During the fifties “огда, в п€тидес€тых...
It was snowing.
The snowsoftened the sharp outlines of the barracks, barbed wire and trees in the frostbitten area.
There was already so much of it that it was impossible to determine the direction of the snowfall: either the sky unhurriedly drew the day into bizarre networks, or a ghostly light set them up.
The wind became exhausted and stumbled over the wide feet of the firs, compressed by a heavy load of bad weather.
Near a little house a noisy group of swearing soldiers shoveled snow away from the barbed wire.
The barbed wire surrounded the convict camp.
The sounds of slamming doors and voices were heard in the house, where the camp service personnel resided. The inhabitants of the house thus began their working day. Vitalik was woken up by the noise.
A mother was standing by the window, shivering with cold. A thin shawl, a gift from Vitalik's grandmother, hung over her slim shoulders,
Ч Mother, Ч he called her quietly.
Ч You are awake, my little boy, Ч she knelt down in front of his bunk and pressed her face against his cheek. Now wash your face and sit down for breakfast.
Ч Is it windy outside? Ч the lisping boy asked splashing warm water from the washbowl.
Ч No, it has quietened down already. There is so much snow! Ч the mother exclaimed joyfully. Come on, eat quickly, time for me to go.
Ч Mummy, can I have breakfast later?
Ч Look, be good, Ч she shook her finger at him with mock severity, Ч don't walk far away from the house.
All of a sudden, a gunshot fired, followed by a second one, then a thirdЕ From afar the dull sound of hooves and horse screams could be heard.
The boy slid off the stool and rushed to the window.
Ч Mother, mother, look, Ч he cried in despair, Ч they are being killedЕ
Ч ThereЕthereЕ Ч he poked his finger at the glass, breathed on it, and scratched at the frost with his nails. Ч Can you see it?
Now she could see it. In the fenced off area the horses were being shot. The soldiers stood atop the camp towers and chased the horses around in circles with their gunshots.
She recalled the order of the Camp Head Officer Captain Shergaev, which he had given to the Platoon Commander Lieutenant Agonov:
Ч All the horses must be shot. Their carcasses must be taken away to the forest and buried!
Ч Mother, mother, why do they have to shoot them?
Ч These horses are sick, son. You know, just sick, that is whyЕ
Ч And then what, mummy? They are still alive and they want to liveЕ Ч Vitalik burst into tears, shaking ll over with every gunshot.
The number of horses galloping in a circle gradually became less and less. Clean, white snow became stained with blood.
The soldiers fired and fired at the bloody corpses. The horses wheezed, rushed from side to side, from wire to wire and toppled backwards.
The convicts came out of the barracks, frowned, watching the execution.
There was only one horse left alive. It could not run any more, and it was wandering slowly among the dead bodies. Its reddish saliva was dripping along its long thin neck and under its hooves. The bullets easily dug into its body.
After each shot it shook its head, staggered, but continued to wander further and further on. Finally, its front legs gave way and it buried its snarling face into the snow.
The shots ceased.
The silence that instantly filled the entire surroundings suddenly seemed so absurd, that the trees rustled, throwing off big mountains of snow.
The mother sighed and leaned towards her son:
Ч Stop crying, baby, please stopЕ I feel sorry for them too, but what can we do?
She wanted to pat him on the head and had already reached out her hand but the child recoiled. The mother noticed a terrible shaking pain in his tear-filled eyes and did not dare touch her son.
Ч What can we do? What can we do? Ч he choked on his words. Ч You adults are always saying that. You do something bad and then say that that's just the way it is. When I grow up, I will not be like that.
Ч You are only 6 years old.
Ч Never mind, I'll grow fast.
He sniffed and walked to the corner where there were books lying on the floor.
His mother buttoned her camp issued jacket, paused for a little while and finally asked:
Ч Can I go?
Ч Go, Ч the boy answered indifferently.
As soon as his mother turned the corner of the house, Vitalik grabbed his fur hat and coat off the rack and ran outside the house, putting on his clothes as he went.
The taiga began right over the threshold.Snow was still reluctantly falling, but the sun, squeezed from all sides by the clouds, already lit up the treetops.
From the house to the very edge of the camp ran a track sinking in the huge snowdrifts. A little figurine of the boy rolled along it.
Ч Where are you going? a soldier at the front gates asked, in an angry tone.
He might have been cold. His face, violet from the cold, was wrapped in the wide collar of his sheepskin coat. Even his eyes became violet from the cold.
Vitalik knew everyone, but he had never met this soldier before. He stopped hesitantly.
Ч Who am I talking to? Ч the boy heard the same voice again coming from the sheepskin coat.
Ч I would like to see my mum, Ч the boy whispered biting his lower lip.
Ч I'll show you your 'mum', go back home right now!
Ч What is happening here? Ч Anosov made a stop near the soldier.
The soldier stood upright:
Ч Comrade Lieutenant, he was trying to get into the territoryЕ.
Ч Let him in. This is Valya's son.
Ч I don't mindЕ No, not at allЕ I'll let him goЕ Ч he shrugged his shoulders continuing to mutter. Ч Valya's son. Who is she?
Ч Private Ignatiev, stop talking! Ч the lieutenant interrupted him and then added, Ч Take your time. You'll get to know her. And him, Ч he nodded in the boy's direction, Ч don't offend him! Go, go, Ч he slightly pushed Vitalik's back.
Once through the entrance Vitalik turned around: Andrey Ivanovich turned to the staff house, the soldier hid his glossy bluish face in the sheepskin coat collar, stamping his feet, as if trying to dance.
2. In the barracks.
In each of the barracks Vitalik had some acquaintances, or even friends, who made the boy some funny toys, told him amusing stories, or fairy tales. He loved those toys and stories. The toys were always beautiful and funny, but the fairy tales seemed sad, although with happy endings.
Now he hesitantly stopped: which barracks to go to? The nearest one was number 10. That's where Vitalik headed.
Ч Marfa, your pupil is here, Ч a hoarse voice shouted out, as soon as the boy closed the door behind him.
He looked up. On the second tier of the bunks a young woman was sitting, dangling her lanky legs in clumsy shoes.
Ч Why are you staring at me? Ч she wheezed and yawned contagiously, showing two rows of beautifully shaped teeth. Your Marfa is there. Ц She waved vaguely and languidly into the thick of the barracks.
Ч I am here, Vitalik, Ч an overweight woman hurried to him panting. Ч I am a bit sick, Ч she added apologetically. Ч Why are you frightening the boy, you shameless woman? Ч she noted reproachfully to the woman in boots.
Ч Bugger off with your boyЕ Ч the other woman swore angrily and squeezed out of her mouth, Ч lady.
Ч Come here, come, Ч Marfa took the boy by the hand. They were followed by curses and angry cries. Ч In the grave we are all the same.
Ч God bless you, god bless you, Ч her neighbour said piously.
Ч Shut up, you Christian bitch.
Ч I am not saying a word, I am not saying a wordЕ Ч still crossing herself, she muttered in freight.
Ч I'll come back later, shall I? Ч Vitalik asked, backing towards the door. Marfa patted him affectionately on the head:
Ч Don't pay attention. Natasha happens to behave like that quite often. Generally, she is not too bad. She is just new. She was brought here from another camp. Ч She offered Vitalik a seat. Ч You sit down, sit down.
Ч Why does auntie Natasha wear such big boots?
Ч She put them on purpose.
Ч I don't want to work, you little fool, Ч aunt Natasha replied, Ч but want to eat well.
Ч She put stones in her boots. She squeezed her legs in them and laced them tightly. If you sit with them on the bunk for several hours, the legs swell and you get sent to the infirmary.
Ч If your geek says a single word about it, Ч aunt Natasha swore again, Ч you will always remember me then.
Ч The door slammed loudly. Somebody close by hissed, ЂShhh, the hostess is hereї. Several people shouted all at the same time:
Ч Hello, bossЕ
Ч Quickly get under the bunk, Ч Marfa whispered to Vitalik. Ч Or else I'll be punished.
The boy hid in the corner under the bunk and froze. At first he could barely hear the soft chesty voice of his mother amongst the intertwining cries of the prisoners:
Ч The meat was rotten againЕ Drink the unbrewed tea yourself. We are fed up with dry potatoes. Give us some horsemeat. Then he saw his mother's wellington boots close to his nose.
Ч Marfa, Ч his mother asked, Ч have you seen Vitalik?
Marfa shrugged her shoulders as usual as Vitalik's mother became surprised and confused.
Where did he go? I was told he is in these barracks.
The door slammed loudly again. Marfa looked under the bunk.
Ч Come out, she is gone. Stay a little while and then run home, Ч she bent down to the boy. Ч I made an ashtray for you from a seashell. Don't you believe me? Ч she asked catching the skeptical look the boy gave her. Ч Look here. Marfa carefully took the ashtray from underneath her pillow. She stroked it again for no reason and offered it to Vitalik. Ч Take it, Ч and she added softly. Ч In my memory.
A long Spartan barracks, once used as headquarters, stood apart from the other constructions on a small patch of the camp, separated by two rows of barbed wire with a narrow passage, which was always guarded by sentries, and at night even by dogs, for which there was really no need.
Escape was virtually impossible. The officers, who had served there for several years, said that there was only one time that a few people tried to escape from the camp. And in vain. Some were found frozen in the taiga, while others returned in tattered clothes, with scratched and frozen faces.
The camp was encircled by hundreds of kilometers of taiga and marshland. A narrow strip of wooden road snaked its way to Russia. This road brought food and sometimes mail. This road delivered new thieves, crooks, embezzlers, and other undesirable elements, as they are sometimes called. The beginning of this road served as a blessing to those prisoners who had served their sentences and were returning home to their normal life. Many arrivals never set foot on it again.
Vitalik also came here by this road. But he could never remember when. It sometimes seemed to him that he was born here in the camp, behind barbed wire. But this road also enticed him. He had long become unaccustomed to the sound of lively children's voices. He only ever saw children in his dreams. One day, sitting in his mother's office, he heard Sergey Shalvovich Shergaev talk to someone on the phone behind the wooden wall.
Ч What do you want me to do? Ч Sergey Shalvovich boomed, Ч fire her? She puts in report after report. Her son is due to go to school. Ч Then he fell silent and only occasionally single-wordedly agreed; 'Yes, yes, yesЕ' At the end of the conversation he sighed sadly:
Ч Well, I have to relocate her.
Ч He is talking about us, Ч Vitalik exclaimed happily, Ч we will leave this place. Yes, mother? Ч he asked.
Ч As soon as there is less work, we will leave, Ч she said.
Days and months passedЕBut they did not leave, and the amount of work did not lessen. His mother would come home late at night, tired and tattered. At night she cried. In the morning she would go back to the camp with bags under her eyes. When this happened, she would be called into Sergey Shalvovich's office:
Ч Well, well', Ч he would begin angrily, pacing from corner to corner of his room. Ч Hm, well, well... So, what do I do with you? Listen here: go home now, relax. Then come back. Tomorrow we'll sort it out.
She would leave. The next day everything repeated. Officers gossiped between themselves about it.
Ч Something smells fishy.
Gradually, rumors leaked out to prisoners and for a long time became a hot topic of their conversations.
Ч Is it true?' Ч they exclaimed in surprise. It can't be true, Ч others doubted. Valya is so youngЕ Why would she fancy a bald man? A dog after gonorrhoea looks more beautiful than him.
But they all came to a unanimous opinion that whatever it was, they did not want to let Valya go. Let her live with the bald man. There's no school, not a problem. One can be opened. There would be no problem finding teachers (amongst the prisoners there was a doctoral candidate of Historical Sciences). She was chosen to be the "school" principal.
When Sergey Shalovich found out about this venture, he frowned at first and then smiled and waved his hand.
Ч Good idea? It'll do. Ч His bony face lit up with joy. Ч We will set aside a part of the barracks for school, and let him study all he wants.
But when he shared his joy with the detective Pavel Ignatievich Agonov, the detective reasoned otherwise.
Ч First of all, comrade captain, that is not allowed. The most important period of time has begun. After Comrade Stalin's death, we must mobilise with no exceptions. And secondly, judge for yourselfЕwhat can a child learn from that trash? I'm not even worrying about that now. Let's imagine he stays and studies here. What if we raise a criminal?
Sergey Shalovich became angry:
Ч This time, dear Pavel Ignatievich, you crossed a line. When he got angry, his face became yellow, while his bald skull dripped beads of sweat and gradually became red. Periodically, he would frantically tap out a rhythm with his hairy, fleshy fingers. In such cases, all those present, knowing their boss' short temper, tried to leave the room immediately. But Pavel Ignatievich did not even want to think about leaving the room. He slowly pulled out a pack of ЂBelomorї from his pocket, smoothed a cigarette and took a drag.
Ч I meant to talk to you long ago, Ч he said, Ч like communist to communist. Lots of rumours are going around the camp. It would have been OK if they were spread only amongst us, but the prisoners also laugh at them.
Ч I don't understand what you are talking about, Ч Sergey Shalovich interrupted abruptly, Ч At the end of the day it is my business.
Ч Is it really only your business?' You are mistaken. The chief commander of the camp having an affair with his subordinate, a matron of the camp.
Ч Stop it, Ч Sergey Shalvovich shouted in an unfamiliar voice, spitting. Ч Stop it at once, Ч he yelled again and sank into a chair sideways.
Ч Why do you have to get so angry? Ч Agonov reasoned quietly. Ч Svicharskaya is young and single. She is quite attractive. One can even say she is beautiful. But you cannot trample the woman into dirt. Or do you think you can do whatever you want? Also, you're old enough to be her father.
Shergachev took several tablets out of his desk, swallowed them and wearily closed his eyes. His corpulent figure was hunched over, which lent him a striking resemblance to a sack of flour. Pavel Ignatievich continued to speak, but strangely Shargaev would not hear his words. He just made a mental note that the lieutenant had beautiful lips. Perhaps too beautiful for a man. They curved reluctantly and strangely when their owner spat a new bunch of baseless accusations, of which, as an old man, he was scared. He was not scared of them because they hurt his feelings. No. Simply, he worried for the woman's fate, which, as he believed, could be harmed by anyone if he were not nearby. And the first possible offender could be this wimp, who did not understand anything except the instructions and orders that he received from the Department. ' He will be reprimanded less than I was, Ч Shergaev thought, Ч if he gets promoted to my place. ' He recalled his first meeting with Valya.
He was summoned to the headquarters. After the meeting, Colonel Kharikin asked him to stay behind.
Ч I have a surprise for you, Sergey Shalovich, Ч he explained. Ч The camp is for females. So a woman can fight a woman more easily, no?
Captain Shergaev helplessly shrugged his shoulders.
Ч I don't know, comrade Colonel.
Ч But I know, Ч he laughed. Ч So, you already have several female matrons. We are referring one more to you as a senior matron. I'll introduce her to you now.
Several minutes later somebody knocked on the door and a young woman showed up in the doorway.
Ч Did you call for me? ' Ч she asked the Colonel.
Ч Yes, yes, come on in, Ч he replied, Ч Please acquaint yourself, Sergey Shalovich, this is Valentina Antonovna Svicharskaya, Valya.
Shergaev instinctively reached out his hand and felt the warmth of her small palm.
Shergaev helped Valentina Antonovna and her son into the cabin of a small lorry, and sat himself in the back, on top of two huge suitcases, which belonged to this new subordinate. All the way back and later at the camp itself, when he showed Svicharskaya to one of the empty rooms of the house, Sergey Shalvovich tried to visualise this very young woman amongst yelling prisoners. And he could not. It seemed to him that she would not be able to cope with this disgusting, vile environment day after day. Letting all the prisoners know about the new person in the camp, Shergaev took all possible precautions. But strangely enough, people who did not obey the soldiers' and officers' orders, unquestioningly obeyed Valya, even though she never raised her voice. And yet Shergaev was concerned for her.
And this possibly unnecessary guardianship caused all the gossip behind his back. The only guilt he recognised was for not wanting to let Valya leave the camp. But there were reasons for this. He was afraid that with her departure the prisoners would misbehave again. Also, this woman reminded him of his Valya who died in '41 in his arms.
Agonov rose, straightened his shirt and said dryly:
Ч I will call management.
Sergey Shalvovich remained seated and feebly waved his hand.
Ч Where have you been? Ч the mother rushed to her son when he popped into the head office, Ч I have been looking for you everywhere.'
Vitalik lowered his head. With the tip of his felt boot he traced circles on the floor and remained silent. His mother shook her head.
Ч Again in the barracks, Ч she said sadly when she saw an ashtray in his hands. Ч I will get in trouble one day because of you.
She pulled up a stool to the stove.
Ч You'll be the death of me! Take off your clothes and sit here, get warm. Your hands are like ice, Ч she said, helping Vitalik to remove his fur coat.
Looking carefully at the ashtray, she marveled.
Ч What fine work. It's a real seashell. How did it end up in the camp? Who gave it to you?
Ч Marfa, Ч he lisped.
Ч Marfa? Did she really bring it from Odessa? How did she manage to get it past security? Sit here.
She quickly left the office with the ashtray. Captain Shergaev was not in his office, so she went directly to the detective. Lieutenant Agonov was sitting at the table and was looking through the files of prisoners awaiting amnesty.
Ч Svicharskaya? Ч Agonov rose from the table. Ч Come in. Sit down.
He offered her a chair.
Ч I am listening.
Ч Comrade Lieutenant, I found it strange... Ч Valya began the conversation nervously.
Ч What is it that you found strange? Ч Agonov interrupted her looking directly at the woman's face and making a mental note that she really was an attractive woman and that his boss was no fool after all. He even caught himself thinking that he envied him. Even more, he would not mind being in his place at all. Oh how beautiful she is when she is excited. A barely noticeable pallor evenly emerges across her face. Her eyes gradually darken and darken.
Ч Yes, yes, I am listening, Ч he recollected himself, noticing a puzzled look in the woman's eyes.
Ч Here, Ч she placed the ashtray on the table.
Ч It's beautiful. Where did you get it from? Ч Pavel Ignatievich said curiously.
Ч My son brought itЕ Marfa gave it to himЕ Ч Valya started to explain uncertainly. Ч I am concerned that she might harm herself.
Ч What makes you think so?
Ч Marfa is from Odessa. She was sentenced there. Are you following me? She obviously brought this ashtray with her. She must have been hiding it for the past four years in the barracks, and now she just gives it awayЕ
Ч So what?
Ч One never willingly parts with an object, which reminds them of their homeland, their close onesЕ
Ч Calm down. Your Marfa is not as sentimental as you are. She does not care, Ч he waved his hand. Ч Give the ashtray to your son, let him play with it. An amusing knick-knack, Ч he said, returning the seashell.
Ч Can I go?
Ч Agonov nodded his head, but then remembered something else.
Ч Actually, wait a minute! I have been meaning to ask you for a while. Do you really want to quit?
Ч Yes, Ч Valya said quietly.
Ч Why? You have a job, a good salary, and rationsЕ
Ч I have a son who is growingЕ he needs to go to schoolЕ Comrade Captain does not want to let us goЕ
Ч Then leave, and take him with you, Ч Agonov suggested.
Ч What do you mean 'take him with you'? Ч Valya did not understand.
Ч Sergey Shalvovich is due to retire. Your son needs a father, you need a husband.
Ч How dare you? Ч the woman said indignantly. Her cheeks turned crimson, even her ears became pink.
Ч Well, I do apologise, Ч Agonov grinned, Ч if I offended you. I was only joking.
He watched her leave in a hurry. Her slim figure slipped out of the office.
Ч Beautiful, Ч Pavel Ignatievich said to himself with admiration once again.
There were many. Previously, they had occasionally appeared outside the house and the wire, teasing the watchdogs, which became indescribably furious: the long and thick fur of the nape stood up and betrayed their nervous shivering. They threw themselves on the barbed wire and choked with a frantic, rattling bark. The wolves were not afraid of them. The wolves did not pay any attention to the dogs: they were busy with a more important matter Ч looking for food. They had fear only for the watchtowers, from which soldiers could open indiscriminate fire, sometimes hitting their mark. That is what happened this time.
A pack of wolves, following their alpha in single file, crossed blood stains, left behind after the shooting of the horses. Near the house they split into two groups. The larger hugged the wall, while the second, along with their leader, crouched in the snow and slowly proceeded further.
The beams of the searchlights took a bite out of the dark near the outer row of wire. The wolves made use of the darkness, which reigned outside the camp, but always in vain. There was no food left in the camp. This time, huge barrels attracted the beasts' attention. The empty barrels had been put outside a long time ago, waiting to be removed from the camp. Transport was yet to arrive. Some time ago those barrels had been filled to the brim with herring, but now held only the scent.
The dogs smelled the wolves, and viciously growled from time to time. The leader abruptly pushed away from the packed snow. His lean body, leaping off the ground, almost immediately completed its flight and disappeared into a barrel. A few other shadows also darted towards the barrels. Gunshots thundered, drowning out the choked barking of the dogs.
Vitalik was awake. Wrapped in a blanket up to his chin, he looked out the window. The shots could be heard from every direction, but nothing was visible, at least not out the window.
Suddenly, a face pressed up against the glass. Vitalik looked harder and shuddered: a huge wolf was peering into the room. It waved its paw strangely and all of a sudden, struck the outer pane. Small fragments of glass scattered in the snow. The wolf was gone...
The boy carefully, trying not to wake his mother, crawled down onto the floor. He found a poker near the stove and went to the window. The shots stopped, and the dogs fell quiet. Silence reigned once again.
In the morning Vitalik could not get up. He distinctly heard his mother's footsteps, and smelled boiled potatoes. He knew he was no longer asleep, but could not open his eyes. He recalled the night's guest and jumped up in bed immediately.
His mother burst out laughing and gave him a mirror:
Ч Look at yourselfЕ
Vitalik only then realised that he was still clutching the poker, and had been the entire night. His hands, face, and legs were covered in soot. There were black streaks on the bed too.
Ч I slept like a log, Ч his mother said, Ч I did not hear anything. You managed to go into battleЕ
She came up to her son and took the poker from him.
Ч Were there many wolves?
Ч I only saw one, it was really big.
Ч The one that broke our window?
The boy was already bathing in a tub, smearing soot with his hands.
Four wolves were killed. Three were pulled straight out of the barrels, while the last one was found still alive far from the camp. When the soldiers headed towards him, it tried to get up. But its paws no longer obeyed, and buckled. And yet, it got up and managed to hobble towards the people, and then fell over.
Ч Dead, Ч one of the soldiers said, striking the ribs of the beast several times with his boot, and then continued slowly:
Ч So scrawny.
The wolves were dumped into a pit and covered with snow. A quarter of an hour later nobody remembered the incident: the prisoners came out of the barracks and lined up near the camp exit. The convoy, having split them into squads, marched them away to pull down trees.
Ч Is that everyone? Ч Captain Shergaev asked matron Sonya Krotova as the last squad left the camp.
Ч Yes, Comrade Captain. Everyone except for Gurieva from the tenth barracks.
Ч What is wrong with her?
Ч Something with her legs again. She was sent to the infirmary.
Ч We'll check the barracks and you will be able to relax, Ч Sergey Shalvovich said.
The bunks in the barracks were neatly made. The late morning, being stingy with the light, did not seem to want or was afraid to peep into the narrow windows.
Gloom lurked in the corners and refused to leave. The stale and sour air made it difficult to breathe.
Ч How many times have I had to ask for the rooms to be aired out, Ч Sergey Shalvovich pronounced unhappily. Ч You can suffocate hereЕ
Ч Oh! Ч Sonia exclaimed suddenly. Ч Comrade Captain, Ч she called out, frightened, Ч look.
A woman was lying face down on a bunk, half covered with a blanket. She was clutching her stomach with her forearms, one of her legs hanging over the edge of the bunk.
Shergaev threw the blanket aside and froze: the sheet was covered in dried blood.
Ч Please, help, Ч he whispered to Sonya.
Together they carefully turned the woman onto her back. The captain quickly took the cold hand of the prisoner, but her pulse was no longer detectable, her heart had already stopped beating.
Ч Quickly, to the infirmary, Ч he ordered Sonya Krotova. Ч Actually never mind. It is too late, Ч Shergaev changed his mind.
He bent down and picked up fragments of thin glass off the floor. They were covered in dried blood.
Ч Where is this from? Ч He tilted his head backwards. There was a broken bulb hanging from the ceiling.
Krotova, not realising what her boss was looking at, also looked up.
Ч She broke the bulb and cut her veins with the glass, Ч Sergey Shalvovich frowned and headed towards the exit. Ч Please make arrangement to have the body removed.
Sergey Shalvovich became seriously alarmed. Nobody had committed suicide in his camp before, for which he had been raised up as an example to the heads of other camps. Some died, but nobody committed suicide. To tell the truth, sometimes it happened that the prisoners tried to cut or injure themselves, but it was done for other motives: those who did would get several days off.
Looking through Marfa Alekseyevna Nikolaeva's personal file, former senior accountant of a construction company, the captain almost did not pay attention to the scant personal details. They did not interest him. He knew much more about this woman's life from other sources.
Not so long ago, about three years previously, this prisoner's mother, quite a descript old woman, appeared. She did not cry, as other visiting relatives did, and she did not ask for anything. She just placed a stack of papers on the table, letters of recommendation and various references. When he asked her why he would need those papers, she, ashamed of her indiscretion, said:
Ч You, son, don't be angry ЕMy Marfa's whole life is in those papers. She got one every year. And all of a sudden, she is a thiefЕ
He did not get angry. He even allowed a meeting with her daughter and helped the old woman to get to the nearest station. The letters and certificates had been given to Nikolaeva quite often. But she was tried for embezzlement as wellЕ
When he became interested in Nikolaeva's case, he was unexpectedly warned: 'The head of the camp is not an advocate. Mind your own business.' Later, Shergaev came to know that the manager of the construction company was guilty of embezzlement and that he was also tried.
Sergey Shalvovich put the case aside, and walked over to the window. He sighed heavily:
Ч I am getting old. My mind plays tricks on me. Am I really done?
Sonya Krotova stuck her head into the office:
Ч Comrade Captain, Nikolaeva has been taken away.
Ч How about her bed?
Ч It has been changed.
Ч Good. Call Agonov into my office.
Sonya disappeared. Lieutenant Agonov immediately showed up.
Ч Everybody is here, Ч Shergaev noted satisfactorily.
Ч Andrey Ivanovich, arrange the funeral. Nikolaeva is in the cold room.
Agonov was waiting for orders, but there were none. Shergaev turned to the window and muttered:
Ч Give her a proper burialЕ
Agonov left the room. Lieutenant Anosov and sergeant Yakunin were already waiting for him:
Ч How is he?
Ч How, how? He is obviously worriedЕ
The door opened quietly. Sergey Shalvovich was standing on the threshold:
Ч Come in.
Svicharskaya scribbled on a sheet of paper with a red pencil and did not say a word. Krotova stood, with her head hung. Another four matrons were sitting to the side.
Ч Comrade sergeant, Ч Sonya justified herself, pouting her full lips, Ч I had checked the barracks several timesЕ Everything was quietЕ I would have never thought that NikolaevaЕ
Ч She really wanted her life back, Ч the quiet Oksana Pytaleva added sadly, or aunty Oksana, as she was known by the inmates.
Ч Yes, she didЕ Ч Svicharskaya nodded. Ч You, Krotova, have already earned yourself a reprimand. Now we'll see what the boss has to say.
Ч Can he sack me? Ч Sonya sounded frightened.
Ч Unfortunately, he can.
The phone rang persistently. Svicharskaya picked up the receiver.
Ч Yes, yes, IЕYes, Yes. No problem. Ч The phone went dead. Ч There you go. He called me into his office. She spread her hands. Ч So, comrades, you are free to go. Except Krotova.
Ч Did he call me as well? Ч Sonia shuddered.
Shergaev was standing near a bookcase attempting to put a book on the top shelf, but he could not reach it. He panted. He raised himself up on his tiptoes, but his belly was in the way. Svicharskaya and Krotova hesitated inside the door. Valentina Antonovna coughed. Shergaev became flustered, went red and dropped the book. Then he bent down, picked it up and put it on the table.
Ч Come in, come inЕWhy I called you in, you know, I hope. Ч Sergey Shalvovich rumbled, making himself comfortable in his seat. Ч The problem is not so much in the suicide, it is in fact in your negligence. Wasn't it me who asked you, Ч he addressed Krotova, Ч if all the squads had left for work? What did you say?
Krotova pulled at the folds of her tunic with her fingers and remained silent.
Ч You did not even notice Nikolaeva's disappearance. As a result, you overlooked the person. Who will fight for a person if it is not us?
Ч Comrade Captain, IЕ
Ч What do you mean I? Ч Shergaev yelled. Ч If there are no accidents, it does not mean you should relaxЕNo way! If you can't work Ч then resign. I offered you this long ago.
His voice started to tremble on a high note and then fell off. Shergaev clutched his chest and began to shudder, coughing. Svicharskaya poured a glass of water and gave it to him.
Ч Thank you, Ч he croaked.
Sonya cried nearly soundlessly. The dismissal frightened her. At thirty, Krotova was an overgrown child, who was in need of constant protection and who became panicky and frightened when confronted with the unknown. This fear was born long ago in her childhood, during a starry dawn, when bandits massacred half her village. Having cried over the mangled bodies of her parents for a long time, Sonya forever left her native land. The fear chased her to the depths of the country. Raised in an orphanage, she remained there as a caretaker. At the beginning of the war, she, along with the children, was evacuated to the Urals. She could have continued being a caretaker there, if it had not been for Nikolay. This quiet and modest girl attracted a trackwalker. And she, being thankful to him for his attention and feeling sorry for this young man, injured on the front, agreed to be his wife. But their happiness did not last long. Just one year later, saving a child from under a train, Nikolay died.
After her husband's funeral, Sonya could not stay in that city any more. The need for matrons in the women's camps decided Krotova's fate. Thus she found herself in the North.
Sonya cried loudly and inconsolably, like a child. Sergey Shalvovich was still breathing very heavily, pressing himself against the back of his chair. Svicharskaya was closely studying a fly, which, appearing out of nowhere in the middle of winter, was sleepily crawling on the floor.
Shergaev pulled a handkerchief out of his pocket and wiped away big drops of sweat from his forehead.
He rose from the table and said in disgust:
Ч Stop crying, will youЕ
Then he muttered to himself:
Ч Damn it, like kindergarten'. Seeing that Krotova was expecting him to say something specific, he officially reprimanded her and threatened: Ч If I notice even the slightest misbehaviour, I will kick you out!
Overwhelmed with joy, Sonya nodded in agreement and inched herself towards the door. Shergaev saw her out, and as soon as Krotova disappeared, expressed surprise:
Ч How little someone needs to feel happy. Only a couple of consoling words. She can expect much more bitterness in her life ahead! Е She can break. People like her are so easily pleased. Sad that we are ashamed to say those words loudlyЕWe try to avoid them.
Valentina Antonovna had never seen her boss so animated. He looked younger and more attractive. She saw SergeyShalvlovich in a new light.
Ч Comrade Captain, am I free to go? Ч Svicharskaya asked cautiously when Shergaev stopped talking.
He did not hear her.
Ч We are doing something wrong, Valya, Ч Sergey Shalvovich sighed. Ч Wrong. Do you know what Agonov asked me an hour ago? ЂShould we set up a memorial to Nikolaeva?ї It is terrifying that such people are responsible for other peoples' fatesЕ
Ч You need to rest, Comrade Captain.
Ч Yes, it is probably time to go. How is your little boy?
Ч He is all right. Thank you.
Ч It is hard to get out of here now. Can you wait until spring?
Ч I have annual leave in springЕ
Ч Forget your leave. For good.
Ч What do you mean 'for good'?
Ч HereЕ Whose reports are these? Ч Shergaev put some sheets of paper on the table. Ч They are not mineЕDon't say a word, don't say a word, Ч The captain smiled, realising that the excited woman wanted to say something. Ч Where are you going to go, if it is not a secret?
Ч Home, to my mother.
Ч To the Ukraine, that is, Ч Shergaev said and added wistfully. Ч Gardens...
Spring had come. The swamp swallowed the snow. At the end of summer it usually became a refuge for mosquitoes and gave off an unpleasant odor. The spring gradually dissolved in the daily routine. Life in the camp went on as usual: well measured and calm, or filled with all kinds of prisoners' tricks. After spending several days in the cooler, the ceiling of which even in summer was covered with frost, the rowdy calmed down. But not for long. It seemed Marfa Nikolaeva was no longer remembered. There was no need for that anyway. Her shy and secretive nature surprised and intrigued those around her when she was alive. And yet, she had been forgotten several weeks later, following the suicides of more prisoners tired of waiting for amnesty. Only occasionally somebody from the convoy, taking yet another body to the cemetery, would make a callous joke: ЂMarfa was successful in setting an exampleї. Valya also remembered Marfa Nikolaeva. But she thought little about the woman herself; more about her death Ч even anticipating the outcome, she could not have done anything to prevent it. And she blamed herself. Vitalik remembered Marfa more often than his mother. He cried a lot at first. Over time he became quiet, and would sit silently for hours on end and stare at the seashell. He even stopped going to the camp. Svicharskaya noticed that her son had changed. He became sullen and withdrawn. She attributed this to development of the child's character.
On a sunny day, a car from the main office arrived by the wooden road. The driver carried an old woman out of the cabin and put her on a dry spot. Killing the engine, he went to the main office, and the woman sat on the porch.
Captain Shergaev was planning on retiring, so he was in hospital for examinations. He was replaced by Agonov. Confident that the boss would never come back to his previous duties, Pavel Ignatievich settled in his office and rearranged the furniture to his liking.
When there was a knock on the door, he, still feeling uncomfortable in the new office, wanted to shout: ; Come in! Ч but changed his mind. He saw the car through the window and rushed out.
The driver entered.
Ч What a road you have to take to get here! Ч he started to complain immediately, shaking hands on the go.
Agonov readily shook the driver's hand. ; Maybe this clumsy sergeant brought a report about my appointment, Ч Pavel Ignatievich flattered himself hopefully.
Ч The logs went rotten at the eighth kilometer. They will be replaced tomorrow. Otherwise, in my opinion, the road is under control, Ч Agonov replied defensively, offering the sergeant a chair.
Ч We called and called. All in vain.
Ч Floods, you seeЕSeveral posts sank into the swamp. We'll put up new ones tomorrow.
Ч I was sent to hand you this order, Ч the sergeant pulled out a piece of paper, folded in four, and gave it to Agonov. Ч I was also asked to pass onto you that Svicharskaya should not delay. Her train leaves tomorrow morning. She will have to collect her documents at the main office as well.
; What does this all have to do with Svicharskaya? Agonov asked, puzzled.
But when Pavel Ignatievich read the order, he understood everything. Svicharskaya was quitting, but there was no mention of him. He even looked at the back of the order. The paper was empty.
Ч How long will it take for Svicharskaya to pass on her duties? I have to pick her up.
; What is he talking about? Ч Agonov looked at the sergeant, not understanding. Ч Thick Ч lipped idiotЕ SvicharskayaЕ SvicharskayaЕ He was about to yell out of anger, but pulled himself together.
Ч Who knows, Ч Agonov answered rudely. Ч She is in the office. Talk to her yourself.
Ч I have brought an old woman with me, Ч the sergeant said as he was about to leave. Ч Her daughter is here, a prisonerЕ She wants to see her.
Ч Who is in charge here? Ч Agonov exploded. Ч Me or what? Visits are prohibited. Get her out of hereЕI don't even want her scent hereЕ
Valentina Antonovna passed her duties onto Krotova. After treating the driver and the old woman to Ukrainianborscht, she began to pack her things. The old woman, thanking Svicharskaya for her hospitality, began to complain:
Ч Yura said, that your boss won't allow me to see my daughterЕ But I was promisedЕ
Ч Who did you come to see, grandma? Ч Valya asked, expressing interest.
Ч My daughterЕ
Ч What is her name?
Ч Marfa is her name, baby, MarfaЕ NikolaevaЕ
Valya shuddered and dropped the vase in her hands. It hit the edge of the table, split into two, and slipping to the floor, crumbled into tiny pieces.
Ч Why are you so careless? Ч the old woman scolded Valya. Ч You have broken such an expensive thing.
Valya swallowed the lump in her throat:
Ч She is not here, grandma.
Ч Has she been transferred somewhere?
Ч Yes, she has.
Ч Is it far?
Ч There are all kinds of people in the world, Ч she turned to the driver. Ч Last time the boss talked to me himself. And he took me to the train. And why so? Ч the old woman said. Ч It is a matter of wisdom. Wisdom comes with age. And this man? Oh Lord, he is so young, but already so arrogantЕ I saw through the window how he was puffing his chestЕ Just like a sparrow chick.
When the truck was loaded, the old lady began to tearfully plead with Svicharskya:
Ч I'm going to die soon. Tell me, darling, how can I find Marfa?
Valya remained silent. She did not know what to say to the woman. She just held her son tightly, whose eyes, dimmed and unblinking, were staring into the distance. She could hardly hold back her tears.
Ч Don't worry, grandmother. Go home. Your daughter will be released soonЕYou'll be together againЕ
Ч My heart tells me I won't see her again, Ч the old woman worried inside the cockpit.
Svicharskaya, together with her son, settled in the back of the truck and, hugging each other, they cried.
Ч Farewell, North! Ч Valya whispered through her tears, as the car began to move, carefully feeling its way down the slope, scared of sliding off the wooden road and into the swamp.
Wooden road Ч logs beaten together atop packed earth for transport
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