Siberian Diary (Part 1)
ON THE WAY
The train was chugging through countryside which looked familiar because it resembled the way to Zawadow of our summer vacations: the same small or medium-sized fields, thatched cottages, country roads, cattle, and an occasional horse-drawn cart. There was a brief stop at the village of Maksymowka, the last one before the former Russian border. The villagers came to the platform, bringing us hard-boiled eggs and milk; some of them were crying. Then the train moved on, past some old border post and remains of barbed wire, and we were in Russia.
There was a marked change in the landscape. The fields were now much larger, sometimes stretching all the way to the horizon, and the villages seemed farther apart and much poorer. Everyone found the landscape depressing, although political prejudice and our deportation must have had much to do with it.
During the stops, we would ask the local people on the platform the name of the station. We had a school atlas in our car, and although the names of the minor stations did not tell us much, we were able to follow our progress by the larger towns and cities. We passed through Kiev, Kharkov, the Ural mountains, Omsk, and finally Semipalatinsk in Kazakhstan. The trip took over two weeks, the train often spending several hours on the sidelines to let some other train pass, or perhaps occasionally waiting for the dark. Our timetable must have been planned in such a way that the train passed through the large cities at night.
One of the most impressive sights were the steel girders of a seemingly endless bridge over either the Don or the Volga. The Ural mountains were beautiful, often covered with birch woods. I don't remember the mountains as particularly tall; we must have crossed through the lower southern end of the range, a logical choice for a railway.
There was one station in a fairly unpopulated area in the foothills of the Urals - we stopped there for about half an hour - where the people on the platform were dressed in rags, and many also wore rags wrapped around their feet instead of shoes. The next thing we noticed was that their faces were emaciated and of some pale shade of grey, showing the skull beneath the skin. The nearest I have ever seen to it was a book of drawings by Kaethe Kollwitz which we had at home; this was a population which was starving, some of them probably to death. The large village or small town started about a hundred yards from the station; there was some large factory there, and when our unscheduled train stopped at the station, dozens of grown-ups and children began to run towards it across the empty lot. All of them carried large cubes of gray washing soap, offering to exchange them for bread. It was not done in any spirit of barter but of pure begging.
We had a decent supply of bread and pieces of it began to pass out of the windows in exchange for the soap. The people told us that there was a soap factory in the settlement, where most of the people worked, being partly paid in soap. They seemed to have been settled there without any care for their welfare, unless their misery and starvation were intentional. As the train began to move pieces of bread were still being thrown out of the windows, and the grown-ups and children on the platform scrambled for them pushing, shouting, and fighting.
Our own supply of food and water remained regular and well organized throughout the voyage, except for two days in the second week, in fairly hot weather, when we were left without water, as it later transpired through some logistic mess-up. The first evening, when it became clear that we were not stopping any more that day, we began to ration what little water was left. lt ran out the next morning. By noon we were thirsty. There was a brief stop to let some other train pass but no distribution. The guards could only say "Soon, soon". During the night, thirst turned into almost physical torture, made worse by the uncertainty of how long it would last. I overheard a whispered conversation between two of the men in which they tried to remember how long one could survive without water, and also wondered whether this was not a devilish - and admittedly ingenious - method of putting a whole trainload of people to death. They remembered the recent Soviet purges in which thousands if not millions of innocent people have been shot, and which had received wide and sensational publicity in the Polish press. The memory of the starving village in the Urals did nothing to reassure them. When food and water were finally distributed the next morning, we started rationing the water from the start, and filling several kettles in addition to the bucket. The shortage, however, did not repeat itself for the rest of our voyage.
Zhengistovo, in Kazakhstan, where the train pulled up on the First of May, a warm sunny morning, seemed to be the last station on that branch of the line, and we already knew from the guards that that was where we were going to disembark. It was a small station and, except for a slogan painted in white letters on a long strip of red fabric, there were no particular signs that this was the First of May; perhaps we have arrived too early in the morning and the celebrations have not started yet. A long line of lorries waited along the platform, and beyond them stretched the Kazakhstan steppe; stony and seemingly endless but not quite flat, with some low hills in the distance.
Disembarkment was slow and leisurely, almost festive, and our guards were relaxed and helpful; they had shared this long train journey with us and now there was no further need to guard us; nobody was going to start escaping, at least not right away, from this station thousands of kilometres from home. The First of May may also have added to the friendly mood.
With our luggage on the platform, we were taken in charge by a number of civilian officials, some of them with Mongol faces with slanting eyes. Lists were handed over and identities checked. Then money was distributed, two and a half roubles per person. (A kilo of bread cost about half a rouble.) Finally we piled up onto the open lorries, each family seated as comfortably as it could on its luggage, and we set out, in a long convoy, the heavily loaded lorries bumping slowly over a dirt road across the steppe.
We were now out in the fresh air which grew warmer as the day progressed, and only spoiled by the dust raised by the slow-moving lorries. The steppe was monotonous, with some greenery on the low hills and in the ravines. We crossed a large plain which was being ploughed up by an already familiar type of tractor with the long steel spikes on the rear wheels. Late in the afternoon we reached Perevalki, a Russian village with low mudbrick houses, and were put up for the night most of us sleeping on the earthen floor. (The Russian, or rather Ukrainian, villages, we were told, had been there only for the past ten years or so, since the mass deportations of the more prosperous peasants.) Everyone was tired by the long day on the wobbling lorries and the heat and the dust. Zygmunt Halpern and I, having rested and washed our faces, made a round of the village and surveyed the surrounding steppe from the low hill on which the village stood while the daylight lasted.
The next morning some of the lorries were gone, but there was a lot of long open wooden carts with a pair of oxen getting yoked to each by Kazakh drivers with three-flapped fur hats, the third flap at the back covering the nape of the neck. Our large group of deportees was now going to be split into smaller caravans, to be dispersed among several villages in the steppe. Our own caravan consisted of a dozen carts with only two Kazakh drivers.The authorities obviously saw no further need for armed escort. One of the drivers did have a double-barrelled shotgun but obviously not for guarding us because the shotgun lay at the bottom of the cart together with his wadded coat and a small bundle. Noticing me looking at the gun, he pointed to the sky, flapped his hands, imitated a duck's quack, mimed eating a drumstick, licked his lips, and stroke his belly. Then he took the gun out to show me. My mother came up, worried. The driver said something reassuring and, pushing aside a lever behind the hammers, broke the gun open and showed her the empty chambers. Then he closed the gun again, cocked the hammers, and let me have it. It was very long and heavy. I pointed it at the sky over the empty steppe and pulled the triggers, one after the other. The hammers fell with a dry click. My mother was still worried so after a while I gave it back to the driver, feeling very proud about having held and aimed a real gun.
We now set out into the steppe, with a couple of small families or a single large one to each cart, and our two Kazakh drivers. Most of the carts were thus driverless, but the oxen pulled steadily, following the cart in front. The travel was slower than by lorry, but there was also less pitching and dust, and the creaking of the carts' wheels was more friendly than the noise of engines. For those of us who were raised on Karl May this was real adventure; we almost regretted there were no mustang-mounted Indians suddenly charging the convoy with blood-curling yells. We had observed with interest the simple wooden yokes on the shafts of the carts: a top and bottom bar, recessed and rounded to fit the animal's neck, and an iron rod with a loop at the top dropped into a couple of holes at the end of the bars to lock the animal in. Along some stretches of the trail the steppe would gleam with mica, and we would jump off the carts to collect lumps of the shiny mineral which could be peeled into brittle though slightly flexible paper-thin layers.
The steppe we were crossing was predominantly flat, but occasionally the ground rose for a while at a gentle angle and then descended again, in undulations which did not quite qualify as hills, although a line or two of those could be seen in the distance. The trail led between them, over the easier ground. As we had started out rather late in the morning, the drivers kept going for most of the day, sometimes jumping off the carts and walking to stretch their legs. We had some bread and conserves with us, and bottles of milk bought at the village the night before, and ate a little on the way.
Late in the afternoon, we came to a darker winding line of bushes; it was a sluggish narrow stream flowing in the direction of a small overgrown lake in the distance, and we stopped there for the night. First of all the drivers unyoked the oxen, hamstrung them, and released them to graze on the steppe grass. Then my friend the hunter took his gun and went off in the direction of the lake. I wanted to go with him but mother wouldn't let me. The other driver filled a bucket with water from the stream to make tea for everyone, and asked us to get kizyak. Nobody knew what kizyak was, and the driver spoke as little Russian as we did. To show us, he walked out into the steppe looking for something, and finally picked a round cake of dry cow dung and brought it to us, saying "Kizyak". We understood that this was to be the fuel for our fire, and wondered off into the steppe to get some more. Someone said that we looked like mushroom gatherers.
The dry cakes of cow dung were not repulsive to handle. To start with, back in Zawadow, I had come to like the smells of the farm, including that of fresh cow dung, which had nothing in common with the nasty stink of human or dog excrement. Dried by the sun, it became a light and odourless flat pie of shreds of vegetation, and I found and brought back four of them, two under each arm. Their presence in the area must have been due to the stream crossing being used as a regular stopover - our own oxen now planting future kizyaks as they grazed - and perhaps herds of cattle were also occasionally brought here to graze, with grass and water in close proximity. We were told in Perevalkino that the Kazakhs only wintered in their villages of mud huts; during the summer they roamed the steppe with their families and cattle, living in large round felt tents called yourts. But some agriculture was also being practiced, mainly growing wheat and mowing large areas of the steppe grass with tractors and combines for cattle fodder in winter; and indeed, there was a row of haystacks near the place where we stopped.
The Kazakh driver built a fire and stood the bucket of water over it on three stones. We heard a couple of shots from the direction of the lake. The water took a long time to boil; when it did, the driver unwrapped some small reddish-brown brick, approximately two centimeters thick, ten centimeters wide and twice as long, and crumbled some of it into the boiling water. "Chai", he said. Some of us knew knew that "chai" was "tea", both in Chinese and Russian The stuff itself puzzled us, and one of the men asked for a crumb and inspected and then tasted it.
"Seems to be mostly dried fruit," he said, "plums and the like, with some tea added as well." The stuff gave the water the proper reddish-brown tint. We unpacked whatever food we had with us, and filled our cups with the unfamiliar but quite drinkable tea. The driver also opened a small canvas sack and offered us elongated bite-sized pieces of dried white cheese, salty and hard, which he called "Kurt". This seemed to be staple Kazakh food, and we took a few pieces each, not knowing whether he was given the stuff to feed us on the way or being generous with his own supply.
The other driver came back with his boots and trousers muddy, his gun over his shoulder, and carrying a real wild duck! A proper big mallard with a green head, white collar, brown chest, and upcurled tail feathers! A few people applauded, and we closed in to see it.
The driver sat down by the stream to clean the duck. Without plucking it, he split open the belly, took out the innards, cut open and cleaned the muscular stomach, then put the stomach and the liver back in and closed the belly with a few thorns. Then he scooped up some clay from the bank, plastered the duck with it until it looked like a pumpkin, buried the whole thing under the pile of kizyak coals, and only then settled down to his tea and kurt.
An hour later he rolled the duck out of the coals with a stick. The clay was charred and cracked. He broke it open; most of the feathers came off with the clay, and the duck lay there plucked, half-steamed and half-broiled. We got a small piece each and it was delicious. The other Zygmunt, also raised on Karl May, and I were deeply thrilled; this was second best to buffalo steaks; we were crossing Asia with the descendants of Genghis Khan and living off the land.
We were now going to spend the night in the open, and the drivers taught us the warmest way to do it: you dug out a tunnel at the base of a haystack deep enough for the top part of your body to go in - if you made it much deeper it might collapse - with only your legs protruding. The night was quite cold, and in spite of the hay and the blankets, Stella and a couple of other children caught cold during the night.
The next morning, after another bucket of tea, we set out across the steppe again. I was on the lookout for another lake, hoping that perhaps this time mother will let me go duck hunting with the driver, but there weren't any more. In the afternoon, we reached a small Kazakh village of five long low mudbrick houses - the drivers said it was called Kairan - and stopped there for the night. There was a man and a couple of women in the village, but otherwise it seemed empty. An hour later a tall Kazakh with a drooping moustache and the three-flap fur hat rode into the village on a horse and was introduced to us as the Brigadir. This, it transpired, was the title of the manager of the local cattle-raising and agricultural "brigade". We were put up for the night in the houses, on the earthen floors. The village was empty because the inhabitants were away in the steppe, tending their cattle and horses, and cultivating the wheat fields. There was no furniture or any other stuff in the houses, and nobody was guarding the village. The man and two women who had come out to meet us were members of the brigade who had arrived earlier with large metal canisters of milk on an ox cart. Another kizyak fire was built and another bucket of tea brewed. Then we all sat in the square sipping it and talking to the Brigadir who knew some Russian.
He told us that our destination was a large Russian village about two days away, where a lot of Poles have already arrived, but a few families could stay right here in Kairan if they so wished, at least until the autumn when the Kazakhs would return from the steppe and need the place for themselves. What was the nearest settlement to Kairan, we asked.
Rudnik Buko, he said, ("Rudnik", it transpired, was a quarry in Russian, gold in this case), about eight kilometres away, across that ridge. Were there any Poles living there as well? Yes, but earlier ones; they have been there since the beginning of the year, and have settled down by now.
My mother and four or five other women got into a huddle. Most families wanted to go on to the final destination of our caravan. Mother's group thought that life in a large place with a lot of deportees crowded together might be more difficult than in this small quiet village. They were also very tired by the two weeks on the train and the trek across the steppe, and two more days of it were very unattractive. What's more, Stella and another child or two were running a temperature and coughing; we had aspirin, but they also needed a rest in bed. Finally five families told the Brigadir that they were staying. He said "Khorosho" ("Good" or "All right"), and allotted us two fairly large rooms. The next morning we said goodbye to the rest of our caravan and watched them move slowly across the steppe and finally disappear behind a ridge.
The making of kizyak was something new. The cakes of natural kizyak in the steppe were thin on the ground; they sufficed for summer cooking but not for the long hard winter ahead. Although most of the Kairan Kazakhs were out in the steppe, they used the village as their base and there were often three or four of them here, for a few days, mostly women, with frequent visits by our Brigadir. Some of the cows would be kept for extended periods in the village. Their milk would be tested for fat content in glass test tubes in a small hand-operated centrifuge. Except for the small amount drank fresh it would be allowed to go sour. Then the Kazakhs would boil it, adding some salt, in large cauldrons, skim off the layer of boiled white cheese, knead it into small finger-sized pieces, and dry it in the sun; the kurt we were already familiar with. They also had a drink of mare's milk called "kumys", drank cold. A Kazakh woman once gave me a cup; it tasted like sour milk and was cool and refreshing, and I accepted another. Afterwards, when I went to gather kizyak in the steppe, I felt a bit giddy; the kumys must have been slightly alcoholic.
For winter supplies of kizyak, cow dung would be brought out of the stables onto the square and spread in an almost knee-deep layer; straw would be added, and the whole then properly mixed by treading it with bare feet for a few hours. The final layer, about twenty centimetres thick, would then be left to dry in the sun until the crust has hardened. It would then be cut into square bricks with a shovel, left to dry out completely, and stacked behind the houses.
"Dr. Frankel," said Mrs. Hendynska, treading the stuff with her bare feet next to my mother, their skirts hoisted to the hips, (they usually called each other by their first names) " doesn't this job feel vaguely familiar to you? Making bricks in Pitom and Ramses?"
"Yes, except that that was clay, which must have been even harder, and they didn't give us enough straw that time," mother said. "Things are improving."
We spent the next month in Saratovka, the large village to which our spring caravan had continued after our few families had decided to remain in Kairan. It now also served as a transit centre for the deported Poles who were moving from temporary summer quarters to more permanent winter ones, and we lived there with several other families in a large crowded barn. We renewed some old acquaintances. The sensation of the season was the thirty-year-old daughter of minor gentry parents who had rejected a number of suitors in Poland. At the beginning of the summer she fell in love, or at least was made pregnant by, a young Kazakh from the steppe, and now they were going to be married. The parents were explaining to all who might understand French that la coeur a ses raisons que la raison ne connait pas.
Ziutek Serbenski, about my age, the enfant terrible of our spring caravan, pointed out to me a skinny blond Russian girl called Yelyena, eleven or twelve years old, who, he said, let anyone who asked fuck her. He gave an evasive answer to my question whether he himself had asked her, leaving the possibility open but mumbling something about her preference for older men, aged thirteen-fourteen.
There was a stream near Saratovka, larger than the Kairan one, with correspondingly larger pools and pike. After two days with my three-pronged hook we managed to catch a small one. Then Ziutek borrowed a large linen eiderdown cover when his mother was not looking, and we waded with it into a pool where a particularly large pike, almost half a meter long, was lurking. Keeping the mouth of the cover open, we slowly approached the stationary fish, trying to make no noise or sudden movement, cornering it and cutting off its retreat. With a sudden lunge, the pike went straight into the trap and we closed the mouth and waded out, shaking hands, dancing, and tapping each other on the shoulder. Our return with the pike was a triumph, marred a little later by the beating Ziutek got from his mother when she discovered the slightly torn and muddy cover drying on a washing line behind the barn.
The Brigadir of Saratovka, a Kazakh, seemed to be doing a little part-time, mainly administrative work, and spending the rest of his time roaming the low stony hills around Saratovka with his shotgun, firing at anything from sparrows to golden eagles which gathered on a nearby high ground to which carcasses of cattle or dogs would be dragged. I never saw him bring anything in. Studying the golden eagles feeding on the carrion, I would creep and crawl as close as possible, hiding behind rocks, and then, when they finally began their slow and clumsy take-off, I would rush them, trying to get an even closer look. Once or twice, as the eagles scattered, the Brigadir rose from behind a farther rock and asked in broken Russian why did I scare the byerkuts. I noticed, however, that they never let him get as close as they let me. Either I was better at it or they knew something about guns.
Then there was another ox-cart caravan with a dozen families and a single elderly widow, Mrs. Prinz - she and the three of us were the only Jews here - and another two days in the steppe, arriving at a Russian village called the Lenin Kolkhoz. The villagers were once again not so much Russians as Ukrainians, deported during the collectivisation some ten years before; they had built the village from scratch in the open steppe. The older generation still spoke Ukrainian among themselves but the rest have switched to Russian.
We were put up in the school building - a large house with two classrooms in the centre of the village - and a fortnight later, when the school started, moved to an empty store, a sort of barn, nearby. While we lived there, we were getting acquainted with the villagers,
exchanging goods for food and looking for permanent lodgings. We were expected, and advised to, rent rooms before the onset of winter, and we haggled with the villagers who were prepared to take lodgers. Our stock of clothes and valuables, or things which were considered valuable, and which would have to see us through the winter, was dwindling.
Finally, sharing it with Mrs. Prinz, we took a room with a family called Borzyenko. It was the better of the two rooms in the house, or, to be exact, the only one, because the other, first, room, was also the kitchen, large and suitable for living in. You had to pass through it to reach ours, after you passed the shed where the Borzyenkos kept a cow, a pigs, and some hens and a rooster. The only entrance to the house was an inward-opening door to this shed, and, with my technical mind, I thought that an outward-opening door would have saved some space.
Our landlord, Kostya (Konstantin) Borzyenko, and his pretty wife Marusya, were in their late twenties, and had a little boy of three or four, Tolya. The wife's old mother also lived with them. After we moved in, they slept on top of the large baking oven which occupied almost half of the kitchen; a traditional, space-saving, and warmest sleeping place in a Russian village house.
In our room, there were two beds; mother, Stella, and I slept in the large double one, and Mrs. Prinz in a smaller one across the room. Mrs. Prinz was to pay about a third of the rent; she had said that, being only one of the four occupants of the room, she should pay a quarter, but mother said that children did not count as full adults. The Borzyenkos have thus deprived themselves of beds and privacy to earn the modest rent we were able to pay, and perhaps also to have the first choice and slightly better terms on anything we might want to exchange for food.
The village consisted of one long street ending under a hill. In the middle there was the school, the village shop, open for an hour or two a day, with almost nothing to sell, and the water well. The low hills around the village were covered with thorny bushes called karaganik which we cut down with sickles, wearing thick gloves, for firewood. (There was a small iron stove in our room, on which we cooked our food.) Karaganik was tough and difficult to cut, some thorns always penetrating the glove and pricking your hand. It also burned very fast. Kizyak, in the brick form, could be had, for a price, but the three of us regularly went to cut karaganik to economize. Mrs. Prinz was very bad at it.
And, behind the village, among bushes and some trees, there flowed a river; not a very big one, about the size of the one in Zawadow, but a real river all the same. At the beginning of summer I wrote to my cousin Jozek in Lvov asking for some fish hooks and now a letter with a dozen of them arrived. All of a sudden I was rich. The hooks were of good pre-war quality, while the few my friends in the village had were rusty, and bent and broke easily. I kept four for myself, gave one to my new friend Vaska who had become my guide of the river and the surrounding steppe, and gradually exchanged the rest for a piece of bread or a few potatoes each. There were minnows, dace and perch in the river, and worms to be found in the river bank. My largest catch never exceeded half a dozen fish, but the hours I spent creeping silently along the river bank with my fishing rod were the finest of that kolkhoz autumn. Once, seated on a stone behind a bush, I watched a long non-poisonous black snake with two orange spots on its head stalk and capture a frog and swallow it slowly from the rear while the frog struggled.
When we first went fishing together, Vaska inspected my rod and clicked his tongue with disapproval. The braided white sewing thread, he said, was all right for most of the length, but near the hook an almost invisible white horse hair leader was needed. We'll get some for you, he said.
It had to be done carefully. There was only one white horse in the kolkhoz, with almost no hair left in its tail. The technique was to approach the horse from the side, keeping out of the range of its hoofs, say a few kind words to it, twist a few hairs around your finger, and give a sharp jerk. The horse did not seem to mind; it only hurt if you pulled slowly.
Approaching the horse was a different matter. If the manager of the kolkhoz as much a saw you looking in its direction he would grab a stick and be after you, trying to preserve what could still be saved from the white horse's tail to keep the flies away.
One day I saw something puzzling: a grown-up kolkhoznik stealthily approaching a dark-brown horse with a black tail, looking around to make sure that no one saw him, and jerking a few hairs out of the tail. I asked Vaska how one could be so ignorant; a black leader on a fishing line was worse than no leader at all. Vaska smiled a knowing. This, he said, had nothing to do with fishing; the village men would tie a horse hair around their pricks, with some bow-knots, to increase the woman's enjoyment of fucking by tickling her insides some more, and, of course, it didn't matter in the least what colour the hair was.
One day, I found my mother whispering with Marusya in the kitchen; they stopped when I walked in, but later I overheard mother telling Mrs. Prinz that Marusya was pregnant and consulted her about getting rid of the baby. Mother told her that such a thing was illegal, and even if it were not she knew nothing about it, and that her title of Doctor had nothing to do with medicine. Marusya had already consulted the wise woman of the village who had given her some herbs which made her vomit but did not stop the pregnancy. Mother asked Marusya why she did not want a second child. She did, she said, but not yet; they were poor, and life was difficult, and they were still young; in another two or three years would be better. Mother warned her not to use any drastic remedies or go to some unskilled person; a botched abortion could be dangerous and also prevent her from having babies later on. Marusya seemed rather relieved by what my mother told her; she said that the abortion was mainly her husband's idea, and if there was no choice but to have the baby, why, then, she would have it. She remained pregnant, and in the spring we had to look for other lodgings because with the new baby the Borzyenkos would need both rooms. We found lodgings with the Dimitryevs, at the far end of the village, next door to my friend Vaska, with us in the kitchen this time, sleeping on the stove. There was a little blessing thrown in: we moved there without Mrs. Prinz, who had proved unbearably cantankerous, and was now sharing a room with another family.
As soon as I entered the almost empty village shop for the first time, a small metal contraption on a shelf caught my eye: two strips of sheet metal bent into half-circles seven or eight centimetres in diameter, kept closed by a U-shaped flat spring with a base and a small round plate in the middle. Having been deprived of toys for so long, I suddenly felt a craving for some mechanical gadget of my own, akin to my longing for a book in the shop in Buko. Asked what it was, the shopkeeper said "Kapkan", leaving me no wiser, until Vaska, the skinny and shy classmate who later became my best friend in the village,
explained that kapkan was a leg-trap, used for trapping sousliks and something he called a steppe rabbit. What were they, I asked. He showed me a picture of a souslik in a book; a small rodent with a short tail, slightly larger than a rat, standing on its rear legs in the steppe, a smaller version of a marmot. Vaska said they had marmots too, higher up in the hills, and they had warm fur and were very good to eat, but they were difficult to trap, and a much larger and stronger trap was needed. The steppe rabbit turned out to be a jerboa, with large rabbit-like ears, long rear legs, and a long skinny tail with a black-and-white brush at the end. Then he showed me his traps; the same model as I saw in the shop, but rusty. He had four of them. Finally he brought out a half dozen souslik skins, paper-thin, with short tawny fur. He was keeping them for the dealer who came every few weeks in summer. You could either get a few kopeyeks for a skin, or a kapkan for a bunch of them, the village boys usually taking the latter option. I was all ears and eyes. Since our deportation, I have seen a wild duck baked in a ball of clay, a big and hairy heavily laden Bactrian camel which once passed through Kairan, falconers, a wolf cub, and now, all of a sudden, I was finding myself in a place where boys like me went trapping. Kazakhstan was fast turning out second best to Alaska, and without the eternal cold and snow.
Vaska took me with him when he next went to set traps in the steppe. The first thing, he said, looking around, was that no one saw you setting the traps, otherwise they would be stolen. That, Vaska told me, was how he got one of his four traps. Stealing traps, it appeared, was not a crime but something closer to finders keepers. Couldn't you mark them somehow, I asked. Yes, with a file, but then whoever pinched them could alter the markings or claim them for his own, and if you insisted it might get you into a fight. It was simplest to pinch your trap back if you found it, or pinch another. Of course one did not steal the trap of a good friend if one knew it was his. It took us a couple of hours to find three sousliks' burrows and one jerboa one. The souslik holes were round while that of the jerboa more arched. You set the traps by depressing the spring, opening the jaws, and locking them with a tongue which passed over one of the jaws and locked into a slot in the round plate on which the souslik would step. The trap was placed in a depression scooped out in the ground in front of the burrow entrance and lightly sprinkled with earth and grass to disguise it. A thin chain attached to the spring had a peg on the other end which one drove into the ground to prevent the animal from dragging the trap away or into the burrow.
The next morning we found two sousliks in the traps; the other two burrows seemed uninhabited. This, Vaska said, was a good catch; he was not hoping for more than one. He was carrying a stick and coolly dispatched each souslik with a well-aimed blow to the head before taking it out of the trap. I noticed some double standard in my feelings. Before the war, we had a pet squirrel for a winter; Antosia and I had caught it in a park in the autumn, using her shawl - the squirrels in the park were half-tame and came down to take a nut out of your hand. The squirrel lived with us until spring when we set it free; with he windows opened again it would have escaped anyway. It slept most of the time, under a sofa cushion or, preferably, during the day, in my parents' bed, and when awake, would sit on a window sill watching the snow outside, and conceal nuts all over the flat. I have grown very fond of the squirrel and would have done much to protect it from harm. Now I watched creatures very much like it being killed, without much pity. They were something quite different, closer to the fish I caught, the mallard duck the Kazakh driver brought from the lake, and the dead fox at the falconer's saddle. This, I felt, must be the difference between the love of a hunter for his dog as opposed to his luck of pity for the partridge or hare falling to his gun, or, on human level, the friendship of Old Shatterhand and Winnetou The Redskin Gentleman or, for that matter, of soldiers in a war, calmly bringing down the anonymous enemies in the sights of their rifles.
In the backyard of his house, Vaska showed me how to skin a souslik. There were two methods: flat and "the sock", equally acceptable to the collector. In the first case, you slit the skin from chin to anus, and twice more between the front and rear paws, pulling it off carefully so as not to tear it, and scraping off any meat or fat that adhered to it. Then you nailed it with a few small nails to a plank, the fur innermost, and put it out in the sun to dry. The other way was to slit the skin between the rear legs only, peel it off like a glove, and stretch it on a V-shaped twig resembling a wishbone.
I immediately had to have a trap of my own, and finally got one of Vaska's in exchange for a small old pipe I once bought in Lvov for a few pennies as part of a tramp's costume for a fancy-dress party. Vaska stole a little makhorka from his father and we smoked it in the pipe in the steppe, getting properly sick. At first I had no luck with my new trap, and when I finally saw a souslik in it I stood there for several minutes not quite believing it, or perhaps getting up my courage to kill it. Mother and Stella never quite understood my new hobby, and I would skin the sousliks out of their sight. When the pelt agent arrived, a dozen of us boys spent a serious hour with him, in the shop, exchanging the skins for traps, and discussing sousliks, jerboas, and trapping methods like grown-ups. I brought half a dozen skins, one of them a jerboa's; not quite enough for a new trap, he said, but he would let me have one just the same, seeing I was doing quite well for a beginner. I asked him what they did with the skins. He was not sure; his job was only to pass them on, but he thought that, thin as they were, they did make them into something somewhere, gloves perhaps. The immediate and most important thing, he said, was keeping down the rodents which were causing damage to the crops. The worst one was the hamster; he once saw a hamster's burrow dug open at the end of the summer, and there was about half a sack of grain stashed away down there. There were only a couple of hamster's pelts among the catch the village boys brought in; the mounds of earth the hamsters pushed up were easy to spot, but then one had to find a tunnel, set the trap underground, and cover the top again. In most cases, the hamster blocked the trap with earth without getting caught, or dug a tunnel around it, or something of the sort.
The small carcass of a skinned souslik was meat but, even though we were hungry all the time, I did not dare to suggest to mother that we cook them; they looked very unattractive without their skins, and it would have been something like eating rats. I did, however, build a small kizyak fire in the steppe once and roasted a souslik over the coals, not so much out of hunger - some of the meat was be burnt and some half-raw, and there was very little of it - but for the adventure of it. My greatest fear was that someone would see me and the village boys - and, worse, girls -would make fun of me ever after. Being hungry in the kolkhoz was much worse than being hungry in Kairan. There, we were mostly alone, and everyone was in the same situation. Here, with the local children better fed and clothed, there was also a matter of pride and prestige. Vaska would sometimes take a piece of bread on our excursions into the steppe and share it with me, and I would always refuse at first, saying that I was not hungry.
School started, and Stella and I found ourselves sitting side by side on the same bench. There were only two classrooms and two teachers, both of them single young women, no great beauties but assiduously courted by the young men of the village because a teacher's standing was far above that of a simple village girl and every mother would like to see her son married to a schoolteacher. The younger children sat in one class and the older ones in the other.
©1997 Zygmunt Frankel - All Rights Reserved.