Kolyma Tales

Free Kolyma Tales by Varlan Shalanov

Book: Kolyma Tales by Varlan Shalanov Read Free Book Online
Authors: Varlan Shalanov
three months they would be able to buy clothing, get something to drink, be issued internal travel passports. Perhaps they would even go home in a year. These hopes gleamed all the brighter when Paramonov, the man in charge of the group, promised them enormous salaries and polar rations. ‘You’ll all go home in top hats,’ he kept saying. As for us convicts, there were no promises of top hats and polar rations.
    On the other hand, Paramonov was not rude to us. No one would give him any convicts to work as prospectors, so all he managed to wheedle out of the higher-ups was the five of us as helpers.
    None of us knew one another, but when we were presented to Paramonov’s bright, piercing gaze, he had reason to be pleased with his crew. One of us, the gray-mustached Izgibin, was a stove-builder. He was the joker in the crowd, and his wit had not abandoned him even in camp. Thanks to his skill, he was not as emaciated as the rest of us. The second was a one-eyed giant from Kamenets-Podolsk. He presented himself to Paramonov as a ‘steamboat stoker’.
    ‘So, you must be something of a mechanic,’ Paramonov said.
    ‘That’s right, I am,’ the stoker responded eagerly.
    He had quickly calculated the advantages of working in a civilian prospecting group.
    The third was the agronomist, Riazanov. Paramonov was ecstatic over this find. As for the agronomist’s appearance, no importance was attached to the torn rags in which he was clothed. In camp, a man’s worth was never appraised according to his clothing, and Paramonov knew the camp well enough.
    I was the fourth. I was neither stove-builder nor handyman nor agronomist, but Paramonov found my great height reassuring, and he decided not to make a fuss by altering the list over one man. He nodded.
    The fifth man, however, was acting very strangely. He muttered prayers, covered his face with his hands, and couldn’t hear Paramonov. But this was nothing new for our boss, and he turned to the detail assignment officer standing next to him with a stack of yellow folders containing our ‘cases’.
    ‘He’s a carpenter,’ the detail assignment officer said, guessing at Paramonov’s question. The reception was over, and we were led away to prospect.
    Later Frisorger told me that he had been terrified by his case inspector back at the mine, because when they called for him, he thought he was going to be shot. We lived nearly a year in the same barracks, and we never quarreled – something unusual among convicts both in camp and in prison. Quarrels arise over trivia, and verbal abuse becomes so heated that the only possible sequel appears to be a knife – or at best a poker. But I quickly learned not to pay any attention to these elaborate oaths. Intense feelings would simmer down, and those involved would continue lazily to curse each other, but this was done for appearances – to save face.
    Frisorger and I, however, never once quarreled. I think this was his achievement, for there was no one more gentle than he. He offended no one and spoke little. He had a creaky old man’s voice – the kind of voice that a young actor assumes when playing the role of an old man. In the camps, many attempt (often quite successfully) to appear older and physically weaker than they actually are. This is not the result of a conscious effort on their part but somehow occurs instinctively. It was one of life’s ironies that the majority of those attempting to add on years and subtract strength were actually in worse shape than they tried to depict. But there was nothing false in Frisorger’s voice.
    Every morning and evening Frisorger would pray silently, turning away from the others and staring at the floor. He would take part in the conversation only if it had to do with religion, and that was very seldom, since convicts do not favor religious topics. With all his charm and obscene wit, Izgibin tried futilely to poke fun at Frisorger, who turned aside all Izgibin’s witticisms with

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