Friday, November 10, 2006

The Rat Beneath The Ice

It occured to me today that since I'm now judging other writer's work, it would only be fair to occasionally put my own neck on the chopping block and let you all see some of what I write. I mentioned in a previous post that I'm working on a story for an anthology with a cryptozoology theme (Crypto-Critters II, published by Padwolf Publishing). The following is the opening that I wrote and then abandoned. I like it well enough (for an early draft), but it wasn't leading in the direction I wanted to go, so I wrote a new opening. But this is a prologue of sorts, it sort of has an ending (it doesn't just trail off or leave you hanging), so I figured I'd throw it out there for your entertainment.

(It's that or hear me bitch about that business magazine, which is mainly what I've been working on this week.)

The Rat Beneath Ice

It was January, 1932, and under a gray sky that hurt his eyes Nikolai Truyev knelt on the frozen ground to examine the bizarre treasure he had just unearthed. Nikolai and his fellow zeks – inmates at the Siberian Gulag – were digging a trench next to the Kolyma River, and he had just discovered a giant salamander frozen in an ice lens. Never in his life had Nikolai seen such an odd creature. It was half a meter long, with mottled bluish-green skin, a bulbous body, and eyes as black as a Siberian winter night.

What jumped out at Nikolai though, was as much where he had found it. The trench was three meters deep. A salamander, three meters down? Digging this trench was taking forever precisely because the Siberian tundra never thawed that deep. Never.

Nikolai was neither zoologist nor geologist, but he had learned enough at the university to know that this salamander must have been frozen here for hundreds of years. Maybe thousands.

From behind him, Sergei Solztnr startled Nikolai by swinging his pick axe into the lens where the salamander rested, and they both winced as ice chips sprayed. A series of cracks appeared where the pick struck, including a large dark line. Sergei swung again, his experienced hand guiding the pick precisely to the small dent his first blow had made.

Half a dozen swings later, Sergei had freed a hunk of salamander-filled ice.

“Hey,” Nikolai cried, “I found that!”

“Yes,” Sergei said, “you did. Congratulations.”

Nikolai started after them. “We have to figure out what it is. Where it came from. It could be important.”

Sergei whirled back and stuck his pick axe in Nikolai’s face. “Quiet, you damn fool, or you get nothing. If you want a share of your discovery, follow me.” And without another word, he dropped his pick to the ground and tucked the piece of ice under his coat. Nikolai followed Sergei and they trooped down the ever-widening trench to the edge of the Kolyma River.

At some point one of the officers running the Gulag had the brilliant idea that if they could divert the river, it would simplify their gold mining operation in the summer months. Whether it would work or not, no one knew, but even Nikolai, who had only been interred here for a little over a week, had learned that if the officers or guards said to do something, you did it – quickly - with no questions asked.

There were too many new prisoners being shipped to Siberia every day for one to be missed if anything happened to them – and in Siberia things “happened” all the time.

Puffing a small cloud with every breath he took, Nikolai followed Sergei along the bank of the ice-locked Kolyma, wondering what he was up to. Now that he wasn’t working anymore, Nikola was suddenly, painfully, reminded of how cold it was. Trying to dig through the frozen tundra was an exercise in futility, but at least it was an exercise that kept him warm.

About forty meters from the mouth of the trench, Sergei turned and clamored up the steep river bank, and when Nikolai climbed up behind him, he saw where the man was heading. By following the curve of the river, they had positioned themselves on the far side of the bonfire the guards had built. And at the moment all three guards had their backs to it.

Moving as stealthily as he could, Sergei crept up to the fire and held out his salamander. As he did so, he turned to Nikolai and put a finger to his lips, directing him to be silent as he crept up.

This made no sense. Given how unusual this creature was, Nikolai it they must be an important discovery. He had assumed they would turn it over to the guards, who in turn would turn it over to scientists who would study it. He didn’t see what difference it made if it was frozen or not. In fact, it occurred to him that it might travel better if it was still encased in ice.

Sergei, however, seemed to be in a race to thaw the specimen. Soon Sergei was thawing the salamander head first.

Suddenly Nikolai grew irritated with himself. Sergei’s salamander? He had found the salamander. He. Nikolai. Sergei had taken it away form him. Yet here he was, thinking of this thing as Sergei’s.

He was a bout to speak when Sergei took the salamander’s head between his thumb and forefinger and wiggled it up and down. It had thawed sufficiently to move, and the flesh was surprisingly pliable. Nikolai watched with fascination as the creature’s head bobbed up and down between Sergei’s fingers, as if saying, Yes, yes, very nice to meet you, too.

Then Sergei pushed the salamander’s head to one side and bit into its neck.
Nikolai could only watch in mute astonishment as Sergei clenched his teeth together, tore a chunk of meat from above the thing’s left shoulder, and gulped it down. He thought he was about to vomit, but suppressed the reaction through sheer force of will because he knew he couldn’t afford to lose the calories.

As Sergei went for a second bite, Nikolai shook himself free of his trance-like state and shouted, “No!”

Sergei stopped. Slowly, he turned to face him… just as the three guards did, too. An expression of horror washed over Sergei’s face.

“Well, well, well,” said the first guard. “What have we here?” He strolled around the perimeter of the fire, stopping in front of Sergei. His rifle was slung over his shoulder, but the other two guards had theirs in hand. As if the zeks needed yet another reminder who was in charge…

Nikolai stood tall and said, “I found this salamander and thought it might be important. I was going to bring it to you, but this lunatic took it and tried to eat it.”

Sergei did not respond. He simply crouched by the fire, looking like a caveman gnawing on bones he would not readily give up. His defiant expression melted the instant one of the guards cocked his rifle.

“Very interesting indeed,” said the first guard as he studied what Sergei held.
Nikolai took a step toward the guard. “Based on where I found it, I think it might be very old - ”

One of the guards swung the butt of his rifle into Nikolai’s stomach, dropping him to his knees. As he gasped for air, he was vaguely aware of the sound of laughter around him. When he looked up, he saw the laughter was coming not only from the guards, but from Sergei as well.

The guard snatched the salamander away from Sergei and then hunkered down next to Nikolai. He said softly, “This is a valuable thing, tovarisch. I promise we will examine it thoroughly.” He then stood back up and said loudly, “Now get back to work, all of you.”

The two zeks trudged back toward the trench, but Nikolai allowed himself a smile, comforted by the guard’s promise. He may have alienated his comrade, but it would be worth it if that salamander was as ancient as he believed it to be.

But as Nikolai climbed back into the frozen ground to resume his work, he spotted the guards rigging something over the fire with tree branches and their rifles and immediately realized what a naïve fool he had been.

Examine it thoroughly? In this era of Soviet double-talk, where prison camps were “corrective labor colonies” designed for the “re-education of class enemies,” he should have known what the guard meant.

But just as quickly, he saw it would have changed nothing. In Siberia, where the difference between guards and zeks was simply that guards got to cook their thousand year-old salamanders before they ate them, Nikolai knew he had to adapt – quickly - or die.

* * *


Maria said...

I've read another of your short stories too. You have a way of capturing the reality of human relationships oh-so-well. You tell it without some of the raw darkness that I don't like in other stories (ie you didn't brutally beat the guy up, chop heads, or have him go crazy over the salamander etc). The poignancy comes across. We all know human nature and suffering without it being written explicitly on the page.

I love that your characters are survivors. They take risks, but they are smart, watchful, careful.

Very kind of you to share this piece of work. Thank you.

Edmund R. Schubert said...

Very kind comments. I can't tell you how happy I am to find a kindred spirit who believes charcaters can be revealed without being brutalized.