by Ásgrímur Hartmannsson
part 1 of 2
“This is Stalingrad!”
“No, this is Siberia,” said Kirilov as he pushed Nikita into the small shed.
“I don't think we are far enough east to be in Siberia. We must be somewhere else,” said Yakov, who was already sitting in the shed along with three others, busying themselves with peeling potatoes.
“Shut up, Yakov and peel those potatoes. If I say we are in Siberia, we are in Siberia!” Kirilov slammed the door.
“This is Stalingrad!” Nikita insisted.
“As you wish,” said Yakov, “but wherever you are, you now have to peel potatoes.”
“Why?” asked Nikita, still standing beside the door.
“Because it gives you something to do for today,” said Yakov.
“I don't want to peel potatoes,” said Nikita.
“As you wish, but I think Lieutenant Kirilov will shoot you if you go outside too soon, and just think of how bored you will become in the meantime.”
So Nikita sat down and began peeling potatoes. It was boring to start with, but after thirty or so potatoes, he had gotten really into it, peeling the potatoes in a most artful manner. Nikita began having visions of himself being the greatest potato peeler in the world, winning awards for it, having his pictures appear in the paper and going on a world tour with the vegetable circus.
“This is the greatest sport in the world!” he called, raising his peeler into the air.
The room fell even more silent than it had been before. Nikita looked around at the other guys, who were just staring at him.
“Did I say that aloud?” he asked. They nodded. Nikita sighed. He could not get himself to peel another potato for a while. Instead he glanced across the shed.
Gosha sat in the corner busying himself with the potatoes. He sat and carved intently, one potato after another, peeling away a lot more than he should with each cut.
Nikita looked closer. Gosha was carving little animals from the potatoes, of many shapes, but not of such quality that a species could be made out. When he had made about ten of them, he got two potatoes, and cut faces in them. Happy faces. And he took each face and said, with a strange grin: “I will call this one Igor, and this one I will call Hermann, and I will peel them last.”
That said, he set them down amongst the animal-potatoes and started peeling normally.
It was past noon when Kirilov let them out again. It was time for dinner. At least the potatoes were peeled. They had already eaten some of them raw, so they were not that hungry, but seeing that there was meat in the pot today, they were excited.
The meat was badly cooked and stringy, but they did not complain. After all, it was meat, real meat.
* * *
Colonel General Dumanov was visibly drunk. He always was. He was sitting at the table in his little hut with the two windows and the map on one wall, which was there more to block all the small holes in the wood than to strategize with. He had his thick black book with him, where he kept his secret vodka on one side, and he had his bottle of not so secret vodka by his other side.
Kirilov entered the hut and placed himself in front of the Colonel General.
“Are the men eating the meat?” asked the Colonel General.
“The men are eating the meat, Colonel General.”
“Call me Oleg.”
“That is not proper form, Colonel General,” said Kirilov.
“How would you feel if I always called you Lieutenant?” asked Dumanov.
Kirilov was silent.
“Or how would the cook feel if we just call him ‘cook’?” Dumanov continued.
“But, comrade, we always call the cook ‘cook’,” said Kirilov.
“That's just because we can't remember his name,” said Dumanov.
Dumanov looked confused. “Why are you here?” he asked Kirilov.
“You were asking about the meat,” he answered.
“Oh, yes, the meat,” Dumanov said, and it was as if he suddenly remembered something. “Don't tell them where I got the meat.”
“Where did you get the meat?” asked Kirilov.
“I found it in the woods yesterday. I think it was a bear,” said Dumanov.
Kirilov suddenly got a very bad feeling in his stomach.
* * *
In the morning before breakfast Lieutenant Kirilov had the men line up for inspection. The men needed to be kept in line for the Colonel General, who had wanted to speak to them later. Everybody was there except the cook, who was busy preparing breakfast, or sleeping. Kirilov was not sure. He would beat him up later anyway.
The men lined up, some still not entirely awake, and some looking as if they had been awake the whole night.
“Look at the lot of you! You bring shame to the Soviet Army!” Kirilov yelled at the men.
“You look like you slept in your uniforms.”
A hand was raised. It was Aleksei. Kirilov noticed him.
“Private Aleksei, is there anything you wish to tell me?” asked Kirilov sharply.
“Yes, lieutenant,” said Aleksei.
“What? Out with it.”
“We slept in our uniforms,” said Aleksei.
Kirilov was visibly angered. “Ten push-ups for you!” he yelled.
Aleksei attempted to do as he was told.
Kirilov looked over the group again. He spotted Nikita, holding his cat.
“Why are you carrying this animal?” Kirilov asked Nikita sharply.
“My cat gets lonely when I am away,” said Nikita, stroking the cat.
“This is outrageous! Put the cat down immediately!” Kirilov said.
Nikita let the cat down, and stroked it. “Go, Mischa, and play,” said Nikita to the cat. “I will feed you later.”
“And you, what is this you have in your hands?” said Kirilov, pointing at Gosha, who still looked like an escapee from the lunatic asylum, grinning mischievously, holding something in each hand.
“Show me at once!” yelled Kirilov at him.
Gosha put his hands behind his back.
“I will have you dig a trench around the perimeter for a week if you do not comply immediately!”
Gosha just grinned. It wasn't much of a threat anyway, since all Gosha did was peel potatoes and dig trenches in the first place.
Kirilov pulled out his revolver. It was then that Gosha finally did as he was told, and showed Kirilov what he had in his hands.
“Why do you have potatoes in your hands?” asked Kirilov. Then he noticed how they were decorated, with faces on them, one hole for each eye and a wide, gaping grin below.
“This is Igor, and this is Hermann,” said Gosha, indicating which potato was which. “Maybe they can come and visit you later?”
Kirilov wondered if he should shoot Gosha on the spot, or point the gun at himself. They had told him to join the army in his village. They had told him he would be doing his duty to Mother Russia. They had told him he would be facing the fascists in glorious combat.
Nobody had mentioned the lunatics. Nobody had said anything about the long trek deep into the wilderness. Only Colonel General Oleg Dumanov knew what business they had there, and he was not talking. Kirilov tried not to sigh, and managed to keep his composure until the Colonel General arrived.
The Colonel General displayed his considerable talents right away by appearing sober. He looked over the group once in silence. Had he actually been sober, he would have noticed the disarray, or perhaps he chose to ignore it. Nobody could say for sure. Perhaps his slight pause before he began speaking was a carefully thought-out move to add effect to his speech, or maybe he was just holding back vomit. It was hard to tell.
But finally, he spoke: “Men, I have decided to set up an outpost here.”
“I wish I was in Stalingrad,” said Nikita when he heard the news.
“Give me twenty!” yelled Kirilov, staring evilly at Nikita.
Sound seemed to have taken longer to travel to the Colonel General, as Nikita only noticed a second after Kirilov yelled. “Twenty what?” asked Nikita. “Rubles?”
“Push-ups! Make that thirty for being a clown,” said Kirilov as sharply as he could.
“You should have taken the money,” said the Colonel General. And he turned to the men and said to them: “First we will dig some trenches around the camp. Then we will chop down some trees and make proper barracks. You will begin today.”
“Does anybody here know how to build anything?” asked Yakov as softly as he could so Kirilov would not notice.
“I can build castles in the sky!” claimed Gosha loudly.
“Give me twenty!” yelled Kirilov.
“I'll do it!” said Gosha, and ran to get his axe. If the lieutenant wanted twenty castles, he was getting twenty castles, even if he had to cut down every tree in the forest.
“Carry on then,” said Colonel General Dumanov with his hands behind his back, and ambled back to his shed for a little more vodka.
* * *
Gosha never managed to fell a single tree, but he did make his mark on almost a hundred. Later on, a crew with saws cut down the trees marked by him, and brought them back to make better cabins and defenses around the perimeter.
Nikita was in a trench, digging, when a thought struck him: “My cat!”
“What about your cat?” asked Timofei.
“Don't ask him about his cat, Tima,” warned Yakov, but it was already too late.
“We are making an outpost. That means we will be here for the summer!” said Nikita, agitated.
“So what?” asked Timofei.
“He will get so hot during the summer. He might melt,” said Nikita.
Timofei and Yakov doubted that. But Nikita insisted: “It gets awful hot here in Siberia during the summer. I need to make a cooler to keep my cat in, so he will not overheat.”
Yakov shook his head and kept on digging, but Timofei stabbed down the shovel, rested against it and asked: “How do you propose to make a cooler? Are you some kind of magical engineer or something?”
“No, I just dig a little hole in the ground, and make a little box inside with some hay or leaves to keep my cat comfortable. It is very simple really,” said Nikita as he dug some dirt out of the hole. Then he too stuck the spade in the ground, felt inside the hole with his hand and turned to Timofei: “It is a bit chilly in this hole. Can't you feel it?”
Timofei placed his hand in the hole, and nodded. Nikita was about to explain why it was cold down there in the hole, but Kirilov appeared and asked them why they were chatting and not digging.
“He is telling me how he is going to construct a cooler for his cat,” said Timofei.
“Is that so?” asked Kirilov, and looked at Nikita.
“Yes,” said Nikita proudly, “I will make a cooler later on, for my cat, so he will not get sunstroke.”
“Aha,” said Kirilov and nodded, “if you can make a cooler for your cat, then you can make a cooler for the entire outpost. After you finish with the trench, you begin constructing that.” That said, Kirilov left.
“I told you not to ask him about his cat,” said Yakov, and continued digging.
* * *
The digging was an arduous process, as the trench needed to surround the entire camp, and they were only five digging the hole. The rest of the men were cutting down trees, dragging them into the perimeter and attempting to build barracks out of them. They had already made the corners.
Nikita, Yakov, Timofei, Arkadiy and Bobo were digging. Actually, Nikita, Yakov, Timofei and Arkadiy did the digging while Bobo stood posing between the occasional strut he did.
After a while the men paused to catch their breath. It was then that they noticed that Bobo was missing. They looked around for him, and sure enough, there he appeared, out of the woods, carrying the spade over his shoulder.
“What were you doing in the woods?” asked Nikita.
“I was scouting the area,” said Bobo, before he jumped into the shallow trench.
The men paused and looked at each other. Bobo leaned over his shovel and said in an authoritative tone: “Did you know that research has been made regarding the intellect of the species?”
“I am vaguely familiar with that,” said Nikita, “I read something about that in the paper before I was sent here.”
“Then you must know that the average intelligence of species is represented by numbers, and that the average intelligence of men is 100,” said Bobo, “They call it an IQ.”
“I don't know about the average, but I have heard of this study,” said Nikita.
“And scientists have calculated that the average intelligence of trees is higher than that of rocks,” said Bobo, and continued: “A rock has an IQ of 1. A tree has an IQ of 2, an orange also has an IQ of 2, but they have been measured as high as 3.”
“Aha?” said Nikita and nodded.
“I dispute these findings,” said Yakov.
“I think he is making this up,” said Timofei to Arkadiy. Arkadiy nodded.
“It has been scientifically proven,” said Bobo, stroking his goatee. “It is clear that you do not follow science.”
The men shook their heads and continued digging.
* * *
Copyright © 2010 by Ásgrímur Hartmannsson