Escape from the Soviets - T. Tchernavin

No Sun

"Is it light? Time to go?" my husband asked in alarm. "It's quite early yet. About three in the morning."

"We must go." He jumped up and stepped out from under the tree to have a look at the sky.

I snuggled in the warm place under the mackintosh. My night fears and thoughts had gone and I felt calm and happy. I wanted to have if only a few minutes sleep—to sink into unconsciousness as into warm water.

"We must go, it's quite light."

"It's early. And in this mist you can't see a thing."

"The sun will soon come out. We did not walk far yesterday."

"Not far! We walked from three in the morning till nearly midnight."

"But we rested a lot during the day. I'll go and have a look round while you get ready."

He was merciless.

I was dreadfully disinclined to move. . . . And it was so difficult to wake the boy! Our leg-wrappings were still damp, the boots were quite wet and it was difficult to pull them on.

My husband came back, pale and anxious.

"Hurry up! The hill we have to climb is not well wooded, we must get there before the sun is up. It's not far to the river."

I was thinking to myself, "The OGPU or frontier guards are not likely to get up at this hour! They are fast asleep in their warm beds. If only we could have some tea! He does not seem to remember what happened to him in the night. I wonder if it's all nerves?"

It was surprising that the boy was in such good form. He had not had any food for the last twelve hours. I put some rusks in his pocket and gave him a lump of sugar. The wound on his heel had grown bigger after a day's journey, but it did not fester.

We set off, and immediately found ourselves in the marsh once more. Dazzling white moss was all round, and suddenly in this wild spot, within a few yards of our camping-ground which, we thought, was as far off from everywhere as the bottom of the sea, we came across some paths! Two or three paths running from north to south—along the frontier? There were no footprints of any kind, but the paths were clearly marked. We dashed across them, afraid of stepping on a twig or catching at a branch. We walked on breathlessly, without looking back or thinking of anything, intent on getting away as far as we could.

"Now the river will stop us and we shall be done for!" my husband remarked gloomily.

But no, the river was broken up into so many rivulets that we had only to step or jump over them. We sometimes used by way of a bridge rotten tree stumps that had fallen into the river, or simply waded through the water which was not more than knee-deep. Branches of the low-growing Arctic willows got under our feet and caught us in the face as we walked.

We crossed the river. The ascent to the ridge on the opposite bank proved to be as marshy as the valley.

Even in comparatively steep places the thick willow bushes grew among moss hillocks with black water in between. We had to walk on those hillocks though they trembled like jelly as soon as one stepped on them.

There were low white clouds overhead. The sun was trying to come through; one part of the sky began to look lighter than the rest. We stopped and eagerly waited for the sun to come out.

It showed itself, a flat red disk without any rays, and in a minute or two disappeared again without a trace. We could see for the moment where the west was, but it was doubtful if we could keep on walking in the right direction because the wide valley stretched into the distance, winding all the way.

At first we walked fairly cheerfully, hoping that the sun would come out again. We were fearfully thirsty. We had been tramping for five hours without food or drink or rest through swampy ground, rising steeply uphill. We did not feel like eating sugar or bacon. It would have been nice to have some mushrooms but so far the boy comforted himself by merely pointing to their pretty red caps that were showing everywhere in the white moss. When he found one growing in his path he stroked it and whispered something to it affectionately. In this alien wild expanse mushrooms that he had gathered as a small child seemed like old friends to him.

The sun did not come out. The sky was a uniform white. It was impossible to trace the course of the river that lost itself in the swamps; the ridge that we had seen from the distance disappeared behind the nearer hills; we could not tell whether the slope that we were climbing had imperceptibly led us in the wrong direction.

I was feeling so wretched that I was afraid to go near the others. It was I who had ruined them by losing the compass. I was suffering agonies of remorse.

Where were we to go now, when there was no sun to guide us?

My husband was hesitating: he led us sometimes uphill as though hoping to see something in the distance, sometimes came lower, wondering if he could hear the sound of the river which apparently turned to the south.

At last he took one more look at the sky. The clouds had come still lower and crept over the tops of the fir trees, scattering tiniest drops of moisture over us.

"We cannot go on." he said. "It's comparatively dry here. Wait for me, I'll go and find a place to camp in."

He soon found a good fir-tree. It was in a lovely spot: fluffy white moss covered the ground, tiny bushes of whortleberry with big bluish berries looked like an embroidery on it; the red-capped mushrooms were big as in fairy books; the magnificent fir-trees had a silvery sheen on their soft green needles. Our fir-tree was so exactly like the others and had such thick spreading branches that we could not be seen under it at a distance of ten paces. The ground underneath, soft with the fallen needles, was dry and smooth, and the place looked remarkably cozy.

The child cheered up at once and chattered away:

"Daddy, it's a good thing we stopped, isn't it? We've come a good way to-day. And the rest will do my foot good, won't it? Perhaps it will get quite well. Don't you think it might?"

"Yes, dear, certainly. But I wonder if I shall find any water here. And if we go lower down we shall be in a swamp again."

"No, don't let us go into a swamp. We can manage without water. I am not a bit thirsty, I was eating whortleberries, they are quite wet and the drops on them taste awfully good. I'll pick some for you, mother. You go to sleep, and I'll go and get some presently."

I lay down, covering my head with the faithful mackintosh, and the father and the son began a long, friendly conversation, sitting very close to each other.

His father was telling him about his own happy childhood, about journeys by train and by steamer, and the good things one could get to eat at the stations. Then he told him of his expeditions in the mountains, of how he had learned to find his way by the sun and the trees.

"Daddy, but the sun hasn't come out yet." I heard the boy's voice.

"No, dear, it won't to-day. It will soon be evening, anyhow."

"And if there is no sun to-morrow either, what shall we do?"

"We'll stay here, under the fir-tree."