The end is coming. You've realized the end was coming for many days now — your end.
The barrack is only a flimsy facade of protection from the Northern Siberian Arctic onslaught of winter. It is your refuge of four thin walls: a roof, a door and window frames of timber felled by prisoners on last legs with axes and planes, axe blades you want to use slit your wrists. If only… if only the axe could cut deep enough to allow you to slowly bleed blood-red into the white snow, under your ever-green of trees, while watching a last gray-blue moon fade into the clouds along with your life. If only. You pray for an ending, pray for escape — but answered prayers only reach the dead here. You pray anyway.
A meal! Oh, a meal, oh God! A meal! A full meal can only be dreamed of! Dreams of real food, never the reality of nourishment a man can own, only dream. Dreams are a poor substitute for gruel; potato gruel provided once a day... never enough. You pray harder.
You fight men for the greasy, watery, potatoless, cockroachy and guard-pissy concoction. A hodge-podge of prison camp scarcities and mysteries, all cooked up by the prison's sous-chef to the devil. You dream of your mother, her cooking, her smells and the smells of a family dinner table… remember them? … the over-provided blessed halcyon days in scents of togetherness and happiness. You smell the smoky odor of your tyrannical father, a man who demanded a prayer of thanks to a provider, a mystery man always hidden in the metaphysical. You try to remember the feeling of being full from daily bread. You dream-roam in your prison bunk, wondering about the God and Gods of mealtimes past. You question the existence of a God you thought made all the world's daily bread… the bread for all men.
Dreams of food, of food in brimming and excessive overabundance and endlessly provided! Shimmering tables covered by starched white linen cloth, brimming of fresh vegetables, steaming meats, fancy wet glistening fruits and you reach out to touch in them in an ephemeral grasping and gasping at a sustenance that eludes fingers… fingers worked to the bone… worked till fingerprints are only memories, of near dead fingers with infected filthy fingernails of festering blackness; frostbitten, greying, gnarled and withering... but you’re still grasping, dreaming and dream-probing for anything to eat. Grasping for escape. Delusions within dreams, dreams of darkness within darkness fading and the reality of malnourished bones breaks your spirit once again. Pray!
Awake, late nights in nightmares! A pitiable man next to you groans in his harrowing hallucinations of escaping his hell, this fiery-cold living abyss. You listen to his grasping for meanings of life in his cesspool rant of bureaucratic mindless brown shitstorms and you feel the crushing domination of forces far beyond anyone’s control. You know he is gone and you steal at his soul and his few precious belongings.
Men are at every shift and roll of your depleted body, at every movement, at every turn of your aching frame — squeezed like gloomy and oily sardines into a barracks of inhuman stink, percolating decay and pestilent filth. Seething sores of yellowing pus, gangrening green, of pale maggots alive and wiggling — but your eyes have become numbed to the half-devoured, oozing abscesses called the dying human being — bodies all crawling with mysterious vermin, all eating away at you and your once pictured-perfect vision of your fellow noble men on your perfect earth. This is the backdrop of the hell you live in, you survive with ... you survive within. Survive! Why? Survival of the….
Lice become your midnight snack. You pick at a dead man's skull for hours-upon-hours to find the eggs — tiny microscopic morals, specks of insects teaming with the proteins your body craves, but your body that will never know real food again. Throughout the putrid barrack, men cough up blood, phlegm, teeth — teeth spit out in spews of tubercular coughing reprisals, in last grasping, reeking, pleading exhales, yearnings for the air in which the God of everyman and of forsaken men floats forever in.
The earthen floor is the salvation for the lucky, the good earth for all the dead, over all the millenniums — that good earth is your dust-to-dust ending. Will you die in that last fevered night on a bunk of straw and filthy rags and vermin? A bunk-less prisoner is ready to push your used-up carcass from your sleepless perch — back to the earth — that earthen floor, your escape, your finality. In the morning, a shit-swine of a trustee hauls out the stiffs, strips gold teeth and false eyes, notates numbers from fading blue tattoos and loads corpses onto a dirty cart pulled by other yoked souls in servitude. Forgotten men, non-existent men, soul escaping... Or did they?
Men all around, day and night, and night and day, until you can't stand the sight of humanity or the eyes of men — eyes all in starvation for meanings, for food morsels, for escapes. You ask God — Is this the best you can do for society, for man, for life? Bring on death — let me meet death!
What did you do to deserve this? You hear yourself screaming in the din of others tongue-tied screams... death's chorus in silence, in fear, in waiting.
Sometimes you hear the God of men, who talks to condemned men, you perceive voices breaking into your nights of terror, from God's place on high into your higher places. You plead in vain for the God of man, of your flesh, to come to the rescue, to love you onto death, to materialize in that grand light of all-loving benevolence to relieve your struggle against the elements of your frozen landscape and timescape.
Time. Is time, your time, the same as everyone’s time? You can't escape time. It is what you do here. You perceive others pleading, in thoughts aloud, as if it is the only thing any man can think, visualize or hope for... an escape from his time. Escape this time. Time is to escape.
The work begins each day, everyday; each new sunrise leads you closer to your final day. You ask yourself if the heavens are to be kind to you this day, if the sun's warmth is the elixir, the tonic for every man here to remember the better times — the Moscow parks, the river boat rides on a summer day, the kiss of beautiful a woman; your beautiful young woman, the hug of a smiling pink-faced child; your child — a child of golden hair and sparkling blue eyes you may never see again — Have they escaped? Will they escape? Can you ever escape back to them?
Lumber felled for the Tsar, trees for miles and miles, beyond the miles of escaping miles, escaping into the fog of the never ending realms of the forever endings — and a misty distance calls out to you, probes you ceaselessly for an answer. Will you come to me…. will you come? A Siren song singing from afar — an ephemeral female phantasm seen in the mists of delusion — so extravagantly dressed in the warm temptations of mink, or is it sable, or is it ermine, or is it just a cold blue apparitions — Come to me! I await you within the fog of the forest… I will warm your soul. Escape to me, my darling! I will feed you caviar and vodka for eternity. I’m waiting for you... I will always wait for you. The final escaping song; a wraith's melodious invitations to your last dance....
No escape is possible by walking or running away from this snow-bound prison of non-existent fences and mocking guards; little Bonapartes thinking themselves Gods on a time-clock of duty and destinies. Only the vast expanse of whiteness, the cold and the miles and the time, and more time, and even more time, for time is of a quantity so long... a time impossible to reckon in time. Escape into the whiteness... Into another time... Escape into her melody of her impassioned time....
Oh, but my bothers, my brothers... there is one escape, just one, for all time. The red wall of death, the wall we all watch, waiting for it to dry of its blood and surrender to us. It is the condemned man's last backdrop to a life that was once a dreaded future. The executioners wall is a man's last stand, a last standing indulgence of a single cigarette supplied by a duty-bound guard, at the wall of red-painted wooden planks, against the endless whiteness, under your last mid-night sun and moon.
Oh my brothers, so often have we heard the head guard's nasal hacking voice. We hear it weekly, yelling out, so loud in those Déjà vu foreboding announcements or in a restive reprieve for a time condemned man. It is a belly-bellow of loud cold exhales: "In the name of the Tsar, these men are to die by decree of the power of the Tsar, ready rifles... fire !!! ... !!! ... !!! ... !!! "
You picture yourself leaning against the wall of freshly painted executions, your wailing-wall of bright-red terminations; your last cigarette burning down much too fast in the last pungent smoke aroma of memory—evoking halcyon memories of days with friends in bars, smoking Sobranies, drinking a vodka, another vodka, a bottle of vodka, a pizzicato balalaika plucking out a melancholic ballad of lost tenderness for her... then the echoing words outside the icicled window disintegrate your mind and imagination, "… by the power of the Tsar — Fire !!! ... !!! ... !!! ... !!!”
You deny the beckoning reality of your inevitable fate by remembering the warm fires of home, the fires of first love, the warmth of her soft hand soothing away the headaches of the — Oh, darling! So cold tonight! Warm me! — Those so cold nights with her, but nothing like the lonely cold and black nights here! You recollect the crackling of home fires — heavy spruce scents, you catch a whiff of the lasting piney contentment in the coziness of a real home, with real walls and you remember a treasured painting of a loved one; of a child you will never caress again in this lifetime. A heaven? A God? An escape?
In your dreams; the serfs of the field rise up, pitch forks waving, yells triumphant, crowding in on the castle, killing the Tsar, killing the monarch; killing the man who sentenced you to death and they kill his mother and all the imperial mothers. They murder the man who betrayed you — your tyrannically obsessed father, minion to the tyrant and a not-so-kindly doctor, a careless caregiver who should have loved you, protected you, provided you a way to appreciate his God, showed you a way to live in his world of immoral and corrupted men.
The execution wall of thick planks of hewn birch is flat planed and sanded to perfection— a cruel carpenters joke? It is now decorated with the brains, entrails, and the essences of a thousand-thousand men blow apart, projected by lead into the wood, remaining bits of flesh, bones, and memories by ripping bullets streaking into them at life-speed — a stinking mess of a dead red wall that reeks to high heaven — if a high heaven ever existed — a stench that calls out to the Siberian wolves, black bears and the unwavering wolverines.
One day, a brightly stupid young guard, Demyan Kozlov, painted the execution wall a bright red color; coat upon coat of thick paint, amplifying the glistening red of the never-drying blood. Bucket upon bucket of blood-red artist's paint, confiscated by the powers that be. They confiscated it from all over the motherland, to disallow artist's free expression in blood red color murals or graffiti. Blood red is the color of revolutions, the color of angry young men. The joke here: Even the paint of future revolutions is sent into exile in our wonderful Siberia.
Before the paint was applied, the stench of human excreta and decay and flesh and bones and brains permeated the air and infiltrated the prison camp like a biblical malison. The selenium, lead, mercury, cadmium, chromium, cinnabar aromas of this never-drying paint bled into the air all around, day and night. Toxic whiffs of colorful memory on the frozen winds; memories of pasts in watching drying paint for days on end; days of serfs painting barns, days of serfs painting the cruel masters' houses in springtime renewal, weeks of drying paint in a railroad station of painted fanciful decorations to crown a Moscow extravagance, and the days of watching too many coats of paint dry on a hated, fat and sassy magistrate’s fancy house in Saint Petersburg….
You have been sentenced to death. You wrote a witty fiction, a bon mot critical of a friend of the Tsar, who lived in a big house, a freshly painted house in Saint Petersburg; a very fancy house at the end of a cul-de-sac, one of dozens of brightly painted houses. You are to be shot because you wrote that the paint is barely dry on that fat magistrate's house and then it is painted again twelve months later. You wrote it was a blatant waste of time and money — painted again, and again, and again, each and every year by serfs who live in mud hovels and can only watch that paint dry in incensed bewilderment and loathing. It has been decreed. You are to be executed... someday soon, very soon. You embrace your fear. You pray. You hope. You begin to loath the instinct that makes you write....
Inside the barracks you hear the sound of the rifles explode weekly, sometimes daily, through windows covered by rotting brown burlap and the last trousers of departed men. You watch men crumble against the wall of the glossy blood red, against that never drying paint and feel its stickiness as you slide slowly down to your imagined death. You watch men dance their last involuntary slow-motion, spasming a body tango, without a partner as they jerk and twitch and moan along with the howling music of the Arctic’s chiming climes...in this madness you imagined Sibelius conducting your forest-white, lachrymose and ice-misted funeral elegy.
They are coming for you ... and the others, today. You are in the isolated; ‘to be executed’ barracks. It is the last household of the cast-off soul. You, the others, the spirits, even the floating and forlorn dust in this lonely barrack desponds in a collective resignation... death is in the air, death is in the escape, escape from endless starvation, from hopelessness, from memories, from chances, from everything you once were.
You can't help but look to your condemned comrade's thawing fortitude, for strength and courage, as you're marched out into the freshly fallen snow— you seek reasons for this life from your comrades’ eyes, you look for that something in another condemned man’s soul that give explanations to the sums, the sum of your life,the sum of his life, and the sum of all lives.
Hands tied, but no man struggles to escape. Men cry out for a mother in tears that freeze mid-cheek. A few smile. Some laugh. Some howl like wolves on a full-moon night. Some shout out at demons or accusers or apparitions. But mostly it is a blameless abandonment by everyone and everything, endured in silent sobs of self-pity.
Your escape has arrived, be a man, your mother mutters to you, be brave, she says with reverberating reflections of your golden memories.
Wasilla Sergei Torop, head guard and minister of your death, walks slowing down the execution line, gives a last cigarette to men still capable of nodding a yes. He deliberately lights their cigarettes in a cavalier manner, then places it between their thin, emaciated lips with a deliberate hand of practiced efficiency.
You wonder if it is inhumanity or humanity you perceive in his narrow, mean and arrogant eyes, or are all his duty bound and by-the-book ministrations just a mysterious form of compassion? You presume all men are duty bound, but you can only pray good men know the boundaries. You wonder what binds him to his miserable life beyond his rationalizing delusions of what mankind is. Kierkegaard sings a distant and wordy sophist melody to you of futures, of impossible escapes, of endings in probabilities.
Twenty paces away, you hear the firing-squad of young and ruddy-face recruits, youngsters who yawn and laugh in boredom; slapping hands against thighs to warm up a body that should be in a barrack, in a bed, in a pleasant land and spending money on a pretty girl, out and about spending life's love, happily buying a life in a warm place, far from this poverty of cold desolation and abandonment.
Wasilla pauses in front of you. He smiles... a mischievous smile on a face of a thousand blunt razor shaves, a head of forever ignored nostril hairs, hard snow squints and few smiles. You can't understand his smile. Does he really think your life is a joke? Is he taunting you?
Yes, you nod. A cigarette is inserted between your thin, grey-blue and dry lips. The smoke curls up into your often broken nose, over veined covered cheeks and cold-chapped eyelids. You want to cry, but can't, for salvation will soon welcome you into a benevolent and beaming ray of righteousness. God will embrace you into the arms of a glorious afterlife — or will he refuse you? You smile. You try to remember a happy moment of your life.
Behind you, your hands ache from the tight ropes. You feel the blood-red wet paint of the execution wall ... so sticky, never drying paint in this frozen still life of life, in this senseless inhumanity of man-to-man and bullet-to-bullet. Sticky, blood red globs of blood paint: grainy, gutty, vicious muck. You feel the remnants of a hundred mens souls between your fingers: their grime, their hate, their fears. You sense their last thoughts and dreams— before a bullet, or two, or three ended their lives… .
Wasilla moves down the line of fifteen men, giving your comrades one last official look-see, inspecting their last moments like a well-tempered executioner. Like them, you have been deprived and touched - crazy by cold exile for more days than there is hope. A man prays to the Tsar. A man curses the Tsar. A man whimpers in dying fear of heavenly Tsars. A man releases the shit that proud men usually hold tight in their bowels until that last second, after that last minute. God does not answer your prayers... or theirs. Wasilla walk back towards the firing line and says,
"By order and decree of his imperial majesty, fifteen men are to be executed today ... rifles at the ready...”
And then he pauses — an eternity of a pause that stretches into a universe of your suspended existence... it is the absolute of pause… with fifteen men on the brink. All men, who still have a cogent realization of a life, look to Wasilla and contemplate his malicious and taunting smile.
"By order of the Tsar, the following men are to be executed or pardoned.”
He begins reading names, not in the voice of a benevolent man of God freeing man, but in the devil's voice of deception, in the machinating tangle-trappings of teasing lawyers, middlemen, middling-women and the mindless bureaucrats of the Moscow imperial circus.
In Wasilla, you witness the malice in other men's evil souls, that clanking, hamming of injustice banging against your mind through this arrogant Oprichniki devil. Your mind, a mind gone mad now, not knowing if death is to come, or go, or come, or go, if further living is a living-death, if death is....
And then in a sonorous voice, a thunderous voice to scare off the wolves, the bears and the wolverine, a voice in which he pronounces slowly, as if reading out winners and losers of a horse-race at the Central Moscow Hippodrome:
"Nikolai Vladimir Rachmaninoff - condemned to death—"
Grechko Kondratievich- condemned to death—"
"Vasilii Vasilevich - sentenced commuted, 10 years hard labor— "
"Sergey Mikhailovich Popov- condemned to death—"
"Fyodor Mikhaylovich," ... a pause… your full name is not pronounced… as if he is mocking you. Wasilla stares at you for the longest second of your life. To him it is only a split second to gloat at you in a private gaze of torture, but to you it is a pause as long as life itself, a pause as long and as blue as the sky over all your dreams.
"Fyodor Mikhaylovich —ha-ha, you a very lucky man— 4 years hard labor—"
You travel through the rest of your life, freed, but never free. Never warm at night, never free of firing squad nightmares, of the Siren songs in forest - frozen horrors, of never drying paint. The years pass, but you can still taste that last hand-rolled cigarette, hear the guns load, sense the men and the guns poised at the ready and you feel that never-drying sticky paint of human souls still on your fingertips.
Will men, like those men of your past, arrogant and treacherous minions of some tyrant come in the dark slyness of your early mornings? Take you, take your loved ones to a place to watch that wall of blood that never dries, to wait for a death that is both non-fiction and fiction, where time is longer than time itself and prayers remain forever lost on the cold winds of that time?