Escape from the Soviets - T. Tchernavin

A Terrible Night

How jolly it was! We chattered light-heartedly, confident that no OGPU could come near us. I rung out all our leg-wrappers, spread them up to dry and re-bandaged the boy's foot in the dark. His wound was not very painful. I covered him up with two coats to keep his feet warm. A cold mist was creeping nearer and nearer. As I had had a sleep on the way I gave my coat to my husband and wrapped up his neck and arms with all the dry rags that I could find. In my cotton dress and overall I curled up under the mackintosh, but before I had had time to doze off I heard my husband groan.

"What is it, dear?"

"I am frozen and I have a dreadful pain."

He sat there doubled up, shaking all over.

"Where does it hurt?"

"Everywhere. I have pains in my back, in my stomach, I don't know what to do with myself. If only I could get warm!"

It seemed so simple to make a fire, but it was impossible. To light a fire at night when we were close to the frontier! It was out of the question.

His tossing about had made all his wrappings come undone, and his arms and neck were covered with mosquitoes.

What was I to do? On the way he had been bathed in perspiration and kept drinking water out of the marsh. The moment we stopped to rest he shivered with the cold. What was it? Typhoid? Peritonitis? And we were in the wilds, dozens or perhaps hundreds of miles from any Finnish village. We had no wine or spirits of any sort. If only I could give him some hot tea!

In despair I twisted all the rags round him again so as at least to protect him against mosquitoes.

"You must lie down next to me and cover yourself up with the mackintosh."

"I can't lie down; I am doubled up with pain."

"Nonsense, you must try. Perhaps you'll be warmer." Gradually I induced him to lie on his side so that I could press myself close to him and keep the mackintosh over him, trying to warm the air under it with my breath. The mackintosh reached only to our knees and the mosquitoes were devouring my legs, for while I was attending to him all my wrappings had come undone. But I could not spare a thought for that. No sooner I fancied that the ground and the air inside the mackintosh were beginning to get warm, and his hands felt less stiff and cold, than he would jerk suddenly with an intolerable spasm of pain, and all my microscopic efforts would be wasted. I had to begin all over again, trying to give him all I could of my warmth. It must have been a sheer effort of will that kept me warm, for a cotton dress was certainly not a sufficient protection from the cold. When he dozed off for a few minutes I hastily began to think.

"What shall we do if in the morning he is too ill to continue the journey?

"Light a fire and make him some tea, and perhaps fix up a warm pack. I could use the oilcloth bag in which we keep the sugar. Rest the whole day and see how he feels.

"If it is typhus or peritonitis, he will himself understand that it's hopeless. We would stay with him to the last. I would make him see what happiness it is to die in the open, a free man and not a convict. After all, we have had four days of freedom, and that has meant so much joy, that if Fate had, offered us to buy it at the cost of our lives we should have accepted the bargain without hesitation. Death here is only terrifying because the boy would be left alone.

"How can I save him?

"If my husband dies I must go back with the boy, because I could not find the way to Finland. We could do the journey back in three days, perhaps less. When we got as far as the timber-works, where we last heard the sound of the axe, I would say good-bye to the boy and send him to the workmen alone. I must tell him to wait till I have gone some distance so that they could not track me, and then throw myself in the river. They might take pity on the boy and not kill him. Yes, that would be the only way to save him. . . . "

While I was thinking all this, my husband seemed a little better. He was no longer racked with pain and lay quietly, evidently asleep, though sometimes he groaned slightly. His hands felt warmer. His breath came evenly. I was afraid to stir, though my whole body felt stiff and numb. I was very drowsy, but I dared not go to sleep, as though my conscious will could somehow save my son from blood poisoning and my husband from his mysterious and terrible pain.