top of page

Nil Sorski & The Walrus

I’m in the pillory at Cholmogory having just had my ears sliced off. We are one month into winter thank god, so the cold has numbed the pain. Even the English rope-traders, who founded the town and run the courts according to their own rules, are not so cruel as to find you thieving in summer. All trials are put off till the first snows, at least when the ear-chopping sentence is the likely result as it always is when found guilty of theft. It would be a different story if you got caught by the walrus hunters who live up on the coast. They’d ask no leave, just string you over some thorn bush in the swamp and leave you to the mosquitoes. Mercy is not something they’re familiar with, either at work or with friends, let alone strangers. At least we get to keep our feet on the ground, even if most of the year it’s frozen. The hunters though, they take off onto the White Sea and up the Kola coast any time the water’s clear. They’ll damp up at first fog and never dry out till journey’s end which might be months. They get stuck in ice-floes, flipped by whales and wind, drowned, starved or just plain frozen to death, most of which they could have done without leaving home. Then there’s the walrus: fifteen foot of fury hanging from your gaff, your bones vibrating with their bellows, their mouths waiting to snap you like a seal, your fingers shivering on the harpoon hoping you’ll hit just right and not make them angrier than they already are. You want to get them well dead before you hack off their tusks and use their intestines to make raincoats. Knee-high in blubber and blood, tearing at the skin, hacking through the muscle.Slicing up the gut is bloody hard work – I know, I’ve tried it - and slitting the stomach pure stinks. But if you’re lucky, it’s full of cardium-cockles and then you’ve made a fortune – they love them on the dining tables of Moscow. No such luck for me. I lasted barely a month before I had to be put ashore at Gremikha, sick as a man can be without dying. I spent the rest of the season boiling tusks up with vinegar and unrolling them which is still hard work if not bloody, and makes your fingers look like boiled cabbage. But at least you kept your feet on the ground and the food in your belly stays there. And I learned something else, apart from the reek and rip of it all – they don’t have ears, those walrus. Or if they do, they’re hidden somewhere on the inside.

bottom of page