Spring Thaw

Dates do not exist in the camp. Today is today; there is no yesterday, no tomorrow. If only 5168 would learn that.

Spring has finally melted the months-deep snowdrifts, turning the ground to ankle-deep muck. Plants, long hidden, emerge from the soil. Flowers rush to bloom and die before Siberia’s winter returns.

In Siberia, even warmth brings suffering: mosquitoes gathered in clouds thick enough to choke a man. They breed in the camp’s decrepit water tower, which still stands, though it is useless to the diesel trains that bring men here and leave empty.

The mosquitoes swarm us as we stand at attention on the soggy parade ground. I hate them, but, after so many years, I’ve become numb to their bites. 5168 smiles like a fool as they crawl on his face.

In the soup line, he whispers, “The anniversary of my wedding day approaches. May thirty-first. I know by the thaw.”

I shake my head. “Today is today. May thirty-first doesn’t exist.” I learned when I first arrived. Commander Kozlov taught me. The scars he left on my back ensure I don’t forget.

“They arrested me moments before our wedding. But Vera will wait for me.”

A guard glares at him. Talking in the soup line is not permitted.

“No one waits,” I whisper. “Stop saying such things, 5168. You’ll get yourself killed.”

“I have a name,” he says. “Volodya. And yours?”

“My only name is 1117.”

The guard slaps the ceramic bowl from 5168’s hand. It shatters on the wooden floor. The other prisoners laugh, glad for the distraction. I look away. The camp will not issue 5168 a new soup bowl. Now, he must survive on bread alone or starve.

* * *

After yesterday’s beatings, 5168 cannot rise from our shared bunk this morning.

Kozlov bends over the broken man, a smile raising his fat jowls. “Tell me,” he says, “what is today’s date?”

5168’s eyelids flutter but don’t open. Through bloodied lips, he whispers, “May thirty-first.”

* * *

I am fortunate Volodya died in the spring. I dig three feet down before striking soil too frozen to continue. In such a spacious grave, he shall sleep well.

I bury him facing west. When he arises on the day of judgment, he’ll have his back to Christ, but he’ll face his beloved Vera.

Around the brown patch of turned earth, new grass covers hundreds of low mounds. There is only one escape from this place.

As I return to the barracks, shovel in hand, an empty train rumbles out of camp. The new arrivals line the parade ground at sloppy, unpracticed attention.

Commander Kozlov waves me over.

“I am not a cruel man,” he says to the assembly. They look to each other, doubtful. “You can make life in this camp easier on yourselves. Meet 1117, one of our hardest workers. He has learned how to stay out of trouble. You could all benefit by his example.”

I stare at my mud-encrusted boots. I can’t meet the eyes of the new prisoners.

“1117,” Kozlov says, “tell them today’s date.”

A mosquito lights on my cheek and stabs into my skin. I smile at the pain. A name, long hidden, emerges from my memory. “My name is Yuri Maximovitch Dumanovsky.” I look into Kozlov’s watery eyes. He stiffens in impotent shock. “It is the first of June.

Previously published in The Iron Writer Challenge, 2016. Reprinted here by permission of the author.