As in other villages nearby, the wooden cottages in Bujčano had no fences but stood scattered on the bank of the river each with enough space around them to give their owners a feeling of freedom. Katya’s cottage was near the road and there was a meadow around it. Only it had no trees; all attempts at growing fruit in the area were doomed to failure. The low cottage under its blanket of snow was clad with birch logs protected from thieves by planks of wood nailed to them to form crosses. Little windows squinted beneath the icicles. She would have liked to stand outside and enjoy the peace of it all in the glistening snow. But beauty had to wait: her heart had suddenly started pounding and she hurried impatiently into the yard.
Smoke from the kitchen passed through a small aperture in the dark antechamber, spiralled there and then went upwards and over the roof through another aperture higher up. The chimney was a weft of thin branches covered with clay. Through the smoke she could see the roughly smeared black clay together with pieces of meat on wooden stakes. Laughter and bumping could be heard coming from the living room together with Kata’s raised voice and the gentle bleating of a goat. She smiled, knocked and went inside. Warm steam and a cheerful cry greeted her.
“Vanya, little Vanya, come. Mummy’s here.”
Katya wiped her hands on her apron and hobbled towards her.
“Come here, my dear. Let me give you a hug.”
Katya embraced the emaciated pilgrim and Irena smelt the unmistakable scent of a woman who reminded her of the scent of home. She patted Kata on her soft back and felt slightly ashamed of her smells from the Pischak zone. The children had gone quiet; the goat in the corner by the stove was bleating again. Kata smiled and called out:
“Vanushka, where are you hiding? Your mummy is here.”
Two boys were playing on the bed with some pieces of wood while a little girl stood watching them. She was clutching to her chest a one-armed doll made from an old glove. They all looked at the unknown woman and went on playing.
“You’ve perked up a bit, Irusha. I can see that twinkle in your eyes. Has something improved? Give me that coat and come and sit down.”
In the middle of the table was a large wooden table. She sat down and repressed the impulse to go and smother her little son with love and kisses. She must give it time, allow them to get to know each other and become friends, otherwise the visit could be a disaster and end in tears. The children gradually grew bolder and after a while giggled about this strange woman coming here out of the blue and bringing with her her funny smells. There was no need to be afraid of her. Mummy Katya was smiling at her, hugging and stroking her. It was a sign that they could carry on playing up a little bit.
“Tea! Gosh I almost forgot. What a silly woman I am!” cried Katya. “Just give me a minute; it’ll be right there.”
“Katenka, Katya,” Irena wanted to tell her everything but where to begin? With the green car, the buran which blew through the Steppe, with Shoto’s report? Or with Paraska, the commander Golubovova and the camp politico? She took a deep breath in order to steady her voice:
“On May 9th we will again sing in Jahodné! Again they will all clap us!”
“You don’t say? In Jahodné?” replied Katya from amongst her pots and pans. “And here they have been playing funeral music for two days. I asked at the Soviet why they can’t play anything more cheerful. Official orders, they say. Why, I asked, and they said it is a secret they don’t even know themselves. Everything is a secret these days,“
“And what about our Ivan?“ asked Irena, emboldened.
“Well just look at the young cub! He can run like the wind. And how he can talk. He’s like a little politico!“
Pashka, Vanya and Ala had all jumped down from the bed and were now hiding under the table, peeping out at intervals and going back under with a giggle. The strange woman was different and intriguing. She didn’t smell of home, didn’t have that maternal volume. She was as thin as a skeleton and her movements were jerky. When she spoke, her lips trembled and the muscle below her eye kept twitching. A peculiar woman, indeed! How about pinching her leg to see what would happen?
Irena didn’t comment on the pinch but carefully felt for the children with her hand. They quickly disappeared back under the table, however, and giggled about how they had outwitted her.
“What about your Shota? Has he been looking after himself?“
“I guess so. Who would do his work for him? He keeps up with the repairmen. He neither stands out nor shirks his duties.“
Kata bent down beneath the table and pulled out Ivan. For a moment she held him to her breast and then she handed him to Irena.
“Here, take him for a minute. You’ve warmed up now.“
Irena was burning with excitement. Long before, she could never resist her little Zlatka and was always holding her in her arms. When Johann’s mother asked for her, Irena handed her over jealously but always took her back a few moments later. But she was only her daughter and Johann was angry about her being spoiled saying how later on, she would be unmanageable. Irena held her ground, though. Who else could lavish love on her if not her own mother? And now, where was she, her Zlata? Better not to think about it, better to channel all her love into this little boy. And look at him now, how he was pushing her off with his little fists, frowning and switching those Shota eyes of his from right to left. He said nothing and furrowed his brow but he was not going to cry. He had a hard head, ‘Caucasian‘ Jerofej would say.
“Mummy, Ivanushka, she is your mummy,“ said Katya encouragingly.
“Mummy,“ repeated the boy, stretching his arms towards Katya with supplicating eyes. His whole body tightened like a taut string and he tried to slip out of Irena’s arms but she wouldn’t let him go. Instead she suddenly started rubbing him with the palms of her hand and he glanced at her curiously. Then she tickled his ribs the same way and his laughter filled the kitchen: do it again, do it again, he cried. The goat then joined in with a bleat or two and the other two emerged from under the table – they wanted to be tickled, too, they wanted to play with the funny woman, too, and laugh with the goat like Ivan.
She started unwrapping presents she had brought them from the zone: a cube of sugar for each of the children. Katya tut-tutted at so much extravagance but before she could cover their mouths, the sugar had disappeared and there was nothing to grumble about. More presents followed: a piece of fabric for Katya in return for her care of the child. Anushkina had sent a fur – more as a memento than for any practical purpose. Some embroidery from Tinda. A metal spoon from Irma, very discomfitting for Katya:
“No, no, my girl, I can’t take that! I know what life is like there – I have no right to have that. I have done nothing to deserve your only spoon – and a proper metal one, at that. We haven’t got any spoons in the village and I’ve no business standing out from anyone else here, Irusha. So take the spoon back. Hide it in your coat. You need it more than I do.”
Last of all, shoes for Ivan. Katya turned over in her hands a miniature copy of a pair of real prisoner’s boots, stroking them admiringly as if to check whether they were genuine.
“Gosh! I could not make these…” she confessed. “And how many little shoes, bonnets and gloves I have made for the zone over the years!”
The prisoner’s boots fitted the little fellow, were slightly too big, in fact, and rather funny-looking but he would grow into them. Ivanuska walked around proudly, the boots on his infant feet making him look like a sweet little dwarf. One step here, one step there, and the boots tip-tapped on the clay floor. Ivan marched proudly, slapping his feet down as loudly as he could, checking to make sure the others were all watching him. Pashka and Ala also asked for such beautiful boots which they only had in the zone. They started chasing Ivanusha around the room and their rapid stamping soon had them all racing pell-mell around the table. What could be done? The boots had to be shared. So Katya tied the laces for them and the children pattered their feet on the floor, went round the table, from the stove to the goat and then showed the boots to the goat’s curious eyes. If she bleated, they smiled; if she didn’t, they gave her curious head a gentle slap and marched to the other end of the room. There they bowed to the stern faces of the icons of the Holy Mother of God and the Son of God – as they had often seen their mother do – and then marched back. Such plain shoes from a labour camp but how much joy they brought!
Tagar then arrived and filled the room with his burly figure. The boys jumped on him immediately. First he hugged Irena, praising her on making the long journey from Pischak. There was no-one in the village who would send their wife so many kilometres through the taiga, not even if she nagged him the whole day.
“They’re playing us funeral marches the whole time,” he said, pointing to the window and sitting on the bench by the stove. There he patted the boys’ crewcut heads and ran his fingers through Ala’s yellow hair to make her even prettier. The setting sun was now shining in through the window flooding the room with its golden beams.
“The mighty one has died,” said Tagar nonchalantly and started taking off his leather boots.
“Koriabov?” shrieked Katya, putting her hand to her heart. “What happened to him?”
“Not Koriabov. He’s sitting in the Soviet, drunk as a judge, crying his eyes out.”
“Who then? Someone close?”
“Comrade Stalin, Katushka. They wouldn’t be playing funeral music for two days just because of Koriabov.”
“Gosh, how frightened I was,” she said with relief. “Two little children, his wife not well. And Koriabov drunk the whole time. If he was to die, God forbid, they’d immediately appoint Anatoliev. Then we’d really know about it!”
“Sta-lin?” asked Irena incredulously.
“So says Tagar, but it’s nothing. Have I not told you about Anatoliev? Listen – together with one of the politicos from the zone he was planning to turn our village into a Communist community of the future. They were going to knock down all the cottages and build one huge family block for the whole village. Then there would be one block for all commercial activity, one for all the children and one for teenagers. And a house of culture and public baths and all sorts. You should have seen the outcry at the meeting! How the women were yelling at him – it was a wonder they didn’t lynch him! Then the men started. Old Kubashev put it really well when he said: “We in the north don’t live like the gentlemen of Moscow because we have no wish to. We are building, we are fulfilling your plans but we don’t need your living improvements!” And Anatoliev? He said it was a really important experiment – delegations from all over Kolym would come and visit us, so he claimed. But he didn’t convince anyone. We said we’re not going to let them extend the zone amongst free people. Let them experiment in Moscow. And Koriabov also tried to reason with him. But rather than listening to reason, Anatoliev started threatening the districts and said that they would approve everything in Jahodné and if not, he would go to Magadan. He called us ignorant idiots, Siberian fools and God knows what else he said. He said he would deal with us but when he was out hunting in summer he shot himself in the foot. In the foot, can you imagine? As if God had punished him. He lay there, screaming in pain, crawling along the river the whole night, bleeding. He said he had heard some voices but who knows what he heard. They didn’t find him till morning. All month they were interviewing us – only at the end of it did they work out he’d actually shot himself. He then lay around at home for two months and things somehow settled in his head. He gave up his experiments – his politico didn’t come back. But what can you expect from such a person? What will he think of next? May God grant health to Koriabov, let him drink what he likes. When we needed it, he stood by us. That’s why I was so worried….”
Irena was only half listening. She held her son close to her and everything was going round in her head: Stalin’s illness, Shota’s letter, the mysterious car, those strange wood carriers, death….it was all weighing down on her and she didn’t think she could take any more. Such an unexpected death….And then she suddenly felt a small glimmer of hope. Could this be the the start of something?
Tagar put his boots to dry on the stove and started dismantling his gun. First he wiped it all dry, then he dipped a rag in vaseline, wiped out the breechblock and then polished the barrel. Katya stirred the soup on the stove, carefully lifting a spoonful to her lips before blowing on it and then tasting it. She nodded contentedly – it was ready to eat.
“He has died….gone. We all have our place up there somewhere,” she said.
Irena recalled Doctor Jelena. She had sensed something. What would happen? Across the country there would be thousands, millions of portraits of the mighty one hanging. And then what would happen? Would they all be taken down from all the walls, tribunes and columns where they hung? Taking a picture down from a wall is not so easy; when pictures go, so do the ideas associated with them. She remembered how they removed Hitler’s portrait from their wheelwright’s workshop and put it in the attic with all the other junk. It was a relief to get rid of it and to feel the family had shaken off its political past. The Soviet investigator in Poprad had a different opinion, however. To him it was irrelevant where the picture was kept, whether on the wall in the office or hidden up in the attic. She wished she had destroyed the thing….She hadn’t imagined that pictures could leave traces behind them and that after death they can go on living their original life writhing and biting like a mutilated snake.
“The whole Soviet is crying,” said Tagar not looking up from his gun.
Katya again blew on the wooden spoon, sipped from it noisily, nodded and said:
“What can they know of life if they weren’t expecting death? Just so long as it doesn’t get any worse….”
Tagar smiled under his moustache. “You’re right there. Life is possible but death is certain!” And with a loud click, he replaced the breechblock.