I am sitting in the dock along with the five others on trial for stealing boards from the storeroom. Across from us, at a table with five lighted candles and covered with red felt, sits the magistrate, an eighteen-year-old Yakut. An inspector by profession, he was ordered to preside by the Party. It must have seemed inappropriate to have an insider as judge. The magistrate is flanked on either side by two secretaries taking notes. One of them—Novikova from Leningrad, a teacher of draftsmanship at the school and a member of the Communist Youth. The other—Mironova, a higher-ranking member of the Communist Youth. This one spends her days and nights entertaining supervisors. The trial chamber is just an empty barracks next door that serves as a sewing workshop by day. The two cast-iron stoves are red hot, spreading warmth. My head is in a shambles; images, faces, a blur, my eyelids droop. I just want to sleep. I hear the voice of Riekus as in a dream:
“No, that’s not true, citizen magistrate, I did not steal. I had been making a coffin that day and took home only the leftover scraps of wood.”
Idiot, why defend yourself? What’s the point of lying? What difference does it make where we die—in prison or in this majestic factory of death called Trofimovsk? My head drops to my chest, I’m overwhelmed by sleep, the room is filled with spectators, I hear a buzzing in the room, the drone of voices.
“That’s not true, judge, I didn’t take that stick of wood. I did pick it up, but when I ran into Sventicki, I dropped it as soon as he yelled at me. I didn’t bring home so much as a sliver.”
I tear open my eyes. It’s the old Finn, who is about seventy years old, with the deeply sunken eyes of an abused dog. The face an artist might draw of famine. He had been in Leningrad during the blockade, where the daily ration had been 125 g of bread made of chaff and clay. Then he was upgraded to Trofimovsk’s factory of death (600 g of bread, frigid weather, scurvy, typhus, lice, and a polar winter). A felon, obviously. He’s undermined the state. How dare he bring back some firewood to light the stove in his ghastly barracks—just to thaw his face and eyes, dry his icy clothes, which are as hard as armor.
Nothing but lies. Markevičienė is lying. The brigade is lying. The entire Soviet State tells lies and will continue to lie in perpetuity. It stole, it steals and will steal. All four plaintiffs deny the charges. Behind me, I can hear the crowd murmuring in approval. It will soon be my turn.
A week ago, I had just come home from school. I found Mama too weak to get up. She was begging everyone for water, but no one had a drop. I fished around in the dark and found the bucket, which still had several bits of ice sticking to the bottom from the snow we melted yesterday. By now almost everyone was bedridden. So Žukienė lit her stick of kindling and said to me:
“Light the stove, Dalia. Bring back some boards. We’ll melt some water for your mother, you’ll feel warmer yourself, and I want some soup. No one has lighted the stove today. The sick haven’t had any water. There is no one else to do it.”
I slide out of the barracks. It’s quiet outside, profoundly quiet, even eerie. Not only is there no blizzard, there’s not even a breeze, just an immobilizing cold that has turned everything to ice—the mouth of the river, the tundra, the barracks, and us. The Northern Lights have illuminated the sky; it’s bright out, which is a bad thing. Stealing is going to be tough tonight. I sneak over to the depot, slip through the fence, and grab three marvelously thick boards. The snow crunches underfoot. Alerted by my footsteps, a guard wrapped in dog pelts heads in my direction. I drop the boards, drop face down in the snow and press myself flat against the tundra. I raise my head. Long pelts has turned back. I give him or her the finger and thrust the boards through the fence. In the blink of an eye, I’m on the other side, crawling with one end of each board tucked firmly under my armpits and the other end dragging in the snow. The minutes seem like hours. Faster, faster! Ah, here we are, our king of barracks—I’ve reached the first corner of the red brick building. But my energy is gone. I feel dizzy and ravenously hungry. I suck, I bite my lips, stuff my mouth with snow, chew, but my hunger does not go away.
Yet what splendor above. The Northern Lights are a magnificent web of color. We are surrounded by grandeur: the immense tundra, as ruthless and infinite as the sea; the vast Lena estuary backed up with ice; the colossal, hundred-meter pillar caves on the shores of Stolby; and the Aurora Borealis. Against a background of such majesty, we are the pitiful things here—starved and infested like dogs and nearly done rotting in our befouled and stinking ice caves.
Here we are—our barracks. Quick as lightning, I fling the boards inside. I chop them up and get the stove going. It turns red-hot in no time. We melt some snow, give it to the sick, they salt it, and drink. I spoon hot tea into my mother’s mouth. She doesn’t have the strength to speak. Male and female have become indistinguishable, just bones, bones, and more bones. Suddenly, Sventicki appears. He lights his candle. The construction boards are crackling in the fire, and the rest lie chopped up in a pile.
“Who stole the boards?”
“Who chopped up these boards?” The always proper but cunning Pole inquires pleasantly.
I pull the covers over my mother and slide off the berth.
“Will the accused citizen rise.”
I stand up. The magistrate observes my hideously wrapped feet, my tattered, padded pants, the jacket quilted out of a bathrobe, my thick braids, and raising his narrow piercing eyes, he looks directly into mine. The room suddenly falls silent. I see the school principal, Guliayev; the factory manager, Mavrin; and the food king, Travkin. They’re on the side bench whispering to each other. It is strangely quiet. I look the judge squarely in the eye. For about thirty seconds.
“How old are you?”
He reads the charges. He reads a long time. The candles on the red table flicker, and shadows writhe on the red brick walls. My legs tremble, as though they had weights on them. If only they’d let me sit down soon. Mama has probably died. They’ll also be charging Juozas. He began cramming cans of food into his mouth during the unloading in the fall right under the supervisors’ noses. He suffers terribly from hunger, it’s a lot harder for him than it is for me. Yesterday, he tried to get up and inch his way to the stove on his heels—he can’t walk since he got frostbite of the toes—but he crashed full length on the floor and fainted. His handsome face looked very white against the darkness, his slender body practically weightless. Mother is dead, Juozas will also die. He already has dysentery, and that’s usually a ticket to the pile of cadavers outside. Suddenly, Mother’s face appears before my eyes, as I remember it from childhood. Beautiful, gentle, eyes large, curls on her forehead, a smile on her face. “Mama, Mummy, you’re gone, you’re growing cold even as I stand here. I should be there to close your eyes. Juozas, who is lying by your side, will weep helplessly when he realizes that you’ve grown cold. Why did you have to starve yourself for us, just to let us starve a little longer, die a lingering death, become a laughingstock in prison, which is where we’ll be headed tomorrow? But I don’t care. You’re gone, and what happens tomorrow doesn’t matter anymore.” I hear someone talking to me.
“I’m asking you a question, which you’re obliged to answer.” A voice breaks through my fog, and I, finally, comprehend what’s being said. “Do you agree to the charges and acknowledge that they are truthful?”
“Do you understand Russian well?”
“Do you admit your guilt?”
The magistrate looks confused. There is a din in the room. “Stupid girl.” “A child.” “Defend yourself.”
“Will the defendant, please, answer the question thoughtfully. Do you admit that you stole boards from the storehouse?”
“And chopped them up?”
“Who put you up to it?”
Žukienė shuts her eyes and turns white as a sheet.
“Did you know that the boards are state property?”
“Were you aware that there’s a penalty for stealing . . . ”
“I was aware.”
“Do you realize what you’re saying?”
“Where do you work?”
“I haul logs.”
“I’m told you attend school.”
“Yes, I also attend school.”
“What grade are you in?”
“Aren’t you ashamed, you, a schoolgirl, to be sitting here on this bench?”
I feel the prying eyes of the room on me. They stare intently. Am I ashamed? Ashamed of what?! Of giving my dying mother a drink of water? What is it you want to see, you Travkins, Mavrins, and Sventickis? You gluttons, you. Is it remorse? Shame? But it’s you that should be ashamed, you’re the murderers, not me! I can hear the question being repeated.
“No, I am not at all ashamed.”
The court leaves to deliberate. It deliberates a long time. I’m tormented by sleep, by exhaustion, by weakness. All I want to do is put my head down and sleep. I’m awakened by a sharp jab in my side:
“Get up, damn it!”
Riekus, Kobra, and one other Lithuanian, I seem to remember, get two years apiece. As a minor who admitted her guilt, I am acquitted. I probably have my teacher Novikova to thank. What a blessing. To think that such good fortune has befallen me. Lialė kisses me and weeps, but this time with happiness. You have a beautiful soul, Lialė. But not for long. Life will prove a hard taskmaster, and in time you will become less discriminating in choosing between good and evil, especially where others are concerned.
Extract from Peirene No. 26, Shadows on the Tundra, by Dalia Grinkevičiūtė, translated from the Lithuanian by Delija Valiukenas, published by Peirene Press, London.