Varlam Shalamov


Fadeyev said: ‘Hold on, I’ll have a word with him myself.’ He came up to me, then put the butt of his rifle beside my head.

I was lying in the snow, clutching the log I had let fall from my shoulder, unable to pick it up and regain my place in the line of men going down the mountain, each carrying on his shoulder ‘a stick of firewood’ — sometimes a big log, sometimes a smaller one. All of them — both guards and prisoners — were in a hurry to get back home, they all wanted to eat and sleep, they’d had more than enough of the endless winter day. And there I was — lying in the snow.

‘Listen, old man,’ said Fadeyev. He went on, addressing me, as he addressed all prisoners, with the polite, respectful word for ‘you’. ‘It really isn’t possible that a giant like yourself should be unable to carry a log, or rather stick, as small as that. You’re clearly a malingerer. You’re a Fascist. While our Motherland battles the enemy, you jam sticks in the wheels.’

‘I’m no Fascist,’ I said. ‘I’m a sick and hungry man. You’re the Fascist. It says in the papers how Fascists kill old men. Think about what you’re going to say to your fiancée — how will you tell her what you did in Kolyma?’

It was all the same to me. I couldn’t bear the rosy-cheeked, the healthy, the well-fed, the well-clothed, and I wasn’t afraid. I hunched up, protecting my stomach, but even this was just a primitive, instinctive movement — I wasn’t in the least afraid of kicks to the stomach. Fadeyev booted me in the back. I felt a sudden warmth — no pain at all. If I died — so much the better.

‘Listen,’ said Fadeyev, when he’d turned me over, my face to the sky, with the toes of his boots. ‘I’ve come across your sort before, yes, I’ve worked with people like you.’

Up walked another guard — Seroshapka.

‘Let’s have a look — so I can remember you. Nasty piece of work you are, ugly too. Tomorrow I’ll shoot you myself. Understood?

‘Understood,’ I said, picking myself up and spitting out salty, bloody spit.

I began to drag the log along the ground, to the sound of the whoops, yells and curses of my comrades — while I was being beaten up, they had been freezing.

The following morning Seroshapka took us out to work in forest that had been felled a year earlier: we were to gather up everything that could be burnt in the iron stoves that winter. Forests were always cut in winter — the stumps were tall. We levered them out, sawed them up and stacked them in piles.

Seroshapka marked off the forbidden zone, hanging tags — plaits of yellow and grey dry grass — on the few trees that remained around where we were working.

Our brigade-leader lit a fire for Seroshapka on a small hillock — only guards had the right to a fire while they worked — and brought him a supply of wood.

The snow on the ground had long ago been scattered by the winds. The chilled, frost-coated grass slipped through your fingers, changing colour when touched by a human hand. Slowly freezing on the hummocks were low bushes of mountain dog rose; the scent of their iced, dark-purple berries was extraordinary. Still tastier than the rosehips was the foxberry, nipped by the frost, overripe, dove-grey . . . On stubby, straight little branches hung whortleberries — bright blue, wrinkled like empty leather purses, but still preserving within them a dark, bluey-black juice whose taste was ineffable.

Berries at this time of year, nipped by the frost, are quite unlike berries in their prime, the berries of the juicy season. Their taste is much subtler.

Rybakov, my comrade, was collecting berries in a tin can during our smoking breaks and even at moments when Seroshapka was looking the other way. If he picked a whole canful, the guards’ detachment cook would give him some bread. Rybakov’s enterprise had at once become a matter of major importance.

I had no such clients and I ate the berries myself, carefully and greedily pressing each berry against the roof of my mouth with my tongue — for a moment the sweet fragrant juice of the crushed berry was stupefying.

I didn’t think of helping Rybakov, nor would he have wanted my help — then he would have had to share the bread.

Rybakov’s little can was filling up too slowly, the berries were getting scarcer and scarcer, and, without noticing it, we had reached the boundaries of the zone — the tags were hanging right over our heads.

‘Look!’ I said to Rybakov. ‘We’d better go back.’

But on the hummocks in front of us were rosehips, and whortleberries, and foxberries . . . We’d seen these hummocks long ago. The tree with the tag on it should have been standing two yards further out.

Rybakov pointed at his can, which was still not full, and at the sun, now dipping towards the horizon, and slowly began to approach the enchanted berries.

There was the dry crack of a shot, and Rybakov fell face down among the hummocks. Brandishing his rifle, Seroshapka shouted out: ‘Leave him where he is. Don’t go near him!’

Seroshapka worked the bolt and shot again. We knew what this second shot meant. Seroshapka knew too. There must always be two shots — the first is a warning.

Lying there between the hummocks, Rybakov looked unexpectedly small. The sky, the mountains and the river were huge — God knows how many people these mountains could hold, laid out on the little paths between the hummocks.

Rybakov’s little can had rolled a long way, I managed to pick it up and hide it in a pocket. Maybe I’d get some bread for these berries — I knew, after all, who Rybakov had been collecting them for.

Seroshapka calmly drew up our small detachment, counted us and gave the order to set off back home.

He tapped me on the shoulder with the tip of his rifle, and I turned round.

‘It was you I wanted,’ said Seroshapka. ‘But you didn’t cross the line, you bastard.’

Written in 1959; first published in 1973

Translated by Robert Chandler and Nathan Wilkinson

Russian Short Stories from Pushkin to Buida (Penguin Classics 2007)