... And Don´t Forget the Swans!

10.12.2017 08:43

Extract translated by Jonathan Gresty

The Second World War is drawing to an end as Red Army soldiers liberate Slovakia from Nazi occupation. The same soldiers, however, are also arresting thousands of innocent Slovak citizens on charges of spying for the enemy and then transporting them in cattle wagons to the USSR. They are forced to live and work in Siberian gulags, where conditions for life are appalling. Thus begins the moving story of Irena and her son, Ivan, who is born in one of the gulags. The novel is based on a true story.

Smoke from the kitchen passed through a small aperture in the dark antechamber, spiraled there and then went upwards and over the roof through another aperture higher up. The chimney was a weft of thin branches cover.ed with clay. Through the smoke Irena could seethe roughly smeared black clay together with pieces of meat on wooden stakes. Laughter and bumping could be heard coming from the living room together with Kata's raised voice and the gentle bleat in, gof a goat. She smiled, knocked and went inside. Warm steam and a cheerful cry greeted her.

"Vanya, little Vanya, come. Mummy's here."

Katya wiped her hands on her apron and hobbled towards her. "Come here, my dear. Let megive you a hug."

Katya embraced the emaciated pilgrim and Irena smelt the unmistakable scent of a woman who reminded her of the scent of horn. She patted Kata on her soft back and felt slightly ashamed of her smells from the Pischak zone. The children had gone quiet; the goat in the corner by the stove was bleating again. Kata smiled and called out:

"Vanushka, where are you hiding? Your mummy is here."

Two boys were playing on the bed with some pieces of wood while a little girl stood watching them. She was clutching to her chest a one armed doll made from an old glove. They all looked at the unknown woman and went on playing.

"You've perked up abit, Irusha. I can see that twinkle in your eyes. Has something improved? Give me that coat and come and sit down."

In the middle of the table was a large wooden table. She sat down and repressed the impulse to go and smother her little son with love and kisses. She must give it time, allow them to get to know each other and become friends, otherwise the visit could be a disaster and end in tears. The children gradually grew bolder and after a while giggled about this strange woman coming here out of the blue and bringing with her her funny smells. There was no ne.ed to be afraid of her. Mummy Katya was smiling at her, hugging and stroking her. It was a sign that they could carryon playing up a little bit.

"Tea! Gosh almost forgot. What a silly woman Iam!"cried Katya

"Just give me a minute;it'll be right there."

"Katenka, Katya 'Irena wanted to tell her everything but where to begin? With the green car, the buran which blew through the Steppe, with Shoto's report? Or with Paraska, the commander Golubovova and the camp politico? She took adeep breath in order to steady her voice:

"On May 9,.we will again sing in Jahodne! Again they will all clap us!

At her curiously. Then she tickled his ribs the same way and his daughter filled the kitchen: do it again, do it again, he cried. The goat then joined in with a bleat or two and the other two emerged from under the table - they wanted to be tickled, too, they wanted to play with the funny woman, too, and laugh with the goat like Ivan.

She started unwrapping presents she had brought them from the zone: cube of sugar for each of the children. Katya tut-tutted at so much extravagance but before she could cover their mouths, the sugar had disappeared and there was nothing to grumble about. More presents followed: a piece of fabric for Katya in return for her care of the child.

Anushkina had sent a fur-more as a memento than for any practical purpose. Some embroidery from Tinda. A metal spoon from Inna, very discomfiting for Katya:

"No, no, my girl, I can’t take that! I know what life is like there-I have no right to have that. I heaved one nothing to deserve your only spoon­ and a proper metal one, at that. We haven't got any spoons in the village and I’ve no business standing out from anyone else here, Irusha. So take the spoon back. Hide it in your coat. You need it more than I do."

Last of all, shoes for Ivan. Katya turned over in her hands a miniature copy of a pair of real prisoner's boots, stroking them admiringly as if to check whether they were genuine.

"Gosh! I could not make these..."she confessed."And how many little shoes, bonnets and gloves I have made for the zone over the years!"

The prisoner's boots fitted the little fellow, were slightly too big, in fact, and rather funny-looking but he would grow into them. Ivanuska walked around proudly, the boots on his infant feet making him look like a sweet little dwarf. One step here, one step there, and the boots tip­ tapped on the clayf loor. Ivan marched proudly, slapping his feet down as loudly as he could, checking to make sure the others were all watching him. Pashka and Ala also asked for such beautiful boots which they only had in the zone. They started chasing lvanu.sha around the room and  their rapid stamping soon had them all racing pell-mell around the table. What could be done? The boots had to be shared. So Katya tied the laces for them and the children pattered their feet on the floor, went round the table, from the stove to the goat and then showed the boots to the goat's curious eyes. If she bleated, they smiled; if she didn't, they gave her curious head agent leslap and marched to the other end of the room. There they bowed to the stern faces of the icons of the Holy Mother of God and the Son of God-as they had often seen their mother do-and then marched back. Such plain shoes from a labour camp but how much joy they brought!

Tagar then arrived and filled the room with his burly figure. The boys jumped on him immediately. First he hugged Irena, praising her on making the long journey from Pischak. There was no-one in the village who would send their wife some any kilometers through the taiga, not even if she nagged him the whole day.

"They're playing us funeral marches the whole time, "he said, pointing to the window and sitting on the bench by the stove. There he patted the boys' crew cut heads and ran his fingers through Ala's yellow hair to make her even prettier. The setting sun was now shining in through the window flooding the room with its golden beams.

"The mighty one has died," said Tagar nonchalantly and started taking off his leather boots.

"Koriabov? " shrieked Katya, putting her hand to her heart. "What happened to him?"

"Not Koriabov. He's sitting in the Soviet, drunk as a judge, crying his eyes out."

"Who then? Someone close?"

"Comrade Stalin, Katushka. They wouldn't be playing funeral music for two days just because of Koriabov."

"Gosh, how frightened I was, "she said with relief. "Two little children, his wife not well. And Koriabov drunk the whole time. If he was to die, God forbid, they'd immediately appoint Anatoliev. Then we'd really know about it!"

"Sta-lin?" asked Irena incredulously.

"So says Tagar, but it's nothing. Have I not told you about Anatoliev? Listen-together with one of the politicos from the zone he was planning to turn our village into a Communist community of the future. They were going to knock down all the cottages and build one huge family block for the whole village. Then there would be one block for all commercial activity, one for all the children and one for teenagers. And a house of culture and public baths and allsorts. You should have seen the outcry at the meeting! How the women were yelling at him-it was a wonder they didn't lynch him! Then the men started. Old Kubashev put it really well when he said:"We in the north don't live like the gentlemen of Moscow because we have no wish to. Weare building, we are fulfilling your plans but we don't need your living improvements!"And Anatoliev? He said it was a really important experiment-delegations from all over Kolyma would come and visit us, so he claimed. But he didn't convince anyone. We said we're not going to let them extend the zone amongst free people. Let them experiment in Moscow. And Koriabov also tried to reason with him. But rather than listening to reason, Anatoliev started threatening the districts and said that they would approve everything in Jahodne and if not, he would go to Magadan. He called us ignorant idiots, Siberian fools and God knows what else he said. He said he would deal with us but when he was out hunting in summer he shot himself in the foot. In the foot, can you imagine? As if God had punished him. He lay there, screaming in pain, crawling along the river the whole night, bleeding. He said he had heard some voices but who knows what he heard. They didn't find him till morning. All month they were interviewing us -only at the end of it did they work out he'd actually shot himself. He then lay around at home for two months and things somehow settled in his head. He gave up his experiments - his politico didn't come back. But what can you expect from such a person? What will he think of next? May God grant health to Koriabov, let him drink what he likes. When we needed it, he stood by us. That's why I was so worried..."