Any historic novel set in Russia during the twentieth century will invariably include at least one scenario situated in her forced labor camps. Since no family was spared the snares of what Andre Solzhenitsyn called the Gulag Archipelago, I sentenced my character, Boris Koscik to five years hard labor, or what his daughter labeled death. Rather than try to describe the horrors of prison life, I choose to write only snippets of Boris'confinement. For a detailed picture of camp life, I left it up to narratives found in the works of talented writers such as Solzhenitsyn's One Day In the Life of Ivan Denisovich and Varlan Shalamov's Kolyma Tales.
In Slogans: Our Children, Our Future, I wrote of Boris's death from his point of view. Left to die from cholera in a sealed barrack, Boris remained in character and continued his defiance against the Party to the end. As he drifted in and out of delirium, he shouted challenges and insults to the guards posted safely outside.
* * *
“Come inside you sniveling curs. What? Are you afraid to die?” Boris' attempt at a challenge resulted in little more than a dry rattle. “Come and see how real men face death.” There would be no doctor, no cure. He was a zhuk and zhuk were replaceable. He strained his ears and heard nothing. The old priest no longer chanted prayers forgiving his jailers and the young anarchist ceased to blaspheme. In the gulag, death respected neither age nor belief.
* * *
* * *
Death's fishy odor grew thicker than the sodden blanket Boris huddled beneath for warmth. As he struggled for life, blackness slowly descended over him heralded by a song. The singer’s voice was strong and steady and floated from everywhere and yet nowhere. It sang a slow mournful tune whose lyrics spoke of yearning for times long gone.
“The sound of the bell echoes in the field.
The coachman is silent and road
Stretches far into the horizon.”
* * *In keeping with Akulina's extraordinary perception, she felt her father slip away "as softly as a moonbeam through a window." In the last paragraph of the camp scene I jumped to a future in which the remains of the camp victims were compared to that of a mammoth consumed by the prisoners in an earlier chapter.
* * *
Unlike the death of the mammoth ten millennia ago, Pravda did not mention the thirty-two prisoners at Solovki Sub-Camp Number Seven who perished from cholera. Several generations would pass before the victims' bones and those of thousands of others scattered throughout the forest would be exhumed and given a proper burial.
* * *
|Burial site outside a labor camp|
Illness and Starvation
Along with the labor camps, death from starvation and sickness was rampant in the early years of the Soviet Union. Unlike Boris' fictitious death in the Gulag, Akulina's death on a badly managed famine train was true.
Akulina's life and death contained all the material of legend. It was a story of suffering and sacrifice; a mother who died so her sons may live. Her final moments spanned all three of my novels. In the first two it occurred as haunting premonitions, a black emptiness void of all light. In Slogans, I finally described her death. As the transport train chugged through the Russian wasteland on its way to Poland, Akulina weakened by starvation succumbed to pneumonia. I choose using two opposing points of view.
In the first narrative Akulina slipped into a dream state where she met her mother Maria, who showed her a room piled with food and drink. Akulina viewed a wonderful world that was in stark contrast to her actual surroundings.
* * *
Akulina sat at the table and gazed about the room. She viewed clear windows with lace curtains, a floor that glimmered like a moonlit pond, and furniture grander than Old Rosina's. Never had she been in a place so elegant.
* * *
|Reality - Transport Train to Poland|
* * *
Vanya put his arms around his mother and felt her body shiver. How small she is. I can feel her bones. Should I call Teta? Vanya remained silent until the spasms lessened and the breathing softened. “Please, Mati. Be better,” he whispered before he again drifted to sleep.
* * *Akulina allowed her mother to lead her into the beyond. It wasn't until others had read this passage that I recognized the significance of Maria's last words. I don't know where the inspiration for "there is no when" came from, but it seemed to fit.
|Into the Light|
* * *
“Where are you taking me?” Akulina asked. “I can't leave my boys. And what about Massey?”
“You did well with them, Akulina Boriskova. Their father will see they grow to become fine young men. You need not worry.”
“When will I see him?”
“ Oh, Lena. Where we're going there is no when. Only now.”
* * *Poor little Vanya realized his mother was gone and did all in his power to help her.
* * *Vanya awoke with a jolt and adjusted his blanket to block the night air. Again he rolled closer to his mother for comfort, but as soon as their bodies touched he knew. In a desperate attempt, Vanya pulled his mother closer, wrapped her in his arms and tried to bring her back.