Escape from the Soviets - T. Tchernavin

A Night in the Swamp

It was an unpleasant night. The only dry spot we could find was by the roots of a huge fir-tree. We had to lie there doubled up because it was hopelessly wet all round. The hard grey moss soaked with the rain and the mist was like a sponge full of water. The air was full of tiny drops of moisture and thick with buzzing mosquitoes. A dense mist covered the tall fir-trees from top to bottom.

Our boots, leg-wrappings and socks were wet through; we had to take them off and wrap our feet in dry rags. Mosquitoes were so dreadful that we had to wind round our necks and arms everything we possessed—stockings, pants, shirts. After the hot, tiring day, the damp and cold of the Arctic marsh penetrated us right through.

The boy slept pressed close to me and managed to get warm. My husband dozed off, but woke up every minute with a groan. I simply could not go to sleep. My whole body felt cold and stiff; I wanted to stretch my legs, but that meant putting my feet into water. The night seemed endless.

As soon as the mist began to lift, I woke up my husband. He was shivering with the cold and could not stop his teeth from chattering. It was only three in the morning. I was sorry to wake the boy, who was sound asleep, but we had to make haste and go away from the slope where our dark figures could be seen miles away against the background of white moss.

I was afraid that the boy would be shivering like his father, but no, he woke up rosy and cheerful as though he had been sleeping in bed.

"What are you doing?" he asked sleepily.

"Time to go. Put on your boots."

"I am sleepy."

"When we come to a dry place you can have another sleep. We must cross the slope before the sun gets to it."

He obediently began pulling on his damp boots.

"Does your heel hurt? Let me have a look."

He angrily waved me away. It certainly was no joke baring his foot with clouds of bloodthirsty mosquitoes hovering over us.

As we walked the moss squelched underfoot like a wet sponge; cold water got inside our boots. But we felt warmer walking, and anyway it was better than sitting in the swamp.

The ground rose steeply, but as far as the eye could see it was one continuous expanse of white moss with its tiny, orange-coloured tubular flowers and here and there the reddish caps of the "aspen" fungi. It was strange to see the familiar Russian fungi among the white moss, rocks and granite.

The clouds that had completely covered the sky began to part, and a narrow orange strip of the dawn appeared beyond the mountains. It was growing dangerously light, and we suddenly came upon several paths running parallel to one another. There were no human footprints on them, but no trace of deer either. Carefully stepping across so as not to leave a footmark we rushed in alarm higher up the incline.

The frontier might be near and these paths might have been made by the frontier-guards. Every moment we expected to see a horseman in khaki uniform with green stripes. He could easily catch us all—there was nowhere to hide.

Breathless with the steep climb we walked on without stopping to rest or looking back.

"Perhaps they are deer paths?" I whispered to my husband.

"There are no hoof marks. And why do they run from north to south?"

We had just begun walking in a more leisurely way when we came upon another set of paths going in the same direction as the first. Again we rushed uphill almost at a run.

We were desperately thirsty. The moss underfoot was so wet that one could wring it out, but there was not a single stream or pool. Occasionally we saw some cranberries, but they were still unripe—white and bitter.

We walked for one hour, for two hours, we came to some huge blocks of granite with small, twisted birch trees and willows growing in the crevices, and yet the top of the crest seemed as far off as ever.

The sun had risen. In the rarified transparent air its light seemed keen and cold. In the distance, beyond the thin layers of cloud, we caught glimpses of dark mountain ridges with a hard, menacing outline.

When I learned geography at school I imagined that the Arctic North was one flat, continuous, frozen marsh. But what we now saw before us might have been Switzerland, except that there the mountains part occasionally, showing the calm blue surface of lakes, while here the black, rocky peaks seemed piled on the top of one another as though on purpose to prevent anyone from trying to scale their desolate waste.