Escape from the Soviets - T. Tchernavin




Squirrel's House

After resting we walked straight, as we thought, in the direction of the frontier. It was somewhere on the other side of the ridge, but we did not know how far it was. Walking was easy now there was grass and not wet moss underfoot. The trees—birches and firs—were beautiful as in a park; the firs were big and shapely, the birches small, with twisted branches, curiously like apple trees. It was warm, a light breeze was blowing and mosquitoes did not pester us. The bare, rocky ridge in front stood out so sharply against the sky that we could not help wondering whether it was the actual frontier.

Suddenly the boy began to lag behind.

"What is it?" I saw that something was wrong.

"It's all right. Go on, I'll walk behind."

But, turning round suddenly, I found that he was dragging one foot and leaning heavily on his stick.

"Why are you limping?"

"I knocked my foot, it will be all right in a minute."

"Does your boot hurt you?"

"No, go on," he answered irritably. He was obviously doing his best, understanding how fatal the slightest delay might be, but the pain and the effort of walking made his face look pale and drawn. We went on so long as he could walk, but at last we had to stop and see what was the matter.

We stopped by two magnificent fir-trees. Their branches spread widely over the ground and the earth underneath, covered with dry needles, was soft and warm. Breaking off the small dry branches inside we crawled under the branches and hid there as in a tent. The boy lay down, we took off his boot, unwrapped his sore foot, and went cold with horror: there was a huge, ugly-looking abscess on his heel. How could the child have walked at all!

We said nothing; the boy looked questioningly at us, and we at each other.

"Whatever shall we do, my poor, poor boy!" said his father in despair.

"I don't know, daddy," he answered so sweetly that I felt like crying.

"We must open it." I said.

"But how can we, when we have no disinfectant?"

"We can disinfect the razor in the fire. Water here is pure." I took a roll of bandages out of the knapsack. Another piece of bad luck—they had got wet in the marsh during the night. They would have to be washed in a stream and dried in the sun, in the hope that everything must be pure at such an altitude. My husband went to look for water and we remained lying under the fir-tree,

"Mother, are you sure we can't be seen here at all?"

"Quite sure. One can't see under this fir within five paces of it, and it is exactly like other fir-trees—they could not search each one."

"And if they had a dog with them?"

"A dog follows scent. It could not track us all the way from the valley in that wet moss."

"And what if they came from the frontier?"

"But there would be no footprints to guide them."

"Mother, do you remember, in the theatre, when we went to see Uncle Tom's Cabin, what a dreadful dog there was? It caught the negress who wanted to escape with her baby to the Free States."

"You mustn't think of it, darling, no one will find us here. It was dangerous down in the valley, but now they can't possibly guess where we have gone." I spoke calmly and persuasively, though my very soul was trembling with fear.

My husband came back, pale and anxious. He knew better than we did how desperate our situation was.

"I can't cut it, my hands are shaking." he said, when he prepared the razor.

I volunteered, but set about it so clumsily that I might have made matters worse.

"You'd better cut it, daddy! Don't be afraid, I'll be all right. Only tell me when you are going to begin."

He made ready, clutched my hand and said:

"Well, cut it."

His father cut the skin over the whole surface of the abscess. White, liquid pus squirted out and there seemed to be none left.

"You see, daddy, it wasn't so bad as you thought."

His father kissed and petted him and then went outside to calm down and have another look round.

"You must sleep now," I said to the boy. "You know that sleep helps when one is ill."

He closed his eyes obediently but could not go to sleep, he was too overwrought. Suddenly something rustled overhead and a cone fell upon us.

"Mother, look, it's a squirrel!" the boy whispered, delighted. Quickly and confidently the squirrel came down and settling on a branch took a peep at us.

"It's your little house, isn't it?" the boy said, forgetting all his troubles. "You are mistress here, aren't you? Never mind, dear squirrel, we shall soon be gone."

The squirrel moved its tail and came still closer, watching us attentively with its bright black eyes.

"Mother, it's a good thing that the squirrel has come to us, isn't it?"

"Yes."

"Why?"

"Because it shows that it hasn't been frightened and that there are no men near."

"And no dogs?"

"No. Sleep, you are the squirrel's guest."

"We'll call this place "The Squirrel's House", shall we?"

The boy cheered up completely and went to sleep. The squirrel jumped to the next tree.

Everything around us was as peaceful as it only can be in nature when there is no man about. The grass, the trees, the squirrel, the sun—all lived a pure and serene life of their own. And we—we could at any moment be hounded down by human beings like ourselves but with green stripes and four letters "OGPU" on their uniforms.

Twentieth century, Socialism, and so much hatred! And after all, what were we guilty of? Of running away from penal servitude to which my husband, innocent, was condemned? In the days of Tsardom convicts were not shot for trying to escape—and what a lot of them did run away! But now, when penal servitude is a hundred times worse than it used to be, we should be killed. And they would first torture us to their hearts' content and perhaps make the boy look on. No, if we were caught I would resist to the last and be killed straight off.