Escape from the Soviets - T. Tchernavin

Into the Unknown

In two hours' time the boy woke up. His wound looked healthy, though of course no doctor would have allowed him to walk. But we had to go on. The frontier was near and the guards who had no doubt received a wireless message, must have been hunting for us high and low.

We bandaged the boy's foot and set out towards the mountain pass. He limped, though he walked fairly cheerfully; but we felt sick with anxiety as we looked at him.

The pass seemed near at first, but as always in the mountains, it kept receding into the distance. The trees were getting smaller and further apart and at last disappeared altogether. The slope was quite bare and we could be easily seen from any point at the top.

Our position was so desperate that, had I had my way, I would have flung all precaution to the winds and walked straight on. But my husband insisted that we should run as fast as we could from one block of granite to another, lie there till we got our breath and run to the next shelter.

"Bear up!" we said to the boy. "We'll rest on the other side of the pass if there are any trees or bushes there, but here you must run as fast as you can." I do not know what the boy thought. With a set look on his face he ran, lay down, ran again, and showed neither fear nor hesitation.

We reached the top at last. On the other side the ground sloped gradually; juniper bushes, small firs and birches grew fairly near the top. In the first sheltered spot we could find we threw down our knapsacks and lay down on the soft and almost dry moss. "

The country that lay before us was completely unknown to us; we had to consider which way we were to go. A river was flowing to the west. On all the maps which we had seen the frontier ran along the watershed from which a river flowed west. Only one river was marked on the maps, but here we saw two more rivers that were its tributaries. Besides, according to the most optimistic maps, it was at least twenty miles from the end of the valley, which we had left the night before, to the frontier—and here we were looking at the river that flowed west.

"If I only knew where the frontier is, I would run to it at once!" my husband exclaimed.

"They can't catch us at the other side, can they?" the boy asked.

"Yes, they can," his father answered sternly. "The OGPU wouldn't scruple to hunt us down in Finland if there were many of them. Last year some prisoners ran away from the works on the Louhi-Kestensky Road and managed to get as far as a Finnish village, but the OGPU guards overtook them and shot them down in the village.

"And what did the Finns do?"

"I don't know. I have heard that when the OGPU guards came home they were shot and declared to be bandits, so that Finland should not make a fuss.

"But perhaps they were simply transferred to another post."

"And shall we soon be in real Finland?"

"Yes. Perhaps in another two or three days. When we feel sure that we have crossed the frontier we shall have a good sleep and walk on quietly. We'll make tea and mushrooms."

"It will be nice there, daddy, won't it? No one will touch us? Shall we make tea for mother every day?"

"Whenever we want to. But now fetch some water from that pool and let us have a drink before we go."

We drank some water, slung on our knapsacks and went on.

At first walking was quite easy. Though the trees were small there were so many of them that we could not be seen from anywhere. The ground was almost dry. It sloped evenly towards the bottom of the valley where evidently all the three rivers met. The place was so wild that very likely no one had been here since the creation of the world.

I very much wanted to stop for the night while we were still on dry ground, but we were anxious to cross the valley and reach the next ridge which might possibly mark the frontier. Soon we found ourselves in a real marsh which stretched on either side of the river. Our feet were wet through and we were covered with mosquitoes.

Nothing can be more awful than those Arctic swamps; granite subsoil does not absorb moisture and they stretch for miles and miles. Where there is more soil moss grows on them, sedge and polar birch with thin, wiry branches that conceal deep holes of black water. Small fir-trees grow in batches in drier places where their roots have soaked up some of the moisture. We could only walk holding on to these firs; in the intervals between them we plunged desperately into the squelching moss, almost knee-deep in cold water. When it grew quite dark we stopped to rest on a damp hillock, utterly exhausted. My husband suddenly said:

"But, anyway, this is much better than standing in a cold corridor outside the examining officer's door."

"Did you have to stand long?"

"On that particular occasion they called me out of the cell in the evening and said I was not to put on my overcoat. And the examining officer told me to wait outside his door. The sentry would not allow me to walk about. I got so cold that my teeth were chattering and I was shaking as in a fever. The officer went out of his room, then came back again, and I was still standing there. I was aching all over and felt ready to drop, but I knew that other men were made to stand like that for two or three days. So I went on standing. At daybreak I was called at last to the man's rooms. I was trembling all over.

"'What's the matter with you? You seem very upset,' he inquired amiably.

"'It's not very warm in the corridor, is it?' I asked angrily.

"'But why didn't you put on your overcoat? I never know how long I may be kept.'

"'I was told not to,'

"'What idiots! Go back to the cell. I shan't have time to talk to you to-day.'"

"When did he let you go, daddy?"

"About six in the morning. I stood there all night."

"And what happened afterwards?"

"I felt very bad till I got some tea, and afterwards I was sent to the prison kitchen to peel potatoes."

We forgot that it was cold and that we were standing on a hillock, the three of us.

"I'll try and see if I can find a drier place. You stay here." said my husband and disappeared in the mist. I very much doubted that he would succeed, but he soon came back:

"This way, please; I've found an hotel, the rooms are ready."

The joke cheered us up and we readily followed him through the water-logged moss. We were wet up to the knee as it was, and a little more did not matter.

Suddenly we felt something firm underfoot: three huge fir-trees, growing close together, had drained a small bit of ground. We could not see in the mist what was beyond.