Latvian Literature 6

Valentīns Jākobsons

Story from the book “Breakfast at Midnight”

Far, far away, over vast expanses of tundra, in a distant Siberian marshland, in the middle of an untouched forest, on the steep banks of the chilly river Vasyugan, lies Merry Village. Posyolok Vesyoly. To the next village, there are fifty kilometers to row upstream; forty kilometers downstream. On winter roads there are thirty kilometers to walk. Because of the swamp, there are no extended overland roads here.
In the summer of the year nineteen-hundred forty one, KGB functionaries settle eighteen deported women and children from Riga at Merry Village. There would have been twenty exiles if the nursing infant of the teacher, Mrs. Abele, hadn't died en route. The baby was buried in the steppe, in a shallow grave by the side of the railroad tracks. The mother, stunned by heartbreak, was peeled from the grave by the blue­caps and forcibly removed to an unknown destination. Probably a mental institution. Already back in Riga the chekists had tom away the family providers, fathers and husbands, from their relatives and penned them up in separate echelons. These echelons were sent off to concentration camps. In one night, fifteen thousand persons from Latvia were uprooted.
About the deported men, no one anywhere knew anything to report. From the men, needless to say, there was no news, and that was that.
The people from Riga at Merry Village are soon joined by twenty-two exiles from Bukovina. Some of the newcomers are recent city dwellers from Chernovtzy, others are farmers from the environs of the city. Eighteen log shacks already contain those deported in the years of collectivization: Siberians, banished from fertile areas, mostly from Barn-Aul.
Merry Village possesses two streets. One of them meanders along the high slope, then slides down into the hollow and, running along the river bank, comes to a stop at the marshland of Viper Bay. The other end of the road fetches up against a flank of Merry Lake. On both sides of the lane, drab timber structures belonging to the cooperative association squat cheerlessly - administration building, schoolhouse, grocery, dairy, smithy, granary, barns, stable, coach-house. By the grocery, another lane leading to the brick-kiln and the straw sheds branches off the thoroughfare. Further along, the road takes the traveler into unmarked forest and up to the oil extraction works. On both sides of the street, behind wattle or plank fences, the shacks of the cooperative members are dispersed. Each log structure sits in the middle of is own vegetable garden. On the left, Ruff Lake twinkles in the distance, but the vegetable patches snuggle up to the shore of Merry Lake. The gentler slope is dotted with small bath houses. In dry weather a pedestrian can walk the main streets of the village without care, almost with dance steps. And a driver can proceed unimpeded - the streets are like any ordinary streets. But after just one downpour, the road is filled with black, oily, shining sludge. From fence to opposite fence, the breadth and length of the entire road. Feet sink into the mess halfway up the shins, wagons get stuck up to the hub of the wheel.
The newly arrived exiles settle down, each according to his ability. It's also a game of chance. Some manage to get into a dry, bright room with a bearded overseer; others settle into the entryway of a lopsided shack; still others take possession of an abandoned hut; some find shelter in an empty barn or abandoned stable. Thus begins life in exile for so many.
Luckily, the summer remains warm and dry. The exiles hope to return to their homeland soon. They all believe that they will return. They believe in the rapidly approaching hour of death for Bolshevism. They imagine that the broken thread of life can easily be tied up again.
In order to clearly explain to the newly arrived their exiled status, they are soon visited by two taciturn personages wearing blue caps, shod in top-boots of shiny leather, with filter cigarettes or the cheaper ''papirosi'' between their teeth - and with a firearm tucked in their belts. The smaller in stature and lower by job title is the Commandant of Middle Village, the Tatar Blagoyev, an administrative official of irascible and ruthless temper. Therefore, all the exiles call him nothing else but Moliboga4 behind his back. The chubbier and grandest according to rank and, so to say, profession, is the Father and Commandant of the entire region of Volkogonov. The territory under his jurisdiction and rule, let's say, his fiefdom, is as large as one half of Latvia. Both chiefs order the newly arrived livestock to gather together.
“Listen, you all! The fresh continent has been brought here for keeps. It's been brought here for good, for all time. To stay. To stay for good. Keep that in mind!” says Moliboga. We are the ‘new continent.’
“To stay forever, for good,” adds Volkogonov.
“No one will get away from here. No one. Not ever.”
“Keep that in mind. Not ever!” says Moliboga.
“Never!” adds Volkogonov, and shakes his administrative finger as a warning and threat to any slow­-witted listeners. “And therefore, all of you must join the local agricultural cooperative - voluntarily. Those who won't join the cooperative will no longer receive their bread ration,” ­explains Moliboga. “No bread for them.”
“No bread,” confirms Volkogonov.
The cooperative is called ‘Lenin's Way.’
Half an hour later, everyone present has become a member of the cooperative and manifested this decision with a signature. Because you can't buy bread in the village store. You can't buy anything at the village store; the store is emptier than empty. Some spiders and flies snooze in the comers. Sometimes the store clerk naps in the store. That happens when important bosses drop in on the village. Then, as an administrative requirement, bread as well as booze is found on a special shelf. The bellies of bread-bosses don't like to be empty.
The new members of the cooperative receive the one pound ration of bread promised by the Commandant for ten days. Later, the red-bearded store clerk does not cut even a half slice for anyone. All bread is supposed to go to the front. But the starvelings have no other income, no other provender. They cannot withdraw from the cooperative; a member of a kolhoz is a serf. He lives on God's green earth without a passport, without the right to change his domicile according to his own whim.
The first to walk along Lenin's Way to kingdom come is the white-haired Ivan Voronka from Bukovina. He has been shunted to Merry Village together with his wife Anna. The old people are in their eighth decade. Ivan has pure white hair and white whiskers of which he is especially proud, and from time to time he scrolls up the ends of his whiskers foppishly. He has red cheeks, a mouthful of white teeth, a proud and personable bearing. The old man wears a white, embroidered shirt, white linen trousers, a richly adorned leather vest and sturdy leather boots with cord fastenings and soles as thick as a finger. He also owns a tall sheepskin hat and a sheepskin half-length coat. Anna's cheeks are rosy, too; however, she doesn't stand up as straight and proud but walks with her head down. Anna wears black skirts gathered around her waist, a white, embroidered shirt and a splendid leather vest just like her husband. They have no other possessions. To be sure, they also have no money. They don't understand the Russian language. The barefoot little village urchins tease and cheat them and call them names. The well-matched gentle couple smile at everyone they meet. Their clothes are white and their souls are white. They don't cease to be amazed to find themselves banished from their beautiful, fertile Bukovina, from their sunny land of birth, from their white house; they don't understand why they have been brought here to such an evil place, unfit for living. Yet they walk the very last hunger-plagued path allotted them by fate without grumbling.
At the very beginning of winter, on a snowy, windy day, proud Ivan Voronka catches pneumonia, takes to his bed and does not get up again. Gentle Anna quickly follows after her Ivan. The exiles bury the deceased with great respect. May the Lord receive their souls.
“No one will get away from here. Not ever. Not ever. Never!”

Translated by Biruta Surmane