It had begun to snow one more time. The big fat flakes started falling again, but at least this time they did so vertically, placidly and gently. That was a windless and calm snow, which cooled down a bit the air, something really appreciated by the numb muscles of his face and his shattered limbs. However, the snow never improved anything, he knew it, it would ultimately serve only to accumulate more and more quantities of that hateful material with which they had to fight constantly, more of that cutting water, more of that cotton that soaked them hopelessly, more of that misleading white cloak that hid alike roads and obstacles. The snow, that cold drag which forced them to walk slowly and laboriously, and to remember, with a mixture of anger and nostalgia, the last time they really felt hot and dry. The snow will only serve to reinforce their tenacious and constant enemy: Siberia.
At least it was not a blizzard. He hated blizzards. Suddenly he ceased to distinguish anything which was far more than five meters, the gusts of cold wind cut his skin and numbed his body, whirlwinds lashed his face and blinded his eyes, and every sound was reduced to a constant and monotone hooting. The world disappeared almost completely, darkness sifted everywhere, everything became a half-blue half-white blur, and whatever remained still for a while finished buried slowly but inexorably. A deadly, cruel, and merciless cold, doubtless emerged from the cosmic void, beyond those places where absolutely nothing existed. And an unforgiving and merciless wind, as violent as an explosion, so strong that sometimes seemed to suck them, a wind that was clouding the view, that was deafening the ears, that was numbing the body, that was bloating the head, that was annihilating his senses, slowly, slowly, without a break, hopeless, until he could not hear, neither could he see, nor even feel anything. This frozen hell, the blizzard in Siberia, was certainly the closest thing to death he had ever experienced.
The snow, still being quiet, also reduced visibility, another big problem when it came to seek for orientation in the most vast and boundless region of the world, in those bleak and almost virgin places where there were almost no paths, since there were almost no men who could have ever plowed those paths. But now, at least, that would not be a big setback, because the sun started setting and, anyway, it was time for them to find shelter, eat something and try to sleep.
Soon one of the three would propose to stop. He would remove his mouth from the folds of his clothes, among the scarves tighten to his neck, and would raise his voice to urge the others to take a break. Soon. But he, carried away by inertia, having decided already to let the others do so. Paradoxically, fatigue had discouraged him to make that tiny effort, but had impelled him to keep walking, as if that last and insignificant gesture could make a big difference in their common feat. Fatigue, and the fact that the idea of stopping did not make him feel very happy .
He wanted to reach at once, even if he did not know where. As things stood then, he feared Europe would have to wait, at least for a while. There they were, by now, the vast China, or the exotic Japan. Indochina perhaps? As he had been told it was a beautiful land, inhabited by peaceful men and sweet women. And it was hot. But the best thing he could do now was to propose himself short, concrete and achievable goals, something more like an image, a moment, a feeling. A comfortable room, a comfortable bed and a good dinner topped with a warm soup, and a whole day ahead to do nothing else but eating and sleeping. And maybe taking a bath. Wherever, in a hostel or in a private house, in China or in Cambodia, it did not matter, as well as it happened soon.
But for that it was needed to arrive first, and for that it was necessary to get out of that hateful country once and forever, leaving those mountains behind, leaving the huge, unforgiving Siberia, with its titanic forests, its desolate tundra, its long rivers, wade through the endless Amur, cross the border and continue traveling south, always towards the south, in order to find warmth and shelter. And for that it was needed to keep walking. And for keep walking it was needed to survive. And that was precisely what worried him most now.
They were stopping. It had finally been Yegor the one who had proposed to take a break, but it did not really matter, everyone had thought about it before. They needed to stop. They could hardly stand, and could no longer distinguish from or where they were going to. However, none of them really wanted to stop. For days, what should be a pleasant moment of solace after a tiring and long day’s march has became inexorably into something sad, for to the ephemeral relief to stop soon joined the atrocious pangs of hunger. It was very hard to lie all the night with hardly nothing to take to their mouth, it almost did not allow them to sleep, it was almost better to keep going, even if they could not take a single step more, because walking, at least, kept their minds distracted. And he also had many good reasons for not wanting to stop. But a break was indeed needed.
They had been traveling for over a month. They had already walked four or five hundred kilometers, all on foot, except that beautiful day in which they had paid a boatman to carry them down by the icy stream of the Selemdzha, or that other day when a truck driver gave them a thirty miles ride on his vehicle. Even so, they still have more than a week to reach the border. They had exhausted the supplies they brought with them when they escaped and, since then, they had been rigging with small animals they managed to hunt from time to time and, in a couple of occasions, they could buy some food from some mujiks they found in some humble dumps lost in the middle of nowhere. But it was not enough. They had spent several days starving, feeling always weaker, their condition was lamentable, they had no instruments, skills or weapons enough to hunt larger preys, and as they neared the edge of that deserted country the chances of finding friends did not increase but decreased. They were at that critical point they had been largely spoken about in the gulag. And all three of them realized it. All of them.
They penetrated two hundred meters into the forest and found refuge in the bushes, taking cover into some large rocks that blocked the cold air. Then they made a bonfire, one of the few luxuries they could afford, left on the ground their modest travel bags, took off their shoes, healed their feet, patched their worn boots, and each of them tried to satisfy their voracious appetite with the little food they carried, drinking lots of water and chewing various herbs that had collected on the way in order to deceive their hunger. They did everything in silence, mechanically. Morale was low, hunger strong, all three were well aware of how critical their situation has became, and nobody wanted to talk to anyone. Especially him.
‘Once we arrived to China things will greatly improve’, he started fantasizing while trying to cozy close to the bonfire. There would be more people everywhere, nobody would haunt him, the time would be nice, and there would be no problem in staying in villages and in paying the peasants to fed or carry him around. Now, however, they were still fugitives, and as such they had to remain always hidden, outwit the authorities, sneak through the busiest checkpoints and, much worse, survive the ruthless Siberia, their main enemy, as they had been repeatedly warned in the gulag.
Siberia. Siberia was their great opponent. It had always been. When he reached the camp, more than a year ago, he was surprised of the fact that there were almost no guards, especially in winter. <Why?> The most veterans blurted out, <If you want to go and die frozen best for them, in some way you are making their job easier.> Very soon he had occasion to hear the terrible stories of those who had already tried, those unfortunates who, even if swollen with courage and determination, had perished amid horrible agony, or had suffered so much that had finally resigned, leaving their hopes behind and painfully crawling back to their miserable and stinking cells, utterly defeated.
As he ate his dry crust of bread he carefully looked at his two colleagues: Yegor, the hieratic and huge Russian kulak, and Legionnaire, the melancholic French that had had the misfortune of having been taken prisoner at the very moment he was destroying machinery in the Tiger tank factory near Wittenberg he was forced to work by the Nazis. The two had a deplorable aspect: alarmingly skinny, starving, emaciated, dirty and bearded. Their eyes, sunken and absent, reflected an infinite weariness and fatigue, but their gestures, slow but precise, expressed a strong determination thousand times tested. These two undone men were, like him, people who preferred to risk their lives rather than to spend one more single month in that hellhole and that, same as him too, were willing to do anything to survive. Anything, as they were warned in the gulag. Like him.
The idea of escaping, he remembered while finishing his sad meal, never abandoned him, because staying in the gulag was, for him, simply not an option, not a choice. Nothing and nobody would ever guarantee him that, once his excessive sentence had been accomplished, they would not simply abandon him there to die. According to their cold logic, butcher’s logic, that was almost the easiest option. And if he was finally freed, then what? He would already be old, and after several years of Siberian winters and forced labor he would be completely useless. The gulag, the meat grinder, had been created to destroy the prisoner, not to amend him, and staying there meant only misery and suffering, ending crashed like an old mule, and being buried at the edge of that never-ending road all them had been forced to build, as had already happened to many others before, sad and forgotten ghosts whose anonymous graves marked by thousands the verges of that dirty road as some kind of strange and sinister traffic signals. At least the ruthless Siberia would offer him more possibilities to survive, even if remote, that the ones he could find in the gulag.
Escaping quickly became an obsession, but an obsession that did not only affect him. Regardless of whether they addressed it seriously or not, the issue of an hypothetical evasion was a very popular topic within the camp. Those who had resigned, the majority, perhaps took it only as a hobby, as a fantasy, as a pipe dream, but almost everyone liked to discuss it, to fantasise, to plan it, and everyone always had something to say regarding an hypothetical flight. For weeks and months he spoke with one and other, asked here and there, he searched, heard, discussed, considered, rejected, considered again, fantasised, imagined, thrilled, demoralised and turned to feel exultant, until he planned it all from top to bottom. It was also like this that he met his two breakaway companions, to whom now he looked at, ragged behind the fire, with immense suspicion. And so, in one of those passionate talks in the barracks, when they had already formed the group and devised a plan, that the sinister Slava, that bitter old man, told them those evil words, that sort of curse that, since then, he could never banish from his mind, and that had been obsessing him for several days, since the famine began to take its toll on the group. And if he was obsessed it was especially because Slava had told those words to all three. And all of them, he knew, were men ready for anything. All of them. All three.
It was dark already, and it was still snowing, but the rocks and the forest protected them reasonably well. All of them had already finished their scarce rations of hard bread in silence, and after a brief exchange of words, mostly monosyllables, his two companions started preparing to sleep, curling into their blankets near the bonfire, hoping to pass away before the hunger came to torment them. He, however, did not go to sleep. He was crushed, but the fear that had gripped him for several days did not let him sleep. Perhaps it was going to be that night. Were they just waiting for him to fall asleep? Why had Legionnaire said that phrase ‘maybe tomorrow we will find some food’ before going to bed? If he had not said anything… It had been many days since nobody said anything. The serious conversations, the discussions, the outbursts of anger, the anxiety attacks, the cries, the fits of optimism, even camaraderie, everything, every emotion, every empathy, every confidence, all that had been over for days already. They had hardened. All three. Because of Siberia. They had already glimpsed the tragedy, they saw themselves very close to the edge, at the very limit of their strength, with death on their heels. That cold and quiet pragmatism was already firmly established among them, that scheming indifference on their actions, that fatalism, like automatons, they moved just to endure, to survive, to ration themselves in absolutely everything, to be limited to the merely imperative, without diverting even a piece of their scarce energy, without wasting time on anything else but staying alive. Why then that comment? Mere coincidence, or a veiled signal?
It is not that they did not count on it. Not that they did not count on finding themselves one day in the terrible situation they were now. Escaping was their only thought for months, and they had made statements and calculations, always to face the same problem, the same challenge: Siberia. If they were minimally skilled it would not be the guards, nor the gulag, nor their pursuers who killed them, but Siberia. Although they could dodge the scarce surveillance, although they started traveling in early spring, there it was the cold of Siberia, there it was the unparalleled immensity of Siberia, there it was the extreme hardness of Siberia. The untamed. The hunger. The critical point. The point at which their numbers did not add up. Everyone had warned them: It was simply too much. It was already an odyssey to approach the Amur. Furthermore to cross it. And still they had to keep walking once on the other side. Many believed it was suicide. Others admitted they had to try it at least. But everybody argued that Siberia would starve them to death after a month. Only one prisoner showed them a logical but terrible way to survive to that titanic enterprise. Only one. The old Slava.
He looked at his two companions through the fire. They seemed asleep. It did not look that they were going to try anything that night, though he had already decided not to even give them the chance. They also thought about it, for sure! It was impossible they had forgotten it, even if they did not bring it up again, even if they pretended to despise it. The evil Slava had talked to all three at the barracks in the Gulag. The three were there, listening, shaken by his grotesque sentence. The three had remained silent and downcast after those words. And he would bet his soul that the three of them, not only him, had had recurring nightmares more than once because of that as he did. He could not believe that now, on the verge of starvation, only he had remembered his dramatic opinion, especially when the three of them were men ready to do anything. All of them. All three.
And how well did he know his colleagues? How well could he really know even a single man? They were fiends even before he reached the gulag. How to be sure they had not conspired something against him already? Were they really friends? No, they were partners, partners in the adventure of fleeing the country. That was business, it always was. The ultimate goal was to survive the flight, out and out. Had they ever been friends? Who knows, yet it did not matter now, no one could be friends at the critical point, no one could be friends with anyone when Siberia wanted to kill you.
The critical point. Siberia at its maximum harshness. This was not only the moment they would be closer to starve, they had been repeatedly warned in the gulag, it was also the moment to take drastic measures, all the drastic they were needed. They had been asked. Perhaps you may have to do unthinkable things.> And, until Slava spoke that night, they had always said ‘yes’, always, because they all were men ready to do anything. All them. All three.
There they were, sleeping in the middle of that forest. Now it was clear. It had taken days of thinking, and it fitted now. They would have planned it in the gulag, in advance, waiting for the right moment, but they had made the mistake of postponing it, thinking he would not suspect anything. It could not be a mere coincidence they were just three! What he was about to do was horrible, but that would have happened anyways. Better him than them. He was just defending himself, he just wanted to survive, to live! Feel warm and freedom again! To leave behind the merciless Siberia, and forget the ruthless Slava! Did these two evil entities were but just one? Those were the real culprits, the responsible of poisoning their minds, of bringing them to that ending, the sinister Slava and the horrible Siberia, not him.
Everything would be over very quickly. A big stone, right in the head, first this one, then the other one, in silence. Afterwards he would take their food, would change some of his most worn victuals with theirs if they really worth it. He would fill his stomach better, he would leave them there and he would go to sleep away, and the next morning, well rested and fresh as he had not been in a while, he would decide whether to go further and follow the repugnant instructions Slava suggested to them, or simply leave their bodies to the wolfs and keep going alone.
He got up quietly, quietly, addressing the first big stone he saw. The other two men did not move, no branch cracked, the forest was sleeping quietly. The shadows, cast by the flames of the bonfire, danced around him as he repeated himself over and over again that what he was going to do was not his fault but Siberia’s. It was Siberia. Siberia had forced him. Siberia was forcing him. Siberia had even warned them with man’s voice back there in the gulag. It was very clear what was going to happen, and what he had to do. Slava, with his sardonic smile and cruel voice, with his depraved and twisted look, that ruthless and terrible demon, was Siberia transmuted into a ruthless man, and had made it clear, for them, that night in the barracks.
<There is only one way to escape the gulag> he told all three of them. All three. <That two men agree first, then they take a third one with them… as food.>
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