Captive in the snow

By Andrej Kurkow

The hunters and the hunted (Issue II/2021)

Penguin -

Foto: Getty Images


In February 2021 a sea of snow swept over Voronivka. It covered the roofs of low old farm cottages and went up to the top-floor balconies of the two-storey small houses built in the long-gone nineties for Chernobyl resettlers. After several days of snowfall, frost and temperatures as low as twenty degrees below zero set in, solidifying the sea of snow that had spread over Voronivka. Even if many drones were sent into the sky, they wouldn’t be able to see the route into the village on their video cameras! It was a pure white sheet and the location of the road could only be guessed at from the rooftops.

Such thoughts played on Viktor's mind as he sat on the upper floor of his Chernobyl house. He had bought it twenty years ago from a real resettler when he had decided to move from Kiev to a place with few people and lots of air, a place where urban human anonymity did not exist, where you knew everyone by face even if you did not know their names, and where you quickly learnt who was who—and who was best avoided.

He sat at the window of his bedroom and looked down at the snow sparkling in the sun. It was hardly more than a metre to this snowfield if you leant out of the window and stretched out your hands towards it! The room had become extraordinarily bright because of the snow which tossed in the sun's rays, filling the room from floor to ceiling. Caught in the rays, the yellow quilt, which lay on the other, warmer one made of camel hair, became a rectangular sun.

Slightly apprehensive, he considered his situation: he had no bread, there were potatoes in the outside cellar.

It even seemed to Viktor that the bedroom had become warmer even though he could feel the goose bumps on his arm under his jumper. He raised his eyes to the thermometer hanging from two rubber suction cups on the window pane. Fourteen degrees plus, as usual. It was the temperature lower limit that Viktor could endure without complaint and that helped him save on heating. It allowed him to slow down his rising gas debt. His debts were not yet threatening, but in the village there were already around ten houses that had had their gas turned off completely. Viktor had once talked to a man from Franko Street who had already had both gas and electricity cut off. “I'm not afraid of anything any more,” he'd said with astonishing calm. “Nobody cuts me off from water - I have a well! And matches are always cheap, I fixed my stove. I’m back in the nineteenth century and live in peace!”

“If only I had his calm!”, Viktor had thought enviously at the time. But the envy had quickly subsided when he remembered that he had neither a well nor a stove and that it would be impossible to survive in his house without electricity and gas in winter!

He was in the mood for a hot tea and descended the wooden stairs into the darkness of the ground floor. He flicked on the light and immediately had the sensation of late evening or night. And cold!

When he had put the kettle on, he went towards the the window which looked out on a wall of snow. Delicate, exquisite ice patterns coated the pane.

Curiosity drove Viktor to turn the key in the lock and press it against the front door. It didn’t budge.

Slightly apprehensive, he considered his situation: he had no bread, and little else in the way of food. There were potatoes in the outside cellar, but he couldn't get to them! There was some  spaghetti though, plus tinned food, peas and rice.

He calmed down a little when he realised that the shop was now as snowed in as his house, as was the whole village.

With a cup of tea, he climbed upstairs to his bedroom and sat at the little table by the window. The radiator next to it was warm. The boiler was working, albeit at the minimum, but it was warming.

He called the neighbour. He had a one-storey house, he was much worse off!

“How are you?” he asked.

“Oh, bad!” the neighbour complained hoarsely. “I poked a hole through the ventilation flap to the sky, it's a bit brighter in one room now.”

“Are they going to clear the streets?” Asked Viktor.

“They're already at it. There's a bulldozer working on the big road. But he's still got three kilometres to go before our village!"

Viktor sighed. "Are you all right?" he asked his neighbour.

“Why not,” he replied, “the TV is working, with interruptions, but it's working. I have food, drink too. I don't have to go anywhere!”

“Well, call if you need anything!”, Viktor told him in farewell and right after that sentence seemed pointless to him. What would he do if the neighbour had a problem? Start digging a tunnel?

He put the mobile phone down on the table, and began to think about how he could open the door to the outside.

As he watched the steam rise over the teacup, he suddenly smiled. His mood lifted. “We'll get out of here!” he whispered resolutely to himself.

He finished the tea and went downstairs. He banged his shoulder against the door again and again for minutes and eventually it creaked open a little. He pushed his fingers through the crack and touched the hard, cold snow. In the kitchen he put the bliny pan on the cooker, lit the flame and waited until the pan was hot, then quickly grabbed it by the handle, hurried it to the exit and pushed it through the crack. The snow hissed. Viktor ran the hot pan up and down, listening to the snow begin to thaw under his touch. When the snow stopped hissing, he ran back to the kitchen with the now cold pan and put it back on the gas.

After an hour, he was tired. But not without reason! Now the door was open up to his elbow. Admittedly, so far it just went into the snow. But by the time the bulldozer reached their street, maybe he would have already tunnelled to the garden gate.

Exhausted from running back and forth with the hot pan, Viktor suddenly realised that it was ridiculous and inefficient to fight the snow in this way.

Another idea came to him. He reached for the zinc bucket, used it to scoop snow from behind the open door, dumping it into the bathtub and running back to the exit. After a quarter of an hour, the bathtub was full of snow and the space in front of the door was almost cleared. He tamped down the snow in the tub with the bottom of the bucket, now he could add more!

And suddenly he came across something black. He pushed his hand further and felt fur, cold and prickly.

He switched on the light in the hallway to better illuminate the site of his battle with the elements. Then the top layer of snow fell at his feet and he caught sight of the sky, already less bright blue, early evening. Viktor cleared away the fallen snow and began to dig the tunnel to the garden gate with the bucket. He had got maybe half a metre when he felt cold, miserable and completely exhausted.

He returned to the house. Wearing long johns and a warm T-shirt, he crawled under his two blankets, began to accumulate the warmth of his body and fell asleep.

In his dream, there was the same snow and the same struggle to get rid of it. He kept digging his tunnel to the garden gate and dumping buckets of snow into the bathtub. Only suddenly it was surprisingly warm. Viktor smiled in his sleep. Now he wasn’t cold at all, not even in the tunnel which he had made reaching two metres towards the garden gate.

And suddenly he came across something black. He took his bucket away, dug further with his hand and caught sight of a kind of goose or duck foot, only black. He pushed his hand further and felt fur, cold and prickly.

Maybe a dog had dragged someone's goose into his yard before the snow fell? He ran both hands around the cold little body and then pulled it towards him, but he didn't pull a goose or a duck out of the snow. He pulled out a penguin, and one that reminded him terribly of the penguin Misha he had said goodbye to a whole eternity ago.

“Heavens!” he thought, startled. “How can this be?” Old television news stories surfaced in his memory, how a cat in Japan, separated from its masters in a car accident, had walked a hundred kilometres to their house, how in Brazil a dog, stolen and taken to another city, had ran away from its capturers and found its way home!

“Misha couldn't have known I moved here! I'm just dreaming!” a sober thought flashed in his head. But Viktor drove it away.

He brought the cold penguin into the house, gave it a long rub down with a towel in the bathroom, then wrapped itin another dry towel, carried it into the living room and lay it on the sofa. He covered it with a throw and fetched the camel hair blanket from the bedroom. Then he heated water and filled the hot water bottle that he often took to bed with him. He put it on the bedspread, but under the camel hair blanket, so that it would warm but not burn. It seemed to him that the penguin was coughing. He ran his hand under the blanket and touched his feet - they were icy. Then he slid his hand further up. He stroked the penguin's chest and felt the distinct line of a scar!

“Truly Misha!” he thought, remembering how Misha had been given the heart of a child who had died in a car accident. He smiled and felt young again, felt happy.

He rolled over to the other side in his sleep.“So he walked here, to find me!” he thought. “From so far away, that's why it took so long!”

In the morning he went down to the living room and looked at the sofa. Mischa wasn’t there. He had stayed in his dream.

After he had eaten breakfast, he took the bucket and continued digging his tunnel to the gate. When he had moved forward a metre, he suddenly heard a pitiful sound. He began to dig away the snow with his hands. Had the dream been prophetic, was Misha really there? Then the thin wall of snow in front of him collapsed and he saw a small cave in front of him, as if dug into the snow. And in the cave was the neighbour's cat, covered with scratches and encrusted with blood around the nose, shivering and emitting pitiful hissing sounds.

For dinner, Viktor opened a can of sprats. He put half in a small bowl for the cat.

He hurriedly carried him into the house. And his gestures repeated exactly what had happened in the dream. He rubbed the cat down with the towel in the bathroom, then wrapped him up and brought him to the sofa, covered him with the throw and camel hair blanket, filled the hot water bottle and slid it on the throw under the camel hair blanket - so that it would warm but not burn. He pulled a chair over to the sofa and sat down beside it at the sick person's bedside, as if in hospital.

“What have you been up to?” he asked.

The cat no longer hissed. It lay motionless, but was breathing heavily.

“Well, warm yourself up properly!”

Viktor climbed upstairs to his bedroom. He reached for his mobile and dialled his neighbour.

“Hello! How is Mursik?” he asked sarcastically.

“Well, normal! Lying under the radiator sleeping for the third day! I haven't seen him at all today! Has gone completely lazy!”

“Well, go and have a look!”

“I will, wait!” The neighbour could be heard shuffling across the floor in slippers. “Oh! He's not there! Maybe he crawled behind the cooker?”

“I dug him out of the snow at my place!” informed Viktor to the neighbour.

“What are you saying! Frozen to death?” There was a tone of desperation in the neighbour's voice.

“No, he’s alive! I'm just warming him up again.”

“How on earth did that happen?”

“Maybe the dogs chased him before the snow fell or he had trouble with other tomcats. His nose is bloody. Maybe he didn't have the strength to run away from the snow!”

“Thank God, at least he's alive! Do you have anything to feed him?”

“What does he eat?”

“Whatever my son brings, different bags of purees for cats, I don't know what they're called!”

“Where would I get cat food?" asked Viktor in amazement. "I might have a few tins of sprats, various grains …”

“Sprats he likes. Write down how much of what he eats, I'll pay you!”

“Yeah, sure, I'll divide the price of the cans by the number of sprats!” grumbled Viktor. “Don't worry, he won't starve here.”

For dinner, Viktor opened a can of sprats. He put half in a small bowl for the cat, and ate his own half straight from the can. At the table in the living room, facing Mursik, who was warming up under the blankets.

“Yeah, you don't have bad taste!” he said to the cat as he finished chewing his last sprat. “If you want to eat, meow!”

A few minutes later, Mursik started rolling from side to side and meowing.

Viktor smiled. At the same moment, noise could be heard from somewhere above.

“The bulldozer!” Viktor rejoiced in anticipation of his imminent release.

He looked at the cat and, for a moment, saw Misha the penguin. Mursik, after all, was also black and white like an old television set, like a penguin. And he too liked fish.

“So, dinner is served!” Viktor bent over the cat. “Are you going to get up or shall I spoon feed you like a sick person?”

Mursik seemed to understand what he was being told. He meowed and tried to free himself from his blankets.    

Translated by Sabine Grebing and Jess Smee



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