Escape from the Soviets - T. Tchernavin

One Man per Kilometer

Now we dragged ourselves along rather than walked. Our feet were in an awful condition bruised, swollen, with festering wounds. Before starting a day's march we had to spend no end of time bandaging them; I had to tear up my chemise to make bandages, and every evening we discovered fresh sores.

My husband was the worst off because his boots were falling to pieces. The thin layer of leather on the sole had worn through and showed pieces of birch bark inside. Soviet industry is certainly resourceful!

We were suffering from hunger, too. We reduced our daily portion to two or three tablespoonfuls of rice and two ounces of bacon which we added to the mushroom soup in the morning and evening. The rusks were finished. We had two lumps of sugar a day, one in the morning and one in the evening and the boy had a third in the middle of the day. When we found whortleberries—and there were very few—we ate some on the spot and picked some to make a hot drink. The worst of all was that salt was coming to an end. If we had plenty of it, we would have cooked mushrooms without adding anything else to them.

A fresh misfortune was the cold. A north wind was blowing continually, and we were simply frozen in the night if we could not find enough dry wood to feed the fire all the time.

On one of those cold nights my husband had another attack of pains and in the morning he found he could not use his left arm. He felt breathless and when the pains came on again was not able to walk. We thought it was probably his heart. Overstrained by the life in the penal camp, by our march (we were already twelve days on the way) and the heavy weight he carried, it might give way any day. And what would become of us then?

Our only salvation would be to meet someone. We talked of nothing but where and how we could find any people. There were no traces of trees being cut, the forest was quite untouched, though it proved to be in a fine, broad valley and not in a hollow between the mountains, as we had thought at first; the river flowing through it was big, and had many tributaries.

It was our son who brought us the first message of hope.

"Daddy, There's a mark of an axe!" he cried in an almost frightened voice.

Indeed, an old tree in the depths of the forest had been marked by an axe, evidently some time ago.

"Very clever of you to notice it! Yes, that's the first sign of man we have seen. So, evidently people do come here sometimes."

"Certainly, daddy! After all, there must be people in Finland."

"They all drift towards the south-west; here in the north, the population is one man per square kilometer. Imagine what it means if you have a village with a hundred inhabitants and a hundred square kilometers of land around it."

Two hours later we came upon a clearing in the forest. It must have been made ten or fifteen years ago because it was covered with young growth; most of the trees had been taken away. Finally, the boy found a neat little peg with a Roman figure on it, probably indicating the number of the plot.

"Yes, dear," said my husband with a sigh, in Russia they now destroy forests wherever they can without any system or order, and here, you see, everything is planned and numbered."

The following day, as we were skirting round a marsh, the boy saw two poles of equal height at the edge of it.

"Look, daddy, what is this?"

Sore as our feet were, we went to look. There was a third pole, also with a pointed and charred end. It was an arrangement for drying hay. Close by there were evident signs of man's presence: traces of two big bonfires, remains of a shelter made of branches, a wooden box and a torn shirt.

"Daddy, just look, they've thrown away a box that's been nailed together! They hadn't even troubled to take the nails out! They must be a bourgeois lot!"

"I expect they have nails enough in this country," said his father, laughing. "But surely if they come here for hay, the village can't be more than twenty or thirty miles off. I wonder why there is no sign of haymaking—the grass is fine, and this is the twentieth of August."

We had no idea that in this part haymaking does not begin till September, when harvest has been gathered in. The ground is so moist that the grass remains fresh all the summer.

A day later we made a discovery which seemed to us of enormous importance: we found a fence. A real, well-built, high fence, going from north to south across a beautiful forest.

How absurd it was to climb a fence in these wilds! The boy was very much amused at the clumsy way in which I did it while he climbed over it several times for the mere pleasure of doing it.

We were certain that we should soon find a path. Surely people did not build fences at an indefinite distance from their homes!

We traced that fence for at least a mile each way and discovered nothing.

We learned afterwards that villagers living a good hundred miles away built that fence so that their deer, which they let off to pasture in the forest in the summer, should not cross over to the Russian side. Late in the autumn when the snow is on the ground, they come to fetch the animals whom they need in winter for drawing their sledges.

The forest was as wild as ever and there was no more trace of man. There were endless paths made by elks, so well-trodden that one could walk on them for about an hour as on a garden path. But these paths either went down to the river or led to open spaces where elks play and rest,

"If there are so many elks about, it means there are no men near," my husband warned us.

We found one day fresh traces of a bear; but there was no sign of man. We had already slept four times in this valley; with the most stringent economy our food could not last us more than another five or six days, and we made less and less progress every day. My husband suffered dreadfully. Time after time his pain caused him to lie down when the journey was quite easy, and we had to stop till he was better—and that, when we could not afford any delays.

"How dreadful to have got ill just now! How can I bring you out of these wilds?" This thought made him suffer perhaps more than his pains.

Now that we were in Finland, on a big river, and bound to come to some dwelling sooner or later, everything depended on whether his heart would last out till then. We still had a few lumps of sugar and a few pieces of bacon left. Should we be able to walk when these were gone?

We were walking on the slope trodden down by elks when the boy cried suddenly:

"Daddy, a bottle!"

It was only the bottom of a bottle, but it certainly was an eloquent sign of man. Further along we found a heap of last year's hay, horse droppings, a blue rag. Three clear paths went from this place in different directions. It was a beautiful forest all round splendid tall pines.

"Daddy, which path shall we take?" the boy asked excitedly, as though we were coming to a house for certain.

"The middle one, it is the most used of the three."

"A cutting, afresh one!"

The trees must have been felled only a few days ago, there was still a smell of freshly cut wood. Some of it had not yet been taken away. Had we come here two or three days ago we might have met the woodcutters.

"Daddy, how nice it is here! What a jolly place!" the boy said with animation. "Look, There's a lake over there, and granite rocks round it, and pines. In our geography book there was a picture "A Forest Lake in Finland", very much like it."

The path, well-trodden, but with no fresh traces of man, apparently led to the river. We could tell its presence by the thick growth of young elm, but we could not hear it; it flowed quietly and peacefully.

"A house!"

It was not a house but a low log hut, open on one side and roofed in with planks, sloping towards the open side. There was a shelf inside on which several dates and Finnish names were written. We did not see any names of places. The dates went fifteen and twenty years back, so there was no doubt that the place was well-known and that people came here. But when and what for?

There were two charred tree-trunks in the open part of the hut, but they must have been lying there since the summer before, for they were overgrown with moss.

People could not be very far off, but how were we to find them when we had so little strength left and so few provisions!

"I'll see if I can catch some fish," said my husband and went to the river.

The boy lit a fire and put the saucepan on to make tea. We very much wanted to stay here and spend the night under a roof.

"Shall we camp here, mother?" the boy asked pleadingly.

"We shall see how daddy is. If he is well, we must go on, and if not we'll put up here for the night."

"It's very nice here, isn't it? We shall soon come to a real house now, shan't we?"

"Yes, I expect we shall."