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Siberian Dawn
by Jeffrey Tayler

From Chapter Five

Siberian Dawn Dawn never really came the next morning, but the clouds awoke with tints of gray blue. A cold snap had hardened the ground overnight. Mud swells were now like crusty moonscape. The air bit and chafed at my skin as soon as I stepped out of the cabin after breakfast.

The hard ground improved Anatoly's mood and sparked a new series of monologues.

"Russia is huge. And wealthy. You can bathe in any hole once the snow melts. Our water is pure. No one to fear. No snakes or crocodiles, like on your Canary Islands. I've seen your TV show about this. Snakes ... America ... Canary Islands ... No, Russia is self-sufficient. A land where a man can feel free to bathe in the snow. And after that he can look at these larch trees. Queens of trees, the larches. You don't have them in Vasheentoon. I know. This is a land to be born in and die in."

The snow deepened at the side of the road. The sky turned into a descending pewter-tinted sheet and closed in on us. Not a truck met us coming north, and Anatoly muttered about weather changes. We were alone on the road. Trees thinned, more and more often struggling to breathe through the snow. Another cold belt.

Aldan, no more than half an hour south of the mine, had been struck hard by a hit-and-run blizzard. Trucks were pulled up by the filling station at the edge of the settlement, and Anatoly found his naparnik among them. This man, white-haired with thin skin and a belittling tone in his voice, told Anatoly he'd go no farther today and rolled up his window.

Anatoly pulled out his primus again to make tea. I sensed something was wrong.
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"Anatoly, we just had tea an hour ago."

"That's right. But we've driven enough for today. We're going to drink tea and relax."

Driven enough for today? It was eight in the morning and Berkakit was less than two hundred miles south. What was the point of stopping so close?

"You mean we're going to sit here in this cabin all day?"

"What's a day, or two, or three out of our lives? My naparnik is staying put. So are we."

"You didn't even ask why he's staying! We've only got two hundred and seventy-five kilometers left!"

Anatoly muttered and peered into his tea sack, then clattered around in his satchel of tins and eating utensils. I was fading away for him again.

"Tea ... Trucks stopped here ... Ice ahead ... After that, Vasilyevka ... Bad ... Ice ... Strong tea."

"Ice? How do you know?"

A truck rumbled past us heading south. Then another.

I sat back and collected my thoughts. I knew I was being pushy by asking Anatoly to drive on, and I had no doubt that he knew his roads and weather conditions. But we were near our destination, and cabin life was starting to get to me again. It also seemed that he might be happier to sit and stay put; he was comfortable on the road and would be paid no more to hurry. Foul weather could be just an excuse for inveterate Soviet indolence.

He finished his tea and looked up.

"Okay. We'll take a look. Maybe we can go a bit farther."

South of Aldan, roads were built over sopki, not around them, and soon after the settlement disappeared from our rearview mirror, a pass came into view, along with the sun, which shot metalic light earthward in searing shafts and burned our retinas. We crept up the pass, our wheels spinning on ice, then catching on dry patches and jerking us ahead. When we crested the rise, Anatoly slowed and drew up on a lookout point above a roundabout curve high on the sopka. A long, steep descent spread before us, at the bottom of which the road veered right and then rose into another grade.

Anatoly sucked in his stomach and we began the descent. Our truck gained a threatening momentum and Anatoly touched the brakes gently. We skidded, long and slow, our Kamaz moving sideways down the slope. He let up on the brakes and we straightened out, then touched them again, and the same thing happened. There seemed to be no way to slow down without skidding.

We hit the turn at the base of the descent and slugged through plowed snow piled on its outer edge. This provided us with further traction, and so we drove, hugging the left shoulder, round the curve to the next ascent. No trucks met us head-on, and we continued to the top.

We reached a plateau rimmed on the south by sopki. Anatoly drove a bit, then pulled over.

"I want to bathe."


"I'm going to take a bath. I'll go no farther today. We'll have to wait until the ice thaws. Bath ... Tea ... Gotta bathe."

Anatoly threw open the door. The air outside was frigid. He walked along the road a few feet, then dropped into waist-deep snow off its bank and floundered in it, like a swimmer moving into the open past a choppy surf. He whipped his shirt over his head and began snatching at snow and smearing it over his sallow chest, under his arms, onto his face, into his hair. Wind drove snow around him -- he held his face to it as a sunbather would to fresh beams of sunlight on a beach in June and opened his mouth wide, then dove into the drift and wallowed around in it. When he finished, he stretched and plodded back to the truck, lifting his legs high and clumsily above the snow, as children do above kneehigh waves when trying to run the last few yards to the beach.

"Aaaah! Bath ... Good bath ... Go no farther today. Ice ... ice on the road. You want to take a bath?"

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Reproduced by permission of Hungry Mind Press, St. Paul, Minnesota. From Siberian Dawn, by Jeffrey Tayler, pp. 85-88. Copyright © 1999 by Jeffrey Tayler. All rights reserved.
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