Varlam Shalamov


The mountain stream was already gripped by ice, and in the shallows there was no stream at all. The shallows had been the first part to freeze and after a month nothing was left there of summer’s thundering, threatening water; even the ice had been crushed, ground down and shattered by horses’ hooves, tyres and felt boots. But the stream was still alive, its water still breathing — white steam was rising up from the bits of open water, the patches still free of ice.

 An exhausted duck, a diver, flopped onto the water. The flock had flown south long ago, the duck had been left behind. Everything was still bright, snowy — especially bright because of the snow that covered the whole naked forest, that covered everything up to the horizon. The duck wanted to rest, just a little, and then rise up and fly — fly away after its flock.

 The duck had no strength to fly. The huge weight of its wings dragged it to the ground, but the water was a support, a refuge — the open patches of water seemed to the duck to be a living river.

 But before the duck had looked round, before it had caught its breath, its keen ear registered danger — the rumble of danger.

 A man was running down the snowy hillside, stumbling on frozen tussocks of grass that now, towards evening, had begun to freeze still harder. He had seen the duck long ago and had been watching it with a secret hope. Now this hope had been realized — the duck had settled on the ice.

 The man had been creeping up on the duck but had lost his footing. The duck noticed him and the man began to run, no longer trying to hide. The duck was too tired to fly. It only needed to take off and, apart from threats and curses, nothing would have threatened it. But to lift itself up into the sky it needed strength in its wings — and the duck was too tired. All it could do was dive. It vanished in the water and the man, armed with some kind of heavy stick, stayed by the patch of water where the duck had gone under, waiting for its return. Soon, after all, the duck would need to breathe.

 Twenty yards away, however, lay more open water. The man swore as he saw that the duck had swum under the ice and surfaced in this other patch of water. But it was no more able to fly than before. And it was wasting whole seconds in resting.

 The man tried to break up the ice, to smash it, but with only rags for footwear this was impossible.

 He thumped the ice with his stick. The ice began to crumble a little, but it didn’t break. The man ran out of strength and, breathing heavily, sat down on the ice.

 The duck swam round its patch of water. The man began to run, cursing and throwing stones at the duck, and the duck dived down and reappeared on the first patch of water.

 And so they went on, man and duck, until darkness fell.

 It was time to return to the barrack, to give up on this chance hunt. The man regretted wasting his strength on this mad pursuit. Hunger had prevented him from thinking properly, from working out a sure way of tricking the duck; the impatience of hunger had led him astray, stopping him from constructing a reliable plan. The duck was still out there in the middle of the ice, on its patch of water. It was time to return to the barrack. The man had not been trying to catch the duck in order to cook and eat the meat of a bird. A duck is a bird, and that means meat, doesn’t it? To cook the duck in an iron pot or, better still, bury it in the embers of a fire. To coat the duck with clay and bury it in glowing purple embers, or simply throw it into the fire. The fire would burn down and the duck’s clay jacket would crack. The fat inside would be hot and slippery. This fat would flow onto his fingers, it would congeal on his lips. No, this was not why the man had been trying to catch the duck. Hazily, confusedly, other plans had been forming, taking vague shape in his brain. He’d take this duck to the foreman, he’d give it to him as a present — and then the foreman would strike the man off the ominous list being drawn up that night. The whole barrack knew about this list, and a man tried not to think about what was impossible, what was beyond his reach — how to escape the transport and stay here on this site, with these work-brigades. Here the hunger was bearable, and enough is as good as a feast.

 But the duck was still on the water. It had been very difficult for the man to take a decision himself, to act independently, to do something his daily life had not prepared him for. He had not been taught to hunt ducks. That was why his movements had been helpless, clumsy. He hadn’t been taught to think about the possibility of such a hunt — his brain couldn’t come up with correct answers to the unexpected questions life posed. He had been taught to live differently, without needing to take decisions of his own, with another will — someone else’s will — in charge of events. It is uncommonly difficult to meddle in one’s own fate, to ‘refract’ fate. And maybe that’s all for the best — a duck dies on a patch of water, a man in a barrack.

 His frozen, ice-scratched fingers tried to warm themselves against his breast — trembling from the aching pain of incurable frostbite, the man had tucked his hands, both of them, under his shirt. There was little warmth in his hungry body, and the man returned to the barrack, pushed his way through to the stove and still couldn’t get warm. His body was shaking, shuddering unstoppably.

 The foreman looked in through the barrack door. He’d seen the duck too, he’d seen the dead man chasing the dying duck. The foreman didn’t want to leave this settlement either — who knew what lay in store for him at the next site? The foreman had been counting on a generous present — a live duck and a pair of trousers from a free worker — with which to soften the heart of the work superintendent, who was still asleep. When he woke up, the superintendent would then cross the foreman off the list — not the old slogger who’d caught the duck, but himself, the foreman.

 In his bed, the work superintendent was rolling a ‘Rocket’ cigarette between practised fingers. He too had seen the beginning of the hunt, through the window. If the duck were caught, the carpenter could knock up a cage and the superintendent could take the duck along to the commandant, or rather to his wife, Agnya Petrovna. And the superintendent’s future would be assured.

 But the duck was left to die on its patch of water.  And everything went on just as if the duck had never come to those parts at all.

Written in 1963; first published in 1970

Translated by Robert Chandler and Nathan Wilkinson

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