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The Prisoner

I remember his gallows thighs. His cock swung like a rope. The camp was weighted with snow and silence, settled with barbed wire, starvation in its planks and silted soup. Among the black beds, in cover of crowding, we fucked in frozen silence, tender as men carved from willow, or statues with too much plaster skimmed away. And I hung on the unspoken—His flesh testamented with ink, close to the bone now—it was impossible, like a nightmare, or the maintenance of faith. How to be romantic in such a scalping cold, and in the deepest sockets of hunger? So, my friend preserved no promises. What did Nietzsche say, that men are animals that make promises? Then we are also animals that break promises. At night, the moonlit snow is the color of false teeth, ashen bone in bitter dunes. I am, to Nikolai Volkov, a rotten rubber valve that he opens first with a spittled finger, then with a rod, the stiffness that Aaron’s rod possessed, and that was to a serpent transformed, and also a blossom-budded almond branch. His terrible breath pumps into my ear. I recall his first mention of cyanide, the frosted German boy he stole it from. “Little Hans, an icicle boy with black fingers and a bullet hole in his cheek, his limbs a swastika caught in the ice.” Nikolai had snatched the Prussian enamel locket from the dead boy’s neck and discovered its contents an hour later. “Little Hans forgot to take his pill.”

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In fifty days, the rumor went, we would finish repairing our stretch of the railway. We, Nikolai said, will also be finished then—machine gunned in a leaden blizzard on the steppes. He wouldn’t tell me where he kept the pill, in cuff, or hem, or numbered pocket. “I could take it any time,” he said. “Why should I finish the railway?” No, I told him. What if you’re wrong? Give me the fifty days. Nikolai. Please. “Why should I give you the fifty days?” Because I love you. The wolf grinned blue on his chest. The tattooed stars on his knees pulsed red and black. “Then promise me a tale each night. And I will promise you that if the rumors are suddenly made real, I will share my cyanide with you. It’s surely strong enough for both of us. Put it in an apple.” He laughed. There were no apples. I wanted to protest that he was being absurd, but I was also afraid of him. About us, filthy bunks shrouded the half-dead. Somewhere, a man wept into the crook of his arm, shepherding his griefs down into the hollow valleys of his gut. An asthmatic crackled and wheezed like embers in an iron grate. Nikolai was in my bed. This was in the interregnum that followed the death of Kolesnyk where a miraculous space opened up. Nikolai asked me, whispering, “How do you like being my girl?” I heard him spit into his hand, Nikolai, I’m tired. “All right, Natasha.” That’s what he called me.

What did I know about being his girl or anyone else’s? If I essayed what I knew of women, remote as planets, impenetrable as alms boxes, my confession could be hidden beneath a postage stamp. They brought me to the gulag a virgin. I remember the moonlit fog of his breath as he lay on his back. Was he thinking of me, or some real Natasha whom I might pity, or who might pity me with her red hair, cochineal lips, and fur? I was more like Little Hans, lying dead in the snow. Under sack cloth in the narrow bed, I leaned away, imagining myself seasick, pulling my coat lower. Some of his seed dried against my ribs as he began to snore. When at last I slept, I dreamed of Eve in her grove. The part of Adam was played by Nikolai, still with his tattoos, the one of the serpent coiling a dagger through a blue heart, the little Lenin hectoring from his gaunt chest. I suppose, since I was otherwise invisible to myself, that I was Eve. I woke Nikolai before the siren, a fisherman entangled in his nets, a criminal drowning in ragged webs of remorse. I loved him yet, in my innocence. Under the cold slime of imprisonment was a man with determined blue eyes, his mouth crooked as lightning in a smutted sky. His shoulders were Christlike. I was fascinated with him as with an infernal device.

Three miles lay between the gulag and the dynamite-mangled bridge, and the damaged rails that hung over the glacial river, reminiscent of scorched telephone wires. We struggled to reach the work site each day, fringed by guards, and blistered by cold. To imagine those lines crossing all Siberia gave one vertigo. Frayed workers unraveled behind us, carrying with them their thousand punishments. Pellets of snow whipped against us. We were not halfway there when I perceived a dark shape tracking us. Beneath his flannel over shirt, the wolf grinned blue on Nikolai’s chest. It stalked along the tree line as though caged. But this was not a wolf. It was a black horse, a stallion, tall and muscular. No other saw it. Not Nikolai, nor the guards, nor the starving line of prisoners hunching toward the broken railway, hands behind their backs. Was it a ghost? I glanced at Nikolai. A gray wool of vomit loomed from his lips, twisting around a fanged canine grimace as he stiffened and fell to the snow. Several men cried out, but I did not. I knew it was the cyanide, that he had broken his promise. Reluctantly, for what did they care, the guards assembled to note the fallen man, and a knot of desolate curiosity tightened under the white sun, in that vicious haze of ice. The moment opened for me, miraculous and wild. I ran for the trees. The black horse awaited me, massive, yet gently hoofing the melted snow and warm soil where a sapling grew, blossoming pink and white. Impossible, I said, impossible in the cage of that terrible winter. And yet—

–James Reich


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