Davinsky Camp July 1933
The next day Anna wasn’t any better, but with the help of Nina and Tasha and even young Lara, she got herself out to the Work Zone again and back to shovelling grit. Her work rate was pathetically slow but at least it would earn her a bare scrap of a paiok to eat without robbing others of theirs.
Her own lack of strength made her mind wander to the image of Sofia’s weakness during that bad shuddering time when Sofia almost died. Slowly the injury to her hand had healed, but even now, all this time later, the memory of what it cost made Anna spit blood on the ground. The shame still gathered in her mouth and she had to rid herself of it or suffocate.
In August of that bad year the old babushka died, the one who slept next to Anna on the bed board, and the first thing Anna did was steal her coat. Now that Crazy Sara had taken hers, it was essential to keep warm. When the early snows came she had no intention of dying. In October typhus raged through the camp, sweeping up lives as indiscriminately as a fox chokes chickens in a hen house, but both Anna and Sofia had escaped its teeth. In fact it made life a fraction easier for them. Because the hut became less overcrowded, Anna was able to move up to a middle bunk near a window. She also stole a second, thicker coat from a dead body.
Work on the road was brutal as the temperatures dropped in November. Ice broke hammers and froze fingers to rocks. The snow drifted down out of a misleadingly soft pink sky, settling on the road and the bent backs of the labourers, transforming the scene into one of stark beauty. Except nobody could acknowledge beauty any more. They’d forgotten what it looked like. The nearest thing to beauty they ever saw was an extra bowl of kasha when the cook pocketed a bribe.
When the long line of prisoners finally trudged back into the Zone after a two-hour march through the snow in the dark, even the searchlights looked welcoming, great moons of yellow warmth. But as Anna shuffled numbly towards the hut, head lowered against the wind, a hand pulled her out of the line and a pair of eager lips stinking of cheap beer sought hers. It was the guard, the one with the surplus of pork fat and pelmeni. Mishenko was his name. Ilya Mishenko. She tugged away from him.
‘What the fuck is wrong with you?’ His hand strayed to her head, brushed snow from her headscarf, touched her cheek. ‘You aren’t very friendly any more, are you? Not long ago you couldn’t get enough of me and all that good food I gave you, but for weeks now you’ve been as cold as this fucking weather. How about an extra blanket? Or a bowl of good meat stew to keep out the-’
‘Fuck off.’ She jerked herself free. ‘I don’t want anything. I’ve told you to leave me alone.’ She gave him a bitter stare and hurried across the trodden snow towards the hut door.
‘I won’t leave you alone, you hot little cunt!’ he shouted after her. ‘Not till you say yes again. And you will, I know you will. One day when you’re sick or hurt, you’ll say yes again!’ He rammed his fur shapka tighter on his head and laughed. ‘It’s just a matter of time.’
Anna’s hands blocked her ears, disgust sharp as copper on her tongue. He was dirty. She was dirty. So what was the difference between them, both exploiting what they had? But as she joined the crush to squeeze through the door into the hut she suddenly saw Sofia standing off to one side, oblivious of the snow. Watching Ilya Mishenko.
Sofia avoided Anna after that, as if she too were disgusted and couldn’t bear to be anywhere close to her. For two days she hardly came near her and it was like a knife wound, gut-ripping and unexpected. Even when Anna offered a story about Vasily as a lure, all she got was a shake of the head and, ‘I’m too tired.’
Anna lay on her new bed board, the air in the hut heavy with kerosene fumes. She was fully dressed in her work clothes and padded coat because, like everyone else in the winter, clothes were taken off only for the banya, the monthly bath. The smell meant nothing, but warmth meant everything.
She placed her mittened hands over her face and buried her nose in them, smelled all the filth and rank rotten fibres of them, felt the grit and thorns embedded in them scrape across her skin. They were disgusting. No human being should ever have to wear such foul rags. Yet she loved them. They protected her, got dirty and ragged and repulsive instead of herself. Gently she kissed the palm of each mitten.
Couldn’t Sofia see that?
Evening headcount was quick for once. The numbers all tallied and the Commandant was sober, so the prisoners didn’t have to stand out in the freezing cold for more than forty minutes. It hadn’t snowed today, but the previous day’s fall lay several feet thick on the ground, so that two envied brigades had remained back in the camp to shovel paths and brush the roof of the Commandant’s house.
It was almost time for the prisoners to be locked into the huts for the night and Anna was on her bunk. The woman beside her was picking at the scabs on her legs and smiling as though it gave her pleasure, while others were shuffling round the hut or collapsed on bed boards. But out of the corner of Anna’s eye she saw a figure slide towards the door and, despite the scarf wound round her face, Anna knew it was Sofia.
She carried her right arm as always slung across her chest, resting the damaged hand on her collarbone. It had started to heal remarkably well in the beginning as the infection was drawn out of the flesh by the herbal potions, and the extra food had fed strength into her body, but now it had stopped. At this level of cold, nothing healed. Only the spring warmth would continue the process, so until then Sofia protected her hand with every scrap of cloth she could beg, borrow or steal. She opened the door only a fraction and slipped out.
Anna scrambled for her shoes and pulled them on, still wet, but she snapped one of the strings that tied them on her feet, so had to fiddle with their fixings. By the time she’d wrapped her scarf around her head and hurried outside into the freezing night, Sofia was nowhere in sight. The central compound was a large floodlit square but deserted now, except for a couple of guards deep in conversation as they patrolled the perimeter. They were smoking cigarettes and stamping their feet as they walked to keep warm.
What was Sofia up to?
Lock-up was any moment and if she were locked out of the hut she’d die of hypothermia overnight. The cookhouse? The dump? The banya? The laundry? Anna skimmed past them all, keeping to the shadows, but there was no sign of her. Her breath came in painfully short gasps and she told herself it was the cold, not fear, but she was frightened. Ever since that moment when the guard had tried to kiss her lips the evening before last, Sofia had changed.
As she ducked her head against the wind, a sound caught her ears. It was a man’s voice and he was growling. There was no other word for the animal noises he was making. Anna recognised the sound at once, a sound she knew far too well, a sound that made her feel sick. She ran. Nobody ever ran in Davinsky Camp, but she ran behind the tool hut and, in the dense shadows, she found them, Sofia and Mishenko. They were almost knee-deep in snow and jammed up against the hut wall, Sofia’s skirt up round her waist, his hands clutching her pale white buttocks as he thrust into her again and again. The animal growls sounded as though they were tearing her insides out, like wolves at a deer’s tender belly.
Anna loathed the man for what he’d done to herself and now for what he was doing to Sofia. She opened her mouth to scream at him but, at that exact moment, with head thrown back and his face in a rictus that looked like agony, he finished the job and instantly withdrew. The sudden silence came as a shock.
He turned away to adjust his clothing for only a split second, but that split second was all the Four Horsemen needed to gallop down on him with a vengeance. Quick as a rat Sofia drew a rock from her jacket and brought it down on the back of his skull with all her strength. He collapsed forward, face in the snow, with no more than a soft grunt. Sofia threw herself on his back and kept pounding till Anna caught her by the wrist.
‘Enough, Sofia, that’s enough. You must stop now.’
‘It’ll never be enough.’
A sigh rose up from somewhere deep in Sofia’s chest and she stood up, her whole body shaking and her eyes unrecognisable. They gleamed white in the shadows and she was breathing hard.
‘Yes,’ she said harshly. ‘He’s dead. He won’t be bothering you again.’
‘He won’t be bothering either of us.’
Anna took her trembling friend into her arms and held her close, rocking her gently. They stood like that for a long time despite the sub-zero temperature, listening to each other’s heartbeat.
‘Lock-up,’ Anna whispered. ‘We must be quick.’
It was the work of two minutes to scoop out a man-sized hole in the deep snowdrift against the rear of the hut and bundle the dead meat inside it. The snowdrift would not melt until spring and by then who would care? They kicked fresh snow over the mound, prayed for a blizzard overnight, then ran back to their hut before the door was locked. The knowledge that in their pockets they carried a pack of Belomor cigarettes, a steel lighter, a penknife, half a bar of chocolate and a wristwatch gave them a wild energy that made them laugh out loud. A haul like that would feed them most of the winter.