... And don’t ever forget the swans!15.04.2019 17:15
Translated from the Slovak by Julia and Peter Sherwood
Thursday, 5 March 1953
What does a woman have to lose for her femininity to be stripped away entirely? Must she give up all her desires? What must she be deprived of before she starts to turn her back on the future, think only in the past tense, and aim just to survive until the following morning? Can she still bear to look at herself in the mirror, drained and emptied as she is, incapable of rekindling anything vaguely reminiscent of her femininity?
Indeed, many a woman endures in her lifetime sudden hardships and misfortunes, unexpected illness or poverty, or she may meet the wrong man, or receive another body blow that messes up her life. All of a sudden, she finds herself having to rummage through her past, wondering who is to blame, grapple with her own naïveté and try as she might, fail to move on into the future.
But the war is too much for an individual to bear. And the reverberations of the war that we now know as World War II continued long after it ended. It, too, had messed up many lives beyond recognition, leaving many messed up to this day. But the Zone is something different yet again. Rather than being the war, the Zone is just its shadow. It has no frontlines, only past, present and future prisoners and their opposite numbers: past, present and future prison guards. Because of this complex structure the Zone with its pitfalls is absolutely devastating for its reluctant inhabitants. The Zone alone is capable of generating rules and accidents that are so exhausting that a person has no strength left to ask questions, let alone seek answers.
But we must add a few words of comfort – fortunately, the Zone leaves you little time to dwell on bygones or vanished hopes, it leaves you no time to slowly surrender and throw in the towel because the ubiquitous, thorny details are always there to prick you back to life: here you’ve lost a button, there you’ve spotted a new hole in your shabby boot, your spoon or precious headscarf has gone missing, you’ve been assigned a worse job, or you find yourself smuggling stolen potatoes through the gates…day in, day out, your mind is preoccupied with thousands of tiny details that torment you, causing distress and constantly sparking your inventiveness and thus, unwittingly, stopping you from going completely insane.
It is getting dark. Irena and a wheezing Zhenya are returning from their shift in the kitchen. The howling wind whips their faces and greasy padded coats, battering them and slowing their progress. Zhenya, the older of the two, is walking ahead, Irena is following in her footsteps. They are trudging ahead, making slow progress, their feet continually sinking silently into the powdery snow. It is Thursday already but the blizzard that had started earlier in the week shows no signs of easing off. The stinging snow keeps coming down, the howling gale driving it up and down the Zone, piling up snowdrifts behind the barracks, driving the excess snow over the low roofs of endless barracks into endless valleys. Two lone figures leave tired footprints behind, but a single blast of the wind, and they are gone forever. Just leave no trace, no trace…
The worst thing is this losing of yourself, this daily sapping of thoughts, the draining away of dreams and the modest womanly hopes, this is where the danger of decline lurks for every woman and threatens to deprive her of her femininity. God knows if there is any way of resisting this.
Every winter brings several blizzards like this one. They are known as buran. The gale swirls above the Zone, hurling snow into the eyes,
unrelentingly squeezing everyone into the wooden barracks, be they prisoners, guards, politruks, commanders, or managers with their bold visions. At such times all one can do is wait patiently for the blizzard to pass, and this applies to everyone in equal measure, people and wild animals alike. But then this morning, Zhenya suddenly dug her heels in and shocked Irena by spouting the incredible nonsense that it was high time to die!
This is one of the surprises this day has brought. And it happened even though it was the older and more experienced Zhenya who has comforted Irena and the other women so many times before, helping them to stop the cycle of destructive self-accusations that torment every one of them: “We are not the evil that needs to be punished. Quite the opposite, it is the evil that has brought us here that needs to be punished. That is to say, the tyranny of the common scoundrels that has just replaced the wickedness of the aristocratic scoundrels before them! Never mind that they have given this transfer of tyrannies the noble name of revolution!” On another occasion she shared this advice: “Don’t eat all your bread at once. Never look a guard in the eye. Take it easy when the work is too hard. Pace yourself. Don’t agonize over everything being different from the way it was at home and, most importantly, never cry unless you really can’t help it…”
She had finished serving her sentence, just like the toothless woman nicknamed Bleeper, who had a smiley scar on her cheek. In theory both of them should have been released by now. Instead they were both told that “in light of certain serious considerations the authorities have temporarily suspended their release until the situation is resolved within a foreseeable period of time.” The foreseeable period of time kept stretching, gradually becoming unforeseeable – in this, too, lurks the spirit of the Zone.
During the morning on dish-washing duty Irena noticed that Zhenya was behaving strangely. She floated among the pots like a ballerina, disdainfully slapping the ingrained dirt with her rag. But that smile of hers!
A similarly sinister smile played on Xenia Sukhanich’s lips, only hers had been much gentler and more tender. That was eight years ago, as they arrived at the port of Magadan. A cold breeze was blowing off the sea, a salty spray settled deep in their throats and the damp clothes felt cold against their bodies. Shuddering with cold, the disembarking women stared at the desolate dock, the grey town, and the cold mountains veiled in leaden clouds. Who would have thought there could be something more horrendous in this world than the Felix Dzerzhinsky, the overcrowded boat that had brought them here?
Neither the dreadful city nor the bellowing guards frightened Xenia Sukhanich. Except that this strangely otherworldly, almost condescending, or rather contemptuous, smile appeared on her face, never to disappear again. To this she added fasting and from the minute they set foot in Magadan wouldn’t let anything – neither bread nor hot water – pass her lips and wouldn’t pay any heed to anyone’s reprimands, including Irena’s. And then one night she suddenly squeezed Irena’s hand and this was how she quietly said goodbye to this world, one of the first to go. All that was left was the memory of that inscrutable smile.
The entire Zone lies under a vast white blanket, the blizzard lashes their faces, with the watchtowers in the corners looking like ghostly spectres. The spotlights under their roofs have been switched on, turning them into snooping monsters.
A hunched figure flitted past the commanders’ barracks. It stood still for a while, then spotted the two women and set off in their direction.
The ungainly movements indicated that even in this raging hell of snow the guard Paraska knew no peace. It was she, in her white fur jacket lined in black, tall leather boots, a fleecy Siberian cap with flaps, from which only the nose and glowering eyes protruded.
“Stop! Stop right there!” Her gruff voice hacked into the wind. She shielded her eyes from the prickly snow with a leather glove, but her voice needed no protection, it was able to stand up to all the elements. Who let them leave their workplace without a guard, huh?!
Well, they had told the guard Pasha they were ready to go but the old lazybones sat sprawled by the oven nibbling on some bread and watching the women. They ran hither and thither carrying pots and pans, stirring food, laughing and swearing by turns, relieved that they didn't have to venture out into the blizzard. “Wait till I’m done eating,” he said, “What’s the rush?” So they waited and waited but Pasha just wouldn’t move. When he finally finished eating, he started to sip his tea. Eventually he just motioned with his left boot, signalling they should go off without a guard. Irena refused and wanted to wait but Zhenya took his order at face value, put on her hat and went out to brave the wind. Taking sips from a tin cup, Pasha gave her a grin and Irena left as well, annoyed. But it would be no use putting the blame on Pasha now, it would just mean trouble in the kitchen as well.
“We’re on our way from the latrine,” she lied to Paraska. The latrine is the one place the prisoners are allowed to go without a guard, but only in twos, so they might get away with this as an excuse.
Paraska didn’t hear, she wasn’t taking anything in, her reason clouded with fury.
“What is the parasha in the barracks for!?” she screamed. “Purga equals parasha! Don’t you know that, you finicky, hoity-toity bitches?”
The wind ripped the words from her mouth, chased wads of them in the snow, rolling them all the way to the forest. Purga and parasha, the words might sound funny in normal circumstances. Purga – a blizzard, parasha – a metal barrel for excrement. No one knows how the huge night pot ended up being named after Paraska, but be that as it may, too bad for anyone blessed with this name. The instructions for using the parasha prompt dangerous innuendo. But God forbid dropping even the smallest hint of it in Paraska’s presence!
With a guilty face and her eyes lowered, Irena stood between the guard and Zhenya, shielding her friend's wrinkly face with her body. She wanted to protect Zhenya and make sure Paraska didn’t see her angelic, absent smile. Paraska hated it when the prisoners smiled and whenever she felt like it, she would mete out punishment. And where there is one punishment, another one follows, that is why Irena was on her guard and chose to forget about Zhenya’s earlier behaviour. She covered for her even though she didn’t deserve it at all.
Paraska studied Irena’s face looking for a reason to go on the offensive, to make the effort of wading through the knee-high snow worthwhile. All of a sudden, a siren sounded over the howling wind, woooooeeeeee. This was a signal the camp leadership used to summon the guards to meetings. It was quite unusual this late in the day, and it caught Paraska by surprise. The siren, punctuated by the blizzard, wailed urgently and for a long time, until the guard turned on her heel in the deep snow and yelled by way of goodbye:
“Off with you and crap into the parasha!”
Irena sighed with relief. They had scored a small victory.
Their immediate past hung suspended in the thick air of the sleeping barracks – the residue of smoke from burning pine wood, the smell of sweaty coats and trousers, of flattened straw on the plank beds, together with the stale air exhaled by two hundred and fifty women in the course of a day and a night. From the entrance the room looked like a beehive. A noisy hubbub, humming and buzzing as always when the blizzard brought respite from work.
Tired, Zhenya sank onto a bench, still with a grin on her face. There was something insincere, perhaps even repellent, in this spectacle. Who needs unnecessary smiles? In the Zone every smile betrays serious vulnerability. By a stroke of luck, you get assigned a quiet job somewhere in the storeroom, or a letter has arrived from home, you’ve managed to steal something – you lose control and break into an unnecessary smile. And before you know it, a snitch comes along, ferrets out the cause of your merriment and you can say goodbye to your smile: maybe you prayed aloud, sang a song, badmouthed your superiors… plenty of sins to choose from. Guilt is followed by the inevitable punishment and the smile is wiped off your face. You’re marched back into the forest with a saw and it’s back to drudgery! Now try to smile! Or sing or pray! You will need every bit of help your dear lord can give you to meet the Soviet quotas. You do your bit, someone else does his, and lo and behold, you've built communism before you know it, right?
Zhenya and Irena spent all morning slicing bread. Two thousand five hundred slices, two hundred grams each. Next, they tidied up the kitchen and then, without pausing, they moved on to the to do the washing up. It’s all part of the special clean-up of the big pots and kitchen utensils that started on Monday.
“This one, this one here and that one over there,” said fat Ania, tapping her finger on the pots. “I want them clean and shiny, get it?” she barked. The cauldrons had already been laid out on the floor and as she pointed to them, she tripped over the biggest one and swore. She wagged her finger at the women and vanished into a dark corridor, limping.
The steam rising from one of the vats billowed and swirled under the ceiling, making them gasp for breath, and they had to get used to it first. As the hot water softened and loosened the grime, the women got to work. First the inside, clearing out the remnants of yesterday’s gruel, although sometimes they had to scrub off old dried bits on the outside, recalling days gone by. Next, they tackled the ingrained soot, rust, grease and burnt-in residues. For the first time in ages Irena was enjoying the job, it was coming along nicely. Never mind about pots and pans! She’d been granted permission to visit her son on Saturday! She was quietly humming a tune, and in her thoughts she was already on her way to Buychan. She was barely aware of the black cauldron, picturing instead a pair of big black eyes in a cheeky face and her son skipping about in Katya’s slippers. If it weren’t for the screeching and shrieking of the kitchen helpers, she might have broken out into a loud song.
Zhenya, on the other hand, had been unusually silent all morning. She scrubbed her pot bent over the vat, wreathed in billowing steam, nodding her grey head and then shaking it again incredulously, as if talking to herself, though without using words or sentences, soliloquising deep inside, with an otherworldly smile glued to her face. Irena looked her up and down several times and her morning contentedness turned into curiosity. Lost in thought, Zhenya suddenly straightened up, and looking over Irena’s head out of the filthy window, said slowly:
“… and I want to die.”
Irena fell silent. She left a pot floating in hot water, leaned on the side of the vat and stared at her as if at a ghost. It was normal for gloomy thoughts to creep upon you in the Zone from time to time, everyone has grappled with them at some point, but Zhenya? And just now, when she has finished serving her sentence and might be released any day?
“But what about our polonaise?” Irena asked her sharply, to make her understand that she wasn’t prepared to take this morbid nonsense seriously. “The polonaise?” Zhenya started to think. She laid her hands on the pot
as if expecting its mysterious cavity to provide the inspiration for her reply. “Well, have you forgotten all about it?”
The polonaise was something they talked about openly: they had been rehearsing it in secret. The right time for it hadn’t yet come, and the women didn’t press the Polish leader of their choir for an explanation. Zhenya, whose voice played an important role in the polonaise, suddenly remembered:
“Oh yes, you’re right. The choir, our revenge,” she said with a hint of sarcasm.
It had been Danuta’s idea to start the choir. She was a hardened old woman, no romantic naïve waif. Last summer, to her astonishment, she had overheard some women singing as they cut the grass, and surprisingly enough, none of the guards had objected. So why not sing properly, why not start a proper choir? Exploiting a moment when the politruk Zurbayev was in a good mood, she proposed that instead of just wasting their singing on the meadows, they should do it in the Zone, under surveillance, maybe even perform at special events. The politruk thought about it, weighing up the pros and cons and trying to work out whether the crafty Pole was playing games, but he found nothing. He wasn’t too keen on Poles in general, but suddenly he had a brainwave – a proper choir was just what he needed to underpin his theoretical work! A choir of women prisoners! It would do wonders for the reputation of the backwater of Pischak. So he raised his finger in a eureka moment and agreed:
“All right, P three-hundred-and-thirteen, a choir it is!” Three-hundred-and-thirteen, also known as Danuta, provided him with a
brilliant idea. Ever since he had started working on a major research paper, he knew he had to come up with ideas that were in a class of their own. He sat down at his desk, leaned back and enjoyed listening to her talk. He allowed his imagination to run away with him, one spellbinding idea following hard on the heels of another. Once he was won over, everything happened very fast. He applied to the Political Administration of the Yagodnoye Zones for a permission to establish an Artistic and Music-Hall Collective in the Pischak Zone. As soon as it was granted, he embarked on a new chapter of his book: On the role of culture in the correctional labour Zone.
Vigorously scrubbing a pot, Zhenya wondered aloud: “Polonaise… What’s the point of wreaking revenge on people who don’t understand anything? Least of all, our revenge? Revenge by singing… ha-ha.”
“Zhenya! Have you forgotten everything?!” Irena shouted.
“No, my dear, I haven’t! But I’ve seen it all. I’ve been through every good thing a person can experience,” she replied with a smile, then added slowly, stressing every syllable, “and now I can die…”
As she uttered the word “die”, the pot slipped out of her hands and hit the wooden floor with a loud thud. Ania’s screech instantly rang out from the kitchen:
“Be careful with my pots and pans! Or you’ll be eating out of a trough!” Irena’s heart started pounding. She picked up the pot and handed it to
her friend. But the latter was lost in a reverie and let it slip from her hand again, and it thudded onto the floor once more.
“I’ve lived through everything wonderful,” she insisted solemnly, nodding her grey head above the pot. “My goodness, this is so heavy!”
The sound of stomping could be heard coming down the corridor. In stormed Anya wielding her wooden spoon. Her arms up in the air, she brandished the spoon under their noses.
“What’s going on here? You getting married?”
Her entire being, including her second chin, was quivering with fury, only her pot belly swathed in a greasy coat jutted out motionless into the middle of the washroom. She planted her hands on her hips and stood there, her eyes blazing.
“Either you look after my pots and pans, or I’ll send you packing. Or do you want me to get Paraska?” she shrieked before lurching off into the billowing smoke.
A wave of apprehension washed over Irena. Unnecessary trouble like this was the last thing she needed now. A few minutes later Bleeper’s tousled head emerged from the thick steam. She hissed:
“Stop annoying her, women! She’s like a landmine today!”
But this had no impact on Zhenya. Adrift in a world of her own, she went
“Yes, I’ve had it all. A wonderful childhood, kind parents. Then I met my husband and we lived for one another. You won’t find this kind of relationship in any book. No Russian writer would have dared to write our story. The serenity would have been scared him…”
There was something mean about the way she said it. It vaguely reminded Irena of the old days in Kežmarok, when she had sat listening to the neighbourly chatter of the local craftsmen’s wives. They used to meet every Sunday, each time in the home of a different family, including Irena’s, the Kalasches. The men would play cards, the women chat – usually about their husbands and children. They rarely had a good word to say about their husbands. On the contrary, they were quick to criticize them, as if in a competition about which of them had a heavier burden to carry. They would harp on about the cross they had to bear, presenting it as virtuous sacrifice. But that was just one side of the coin. In fact, they would not countenance anyone saying anything bad about their husbands, and Irena had always loathed their self-pitying and dishonest talk.
“And our children turned out well, too,” Zhenya said, waxing lyrical about her marriage as she scoured the pot with a corn cob.
Irritated, Irena interrupted her mockingly:
“What use is all that perfection, if all what you want to do is die?” “You don’t understand, Irushka. You don’t know what a family is.” “Oh, so now I’m not supposed to understand what a proper family
“You’re still young. Yes, you do have a family, but you also have Shota…” Irena flew into a rage. Shota! So that’s what has been nagging her since this morning!
“What’s come over you?” she shouted and smacked her hand on the murky water, sending it splashing all over the place. “You’ve had letters from your husband all these years, you’ve had parcels! You’re about to be released soon… What is it you envy me for? Shota? My little son in Buychan? Or the one they killed on the train?!"
“And you were a nurse in Elgen!" Zhenya added calmly.
Irena had to control herself. On the verge of tears, she rattled the pot handles. Testing the handles for safety wasn’t difficult, you just had to shake them a little, and if they could withstand her anger today, they would certainly last another year in the kitchen. But Zhenya? She didn’t seem
affected by Irena’s anger at all. She lifted the pot towards the window and stared at its bottom against the light. Squinting, she moved the pot further away, then stuck her head inside it again.
“Everything has been turned upside down,” the voice of the oracle rumbled from the pot. “That’s what has made our civilisation so frail.”
Irena said nothing. She didn’t care about the frailty of Soviet civilisation. Or about this kitchen, or about Pischak as a whole. The only thing she cared about right now was her son in Buychan. If Zhenya went on like this all day, they would both lose their kitchen rations and Irena might be deprived of her visit. And that was something she would never forgive her, she would make her pay!
There was a grain of truth in what Zhenya had said: Irena did have a family. She also had Shota, her protector in the Zone. And until last spring, she had worked as a nurse at the hospital in Elgen. But that didn’t mean she had to listen to all this stupid innuendo. Or did she have to remind Zhenya of Irena’s Pischak story? She wouldn’t have liked being in her shoes, that's for sure.
You just had to think back on how she had ended up in the paradise that was Elgen. The women in Pischak recounted what had happened a hundred times: whenever someone got buried in the mines or even when someone died inside the barracks, they would recall Irena’s story to remind themselves that miracles did occur even when people got buried in a pit. But nobody would have chosen her kind of miracle of their own free will.
Irena had no recollection of her journey to Elgen. The first time she opened her eyes she was terrified by the world around her. She was floating in a dark room full of sombre ghosts, spinning around with them as if in a drum. Her head was throbbing, the gloomy room was drowning in mist and countless pairs of huge eyes stared at her from under dark covers. Whooo, whooo, those savage, monstrous eyes! What day is it today and what day was it yesterday, and the day before yesterday? Why are there so many eyes here? Later it occurred to her that they were the eyes of the souls of depraved sinners who had ended up in hell. Or was it purgatory? Hard to tell… But it was neither hell nor purgatory, it was the camp hospital. She heard a quiet voice from the bed next to her:
“Hold my hand…”
Irena wanted to oblige and tried to respond to the unknown voice. But how? Her mind was willing, but her body wouldn’t obey. So she just replied in her head:
“All right, here’s my hand…” She really meant it but soon she realised that she needed more than saying it to herself to carry out her resolution. However hard she tried, she just lay there lifeless, as if nailed to the bed.
“Hold my hand,” the quiet voice said again, “… I’m scared.”
Irena managed to turn her head. She saw a pair of deep blue eyes and a thin arm helplessly dangling from the bed. Darkness swallowed her up again. When she came to, sometime later, she was feeling much better. Suddenly she was able to move, turned her head and recalled wanting to help someone, hold their hand maybe. But why, why was that? You don’t hold hands in the Zone, there is no one around whose hand you might hold, and besides, such courtesies are not customary here. A woman lying in the bed next to her was adjusting Irena’s covers. It was Grusha, a giggly patient. Beware of her, she’s a thief, people warned her later.
Returning to the world of living was a slow process. She had headaches, the throbbing in her ears was deafening and made her dizzy. The past didn’t seem to exist, it was as if she’d just been born and this long, dark room was her only past.
The Elgen hospital! The treatment in this peculiar house of grief consisted mainly of permanent rest. She could lie in a proper bed instead of climbing down the frozen pits on the Gold plateau, listening to commands, orders and threats. One might say that the simple fact of being free of work had
a significant healing effect. What also helped patients improve was their own efforts, faith in God, the occasional kind word from the doctor, sedatives and some disinfectant. In Irena’s case, some kind of miracle aided her gradual recovery. After a few weeks she was able to stand up, walk up and down the room, wave a greeting to the women she did not know. Pleased by such small steps she felt the urge to help other patients within her reach, those less fortunate than she was. No longer so frightened of their sunken eyes, she felt better playing the part of a willing helper than just lying about, wallowing in her own idle thoughts. Each week a woman would die, but that no longer struck her as anything out of the ordinary.
The grumpy nurse Tamara was in charge of the ward. Several times a day she marched up and down between the beds to check the situation, shouting. She breathed a sigh of relief when saw that the beds around Irena were in order and rushed past without stopping. One day she casually asked Irena if she had worked down the mines and when Irena nodded, she looked around conspiratorially and pulled out a note from the breast pocket of her shirt.
“It’s for you, from the women in Pischak. From the pits,” she whispered hoarsely. “Read and destroy!” Surprised, Irena unfolded a scrap of paper, torn from a newspaper. Something had been scribbled on the margin in pencil, in German.
Irena, we heard you’ve survived. How is Sonia? Hope she’s alive. Get better and stay there for as long as you can. Irma, for all of us.
What does this mean? Who’s this writing to her? Who on earth is Irma and who is Sonia? She kept reading the note over and over again, but she couldn’t make head or tail of it. Yes, she did remember a woman with a groove on her nose, a striking small depression that seemed to split her nose in two. But why did the woman with this kind of nose come to her mind? Later that day she asked Tamara who the note came from, but she just shrugged, she didn’t know and would say nothing more.
She desperately racked her brains. She had come to terms with the hospital, but what had happened before? The mines! They were digging the earth, dredging up the soil … she could see a few shadowy figures, Sonia, Irma…? They rummaged through the soil with their fingers, pulling out tiny grains of gold… the soil was frozen solid… her fingers were hurting… they’d swollen up. Why was the note written in German?
She was gripped by fear. Something had happened, something had brought her to this place. How could she have forgotten everything? Where had her memory gone? She sat up on the bed in agitation, folded the note into a tiny square and hid it under the straw mattress. She would have to re-read it. But what was going to happen to her?
Doctor Zimanov listened to her breathing, examined her, checked her reflexes, gently turned her head to and fro a few times, observed her movements and nodded in agreement with his thoughts but without sharing them with her.
“You are improving,” he said encouragingly. “It will be a slow process, but you will keep getting better and better.”
And indeed, a few days later she was able to move between the creaking wooden beds, as well as along the corridor. The unpleasant dizzy spells subsided and in another three months vision returned to her half-blind eye. She no longer just walked idly between the beds. If she saw a creased blanket, she would straighten it out, she’d bring a patient a cup of tea, she’d help another walk to the toilet. Helping others seemed to have a beneficial effect on her, and in addition, it reminded her of the old days when as a student she had spent three summers helping the Groch family in the Levočské kúpele spa.
A further three weeks went by and she could negotiate the huge barn of a room like any other nurse. One day Dr Zimanov watched her change the sheet under a patient. Mishurenka was a petty railway-station thief serving a short sentence. Her deep-set dark eyes could stare at you so imploringly without blinking that you couldn’t resist and would do anything she wanted you to. But she had self-harmed and the nurses had no time for such women. Mishurenka was no exception – changing her bed linen, they would pull the bottom sheet from under her as from a leper: a tug, a pull, a yank – and tell her off for not being cooperative enough. Why should they slave away for her? The nurses didn’t have just one woman to look after, there were hundreds of them.
Irena saw the frightened look on Mishurenka’s face and helped her with the utmost care. First, she loosened the bottom sheet on her left-hand side, folding it up lengthwise, then she gently rolled her over, tucking a clean sheet under her from the other side and rolled her back. Quite simple. A few careful movements and the woman lay in a clean bed. She stuffed the blood-soaked sheets into a bag, which she took to the far corner of the room.
Tamara watched her excessive solicitude from the corner of her eye and protested:
“Don’t you bring your new-fangled habits in here! They'll drive us crazy!” Mishurenka was still frightened. When Tamara tended to her, she would tense her stomach instinctively and her state deteriorated after each change of bedsheets.
“What am I supposed to do, kill her?” Irena muttered, more to herself than to the irate Tamara, as she gently turned the thief on the stinking sheet. Mishurenka’s owl-like eyes glinted, she wiped her tears away and waved to Irena. She was about to take a deep breath and say something but couldn’t. Her throat constricted and she had to collect herself before saying anything. She scanned Irena’s naïve face, her defenceless blue eyes, and realised there was nothing she could steal from this nurse, she couldn’t cheat her or even tell her a white lie. In addition, she was overcome by a long-lost, almost forgotten feeling that she was supposed to say something, or at least hint at some appreciation. But how? What was she supposed to say? Hard as she tried, the right words wouldn’t come to mind.
Thank her! That was it! But there was a problem. You don’t say thank you in the Zone. The phrase "thank you" has gradually disappeared from the language and from the Zone, until it became extinct. If necessary, you could nod, or say “it’s OK”, at the appropriate moment. The word "OK" is universal and can express so much. The echo of a long-forgotten duty came to Mishurenka, but any selfless acts or spiritual duties had long since been eliminated from the vocabulary of the camp. So she came up with her own solution.
“Give us your hand, nurse…”
Irena stared into the thief’s eyes, searching for some trace of a forgotten memory. Goodness, how short her memory was! When would she be able to recover her past? She looked at Mishurenka’s tearful face and a felt a sudden twinge of fear: what if her own memory was playing tricks on her? What if it never opened up and her past stayed hidden behind a door with a hundred locks?
Mishurenka held Irena’s hand in hers, stroked it, laid it on her burning cheek and humbly pressed it to her lips.
“I-i-it’s OK, nurse. I-i-it’s OK,” the thief stuttered.
“It’s OK,” said Irena, smiling.
“I know what you’re thinking,” she whispered. “But it wasn’t us, it was them who kept stealing our carts of ore and making it look as if the thieves from Baskar had filled them. So I went and did this,” she said, pointing to her stomach. She had stuck a needle in it, and everyone knew she’d done it on purpose.
The gold-bearing ore. Irena had known the drudgery of gold mining even though her only experience was of digging on the surface of the Gold plateau. Who knows how many blows with a steel bar are needed to fill a whole bucket with soil. No more than two or three grains of gold in each bucket, and meeting the daily quota is enough to grind you down. She was aware of all this and just couldn’t see the whole picture: who was this wretched Mishurenka – Irena’s long-lost past or her soon-to-be future?
In the Zone you can’t always tell the past from the future. Not many things here develop in the same way as elsewhere in the world, where events advance from the known past into an unknown future. In the Zone your past could easily sink into oblivion or rather, become incomprehensible, get contorted into a shape foisted on it, nailed down by a punishment for unknown crimes. The future, by contrast, was as clear as the sunrise although sadly without the brightness of morning and the hopes of a new dawn. Irena’s gradual awakening and connecting with her own past brought her bitter disappointment! She was back in the Zone! This might have been a hospital, but it was part of the Zone nevertheless. Ahead of her was the prospect of a return home – one day, maybe, if only… But so many years had to go by before it happened.
Dr Zimanov was smiling despite all the gloom.
“I would like to have you as my assistant, not just my patient,” he told her in his office. “I need better staff than I have now. Just hang on and I will suggest it to the hospital director, then we’ll see.”
Irena felt like giving him a big hug. She’d do anything for a chance to stay in the hospital! If they kept her here, she would gladly be a slave, not just to the wretched Mishurenka but to everyone, without distinction!
Towards the end of the winter two more injured workers were brought in. They arrived lying on oiled sacks on the bed of the truck, with another prisoner, who had been bundled up against the cold, covered in old coats to stop them from freezing to death on the way. The two women were Zhenya and Bleeper from the factory, the chemical section. There had been a gas leak during the night shift, with several prisoners being overcome by fumes and these two failing to regain consciousness by the morning. The doctor watched them in silence, pursing his lips and shaking his head. He summoned Dr Selskaya from the children’s ward for a consultation. After examining the patients and checking their pulse, blood pressure and breathing, the doctor stated with cautious optimism that their vital functions were intact. The women’s subsequent fate seemed to be inscribed in a book the doctors are reluctant to leaf through.
Irena spent the whole night by their side until they came to the following morning. First the younger Bleeper, then the older one, Zhenya. At first their minds wandered around their lost memories like Irena’s did some time ago, but they were improving by leaps and bounds and after a few days they had mustered the energy for a decent argument. They both enjoyed special status in the Zone – even though their sentences had long been completed, their release had been postponed indefinitely by the Dalstroy authorities in Magadan. The only difference was that they were put on a less strict regime and assigned lighter work. You might have thought that their shared fate would bring the two wounded women closer together, but in fact the opposite happened. Every conversation ended in a philosophical dispute or an argument. The lively Bleeper had a scar on her cheek in the shape of an upside-down wave that made her look as if a permanent smile had been glued to her face even when she held forth in an indignant lisping voice:
“I used to meet a hundred and twenty per cent of my quota in the factory after the war! If everyone had worked like that, we would have built communism by now! There'd be no shortages and we’d have more of everything…”
The only thing the fifty-year-old Zhenya had known all her life was the mathematics department at university and the gold processing plant in the Zone. Although she didn’t have much experience of meeting quotas, she used to say that one day we might even prevail over mathematics, you never know. Her question threw cold water on Bleeper’s optimism:
“All right, so tell me, with these plans of yours, what would we have more of? Hospitals like this one, without any medicines? More labour Zones? Guards? Soldiers? Or what?"
“Nonsense! You don’t understand a thing. We’d have more steel, iron, coal, wood, canals, ships, railway tracks, locomotives…” Bleeper gave the list enthusiastically, using her fingers and needing both hands to enumerate all the would-be successes.
“Right then, but what use are more railway carriages to a shock worker? Or more coal? How will more coal improve your life?”
“What do you mean, how… The transport system will improve, that’s how. There’ll be more trains running, and they will run faster and further. More schools, hospitals, and delousing stations will be built. Even today we have more delousing stations than any other country in the world! Except you won’t read about it anywhere. And then there’s our arts, I mean the cinema, circus, and theatre too. Our universities…"
“But who will perform in your theatres? Who will teach in your schools?" “Professors and teachers of course, you know-it-all! Who else?” “Except that all the professors are here, in the Zones, on the Planet. just
in our Zone we had two, one was a pianist working on an assembly line in the factory, and Magadan is full of actors and singers. Who will teach these new people in your schools?”
“You’re asking counter-revolutionary questions!” Bleeper exploded. “It’s obvious you’re only interested in provocation, not a discussion. We won’t get anywhere this way,” she said, putting an abrupt stop to the debate. “I’ve sworn any number of times not to talk to you but then I always relent because you’re a friend; you exploit it and I always let myself be provoked.”
She turned her head away, staring at the grey ceiling with a hurt expression, and remained stubbornly silent. Afterwards she regretted bringing her conversation with Zhenya to a close so soon, she could have scratched a little under the surface to discover what she was thinking and caught her red-handed at expressing some counter-revolutionary views. The way to deal with these older counter-revolutionaries is to prove them wrong using their own words, and that applies to Zhenya too.
Bleeper knew a great deal about life. Who had fought at the front, Zhenya the professor or she, Bleeper? Which one of them had lived through life-and-death moments on a daily basis? She had no regrets about fighting the enemy, she had done it for her country. And as for her teeth, well, she was happy to show off the gap in her mouth, since she had, after all, lost her teeth on the front. That she could live with, that was the sacrifice she had brought, but fighting her own people? In peacetime? That was destroying her! Wherever she went, there was something she had to put right, whether in town, at work, in evening classes at university…She had always been the first to speak up, she was quick to exhort others to work better and more. The results were nothing to write home about, but she couldn’t let herself be challenged on a whim.
“Let me ask you just one revolutionary question. Surely that’s allowed,” Zhenya said with a smile, on the bed next to hers.
“Go ahead then.”
“How did you end up here? In the back of beyond, such a long way from Bryansk?”
“Someone grassed on me”, Bleeper said without batting an eyelid.
“There was Lena, she was jealous of me. And there was this guy, Ignatio, he taught maths at our department, a real looker. He liked to ask me about what it had been like on the front, where I’d fought, what I’d done. I served as a signaller in Sevastopol, on the frontline, I’ve seen things, I told him. There were four of us, four girls from the Volga region who had volunteered for the front, we wanted to fight for our country. And as I was talking, I praised this American car, the Studebaker. An indestructible off-road vehicle, it dragged our cars out of the mud lots of times. Ignatio liked the story and clapped his hands but Lena gave me a nasty look. She had a crush on him. Ignatio was the only man at the department, the rest were all women, all of marriageable age. But where do you find a husband these days, when so many have been buried at Stalingrad? So, of course, we were all after him, Ignatio this, Ignatio that, fancy a drop of vodka, Ignatio, fancy a cigarette, Ignatio. Until someone grassed on me, and just as I was about to have my teeth done, too! I’ve been stitched up for hostile propaganda and that was it, goodbye, teeth” Bleeper concluded laconically. “What about you?” she said, turning to Zhenya.
“Ah, I was done because of my husband.”
“He was a spy?”
“Oh, no. He designed bridges. He was accused of copying American bridges, so we were separated. He was sent up north, I went east.”
“I see. But why did he copy them?”
“What about you, why did you praise American cars?” Zhenya said, flailing her arms as if chasing away tiresome flies.
“Everything has become so confused, and we haven’t learnt our lesson. We keep repeating the same mistakes, we’re not active enough. You know what I mean? We need more activity, greater achievements. The better your results, the greater your value to society. And the greater your value, the more you are feared by others. And the more feared you are, the easier it is to climb the career ladder. Until eventually you’ve climbed high enough and your enemies can no longer reach you. Who will inform on you then? Nobody. Everyone will be scared of you.”
“Come on, Bleeper, who’d be scared of you now? They’ve stripped us of our evening gowns, flung some mangy sackcloth on us and poured filthy sludge over our heads. Once you’ve been humiliated like this, nobody will respect you, let alone fear you. Those two things don’t go together. Nothing will ever put you back on your feet, no amount of work, subbotniks, voluntary shifts or targets met…”
“Stop it, stop it!” Bleeper howled, flailing her arms. “That's a dreadfully old, pre-revolutionary way of thinking! A total misunderstanding of the times we live in! Everyone keeps shouting – we’re marching ahead! But in reality,
we’re treading water! When will this change? When will the people finally understand revolution? Nurse Irena, say something, you’re a foreigner, what do you think about the role of the individual in society?”
Her unkempt head and eyes swivelling to and fro made her look restless.
And then there was that smiling scar of hers – somehow, it was hard to take
Bleeper really seriously.
Irena bent down to her and whispered loud enough for Zhenya to hear: “Bleeper, all I want is to go home. Back to my husband and daughter, to my mum. They need me more than this hospital does. I want to go home…”
Then she squeezed the other woman’s hanging cheeks with both hands and gazed calmly into her restless eyes. Bleeper was leaning on a folded winter coat that served her as a pillow. She opened her eyes wide. She scrutinized Irena’s face for a while, searching for a sign of villainy or treachery. Suddenly she worked it out and exclaimed:
“Just look at her, the spy! We’ve been locked up for nothing and we’re not complaining! And madam here is doing time for espionage and would like to go home!”
Her voice trembled as she shouted the last words, pounding the bed cover with her hands. She kept punching the cover helplessly, overcome by disappointment, then broke down in tears. Her soul and voice trembled with grief and she wiped her tears with the back of her hand while giving off uncontrollable sounds, eek, eek…. After she calmed down, she admitted that
she had recently received a letter from her former workmates. They were looking forward to her imminent release, locking up a frontline soldier must have been some kind of mistake. And by the way, have you heard the latest news, Ignatio has married Lena and they’ve moved to Moscow…
She started sobbing again, so hard she almost choked and was unable to calm down. Dusk had fallen by the time she finally fell asleep, still sobbing, her sunken breasts jiggling every now and then. Irena stood up and was about to leave but Bleeper gave a start and screamed out in her sleep. Irena grasped her bony shoulders and gently pushed her to the middle of the bed. Still asleep, Bleeper felt around with her hands, looking for some sort of support, found Irena’s hand, squeezed it and placed it on her cheek. She slept like a baby.
“You see, it’s not enough to be aware of the truth. You have to know what your truth stands for...,” said Zhenya.
The door opened and nurse Tamara entered noisily. She switched on the flickering light, waking the patients from their afternoon naps. Irena recalled Zhenya’s words about the truth, but their sense escaped her.
“All done?” Anya’s voice shrieks out of the thick white steam in the kitchen. The urgent question is directed at Zhenya and Irena and their pots in particular. The kitchen manager is unfriendly and bloody-minded, you don’t want to mess with her. She has all the staff by the short and curlies, from the thieving helpers to Zhenya the professor and Irena, a single innocent complaint might be enough for her to throw you overboard. None of the helpers want that, the kitchen is undoubtedly their lifeboat.
“All done!” Irena intones back.
Why isn’t Zhenya looking forward to going home? Her husband had been released recently. Prisoners are transformed by news of this kind and Zhenya was no exception. Beaming with joy, she kept talking about it and re-submitted her application for release. As the days and months went by without a response, her joy slowly evaporated, dissipated, turning gradually into grumpiness.
Anya stormed in again. She stopped in front of the shelves, planted her hands on her hips and inspected the pots.
“There’s a leaky one somewhere here,” she barked as if it was they who had made the hole. She grabbed the pots abruptly one by one, snatching them off the shelf, turning their bottoms towards the window and examining them. She spotted the hole in the third one. A tiny little hole was indeed quite visible against the light. “The bastard, it keeps hissing, catching fire, burning my hob. Who knows when Yerofey will come.”
“Shota also knows how to fix it,” Irena blurted out involuntarily and waited for the response.
“Shota, Shota,” Anya muttered, examining another pot. “So let him… hang on, isn’t that your boyfriend?” she asked and without waiting for a reply, turned on her heels and stomped off to the kitchen in her heavy boots.
“Yes, that’s him all right,” Zhenya replied eagerly as the cook was leaving.
Irena gritted her teeth and went back to the trough.
“Why are you cross with me? You’ve enjoyed all these bonuses!” Zhenya said, smiling at Irena. But she didn’t have a clue.
Irena was furious. Where had Zhenya’s former wisdom and kindness gone?
“I was just trying to help you,” she said in her defence. “If they summon Shota to fix the pots, you’ll have him to yourself for a few days…”
Irena said nothing, biting her tongue instead. She didn’t mind Anya’s comment about her boyfriend, she’s just a former criminal after all. No wonder this creature is now lording it over them here, within the barbed-wire fences. But Zhenya?
Back home in Kežmarok people never talked like this. Relationships were something you lived, and many things would be just hinted at. That's how it was in her family of teachers. Once, in Levočské kúpele, the clumsy housekeeper Macková asked Irena, embarrassingly, and in front of Dr Groch at that, whether Jurkanin was going to be Irena’s boyfriend. Her outrageous comment made Irena blush and the earth nearly swallowed her up for shame. The doctor saw her embarrassment, adjusted the collar on his white shirt, cleared his throat and tactfully left his office. Goodness, why bring up Jurkanin, why talk of boyfriends? For Irena this kind of insinuation was a sign of village uncouthness. And Jurkanin? A helper at the spa, a youngster, a man of all work. He was square-shouldered, but the slender Irena was taller than him and that alone put her off, before he even opened his mouth. She was never keen on his kind of humour and dismissed his attempts to get closer to her as those of a naïve country bumpkin. He tried all he could to woo her, staring at her with eyes shaded with thick eyebrows, showing off his manly youth – his strong arms, his exaggerated gestures, his swagger – eurrgh, it all sent a shiver down her spine. And that woman had called him her boyfriend!
How many years had gone by since then, how many people had passed before her eyes! Time had been swallowed by the war, Irena’s journey to the Planet and eight endless years in the Kolyma river basin, in a country full of gold.
The sound of renewed quarrelling could be heard from the kitchen. Judging by the shouting one of the helpers had poured the groats into the wrong cauldron. Now they were shouting and flinging vulgar curses at one another. Anya’s yelling supervened and the other voices fell silent. The procedure was well-established, they would have to check the contents of the cauldron again. And if it ended up with more groats by mistake, it could no longer be placed on the right-hand side of the counter but would have to be moved to the left, the privileged side. Every idiot knew that.
Irena peered out into the corridor that linked the prep room to the kitchen. Right there, in a corner, she caught sight of the twitching snout of an inquisitive rat. It sniffed and snooped around as if trying to weigh up the risk of scuttling across the room. She swiped her rag at it and the nosy creature vanished back into a dark hole.
Translation sample © Julia and Peter Sherwood