April 3, 1983
Oimyakon Province, Eastern Siberia
...and beside our cabin a stream rushes over the icy rocks and brave weeds five miles down Suntar Ridge before emptying into the headwaters of the Upper Tunga River. But on that stretch of river before the junction, where it passes by our cabin, it has never been named. So I would propose to call it Nadia's River, after my wife. And because "nadia" is short for nadezhda, which means "hope," the name also comes out River of Hope. Oh, what irony! And perhaps all my misery could be justified if only there were to appear on Soviet maps, in the midst of this long-suffering, hope-starved land, a river bearing such a name.
In the dim candlelight of the tiny cabin, the man with the stub nose put down his pencil and rubbed his old eyes. He had no desire to write this, to second-guess fate. What was the point? To live was to suffer. The only surprise was that any light at all should shine in the darkness.
But he wasn't doing this for himself. It was for Nadia.
Stepan Bragin looked up from his manuscript and surveyed his cabin. It was built in the style of a Mongolian yurt -- a hexagonal room with timber walls and no windows (which was why he worked by candlelight, though the sun shone outside). Furniture ringed the walls creating areas that passed for a bedroom, a kitchen and a den. In the center, an iron stove crackled pleasantly, filling the air with the scent of pine. The cabin was little more than a hunter's hut, but in Siberia the supreme luxury was warmth, and in this respect the little yurt might as well have been a palace.
Stepan went on with his work. It was excruciating. He wrote in English, so each word had to be exhumed from the cemetery of his mind. It had been decades since his thoughts had spoken to him in his native tongue, and now, to face the strangeness of those foreign words was to gaze back across a tundra of lost years to someone he barely knew, to a man he used to be.
After several hours, he could write no more, and he put down his pencil. He looked toward his wife.
Nadia lay on the pine bed he had built for her in a desperate bid to improve her comfort now that she was bedridden. Her eyes were open, and she was watching him.
He smiled. "You're awake."
"I didn't want to disturb you," she said. "You were so intent."
"Yes, well..." he said and slammed closed the book. He didn't finish the thought. Instead he stretched his arms and yawned noisily.
Nadia wasn't fooled. "What were you doing?"
Stepan knew where the question was leading, and he changed the subject. He pointed at the bed. "We never made love on this bed."
Nadia smiled wearily. "Some other time, dear."
Stepan blinked at that, and he looked at her as though for the first time. Her skin, pale from her long illness, was still as brown as milk chocolate. She had a round, dinner-plate face, and coal-black eyes that were oriental in shape. She was not a beautiful woman; her face was puffy and her eyes were too far apart. Her build, invisible beneath the blankets, was squat, like a large dwarf. But she would always be Stepan's Mongolian angel, and looking at her then, as always, brought a lump to his throat.
Stepan went to her and sat down on the edge of the bed. He straightened the blanket over her chest. "Are you cold?"
"Stepan, I want to talk about what I said last night."
He grimaced. "All right. But first, let me get some wood for the stove."
"Don't be long."
He jumped to his feet and hurried out.
It was late morning on Suntar Ridge, and the sunlight danced on the snow. Stepan was relieved to be outdoors, away from the cloud of death that hung within the cabin. He had spent his life watching men die, yet his spirit had never wholly hardened to the pitiless brutality of that last desperate struggle, though sometime after his twentieth mass grave it did get easier. Leave it to Nadia to make him feel the pain all over again.
The thought shamed him. It was a grim business, this, but grief was the price he had to pay for his return to the world of men. He had always known there would be a price. In a few minutes, Nadia would ask an even greater price of him, and he couldn't think of how to refuse. It terrified him.
Stepan crunched over the snow to the wood pile, where he spent several minutes picking through the logs for just the right mix, as though choosing well could somehow make everything right again. To his left, a small stream ran, the starting point for the melting snow's violent, thousand-mile journey to the Arctic Sea. Stepan thought about what he had written that morning and realized he was pleased with the portion about naming the river after Nadia. Of course, it was too much to hope that such a thing would ever come to pass, but what an idea! He smiled at his audacity.
He looked at the stream. It had begun to flow briskly with spring runoff. It occurred to him suddenly that he had lived through another Siberian winter. The thought brought him no comfort.
He filled his arms and went back into the cabin. He set the wood beside the stove and then pushed two logs into the hearth. He latched the grate and stood up to stretch his back.
He turned toward Nadia, and his blood went cold. Her eyes were squeezed shut and her face was contorted in pain.
"Nadia!" he cried and ran to her side.
"Oh, god," she said and arched forward into a sitting position.
Stepan took her hand. Her grip tightened like a vise. She gasped and fought the pain as though it were an enemy trying to possess her body. Stepan sat helplessly beside her willing her sickness to pass through her hand into his body. But it would not, and the invisible enemy remained hidden within her.
He cursed the cruelty of his fate. Here he sat, sixty years old and as healthy as a Siberian buffalo, while his young bride withered away before his eyes.
The spasm passed, and Nadia fell panting back onto the bed. Stepan took a cloth from the bedside table and dabbed her forehead.
"They're getting worse," he said.
"Perhaps I could get the doctor to come out and see --"
"He won't come."
He knew she was right. Their cabin rested in one of the most remote places on earth, the Oimyakon province of Yakutia in eastern Siberia. There were only two ways to reach them -- by helicopter or jeep. No one was going to pay for a helicopter, and the eight-hour jeep ride...well, it wasn't going to happen. Not for a terminal cancer patient.
For the moment at least, Nadia was at peace. She looked at Stepan, and he braced himself for what was coming.
"Have you thought about what I asked?" she said.
Stepan dropped his eyes. He had thought of little else.
"Oh, Nadia," he said. "I'm so old."
"Stepan, look at me."
He raised his head.
"I'm not dying," she said.
Stepan stared blankly at her.
"It looks that way, I'll grant you," she said with a thin smile. "But that's just our narrow point of view. What we call death is part of a migration, like a reindeer going to the taiga in winter."
This last analogy seemed to please her. Nadia was an Urguma Eskimo, a nomadic people who lived by herding reindeer across the tundra.
Stepan smiled too. He loved it when she talked like this, even if he didn't understand half of what she was saying. She had a reassuring voice that rose and fell like notes in a melody. Her pronunciation was strangely clipped, which betrayed that she was not a native Russian speaker. But then, neither was he.
"We're all gods making a great journey," she said.
Stepan sighed. He wished he could believe that with one-tenth of Nadia's conviction. Like all her people, Nadia was animistic. Gods moved everything: the snow, the sun, the grass and the sky. Her Soviet education, with its foundation of atheism, had failed to dislodge this faith. And how could it? Nadia didn't just believe in this world of the gods of the lower case, she inhabited it. Stepan, on the other hand, had lived his life among men, and he had seen little there that could be called magical. Men were animals. They lived like animals; they treated each other like animals; and they died like animals.
A gust rattled the door, but inside the cabin it remained warm. Stepan could hear the logs cracking in the hearth, logs he had split last summer, back when Nadia's illness first began to reveal itself, back when there was still hope...
"Maybe you're right," he said.
"So you'll do it?"
He could, of course, say "yes," and then not carry through. Who would fault him for a merciful lie made to appease a superstitious, dying woman? Anyone could see that her request was unreasonable. Stepan was not even a free man. The land his wife loved, the land of her gods, was the land of his exile. Siberia was Stepan's prison. Its severe climate, isolation and unfathomable immensity kept him locked away behind walls more insurmountable than anything men could have built.
But could he betray Nadia, even with a lie of mercy? She had loved him, him!, the man with the stub nose, the man whose nose had fallen away from frostbite.
What had she seen in him? He had often pondered that mystery. After all those years in the prison camps he had hardened into something that was only barely a man. He was like a piece of fruit whose pit had grown and grown until there was no fruit left at all, just the hard pit nobody wanted. But she had wanted him. She had married him and given him four years of happiness. After the misery of his life, there was a miracle.
So the question of her extracting a promise had never really been in doubt. He would give her his word, and what's more, the vow would be kept. That's what the manuscript was all about. It was his insurance.
Nadia believed that in order for Stepan's soul to ascend to heaven, his earthly body had to be buried in the land of his birth. For Stepan, that meant a long journey to a place he had nearly forgotten, to a land where they spoke a different language, and where he was known by another name.
Stepan smiled bravely and patted Nadia's hand. "We swore eternity, my love."
Nadia closed her eyes and sighed. "Thank you."
And then from somewhere far, far away, she said, "The spirits have kept you alive for a purpose, Stepan. Perhaps in this quest you will at last find it."
Nadia fell asleep, and Stepan went back to his papers.
That evening, she awoke feeling better. She sipped some reindeer broth and then told Stepan stories about her life as a child in an Urguma tribe. She laughed when she talked about her soft-hearted father, Yulan, and how awkwardly he carried the stiff-lipped banner of tribal chief. Gradually, her voice weakened, until at last she fell asleep. Stepan sat beside her a long time watching her chest rise and fall with increasing unevenness. The end was near. He held her hand and waited. As the night wore on, her breathing grew more and more labored.
Suddenly, the howl of a faraway wolf echoed over the mountain, and Nadia stirred. Stepan searched her face, thinking she was about to open her eyes. Instead, she gasped once and then never breathed again.
Nadia was dead.
Stepan laid his head on her chest, and, for the first time in longer than he could remember, he wept.
Dawn came slowly to Siberia, and the sun hid below the horizon like a shy child. In the gray light of predawn, Stepan carried Nadia's body onto the mountainside and set it on the ice beside the stream. He dug until he reached frozen ground. Then he built a small fire to melt the soil. After the fire died to cinders, he dug with a pickax beneath the ash. He repeated the process four more times, sweating with the effort, but refusing to rest. His grief had given him a rare clarity, and from that he drew strength.
After an hour, he had a rectangular hole about three feet deep -- deep enough to keep away the wolves. He lowered Nadia's body over the edge and placed it at his feet. The ground still steamed from the scars made by his ax. He climbed out of the grave and began to fill it up. Finally, he gathered rocks from the stream and piled them atop the mound in the traditional way of the Urguma people.
He stood back to look at his work.
Suddenly, a gust of wind swirled over the grave, lifting snow high into the sky. His eye followed it up, and that made him think about what Nadia had said the previous night. She was on her way to heaven, for her body rested in the land of her birth. The thought made him feel better. Then something occurred to him that made him smile. There might have been another reason he agreed to make the long trip to his own birthplace:
What if she were right?
He raised his head from the grave and looked up into the pale sky.
"Bon voyage, my love," he said.
For the next five months, the man with the stub nose traveled west. His route was a bit unorthodox, but it got him past the KGB checkpoints. It amused him to think of the mystery his escape from Oimyakon would present to someone in Moscow.
Just ten miles east of the Norwegian border on the Kolsky Peninsula, 130 miles north of the Arctic Circle, Stepan Bragin came at last to a stop. He had been pushing through the swamps -- an unfamiliar hazard -- when he fell into quicksand and nearly drowned. Though he was maddeningly near to his objective, he decided to camp beside a stream until the weather turned cold and the marshes froze. If nothing else, Siberia had taught Stepan patience and a respect for nature's dispassionate regard for the frailty of man.
He speared trout and snared rabbits, cooking them over low fires he built at night. Helicopter patrols passed over several times a day, but the slicing thumpa-thumpa of their rotors gave Stepan plenty of warning to take cover in the rocks. One morning, after a month, he awoke to find the ground covered by a thin layer of snow. He was once again on terrain he knew well. He moved on.
He reached the border with Norway two days later. The forest suddenly ended, and he found himself looking across a man-made clearing about twenty yards wide. He frowned at what he saw: two barbed-wire fences, ten feet apart, and, between them, a zapretnaya zona, a forbidden zone. It was just like in the camps; any man caught in the forbidden zone would be shot immediately. He had seen many men commit suicide that way. There was dignity in the death certificate that read, "Shot while trying to escape." But there was no guard tower here, just a frozen road running along the outside of the first fence. The fences were each twelve feet high with long-needled barbed wire woven into the chain links like a pattern in a sweater. At the top and bottom, barbed-wire strands spiraled like thistled springs.
He waited all day and night for sight of a border-guard patrol, but except for the helicopters, none came. Then he understood. The border guards were counting on nature to do their work for them. They hadn't counted on Stepan Bragin.
Stepan snapped a birch branch from a tree and, sweeping the snow to cover his tracks, walked to the base of the fence. He took a rabbit from his pouch and tossed it against the wire. He turned and retreated quickly to the forest, again covering his tracks with the branch. The trail faded almost immediately as the wind polished the surface of the snow. Stepan began to count.
Five minutes later, a jeep crested the rise in the north and sped along the road to the point where the rabbit lay. Two soldiers in gray uniforms armed with Kalashnikov machine guns got out. One man spotted the rabbit and rolled it over with his foot. From his hiding place at the edge of the forest, Stepan could hear their voices. They looked around. Their eyes fell on the foliage surrounding Stepan. He held his breath. They looked away. One of them picked up the rabbit and threw it in the jeep. They got in, did a U-turn, and sped back north. A minute later, the jeep disappeared over the hill. All was again quiet.
Stepan lay there and thought. So the fence had impact sensors. That gave him five minutes to climb the two fences. Was it enough time?
Oh, Nadia. I'm so old.
He shook his head. A young man might have been able to scale the fences, but Stepan would never make it -- one fence maybe, but not two, not in five minutes. He had to find another way. How? He gazed at the fence a long time, weighing options, calculating. The ground was too frozen for a tunnel. He didn't have the tools to cut through the wire, and even if he had, five minutes was not much time. Suddenly, he remembered a prison break he had heard about many years ago. Yes, he decided, it might work.
Stepan began to gather small logs, roughly the diameter of his forearm, until he had several dozen in a neat pile. He got his reindeer-bone hatchet from his backpack and went to work notching the wood. He worked until nightfall, then ate some of his cooked rabbit meat and went to sleep. In the morning, he returned to work.
One of the skills he had learned in the camps was carpentry. Four times during his long confinement in the gulag, he had been forced to construct new camps out of the bare forest. That meant building barracks, bunks, towers, fences, furniture -- you name it, Stepan had built it using tools not much better than his little hatchet.
It took him four days to complete his task. And as he chipped and fitted the wood joints, he was free to look back over the long, tortuous road that had led him there.
Prague, 1944. Moscow, 1945. Siberia, 1946.
Nearly forty years.
He thought of his first seven years in Siberia. They had been the worst; he had spent them in solitary confinement in that cell with the green bed and the dirt floor so cold -- like frozen beef -- he was forced to stay in his bed. When he thought about it, he could still smell the acid mustiness of the clay. Once, during those long years, he had forgotten his name. He had gone to bed that night praying he would remember it when he awoke. Mercifully, he had. He had been tempted then to write his name on the wall, lest he forget it again, but he didn't dare; his true identity was the curse of his life. That cell had burned down in 1953.
The things he had seen! He had watched a nineteen-year-old guard beat his best friend to death with a shovel. He had endured strip searches in temperatures of sixty degrees below zero. He had watched once-vital men lie down in the snow and refuse to get up no matter how much the guards beat them. He had once seen a man driven to such despair he had committed suicide by stabbing himself in the stomach over and over again with a piece of rusted sheet metal.
True, there had been instances of kindness. A physician who had been treating Stepan for pneumonia had risked becoming a prisoner himself by smuggling in two potatoes and a piece of pork. It was this, not the hospital bed, that had saved Stepan. But such moments were like the yellow taiga flowers that pushed up through the ice. Stepan had never seen a prisoner who didn't grind them beneath his boot.
At the end of the fourth day, Stepan finished his work and stepped back to inspect the result. Before him were two fourteen-foot-high ladders -- one self-standing, the other a simple stepladder. He tested them in the forest, bouncing with all his weight on the rungs. They held. He practiced carrying the straight ladder on his back as he climbed the standing ladder. It was clumsy, but after a few tries he mastered it. From the top of the ladder he looked down and winced as he thought of how his ankles would fare in the fall. He thought of Nadia, and his resolve was restored.
Night descended like a velvet curtain, and he crawled under his blanket. He looked up at the stars a long time going over in his mind his plan for the next day. When at last he fell asleep, he dreamed of Nadia. She came to him dressed in her traditional Urguma costume of reindeer hide. She floated six inches over the snow like a brown-skinned angel of the north.
"Come, Stepan," she called out.
He tried to reach her but a barbed-wire fence separated them. The mesh of the wire was so tight he couldn't even drive a finger through it.
"I can't," he said. "I'm too old."
She spoke to him again, but this time she didn't call him "Stepan." With a shock, he realized she was using his other name.
He screamed. He sat up straight and listened as his own cry echoed through the forest. He was terrified -- from the dream as well as the thought that he had given himself away to the border guards. He sat a long time panting and waiting for the sound of a jeep or helicopter. But the forest remained silent. He looked around and realized with a start that dawn had come.
It was time.
Snow fell lightly as Stepan carried his ladders to the base of the fence. He didn't bother to cover his tracks. He set up the stepladder and then snaked his arms through the rungs of the straight ladder, using it for balance like a tightrope-walker's pole. He began to climb. At the top he looked out over the swirling barbed wire. He flung the straight ladder over the fence into the forbidden zone. It landed silently in the snow, He counted to three and flung himself over the fence. As he pushed off, his stepladder fell backward. He sailed out into space.
He landed hard and rolled. His left ankle exploded in pain.
He clutched the ankle. It was as crooked as a dog's hind leg. Broken. Damn. He lay there a while panting. He didn't worry about the border guards: he had not tripped the impact sensors, so he had time for a short rest. Then he would drag himself and his straight ladder across the forbidden zone to the next fence. The second ladder, of course, would trip the sensors, but he would have five minutes before the border guards arrived. By then, he and his broken ankle would be in Norway.
He lay there a while catching his breath, massaging his ankle. He rolled over and looked back through the fence. He gasped.
The stepladder was leaning against the fence. He understood at once what had happened. When he had pushed off to jump, the stepladder had rocked and then fallen forward.
The impact sensors! The border guards were already on their way!
How long had he lain there?
He got to his feet and gingerly put weight on the broken ankle. It buckled, and he nearly fell. He tried again. It was no use; the ankle was worthless.
And he had to hurry.
He hopped to the ladder, which lay on the snow where it had fallen. He wedged his broken ankle between the rungs and took a deep breath, He closed his eyes.
"Nadia," he whispered, and then threw his body hard to his right. His ankle, caught between the rungs, twisted sharply. The pain nearly caused him to pass out.
He tried the ankle. Still, it buckled.
He put his foot back in the ladder and tried again, this time twisting even harder.
The ankle popped, and he dropped to the ground. He probed it with his frozen fingers. The joint was back in place. He got to his feet and tried it out. It could take weight now, though every step was agony.
He picked up the ladder and began to limp toward the second fence. Through the net of barbed wire he could see minute details on the snow-ice patches, dirt, bits of sand.
The thought gave him strength. He reached the fence and raised the ladder against it. He began to climb.
Halfway up, he heard the distant whine of a jeep engine. His heart raced.
He got to the top of the ladder and swung his right foot onto the fence. He stood a moment atop the crossbar and then jumped.
He landed, and this time the pain in his ankle was something unbelievable. Tears clouded his eyes and then promptly froze in his lashes.
He pulled himself into a sitting position against the fence. He felt like a corpse who had risen from his grave and was now relaxing against his headstone. It occurred to him that's how the world would see him: a man returning from the dead.
You made it!
He tipped back his head and let a snowflake drop on his tongue. He turned his head and gazed east through the fences toward the Soviet Union. At that moment, he could feel no bitterness. His enemies were all dead. Hitler was dead. Stalin was dead. The men who had replaced Stalin were dead. The guards who beat him, who drove him like an animal, who starved and humiliated him -- they were dead too. He had outlived them all. There was no one left to hate.
There's still one.
No, he wouldn't think about him now. The time had come for the man with the stub nose to say good-bye to Stepan Bragin. It was time to rediscover the identity he had buried so long ago in that cell with the green bed and the frozen floor. But now he found himself strangely reluctant. After all, if he hadn't become Stepan Bragin he wouldn't have met Nadia.
He raised his head and shouted, "Ya yeshcho chelovek!" Then, just for the thrill of it, he repeated the phrase in English, savoring the alien, near-forgotten sounds as they escaped his throat. "I am still a man!"
He paused, half-expecting a response.
Then a voice cried out in Russian, "Get out of there, you fool! They're coming!"
He flinched. What? A voice here?
A jeep crested the hill and sped along the access road on the far side of the two fences.
Stepan got slowly to his feet, balancing on his good leg. Through the barbed-wire he watched, confused, as the jeep bore down on him.
"Halt!" one of the border guards cried.
But he was safe, wasn't he? They were in the U.S.S.R. and he was in Norway --
Thwing. The first bullet whistled by him like a bottle rocket.
My god! They're shooting across the border!
He turned to flee, but his ankle buckled under him and he went down. The pain shot up his leg all the way to his hip. He scrambled back to his feet and began to hobble away. He took four agonizing steps and then something hit him in his shoulder blade. It felt like a punch. Another blow struck the arch of his back. He fell.
He must have passed out, because the next thing he knew he was being rolled onto his back. He opened his eyes. A young man with a black beard and shining, deep-set eyes kneeled over him. He wore civilian clothes.
"You're still alive," said the stranger.
"Bastards shot me," Stepan groaned.
A snowflake fell into Stepan's eye, and he blinked. As his vision cleared, a strange clarity washed over him. He lay on the snow, yet his body was warm. He could feel where the bullets had pierced him, but he felt no pain. Even his ankle had stopped throbbing.
"Who are you?" Stepan asked. His voice gurgled.
"That doesn't matter," said the stranger.
Stepan grabbed the stranger's wrist. "Answer me!"
"I'm like you," said the stranger. "A border dasher."
"From the forest -- I was watching you. I used your ladders to follow you over." The stranger glanced anxiously to the north. "They'll be back in a few minutes. They had to circle up the road to the gate at A-l, about a mile. We have to get you out of here!"
"I don't understand," said Stepan. "Isn't this Norway?"
"This is the Soviet Union. You're in the forbidden zone."
"I thought -- "
"There's another fence, further west."
"A third fence," said Stepan. "Damn."
The stranger frowned. "Can I move you?"
"It doesn't matter."
"Of course it matters!"
"No," said Stepan. The alertness held, but he couldn't know for how long. He had to do something. Stepan asked, "Can you make it to Norway now?"
The stranger looked west, calculating. He shook his head. "It's too far. There isn't time."
"Can you go back?"
"I think so."
"Good, you can try again later," said Stepan. "Right?"
"Right?" Stepan demanded, his voice rising to a wheeze.
"Yes, right. I'll try again tomorrow."
"Good. Now, do you want to help me?"
"Sure, but -- "
"How much time do we have?"
"A few minutes...maybe."
For the next three minutes, Stepan gave his testimony to the bearded stranger, The man listened carefully. He had intelligent, trustworthy eyes. Stepan began to wonder if he hadn't been lucky, after all. Perhaps this was how it was meant to be.
Stepan finished and pressed a small pouch into the stranger's palm.
The stranger looked at it. "What's this?"
"Something that is of no use to me. Now go!"
"I can't just leave -- "
"Go!" he said, and, in the distance, an engine raced. "They're coming!"
The stranger stood up.
"Your name?" asked Stepan. "What is your name?"
"Anton Perov," he repeated. "May the gods be with us both, Anton Perov."
Anton took a last look at Stepan and darted back east to the fence. Stepan watched as the stranger scaled the fence. Clever boy. He wore heavy gloves and several layers of clothing to protect him from the barbs. He had powerful arms that lifted him up the fence like a spider in a web. Ah, to be young. Anton reached the top, swung his legs over and scampered down. He dropped the last few feet to the ground and gazed back through the fence at Stepan.
The sound of the jeep grew louder.
"Go!" cried Stepan.
With a last look back, Anton darted for the eastern fence. Stepan shut his eyes. The jeep drew nearer. Minutes passed. He heard men's voices.
"Over here!" a voice said excitedly.
Stepan looked up into the falling snow. Slowly, out of the dance of falling flakes, the figure of his wife appeared floating over him. She looked afraid.
"Don't despair, Nadia," he whispered. "There is still hope."
She nodded. Then her figure faded and coalesced into a man looking down at him. He wore a gray uniform and held a machine gun.
"We got him," he said.
Copyright © 1999 by Michael Hetzer