Escape from the Soviets - T. Tchernavin

On the Way

We left behind at last all traces of human habitation. There was virgin forest all round us. When we sat down to rest, choosing some fairly high spot in the wind where there were fewer mosquitoes, flocks of birds gathered around us, watching us with interest.

We were well aware that it was the third day of our escape, and that they were hunting for us high and low, and yet we could not help fancying at times that we were on a lovely picnic. We actually ventured to boil a kettle and have some tea—for the first time. My husband looked happier than I had seen him for years. He seemed younger and was full of vigor and confidence.

Towards evening the hills grew steeper and more wild. A curious white mist gathered around us. We could see nothing in the distance and constantly stumbled upon rocks or huge blocks of granite. Utterly worn out we climbed at last on to a plateau where a few trees twisted out of shape by the wind were dotted about.

"It's not much of a place. When it is light one can see right through it."

"We'll move on at daybreak."

"There's no water here."

"I am not thirsty, and the boy is dropping with fatigue."

"Very well, lie down and I'll go and look for water."

Restless creature! He was so excited at being free that he was ready to walk night and day till he left behind the land where he had been a slave and a convict. But he had us two on his hands. The boy was so tired that he dropped fast asleep before I had had time to pull off his boots. I was as tired as he, but the moment I lay down I had the horrible thought that my husband might not find us! I jumped up and walked two or three paces away from our tree—I could see nothing. Then I came out on to the most open part of the plateau and decided to stand there till he came back. Minutes passed. It was damp and cold, I badly wanted to sit down, but he might miss me then. However much I strained my eyes I could see nothing but the fantastic distorted silhouettes of the trees.

At last what looked like one of these silhouettes moved up towards me.

"Where is the boy? I could hardly find our place."

"Asleep under the pine tree."

"Which one?"

"That one, over there. . . . No, more to the left. . . . No, I don't know which."

Now my son was lost!

"Stand here so that I can have a landmark and I'll go and look for him," said my husband.

He soon came back saying: "I've found him."—There was no doubt that he still had plenty of the primitive instincts of a huntsman: he had no difficulty in picking his way in the dark forest, while I felt utterly lost and helpless.

What a pitiable sight it was: two windblown pines and under them three small lumps—two knapsacks and a child huddled under a coat!

We went to sleep too, but presently my husband got up and made some semolina porridge. We were not hungry, though it was our first hot meal during the three days. Big yellow mosquitoes kept dropping into the spoons. The boy was too sleepy to open his mouth properly, though we put plenty of sugar on his semolina. We all felt very tired.

We set off in the same direction as before, but soon found that we were going further away from the valley and the hills were getting higher and higher.

"We must go down to the river." said I. "We are losing the main valley."

"Why, how can we go to the path where they may be stalking us at this very minute?" my husband protested.

We walked on.

"l am sure something is leading us astray. I wonder if that river has a tributary?" I persisted.

My husband gave in. We decided to go down and see in what direction the river was flowing. The lower we descended, the thicker was the undergrowth; our way was continually blocked by dead trees with sharp, prominent branches; it was very marshy underfoot. Our feet were wet through, our hands scratched, our clothes torn, but it was worthwhile: we found that a tributary of the river the course of which we were following really did take us away from the main valley. That tributary was not marked on the map, which we had studied carefully and still remembered. It was essential for us to cross it, and it was wide, rapid and deep. Fortunately it divided into several streams near the junction with the bigger river. The rich meadow land all round was overgrown with white umbelliferous flowers and bright pink mullen. My husband went to look for a ford, and we rested. The air was warm and fragrant, and if it had not been for thick clouds of mosquitoes, the morning would have been quite perfect.

What a beautiful part of the country it was, and how full of promise! All this was virgin soil, almost unknown to man. How much work and energy is needed to utilize Russia's enormous resources, and yet her best workers are exiled to penal camps and killed off by the thousand. The OGPU, which has appropriated all this region, does nothing but devastate it, destroying the forests, which will take hundreds of years to grow.

We began the crossing: my husband found two small trees that had fallen into the water almost opposite each other, and led across first me, then the boy, and then carried one by one our knapsacks. Our bridge was rickety and threatened to give way under us; at the opposite bank we had to step on to a partially submerged old stump, wet and slippery. The crossing took us over an hour. My husband became exhausted and hungry, and his clothes were wet. It was annoying to lose so much time when we could already see the end of the main valley before us. The rest of the way seemed easy: the bank of the bigger river that flowed from the west was flat and overgrown with branching elm trees; the mountains on the horizon did not seem very steep. A lovely smooth path made by the deer ran along the edge of the water. "No, that won't do." my husband said decisively.

"The path is so good that men may use it as well as deer. If the OGPU have a grain of sense they won't hunt for us in the mountains, but will waylay us here. No, my dears, we must get back to the hills."

We began climbing up the sunlit, sparsely wooded slope where we could still be seen.

"I wonder if we'd better have a rest," my husband said irresolutely. "I am tired out with that crossing."

"Excellent. Let us have a rest. We'll walk all the better afterwards."

We sat down behind a huge fir-tree that hid us from the valley. The father and the son went to sleep. I sat and sewed. I had to make myself a proper mosquito-net because my ears were one sore; the boy's mosquito-net wanted mending. I had no material to patch it up with and had to tear the hem of my apron for the purpose. This was the best rest we were having since we started. My husband had not had more than four hours sleep during the three days.

I was sorry to wake them, but there was nothing for it. Clouds were gathering and we had to hurry. Our feet were swollen with constant walking, and it was perfect agony to pull on our boots, stiff after drying in the sun. The boy had a blister on his heel, and we had no disinfectant of any kind. I only hoped it would not fester.

We went on again, climbing hills and descending into ravines. The slope on the opposite bank of the river was very picturesque. It was all covered with white deer moss, with small fir-trees dotted about here and there.

"What a jolly place for hunting!" my husband exclaimed thoughtlessly. "Especially on horseback."

"Unfortunately, just now we are the hunted and not the hunters."

"Yes, we'd better not go down there till dusk." he answered sadly.

The bank on this side was growing steeper and more rocky, and between the stones it was a wet bog. Towards sunset we reached a point where the river turned sharply to the north.

"We must not follow the river course any longer, but walk on towards the west and cut across the ridge over there, where that depression is. We'll have to wait for dusk to cross the river," said my husband anxiously.

We chose a secluded spot and sat down. The boy wrapped himself up in his coat, head and all, and immediately went to sleep. He developed a happy faculty of dropping asleep every time we stopped to rest, and it was this that saved him. He was not really very strong and his heart was troublesome from his early childhood.

We roused him when the sun had set and a white mist began to rise from the ground. We were going to descend to the river, but it was not a simple matter. We had to go down what looked a sheer wall of rock. We tried to find a better place, but it was the same everywhere. The sun had set, darkness was coming on, thick mist was rising in the valley, and we could not waste any time. We had at all costs to cross the river that night so as to walk through the dangerous open ground on the other side before daybreak.

It was only from sheer despair that one could attempt such a descent. Sometimes we picked our way along projections in the rock where there was scarcely room to put one's foot, sometimes we rolled down in the hope of catching hold of a bush on the way—and the bush, instead of being a support, slid down with us. We had to lower our knapsacks, too, which we could not carry on our backs.

The boy was wonderful. He was very sleepy and probably considered that it was no use thinking about danger when father and mother were with him and no doubt knew where they were leading him. And so he quite readily rolled down the slope towards his father, who caught him in his arms and sent him on further, in front of or behind the knapsacks. When at last we found ourselves at the bottom and looked back on our course, I made haste to turn away so as not to think of it. I do not know how it was that we did not break our arms and legs.

Crossing the river in the mist and darkness is also a thing I don't care to recall. The river was wider and swifter than the one we had crossed in the morning. It would have been impossible to wade through it in the cold night, amidst clouds of mosquitoes. We had to cross by walking on the thick branches and whole trees that had fallen into the river, but the first one we stepped on broke down under my husband's weight, and he had some difficulty in getting out of the water. The rest, too, were very unsteady, and we had to walk on them in turn, while the dark water of the mountain river roared and foamed underneath.

But we had no choice in the matter. Our one dream was to find a dry spot and go to sleep.