The Flayed Dog (extrait)
Adapted by James Holleyhead
Introduction by Aidan Rankin.
Komi Autonomous Soviet Socialist Republic , a thousand kilometres north and east of Moscow . Taiga, swamps and night – white night. A train chugged by, snaking along its silver trail. It was an old train and knew the way well enough. The workers it carried were Bulgarians, and they’d be staying in that harsh land, they thought, to try to make some money.
He had come with them. There was nothing at the station but swarms of mosquitoes, which attacked them, and a waiting bus. They got in and it pulled out and the taiga looked on. Ahead was a truck loaded with logs, their pointed ends protruding from the back, gently swaying to the rhythm of the rutted road. Then, where the road took a slight turn, the truck veered and crashed into the trees on the other side. The bus tried to avoid it but failed, and impaled itself on the stack of sharpened logs.
Now, crouching with his beard resting on his knees, Vasil gazed into the fire and reflected on how lucky he had been. He could easily have been one of them. Skewered on the giant spits, and hanging in the air. Bloodied and moaning, or dead. But he wasn’t. Death had passed him by, leaving just the salty taste of blood in his mouth. He shivered in horror, revulsion and pleasure. The pleasure of having survived, of having remained alive, if spattered with other people’s blood.
Months had passed since the accident, but he still felt the shivers in his spine whenever he thought about it. Normally he would think about something else. About her and about the child. As the days went by, he missed them more and more, a feeling made all the worse by the conditions he found himself living in. His desire to see them was powerful, but they were too far, thousands of miles away. But surely they thought about him from time to time? Well, he hoped so, and that they were expecting him to come back. Yes, of course, and when he did go back, everything would be as in the good old days.
He hadn’t written to them about the accident. He’d wanted to, but hadn’t. Better that they didn’t know. They would only worry – besides, as he had escaped it didn’t really matter. The point was that he had made it and things were working out, piece by piece. He’d always known that he would have a hard time, but still things were not quite what he had imagined. As a teacher, the toughest thing he’d had to do was hold a piece of chalk to the blackboard. But here the thing was to hold a shovel and spread concrete. His body had troubled him at first, with a tendency to go numb, but eventually it seemed to pick up the pace and now he thought he was coping rather well. He’d been with the same labour crew from the very start and had begun making good money from the second month. Other newcomers moved from team to team, slave-driven and then kicked out, but you had to keep your job for at least a month in order to get paid as much as the others.
He got on well with the other workers. At first they seemed rough and unfriendly, but he gradually got used to them, realizing they were all basically good, self-contained sorts, hardened by the work. They would toil away together, sometimes twelve or fourteen hours a day, especially in summer when the days were endless.
They were cutting a road through the taiga. The surface they laid was concrete so as not to crack in the winter cold. The road progressed, but so did the seasons. The ground was already frozen. No snow had yet fallen, but it could start any time, and it would be much harder work then. That’s why the bosses were in such a rush, eager to stay on schedule. The foreman had put the screws on them. He said that if they just kept working at the same rate he’d cut their bonus. Haggard and skinny, he’d stand there at the worksite in his leather boots and black jacket, hands in pockets, smoking and watching them with his mousy eyes. Sometimes he’d come up behind them, snort hard and then hack up a phlegmy gobbet onto the still wet concrete, treat them to a sour look and then, without saying a word, get back in the jeep.
They didn’t like him either. He was always threatening that one day he’d fire them and send them back on the happy train. That’s what they called it, the train for people who had broken the law here, or committed some breach of discipline or other that got them sacked. They were sent back to Bulgaria : criminals to be tried, the others to pay damages which were often pretty steep. So they tried to lie low and not argue with him too much, since he was a creature of the Big Boss, and he would sign a dismissal without batting an eyelid.
They were expected to get as far as the river by the end of the year, but that was some distance through the taiga. Then again, there were problems with the deliveries of concrete. Your hands were tied. You just had to sit back and wait for the dump trucks to turn up. In summer you could lie back on a plank and doze off, but in the winter you couldn’t do much more than hang around in the freezing cold. Sometimes a fire would be lit. Roasting skewered mushrooms might accompany a game of cards and some unlikely stories. Doing nothing jaded them as much as the work itself, even though everyone needed a break from time to time. When the trucks came back, loaded with concrete, the foreman would turn up and rush towards them, all agitated: ‘Back to work! You’ve gone as mushy as roast leek!’ He threw his weight around but actually he got paid little more than the rest of them. The big money stayed with the big bosses. They stole it. They forced the workers to keep doing overtime, but never paid them for it. Even on Sundays.
Holidays were made up for by working weekends. Sometimes they’d slave away for two or three weeks without a break and still get the same pay. Everyone wanted to rest; they needed some drinking time, they didn’t feel like working. And they couldn’t give a damn about the work schedule; it was all the same to them whether they reached the river or hell fire. Today they had said they wouldn’t go to work, but in the end they did, the same as always, cussing and swearing. There was no point in needless conflict; the bosses had got their number anyway. If they didn’t go they’d only get into deeper trouble, without really changing anything. They’d just be told to fuck off and then lose their bonus money. If they gave in and did it for appearance’s sake it would be much better, so they went to work this Sunday to steer clear of trouble.
Vasil was the only one to stay in the hut. The others would tell the foreman that he had heart trouble. It was true, lately his heart had started hurting – the occasional pang, but nothing he took that seriously. It came and went, nothing really, nothing he couldn’t live with. All he had to do was relax for a minute and take a deep breath, and the pain would go. It had happened once at work, but he’d quickly recovered. They had left him in the hut to chop wood so that in the holidays they could have logs for the fire.
He got down to work as soon as they left. He cut several logs with the chain saw, shaping them into blocks, neither too long nor too short – just the right size for the force of his blow as he struck with the axe. Splitting each block, first in two and then in four, he arranged them in piles along the back wall of the hut. The job took time but he enjoyed doing it. He liked seeing the blade of the axe split the timber, driven in by his own strength, and after each blow he was heady with a sense of his own physical power and skill.
He took some of the logs into the hut and arranged them in the hearth, which they had cast from concrete to avoid setting the wooden walls on fire. This hearth was hot enough, and an improvement on the stoves which had been provided originally. Made from tin, they cooled fast, while the cement absorbed the heat and stayed warm till dawn.
He arranged the logs in the centre of the hearth, pushing in and lighting some kindling at the bottom. The hut was small and heated up fast. Only Yaskata and he lived in it. They got along fine together, even though Yaskata was something of a square peg in a round hole. He was a heavy drinker (but then, who wasn’t?) who seldom said anything. Occasionally he’d crack a joke, but more often just smile. Everything Vasil knew about him he’d learnt from the others. He was told that Yaskata had been married twice, but his first marriage hadn’t worked out and his wife had left him and their two kids. Later, he had tried again and married another woman, but the money he made was barely enough to support the kids. So he’d come here, to earn enough both for his second wife and his kids. Soon after his arrival, he had asked his wife to join him, since newly wed women shouldn’t be left alone. And she’d come and lived with him and hung around for a while, until one day she left. Vasil had no idea if her husband had sent her back or if she’d decided to go herself. There were various rumours about her in camp, more or less sinful stories, but he never learnt the truth.
One thing was beyond doubt: this was no place for women, and for married women in particular. Yet there were some, and these women were known to earn (so to speak) considerably more than their husbands, but they were few and far between. Single women were officially forbidden to be there, but Russian ones were there anyway. Whole trainloads of whores streamed in from all over the country. They usually came at the end of the month, around payday. Swarming all over the camps, they knocked on doors and windows, exposing a breast here, a thigh there, to show the tattooed fees for their services. After each customer, they squeezed a quick vinegar sponge between their legs and moved on to the next one. Vasil always declined their offers, although many were insistent or even aggressive. He didn’t feel up to it, disgusted, so he went out, crossed the camp and withdrew into the forest.
There weren’t many other huts like theirs. Most men lived in ancient, long defunct locomotives and carriages, strung along a sort of abandoned blind track. Washed up by the stream of time, the carriages stood here, in this god-forsaken place, huddled together and lost in remembrance, no doubt, of their glorious youth, when they had been involved full steam in History, transporting Humanity towards the future. For its part, Humanity, having travelled as far as it wished to go, had hurried to discard the loyal but clumsy steam engines, stranding them here as if afraid that someone might find them and contrive to navigate a reverse journey. Yet in time a use had been found for them, and although those who now possessed them had no ultimate destination in prospect, they engineered a little comfort. As these historical monuments were nothing but a heap of scrap barely suitable for shelter, the camp was known as Scrap Town . Living in the cars was not regarded as something to be coveted, so Vasil had been relatively fortunate to be put up in one of the few nearby huts. Before his arrival, Yaskata had lived there with his wife, and after she left the bed had remained vacant, so Vasil moved in. Sometimes odds and ends would pop up: clasps, hairpins, indeed hair, which very tangibly bespoke her recent presence in the room. Yaskata did not seem to notice. Usually he would take any opportunity to fill himself up with vodka and fall asleep.
The hut had the advantage of being next to the train-house, so the others always came over to their place. They usually drank and played cards, whereas he himself did neither. It got on his nerves and, at least to begin with, he couldn’t get enough sleep. Gradually he adapted and acquired the knack of sleeping even when it was noisy, but it was better when there was nobody and no noise except some vague rumbling in the cars, and he could get a good rest.
There wasn’t much furniture in the room, just the bare essentials: a table, cupboard and two beds. On the wall between them was a gun that Yaskata had bought in the black market, ages ago. They seldom used it, so it just hung there on a nail, just in case. You never knew what you would need here, the back of beyond. Occasionally in the taiga they ran into bear or elk, which they would kill and then divide up the meat. Earlier in the year they had shot a she-bear and three cubs. Apparently something had scared her, since she showed up in Scrap Town just as the men were about to go to work. Everyone pulled out their guns and started shooting. The heavy animal collapsed to the ground, ripped through by countless shots, and the cubs – still sucklings – growled and rubbed their snouts against their mother’s body. They pulled them away and hacked up their mother, that they roasted the same night, then they fed the cubs until they were plump enough for slaughter too.
He had done all he had to do, so he sat for a while to warm up by the fire until the others came back. He was expecting them any minute, but he was hoping they would be a bit late, he didn’t feel like budging and he enjoyed the solitude. The fire flicked out its scathing tongues at him. He took a log and cast it into the hearth. He saw how the raw wood flared up, oozing out resin with a hiss, drenching the air with its aroma. The smell crept up his nostrils and percolated through his lungs, reminding him of a picnic in the woods.
It had been the three of them – Vasil and her and the boy. Dusk was falling; the sun had just set behind the mountain ridge. They gathered twigs and lit a fire. There was this very same smell of burnt pine resin. They lay back, gazing at the slowly sailing red clouds. He hugged his wife and kissed her. ‘I’ll go and get more wood,’ the child said. Then they heard the bump and the fall. He had walked straight into the trunk of one of the pine trees. As a toddler he was always tripping over things, but they’d thought it was just clumsiness and that he’d probably grow out of it. But it proved to be something else. He was losing his sight.
The revelation turned everything upside down. At first, Vasil just couldn’t accept this; it had to be some sort of mistake. But gradually he came to understand that it was true and that he had to deal with it. As soon as he’d recovered from the initial shock, he tried to find out what practical things could be done. The different doctors he spoke to each put on a show of reassurance, impatient to get rid of him as quickly as possible. He tried to consult a professor recommended as the authority in the field. Getting an appointment proved very difficult, but eventually he managed to find someone who could arrange it. He took his son there as soon as he could. During the examination, the professor did not say a word. When he had finished, he reclined in his armchair, deep in thought, and his face showing nothing – or at least nothing that had to do with the examination. Sitting like this for a while, he said ‘Mario needs surgery, but there’s no one to do it.’ At the time Vasil didn’t understand what the professor meant by that ‘no one to do it’, but he soon realized. None of the few experts who were competent to operate on the boy were prepared to. They said that yes, he could be hospitalised in the Odessa ophthalmological clinic, but explained regretfully that no, it was not a straightforward matter, and, alas, there were bound to be long delays. Yet the examinations showed that the condition of the child was deteriorating and the operation should take place as soon as possible.
They decided to use their own devices. Just the child and him. When the ship sailed away, he could see his wife weeping on the quayside. After that, she would often weep – trying to hide her tears from the child when he was there, but otherwise, especially at night, crying and crying without restraint. She was overwrought, said nothing and easily fell into a fit of depression. When he tried to reassure her, she turned her back on him and went somewhere to be alone. He felt slighted and rejected, but at the same time tried to understand her and couldn’t hold her to blame. He hoped that everything would be all right once Mario was cured. The boy was too young and did not understand exactly what was going on, but obviously knew something was wrong. He would goggle at them and uncharacteristically not ask any questions, just nodding obediently when they told him to be good when he was being examined. He was just as silent on board the ship, but as they sat on the deck watching the waves he suddenly asked, ‘Daddy, what’s on the bottom of the sea?’
In Odessa, he was able to contact the doctor with little difficulty. The expert received them in his consulting room and studied the boy’s epicrisis. ‘He’s going to be fine,’ he announced finally. Something about the way he spoke inspired trust. ‘But I’ll want 5,000 roubles,’ he added. ‘In cash.’
Vasil hadn’t told the others why he had come. The only reason anyone came here was because they were in a bad way and they hoped that by making some money the problems could be fixed and they’d be able to piece things together. True, they did make good money, two or three times what they’d make back home; and then, there was nothing to spend it on in this wasteland, which should have helped. But the fact was that eventually people broke down and started drinking too much without realizing it. Alcohol replaced the blood flowing in their veins, sapped their strength and forced them to work just in order to have something to drink at night. Very soon, a single night would be insufficient to quench their thirst. So it went on. They would drink for nights, weeks, months, years on end, until they had no savings and no clothes to sell, and ultimately turned into shrivelled skeletons covered with chapped skin. Then they were bundled onto the happy train and sent back to their families, if they still had any.
Not everyone hit the bottle. Some resisted alcohol, made good money and when their contract expired, left, but only to come back again soon. Like the prisoner who had said to him: ‘All my best mates are in jail, so what am I going to do outside?’
He knew the others had their own problems, too, though they didn’t show it and tried to appear indifferent. He often saw a group of them standing in between the steel carriages. They pretended to be pissing, but really they were struggling to make sense of their problems until, giving up, they just bashed their heads against the rusty iron instead. He pretended he hadn’t seen them and hurried on because he didn’t want to intrude on their thoughts. They were black, spattered thoughts. That’s why they hid them deep down inside. If they were to own up, those dark, heavy thoughts would become all the darker and heavier, so each one of them instinctively clenched his teeth and stayed silent. This silence accumulated and spread wide across Scrap Town, acquiring ever-greater mass, and each word that was uttered resounded within this void of silence. At times he, too, felt like screaming his pain out, but even if he had done it nothing would have changed, so he did what everybody else did. He held his tongue.
The thoughts had tired him. He felt his head heavy and his body tired. He rested on his elbows and slumped on the floor. His eyes moved across the ceiling, as the spreading warmth stirred the cockroaches up there. They were content, it seemed. So was he, content to watch them scuttle about with their few cares; he felt an affinity with them, for they were the only creatures, apart from men, who had dared crawl that far north. He called out to them in his sleep, and they came, encircled him and started dancing in a chain. Although he couldn’t hear any music, they swayed to a secret rhythm, the circle gradually closed in and then they were almost in his face... He smelt bad breath and opened his eyes to see a panting dog. The animal gazed at him with its yellow eyes which reflected his own. Sava was holding it, a stout fellow with a big black moustache and long straight hair spilling down his back. His heavy hand gripped thick whipcord wound around the dog’s powerful neck.
‘You sleeping?’ the man laughed.
‘Eskimo dog. It came by itself. Popped up on the road and followed our tracks.’
Obviously he had fallen asleep – a deep sleep, since he hadn’t heard them come in. It must have been a while ago, since there was Yaskata warming himself by the fire, his old worn cotton jacket draped on his shoulders, and the light from the flames dancing on his bare chest. He was well-built but somehow looked short and skinny, his face drawn – almost delicate – and sparsely bearded, while his left eye constantly squinted because of an old frozen wound, as a result of which you couldn’t see the eye very well. Cross-legged, he stroked the polished shaft of the axe. But what on earth was that dog doing inside? Sava was still holding it over him, and it went on panting in his face, mouth open and tongue lolling. It had thick coarse hair and a black whorl across the chest, which extended up the stout neck and muzzle to the forehead. The dog sniffed him, nodded and gently licked his cheek.
He raised his arm to stroke the dog’s neck. A beautiful thing, a creature of the North. It reminded him of that day when he had gone into the forest and the taiga had swallowed him. He was gathering mushrooms, and when he had gathered enough he decided to go back. On and on he walked, the camp nowhere in sight, just trees everywhere, endless, trunks towering up to the sky. He quickened his pace and became breathless, then found he was wading into a swamp and reversed his steps. He saw that built on firmer ground was a small hut. When he pushed aside its reed door, a gun barrel was pointing at his face, and behind it he had a momentary impression of someone hairy and humpbacked and snarling. Instantly he fled, and just kept running, regardless of the direction, until eventually he tripped and fell. There was something growling like a wolf. He raised his head from the wet moss and saw it was an Eskimo dog.
As he looked around he saw the rest of them, a whole pack of dogs gone wild. He raised his exhausted body, soaked in cold sweat, and backed away. And he never took his eyes off the dogs, which were constantly growling and bristling, as he retreated. After a long time, he heard human voices behind him. He risked a glance over his shoulder and realized he was back in the camp. The dogs had guided him there. Much later, he learned that the creature in the hut was a harmless old cripple who had forgotten how to speak. He had fled to the taiga during the war and remained there ever since, hidden and alone, staying alive on such game and fish as he managed to catch, wholly unaware that the fighting had ended decades before.
‘C’mon,’ Sava urged, and led the dog outside. The creature obeyed, walking confidently after him, its powerful back gracefully arched and its raised, bushy tail wagging. Yaskata had followed.
Through the open door he saw Yaskata raise the axe and then crash it down on the head of the dog. He hit it with the blunt side, cracking the skull. It briefly whined, dug its claws into the ground, tensed its muscles and arched its back; then collapsed. Sava bent down and slipped the cord from the dog’s neck, clasped the hind legs and bound them together. Then he lifted the dead beast and hung it on a broken-down hoist behind him, which could have been designed for the very purpose. He reached inside his jacket and produced a knife. The dog, hanging there like that, with teeth bared and eyes glazed, looked very different from its appearance when alive. It was now much larger, and sinister.
Vasil felt sick. He had eaten dog before, occasionally, but had never seen one butchered. Something stirred in his stomach, swelled up and then stopped in his throat. He slowly rose to his feet and went outside, in no great hurry, as he didn’t want the others to know. Once behind the hut he threw up, and he felt a sense of relief. He took a deep breath of fresh air and wiped his sleeve across his eyes to dry them, and then looked up. The sky was very close, and clouds were sailing along it to infinity.
When he looked down again, a pair of child’s eyes – big and blue – were watching him, full of fear. He had seen them before. They belonged to Lida’s daughter. The mother regularly hawked herself around, and by turns she’d get vodka, abuse and a beating, before being thrown out along with the child who accompanied her. Then she’d knock on another door and it would happen all over again. Some days, when the men were away at work, she tried to clean up, light the fire or stove and wait for them in the warm. But when they were drunk and their money had run out or they’d simply had enough of her, they told her to go to hell. Then you might find her sprawled out somewhere, probably stark naked, alone but for a sobbing little girl. Sometimes the police locked her up for a few nights, but soon released her and it was back to the usual. The other whores didn’t stick around the camp for long, but Lida never left.
It was said she’d been a drama student in Moscow, where she met a Bulgarian. They married and went to live in his country. Then he had to go to Africa on business, and when he came back he found out what she’d been up to in his absence. After the divorce she married someone else, and when he signed up for work at Komi she went with him. But again, whether because of her generous nature or pressure of circumstances, her second husband left her for much the same reasons as his predecessor. She stayed on though, and after a certain time produced a baby girl. No one knew who the father was, least of all Lida. The child shared all the horrible experiences of the mother. She almost froze to death with her. Or starved. Sometimes she shared a beating.
Now she just stood there and watched him with apparent indifference. She was almost his son’s age. Dirty matted locks of mousy blonde hair fell across a small round face stained with ink pencil. There were traces of old varnish on her little fingernails. The scruffy blue coat and oversize, nearly matching boots she wore didn’t stop her shivering. He had an urge to take her in his arms, hold her tightly to his heart and then lead her away from this awful place. He held out his hand. The little girl stared at it, then turned and ran off.
In front of the hut, he saw that Sava had finished flaying the dog and was now busy gutting it. He dumped the entrails straight on the frozen ground, which melted a bit from the warmth of the blood. But soon it was all frozen again. Crows had descended on the nearby trees and were raucously staking their claims.
The men often fed on dogs, if there were any. Especially on holidays: they roasted them like lamb on St George’s Day. The usual meat they got was stamped from 1947 and didn’t smell too good. If you ate it, you got a stomachache. But if you’re doing hard work, you can’t just live on beans, rice and potatoes – you’d become anaemic. No, you need some sort of meat. Besides, it goes with alcohol.
So when anyone drove to the village, they’d try to nab a stray Maltese terrier. You’d find lots of them there, poking around in the garbage. Easy to catch, and said by the discerning to yield tenderer meat than the Eskimo dogs, if in lesser quantity. There were no dogs in the camp, except for the Maltese that Meto had. He watched over her with all the vigilance a parent might exercise on a child. But one day she was bound to disappear too, with nothing but bones left. Perhaps there was nothing wrong in eating these animals. It had a certain, as one might say, pedigree. The ancient Bulgarians were said to have slaughtered dogs on sacred days and drunk the blood, while the ancient Greeks sacrificed them at crossroads, to propitiate the goddess Hecate. This dog might have been very old – as old as life itself – and reincarnated, brought into this world by men’s hunger. Still, you couldn’t help thinking there was something rather nasty about the whole business.
As he walked past Sava, he saw him still industriously ferreting and filleting away. With his sinewy build and his long hair combed back, he looked like an aristocratic oriental from a bygone age. Vasil went inside, leaving the door open to let in the light and air. Yaskata was in his usual place by the hearth. He often sat there like that, gazing into the fire and lost in silent thought. Sometimes at night, just before dozing off, Vasil would be aware of him sitting with a bottle of vodka in his lap, grunting a bit now and then. Then when he woke up for work the next morning, he’d see Yaskata still in exactly the same position, sitting cross-legged by the long-dead fire with a now empty bottle.
‘That was a good whack you gave that dog,’ he told him, to break the silence. ‘Very neat.’ He thought Yaskata would confine a reply to his usual silent nod. But this time the other man started talking.
‘It’s my job.’
He glanced through the door at Sava, still busy with the dog, before continuing.
‘When I was a boy there were poplars near our place. Old, big ones. Lots of birds nested in them. One day they decided to widen the street and cut them down. Most of the baby birds had just hatched, and when the trees came crashing down, you heard this squealing, from all these little birds. The parents were just fluttering about, couldn’t do anything. So I took as many of the babies home as I could, made some cages and started feeding them. There were different sorts, Sparrows, blackbirds, starlings, turtledoves – even nightingales. I had other pets at home, too. Two dogs, a cat, some tortoises, and jars full of field mice. They took up most of my time, so I skipped school quite often. It was the baby birds that needed a lot of extra seeing-to, though. Some of them had to have maggots to eat, so I used to collect them from under tree bark. Then of course I had to feed them one by one, so it took quite a long time. I stopped going to school. The teachers started calling in at home but I didn’t want to tell them anything. They threatened I’d be expelled, and that’s what happened. So I got sent to a reformatory, and the work they made you do there was called reformative labour. In my case they thought it would be good if I worked in a slaughterhouse. Killing animals…’
He thought Yaskata was crying. But as he looked more closely at his friend’s one good, deep-set eye he decided he was mistaken. It was a trick of the light that made it look sad and tearful.
‘Cheer up!’ Sava called out. Resting against the doorframe, he almost filled the entrance. He strode past them, and drove the bloodstained knife into the table. ‘It’ll soon be the holiday.’
Meaning the Ninth of September, which was in Bulgaria the celebration of the glorious Victory of the People over the dark forces of capitalism and fascism.
‘Fuck that,’ Yaskata replied. ‘But where’s that bloke with the booze?’
Usually Gocheto would take the truck and drive down to the village to get fresh supplies of alcohol. But on the eve of the holidays, the usual place was sold out and you had to go to Old Igor. He was a war veteran who, though he still lived in a dump, was said to have made millions from bootlegging vodka over the years. Gocheto seemed to have hit it off with him, and got the stuff at a special discount. This time he was late, though. He never returned empty-handed, but he might well have consumed a sizeable amount of his purchase before starting to drive back.
‘He’ll be back all right,’ Sava declared, as he picked up a greasy iron bar from the corner of the room. ‘That dog’s too big for the hearth. We’ll have to roast it in the open instead of stewing it.’
So what indeed, it would be tougher, but that didn’t really matter. It was meat, wasn’t it – fresh meat, at that. At least they wouldn’t drink on an empty stomach. He decided to stretch his legs. He left Yaskata deep in thought by the hearth, and stepped outside. A slight but chilling wind was blowing. He took an armful of logs and dumped them a few metres in front of the hut. Dowsing them in machine oil, he set the logs on fire. Sava came along with the long iron spit. He skewered the dog and left it hanging on a hook. Then he brought two equally tall blocks and arranged them by the fire, took the dog off the hook and balanced it on them, near the strong flames. The searing tongues of fire caressed the flayed animal.
‘Needs lots of turning,’ Sava declared.
‘Be ready by tomorrow.’
The camp had livened up, and the old train looked as if it might let off steam and pull out any moment, waiting only for the signal. The men were coming back from work and preparing to rest. They popped in and out in haste, as if afraid that the others would leave without them. They quickly washed, stripped to the waist, pouring buckets of cold water over each other, and then shaved. To check what was happening, they poked their lathered heads out from the open windows of the cars, before changing from their soiled working clothes into clean ones. Some simply sat on the iron steps of the cars, legs dangling down sipping drinks. The clatter and smoke of lit stoves blended with the odour of male bodies and soapy water, permeating Scrap Town . Some were about to go and visit friends in the neighbouring village. Others stayed on. They simply had nowhere to go.
Sava had settled down comfortably on a stump near the fire and was working on his embroidery, keeping one eye on the spitted dog. He did not use an embroidery frame, and the needle was lost in his swollen meaty fingers. He was careful with each stitch, gently pulling the thread through. Though this was unusual for a man of such Herculean build and with labourer’s hands like his, he did it with great application and duly produced magnificent tapestries, embroidered with patience and love. Once a tapestry was finished, he would hang it on his wall and feast his eyes on it for a few days. After which he gave it away to friends, or he left it by a stump in the taiga. ‘That’s for the taiga,’ he would say.
Vasil peeked over his shoulder, trying to get a good look at the embroidery. Although the canvas was crumpled and gathered together in its maker’s hands, the figures were easy to make out. Two children, one dark and one fair, were leaning over the brink of a precipice, a hair’s breadth away from death, but up against a grey sky, white wings outspread, a guardian angel watched over them. The tapestry seemed almost ready, since the composition was complete, and only some orange clouds in the sky had to be filled in.
‘It’s done,’ Sava replied without looking up, absorbed in his work.
Meto’s Maltese terrier ran out of the hut nearby, followed by Meto. The terrier paused by a pine-tree, crouched thoughtfully and urinated. The dog had belonged to a whore who had lived with Meto for a while but then left, leaving him to care for the dog.
Meto was skinny, with a long face and veined arms. He was in a sour mood most of the time, and spoke to no one but his dog. After him came his roommate, Hesho the Gypsy, with a small knitted cap on his head, a cap he never took off since he had lost his hair. It happened the moment he set foot in Komi; the doctors told him it was caused by the magnetic storms prevalent in the region, which was why he was paid danger money. His lack of hair made his Gypsy features less obvious, but the dark skin and pale yellow eyeballs gave away his ancestry (which he strenuously denied). Neither were too friendly – lone wolves, really – and they kept a low profile, although the two of them were known to have fallen out often. As soon as they saw the others sitting by the fire, they came up and stared at the spitted dog.
‘Gonna eat it?’ Meto asked.
‘Yes, then we’re gonna roast yours,’ Sava replied.
The Maltese was running around, heedless of her cousin’s fate. Her master bent down, lifted her and carried her into the hut. He locked her inside, after bringing out his fishing rod. Then he padlocked the door.
‘Beat it – lost heart and beat it,’ Hesho grinned. ‘Might go to bed with it one day, for all you know,’ he added with a knowing look. They were at daggers over the dog. Meto kept her locked indoors because he knew that left alone outdoors she would disappear. On the other hand, Hesho complained that she chewed his shoes and dribbled all over them, slept on his suitcase and rummaged in his things. You could often hear them quarrelling, and they would finally go to bed with no solution found.
‘Off to fish now. That dog’s like a cat – eats fish – and he catches fish and brings it back for her,’ Hesho explained. ‘He almost got shot doing it once.’
Near the River Mezen there was sometimes shooting between salmon poachers and bailiffs. These two tribes usually avoided each other, but when they did meet, loss of life often resulted.
One night Meto had been crouching on the bank, catching crucian carp for his dog, when the bailiffs opened fire. A stray bullet caught him in the hand, and he came back to camp bleeding and shaking. That was a few months before and everyone knew about it, but Hesho obviously felt he knew something more. Now he lingered on, musing and clicking his tongue. He loitered around the fire and looked the dog over.
‘That’s a fine dog. Where d’you find it?’ he inquired.
Intent on his tapestry, Sava seemed not to have heard him and painstakingly went on embroidering.
‘But it’ll be tough,’ continued Hesho, with increasing interest in the dog. ‘Might be sour, too.’
‘Shut up, Hesho.’ Sava, who apparently wasn’t in the mood for Hesho’s observations, cut him short.
‘I’m going to get a drink,’ Hesho announced, disgruntled, and hastened on to his hut, startling the crows that had crowded around the dumped entrails and were noisily squabbling over them. But in no time they had regathered and were pecking away again with even more gusto, their glittering black eyes glancing around warily all the while. Then suddenly they all flew away, and shortly afterwards a lorry roared to a stop. It was spattered with mud up to the windows. The door opened and out came Gocheto in a vest and a hat with earflaps drooping on both sides. He walked over to the other side and opened the door. There were two crates on the seat.
‘Andropovka,’ he explained.
‘Couldn’t find anything worse?’ asked Yaskata, who had come out and was glaring at him.
‘They’ve killed Old Igor. Shot him in the face. Blew his head off,’ explained Gocheto, carrying the crates.
‘Who knows? Could be the vodka, could be the cash – maybe both. They say it was the convicts.’
‘Escaped from prison. In one of the neighbourhoods a little girl saw them. So they slit her throat. The father was there and went for them. So they slit his throat, too. Then they went into the house, killed the mother, took some provisions and ran away. A neighbour saw it all but stayed away.’
‘Did well to.’ Yaskata grinned, opened a bottle of brandy, took a swig and passed it on to the others.
Sometimes they found human skeletons in the forest. Picked clean, and mute. Perhaps none but time knew who they had belonged to. They were assumed to have been prisoners on the run. Having sought deliverance in the taiga, they were blessed by it with eternal peace. Ordinary men who did not know its laws could hardly survive in it. But in ignorance they would run away. Wild and frantic, spurred on by a thirst for freedom and life, in search of the path to salvation. In prison lurked death. All they got was scraps of food. Wasting away, they fell sick and died before their long terms were up. Some who were strong took the food intended for others, hoarded it and then one day headed for… freedom. It was waiting for them outside, out there, beautiful and alluring. It stretched out a hand and smiled coyly. It lured them on, and then it vanished, stranding them lonely and exhausted in the cold night that was closing upon them. Yet now, tender and transparent in its dawn, it engulfed them, warmed by their own fire, united by a flayed dog.
‘Bet they don’t know where they’re going!’ Sava interjected.
‘Yes they do,’ Yaskata countered.
‘So I couldn’t get anything from Old Igor,’ Gocheto went on. ‘I bought this from the assistant chef at the canteen for ten roubles more. We come from the same part of the country and he stocks up to have something for his mates. On my way out I took a look at the kitchen. There they were, making tomato salad, with two suckling pigs arranged in baking tins. Is that for dinner or breakfast? I wondered. Then I felt a hand on my shoulder. Turned round – it was the foreman. “What’re you doing here?” he says. “Why weren’t you at work?” So I told him I had been, but when we heard the pigs squeal we’d rushed to help because, you see, the poor things feared for their skins and might run away before you knew it, then who’s gonna chase them in the woods? He stood there, breathing heavy with his big hairy nostrils. His hand grabbed me, like he was gonna skin me alive. Then he started screaming – frothing at the mouth, all over the place. “Get out of here!” he yelled, “Or your arse is going to be in big trouble. Pigs my arse, you lying git. You ain’t going to see another pig in all your natural! Now fuck off!” he yelled, and pointed at the door.’
‘If I were you I’d have hit him,’ Sava said curtly in his deep gruff voice.
‘It’s not worth wasting time on that piece of shit,’ Gocheto advised him.
‘On the contrary, it is worth it. If only those jailbirds had nabbed him instead of those other poor bastards, they’d have atoned for their sins three times over.’
‘Anyway, I thought it was too early for me to atone, so I got my arse out of there before I was in deep shit.’
‘And right you were,’ Yaskata backed him, opening another bottle instead of waiting for the others to pass the first one back.
‘That’s right. Only it can’t go on this way. You can’t have all the pains for some and all the gains for others. Fucking bastard, forcing me to work Sundays, threatening me with the law – “those who didn’t report for work would be seen as enemies of the people” – bollocks! The cheek of it! He has the pig and you’re an enemy of the people ’cos you upset his meal!’
‘It can go on, it always does.’
The conversation went round with the bottle; occasionally it stopped, and then went on again, passing Vasil lightly, almost without touching him. He felt it grow hotter, condemning, hating, absorbing the warmth from the fire and flying on to infinity. The strong brandy burnt his throat, drowning him in the bitter memory of a pair of child’s eyes. They gazed at him and cried for help. They appealed to him, beseeching and suffering, watched him innocently as blindness itself. The smoke made his eyes smart. They disobeyed him despite all his male willpower, and two small salty tears rolled partway down before being dried by the wind. He knelt there, bent over, clutching his sorrow in his belly. A man powerful yet impotent, borne by chaos and existing in it, crawling towards the next day like a caterpillar with no thought of butterflies, at best a cocoon.
The dog was roasting on the embers, stretched and red-hot. He peered at it and saw himself. Yes, it was his own face that stared back at him out of the white of the eye. Flushed and sweating with the heat, it seemed to be smirking. He felt the flames burn his belly as if something was cutting him in two. The pain became more and more unbearable, spreading across his body. Strangely enough, it seemed to come from inside him. He looked at his hands. They were holding an empty bottle. The taste of brandy lingered on in his mouth, while the dog hung there, spitted, with Sava carefully turning it from time to time. He could well have been in its place, like the others in the bus on the way here. Dog or man – what was the difference? An accident or a prejudice, perhaps?
He looked around, without moving from his place. That was good. Much better, at least for the time being. Night had caught up with them and he saw the shadows of the others gently swaying, along with his own, and chatting.
‘Once I’ve made some real money you’ll see what Gocheto can do with life,’ boasted the voice. ‘First I’ll get myself a car. A blue one with white seats. I know what the good life is and I don’t care if anyone else says it’s vulgar. I’m not going to wait for ages on the application list. Slip ’em a bribe and they’ll deliver right to the door. In I get and off to the lake, lazing around on the beach all day. Never any places for us, are there? Well, you just pull out a wad, even if there are no places. Once they see the cash, they’ll sell their arse. Then wherever you go, they’ll be licking their lips at you, dozens of those bitches all standing in line. I’ll choose the fittest ones. A black one on one side and a blonde on the other, to just do whatever, and I’ll shove bank notes down their tits. All those wankers’ll be looking and getting it up. Let ‘em get it up! That’s all they’re gonna get...’
Dreams. Big or silly or the simplest of human dreams. Simple, but yours. Faint or impossible ones that might be displaced by real hopes. He had hopes, too. He believed that one day he would go back. They would be together again, all three of them, forever. Healthy and happy, strolling by the river, the boy running ahead and skimming flat stones on the water’s surface, and she gently smiling, embracing him. He could feel the soft touch of her hair on his cheek. How much he missed her. He had never known before how much he needed her and he had never desired her as strongly. He longed for her full lips, for the fragrance of her body and for her herself. ‘Come back as soon as possible. We’ll be expecting you!’ She had told him on departure, adding with a gentle kiss: ‘I love you.’ At that point he had felt sorry. He felt as if he were to blame for something. He wanted to take both of them in his arms and clasp them in an eternal embrace, but all he managed to say was a formal ‘Goodbye!’ and then he got in the car to hide his emotions. What were she and the child doing now? So far away, without him. They hadn’t written for ages. The last letter had come months ago. God knows why, but he had found it somewhat… curt. He might have imagined it, but the earlier ones seemed not only more frequent but kinder somehow. Then again, he didn’t write much to her either. The important thing was for it all to be over and made good. He knew they were waiting for him and he had to go back.
‘This party without females reminds me of when we had time off in the army. We used to sit in front of the TV in the political club. Then when someone appeared on the TV to make a speech, we turned the lights off, bent over, showed our bums to the TV and lit our farts. So we were doing something, at least. And what do we do now? Yackety-yack!’ said Gocheto, indignant. He thought for a while and then smiled.
‘Once they took us out from the barracks for ‘cultural recreation’ (as they liked to call it), and we found a poof,’ he went on. ‘In fact, he got what he wanted, the hairy-arsed old bastard. The next time he saw us, he ran a mile. I think he was still feeling a bit sore.’
‘We can give you a try if you want to.’
‘There used to be a work team here that fucked one of their men,’ Sava broke in, ‘But afterwards they collected enough money so they could buy him a big car. To say sorry, I suppose.’
The drinks had gone to their heads. Their blood started boiling. He didn’t like them drunk, even when he was drunk himself. They became somehow distant and unreal, unless of course it was he himself who might have become unreal. A couple of months ago he and Sava were walking past the log trestles. All of a sudden there was a noise from the top of the pile that quickly became a roar, and he turned to see dozens of logs thundering down on them. Immediately Sava grabbed him with his powerful hands and shoved him aside, and jumped himself. The huge logs rolled past them like crazy giant steamrollers. This was real, and he could have ended up pulped under half a forest.
He felt the cold at the back of his neck. His group alone sat outdoors, keeping the tradition of the holidays. The few other people who had stayed on in camp were indoors in the warm. A door opened in one of the distant cars. A light came from inside, and two figures could be made out. One was shoved by the other. Then a third smaller figure appeared, following the first. Lida and the girl. She couldn’t be having an easy time of it these days, Lida. In fact, she might well like to join them, unless someone stubbed his cigarette out on her rump, as had happened the previous holiday.
‘My, my, here’s whom we missed,’ Gocheto exclaimed as soon as he saw them, rubbing his hands. ‘Come here,’ he called Lida.
She came up, stopped and looked around. She was wearing thick-soled shoes and an old red coat which, lacking buttons, she had to clasp together around her very possibly naked body. She stood there with her hair in a mess, collar pulled up.
‘She looks a bit chilly. Give her a cigarette and a swig to warm up before we warm up ourselves,’ Gocheto suggested with a grin, opening a bottle and pushing it into her hands.
She took it without a word, raised the bottle and swilled down half of it. The child stood in the shadow behind her, looking on timorously. She seemed to be hiding from somebody, perhaps them or the world in general. Yaskata fumbled in his pocket, took out a packet of cigarettes and, without turning round, offered them to the mother. She took one, lit it, inhaled deeply and let the smoke stream out through her nose. Then she leant on Yaskata’s shoulder, smiled suggestively and ran her hand along his bare chest; but he jerked away, leapt to his feet and then pushed her so hard she fell onto the ground.
‘Scram!’ he yelled, with a fierce look.
‘Aw, fuck off!’ she swore and tried to get to her feet, while holding firmly on to the bottle. Gocheto grabbed her under the shoulders and lifted her drooping body.
‘Come on princess, come with me, I love you. Leave him alone, there are other men. You know how good I am to you, don’t you? So come on, calm down… come on…’ Still cajoling her, Gocheto slowly led her off to the hut, guiding her by the hand.
‘Watch out for Siberian syphilis,’ Sava called out after him.
‘If she brands me, I’ll stuff a pig’s tail up hers, bristles up!’
‘You’ll have to borrow it from the foreman!’
The little girl was about to follow them.
‘Hey you, come here,’ Vasil called out, and went to take her hand. She stopped in her tracks and stared at him suspiciously, then abruptly ran after her mother, crying out her name.
‘She’s used to it; it won’t be the first time she’s watched. Let her go,’ Sava told him. He said it very calmly and with authority. He was the oldest of them all, had worked there for ten years, and ought to know what he was talking about.
This left the three of them outside. They sat in silence. The laughter that came from the hut gradually died down. Vasil thought of the little girl. What was she doing there? She must be sitting meekly on the other bed, looking on. She was waiting for them to be over and done with it. Maybe she was so used to it that she saw her mother’s legs around some male body as a commonplace gesture of attention; perhaps she took the world in more or less as it was, refracted in the light of her child’s eyes. But how were things refracted in a child’s dreams?
One night, when they were making love under the bed cover, relaxed in the peace of the night, they heard Mario sobbing through the wall. ‘Mummy, Mummy,’ his voice echoed, chilling the passion in their bodies. The door opened, and he ran up, eyes wide open and brimming, squeezed between them and broke into tears. ‘I’m scared,’ he sobbed.
‘What’s the matter darling?’
‘There’s someone over there.’
‘Don’t be afraid. There’s no one there. We’re here and we’re watching over you,’ she soothed him with a motherly hug.
‘But that woman was there in my room.’
‘The woman in blue. She was in a blue dress; she was fat, with bare feet and grey hair. She came up with her back to me, and she had a big hump. She wanted to take me away, mummy. But I cried out and she started laughing and went away. I saw her go through the door.’
‘Don’t be afraid, love. It was all a dream. There’s nothing to worry about. No one’s come in or out. You had a bad dream, that’s all. Come on, calm down now and go back to bed.’
‘Don’t want to. I’m scared.’
‘Okay, but if she comes back will daddy throw her out?’
‘Certainly I will. Just let her come!’ his father had said, pretending to be furious.
‘Night daddy. Night mummy. I’m no chicken,’ the little boy affirmed, wiping the tears from his eyes.
‘Of course you aren’t,’ she replied with a kiss on his forehead. His father saw the small pink feet taking him back to his room, and the two of them, alone together again, looked at each other in fear, like terrified children. It was a strange thing. He had everything a child needed – domestic comfort, care and attention, and lots of toys; he was growing up in the best conditions they could provide. He had a room of his own, always nice and cosy, full of teddy bears and fairy tales, but still he had nightmares, and often. Sometimes he did not wake up, other times he would get up and hide in their bed, chased by his dream, by the shadows of creatures refracted in the light of his eyes, coming from a bright child’s world before the curtain of darkness slowly falls, leaving only shadows.
What distorted visions would this little girl see in her dreams, a tiny flower in the slime, wilting from the stench, mindlessly conceived in animal wretchedness?
He thought he saw the Moon. He remembered very well how it had looked the night Mario was born. Large and healthy, with a pale golden halo. He was gazing at it and waiting for the baby to be born, to hear his voice. His wife was screaming. He could hear her screams distinctly, very close. He felt as if they came from him but knew they were hers and came from the room up there with a light in the window. He knew she was there, biting her lips, legs spread apart in anguish, moaning with pain, while the child pushed forward, wrapped in placenta, struggling to tear its way out to the world with its head and to shatter the silence of the night with infant cries. Alone with the Moon, he was waiting for the voice of life, while the Moon watched on benevolently from above, lending him patience and courage. That night outside the white building had been a long one. He sat in front of the shadows of trees and prayed to the Moon for help, to pull the child out as it pulled the tides of the sea, and that was when he heard the cry and realized that his son had been born. He looked up again to find the friendly Moon, but it was gone. He tried to locate it, wherever else in the firmament it might have moved, but only the stars shone up there. Close and remote, and invisible, they glittered down on him, flashing their rays of pure white magic. Infinite and eternal, they transmitted their inscrutable signals, mysteriously flickering like a multitude of tiny torches. Something hooted in the forest, some owl or other bird of the night.
Sava went over to Yskata ‘What’s wrong with you? What’s on your mind?’ he asked his friend. It was an unspoken thing between them. The two of them had the greatest authority in the team and without needing to speak to each other, they were invariably in agreement, established by time and a natural sympathy. Yaskata did not reply, he had lit a cigarette and was smoking. He inhaled the smoke deeply, held it in his lungs, and the embers of the cigarette made fast progress. Little by little, he turned his head to Sava and threw the butt in the fire.
‘Best regards, to you and the boys.’
Sava said nothing. He glanced at him without a word.
‘She wants a divorce,’ Yaskata went on. ‘Shall I give it to her?’
‘You know best.’
A mechanical roar shattered the air. The door of the adjacent hut had burst open, and out ran Hesho, stark naked. Meto, who was brandishing a chain saw above his head, closely pursued him.
‘I’m going to carve you into fucking pieces!’ he seemed to be screaming, though the noise of the machine drowned everything else. Immediately Sava leapt to his feet, caught up with the madman and grabbed his wrists, shaking Meto’s arms until the chain saw was dropped. Sava hurled it aside and pressed Meto to the ground, even though he showed no desire to fight back, lying motionless rather with a helpless look on his face. Everyone rushed to the scene; even Gocheto came out, half-naked, to see what was the matter. Only Hesho stayed at a cautious distance, shivering. After he decided that Meto was now pacified, Sava released him and, subdued now, he stood up unsteadily and staggered to the hut. He re-emerged hugging the Maltese terrier, which had been hiding under the bed. Then he carefully raised the tail, exposing to the general view the creature’s pulsating sphincter.
‘Look! Look at that!’ he sobbed, and tears rolled down his cheeks. ‘I’ve raised her, watched over her like a child, and then he goes and rapes her.’ They stood there, looking at the canine anus and sharing Meto’s grief.
‘It’s okay, Meto,’ Gocheto tried to comfort him. ‘You sure?’
‘Of course, I saw him as soon as I opened the door!’ he wailed, breaking into tears. ‘My poor dog! What have they done to you, my poor darling?’ he sobbed, hugging the animal – whose eyes, half-hidden by its forelocks, seemed to display an expression of some guilt.
‘Stop it! Stop it. Meto, please do. Give yourself a break. Come on!’ Sava urged him, gently steering him back to his bed. He did as he was told, eventually curling up in bed with the dog settled on his lap. He was still weeping as they left him and returned to the fire outside. Hesho slowly approached the group. He appeared uncomfortable, as a naked man would be on a night like that.
‘You bastard,’ Sava rebuked him, with clear distaste. ‘How could you do it with a dog?’
‘I couldn’t help it. I was a bit pissed and I started feeling horny,’ Hesho explained. ‘Then all of a sudden there was this dog licking my hand. So I could tell what it wanted, obviously. So I just lifted it up and… you know…’
‘But why didn’t you do it with Lida instead of a dog?’
‘I’m sick and tired of her, I can’t even feel her anymore. And besides, she doesn’t do anything, she just lies there and waits for it. But I’m a Gypsy – I’ve been used to animals since I was a boy, and they’re used to me,’ he muttered defensively. Naked and shivering, he looked pretty miserable.
‘Was she a virgin?’ Gocheto tittered.
‘Go to our hut, it’s warm in there,’ Yaskata broke in.
Hesho didn’t have to be asked twice. He turned round and went off, his bare backside conspicuously white in the darkness.
‘I’m going to burn you all down!’ Meto suddenly screamed. He had stormed out again, this time armed with flaming torches. He threw one at his hut and the other at theirs. They leapt up, rushed toward the buildings and managed to extinguish the flames before they reached the roofs.
‘I’ll set you on fire! I’ll set everything on fire!’ Meto went on screaming, waving his arms and kicking anyone who dared come close.
‘Let’s tie him up!’ cried Gocheto, still half-naked and gripping the rope with which the dog had been tied earlier. Someone managed to trip Meto up, and then they pinned him down while his arms were tied. Though bound hand and foot, he kept squirming like a severed worm.
‘He’s cracked up,’ Gocheto said.
‘All for the sake of some mangy dog. I should’ve eaten it,’ Hesho added behind them.
‘You shut up,’ Sava cut him short.
They stood there in a bunch, studying the man on the ground.
‘Let’s take him in so that we can keep an eye on him,’ Gocheto suggested.
‘Let’s do that. We can play cards, too.’
‘Sure, if someone stays outside to keep an eye on the dog.’
‘I will,’ Vasil volunteered. He didn’t feel like going indoors anyway. He wanted to be by himself. He needed it.
‘You’ll never put the fire out! You’ll all burn to ashes!’ Meto’s voice echoed across Scrap Town as they dragged him inside along with the crate of brandy.
Vasil turned back to the fire before him.
Fire, he thought, the possession of the gods. And given to mortals by a titan horribly punished by those gods for his transgression. Prometheus had suffered for what he, no doubt, believed to be a noble deed. But perhaps it was an unlucky one, and not only for him? Perhaps the gods’ fury was well founded? Perhaps they were right: this was a supernatural force that they alone should possess. They knew (being gods) that mortals were petty and selfish creatures with little thought of whatever lay beyond their own demise. In their craving for power and glory in one short lifetime, they might destroy the very Earth in one exultant conflagration. And while this element, which he himself had kindled into life, lay amicably at his feet, warming him nice and cosily, he observed a tiny fly summarily gobbled up by the flames of what was, for the fly, a furnace. Such were Vasil’s meditations.
The dog needed to be turned. He leant forward and rotated the spit. He didn’t much care for this dog-eating business, but there it was: they had to eat something. So he tended to his duties, although he himself now had very little appetite. The alcohol had dulled the hunger in his stomach. And now his solitude and tiredness prompted him to relax and rest. He could now have been sitting comfortably in his armchair at home, re-reading perhaps his favourite classical myths. The boy would have been sound asleep while he, urged on by Aphrodite, would have touched his beloved who, drowsy and uncomplaining, bestowed upon him her divine womanly warmth…
Having felt her warmth for a too fleeting moment, he was suddenly shivering with cold. While he had been carried away by dreams, the fire had reduced itself to a smoulder. How he longed to go away! he thought, while he did nothing about the fire but continued to shiver. This place turned men into beasts. It crushed them, gnawed them up and shat them out. Not that he was going anywhere. Everyone got what was coming to him. No one could escape, and perhaps there was nowhere to escape to anyway. This was the last stop: you got off and stayed there. You worked, drank and expected death. If he hadn’t needed money, he would never have set foot here.
He would get out – once he’d made enough money. The boy’s eyes were getting worse by the day. He knew it all too well. That’s why he had to stay and work until he had earned enough. Strange thing: everybody seemed to have come for the money, but no one ever left. Perhaps there was some sort of irresistible spell about the place. It carried you away like a stream and swirled you into the deep before you knew it, just as the doleful river Acheron bore away the souls of the dead. He felt he was being carried away, too. He did not know what it was that bore him, but could sense some indefinable, indifferent volume of darkness. Perhaps already it was too late to go back? There was some significance in the way that death had missed him twice, flashing him a petrifying smile. A destiny to be here, to… ah! The brandy must have softened his brain. Of course there was time to go back. He just had to work his balls off until he saved the damn money. Then he would go and force it down the throat of the fucking doctor he’d pleaded with, as long as it wasn’t too late.
Of course, money could be borrowed. If he told the other fellows all about it, they were bound to offer to lend him some. (Why hadn’t he done it before?) True, he didn’t feel completely comfortable with the idea, but what was there to be ashamed of? Tomorrow, as soon as everyone had sobered up, he would try to broach the matter.
Otherwise the child was well, he knew from the letter. That was something positive to give him the energy he needed. Before leaving, he had felt unaccountably weak all the time, and indifferent to everything. He’d turn up at school and teach classes on autopilot, without doing any of the preparation he knew he should have. Sometimes he thought that every single student was staring at him the same way, except that one of them would be a boy with eyes that were wide open and quite dead. As he looked harder at this boy he would see it was his son. He was worried all the time, at work and at home, everywhere.
Once they took Mario to an old hag who was supposed to have healing gifts. She leant over the child, passed her hand across his forehead and started muttering incantations.
‘There went seven angels whetting seven knives, carrying seven candles. The archangels Michael and Gabriel met them and asked them: “Where goest thou, o seven angels?” And they replied: “We go to cut down the evil spirit with these knives and burn him with these candles and so remove the blood from the eyes of God’s good servant Mario, today and forever.”’
Then she made the sign of the cross and declared: ‘Some things are bad and others are worse.’ But even seven angels didn’t seem to produce any noticeable difference.
It was quiet. All Vasil could hear were the voices in the hut and the dying embers. There were no gentle choruses of crickets singing in the cool September night, as there would have been in the mountains back home, unflagging and endless like life itself. Nor were there the tired mating croaks of the frogs... He had found them in the lavatory. Dozens of them, their hind legs severed, mere half-frogs struggling hopelessly to escape from their short destiny. They crawled in all directions, feebly dragging dismembered bodies, which oozed slime and blood the while. He’d bent down and swept them into the dustpan, then dumped them down the toilet bowl. That was when he’d been an army private and found himself on frog clean-up detail while the gourmet officers feasted. Years had passed since, but he was still doing it. The dirty work, that is.
He stood up to get some logs for the dying fire. When he came back he tried the dog’s leg with a small pocketknife. It needed more time. And he was aware of the numbness in his own body, he must have been sitting alone outside for an age. It was time he too went back into the warmth of the hut where the others were.
As the door creaked open, he was met by a strong smell of burning pinewood mingled with sweat. His eyes needed some time to adjust to the semidarkness inside. What illumination there was came from the old broken lamp hanging from the ceiling. It cast its light on the table and the nude, flabby female body that reclined there. Shadows divided the twin flattened hemispheres of her heavy buttocks and lewdly slid into the dark, triangular form, which gaped, between her stout, bruised thighs. A narrow waist linked her prominent hips to a narrow, bony rib cage. The left arm resting under her shoved a scrawny shoulder blade above her pockmarked back, giving her a crippled look. Pressed by the weight above, the tender white meat of her breast spilled out from beneath a hairy armpit. She was looking at the floor and chewing sunflower seeds. Greasy locks of hair hid her face so little more than colourless lips could be seen, and gappy yellow teeth between which husks were regularly spat out. Little brown cockroaches scurried along the gouged tabletop, mostly concerned with the coarse breadcrumbs that lay scattered there, but also exploring certain concavities of the reclining female body. Elsewhere, her thighs conveniently clasped half-empty bottles of brandy, inserted like candles before an altar. The four men, sitting on both sides of the table, would occasionally grab one, have a swig and then tuck it firmly back in place. They were holding playing cards, and not talking much. Their eyes slid up from their cards and across the faces of the other players, and then back. Yaskata rubbed his thin beard and dragged on a vestigial cigarette.
‘Pass,’ he muttered, stubbing it out on the table leg.
‘Okay, pass,’ chimed Gocheto, who was back in his ear-cap and a green vest, a towel tied around the waist.
translated by Katerina Popova