I scraped at the rock-hard ground, the frozen crust resistant to my efforts. The eyes of the warden measured my attempts, and I could already feel the club striking my bony back.
Nearby, Gavrilovich coughed, and phlegm snagged in his throat. He hawked and spit, then resumed digging in the matted grass and frozen gravel. I saw his lips move. Another prayer.
That was Gav’s way. He greeted each hardship with an acknowledgment of the Almighty. It angered me that this gaunt Russian man looked to God constantly.
“Give up, Gav. God has forsaken us.”
“Ah, but, Dmitri,” he said through lips stretched taut in hunger, “you must understand. When life is good, a Russian feels abandoned by God. It is then that we question God’s love.”
I shook my head in disbelief and beat my spade against the frozen taiga soil.
We’d been transported to a Siberian corrective labour camp on the Kolyma River, first by railroad, then on board the Dhzurma, where a man might suffocate in his sleep if he didn’t freeze to death first.
We shared a narrow berth in a zemlyanka, a bunker carved into the permafrost. The cold crawled from the ground and into our bones and, by morning, we were stiff as if with rigor, even while we still breathed. Some were not so fortunate.
“Dmitri,” Gav whispered to me each morning. “Rejoice, for God has blessed us with another day.”
I groaned, for the cold was wicked.
The keening wind tore at my clothes and my senses as we walked to the kitchen barracks for breakfast. It coiled with smoke from the chimneys and swept down to pull snow from the ground, throwing it into our faces.
“Come, it’s warm in the barracks, Dmitri,” Gav encouraged me when I lagged behind.
He thanked God for the weevil-infested black bread and the tepid thin soup in which floated a few soggy bits of potato.
“Eat, son,” and he slipped me a bit of his bread. “You’re a growing man. Put it in your pocket for later.”
We followed the other prisoners in the dark - the sun barely rose above the horizon during the Siberian winter – to spend the next fourteen hours scraping snow and petrified soil away from the gold-bearing gravel beneath.
I wondered how Gavrilovich remained alive, as he grew more emaciated each day, his cheekbones protruding through his sallow skin. His hands were gnarled and claw-like, the broken nails rimmed with grime. He drew from an unnatural strength, an iron-like resilience that was beyond my understanding. He was an artist, unaccustomed to physical labour; I was the son of a Ukrainian farmer, yet weakness gripped me.
“Dmitri, look to the hills for strength.”
But winter’s shadow shrouded the bleak and barren hills, a hideous contrast to the green fields of my home.
Sometimes, there was boiled reindeer, and Gav gave me his share, saying his mouth was sore from scurvy. My teeth hurt, too, but I sucked juices from the stringy meat gratefully, and Gav’s eyes shone while he watched me.
Spring brought shipments of fresh prisoners as the northern waterways thawed. Purgings of worn-out prisoners began, and I feared for Gav, thinned to sparrow-like brittleness.
One uncommonly fair day, we were detailed to repair a washed-out road several kilometers away. Some straggled, somnolent in the warm sun and stumbling in the half-frozen, sticky mud. Gav faltered often, and I stayed between him and the trustees, guarding him from their eyes.
But I was the one who fell behind, out of breath. The trustee’s club struck me, and I dropped to the ground.
Struggling, I dragged myself to my feet, mucky and soaked. The other inmates kept moving, but Gav stopped and turned, his bony hands reaching to me, his lips moving.
Another blow from the trustee, and I fell again.
“It’s your lucky day, laggard.” The trustee pulled his pistol.
Suddenly, there was Gavrilovich, beseeching.
“Take me. I’m an old man. Don’t shoot the boy.”
The trustee sneered.
“It matters little to me.” He grabbed Gav by the shoulder and put the pistol to his head.
In the moment before the thunder roared, I saw eternity in Gav’s eyes and the depths of the love he had for me.
And while the spray bloomed on my boots and seeped into the permafrost, I finally understood Gav’s unfailing belief, that even in this wicked and savage place, God had not forsaken us.
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