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The Last of the Vostyachs

Author: Diego Marani

Translator: Judith Landry   Cover design: Marie Lane  

They came out silently, without exchanging a glance; unhurriedly, expecting to be shot at any moment, to crumple on the spot, on to that mud they’d traipsed over so often. But now the camp was empty. The guards had all gone off during the night. The storeroom doors lay open, the chimneys of the barracks had ceased smoking. They fanned out from along the track dug out by the great wheels of the lorries, into the still dark forest, each in their own direction, without a word, as though in all those years spent locked up in there together they had never known each other. Ivan could still hear the odd thud, the sound of a broken branch, then nothing. So then he too pushed open the doors of the hut and went outside. A sooty mist hung over the wood, clinging to everything. The black wood of the huts, beaded with drops of grimy moisture, seemed to be sweating. Ivan hesitated to approach the main gate. He had never gone beyond it. For twenty years, getting up from his bench in the morning he had climbed straight on to the lorry, which then drove downhill behind the barracks, along the side of the mountain to the mine. But he’d never gone through the gates. He’d never seen them from the outside. He paused now to stare at them, and felt afraid. With one step he plunged backwards through time. A child was coming up towards him. He had a bow slung over his shoulder and was holding three dead squirrels by the tail. ‘Another four and we’ll be able to buy ourselves a bushel of flour down in the village,’ thought Ivan as he looked at them. Then he set off down the track, slithering through mud up to his ankles. It was the end of summer, when the birds migrate, the bears go into hibernation and the first snow falls on the high meadows. But for Ivan it was a morning in spring. He spent the whole day walking, away from the mine, away from the Russians. He was still walking as a watery sun went down behind the trees. Sinking his feet into the moss, he stepped over the roots of service trees covered with pale berries, went through clouds of mosquitoes which settled on his face, then dissolved in a column of light inside the dense wood. Soon the white arctic night wiped away the shadows, the sky faded to a milky blur but Ivan carried on. He didn’t stop until he saw the stumpy ridges of the Byrranga Mountains and breathed in the bitter scent of heather and sedge. He drank water from a puddle in the hollow of a rock and then at last allowed himself to stretch out exhausted on the ground, never taking his eyes off the familiar outline silhouetted in the distance. He saw the crest in the shape of a deer’s head, and the two points which looked like a hare’s ears. Hunting with his father, he had found those mysterious forms faintly disquieting. Though he could no longer see it, he could sense that the child was still there, running to and fro. Twenty years had gone by, but he had remained a child. He had waited for him.
Now Ivan could start again from that distant winter morning when the soldiers had arrived. They had urinated, laughing, on to the fire, on to the roasting meat, and Ivan had never forgotten that smell of scorched urine. They had taken all the furs: those of the otters, the beavers, the coot, even the wolverine which Ivan had found in his trap. They had pushed Ivan and his father into the lorry with their rifle-butts and taken them to the mine. Loading those stones into the wheelbarrow and washing them in the cold water, turning them over with a shovel, had been hard work. By the evening, Ivan could hardly move his hands. Trying not to think of food, he would sit huddled on the plank bed next to his father, listening to him singing his sad songs until he tumbled into sleep. He would dream about the mountains, the yurt in the middle of its clearing, his favourite animals. Strangely, he could see them from above, and suddenly he would realize that he was a falcon, flying above the trees, far from the darkness down below, the soldiers’ boots, the mine. One night, without a word, his father suddenly pulled him down from the plank bed by the arm. Outside, the snow was chest-high and Ivan made his way through it with difficulty. There was no moon, no stars. The snow was dull, mud-flecked. All that could be heard in the freezing darkness was the rustling of their bodies as they sank into the snow. Someone gave a shout, nailed boots clumped down from the watchtowers, there was the sound of guns being loaded but the two shadows did not pause. Ivan’s father carried on groping his way towards the wire fencing, thrusting his feet down into the snow with all his strength, holding his son firmly by the arm as he did so. Then two shots rang out in the darkness. He could see the soldiers’ white breath in the torchlight. All around, dark shadows were looming up out of the snow, seeming to take an age to reach the runaways. Ivan felt hard hands grabbing him, hitting him on the face and in the stomach, then dragging him back into the hut. He climbed on to his plank bed and cowered there, gulping down mouthfuls of blood-streaked saliva. Shortly afterwards, several faceless men came to drag away his father by the feet. In the blue flash of their torches Ivan saw his head bouncing over the floor as though it had become detached from his body. By now it was a swollen lump of hair and mangled flesh. The soldiers were shrieking, thrusting their rifle butts at random through the ragged clothing into the bodies of the other prisoners as they lay on their plank beds. But no one moved, no one tried to fend them off. The blows sank into their shadowy forms, snapping bones, crushing flesh which seemed inert. At last the door clanged shut again, the padlocks could be heard grinding in the locks, the rasping voices of the soldiers faded into the distance, together with their heavy tread. Soon all was quiet again. Even the chinks of light between the boards faded from view. Then Ivan climbed down from his plank bed, aching all over, and felt his way towards his father on the floor. He clasped his ever colder hands, shook him, called out his name with such voice as he could muster, stroked his blood-spattered hair. Then he curled up, weeping, beside the lifeless body, sought out its mouth gently with his fingers and pressed his lips against it, hoping to replace its vanished life with his own warm breath. He spent the whole night pressed up against that cold, hard body which no longer spoke to him.
Since that day, Ivan had not uttered a word. He had carried on washing stones in the pool of icy water, had split rocks with his pick-axe, had pushed the wheelbarrow along the steep, slippery path, had gone about all his work with lowered eyes, had endured all manner of humiliation, eating without looking to see what they poured into his mess tin, getting up at dawn and going to bed at sunset without a word. The new convicts who arrived in the camp thought that Ivan was dumb. Only the ones who’d been there longer knew why he never spoke. The soldiers too – even the ones who had killed his father – had forgotten. They didn’t recognize him among the crowd of tattered death’s-heads they prodded into the lorries every day. When Ivan became a man, no one in the mine any longer had any idea who that short, sinewy local was, with his flat face and jutting Tartar cheekbones. Everyone who knew his story was long dead. The others felt alarmed by that inexplicable silence which seemed akin to madness. The cover of his file, kept in a cupboard in the barracks, bore just one word: Ivan. All it contained were a few crumpled pages concerning his arrest for poaching.


RRP: £9.99

No. of pages: 168

Publication date: 18.05.2012

ISBN numbers:
978 1 907650 56 7
978 1 909232 33 4

World English
Rights sold; Australia (Text).