Clad in their sleepwear, the young people dashed headlong down a snowy slope toward a thick forest, where they stood no chance of surviving bitter temperatures of around minus 30 degrees Celsius … The deaths, which occurred 49 years ago on Saturday, remain one of the deepest mysteries in the Urals.

— Saint Petersburg Times, Feb 19, 2008

The mountain pass is marked with a simple memorial: a marble stone with our photos from the Polytechnic Annual beneath the state emblem, a setting sun and globe framed by ribbon-laced sheaves of wheat. It’s not far from where the search party found our tent, slashed open from the inside out, and our footprints, barefoot, sock-foot, one-boot-on-one-off in the snow heading toward the Loz’vy Valley. The area has been closed off for years, all documents relating to our deaths secreted in confidential archives.

There were five of us ski-hikers from the Polytechnic. We’d hiked all day, coming from the Northern Settlement toward the mountains. We pitched our tent in the whiteout, having found ourselves off course with day leaving quickly. The snow-filled sky and white horizon conspired to make the nameless crossing seem insular and smaller than it was. Alexei, our leader, said we should be consoled that we would not lose any ground, camped on the slope as we were.

Alexei had it on proud authority that his grandfather was in the Red Army and he insisted you could see him in a photo of the crowd of troops around Lenin and Trotsky in Petrograd. Of Exhortation, Organisation, and Reprisals Alexei inherited only the middle. He was the kind of man you could never picture kissing a girl or writing a song for that matter; he was someone who had shut out the subtle things of life as immaterial. This, I thought, made him a good leader, and I followed him happily.

I had studied the maps while we rested the previous night in the settlement on the Auspii River. A sheltering wood stood an hour’s hike away in the valley, but I said nothing, thinking he was right. Everyone else was jolly, working quickly despite their freezing hands. The cold makes hands stupid. It can make people stupid, too. My brother Georgy had often warned me against it — my brother who had been sent to the mining camps for the crime of crumpling a newspaper printed with the image of Stalin. My brother told me you could get so cold you felt hot and that you would take off your clothes in that state, too. No one survives this state of stupidity, he told me when I was just a girl. And then there was snow blindness to watch out for. Lots of things can happen in winter, he said.

Sobol and Milo were pitching the tent while Lumi was under the flysheet, taking some of the weight. Lumi the luminous, I called her in my head. She had shiny cheeks and yellow hair like a doll. I knew her from my history class, where she sat a row behind me. She was guarded, holding herself in such a way as to hide her womanly body. We had often taken lunch together in the spring, sitting out on the lawn of the main campus. I liked her because we could be silent together. Lumi could sing, very high, like the sound of altitude, if such a thing has a sound: cold, thin, panoramic. Once, after our daily exercises, I heard her singing in the shower: Rise our bonfires in dark-blue nights! We, pioneers, children of workers …

Milo carried her pack for her when she would tire. A white ribbon traced with gold writing threaded the shoulder strap, and during our hike that day I got close enough to read it. May his angels watch and keep you, and bear you to heaven. Prayers were a foolish extravagance that could not be justified. She never spoke of God, though the sadness in her pale blue, wide-set eyes suggested she had something enormous to hide. Originally I had guessed she hid a lover, perhaps someone much older, but in guessing I found that I could be very wrong.

Milo had heroic cheekbones and broad shoulders, the silent type. He sported a thick moustache and his appearance was exotic. While the rest of us wore our cloth parkas or fake fur, he wore a reindeer fur coat with dark ribbons over the seams and a brightly beaded fish-skin purse hung from his satchel. His tall fur boots were tied over his army-issue trousers with long, striped hide laces. It was clear, at least to me, that he was in love with Lumi. He was not a student at school but a groundsman there. He lived in a small concrete hut near the dormitories, an arrangement which gave the impression that he had existed before the Polytechnic and the place had grown up around him. He carried most of the tent on his own back without complaint. He was always quite far ahead of the rest of us, stopping periodically to wait for Lumi to catch up. I saw him once tuck a stray blonde lock of hers into her headscarf. She didn’t brush his hand away, but looked at him with melancholy affirmation.

I laid out the ground sheet while Bolsha Sobol, my childhood friend, hammered the tent pegs into the frozen ground. He was darker than dark, with wild eyebrows that met in the middle. He had been studying engineering but he lacked discipline. When I would prod him about it, he would retort, “Who am I disappointing? The Komsomol?” I wanted to say me but he would know I was lying. I didn’t care; his failure made sense to me. I didn’t think much about the future, but I imagined he’d always be there. He would call me Comrade Sveta, with a smirk that suggested we were in on the same joke, and sometimes I was afraid for him. Bolsha could also tie all kinds of knots. Though these were useful knots, he displayed the eye splice, alpine butterfly or the constrictor as if they were a magic trick for my amusement alone. Once he tied a square knot around my waist and looked at me with exaggerated meaning. My heart sank to my belly.

How does a young woman, perhaps guilty of ideological subversion, shake off the busybodies of the college, the student lackeys of the Komsomol or the Ministry of Internal Affairs? She goes to play in the snow, to feel that even for just a moment, simple technology and force of will might grant one passage anywhere. My other classmates of course considered me crazy, going places where only Mansi go, and if rumor had it, even they chose to avoid that stretch beside the Urals. The Mansi lived in the shadow of the Kholat range, which felt on this night like the invisible wall of the world. We could not see the mountains for the storm, but we knew they were there.

Bolsha built a fire using pages from my notebook as kindling. He thought this kind of thing was funny. “They were blank pages, Sveta! You are too serious. Come here and lighten yourself by the fire.” Proud caveman Bolsha held out his hands to the pit’s modest blaze. My brother liked to say that fire is a great morale booster; it allows you time to rest and cook. He taught Bolsha and I, for Sobol was an orphan of the war, living with relatives so-many-times removed. What Georgy showed to me, he showed Bolsha.

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.

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.’

‘You will not trick me so easily,’ The young man said, brandishing his cudgel, ‘I know a witch when I see one. You can try to make me your slave but I won’t let you.’

‘I am no witch!’ said the girl, but she could see the soldier was delirious with hunger and fear. ‘How do you know I’m not a cursed princess, and once you save me I will grant you a wish?’

‘Because you are not ugly. Not very, at least. If you were a cursed princess you’d be horrible. That’s how it goes.’

‘I could very well suspect you of being a warlock. You are ugly enough. If I seduce you, perhaps you will be changed into someone charming. You will grant me a wish and I will bring my friends back to life.’

‘I have been walking for days, looking for the place of my birth. Do I look like the granter of wishes?’ But the soldier had dropped his guard, along with his cudgel, and succumbed to the embrace of the girl, who was not a girl at all but a ghost.”

I could go on peeling this onion, but you should know that won’t end it. Already Alexei was snoring, and Lumi had turned her back to Milo, who stared up at nothing. Sobol’s feet touched mine through our sleeping bags, sole to sole as we said our goodnights. As I dozed off, the last thing I heard before falling asleep was Lumi’s whisper-song: Rise our bonfires in dark-blue nights! We, pioneers, children of workers

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