Early in the morning Darya (surprisingly quite lively, without any sign of a hangover) woke me and took me to the home of the chief herder Ilya Ilyinova. When I saw him for the first time, he was just awakening from a drunken stupor. He apologized and explained to me that he had been drinking and celebrating for a week, because his younger son was going to start school in a few days. Although Ilya was a wrinkled old man with a short grey beard, he was probably still sprightly, because he had a young, strong wife and two small children into the bargain. He himself came from the village of Kystatyam, where his ex-wife and the children from his first marriage still lived; he had divorced her on account of this plump-cheeked young woman from Zhigansk some time in the eighties and because of this had been expelled from the party. Right then, at six in the morning, I had to drink three large shots with him: to our meeting, against the hangover and to his first-grader.
Another couple of glasses were downed to my first meeting with Ivan, Ilya’s overseer, who we went round to see next door. Then they fetched their travelling packs and rifles, Ivan called his dog and we set off for the woods. On the way through the village we stopped again at some friends’ houses and everywhere we had a drink or two. When we finally made our way to the ford and crossed the Strekalovka around lunchtime, they had both had a skinful. And at least another six bottles were clinking in their packs! Then I understood that covering the distance with them which Darya Fyodorovna had talked about in the evening would be no easy matter. We wandered through the yellowing autumn taiga and I would definitely have taken pleasure in the journey if it hadn’t been for the two tottering backwoodsmen, who stopped at every rivulet and every colourful heather-covered gully to raise the level of alcohol in their blood. I didn’t join in and fortunately neither Ilya nor Ivan forced me to. At first we went through pleasant terrain, fording shallow streams and walking through pine groves, so even the drunkards were able to make pretty good progress. Every now and again Ivan’s dog would cheerfully bark at a squirrel or a chipmunk. Around four o’clock, however, we reached the start of an extensive peat bog, and there our problems began.
First old Ilya realized that he didn’t have his gun. He had simply lost it somewhere. This was a terrible blow to him. In an instant this confident guy, serious chief herder and renowned hunter was transformed into the very picture of misery. He moaned and lamented and cursed himself, but he was too drunk to be able to go and search for the lost rifle himself. So Ivan took on that task. He handed me his pack and his smallbore rifle, whistled for his dog and set off back towards the village to look for Ilya’s weapon. Meanwhile Ilya was wailing, beating his head with his fists and repeating: “Stupid old man. That’s all I am. A stupid old man! Hit me on the jaw! Don’t be shy, my friend, just sock me one! I’m a wretch! A wretched wretch! Smash my face in, my friend, but for god’s sake please don’t tell my wife! Don’t even tell Darya Fyodorovna! Never tell anybody anything about it, understand?! It would be a disgrace… A terrible disgrace…” I promised him that I wouldn’t say anything, but I didn’t smash his face in, not even at his explicit request. At any rate, it was already quite scratched from the tumbles he’d taken from time to time. It was actually lucky for him that we were going through marshland, because at least he fell into something soft. I asked him if we were going to wait for Ivan, but he told me that we definitely had to reach some stream which was still around fifteen kilometres away, that there was nowhere else to spend the night around there. And he was undoubtedly right since all around us lay nothing but fenland, buzzing with dark mosquito clouds. The only possibilities were to return or to go forward. So the old man sorrowfully drank the last of the open bottle and we set off.
At first the going was still good. The marshes weren’t deep and I was only carrying my own rucksack and Ivan’s pack and gun. However, after a while drunken old Ilya began to lose his balance more and more often, so in the end I had to take his bag too. Together it might have been thirty-five kilos of luggage, all of it unevenly distributed – more than enough for one cultural hero. After a time we emerged onto dry higher ground and I was already rejoicing that the worst was behind us, only I was wrong. Darkness was quickly beginning to fall and before us appeared another peat bog whose end, or even edges, I couldn’t make out. I didn’t feel like going there at all, to be more precise I was frightened, but old Ilya muttered that we definitely had to cross this place and stepped onto the swaying ground. I went after him.
I realized that the situation was becoming dangerous, but I tried not to give in to panic. Now Ilya was foundering every so often and he was already wet through from the reddish water. In fact, he was crawling more than walking, wallowing in puddles, and strands of sphagnum moss were getting caught in his thin beard. Here and there the stumps of blackened larch trunks rose up from the darkness of the marshland to the darkness of the sky, indicating where there might be drier places, but even those grew fewer and suddenly were nowhere to be seen. I sank into the mire up to my knees, sometimes even deeper, and every step cost me a great deal of strength. Without a load the old man had it easier, only now his head was reeling from the firewater. He was exhausted and once he had even fallen asleep in some peat pool, so I had no choice but to fasten Ivan’s pack to my knapsack, throw the sling of Ivan’s rifle over my head and prop up the herder Ilya with my free arm. If something were to happen to him, I would be lost, because only he knew the way through the mire. When his thoughts clouded over for a while and I had to determine the direction of our march alone, I always ended up halfway up to my thighs in a bog and on the verge of tears, because I felt the terrible weight that I carried on my back dragging me down. From time to time the old man came to his senses and pointed out the direction, whereupon he would wilt once more and hang upon my forearm like a rotten carpet.
In the worst places I had to crawl on my belly and drag out old Ilya and the luggage in the same way. At those times I was terribly afraid that this could cost me my life, and in all probability it really could have done. The water filled my rubber boots and spattered my glasses, my foot-rags rolled down and began to pinch, the moss heaved and swayed under my body and in places where its thin green top layer was broken enormous black bubbles rose to the surface from the depths and burst with a dull pop. Meanwhile mosquitos contentedly sat on my face and neck and dined. I crawled like a swamp lizard, panting from the exertion, until I managed to crawl to some larger piece of turf on which it was possible to get my footing and rest for a while. There I loaded all the luggage onto my back again, took hold of the old man under the arm, as I had once learned to do as a medical orderly on a geriatric ward (you never know what might come in useful in life), and we trudged onward. The journey through the marsh took us about five hours, but after the first hour I had already lost all sense of time, I only had the feeling that I had already been crawling like this for an eternity and still had the same eternity ahead of me. The moon came out and a fearful early-evening silence fell around us, disturbed only by the spine-chilling choral unison of the mosquitos, that persistent, endless, monotonous hummmmm, a strange sound which seemed to ricochet off some invisible wall. My forehead and neck were quickly covered in dozens of sores and burned as if in a fever. I hauled the slumped body of the old man, snivelling and grumbling about idiots who don’t have anything better to do with their life than drown it in the marshes behind Zhigansk. Then we went on and on, until it was completely dark, before we finally dragged ourselves, utterly exhausted, to the longed-for stream. There old Ilya collapsed and fell into an impenetrable sleep. In the meantime I gathered firewood, lit a fire and waited for Ivan.
He arrived not long afterwards, with the rifle too; apparently he had gone almost all the way back to Zhigansk for it. He was already sober and also dry, so he had obviously got through the marsh with less effort than us. Then old Ilya recovered himself a little, gave his rifle a kiss and thanked her for coming back to him. By the fire he and Ivan drank another bottle of vodka, there were two left but they had already been put aside for the next day, for the boys at the camp. As soon as we had eaten, I crawled into my sleeping bag, but the herders didn’t have any kind of covers, so they lay down on the moss just as they were, in rubber boots, cotton trousers, camouflage jackets and knitted hats with an Adidas label. The night was clear and frosty, it must have been at least minus five, but they both had so much alcohol in them that they didn’t notice. They lay next to me, silent and rigid, with their knees drawn towards their chests and their palms between their thighs, and their silhouettes under the trees and the starry sky looked like two giant pupae frozen to the ground.
Early in the morning they woke up covered in hoar frost. When they got up, their joints audibly creaked and cracked, and ice crumbled on the old man’s clothes, wet from the day before. First of all both of them threw up, then we had a quick breakfast and set out on another journey. It was supposed to be another fifty kilometres or so to the camp.
The first half of the journey led through pleasant terrain, so we made quite rapid progress, held up only by occasional stops during which old Ilya and Ivan vomited again and again. About twenty kilometres in, we met with two herders who had been summoned from Zhigansk by radio the day before to head out to meet us. One of them was one-eyed Volodya and I recognized the second as being my old acquaintance Boris Vrana. They had ridden there on reindeers and brought with them another three spare uchaks. Ilya and Ivan greeted them, exchanged a few sentences in the yakut language and then Ilya asked me if I knew how to ride a reindeer. I was so worn out after that walk through the peat that I didn’t have much faith in myself, so Ilya, Ivan and Volodya loaded the baggage on the free uchaks, leapt into the saddle themselves, ordered Boris to accompany me on foot, and trotted off.
“How are things?” I asked Boris.
“You can see, can’t you?” he laughed.
“Good or bad?”
“It varies. Sometimes a bit boring. But it’s been worse.”
We went on, accompanied by Ivan’s ginger dog, who for some reason had stayed with us after his master’s departure. After about an hour we reached another bog. Along the way it started raining, a fierce wind blew and the rain was sharp as needles, the temperature around zero, far from pleasant. This peat bog was even more extensive than yesterday’s two, and wherever I looked I saw an oozy green-brown plain stretching out interminably, without a single tree, only a black stump here and there, sticking up against the low horizon. However, Boris knew the way well and didn’t falter, so there was no threat to us, only the journey seemed to be endless and during it nasty thoughts came into a man’s head. And perhaps not just a man’s: in the middle of the bog Ivan’s dog suddenly came to a stop, trembling all over, and didn’t want to go on. It was obvious that he was tired and afraid. We called to him, but he just kept standing there and shaking and whining. As we went further from him, he grew smaller and smaller, and it seemed that he might really stay there, but when he had almost lost sight of us, he dashed after us. Boris asked me if I was all right, and I reassured him that I was fine, but I felt wretched. The marsh was very deep throughout and with every step I had to haul my legs out of it with an effort, and on top of that rain, wind, cold and tiredness… We went step by step, monotonously squelching along all day without a single stop until it was dark, constantly up to our knees in mud, and there was no end to it. What’s more, during the journey I got a terrible craving for a cool, golden-fleshed, sweet pumpkin. I’ll buy two when I get back to town, I resolved. I’ll buy two or three straight off.
We didn’t reach the camp until after midnight. The journey had improved over the last few kilometres and led through pine groves across drifts of sand. The camp was quiet, without a trace of the reindeer. Old Ilya and Volodya were already asleep and only Ivan was waiting up for us with dinner.
“The reindeer are at pasture,” he said.
“Nearby?” I asked.
“Not really. Actually, we don’t know exactly where they are.”
It was an unpleasant development.
In that cool autumn weather when the mosquitoes are no longer biting as much and the rut has not yet begun, the reindeer usually wander in twos or threes, searching for mushrooms on the taiga, and thus begins one of the worst periods for the herdsmen, when they have a great deal of work keeping track of the animals’ movements and keeping the herd together. The reindeer didn’t even appear in the morning and after breakfast old Ilya went off to search for them with Ivan and Volodya. Boris stayed with me in the camp. He cooked a wonderful reindeer soup and then we gorged ourselves on fatty lake fish.
After the first heavy early-morning frosts the blue-painted taiga quickly began to turn yellow, forming a bright monochromatic backdrop for the red-blue specks of blueberry bushes, the dark hatched greenery of the needles of solitary pine trees, the shiny black of charred trunks on the sites of fires, the yellow-red sands on the slopes above lakes and the green of phosphorescent lichens. The profusion of pigments was so extravagant it almost hurt and because of it I spent the rest of the day until dinner time walking here and there, drinking it in with my eyes and trying to quench my thirst for this gaudy natural beauty by seeking out more variations on it. But it was like trying to drink water with a sieve. I was overwhelmed once again by this merciless beauty which no person can possess; it tormented me as a notoriously famous song sometimes can, when one cannot recall its melody and is thus capable of struggling for hours with the idea that it’s on the tip of one’s tongue, that almost, that so nearly, and then again no…
In the area lots of fresh bear and wolf tracks were visible.
Translated from the Czech by Graeme Dibble