onto a shoulder (there exists no such shoulder!) a two-meter log, drag its iron weight for tens of meters over shrubs, potholes, and pits. Many logs had been abandoned because of the impossibility of the job, and the bulldozer was supposed to help us.
But for its first trip in the land of Kolyma, on Russian land, it had been assigned a totally different job.
We watched the chugging bulldozer turn to the left and begin to climb the terrace to where there was a projection of rock and where we had been taken to work hundreds of times along the old road that led past the camp cemetery.
I hadn't given any thought to why we were led to work for the last few weeks along a new road instead of the familiar path indented from the boot heels of the guards and the thick rubber galoshes of the prisoners. The new road was twice as long as the old one. Everywhere there were hills and dropoffs, and we exhausted ourselves just getting to the job. But no one asked why we were being taken by a new path.
That was the way it had to be; that was the order; and we crawled on all fours, grabbing at stones that ripped open the skin of the fingers till the blood ran.
Only now did I see and understand the reason for all of this, and I thank God that He gave me the time and strength to witness it.
The logging area was just ahead, the slope of the mountain had been laid bare, and the shallow snow had been blown away by the wind. The stumps had all been rooted out; a charge of ammonal was placed under the larger ones, and the stump would fly into the air. Smaller stumps were uprooted with long bars. The smallest were simply pulled out by hand like the shrubs of dwarf cedar.
The mountain had been laid bare and transformed into a gigantic stage for a camp mystery play.
A grave, a mass prisoner grave, a stone pit stuffed full with undecaying corpses of 1938 was sliding down the side of the hill revealing the secret of Kolyma.
In Kolyma, bodies are not given over to earth, but to stone. Stone keeps secrets and reveals them. The permafrost keeps and reveals secrets. All of our loved ones who died in Kolyma, all those who were shot, beaten to death, sucked dry by starvation, can still be recognized even after tens of years. There were no gas furnaces in Kolyma. The corpses wait in stone, in the permafrost.
In 1938 entire work gangs dug such graves, constantly drilling, exploding, deepening the enormous gray, hard, cold stone pits. Digging graves in 1938 was easy work; there was no "assignment," no "norm" calculated to kill a man with a fourteen-hour working day. It was easier to dig graves than to stand in rubber galoshes over bare feet in the icy waters where they mined gold-the "basic unit of production," the "first of all metals."
These graves, enormous stone pits, were filled to the brim with corpses. The bodies had not decayed; they were just bare skeletons over which stretched dirty, scratched skin bitten all over by lice.
The north resisted with all its strength this work of man, not accepting the corpses into its bowels. Defeated, humbled, retreating, stone promised to forget nothing, to wait and preserve its secret. The severe winters, the hot summers, the winds, the six years of rain had not wrenched the dead men from the stone. The earth opened, baring its subterranean storerooms, for they contained not only gold and lead, tungsten and uranium, but also undecaying human bodies.
These human bodies slid down the slope, perhaps attempting to arise. From a distance, from the other side of the creek, I had previously seen these moving objects that caught up against branches and stones; I had seen them through the few trees still left standing and I thought that they were logs that had not yet been hauled away.
Now the mountain was laid bare, and its secret was revealed. The grave "opened," and the dead men slid down the stony slope. Near the tractor road an enormous new common grave was dug. Who had dug it? No one was taken from the barracks for this work. It was enormous, and I and my companions knew that if we were to freeze and die, place would be found for us in this new grave, this housewarming for dead men.
The bulldozer scraped up the frozen bodies, thousands of bodies of thousands of skeleton-like corpses. Nothing had decayed: the twisted fingers, the pus-filled toes which were reduced to mere stumps after frostbite, the dry skin scratched bloody and eyes burning with a hungry gleam.
With my exhausted, tormented mind I tried to understand: How did there come to be such an enormous grave in this area? I am an old resident of Kolyma, and there hadn't been any gold mine here as far as I knew. But then I realized that I knew only a fragment of that world surrounded by a barbed-wire zone and guard towers that reminded one of the pages of tent-like Moscow architecture. Moscow's taller buildings are guard towers keeping watch over the city's prisoners. That's what those buildings look like. And what served as models for Moscow architecture—the watchful towers of the Moscow Kremlin or the guard towers of the camps? The guard towers of the camp "zone" represent the main concept advanced by their time and brilliantly expressed in the symbolism of architecture.
I realized that I knew only a small bit of that world, a pitifully small part, that twenty kilometers away there might be a shack for geological explorers looking for uranium or a gold mine with thirty thousand prisoners. Much can be hidden in the folds of the mountain.
And then I remembered the greedy blaze of the fireweed, the furious blossoming of the taiga in summer when it tried to hide in the grass and foliage any deed of man-good or bad. And if I forget, the grass will forget. But the permafrost and stone will not forget.
Grinka Lebedev, parricide, was a good tractor driver, and he controlled the well-oiled foreign tractor with ease. Grinka Lebedev carefully carried out his job, scooping the corpses toward the grave with the gleaming bulldozer knife-shield, pushing them into the pit and returning to drag up more.
The camp administration had decided that the first job for the bulldozer received from Lend-Lease should not be work in the forest, but something far more important.
The work was finished. The bulldozer heaped a mound of stones and gravel on the new grave, and the corpses were hid- den under stone. But they did not disappear.
The bulldozer approached us. Grinka Lebedev, common criminal and parricide, did not look at us, prisoners of Article 58. Grinka had been entrusted with a task by the government, and he had fulfilled that task. On the stone face of Grinka Lebedev were hewn pride and a sense of having accomplished
The bulldozer roared past us; on the mirror-like blade there was no scratch, not a single spot.
A Pushover Job
The hills glistened white with a tinge of blue-like loaves of sugar. Round and bare of forest, they were smothered' with a layer of dense snow compacted by the winds. In the ravines the snow was deep and firm; a man could stand on it. But on the slopes it swelled up in enormous blisters. These were shrubs of Siberian dwarf cedar which lay flat on the ground to hibernate through the winter—even before the first snow fell. They were what we had come for.
Of all northern trees, I loved the dwarf cedar most of all.
I had long since come to understand and appreciate the enviable haste with which poor northern nature shared its meagre wealth with equally indigent man, blossoming for him with every variety of flower. There were times when everything bloomed in a single week and when only a month after the beginning of summer the almost never-setting sun would make the mountains flame red with cowberries and then darken with their deep blue. Rowan shrubs hung heavy with full, watery berries-so low you didn't even have to raise your hand. Only the petals of the mountain sweetbrier smelled like flowers here. All the others exuded a sense of dampness, a swampy odor, and this seemed appropriate to the spring silence, both of the birds and the larch forest whose branches slowly clothed themselves in green needles. The sweetbrier clung to its fruit right into winter and from under the snow stretched out to us its wrinkled, meaty berries whose thick violet skin concealed a dark-yellow flesh. I knew of the playful vines which again and again changed their color in spring from dark rose to orange to pale green, as if they were stretched with dyed kidskin. The slender fingers of the larch with their green fingernails seemed to grope everywhere, and the omnipresent, oily fireweed carpeted the scenes of former forest blazes. All this was exquisite, trusting, boisterous, rushed; but all this was in summer when dull green grass mixed with the glaze of mossy boulders that gleamed in the sun and seemed not gray or brown, but green.
In winter it all disappeared, covered with crusty snow cast into the ravines by the winds and beaten down so hard that to climb upward a man had to hack steps in the snow with an ax. Everything was so naked that a person in the forest could be seen half a mile away. And only one tree was always green, always alive-the dwarf cedar. The tree was a weatherman. Two or three days before the first snow in the cloudless heat of fall when no one wanted even to think of the oncoming winter, the dwarf cedar would suddenly stretch out its enormous five-yard paws on the ground, lightly bend its straight, black, two-fist-thick trunk, and lie prone on the earth. A day or two would pass and a cloud would appear; toward evening a snowstorm would begin. And if in the late fall low gray snow clouds would gather accompanied by a cold wind and the dwarf cedar did not lie down, one could be sure that no snow would fall.
Toward the end of March or in April, when there was still no trace of spring and the air was dry and rarified as in winter, the dwarf cedar would suddenly rise up, shaking the snow from its reddish-green clothing. In a day or two the wind would shift, and warm streams of air would usher in spring.
The dwarf cedar was a very precise instrument, sensitive to the point where it sometimes deceived itself, rising during a lengthy period of thaw. But it would hurriedly lie back in the snow before the cold returned. Sometimes we would make a hot campfire in the morning to last till evening so we could warm our hands and feet. We would heap on as many logs as /possible and set off to work. In two or three hours the dwarf cedar would stretch its branches out from under the snow and slowly right itself, thinking that spring had arrived. But before the fire could even go out, the tree would again lie back into the snow. Winter here is two-toned: a high pale-blue sky and j the white ground. Spring would lay bare the dirty yellow rags of fall, and the earth would be clothed in this beggar's garb for a long time—until the new greenery would gather its strength and begin to blossom furiously. In the midst of this pitiless winter and gloomy spring, the dwarf cedar would gleam blindingly green and clear. Moreover, tiny cedar nuts grew on it, and this delicacy was shared by people, birds, bears, squirrels, and chipmunks.
Having selected an area of the hill shielded from the wind, we dragged a considerable number of small and large branches into a heap and gathered some dry grass where the wind had bared the mountain. We had brought several smoking logs with us from the barracks stove; there were no matches here.
We carried the logs in a large tin can with a wire handle attached, and had to be careful that they didn't go out along the way. Removing the charred logs from the' can, we blew on them and set the smouldering ends together. I kept blowing until they began to burn and then I set them on the dry grass and twigs. All this we covered with larger branches, and soon an uncertain tail of blue smoke trailed downwind.
I had never before worked in gangs that gathered dwarf cedar needles. We did everything by hand, plucking the green, dry needles and stuffing them into sacks; in the evening we handed them over to the foreman. The needles were hauled away to a mysterious "vitamin factory" where they were boiled down into a dark-yellow viscous extract with an inexpressibly repulsive taste. Before each dinner this extract had to be drunk or eaten-however a person could manage. Its taste spoiled not only dinner, but supper as well, and many considered this "treatment" a supplementary means of camp discipline. But without a shot glass of this medicine it was impossible to get dinner in the cafeteria; the rule was strictly enforced. Scurvy was everywhere and dwarf cedar was the only medically approved cure. It was ultimately proved that this preparation was completely ineffective in the cure of scurvy and the "vitamin factory" was closed. Nevertheless, faith conquers all, and at the time many drank the stinking abomination, went away spitting, but eventually recovered from scurvy. Or they didn't recover. Or they didn't drink it and recovered anyway. Everywhere were enormous clumps of sweetbrier, but no one prepared it or used it against scurvy since the instructions from Moscow said nothing about sweet-brier. (A few years later sweetbrier was brought in from the "mainland," but it was never prepared locally.)
The instructions prescribed cedar needles as the only source of vitamin C. On that day I was assigned to gather the precious raw material. I had gotten so weak that I was transferred from the gold mine to needle picking.
"I'll put you on dwarf cedar for a while," the job assigner told me in the morning. "It'll be a pushover job for a few days."
"Needle picking" was considered not just an easy job, but the easiest of all. Moreover, it didn't require the presence of a guard.
After many months of work in the icy mines where every sparklingly frozen stone burned the hands, after the clicks of rifle bolts, the barking of dogs, the swearing of the overseers behind our backs, needle gathering was an enormous pleasure, physically felt with every exhausted muscle. Needle gatherers were sent out after the others, while it was still dark.
It was a marvelous feeling to warm your hand against the can with the smouldering logs and slowly set out for the seemingly unattainable peaks, to climb higher and higher, constantly aware of your own solitariness and the deep winter silence of the mountains. It was as if everything evil in the world had been snuffed out and only you and your companion existed on this narrow, dark, endless path in the snow, leading upward into the mountains.
My companion watched my slow motions disapprovingly. He had been gathering cedar needles for a long time and correctly surmised in me a weak, clumsy partner. Work was done in pairs, and the “wage” was a joint one, divided fifty/fifty.
“I’ll chop and you pick,” he said. “And get a move on, or we won’t fill our quota. I don’t want to have to go back to the mines.”
He chopped down a few branches and dragged an enormous pile of green paws to the fire. I broke off the smaller branches and, starting with the top of each branch, pulled off the needles together with the bark. They looked like green fringe.
“You’ll have to work faster,” said my companion, returning with a new armload.
I could see that the work was not going well, but I couldn’t work faster. There was a ringing in my ears, and my fingers, frostbitten at the beginning of winter, ached with a familiar dull pain. I yanked at the needles, broke entire branches into smaller pieces without stripping the bark, and stuffed the product into the sack. The sack wouldn’t fill. Before the fire rose a mountain of stripped branches that looked like washed bones, but the sack kept swelling and swelling and accepting new armfuls of needles.
My companion sat down next to me, and the work went faster.
“It’s time to go,” he said suddenly. “Or else we’ll miss supper. We haven’t got enough here for the quota.” He took from the ashes of the fire a large stone and shoved it into the sack.
“They don’t untie them there,” he said frowning. “Now we’ve met our quota.”
I stood up, scattered the burning branches, and kicked snow onto the red coals. The fire hissed and went out, and it immediately became cold. It was clear that evening was close. My companion helped me heave the sack onto my back. I staggered under its weight.
“Try dragging it,” my companion said. “After all, we’re going downhill, not up.”
We barely arrived in time to get our soup. No meat or vegetables were given for such light work.
Envy, like all our feelings, had been dulled and weakened by hunger. We lacked the strength to experience emotions, to seek easier work, to walk, to ask, to beg. ...We envied only our acquaintances, the ones who had been lucky enough to get office work, a job in the hospital or the stables-wherever there was none of the long physical labor glorified as heroic and noble in signs above all the camp gates. In a word, we envied only Shestakov.
External circumstances alone were capable of jolting us out of apathy and distracting us from slowly approaching death. It had to be an external and not an internal force. Inside there was only an empty scorched sensation, and we were indifferent to everything, making plans no further than the next day.
Even now I wanted to go back to the barracks and lie down on the bunk, but instead I was standing at the doors of the commissary. Purchases could be made only by petty criminals and thieves who were repeated offenders. The latter were classified as "friends of the people." There was no reason for us politicals to be there, but we couldn't take our eyes off the loaves of bread that were brown as chocolate. Our heads swam from the sweet heavy aroma of fresh bread that tickled the nostrils. I stood there, not knowing when I would find the strength within myself to return back to the barracks. I was staring at the bread when Shestakov called to me.
I'd known Shestakov on the "mainland," in Butyr Prison where we were cellmates. We weren't friends, just acquaintances. Shestakov didn't work in the mine. He was an engineer-geologist, and he was taken into the prospecting s group-in the office. The lucky man barely said hello to his Moscow acquaintances. We weren't offended. Everyone looked out for himself here. "Have a smoke," Shestakov said and he handed me a scrap of newspaper, sprinkled some tobacco on it, and lit a match, a real match.
I lit up.
"I have to talk to you," Shestakov said.
We walked behind the barracks and sat down on the lip of I the old mine. My legs immediately became heavy, but Shestakov kept swinging his new regulation-issue boots that smelled slightly of fish grease. His pant legs were rolled up, revealing checkered socks. I stared at Shestakov's feet with sincere admiration, even delight. At least one person from our cell didn't wear foot rags. Under us the ground shook from dull explosions; they were preparing the ground for the night shift. Small stones fell at our feet, rustling like unobtrusive gray birds.
"Let's go farther," said Shestakov.
"Don't worry, it won't kill us. Your socks will stay in one piece."
"That's not what I'm talking about," said Shestakov and swept his index finger along the line of the horizon. "What do you think of all that?"
"It's sure to kill us," I said. It was the last thing I wanted to think of.
"Nothing doing. I'm not willing to die." "So?"
"I have a map," Shestakov said sluggishly. "I'll make up a group of workers, take you and we'll go to Black Springs. That's fifteen kilometers from here. I'll have a pass. And we'll make a run for the sea. Agreed?"
He recited all this as indifferently as he did quickly.
"And when we get to the sea? What then? Swim?"
"Who cares. The important thing is to begin. I can't live like this any longer. 'Better to die on your feet than live on your knees.'" Shestakov pronounced the sentence with an air of pomp. "Who said that?"
It was a familiar sentence. I tried, but lacked the strength to remember who ha'd said those words and when. All that smacked of books was forgotten. No one believed in books.
I rolled up my pants and showed the breaks in the skin from scurvy.
"You'll be all right in the woods," said Shestakov. "Berries, vitamins. I'll lead the way. I know the road. I have a map."
I closed my eyes and thought. There were three roads to the sea from here—all of them five hundred kilometers long, no less. Even Shestakov wouldn't make it, not to mention me. Could he be taking me along as food? No, of course not. But why was he lying? He knew all that as well as I did. And suddenly I was afraid of Shestakov, the only one of us who was working in the field in which he'd been trained. Who had set him up here and at what price? Everything here had to be paid for. Either with another man's blood or another man's life.
"Okay," I said, opening my eyes. "But I need to eat and get my strength up."
"Great, great. You definitely have to do that. I'll bring you some. ..canned food. We can get it. ..."
There are a lot of canned foods in the world-meat, fish, fruit, vegetables. ...But best of all was condensed milk. Of course, there was no sense drinking it with hot water. You had to eat it with a spoon, smear it on bread, or swallow it slowly, from the can, eat it little by little, watching how the light liquid mass grew yellow and how a small sugar star would stick to the can. …
"Tomorrow," I said, choking from joy. "Condensed milk."
"Fine, fine, condensed milk." And Shestakov left.
I returned to the barracks and closed my eyes. It was hard to think. For the first time I could visualize the material nature of our psyche in all its palpability. It was painful to think, but necessary.
He'd make a group for an escape and turn everyone in. That was crystal clear. He'd pay for his office job with our blood, with my blood. They'd either kill us there, at Black Springs, or bring us in alive and give us an extra sentence—ten or fifteen years. He couldn't help but know that there was no escape. But the milk, the condensed milk ...
I fell asleep and in my ragged hungry dreams saw Shestakov's can of condensed milk, a monstrous can with a sky-blue label. Enormous and blue as the night sky, the can had a thousand holes punched in it, and the milk seeped out and flowed in a stream as broad as the Milky Way. My hands easily reached the sky and greedily I drank the thick, sweet, starry milk.
I don't remember what I did that day nor how I worked. I waited. I waited for the sun to set in the west and for the horses to neigh, for they guessed the end of the work day better than people.
work horn roared hoarsely, and I set out for the barracks where I found Shestakov. He pulled two cans of condensed milk from his pockets.
I punched a hole in each of the cans with the edge of an ax, and a thick white stream flowed over the lid onto my hand.
"You should punch a second hole for the air," said Shestakov.
"That's all right," I said, licking my dirty sweet fingers. "Let's have a spoon," said Shestakov, turning to the laborers surrounding us. Licked clean, ten glistening spoons were stretched out over the table. Everyone stood and watched as I ate. No one was indelicate about it, nor was there the slightest expectation that they might be permitted to participate. None of them could even hope that I would share this milk with them. Such things were unheard of, and their interest was absolutely selfless. I also knew that it was impossible not to stare at food disappearing in another man's mouth. I sat down so as to be comfortable and drank the milk without any bread, washing it down from time to time with cold water. I finished both cans. The audience disappeared—the show was over. Shestakov watched me with sympathy.
"You know," I said, carefully licking the spoon, "I changed my mind. Go without me."
Shestakov comprehended immediately and left without saying a word to me.
It was, of course, a weak, worthless act of vengeance just like all my feelings. But what else could I do? Warn the others? I didn't know them. But they needed a warning. Shestakov managed to convince five people. They made their escape the next week; two were killed at Black Springs and the other three stood trial a month later. Shestakov's case was considered separately "because of production considerations.” He was taken away, and I met him again at a different time six months later. He wasn't given any extra sentence for the escape attempt; the authorities played the game honestly with him even though they could have acted quite differently.
He was working in the prospecting group, was shaved and well fed, and his checkered socks were in one piece. He didn't say hello to me, but there was really no reason for him to act that way. I mean, after all, two cans of condensed milk aren't such a big deal.
In the Night
supper was over. Slowly Glebov licked the bowl and brushed the bread crumbs methodically from the table into his left palm. Without swallowing, he felt each miniature fragment of bread in his mouth coated greedily with a thick layer of saliva. Glebov couldn't have said whether it tasted good or not. Taste was an entirely different thing, not worthy to be compared with this passionate sensation that made all else recede into oblivion. Glebov was in no hurry to swallow; the bread itself melted in his mouth and quickly vanished.
Bagretsov's cavernous, gleaming eyes stared into Glebov's mouth without interruption. None of them had enough will power to take his eyes from food disappearing in another's mouth. Glebov swallowed his saliva, and Bagretsov immediately shifted his gaze to the horizon—to the large orange moon crawling out onto the sky.
"It's time," said Bagretsov. Slowly they set out along a path leading to a large rock and climbed up onto a small terrace encircling the hill. Although the sun had just set, cold had already settled into the rocks that in the daytime burned the soles of feet that were bare inside the rubber galoshes. Glebov buttoned his quilted jacket. Walking provided no warmth.
"Is it much farther?" he asked in a whisper.
"Some way," Bagretsov answered quietly.
They sat down to rest. They had nothing to say or even think of—everything was clear and simple. In a flat area at the end of the terrace were mounds of stone dug from the ground and drying moss that had been ripped from its bed.
"I could have handled this myself," Bagretsov smiled wryly. "But it's more cheerful work if there are two of us. Then, too, I figured you were an old friend ..."
They had both been brought on the same ship the previous year.
Bagretsov stopped: "Get down or they'll see us."
They lay down and began to toss the stones to the side. None of the rocks was too big for two men to lift since the people who had heaped them up that morning were no stronger than Glebov.
Bagretsov swore quietly. He had cut his finger and the blood was flowing. He sprinkled sand on the wound, ripped a piece of wadding from his jacket, and pressed it against the cut, but the blood wouldn't stop.
"Poor coagulation," Glebov said indifferently.
"Are you a doctor?" asked Bagretsov, sucking the wound.
Glebov remained silent. The time when he had been a doctor seemed very far away. Had it ever existed? Too often the world beyond the mountains and seas seemed unreal, like something out of a dream. Real were the minute, the hour, the day—from reveille to the end of work. He never guessed further, nor did he have the strength to guess. Nor did anyone else.
He didn't know the past of the people who surrounded him and didn't want to know. But then, if tomorrow Bagretsov were to declare himself a doctor of philosphy or a marshal of aviation, Glebov would believe him without a second thought. Had he himself really been a doctor? Not only the habit of judgment was lost, but even the habit of observation. Glebov watched Bagretsov suck the blood from his finger but said nothing. The circumstance slid across his consciousness, but he couldn't find or even seek within himself the will to answer. The consciousness that remained to him—the consciousness that was perhaps no longer human—had too few facets and was now directed toward one goal only, that of removing the stones as quickly as possible.
"Is it deep?" Glebov asked when they stopped to rest.
"How can it be deep?" Bagretsov replied.
And Glebov realized his question was absurd, that of course the hole couldn't be deep.
"Here he is," Bagretsov said. He reached out to touch a human toe. The big toe peered out from under the rocks and was perfectly visible in the moonlight. The toe was different from Glebov's and Bagretsov's toes—but not in that it was lifeless and stiff; there was very little difference in this regard. The nail of the dead toe was clipped, and the toe itself was fuller and softer than Glebov's. They quickly tossed aside the remaining stones heaped over-the body.
"He's a young one," Bagretsov said.
Together the two of them dragged the corpse from the grave.
"He's so big and healthy," Glebov said, panting.
"If he weren't so fattened up," Bagretsov said, "they would have buried him the way they bury us, and there would have been no reason for us to come here today."
They straightened out the corpse and pulled off the shirt.
"You know, the shorts are like new," Bagretsov said with satisfaction.
Glebov hid the underwear under his jacket.
"Better to wear it," Bagretsov said.
"No, I don't want to," Glebov muttered.
They put the corpse back in the grave and heaped it over with rocks.
The blue light of the rising moon fell on the rocks and the scant forest of the taiga, revealing each projecting rock, each tree in a peculiar fashion, different from the way they looked by day. Everything seemed real but different than in the daytime. It was as if the world had a second face, a nocturnal face.
The dead man's underwear was warm under Glebov's jacket and no longer seemed alien.
"I need a smoke," Glebov said in a dreamlike fashion.
"Tomorrow you'll get your smoke."
Bagretsov smiled. Tomorrow they would sell the underwear, trade it for bread, maybe even get some tobacco. . . .