Gulag, by Timothy Hobs
After many deaths from exposure and starvation, a Siberian labor camp outside the village of Oimiakon in the Indigirka river region was almost void of prisoners or officials. Howling winds and endless snow ended most communication with Moscow, leaving those abandoned within the crumbling barracks without food, sufficient lantern fuel, fire wood, or hope. But Comrade Commander Konstantin Nikishov learned to survive by preying on those few remaining souls for his own pleasure, manipulation, and persecution.
A long lineage of brutal disposition came naturally to Commander Nikishov from his father, grandfather, and great grandfather, all Stalin disciples eager to see any criminal or dissident, political or otherwise, incarcerated in the Gulag’s arms of hard labor and inevitable extinction.
Late October found most of this Gulag’s huts and poorly constructed barracks cut up for firewood or trade with a deviate black market impresario from the village of Oimiakon named Ivan Slavsky, who made the trek to the labor camp once a month with lantern fuel, dried fish, and rotting vegetables not suited for growth on the frozen, Siberian earth, those few, spindly plants finding tenacious life in a dilapidated Oimiakon greenhouse. The women Slavsky once delivered for sexual favors quit coming when the majority of camp overseers, wardens, jailers, and guards either deserted the Gulag or perished there. To Slavsky it now seemed a waste of time trading for bits of decaying barrack wood or cigarettes offered by Comrade Commander Nikishov, but vodka was still plentiful and stacked high in wooden boxes in a large stable now void of horses slaughtered for food or dying from starvation or predators. And Comrade Commander Nikishov was always generous to Slavsky when it came to vodka, the one lingering force keeping Slavsky on his monthly visits even when the sun would no longer greet the day between October and April.
And as Slavsky halted his wagon in front of the Comrade Commander’s cottage, the aging black marketer began to weigh his lust for vodka against the endless night he’d navigated in peril.
“Well, Ivan Slavsky,” Commander Nikishov said as he opened his cottage door against a frigid and powerful wind. “I see your lanterns guided you through the cold dark.” He then smiled and added, “I hope your usual shit items are not as shitty.”
Slavsky, a thin, tall aging man, huddled in his heavy coat and let out a strained laugh through his frosted beard. “Comrade Commander, my goods are always the best. Why even my wife and children do not dine on such delicacies.”
Nikishov stared at Slavsky with predatory hazel eyes difficult for Slavsky to look into, the black market agent soon lowering his eyes away from Nikishov. “Your wife is a pig, Comrade Slavsky,” Nikishov said sharply. “And your children inbred idiots. I think them not choosy in their choice of food.”
Slavsky blushed under his thick coat collar but only said, “Comrade Commander Nikishov is very perceptive. It’s true a man such as myself should never marry a blood relative, but Oimiakon is a long way from any village large enough for other options.”
Nikishov, shorter than Slavsky’s long, lean frame but stocky and thickly muscled continued to stare in silence. Unlike Slavsky’s worn, patched coat and clothes, Commander Nikishov kept up the appearance of a high ranking and privileged Soviet—expensive, heavy white fox and mink coat along with a thick sable shapka for his balding head, his face stoic in its lines sporting a neatly trimmed Vandyke beard and moustache, his fingernails manicured and clean.
A smile spread slowly over Nikishov’s face. “It is good to know one’s station and duty, Comrade Slavsky, and to keep whatever warms his bed close through the Siberian night.”
Slavsky hesitated before asking, “Then my duty is to unload the lantern fuel, food and vegetables from the village, is it not Comrade Commander?”
“You’d best go to the stable and do so, Comrade Slavsky. There is still some hay for your horses. It’s stale but I doubt your beasts will object.”
“First might I come inside and have a drink of vodka? The trip here is long and cold now that we have no sun, and my bones are chilled.”
“You know I rarely invite anyone inside my home, Comrade Slavsky. You should make haste and unload your goods in the stable. And don’t tarry or some of those remaining here might remember how hungry they are if your horses are spotted.”
Slavsky bowed slightly and said, “How much vodka should I take in payment?”
“Two cases as always.”
“But Comrade Commander, the trip is much harder now without sunlight, not to mention more dangerous.”
“Two cases only, Comrade Slavsky or I’ll take your goods and give you nothing but general directions back to your village. You and your brood can eat that foul, dried fish and munch happy as idiots on those measly, desiccated tomatoes, cucumbers, and moldy potatoes with nothing to wash them down with but contaminated water.”
Slavsky bowed again and moved to the front of the wagon, then to the horses. He grabbed the lead’s bridle and proceeded in the direction of the stable which was about twenty meters distance. Just before starting, Slavsky turned his head and asked, “I meant to ask the Commander, has Valentina Borsok been found?”
Nikishov stared blankly from his cottage doorway and did not answer. Slavsky turned back and directed the horses toward the stable while muttering, “Poor woman, so beautiful to have been trapped in this place. God only knows what took her.”
Commander Konstantin Nikishov missed abusing Valentina Borsok, missed beating the naked flesh of her buttocks, biting until blood dripped from her nipples, or mounting her cruelly from behind while grunting like a barnyard animal. He often thought he saw her form briefly fleeting like a phantom across the rooms of his cottage. “Even your ghost, Valentina, craves mistreatment,” he would say in a drunken haze. “But extra food and lamp oil will do you no good now, will they?”
Valentina had been an easy mark, her young son and sniveling, weak husband the recipients of extra supplies traded for sexual cruelty imposed by Nikishov. She only gave in a few times at first, but over time her night trips to the Commander’s cottage took place with more frequency. “Come now, Valentina, you must be warming to me. You come so often now,” Nikishov had said with a nasty laugh one night after a particular bestial coupling. “My son Mikhail,” Valentina replied with haunted eyes fixed on the Commander. “He is ill from malnutrition. I do not care what I must do.” “And what of your husband, Andrei?” Nikishov had asked. “Does he suffer from lack of vitamins as well? Or was your coming here his idea all along? I imagine for the vodka I donate, right?” But she would talk no more until she was dressed and bundled in her frayed clothes and worn coat for the walk back to her meager hut. As she opened the front door and started to leave, she would sometimes ask, “The Comrade Commander will want me back tomorrow?” Most times Nikishov only laughed and told her to leave, but on occasion he would grab her from the doorway and ravish her fully dressed, ripping her undergarments away as he did.
How long had it been now? Nikishov wondered. Almost a month since Valentina did not return to her home, her husband Andrei banging on the Commander’s door at an ungodly hour, frantic since his wife had not returned. “But Andrei, I have no idea what happened. She left here as warm and satisfied as usual with a bundle of supplies.” Nikishov well recalled the pitiful husband’s attempt to strike him. “I only broke a few of your teeth then,” Nikishov dreamily said to his empty room. “And a few fingers.” He smiled at the memory of Andrei’s screams during the beating and how the little worm squirmed when Nikishov threw him out the door into snowy darkness yelling, “Go and find your whore, Andrei. And tell her not to be late tomorrow or I will start breaking your son’s bones.” Nikishov took a long swallow of vodka at the memories. “But no one found her,” he said as he poured another shot glass full. “A shame. Only that scum jailer’s maid Vanka is left and there’s not enough vodka in Russia to transform that ox into a Valentina.”
Nikishov got up from the chair he’d dumped himself in after Ivan Slavsky’s arrival, walked on wobbly legs to the front door of the cottage and opened it staring in the direction of the stable to make sure Slavsky had departed. The receding lamps on a wagon disappearing down the road toward Oimiakon let him know the black marketer Slavsky was indeed finished unloading supplies. Nikishov pulled his coat tightly around him, placed the sable shapka on his head, and retrieved a burning lantern from the table by the front door. “I will check the inventory, Comrade Slavsky,” he said to the cold night as he ambled toward the stable with no doubt Slavsky took no more than two cases of vodka, the man too cowardly to face the consequences.
About halfway to the stable, Nikishov thought he heard faint footsteps behind him. He turned and surveyed the night as best he could under the lantern’s glow. He stood still for a long while until snow began to drift down around him. Nikishov frowned, headed back toward the stable, and spoke softly into the darkness behind him, “Only children believe such foolishness.”
At the beginning of a road leading away from the labor camp stands a small, decrepit hut. It was here that Andrei Borsok, his son Mikhail, and until close to a month ago, his wife Valentina, now missing, managed a meager existence. The hut’s interior, unlike Commander Nikishov’s cottage with its four, well kept rooms, consisted of one room serving as a kitchen, bedroom, and living room. The hut had no toilet, making trips to a cold outhouse an unwelcome necessity this time of year.
Tonight, Andrei Borsok sat looking blankly into a tiny fireplace as its flames threatened to die. Occasionally he would glance in the direction of his son, who slept fitfully on one of the soiled cots the Borsoks possessed, and wondered how long it would be before their bodies released that essence some believed were souls. Andrei once believed that concept himself—a merciful God above who waited in welcome for those righteous souls below. But this belief wore away like the flesh on his, Mikhail’s , and Valentina’s bones. Andrei thought of his wife then and shivered. So long now since he’d held her, whispering he understood her arrangement, calming her and weeping with her at the atrocities Valentina endured night after night at the whim of camp commander Nikishov.
Andrei prayed for justice knowing he was too weak to extract it himself and too meaningless to the Russian hierarchy to expect any reasonable treatment. How he came to the camp was a miscarriage of justice in the first place, so why would any unexpected act of kindness for him and his family be considered. It was Andrei’s father who’d been distributing bibles illegally, but all of those connected were found guilty, especially members of the Borsok family including Andrei and Valentina, Andrei a successful bookkeeper, a twist of fate gaining camp assignment with a separate hut for him and his family, the hut though meager much better for his infant son Mikhail than the squalid, over crowded barracks. The first few years were bearable, but as the camp’s population steadily decreased under the harsh conditions of weather, starvation, and disease, Andrei became a focal point for Commander Nikishov’s ire and cruelty and, eventually, the sexual abuse of Valentina in exchange for extra supplies. And Andrei hated himself for not choosing death over trading his wife for those items needed for survival. “But we must see Mikhail has a chance to leave this place,” Valentina had pleaded. “We’ve had ours, now we must sacrifice all for our son.”
“What good did any of it do, Valentina,” Andrei said to the dying firelight. “All your submission to that swine only took you away from me.” He then heard what sounded like heavy footsteps outside and turned his attention to the hut’s front door and the heavy thumps of someone knocking. As he moved to the door, Andrei saw his son’s eyes slowly open. Andrei put a finger to his lips urging the boy to keep silent and feign sleeping. Mikhail rolled over and faced away from the door as Andrei opened it to find Commander Nikishov standing outside.
“Good day, Comrade Borsok,” Nikishov said. “Or is it evening.” He shook his head and barged past Andrei into the hut. “One gets confused without sunlight,” he said and sat his lantern down close to the fireplace.
Andrei closed the door saying, “Evening I think, Comrade Commander.” He stared flatly at Nikishov before adding, “It’s a sense of time I developed over the years here.”
Outside, the wind picked up, swirling the escalating snow into dervish patterns of white.
“It’s snowing again,” Nikishov said and then examined the dying fire. “Best put more wood on that fire, Comrade Borsok. I plan to stay for awhile.”
“I’m saving what little I have left for tomorrow, Comrade Commander,” Andrei said, noticing a scowl form on Nikishov’s face. “I plan to go further back in the camp tomorrow and look for any wood pieces left from the collapsed guard huts and barracks.”
“Bring me that,” Nikishov said pointing to a small stool not far from a rickety kitchen table. Andrei moved to the stool, picked it up and brought it to Nikishov, who grabbed the stool and examined it. “Maybe I should break this up,” he said and pretended a downward smashing motion, stopping just short of the floor.
Andrei held up his hands. “Please, Comrade Commander. I have so little to rest on. No chairs, only that worn stool.”
With a sound like dried gravel ground under heavy boots, Nikishov laughed and then placed the stool down beside the cot where Mikhail lay in fake sleep and sat on it. “Not very comfortable,” he said and snickered. Then Nikishov looked at Andrei with dead serious eyes. “It’s not a good idea to go that far back into the camp. The jailer Comrade Trutnev has told me rumors of bad things going on deep in what remains of the huts and barracks.”
A grin slowly creased Nikishov’s face. “Rumors. Childish stories that may have natural validity.” Nikishov then turned his attention to the boy on the cot. “But still not worth the risk of leaving this one without a father as well as a mother. There would be no one to care for your son then.” He looked back at Andrei and added, “Only God knows what would happen to your boy.”
A flush of anger at the memory of his wife’s abuse spread over Andrei’s face, but it quickly receded when he realized how outmatched he was. “But I need wood to burn, Comrade Commander. That makes looking there worth the risk.”
Nikishov stared in silence at Andrei for awhile before saying, “I’m feeling in a particular generous mood this evening, Comrade Borsok.” He looked back down at the boy on the cot. “He looks sickly enough. Your wife Valentina told me the boy suffers from malnutrition, wouldn’t do to have him endure hypothermia as well, would it?”
“That is why I must look for wood, Comrade Commander.”
“Comrade Slavsky delivered supplies of wood and food earlier from Oimiakon. The stable is not far from here. Why don’t you go there and pick out some small logs? Enough to last you a few days.” Nikishov leered then. “Valentina still had a few things coming to her.” A new flood of hatred filled Andrei and he moved with balled fists toward Nikishov who abruptly stood and said, “Remember what happened the last time you tried that, Comrade Borsok? Or have your bruises healed enough to install bravery?”
Andrei stopped and let his hands fall to his side. His breathing slowed and he soon felt his ire dissipate along with any courage mustered. Valentina was dead to him now, so what did insults matter. “I cannot leave Mikhail unattended,” he said softly.
Nikishov waved Andrei toward the door. “I will watch the boy.” He glanced back at the figure on the cot. “He’s sleeping so soundly I doubt he’ll even know you have gone out.”
“But Comrade Commander . . .”
Nikishov sat back down and gave Andrei a hard look. “Are you insinuating I might harm this little one?” He smiled then and said, “What kind of monster do you take me for?”
“I did not mean . . . Yes, I will go to the stable and not tarry. Thank you, Comrade Commander.”
“While you’re there grab two bottles of vodka from a case and also pick out a couple of boxes containing the dried fish and pitiful excuse for vegetables. I will let you and your son have those as well as the wood. The vodka you and I will share when you return.”
Andrei opened the door and then hesitated. “I won’t be able to bring all that in one trip. And I need a lantern to see by but have no more fuel.”
“Take mine,” Nikishov said, pointing to the burning lantern he’d placed near the fireplace. “And bring back a little extra lamp fuel Comrade Slavsky also delivered. You may keep it along with the food and wood for yourself. There is a wheelbarrow close by the cases of vodka. You can bring all the items back in it.”
Bending down to pick up the lantern, Andrei felt a thread of suspicion spread over him. “But I cannot repay you for these things, so only a little wood will do.”
Nikishov rose again from the stool. “Do as I say, Comrade Borsok. And be quick about it. I need that vodka.”
Andrei slowly went out and closed the door behind him, holding the lantern in front as he walked the path toward the stable.
As Andrei’s footsteps drifted away from the hut, Nikishov sat back down and gave his attention to the boy on the cot. “Little Mikhail, are you really asleep or only pretending?” There was no movement from the boy. Nikishov bent closer and blew a stream of hot breath on Mikhail’s hair. Still, the boy did not move. Nikishov let his eyes move over the half-covered body clothed in a dirty nightshirt. “You’re not a bad looking fellow,” he said and then smiled. “A trait certainly not from that repulsive wimp father of yours.” Nikishov noticed the boy’s breathing increase at that last remark. “More like your mother, like Valentina.” The boy rolled over and locked his eyes with those of Nikishov. “So, little Mikhail was playing possum.” He pulled the covers from the boy and stared harder. “How old did your mother tell me you were? Seven was it? Maybe eight?” Mikhail remained silent, keeping his eyes on the leering face above. “Hmm, a bit scrawny but not bad for a boy,” Nikishov said and then noticed a number of bruised abrasions below the nightshirt on the boy’s inner thighs. Nikishov then rose from the stool and walked to the fireplace. “Are those wounds from malnutrition? I hear the lack of some vitamins causes the blood to thin, the flesh to bruise,” Nikishov said to faint embers glowing in the fireplace. The wind suddenly gusted in an eerie howl against the hut. Nikishov stared vacantly ahead and said, “Or are those marks from something else?” The wind then banged and howled louder. Nikishov pulled up the color of his fur coat and shuddered against the unearthly sounds emanating from a dark, unruly night.
As Andrei located a few cartons of supplies and firewood stacked against the many cases of remaining vodka, light from the lantern he held cast long shadows on the crumbling stable walls. He lifted the lantern higher, spreading its illumination, and then found a wheelbarrow lying on its side. He hung the lantern on a peg located on one of the stable’s support posts, righted the wheelbarrow, and maneuvered it toward the supplies. Pushing the wheelbarrow, Andrei noticed its single wheel wobbled. “Probably won’t stand the weight,” he said out loud as he began to sort through cartons to determine what they contained. Once he discovered which held the food and which the lamp fuel, he loaded two cartons of each into the wheelbarrow. He then added a few logs of firewood before opening one case of vodka and removing two bottles, which he placed in the side pockets of his coat to prevent the possibility of breakage should they fall out of the wheelbarrow. Andrei knew Commander Nikishov well enough not to have an accident with the commander’s precious vodka.
When he was about to leave the stable, Andrei heard a soft rustling from somewhere in the shadowy corners. He set down the wheelbarrow, lifted his lantern and listened. Again the rustling came, this time with what sounded like a soft moaning. “Someone there?” Andrei asked thinking of the remaining camp occupants and what danger they might pose. “Hello?” he asked about the time a vague form came within view of the lantern’s glow. Andrei held the light closer and said, “It’s you then. Hungry, I suppose.”
“Yes.” The voice was filled with cold melancholy, the face emerging from the gloom one of emaciation and nightmare. What once was Andrei’s wife Valentina came closer, its arms extended., its eyes reflecting red under the lantern’s radiance. Its mouth opened slightly revealing slender, keen upper canines as it spoke, “My son Mikhail. I need to go to him.”
Andrei walked forward and embraced the vampire, its frigid body tensing as he did. “Valentina,” he said sobbing. “I know part of you still remains. Please have mercy on our child. He has grown very weak after your feedings.” He then looked directly at the ashen face, the dead eyes, finding nothing but thirst there. He slowly released the vampire and said, “There is another at the hut you might find a better meal. His large body is heavy with blood.”
The vampire opened and closed its mouth repeatedly before saying, “No, it must be Mikhail.”
Andrei walked back to the wheelbarrow and placed the lantern’s ring over one of its handles. “Wait a while longer until I can rekindle the fireplace, then come for my invitation,” he said as he pushed the wheelbarrow forward, the wobbly wheel dangerously close to collapsing.
After his seventh vodka shot, Commander Nikishov stared with blurry vision at a
fireplace burning with new life. “See how good I am to you Comrade Borsok,” he said, slurring his words. “A warm fire, vodka, and food for you at no cost.” He held up his slender shot glass and said, “A toast to me then.” He glanced at Andrei, who’d yet to finish the second shot of vodka Nikishov poured him an hour before. “Come Comrade Borsok, join me in a toast to myself.” But as Nikishov bellowed out a drunken laugh at his own joke, Andrei did not raise his glass. Nikishov looked back at Andrei and again said, “I insist you toast me, peasant! You pitiful excuse for a husband allowing his wife to barter her body.” Nikishov felt the room begin to spin and closed his eyes adding, “Such a body too. I can still taste Valentina’s flesh, feel me deep in her warm cunt.” He opened his eyes and found Andrei’s livid stare directly on him. Nikishov smiled. “And such a cunt, Comrade Borsok. Wasted on the likes of you for sure.” He laughed again, filling the hut with its nastiness. Nikishov went silent for awhile before adding, “You know, Comrade Borsok, I believe Valentina liked coming to my cottage. Fact is, I doubt she would have been disappointed had I given her nothing for her favors but my big, hairy slong!”
Andrei screamed and leapt on Nikishov, but the smaller man was no match for Nikishov, even drunk, who threw Andrei aside like a rag doll. Sitting on top of Andrei, Nikishov pinned the helpless man to the floor.
“Get off my father!” Mikhail wailed from behind Nikishov before he jumped on the commander’s back and bit a portion of Nikishov’s right ear away.
In one, quick motion, Nikishov pulled the boy over his head, throwing Mikhail back on the cot. Nikishov then got off Andrei, giving the smaller man a heavy kick in the ribs as he did, sending Andrei into curled into a ball of pain.
“So this is the gratitude for supplies I gave you,” Nikishov bellowed while examining the blood pulled away when touching his injured ear. He stared lividly at the trembling boy on the cot. “Maybe I make you into your mother, you ungrateful boy. Maybe you can come to me every night. Maybe . . .”
Nikishov’s words caught in his throat as a ghastly wail radiated from outside the hut’s front door.
“Mikhail!” The voice sent racing goose bumps over Nikishov’s flesh. An added sound of nails scratching on the door only made the horrible noise grislier. “I am cold and hungry, my son. Let me in!”
Nikishov watched in ghastly wonder as the boy got up from the cot and walked toward the door like a sleepwalker. Nikishov was so mystified by the horrid noise outside and Mikhail’s strange walk it took a moment to react, but he made it to the door in time to stop the boy from opening it. “Are you crazy?” he asked Mikhail. “You can’t open the door. There’s something out there.” He glanced at the door and added, “Whoever it is wants in much too badly to be trusted.”
Wincing in pain, Andrei got up from the floor, took a deep breath and said, “It is my wife out there, Comrade Commander. Or what remains of her.”
“Valentina?! Impossible. You and I both no she could never survive out there as long as she’s been missing.”
“Mikhailiiiiiii!” The howling and scraping increased to a frenzy, making Nikishov push himself away from the door.
“What in God’s name?” Nikishov asked. “What do you want? Who are you?” he screamed.
Nikishov let out a muffled yelp when a hand touched his shoulder. He quickly turned around to find Andrei standing there with an odd grin on his face. “Can’t you hear, Comrade Commander? Valentina is asking for her son.”
“Enough of this nonsense!” Nikishov, suddenly sober, roared into Andrei’s face. “That is not Valentina!”
“It isn’t, and it is.”
“You are an idiot, Comrade Borsok. The dead do not walk.”
“Don’t they? And aren’t you really a little unsure? You’ve heard of the weird things going on deeper in what remains of the camp. That jailer you spoke of . . . . what’s his name?”
“Yes, Comrade Trutnev. You admitted he told you strange things.”
Nikishov felt sick at his stomach. He walked from Andrei and sat on the stool. “What of it? Trutnev did share some nonsense, stupid gossip about something prowling around what was left of the old barracks and huts. Something he said wasn’t human. Something he said was slowly killing off the few remaining prisoners and guards.” Nikishov lowered his head to fight the nausea. “Again, nonsense. Stupid, peasant superstition. The only killer is starvation and disease, nothing more.” Nikishov instantly raised his head at a blast of frigid air blowing into the room. He’d completely forgotten about Mikhail.
The boy stood transfixed with his hand on the door handle he’d pulled open. The thing in the doorway held back its head and uttered an unearthly shriek. It then let its eyes move back and forth scanning the people inside.
Nikishov gawked at a face he’d slapped, a body he’d ravaged and realized even though it was much altered now, the thing in the doorway was Valentina, and he screamed, “Close that door! Keep her out!”
The Valentina thing stared at Nikishov intently, then found Mikhail and implored, “My son, ask me in so I may warm myself in your arms.”
“No!” Nikishov shouted. “Don’t invite it in!”
“But I thought, Comrade Commander, such things do not exist,” Andrei said flatly. “What harm in asking something inside that is not real?”
Nikishov fought back his terror. “I am ordering you and your skinny son to close that door.”
“Yes, mother.” The boy’s words were soft and strangely tender with no acknowledgement of Nikishov’s orders. “Please, come inside.”
What once was Valentina Borsok glided more than walked over the threshold in a tattered dress, the hem dragging on the floor. As she moved toward Nikishov, the commander shrieked and backed away.
“No need to fear her, Comrade Commander,” Andrei said moving in front of Valentina. “It is not your blood she craves.” Her face covered by sunken, pasty flesh the color of alabaster, Valentina stared at both men.
“I’m here, mother.” The sound of Mikhail’s voice triggered Valentina to turn her head rapidly and move to the cot where Mikhail had lain back down. She bent down and took the boy in her arms before sitting on the cot.
Nikishov was paralyzed with disgust and dread. A whine escaped his throat when the Valentina thing bent down and bit into Mikhail’s left thigh. “My God,” Nikishov said in a whisper. “I am in a nightmare. That’s all this is.”
“No, Comrade Commander. You are not dreaming,” Andrei said as he walked to the front door and closed it. “The vourdalak that moved its hunting ground to this camp took my wife the night she never returned to me from your cottage. Why it didn’t kill Valentina after bleeding her dry is a mystery.” Andrei tuned away from the gruesome sucking noises filling the room. “Who knows, Comrade Commander, maybe that vourdalak was lonely and needed company. Normally, it would have decapitated its victim to eliminate competition.”
“Vourdalak? My father used to frighten us with such fairy tales,” Nikishov said watching Valentina feed. “If we misbehaved, he told us the vourdalak would come for us at night.” Nikishov turned back to Andrei. “Your wife is ill, not a vampire, Comrade Borsok. Anemic maybe and craves blood.” He shivered and pushed by Andrei. “I’m going back to my cottage,” he said and picked up the remaining bottle of vodka. “If I were you, Comrade Borsok, I’d put that poor, sick wife of yours out of her misery before she does anymore harm to your son.”
“Vourdalaks always go for their children first. Once she drains Mikhail,” Andrei said with distraction, “ she won’t be so choosy.” He then gazed blankly at Nikishov. “My blood or yours will do.”
“What nonsense,” Nikishov said with little conviction.
Andrei smiled a ghastly grin and asked, “Perhaps the Comrade Commander would like Valentina to come by later for his pleasure.”
“Nonsense,” Nikishov repeated as he opened the door and hurried out.
As the sound of the commander’s heavy footsteps faded, Andrei walked across the room, sat down on the stool, and watched in dismay as Mikhail’s eyes rolled back, his last breath escaping like a fluttering bird into the cold air of the room.
Camp Commander Konstantin Nikishov had moved as much furniture as he could against the front door of his cottage. He spent the next week in and out of drunken stupors, soiling himself but not caring that he did. When the last bit of food and last drop of vodka were consumed, he swore it didn’t matter, that he would under no circumstances leave the cottage. However, his constitution only held for a few days, and by mid-week, Nikishov weakly pulled away the barricades from his door.
His lantern held high as he trudged nervously toward the stable, Nikishov tried to calculate how many days until Ivan Slavsky returned with next month’s supplies. The commander planned to load up all the remaining vodka, food and fuel in Slavsky’s wagon and force the black marketer to take him back to the village Oimiakon where Nikishov could plan a return to Moscow. “My superiors will understand,” he convinced himself. “No one left here for me to command except maybe that deviant jailer Trutnev and his cow-faced maid Vanka, if they’re still alive.” His face took on and odd expression when he added, “Or those others who’d be better off dead.” When he arrived at the stable entrance, he thought, “No, no one here worth the effort anymore.”
Avoiding any of the shriveled vegetables, Nikishov rummaged through the stacked cartons stuffing as much dried fish as he could into the pockets of his mink coat. “Why the hell didn’t I take that wheelbarrow with me when I left Comrade Borsok’s hut,” he chided himself out loud as he continued to stuff pockets to overflowing. When his coat was swollen with fish, Nikishov waddled under the weight as he walked to the stacked vodka cases. Determined to carry a full case of vodka, Nikishov tried to figure out where best to hold the lantern when he was ready to leave the stable. He sat lantern down, grabbed the case of vodka with both hands, then squatted and maneuvered the lantern’s handle between his right hand and the case of vodka. He tried to rise, but weakened from not eating and drinking too much over the past week took its toll on Nikishov’s strength and he toppled forward, fortunate not to overturn the lantern and start a fire in the moldy hay scattered about the dirt floor of the stable. He coughed repeatedly from his effort until he finally stabilized. Nikishov noticed then quite a bit of the dried fish had fallen from his pockets. As he made to retrieve them, Nikishov heard someone enter the stable. He froze and realized he had no weapon to defend himself other than the lantern, and he could ill afford to be without light. He told himself he must be burly and aggressive to whoever had entered. He was the camp commander after all, his weapons were his influence.
“Who goes there?” Nikishov asked with authority. “Come forward into the light.”
An approaching figure materialized slowly from the gloom. Once in enough light, Nikishov recognized the emaciated form of the jailer Trutnev. The man looked dreadful, his clothes hanging loose on a skeletal frame, his eyes sunken in a prominent, grinning skull covered with sickly, gray flesh under spurious growth of beard and hair.
“Comrade Commander,” Trutnev said in a hoarse, grating mumble. “Please, Commander, I need food.” He slumped over, allowing his bony fingers to fall flat for support on the dirt floor. Nikishov experienced a flood of repugnance when the light fell on Trutnev’s overgrown, curled, cracked yellow fingernails. “I have walked so far from the bowels of the camp, Comrade Commander,” Trutnev offered between gasps for air. “I must have food.”
Nikishov made no move to help the jailer. “And are you alone, Comrade Trutnev?” Without speaking, the jailer slowly raised his head and seemed to stare directly through Nikishov. “Again, Comrade Trutnev,” Nikishov asked. “Are you alone?”
“My companion Vanka . . . she . . .”
“Your maid? Yes, go on.”
Trutnev managed to raise himself and move forward on trembling legs. “Vanka, she took,” Trutnev said pointing at his neck. “She took too much.” Almost fully illuminated by lantern light now, Trutnev stood in front of Nikishov. Again the jailer placed fingers on his neck. “Too much. I need food. I need . . .”
Nikishov gazed in abhorrence at the multiple abrasions and bites covering not only Trutnev’s neck but his exposed hands and the side of his head and more than likely, Nikishov imagined, the rest of the jailer’s body.
“Don’t come any closer,” Nikishov ordered and then, with no objection now to leaving the case of vodka behind, moved as fast as possible around and away from Trutnev.
“Please help me, Comrade Commander!”
Ignoring Trutnev’s plea, Nikishov rushed out of the stable and stumbled forward in confusion, feeling he might faint before reaching the safety of his cottage. Once at the front door, Nikishov feebly pushed it open, set the lantern down, and fell face forward into the room. For a long while, he lay immobile trying to pull air into his lungs and gather his wits. “Made it,” he said in a whisper completely unaware of a figure sitting in the shadows.
“What? You didn’t bring vodka, Comrade Commander?”
Nikishov’s torpor suddenly vanished. He pulled himself to his feet and grabbed and held up the lantern, its edge of radiance barely revealing the figure of Andrei Borsok sitting comfortably on a stool.
Nikishov squinted and said, “What are you doing in my home, Comrade Borsok?”
Looking around the room, Nikishov recalled the Borsok hut’s rickety furniture, the small, dead fireplace. “How . . .?”
Andrei laughed weakly evoking a coughing fit. When the fit passed, he said, “Must have gone off course somehow, Comrade Commander.”
In his physical weakness and mental confusion, Nikishov now realized he left the stable in the wrong direction, ending up at the Borsok hut by mistake. “I made a wrong turn. I must go back to my cottage.”
“No need to rush off, Comrade Commander. I apologize there is no fire. Although we still have ample wood to make a nice, blazing one, but, you see, we have no need of warmth anymore.”
“No, don’t bother,” Nikishov said backing up to the door. “No need for a fire at all.” He was about to turn when a gust of wind slammed the door shut. Nikishov tried to hold the lantern and turn the door latch simultaneously, but his efforts were clumsy and counterproductive. When he bent to set the lantern down, he heard approaching footsteps. Nikishov swung the lantern around in a defensive motion and found nothing there. But as the light swung back and forth, Nikishov saw the figures of Andrei, Valentina, and Mikhail emerge, forming and reforming in a play of shadow and light while moving slowly toward him, their faces ghastly, their teeth gleaming, their hunger rampant.
Unless he was offered an extra case of vodka this trip, Ivan Slavsky swore he’d cut off the supplies from his village. “And if that pig Commander Nikishov doesn’t like it,” Slavsky said under his breath as he climbed out of the wagon. “He can walk to Oimiakon himself.”
But the closer he came to Nikishov’s cottage, the less resolve Slavsky mustered. Still, he intended to make his point. And he planned to do so just as his knocking was answered with a slow opening of the cottage door.
Nikishov peered around the door frame into the face of Slavsky, who held up a lantern and said, “Well, Comrade Commander, I have brought this month’s supplies.” Nikishov’s face looked pale and gaunt in the lamplight. Slavsky felt goose bumps race across his skin at the sight of it. “Is the Commander sick?” he asked.
Nikishov waited a moment before saying, “Yes, a bit.” He came out of the shadows then, standing fully in front of Slavsky. “Supplies you say?”
“Yes, same as always,” Slavsky said a little puzzled. “You know the usual dried fish, vegetables, firewood, and lamp fuel.”
Gazing in a fixed and predatory stare at Slavsky, Nikishov grinned and said in a low chuckle, “Oh yes, those.”
Again Slavsky was perplexed, but intended to make his demands for more vodka anyway. “But this time I must have an extra case of vodka, Comrade Commander. The trip here gets more difficult as this darkness and cold worsen.” He shrugged and grinned. “I am no longer a young man. My horses are going gray as well.”
Nikishov shook his head yes. “Why, of course you shall have an extra case. In fact, take two extra for your long journey.”
Slavsky, taken aback by this uncustomary generosity, grew suspicious. “Well, only one case extra is sufficient, Comrade Commander, unless, of course, you insist.”
“Come inside out of the cold, Comrade Slavsky, and we’ll discuss it over some vodka shots.”
Hesitating at the unexpected invitation, Slavsky said, “Oh, maybe I should deliver the goods to the stable and be on my way.”
“Nonsense,” Nikishov said while opening the door wider and placing an iron grip on Slavsky’s shoulder. He then maneuvered a resistant Slavsky over the threshold and closed the door.
“You have no fire? No lamps burning, Comrade Commander?” Slavsky moved his lantern around three hundred and sixty degrees before halting under Nikishov’s face. “Did you use all I left last month?” Slavsky asked, held the lamp closer, and gasped at the glaring red eyes, the bony, pallid cast of flesh, and the pointed teeth protruding over lips parting in a gruesome smile.
“I’ll be fine very soon now, Comrade Slavsky,” Nikishov said as a rustling noise filled with moans of hunger grew in the gloom behind Slavsky. “In fact, we all will be fine very soon now. Very . . . very soon.”