- Barry Hannah
- Open City/AAWW
- Sound Art/Dissonance
- Trance Poetics
The three men trudged through the deep snow that continued to fall, bundled in makeshift rags sewn together, ice matting down heavy beards, the exposed skin around their eyes and mouths burned pink and raw. The food scraps they’d managed to scavenge from meals and steal from the guards’ station were gone, so too the vodka that had helped keep them warm and buoy spirits those first few frigid nights. This far north, daylight was clipped to a few precious hours, and as bad was it was now, it would be far worse when night fell. Because that was when the animals came, the wolves and the bears and the Kazakhs hunters who were surely tracking them following news of their escape, each able to strike swiftly like thieves in the night, without warning.
“I’m hungry,” said Puzanov.
Nikoli lowered his head and fought against the snow and wind.
Puzanov reached for his shoulder, but the fat man moved too slowly to snare him. “We need to eat.”
“We will eat,” said Leo, wedging in front of Puzanov. “Besides, why should you complain? You’ve more meat on your bones than both of us combined.”
Nikoli glanced over his shoulder, as the corpulent Puzanov dropped his shoulders, huffing like a petulant child.
Prisoners trying to escape from the labor camp always faced a bleak prospect, which is why the prison had been built where it had, 150 kilometers beneath the Artic Circle, on a small island archipelago, cut off from the mainland and isolated by the inhospitable White Sea. Nikoli had heard rumors of men who had successfully reached the mainland, though he did not put much stock in these campfire stories, any more than he let the prospect of failure deter him. In fact, each time a frozen corpse was hauled back to camp, traded in by the Kazakhs for a sack of tea or wheat, stripped naked and hung on a stake, it only hastened his resolve to be smarter and not end up like the others.
They ascended the rocky summit, holding one another’s coattails and stabbing the ground with the walking sticks they’d fashioned from frozen, fallen branches, Puzanov dragging the line like a lead anchor.
Nikoli stared down the long, steep bank and out over the valley, hoping to see shore. Instead he saw nothing but more snow and tall trees sloping downward, an endless sea of white on white peppered with brief moments of deep, dark green.
“We will sleep here,” Leo said.
“What about the food?” Puzanov demanded. “We must eat!”
“We will eat,” said Leo, “but first we must secure shelter. Or we will freeze to death.”
“And where will we find this food you promised?” Puzanov said to Nikoli. “This food you told me would come, eh?”
But Nikoli had no answer for him.
A bookseller, Nikoli had had his shop raided by the Bolsheviks late one evening, accused of accepting a bribe from an enemy of the Revolution, meaning he’d sold the wrong book to the wrong man. There had been no eyewitness, no trial. It had been six years since he’d last seen his wife and son, six years since any form of communication with them at all. The only pictures he had left were his memories, which became less certain with each passing winter. Whisked away under the dark cover of night, he was corralled with all the others who were expected to die there in the forced-labor penitentiary, forgotten without a fight. But Nikoli was a resourceful man, a scholarly man, a man governed by reason and logic. He kept his strength up by stretching, doing pull-ups and push-ups, eating whatever he could find, however slimy or disgusting. He recited passages from the books he could recall to keep his mind sharp, and directed his efforts into finding a way off the island.
It was a simple matter of considering all the variables, eliminating potential pitfalls, not letting emotions get the better of him, and following chains of thought to their rationale conclusions. Like knowing when to leave.
Temperatures plummeted well below freezing during the coldest months, but it was a mistake to go during the warmer ones, since warmer currents melted the ice, and those floes would be needed to get to the mainland. Leaving during the colder months, however, created its own set of obstacles, not the least of which was finding a way to stay warm. And this was not a trip that could be undertaken alone. He would need an ally he could trust, implicitly.
After a careful search and thorough introspection, Nikoli befriended Leo, a doctor, who shared a similar background, came from the same stock. And only when Nikoli was certain he was dealing with a righteous, upstanding man did he unveil his plan. Not that Nikoli ever had to sell him on the idea—every prisoner wanted to escape. It was only a question of how to get away with it. Which Nikoli preached was a simple matter of execution.
Together, the bookseller and doctor had spent countless hours stitching gloves and boots, heavy coats from canvas swathes ripped from potato and rice sacks, threading them with the fine fish bones they used for needles in the converted monastery that served as the inmate barracks, biding their time…
Slinking back from the ridge, Nikoli and Leo dropped to their knees beneath a dense eave and began scooping snow for the hole that would be their bed. The winds swirled up from the ravine, shaking loose more snow from the evergreens and undermining their efforts.
“There is nothing out here,” Puzanov said, dismissively waving a hand, as the storm picked up and the sky churned ash and charcoal. “Where will we find food on this wasteland?”
Leo looked to Nikoli, who would not respond.
Nikoli felt his body failing him with each handful. It had been too long without food and the grueling trek was proving too taxing; he knew they would not last much longer.
Reluctantly, Puzanov squatted. “We will die out here without food,” he said softly, and began to dig his own hole.
Nikoli and Leo had spent a great deal of time plotting the perfect escape. Though one problem lingered, which they could not wrap their collective minds around, no matter how hard they tried: having enough food for the long journey. They could sneak past the guards’ station, make it beyond the walls, but there was simply no way to store enough to eat from the camp, and out here, on the barren, cold tundra, hunting was not a realistic option.
It was not without much moral debate that they came to a solution, desperate times and desperate measures, the need of two outweighing the need of one: they’d supply their own meat.
The candidate had to be slow-witted. And gullible.
Most of all, he had to be fat.
It was Nikoli who struck first, wrapping his arms around Puzanov’s beefy neck in a chokehold. The fat man did not immediately react, unable to process what was happening; with wide eyes, he stared out, still a trusting pig unaware he was about to be slaughtered. Leo cracked the empty vodka bottle over his head, and Puzanov squealed and covered up, sinking to his knees. Nikoli and Leo frantically reached for the large shards of broken glass, and began stabbing and slicing wildly through the air, piercing the plump flesh, severing arteries and vessels, puncturing deep organs. The fat man fell forward, face first, dark blood spreading beneath his large body, staining the white snow red.
The growling woke them. The night was ink black and without stars or moonlight, and it was snowing harder than before. The racing winds made it hard to hear from which direction the growling came, but it was loud and sounded like it was getting louder.
Nikoli and Leo scrambled to their feet and tried to run. They did not know where they were running to, or what exactly they were running from. They only knew that they had to get off the mountain. Along the ridge, the ground gave way, a big chunk breaking off like a glacier dropping into the ocean, and Nikoli and Leo fell with it, skidding, sliding, rolling rock over stump, branch over limb, smacking their heads, kidneys, flanks and spines, pulled by gravity, spinning faster and faster, all the way to the bottom.
Nikoli did not know how long they’d been passed out. The storm had stopped, skies cleared to a light slate grey, only trace flurries aimlessly drifting down. His only thought upon waking was of the meat they had left behind.
The men could not climb back up the mountainside. And even if they were able, surely the wolves would’ve gotten what was left by now.
Nikoli looked ahead and could now see the shore. But there were no ice floes to take them to the mainland, only a soft mist that hovered just above the water, peaceful and calm.
Perhaps remnants from the storm would carry a floe to the beach. He and Leo must be patient. They must wait. They sat on the pebbled shore.
At first, the men tried to fill the time by talking about their families, how happy they’d be to see them again and restart their lives. They spoke of the farms and the shops and the practices, the wives and the children and the comrades, the better days that were surely coming, but the lack of conviction felled these words like forced prayers in an empty cathedral.
Neither spoke of the meat or what they had done.
Soon they did not speak at all.
Nikoli and Leo sat silently as night returned, the shore and sea receding with the regressing light, the soft yellow outline of a crescent moon bobbing in the purple sky. In his pocket, Nikoli thumbed a shard of glass.
He and Leo watched one another with intense, darting eyes that soon began to wear heavily with fatigue, though it was clear neither dared be the first to fall asleep.
Joe Clifford is the producer of Lip Service West, a “gritty, real, raw” reading series in Oakland, CA.
His work has appeared in Big Bridge, the Connecticut Review, Fringe, Hobart, Shotgun Honey, Thuglit, Underground Voices, and Word Riot, among others.