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Finally she spoke, her face flushed as she removed her headscarf, folding it carefully before her. “My Grandmother also told me stories of the Mansi. I was not to worship false idols, is what she taught me. She had an icon hidden in the floorboards of the kitchen, which she showed me, making me promise to keep it secret. She says she did not acquire it in any ordinary way. It had appeared to her whole one day and appealed to her for safekeeping. This was before the revolution. It was a portrait of an angel painted on gilded wood, her enormous eyes close-set and sloping downward with sadness, her golden hair flowing in rhythm over her shoulders, her forehead crowned with a glowing red mark. My grandmother is dead now, you should know, so there is no secret to keep. I would stare at that mark in wonder, thinking it a bullet hole. ‘Who would shot an angel?’ I asked her and she said, ‘Stalin would.'”
“One day she was with her friends walking in the mountains and she met a Mansi woman who was busy burying something. When they asked her what she was doing, the woman said she was leaving something for her sister. My grandmother reminded me that during the time of the mass baptisms the Mansi women were not baptised, as it was part of the bargain. This woman said her sister married a troll who lived under the mountains, and that she wasn’t the only one, that many of them left their tribe, finding the trolls preferable to their newly Christian husbands. The trolls were rich from mining. They would eat a man alive if they found him on the slopes but not before they’d done him great and varied harm. The wives, they say, are a kind of truce.”
“You girls could find husbands then!” Sobol broke out a small flask and filled a tiny glass that he passed around. Milo drank from the glass in one swallow before wiping the rim with his palm and passing it to Lumi, who shook her head. Alexei reached for it, shifting nervously. After he threw it back , he stamped his foot, passing it back to Bolsha, who said, “Maybe they really married apparatchiks. Better off with the trolls!”
“Bolsha!” I didn’t think he should be joking this way. But were his jokes any riskier than Lumi’s confession? Any one of us could have been an informant.
“It is a bad joke and I am sorry.” With unusual gravity Bolsha kissed my cheek, offering me his vodka. I swallowed it, like fiery glass in my throat. My eyes watered and this amused him. With renewed levity, he opened the tent flap, letting in a violent gust of frigid air.
“What are you doing Sobol, you idiot?” Alexei was losing patience.
“I want to show you something I saw earlier” he held the lamp out to the clear night. The snow had stopped falling. Like fools, we crawled out behind him to see. Sobol said, “Look at this,” and he pointed to a series of depressions in the snow. They were too big for footprints. “Now we know snow people really do exist.” We all had a good look. “Of all the places to sleep! We’ve camped over Yeti tracks. He certainly won’t be happy when he comes back from his evening constitutional and finds us!” Bolsha shouted as the cold choked him.
“Why, those are just the Milo’s footprints! Anyone can see that,” I squinted.
“Perhaps they are the troll prints,” offered Alexei with a snort.
“Or the cuckolded apparatchiks! Maniacs of the NKVD! We all know what they are capable of on a dark night in a storm!” No one laughed this time. None of us could explain them, the impressions of what looked to be giant felt boots going on for a few meters until they were buried in a drift. Lumi could not see them, or so she claimed, crawling quickly backward into the shelter of the tent and calling out, “I just want to sleep. It will make sense in daylight.” She blamed our imaginings on Sobol’s little water, of which she’d had none.
“We will certainly have a story to tell when we return!” Milo took another swallow of vodka.
That is when I saw it, in the sky coming toward the valley, from the direction of the expanse of earth that held the camp that once imprisoned my brother. The orb was like a second moon, bluish-white and luminous with a halo of wild flares, arcing over the mountains. “Lumi, come see!” Milo called. We all stood with our necks craned to the horizon, breathless.
“Is it an asteroid?” Alexei wondered.
“A garden variety warhead.” Sobol winced as he swallowed the last of the vodka.
“Or an angel.” Lumi whispered, crawling out on her knees.
I was certain it was something that rivaled any system we knew, solar or otherwise, something that would allow the dead to speak or the living to trust. Watching with a leaden heart, I trembled. I wondered if Georgy could see it, wherever he might be. I thought certainly my mother would see it as a portent, filling her with bad feeling that I couldn’t help sharing as we watched the light disappear behind the mountain peaks.
I will come home, Mother. It won’t be right away, as we’ll have to be found and then the helicopter pilots, afraid, will refuse to take our bodies up, claiming contamination. Lots of things can happen in winter. They will find Alexei with his skull fractured, several hundred meters from the rest of us, and rumors will circulate that the prisoners of the camp at Ivdel’lag sing a verse he had penned. The search party will find Lumi and Milo in their underwear, dead of simple hypothermia, beside the remains of a bonfire not four hundred meters from camp, in the shelter of a cedar tree with broken branches, which they tried to climb while blinded. My dear Bolsha will be found wrapped in Lumi’s fake fur coat, his flesh perfect but his insides a mess so dense no human could have done it.—dead from what the official coroner’s report will call an Unknown Compelling Force. And they will find me buried deep in a drift, my feet wrapped in the tan wool and red piping of an officer’s uniform, my tongue missing. When my mother will finally see me laid out, my hair white and the skin of my face the color of an old shoe, she will blame it on an overzealous mortician, because she could not risk any more questions.
We returned to the shelter of the tent and settled in. There was nothing for it but to keep warm, wait for daylight and sleep if possible. Eager for distraction, Alexei asked, “And you, Svetlana, what is your story?” I told them of the story of the soldier and the witch, as I remembered it, with a few additions. “Once there was a girl who had gone out into the mountains with her friends, but after a great avalanche, she found herself alone.” There was some protest from the group at this point, but I hushed them and continued. “After trying to dig them out for many hours, she decided to find the nearest village and get help. She saw in the distance someone coming toward her from the forest. As he got closer she could see he was a soldier on skis, but that his uniform was ragged, and his hair and beard were quite long. He was dirty and smelled of a wild animal. ‘Comrade,’ she addressed him, ‘I am all alone! I have been trying to dig my friends out of this mound, but surely they are dead. We must find our way to the village before nightfall.’