Authors: Varlam Shalamov,
Tags: #Fiction, #Classics, #General, #Short Stories (Single Author)
He spent a large part of his days thinking of the events that filled his life here. The visions that rose before his eyes were not those of his childhood, youth, success. All his life he had been hurrying somewhere. It was wonderful now that he did not have to hurry anywhere, now that he could think slowly. And in a leisurely fashion he began to think of the great monotony of death. He thought of the things that had been understood and described by doctors, before artists and poets had come to them. The face mask of the dying Hippocrates is known to all medical students. This mysterious monotony of movement before death launched Freud into the boldest of hypotheses. Monotony and repetition form the compost essential to science. But as for that which is death, the search was led not by doctors but by poets. It was pleasant to realize that he could still think. The nausea of hunger had long since become a habit. And it was all the same – Hippocrates, the orderly with the birthmark, and his own dirty fingernails.
Life was entering into him and passing out of him, and he was dying. But life came back, his eyes opened, thoughts appeared. Only desires were absent. He had long lived in a world where people were frequently returned to life by artificial respiration, glucose, camphor, caffeine. The dead lived again. And why not? He believed in immortality, in real human immortality. He often thought that there was no biological reason for a man not to live for ever… Old age was merely a curable disease, and if it were not for this still unresolved tragic misunderstanding, he could live for ever. Or at least until he got tired. But he wasn’t at all tired of living – even now, in these transit barracks.
The barracks were a harbinger of horror, but not horror itself. On the contrary, the spirit of freedom dwelled here, and this was felt by all. Ahead was the camp, and the prison was a thing of the past. This was the ‘peace of travel’, and the poet understood this.
There was still another path to immortality, that of the poet Tiutchev:
Blessed be he who has passed
through this world
In its fateful moments.
But though he was evidently not destined to become immortal in his human form, as a physical entity, he had nevertheless earned creative immortality. He had been called the first Russian poet of the twentieth century, and it occurred to him often that this was really true. He believed in the immortality of his verse. He had no pupils, but what poet can tolerate pupils? He had also written prose – badly; he’d written articles too. But only in verse did he find anything that seemed new and important to him. His past life had all been fiction, a book, a fairy tale, a dream; only the present was real.
These thoughts arose calmly, secretly, from somewhere deep within him. There was no passion in these meditations. Indifference had long since possessed him. What trivia this all was, what nit-picking in comparison with the ‘evil burden’
of life! He was amazed at himself – how could he think of poems when everything was already decided? He knew all this, he knew it better than anyone. Better than who? Who cared about him, and who was his equal? Why did all of this have to be understood? He waited… And he understood.
In the moments when life poured into his body and his clouded, half-open eyes began to see, when his eyelids began to quiver and his fingers to move, in those moments thoughts came to him, but he didn’t think they would be his last thoughts.
Life entered by herself, mistress in her own home. He had not called her, but she entered his body, his brain; she came like verse, like inspiration. And for the first time the meaning of the word ‘inspiration’ was revealed to him in its fullness. Poetry was the life-giving force by which he had lived. Yes, it had been exactly that way. He had not lived for poetry; he had lived through poetry.
Now it was so obvious, so palpably clear that inspiration had been life; on the threshold of death it was revealed to him that life had been inspiration, only that: inspiration.
And he rejoiced that he had learned this final truth.
Everything – work, the thud of horses’ hoofs, home, birds, rocks, love, the whole world – could be expressed in verse. All life entered easily into verse and made itself comfortably at home there. And that was the way it should be, for poetry was the Word.
Even now stanzas rose easily, one after the other, in a sort of foreordained but at the same time extraordinary rhythm, although he had not written them down for a long time, and indeed could not write them down. Rhyme was the magnet with which he selected words and concepts. Each word was a piece of the world and lent itself to rhyme, while the whole world rushed past with the speed of a computer. Everything shouted: ‘Take me!’ ‘No, me!’ There was no need to search – just to reject. It was as if there were two men – one who composed, who spun the wheel, and another who from time to time stopped the machine. And seeing that he was two men, the poet understood that he was composing real poetry. And who cared if it was written down or not? Recording and printing was the vanity of vanities. Only that which is born selflessly can be without equal. The best was that which was not written down, which was rejected and disappeared, melted without a trace, and only the creative labor that he sensed and could not possibly confuse with anything else proved that the poem had been realized, that beauty had been created. Could he be wrong? Could his creative joy be an error?
He remembered how bad, how poetically helpless Blok’s last poems were, and how Blok did not seem to understand that…
The poet forced himself to stop. It was easier to do that here than somewhere in Leningrad or Moscow.
Now he realized that for a long time he had not been thinking at all. Once again life was departing from him.
He had been lying motionless for many hours when he suddenly saw something near him that looked like a shooting target or a geological map. The map was mute, and vainly he strained to comprehend what was depicted on it. After a considerable period of time he realized that he was looking at his own fingers. His fingertips were still stained by the home-made cigarettes that he smoked and sucked to the very end. The pads of his fingers revealed a clear dactyloscopic drawing like the relief map of a mountain. The drawing was identical on all ten fingers – concentric circles like those of a sawn-off tree trunk.
He remembered once how a Chinese man from the basement laundry in the building in which he grew up had stopped him on the street. The man had chanced to take him by one hand, then seized the other. The man turned the palms upward and excitedly shouted something in Chinese. It turned out that he was declaring a child so marked to be unquestionably very lucky. The poet often recalled that sign of luck – especially when he published his first collection of verse. Now he remembered the man without anger or irony; he just did not care.
The main thing was that he still had not died. Incidentally, what did it mean when they said someone has ‘died a poet’? There must be something childishly naïve in such a death. Or something intentional – as in the case of Esenin or Mayakovsky.
‘Died an actor’ – that was more or less comprehensible. But ‘died a poet’?
Yes, he had an inkling of what awaited him. At the transit prison he had understood a lot and guessed at still more. And he rejoiced, rejoiced quietly in his own weakness and hoped he would die. He remembered an argument that had taken place a long time ago, in prison, as to which was worse – camp or prison? No one had the experience to make a judgment, and the arguments were speculative. He remembered the cruel smile of a man who had been brought from camp to the prison. That smile stuck so clear in his memory that he was afraid to recall it.
If he were to die now, he thought, how cleverly he would have deceived those who had brought him here. He’d cheat them of ten whole years. He had been in exile several years before, and he knew that his name had been entered into special lists for ever. For ever!? The scale by which he measured everything had shifted, so that the meaning of the words changed.
Again he felt a nascent tide of strength, rising just like the tide from the sea, a flood-tide that lasted for many hours. Later came the ebb. But after all, the sea doesn’t retreat from us for ever. He would still recover.
Suddenly he wanted to eat, but he lacked the strength to move. Slowly and with difficulty he remembered that he had given today’s soup to his neighbor, that that mug of hot water was his only food that day. Except for bread, of course. But the bread had been handed out a very, very long time ago. And yesterday’s bread had been stolen. There were some who still had enough strength to steal.
He lay like that – light and ethereal – until morning came. The electric bulb grew dimmer, more yellow, and bread was brought on large plywood trays, as it was brought every day.
But he could not rouse himself any more, and he no longer watched out for the heel of the loaf or cried when he didn’t get it. He didn’t stuff the bread into his mouth with trembling fingers. The smaller of his two pieces slowly melted in his mouth, and with all his being he felt the taste and smell of fresh rye bread. The bread was no longer in his mouth, although he hadn’t managed to swallow or even make a movement with his jaw. The smaller piece had melted and disappeared. It was a miracle – one of many local miracles. No, he was not upset. But when they put the daily ration into his hands, he seized it with bloodless fingers and pressed the bread to his mouth. He bit the bread with teeth loose from scurvy; his gums bled, but he felt no pain. With all his strength he kept pushing it into his mouth, sucking it, tearing it, gnawing…
His neighbors stopped him: ‘Don’t eat it all. Leave some for later. Later…’
And the poet understood. He opened his eyes wide, not letting the bloodstained bread slip from his dirty, bluish fingers.
‘When later?’ he said clearly and distinctly. And he closed his eyes.
He died toward evening.
They ‘wrote him off’ two days later. For two days his inventive neighbors managed to continue getting his bread ration. The dead man would raise his hand like a puppet. So he died before the recorded date of his death – a not insignificant detail for his future biographers.
They didn’t have any lists when they took us out for work assignments – just stood us in groups of five, since not all the guards knew their multiplication table. Any arithmetical computation is tricky when it has to be done with live objects in the cold. The cup of convict patience can suddenly overflow, and the administration knew it.
Today we had easy work, the kind they normally reserve for criminals – cutting firewood on a circular saw. The saw spun, knocking lightly as we dumped an enormous log on to the stand and slowly shoved it toward the blade. The saw shrieked and growled furiously. Like us, it detested working in the north, but we kept pushing the log forward until it split into two, unexpectedly light pieces.
Our third companion was chopping wood, using a heavy blue splitting axe with a long yellow handle. He worked on the thicker pieces from the ends, chopped the smaller ones in half with one blow. He was just as hungry as we were and the axe struck the wood in a feeble fashion, but the frozen larch split easily. Nature in the north is not impersonal or indifferent; it is in conspiracy with those who sent us here.
We finished the work, stacked the wood, and waited for the guards. Our guard was keeping warm in the building for which we’d been chopping wood, but we were supposed to march back in formation, breaking up in town into smaller groups.
We didn’t go to warm up, though, since we had long since noticed, next to a fence, a large heap of garbage – something we could not afford to ignore. Both my companions were soon removing one frozen layer after another with the adroitness that comes from practice. Their booty consisted of lumps of frozen bread, an icy piece of hamburger, and a torn pair of men’s socks. The socks were the most valuable item, of course, and I regretted that I hadn’t found them first. ‘Civvies’ – socks, scarves, gloves, shirts, pants – were prized by people who for decades had nothing to wear but convict garb. The socks could be darned and exchanged for tobacco or bread.
I couldn’t reconcile myself with my companions’ success, and I too began to use my hands and legs to break off brightly colored pieces of the garbage pile. Beneath a twisted rag that looked like human intestines, I saw – for the first time in many years – a blue school notebook.
It was an ordinary child’s drawing book.
Its pages were all carefully and diligently colored, and I began turning the bright cold naïve pages, grown brittle in the frost. I also used to draw once upon a time, sitting next to the kerosene lamp on the dinner table. A dead hero of fairy tale would come alive at the touch of the magic brush, as if it contained the water of life.
Looking like women’s buttons, the water-colors lay in their white tin box, and Prince Ivan galloped through the pine forest on a gray wolf. The pines were smaller than the wolf and Prince Ivan rode him like an Eskimo on a reindeer, his heels almost touching the moss. Smoke spiraled into the blue sky, and the neat Vs of birds could be seen among the stars.
The more I strained to recall my childhood, the more clearly I realized that it would not repeat itself and I would not encounter even a shade of it in the drawing book of another child.
It was a frightening notebook.
The northern city was wooden, its fences and walls painted in a bright ochre, and the brush of the young artist faithfully duplicated the yellow color wherever he wanted to show buildings and creations of man.
In the notebook there were many, very many fences. The people and the houses in almost every drawing were surrounded by even, yellow fences or circumscribed with the black lines of barbed wire. Iron threads of the official type topped all the fences in the child’s notebook.
Near the fences stood people. The people in the notebook were not peasants or hunters; they were soldiers, guards, and sentries with rifles. Like mushrooms after the rain, the sentry booths stood at the feet of enormous guard towers. On the towers soldiers walked, their rifle barrels gleaming.