It’s night at Nertchinsk and here we sleep three deep to keep ourselves warm. Yesterday, the little man who made a fiddle out of nails and string didn’t wake up with the rest of us. We should have known better than to put him at the bottom, but there it was. You have to take your turn. His face was flax-flower blue, his skin like wet putty, carrying the impress of his clothes and boots and our fingerprints as we stripped him down. We threw him into Disused Mineshaft number 15B, saw his pale form twist and fall, disappear into dark. No use digging ground for graves when it’s four foot deep with frost, no use wasting half-decent clothes and boots. We let him take his fiddle with him. No one else could get a tune out of it anyway .It wasn’t the worst thing I have ever done and I have done many things, and there are better places I have been than the lead mines of Nertchinsk. The best thing I ever did was meet my Tzrika. The worst thing I ever did was lose him. I called him my son, but he wasn’t.
I found him in a place near Vitim where they said we could build ourselves a village, plant crops, make a new life. I’d been through the world and not liked it; I’d come back to Tomsk, soaked myself in good Russian vodka till my liver began to rot without waiting for the rest of me, without waiting for the coffin lid to close. I’d signed up for the New Frontier, got my pass and plot-number, bought my spade and sack of seeds and set off for the Promised Land. I met some other stragglers on the road and when we finally made it through Vitim and reached the place we’d marked with a cross on our maps, we stopped. We unpacked our baggage, began to set up our tents, marked out our plots with sticks and string. And then the soldiers came up from the town behind us, told us the Grand Scheme was scrapped, though they couldn’t tell us why. We could join the Jews at Birobidzhan, the New Israel a thousand miles to the east, or we could go down to Baikal and scrape a living from its shores. There are the roads, they said, and there are choices: you can go this way or that and we’ll be back in the morning. But we’d come too far and could go no further, so we stood by our collapsing shelters, gripping our tent poles sharpened into stakes and refused to go.
“Leave!” they told us and we stood by our pathetic village and shouted back our No’s. They levelled their guns and shot us down, told us one way or the other, we would be gone. And we were. There was me and the boy and two old women who were left to tramp the track to Baikal. We got there, or rather me and Tzrika did. One of the women got sick on the way and the other stayed to look after her.
“Go,” she said, “we’ll catch you up,” but we all knew she wouldn’t, and she didn’t. And so me and the boy arrived at Baikal, and it was early summer and warm. I found work on the boats and a place to live and Tzrika stayed home twisting ropes into nets and against all the odds, we were happy. We dawdled along its banks, me and Tzrika, when I wasn’t working. We got our month of fish, some blubber-oil for our lamps; we smoked fish-skin into leather, traded it for flour and tea and sold Tzrika’s nets back to the boats. We took walks, made bows and arrows out of wych-elm, skewered rabbits and marmot for the pot. We told each other stories as we mended our trousers, darned our socks, drank a bit of vodka with our tea. We visited the Caves of the Lonely Sea where the waves will tell a man his future as they lap against the walls on a Midsummer’s Eve.
But we were late.
It was autumn.
And we didn’t know the Baikal at all.
They call it a sea, the Baikal, and it’s like a sea but it isn’t. Fifty miles wide from shore to shore and three hundred miles long it stretches: it is London to Paris, Kiev to Odessa, it is the entire width of Iceland. These are all places I have been, but nowhere was so beautiful and blue as the Baikal, with its basalt cliffs running sheer into the water and down to the centre of the earth. It is a windswept width of water – everyone will tell you so. It has from the north the Gara wind which lifts the surface six dark yards into the air, sends the water crashing back again, makes toothpicks out of fishing boats and trees, flings fish overland for a mile. From the south-west comes the Koultouk, milder, wetter, slapping the surface into wet curls, painting it with streaks of white, sending the scree slipping from the hills down to muddy its banks; in between comes the Bargouzine, chasing from east to west like a djinn, hard and cruel, quick and vicious, bringing ice and sleet and hail which cut like cat-whips soaked in frozen milk. And then, when the sun is low and the days are short, when it freezes in its long winter, we think the Baikal sleeps and forgets. We dance with our skates upon its skin, run dog-sleds up and down its back. It is deep, so deep: a thousand fathoms sink beneath our feet as we glide like mites across the surface of its eye. We trade from it, we steal from it, tea merchants from China pass as if it is their Right of Way. But the Baikal knows, and of a sudden it cracks and yawns a gap of fifteen miles and whoever is there on the ice at that moment, is lost without mercy and gone.
And just when the Baikal was beginning to slumber, when the mercury was already sluggish in the glass, I got the boils down my back like a spill of summer rain. I covered them with creosote, rubbed them with oil, strapped on a babushka of butter and gunpowder, but nothing worked. I’m a foreigner here, I ask advice, I take it. I butcher a Baikal seal down its middle and wear it warm as a cape. The boatman is shouting, “Last boat out before it’s winter!” but the boils are not cured and the skipper demands Tzrika in my place.
“No boy for the boat, no work for you next season,” said the skipper, hard as those Baikal basalt cliffs, “we’re not taking some boil-infested bastard to infect the rest of the crew. It happens,” he’d said and shrugged his shoulders, “I can’t go out with one man down.”
What could I do? What could we do? Tzrika was eager; I will be a man, he said, and the skipper agreed. I think about that now, what I should have said and done, but it’s always too late. I never knew that fiddle-player’s name, but he used to say that no man gets to pick his own tune, and he was right. I stayed on the shore of the Baikal wrapped in my sealskin, and the boat went out and with it went my Tzrika. Two days I waited, while the Gara wind growled down early from the mountains like a hungry bear woken too soon from its sleep. Back came the boat in bits, and gone were the catch, half the boat-house, all the nets. And then came that skipper, hard-ridged and red from the wind, death written right across his face, tramping resolute across the shingle. I didn’t wait for him to tell me what he had done. I shook that sealskin from off my shoulders and smothered him with it there on those ice-encrusted stones, the clot-rotten seal-blood black upon his face, his gaping mouth the new-dug grave by which I had been waiting. Waiting for the only son I ever had. Or ever would have, and my Tzrika, blown from off the bridge of that skipper’s boat like a leaf and swallowed in the blackness of the Baikal. Should I forgive the skipper? Should he forgive me? I don’t know. What I do know is it’s a long way from Baikal to Nertchinsk: four hundred miles of hard country over the Yat and the Yablonoyy mountains. Take my advice and plan your murder well into the winter, then at least you’ll stay at Ullan Ude till the spring. Not so for me. I took those mountains with my hands in fetters just as the winds began to call and the snow was trailing in. I wore my jerkin of sealskin, burned a map into the inside to plan for my escape. But Nertchinsk isn’t like Sakhalin where people throw themselves into the sea and always drown. Keeps the prison populations down they say, which is good in a place where there’s always more, like rats, to take their place. I used to dream of being sent to Sakhalin, setting off into that sea like so many have done before. I would cling to a raft of driftwood the fifty miles to Japan. That’s all it is: two peoples, two continents and only fifty miles apart. Who thinks of that? Only those of us who do nothing but work and sleep, work and sleep, which is what we do at Nertchinsk. We sleep, we work, and sometimes we think. It isn’t allowed, but we do it anyway. I think of my Tzrika and know I will never have another son. Not now. Not ever. Not after Nertchinsk. They tell me it’s the lead.
We dig the mines the old way, with pickaxes; we smelt the ore the cheap way, on a turnbole, a huge wooden platform raised above the fire. It is mounted on gimbals so we can swing it to the prevailing wind to fire up the flames. It keeps some of us from freezing, makes sure we can work another day. We sit in our heaps next to the turnbole, wrapped in our blankets, no longer caring of the fleas and lice that survive the cold of the night, tell each others stories about how things might have been. I lie there in my sealskin jacket and listen to the wolves. They remind me of the echoes in the Caves of the Lonely Sea. And I think: I think I should have gone there earlier. I should have planted my ear to those cold cave-walls the whole midsummer-night through, and then maybe, maybe, we would still be mending nets together and darning socks and drinking tea warmed with vodka and wallowing with seals in the brief summer of the Baikal when the elks come down from the hills and the water is warm.
These are the things which I have done and the places I have been.
It is my turn on the bottom and I have taken off my sealskin jacket. Use it if you find it, for I will not. I see it lying at the edge of fire-light, half in darkness. I turn my head away. I burrow below the shivering bodies of my workmates. “Pile on, lads,” I murmur, “pile yourselves high and bury me deep.”
It is dark. Strangely, it is quite warm. I cannot move. I will never move again, except to Disused Mineshaft 15B. My very own cave in my lonely, sonless sea.
We work, we sleep, sometimes we think and as I lie here, I think maybe there is another summer somewhere, maybe Tzrika is already there and if I listen hard enough, maybe I will hear him and better still, maybe, if I keep still enough, he will hear me.
We work, we sleep.
And then there comes the time when we no longer have to think, and this is mine.