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I was just a baby when my father went off to fight on the Eastern Front, so Georgy was like a father to me. I thought of him mining permafrost, or taking the long train journey on the Transsib through the mountains. I had heard that when the camps were closed, after Stalin’s death, many of the prisoners just stayed there, having nowhere else to go, and cities grew where the camps had stood. But my brother had a place to go. For a year or two I thought he would come home. And then I thought he must have stayed, and later I became certain he was dead. I did not mention this to my mother, who still held out hope. On summer nights she would sit at the window. “See that star?” She would point up to a bright one, what I thought was probably Venus, “Georgy sees that same star.”
Alexei, Milo, and Lumi gathered around the flame, flashing orange over the snow, its wobbling heat transparent at the center. Night fell. We had ranged our skis around the camp like a barbaric fence, something to impale the heads of transgressors, or so my imagination had it. But what of the sixth pair of skis that the search party would find? Of that my imagination held nothing. Nor did we know the mountain in whose shadow we camped was located in the fallout zone from the atmospheric nuclear testing done at Ivdel. We melted a pan of snow to make tea and Lumi said, Have you heard even snow is poison? Water, water everywhere and not a drop to drink. She said her physics teacher had told her that radiation could be found in even the most remote places. But she drank it anyway.
We all drank, huddled together, lamp burning, our fire crackling outside, the warmth of our bodies filling the tent. Alexei was in his informative mode as he opened his packet of pemmican, made from dried musk deer meat and tallow, with nuts and honey added to disguise its punitive flavor, all stuffed in a length of intestine. “Dinner, my friends!”
Milo tucked in, rolling the frozen fat between his finger and thumb before eating it. He sucked the oil from them, and I was so hungry my mouth watered. Sobol, not to be outdone, unwrapped from his red handkerchief a sweet dumpling filled with dry cheese cut meticulously into five even pieces, making a great show and stealing Alexei’s thunder. “Milo can have mine,” Lumi said, but after he refused to eat her sliver and it sat there forlornly, she took it up and nibbled it like a mouse.
“You know what the Otroten mountain’s name means in Mansi?” Alexei went on, throwing a bit of the dumpling into his mouth and chewing, pointing to the North wall of the tent. “Otroten means “Mountain of Corpses” or “Don’t Go There” depending on who you ask.”
“Who asked you?” Bolsha joked.
“Depending on who is telling the story,” Alexei clarified. And that is what we did by the light of the lamp, we told stories. Alexei started us off: “Many years ago, I sat inside this very tent with a old sailor I had met while hiking along the Kama. Outside, the white darkness of a snowstorm howled. The old man said dramatically, ‘Before man and child the enormity of silence waits! Listen, my son…and you will see it is not silence at all! Do you know what a Flying Dutchman is? It’s a ghost ship sailing aimlessly, never to return to land or home. Seeing such a ship is a portent of certain doom.’ This old man claimed to have seen one. Of all his shipmates, he was the only one to survive their shipwreck. His hallucination floated inside the waves, ever-changing. He was kept alive by the conviction that it was a fata morgana and not a haunted thing, and he clung to flotsam while his shipmates drowned in terror. The image, of course, was merely a refraction of the icy North Sea as a result of temperature inversion. But, he said, he’d heard of the same phenomena, a kind of auditory hallucination that affected ski-hikers in the Urals. The wind carries a low-frequency acoustic wave that becomes an ominous musical instrument: the roar of a white river, a revving motor, the thrumming of the Earth itself, triggering in the soul some irreconcilable horror, a panic reason cannot reach. He said to me, ‘This, my son, this is what our comrades in the Ministry of Defense have made into a secret weapon.’ He was a paranoid old goat to be sure, but do you hear that?” Alexei made a broad gesture of putting his ear to the tent.
I could hear nothing. And then Bolsha looked uncertainly at the creased ceiling of the tent, which was vibrating slightly, and said, “When you gaze into the abyss, the abyss gazes into you.”
“It is the sound of a lonely woman, crying for her lost soldier,” Milo spoke with certainty and then began to sing, his voice thick and halting. From her braids the moon rises, such is her song, like gold coins falling from her mouth. “It is a Mansi song,” he offered apologetically, looking at Lumi in particular, “through one mouth, seven Obs flow, or so the song goes.”
“How would you know a Mansi song?” Lumi asked, tucking her braid self-consciously back into her headscarf.
“It is a song my grandmother would sing to me. She used to tell me the story of the Golden Woman. It was a story I asked for over and over as a child. The tribe had placed the holiest of all objects in their tiny church, next to the icon of Mary. It was much larger than Mary, big enough to put your arms around, like a real woman, but no one dared. Until one day. ‘But I am getting ahead of myself,’ my grandmother used to say. ‘There was a boy, not unlike you, who would come to see her. He said, I will kill a bear for you. As the boy got older he learned to hunt, killing squirrels and small reindeer. One day, when he was almost a man, he saw a large bear drinking from the river. He fired all his arrows into the bear as it reared up and ran towards him, and he wrestled with it, and the bear, hot and bloody, furious, clawed and bit him until he was bloody and wild with fury, just like the bear. Locked together the two of them embraced until the boy, with his last bit of strength, broke the bear’s neck. He limped to the church, dragging the bear. All who saw him said he looked like the World Surveyor himself, like a ghost or a god, and they were afraid to go near him. He dropped the bear at the gold idol’s feet. Some say the boy stole the idol, an even exchange, as it was never seen again. One deserving day the tribe will find it, hidden away in the mountains somewhere. But others say that before his very eyes the idol became molten, moving into flesh. She stepped toward him and he held her in his arms, the smooth metal now quick with life and heat. And she took him away with her, up into the night sky.’ Some say, when the night is very dark and there is no hope of killing the bear, you can look into the sky and see them arcing across it in a fiery embrace.” Everyone could see this was an offering to Lumi, and we sat in awkward silence while she decided whether to take or leave it.