Escape from the Soviets - T. Tchernavin

At Death's Door

My husband did not catch any fish, but he was rested and we went on. That was a terrible mistake. We ought to have thought it all out carefully and looked round, but we frivolously concluded that having found the hut we would soon discover a road. Things went against us almost at once: the path from the hut grew narrower, almost disappeared among the elm bushes, appeared again and kept losing itself in the marsh. We struggled on for the rest of the day and spent the night on a tiny island in the biggest swamp we had ever seen. It extended in the westerly direction like an emerald sea. It took us away from the river and, in trying to skirt round it, we went further and further south. We very much wanted to go back to the hut; it seemed incredible that there was no path from it at all. We must have made a mistake somewhere. We should probably have returned, but we were deceived by traces of horse's hoofs which we found on the path that had reappeared again. They were quite fresh, the horse was shod, and it looked exactly as though someone had just ridden there. But the path led us to a marsh and disappeared completely.

We had no idea that the Finns let their horses pasture in the forest, like the deer, and that the hoof marks we saw were made by horses wandering at random or following an occasional path.

We might have been more careful if my husband had felt ill and had had to count every extra step, but as soon as he found himself in difficulties he thought of nothing but going on and his pains left him—that's his temperament. The harder the way the faster he walked. At last the slope along which we were going turned sharply to the south-east and it became obviously senseless for us to continue our journey. It was bitter to confess to ourselves that we had lost a whole day and the only thing to do was to find the shortest way back. Walking through endless swamps reduced the boy's feet and mine to such a condition that we could scarcely drag ourselves along. We had to spend the night far away from the hut, which seemed to us now the key to all our future.

My husband found a clearing and kept up a huge blaze all night, burning the logs that had not been taken away. He was hoping that a forester might see the smoke and the flames. Who would have supposed that there were no foresters there at all, and the horses wandered about by themselves!

As soon as it was light, my husband went on ahead to scout. It was useless to protest: when he felt an access of energy, he had to work it off. My chief comfort was that he could walk so well again, forgetting all about his pains; for the last few days I had been in terror that he would not get up at all after one of those attacks.

The boy and I lay sadly by the burnt-out fire. He was cutting faces on the big mushrooms that were too old to be cooked—a Chinaman with slanting eyes, a square-jawed sailor, a fat bourgeois, a hungry proletarian. Then he fixed them up on sticks and placed them in a row. Probably, playing is as necessary to children as thinking is to grown-ups; but he was very slow and sad at his game. Our tramp the day before had evidently been too much for him.

His father came back in high spirits—the hut was within two hours walk.

But what an agony that walk was! One swamp after another—now full of small hillocks overgrown with small wiry birches, now one green quivering mass of slime. Gasping for breath and bathed in perspiration we walked for over four hours instead of two and when we reached the hut at last we sank on the ground in utter exhaustion. We put off all decisions till the following day, at the moment we wanted nothing but rest. It was clear now that the paths from the hut did not lead anywhere and were only used for hunting or fetching the deer; people evidently came here by water.

A paper bag which we found in the corner of the hut created one more illusion for us: it had written on it "The Kulojarvi Stores". We remembered the name Kulojarvi and wanted to get there, because on our old maps there was a cart-track leading south-west from there. We thought it could not be far off, if a paper bag from there had been brought into the forest.

As a matter of fact, the cart-track was by now a fine road used by motors; many new villages had been built north of Kulojarvi, but the nearest of them lay a good seventy-five miles from where we were. In a civilized country bottles and paper are not a treasure as in U.S.S.R. and may be often found far from a dwelling. The conclusions we had drawn were quite absurd; it is not safe even for educated people to be cut off from the world for fifteen years and see nothing but Soviet newspapers.

That night only the boy slept, but how heartrending it was to look at him! He lay there without moving, his head was thrown back, his arm was bent awkwardly, as though his body did not belong to him. Children sleep like that when they have been weakened by a serious illness. His face was drawn, his little nose looked thin and sharp, blue veins showed on the temples in spite of the sunburn. Only two days before he had looked well, but his strength gave way and all at once he became small, frail and pitiful.

My husband sat most of the time by the bonfire sucking his empty pipe. There was very little tobacco left. I did not want to ask him what he was thinking—I had nothing comforting to say to him.

When in the morning we sat down to our saucepan of mushroom soup he glanced at our feet. We did not put on our boots and stockings till the last moment so as not to chaff the sores that now covered our feet and ankles. My husband said sharply:

"You cannot go on."

The boy glanced at him in alarm. I, too, did not understand at first what he was driving at.

"Listen," he went on. "You must both stay here, in the hut. It's a noticeable place, everyone must know it. I'll go by myself and find a village or a house much quicker, I cannot drag you through these marshes any more. I cannot bear to see you struggling on when you can hardly walk. If I go alone I need not pick my way and will find people in a couple of days; then I will come to fetch you and bring back some food."

It was so unexpected that I said nothing. Mastering my emotions I was trying to consider the matter objectively.

(1) Alone, he will walk quicker if he does not have an attack of his pains. If he has, he may die on the spot; we shall not know, and remaining here we shall certainly perish also.

(2) If he gets to a village not in two but in five or six days, we shall still be alive by the time he comes back; if we stay quietly in the hut and feed on boiled berries we shall not die of starvation. There will still be some life left in us.

(3) If we continue the journey, the three of us, the question is will the child stand it? His pulse was weak and irregular; he was obviously overstrained.

(4) What should I do in his place? Go on by myself, clearly.

While I was thinking the boy glanced anxiously at his father who gazed into the fire without turning to look at me. He knew it would not be easy for me to remain behind in the forest, doing nothing, and perhaps perish with the boy, because, waiting for him, we should eat our last crumbs of provisions and be too weak to go in search of help. "Go." I said, "I am certain you will save us." Deeply touched, he looked at me gratefully and kissed both my hands blackened by the weather, the smoke and the mushroom juice. My gloves had been torn and lost long before. The boy hugged and kissed his father, who now talked cheerfully and made plans. I'll go into the first house I come across. . . ."

"You'll frighten them; they'll take you for a bandit," the boy joked him. "Really?" my husband asked me anxiously. "Do I look very alarming?"

"You are rather a sight, but you look more like a tramp than a bandit. I think they'll take pity on you and not be afraid."

"Well, I'll go in, ask what the village is called, tell them about our hut."

"But they won't understand you," the boy said doubtfully.

"I'll draw it all: the river, the felled trees, the hut, you and your mother. Then I'll ask where the shop is where I can buy you some food."

"How can you? You have no money."

My husband looked at me questioningly.

"Take my wedding-ring, they may give you something in exchange."

"Good. Besides, it will be a proof that I am not a tramp. And you," said he turning to the boy, "give me your note-book and photograph."

It was the boy's last photograph, taken just before we set out. A round healthy little face; only a shadow of it was left now—sweet, touching and dreadfully pitiable.

"Now let us put down in your diary on which day I go. What is the date to-day?"

We could not reckon it up at once. The last few days of fatigue and anxiety seemed merged into one. We set out on our journey on August 8th. We would remember that day all our lives. We had been sixteen days on the way. How many more days would the journey take us? How many more days had we to live at all?

"What may I take with me? How much sugar have we left?"

"Ten lumps," said I, though we really had only seven.

"I'll take one."

"Nonsense, you must take at least two."

"But I'll get to a house and have something to eat before you do."

"Mind you get a good meal, daddy."

After many protests on his part, I cut for him a piece of bacon that could not have weighed more than two ounces. I was beginning to lose patience.

"Everything depends on your getting there, and you make all this fuss. We'll be all right here."

"But I can manage for several days without food. I've done it often enough in the camp. I don't want anything except perhaps some salt. Have you any to spare?"

"Yes." I answered firmly, scraping together two teaspoonfuls, of which I gave him one.

There was nothing more to give him.

He was in a hurry to get off. It was a terrible moment when the father, pale, thin, with a disheveled beard, discolored by the sun, and hands covered with burns and bruises, gave a last hug to the boy. The child looked very frail; there were dark hollows round his eyes and his lips were white and drawn.

"Good-bye, daddy! Come back soon, daddy!"

"How many days shall we wait?" I asked the dreadful question.

"Five: three days to get there, and two days back; the journey back will not take so long."

"I shall wait six. What shall I do then?"

"Make bonfires in the clearing, perhaps someone will see the smoke. . . I will come back. Good-bye."

He went away. We stood looking after him till he disappeared among the trees. The place was strange without him—still and empty. The forest seemed bigger and we felt smaller and more helpless.

"What shall we do, mother?" the boy asked sadly.

"Let us lie down and put our feet in the sun, that's the best way to heal the wounds. When daddy comes back we shall have to walk again. And we must put everything in order, we shall be here a long time."

"Let us make it look like a room!" said the boy wistfully. Poor child, how he longed for something like a home! He was delighted when we put on the shelf his little clock with a luminous face, by which he had learned as a baby to recognize the hour of eight at which he was allowed to get up and make a noise. We also had with us a china cup and three silver spoons. Our provisions—five lumps of sugar, a tiny piece of bacon, two or three ounces of rice and a teaspoon of salt were carefully packed in an oilcloth bag and hidden in the corner to keep them safe from any animals that might stray into the hut in our absence.

Though it was morning the boy soon went to sleep, and I sat beside him, thinking. He had often lain like this, struggling against serious illness, while I sat by him watching for the least gesture or movement to tell me how he was. He had his own way of being ill: the greater the danger he was in, the more sweet and patient he was. Once he reduced to tears the doctor who had to operate on him. It was the same thing now: he lay on the ground with an empty sack under his head, sadly and quietly. He had given up for his father's freedom all that he held dear in his childish life, and now he was at death's door.

The sun was warming his sore feet; on the heel there was the scar from the abscess, not quite healed yet and broken water blisters were festering. No, he certainly could not have walked any further.

I had to go and pick some berries, though I was hardly able to pull on my boots, my feet hurt me so. In the forest I suddenly felt horribly depressed. I seemed to hear my husband's voice, a groan, and some mysterious distant music.

"Mother! Mother!" It was the boy calling me pitifully.

"What is it, dear? I am here."

"Mother, come here, I feel rather miserable."

I came back and made a hot drink of whortleberries and red bilberries.

"I wish we had gone with daddy! I am quite rested and could have walked slowly."

"It was better for him to go alone," was all I could say. After a hot drink he went to sleep again, with a tired look on his little face.

I had to pick some mushrooms for supper. It was a good thing that the berries and the mushrooms grew quite close to the hut.

How long the hours were! I seemed to be conscious of every minute passing and falling like a heavy drop into the past.

"Mother! Mother! Where have you gone to again?"

"Only to pick some mushrooms, darling. Lie still, I am quite close to you."

"I feel very miserable."


He began to sing. This had been his chief comfort during the last few days: he would sit down, hugging his knees, and sing all his school songs, then the Red Army songs. Now he sang with special feeling the melodramatic songs that beggar boys sing in suburban trains:

"Soon, soon I'll be dead,

They will bury me,

No one will know

Where my grave shall be.

No one will know,

No one will come.

But in the early spring

The sweet nightingale

Will come and sing."

He was probably not thinking of the words, but I could not refrain from tears. My darling boy, shall I really have to bury you here? If you only knew how near the truth your song was!

"Mother, I've sung them all."

I had to return.

"Would you like to help me to clean the mushrooms?"

"No, I'd rather not. May I lie closer to you?"


It was not very convenient for getting on with my job, but I was glad to feel his head pressed against my side.

"Now you must stir the soup and look after the fire, and I'll go to fetch some more wood, or we'll freeze in the night."

There were lots of logs and branches lying about. I brought in heaps and heaps of them, badly scratching my hands, but I knew that all this burned very quickly; the chief thing was to find two tree-trunks that would keep the fire going all night. At first I thought I could not move them at all; then I dragged them for two paces and fell down, but eventually they were in the hut though my arms and legs were trembling with the effort. Our supper was ready, but the boy could not swallow more than two or three spoonfuls.

"I can't eat; it makes me rather sick."

"Here's a little salt for you; put it on your palm and when you begin to feel bad, have a lick,"

"Right. Yes, it tastes quite good."

We got through our supper in this way and the boy went to sleep. Now I understood what keeping up a fire through the night means! At first the branches caught quickly, throwing off a tremendous heat, and I dropped asleep, overcome by the warmth; then the fire died down, the cold of the night crept nearer and nearer, but I had not the strength to wake up. At last, when I opened my eyes, it was dark, bright stars were shining in the clear sky, the burnt branches showed black, and the two tree-trunks underneath crackled, sending up pungent white smoke. I had to make haste and put some more on; the branches were all tangled into a heap, and if I put on too many I could not blow up the fire. I felt very sorry for myself, but could not give up the job because the boy was shivering in his sleep. I broke up some twigs, shoveled the hot embers under them, put branches at the top and blew, and blew, and blew. The white ashes flew about in flakes, clouds of white smoke rose up, two or three tongues of pale orange flame showed through the smoke and the whole heap blazed up suddenly.

That sort of thing went on all night, almost every half-hour.

How I longed for morning, sunshine and steady warmth! Meanwhile, in the cold light of the moon everything sparkled with silvery hoarfrost.

Our second day began late—the child did not wake till nine having gone to sleep at seven the evening before. I had burnt up all my supplies of firewood, my hands were black and grey, but, anyway, the boy had been warm while he slept.

"I wonder where daddy is now?" he said with a sigh as soon as he woke up. "I could have walked all right to-day."

But when I made him wash himself and then put him out in the sun he dropped asleep again.

The second, the third and the fourth days were exactly like the first. The boy kept awake only for a couple of hours in the evening. We sat side by side on one of the overcoats covering ourselves up with the other and talked. He wanted me to tell him about foreign countries, about the towns, the houses, the trams; he longed for people and would not look at the pine trees. As for me, it was only the beauty around us that saved me from black misery. It would have been horrible to wait for five days in a prison cell without knowing whether he would save us. But here the rustle of the forest, the splashing of the river, the wonderful peace of it all, made me conscious of forces so much greater than man, that nothing in me rebelled or protested.

"All is well; for waking or sleep

The hour will come as is fit."

But I wanted to live all the same . . . especially when I listened to the boy telling me of his childish joys and exploits.

It was a great feat to be the first to run out of the classroom and to arrive at the communal kitchen across the road. By no means all children could go to the communal kitchen and the privilege was highly prized.

"You see, it was very lucky: Petka had a card of admission because his father is a workman, though he makes three hundred roubles a month, and I had one because though you were a civil servant, you had only a hundred and twenty roubles a month. If you earned one hundred and fifty I couldn't have had a card. And dinner was ever so much better there than at school."

It would have been impossible to explain to him that in capitalistic countries sons of civil servants and workmen and even of tradespeople and priests had an equal right to food. He would not have believed it.

"And, you know, one day I got two meat rissoles instead of one! We only had meat rissoles once or twice. But before Christmas we could eat as much bread as we liked, and afterwards they gave us only one slice and cut it ever so thin, too! And how I should love to have a piece of bread now, mother! Just a little crust! I would eat it in tiny little bites. Is it really true you can buy as much bread as you like abroad?"

"Yes, provided you earn the money to buy it with."

"And is it cheap?"


"Shall I be able to send a little to Petka?"


"What day of the month is it?" he asked suddenly.


"School will begin soon. All the boys will be back and I won't be there. They'll think I am ill. What will Mishka say? He may have heard that I ran away because his father is in the OGPU."

When we exhausted our subjects of conversation we began to sing in an undertone all that we remembered. He grew drowsy as darkness came on and putting on his cap and two pairs of socks—all his night-toilet consisted in—settled down to sleep, and said:

"Now sing 'O give me, give me back my freedom' from Prince Igor  . . . that's about daddy. And the 'Evening' from the Queen of Spades, and the 'Sleep Song' from Sadko. You remember how you used to play Chopin's Concerto for me?"

He went to sleep, and I began my nightly job of feeding the fire and thinking my thoughts.

The next day would be the sixth since he left. If he did not return, we should have to set off after midday. What should I say to the boy? How could we go, knowing that his father had perished?

The boy was the first to wake up that morning.

"Will daddy come back to-day, mother?"

"I don't know, dear; perhaps to-morrow."

"You know, we have one lump of sugar left? Don't let us eat it till daddy comes back."

"Very well."

"Only, please, mother, don't go away."

"But I must pick some berries to make our tea."

"Then I'll stand by the hut and sing, and you answer me."

"All right."

I wandered about and he stood by the hut and sang. His clear voice echoed down the river, and sometimes I called back to him.

He called to me once:

"Mother, listen, there are voices!"

"No, darling, it's your fancy."

During those days we had heard voices, and singing, and music, but it was all an hallucination.

"Please, don't go away, mother," he said anxiously.

"I'll come to you in a minute, I'll only pick the bilberries under that pine tree."

I went a little way, to hear the better. Voices. Loud men's voices. It was not he. If it had been he, he would have let us know by calling in his own special way.