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One Day in the Life of Ivan Denisovich
By Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn, H. T. Willetts
Farrar, Straus and GirouxCopyright © 1978 Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn
All rights reserved.
THE HAMMER BANGED reveille on the rail outside camp HQ at five o'clock as always. Time to get up. The ragged noise was muffled by ice two fingers thick on the windows and soon died away. Too cold for the warder to go on hammering.
The jangling stopped. Outside, it was still as dark as when Shukhov had gotten up in the night to use the latrine bucket — pitch-black, except for three yellow lights visible from the window, two in the perimeter, one inside the camp.
For some reason they were slow unlocking the hut, and he couldn't hear the usual sound of the orderlies mounting the latrine bucket on poles to carry it out.
Shukhov never overslept. He was always up at the call. That way he had an hour and a half all to himself before work parade — time for a man who knew his way around to earn a bit on the side. He could stitch covers for somebody's mittens from a piece of old lining. Take some rich foreman his felt boots while he was still in his bunk (save him hopping around barefoot, fishing them out of the heap after drying). Rush round the storerooms looking for odd jobs — sweeping up or running errands. Go to the mess to stack bowls and carry them to the washers-up. You'd get something to eat, but there were too many volunteers, swarms of them. And the worst of it was that if there was anything left in a bowl, you couldn't help licking it. Shukhov never for a moment forgot what his first foreman, Kuzyomin, had told him. An old camp wolf, twelve years inside by 1943. One day around the campfire in a forest clearing he told the reinforcements fresh from the front, "It's the law of the taiga here, men. But a man can live here, just like anywhere else. Know who croaks first? The guy who licks out bowls, puts his faith in the sick bay, or squeals to godfather."
He was stretching it a bit there, of course. A stoolie will always get by, whoever else bleeds for him.
Shukhov always got up at once. Not today, though. Hadn't felt right since the night before — had the shivers, and some sort of ache. And hadn't gotten really warm all night. In his sleep he kept fancying he was seriously ill, then feeling a bit better. Kept hoping morning would never come.
But it arrived on time.
Some hope of getting warm with a thick scab of ice on the windows, and white cobwebs of hoarfrost where the walls of the huge hut met the ceiling.
Shukhov still didn't get up. He lay up top on a four-man bunk, with his blanket and jacket over his head, and both feet squeezed into one turned-in sleeve of his quilted jerkin. He couldn't see anything but he knew from the sounds just what was going on in the hut and in his own gang's corner. He heard the orderlies trudging heavily down the corridor with the tub that held eight pails of slops. Light work for the unfit, they call it, but just try getting the thing out without spilling it! And that bump means Gang 75's felt boots are back from the drying room. And here come ours — today's our turn to get our boots dried out. The foreman and his deputy pulled their boots on in silence except for the bunk creaking under them. Now the deputy would be off to the bread-cutting room, and the foreman to see the work assigners at HQ.
He did that every day, but today was different, Shukhov remembered. A fateful day for Gang 104: would they or wouldn't they be shunted from the workshops they'd been building to a new site, the so-called Sotsgorodok. This Sotsgorodok was a bare field knee-deep in snow, and for a start you'd be digging holes, knocking in fence posts, and stringing barbed wire around them to stop yourself running away. After that — get building.
You could count on a month with nowhere to go for a warm, not so much as a dog kennel. You wouldn't even be able to light a fire out in the open — where would the fuel come from? Your only hope would be to dig, dig, dig, for all you were worth.
The foreman went off to try and fix it, looking worried. Maybe he can get some gang a bit slower off the mark dumped out there? You could never do a deal empty-handed, of course. Have to slip the senior work assigner half a kilo of fatback. Maybe a kilo, even.
Might as well give it a try — wander over to sick bay and wangle a day off. Every bone in his body was aching.
Ah, but who's warder on duty today?
Oh, yes. It's Ivan-and-a-half, the thin, lanky sergeant with black eyes. First time you saw him you were terrified, but when you got to know him he was the easiest of the lot — never put you in the hole, never dragged you off to the disciplinary officer. So lie in a bit longer, till it's time for Hut 9 to go to the mess.
The bunk swayed and trembled. Two men getting up at once: Shukhov's neighbor up top, Alyoshka the Baptist, and ex-Captain (second rank) Buynovsky.
The orderlies, oldish men, had carried out both night buckets and were now wrangling over who should fetch the hot water. They bickered like shrewish women. The welder from Gang 20 slung a boot and barked at them: "If you two deadbeats don't shut up, I'll do it for you."
The boot hit a post with a thud, and the old men fell silent.
The deputy foreman of the gang next to them gave a low growl. "Vasily Fyodorich! Those rats in the food store have really screwed us this time. It was four nine-hundreds, now it's only three. Who's got to go short?"
He said it quietly, but the whole gang heard and held its breath. Somebody would find a slice missing that evening.
Shukhov just lay there on the tight-packed sawdust in his mattress. Wish it would make up its mind: either a raging fever or an end to these aches and pains. This is neither one thing nor the other.
While the Baptist was still whispering his prayers, Buynovsky came back from the latrine and joyfully brought the bad news to no one in particular.
"Hang in there, shipmates! It's a good thirty below!"
That did it. Shukhov made up his mind to go to sick bay.
But at that very moment the hand of authority whipped his jerkin and his blanket away. Shukhov threw off the jacket that covered his face and raised himself on one elbow. Down below, with his head on the level of the upper bunk, stood the gaunt Tartar.
Must have come on duty out of turn and sneaked up quietly.
"Shcha-854," the Tartar read out from the white patch on the back of the black jacket. "Three days in the hole, normal working hours."
His unmistakable strangled voice could be heard all over the half-dark hut — not all the light bulbs were burning — where two hundred men slept on fifty bug-ridden bunks. All those who had not yet risen suddenly came to life and began dressing in a hurry.
"What for, citizen warder?" Shukhov asked, with more self-pity in his voice than he really felt.
Normal working hours was only half punishment. You got warm food, and there was no time for brooding. Full punishment was when you weren't taken out to work.
"Didn't get up at the signal, did you? Report to HQ fast." He gave his explanation in a lazy drawl because he and Shukhov and everybody else knew perfectly well what the punishment was for.
The Tartar's hairless, crumpled face was blank. He turned around to look for victims, but whether they were in half darkness or under a light bulb, on lower or upper bed shelves, all of them were stuffing their legs into black padded trousers with number patches on the left knee, or, already dressed, were buttoning themselves up and hurrying toward the door to wait for the Tartar outside.
If Shukhov had done something to deserve it, he wouldn't have minded so much. What upset him was that he was always one of the first up. But it was no good asking the Tartar to let him off, he knew that. He went on begging, for form's sake, standing there in the padded trousers he'd kept on all night (they had a shabby, greasy patch of their own stitched on above the left knee, with the number Shcha-854 traced on it in faded black ink), put on his jerkin (it had two similar numbers on it — one on the chest, one on the back), picked his boots out of the pile on the floor, put on his hat (with another such numbered rag on the front), and followed the Tartar outside.
All the men in Gang 104 saw Shukhov being led out, but nobody said a word: what good would it do, whatever you said? The foreman might have put in a word for him, but he wasn't there. Shukhov himself said nothing to anybody — he didn't want to irritate the Tartar. His messmates would have the sense to save his breakfast.
They went out together.
The mist in the frosty air took your breath away. Two big searchlights from watchtowers in opposite corners crossed beams as they swept the compound. Lights were burning around the periphery, and inside the camp, dotted around in such numbers that they made the stars look dim.
The snow squeaked under the boots of the zeks hurrying about their business — to the latrine, to the storeroom, to the parcel room, to hand in meal they wanted cooked separately. Heads were drawn well down into shoulders, jackets buttoned tight. Their owners were chilled not so much by the frost as by the thought that they would be outside all day in it.
The Tartar marched steadily on in his old greatcoat with grubby blue shoulder tabs. The frost didn't seem to trouble him.
They walked by the high board fence around the BUR (the camp's stone punishment cell), past the barbed-wire fence that protected the camp bakery from the prisoners, past the corner of the staff hut where a frosted length of rail dangled at the end of a thick wire, past the frost-covered thermometer hanging on another post, in a sheltered spot so that it would not fall too low. Shukhov squinted hopefully at the milk-white tube; if it showed forty-one below, they weren't supposed to be marched out to work. But it was nowhere near forty today.
They went into the HQ hut and straight through to the warders' room. It was just as Shukhov had guessed on the way. He wasn't bound for the hole — it was just that the floor of the warders' room needed washing. The Tartar announced that he forgave Shukhov and ordered him to clean it.
Washing the floor was a job for the hut orderly, a zek who wasn't sent out to work. But he had made himself so much at home in the HQ hut that he had access to the offices of the major, the disciplinary officer, and the godfather, made himself useful to them, heard a few things even the warders did not know, so for some time now he'd regarded cleaning floors for mere warders as demeaning. They'd sent for him a time or two, then realized how things stood and started "pulling" one or another of the working prisoners to clean the floor.
The heat from the stove in the warders' room was fierce. Two warders, stripped down to their dirty tunics, were playing checkers, and a third, still wearing his tightly belted sheepskin coat and felt boots, was asleep on a narrow bench.
Shukhov happily thanked the Tartar for forgiving him. "Thank you, citizen warder! I'll never sleep in again."
The rule was simple: Leave as soon as you finish. Now that Shukhov had a job to do, his body seemed to have stopped aching. He took the bucket, and just as he was, without mittens (he'd left them under the pillow in the rush), went out to the well.
Several of the foremen reporting to the PPS had crowded around the post, and one, a youngish man, ex-Hero of the Soviet Union, had shinned up and was rubbing the frost off the thermometer.
Advice reached him from down below.
"Don't breathe on it, man, or it'll go up."
"Go up? In a pig's ear. That doesn't make any difference."
Shukhov's foreman, Tyurin, was not among them. He put his bucket down, worked his hands into opposite sleeves, and watched curiously.
The man up the pole said hoarsely: "Twenty-seven and a half below, the bastard."
He looked harder to make sure, and jumped down.
"Bullshit. It doesn't work properly," somebody said. "Think they'd hang it where we can see it if it did?"
The foremen went their ways and Shukhov trotted to the well. His earflaps were down but not tied under his chin and the frost made his ears ache.
There was such thick ice around the wellhead that the bucket would hardly go into the hole. The rope was as stiff as a pole.
When he got back to the warders' quarters with his steaming bucket, there was no feeling in his hands. He plunged them into the well water and felt a little warmer.
The Tartar was missing, but four others had gathered. Checkers and sleep had been forgotten, and they were discussing how much millet they would be given in January. (There was a shortage of foodstuff in the settlement, but the warders were able to buy extra supplies at discount prices, although they had long ago used up their ration coupons.)
One of them broke off to yell at Shukhov. "Pull the door to, you jerk! There's a draft here!"
Wouldn't be a good idea at all to start the day with his boots wet, and he had no others to change into, even if he could dash over to the hut. Shukhov had seen all sorts of arrangements about footwear during his eight years inside: you might walk around all winter without felt boots, you might never even see a pair of ordinary shoes, just birch-bark clogs or the Chelyabinsk Tractor Factory type — strips off old tires that left tread marks in the snow. But things seemed to have improved lately. Last October he'd tagged along to the clothing store with the deputy foreman and got hold of a pair of stout shoes with hard toe caps and room for two warm foot rags in each. He'd walked around for a whole week as though it was his birthday, making a clatter with his new heels. Then, in December, felt boots had turned up as well: life was a bed of roses, no need to die just yet. So some fiend in the accounts office had whispered in the big man's ear: let them have the felt boots, but only if they hand their shoes in: it's against the rules for a zek to have two pairs at once. So Shukhov had faced a choice: either wear shoes all winter or turn them in and wear felt boots even when it thawed. He'd taken such good care of his nice new shoes, he'd greased them to make them soft ... He'd never missed anything so much in all those eight years. The shoes were all tossed on one big pile — no hope of getting your own pair back when spring came. It was just like the time when they rounded everybody's horses up for the kolkhoz.
Shukhov knew what to do this time: he stepped nimbly out of his felt boots, stood them in a corner, tossed his foot rags after them (his spoon tinkled as it hit the floor — he'd had to get ready for the hole in a hurry, but he still hadn't forgotten his spoon) — and, barefoot, dived at the warders' felt-booted feet, generously splashing the floor around them with water from his floor cloth.
"Hey! Take it easy, you crud," one of them exclaimed, quickly drawing his feet up onto his chair.
"Rice, you say? The rice allowance is different. There's no comparison with millet."
"Why are you using all that water, you idiot? What a way to wash a floor!"
"Never get it clean any other way, citizen warder. The dirt's eaten into the floor."
"Did you never see your old woman clean a floor, you moron?"
Shukhov straightened up, holding the dripping floor cloth. He smiled innocently, showing the gaps left in his teeth by an attack of scurvy he had when he was on his last legs at Ust-Izhma in '43. He'd thought he was done for — a bleeding diarrhea had drained all the strength out of him and he couldn't keep anything in his stomach. Now he only had a slight lisp to remind him of it all.
"They parted my old woman and me in '41, citizen officer. I don't even remember what she looks like."
"That's what they call cleaning a floor. The bastards can't do any damned thing properly, and they don't want to learn. They aren't worth the bread we give them. Feed them on dung, I would."
"Why the hell does it have to be washed every day, anyway? It never has time to get dry. Listen here, 854! Just give it a once-over, don't make it too wet, and get the hell out of here!"
"Rice, man! There's no way you can compare it with millet!"
Shukhov made a quick job of it.
There are two ends to a stick, and there's more than one way of working. If it's for human beings — make sure and do it properly. If it's for the big man — just make it look good.
Any other way, we'd all have turned our toes up long ago, that's for sure.
Shukhov wiped the floorboards, leaving no dry patches, and without stopping to wring it out tossed the rag behind the stove. He pulled his boots on in the doorway, splashed the water out on the path along which the screws walked, and took a shortcut past the bathhouse, past the dark, chilly recreation center toward the mess hut.
He had to get to sick bay while there was still time — he was aching all over again. And he mustn't let the warders catch him outside the mess hut: the camp commandant had given strict orders to pick up stragglers and shove them in the hole.
Funny thing — no big crowd, no queue, outside the mess today. Walk right in.
Excerpted from One Day in the Life of Ivan Denisovich by Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn, H. T. Willetts. Copyright © 1978 Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn. Excerpted by permission of Farrar, Straus and Giroux.
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