The crack of the Sitka weighted by boughs unnaturally laden with snow over shadowed the small caliber report of the handgun the soldier used to shoot the frozen worker.
His face was blackened by frost. His hands and arms were rigored by mortis and the implacable cold invading the small mammalian and once human form.
The man he shot, like the Sitka weighted by tons of freshly fallen snow, was lifeless and stiffly frozen.
In sleep the children stir each distinctly and as notably different as their words, spoken in wakefulness.
The knots on the plank above me, the beautiful amber and gold of the Sitka spruce, are punctuated by the board with eyes, moons of purple, red or near black.
Here are limbs or branches, arms which had met the blade of the millers saw, each board, each tree as unique and distinct as the stories of the children, the accents of their speech, language of their tongue, the stirrings of their dreams.
With sleepy eyes, their visions are filled with phantasms of their evening travels, journeys whose incalculable distance I would like to see, but whose ephemeral nature and the complexity in the telling or competition with cereal and buttered toast, leaves me behind.
“Pa,” little sister croaks, her voice deep from its night of inactivity, her breathing slowed by somnolence, her words the careless choice of those taken from dream, others snatched from her daytime lexicon, employed in waking intercourse.
“Umm,” I intone, wanting to signify I hear, but not so loudly as to disturb her dream like state.
“Do you think I might really get a horse.”
I smile and struggle to control laughter.
I grin widely, fearing the movement of my face and ears will betray my smile and work to not burst into laughter.
“Umm,” I say, an answer sufficient to keep her engaged in the monologue, to allow her, in this sleepy state, to continue speaking.
In quiet, I hope to allow some of the pictures, pieces of whatever is the constitution of her thoughts, so different from sugar plums or purple fields I imagine to people her dreams, to rise and take shape from the subterranean depths of her unconsciousness.
Nighttime stories drift off into an oblivion where they are never lost, I believe, but like the gene pool, resurface in years or times and ways none of us can distinguish as related to this night.
“Hey Pa,” she murmurs, rubbing sleep from her eyes, taking the measure of the sun outside, the time of day, the geography around her.
‘Where have you been,’ I want to ask, but know she is still in transition from one world to this other, still taken with the fantastic and elusive images of the night.
Were I to speak, I know, I would intrude on her moment, scuttle whatever recollections were still afloat.
Words, I fear, might engender some unpleasantness for their unwitting disturbance of a time otherwise needing the quiet and solitude regular animals enjoy when there are no hominids to question or impose their ceaseless wonder, contrivances of thought into the still quiet world of gossamer threads and make believe.
“Did you sleep well,” I ask, knowing the best I can expect is a nod or, with luck a small smile acknowledging my presence, yet not so intrusive as to chase away the phantasms or incur any ill will.
But for an occasional crow, one, then another, then sporadic cries of one here or there, separated by what must be their own roosts in the forest, the morning is still.
I have a cup of coffee whose heat warms the glass mug that in turn I press against my cheek.
By rote or luck, mime or genetic imprinting, the sleepy eyed sweet smelling girl moves across the room to sit next to me. She takes my hand, lacing her arm in mine, and closing her eyes, allows her head to rest upon my shoulder.
For more than a few moments we sit, exactly as she has come to be next to me.
In another moment I fear moving for her breathing has changed and I wonder if she isn’t again asleep.
“Pa,” she whispers, no other movement or sounds tell me she is in fact awake.
“But I’m serious pa,” she says, still without movement or other audible sounds, having somehow detected my less than enthusiastic support for the proposition.
“I am too,” I say, leaning back on the couch, letting her head fall to my chest, taking the weight of her head and long mane of hair, the sweet aroma of her scents and smells all about me.
“Today,” she said, after some moments of very slow very regular breathing.
“Today,” she repeated, turning now and taking my gaze, peering into my eyes with her soft but focused and resolute eye.
“Well, we could look for a horse,” I begin, “and I suppose you could buy one,” I answer, thinking to speak slowly for every word I say she will remember exactly and to each of which she will hold me accountable.
“But we would have to build a house for him to live in.”
“Move along,” the soldier shouted.
The workers rested momentarily, a breath from demanding exertion.
“Move along,” he repeated, his tone harsh and unforgiving.
The men took a moment to rub their hands, wipe frost and ice from their beards, shake warmth and blood back into their nearly frozen limbs.
“Get going,” he shouted again, knowing he too had a quota, he too was slave, that there were as many conscripts as trees, and that, under the proper conditions, humans proved once and again they were capable of surviving the most extreme and inhuman suffering.
“Better than barnyard animals,” the soldier thought.
“Thank god for the nation of hope.”
At the rail station there were watchmen, rail workers, yardmen, soldiers, clerks and the bosses ever-present.
“No shipments today,” a soldier said. He spoke under his breath, standing along side a miller, separating a load delivered the day before.
“Eh,” he whispered again, a modicum of jocularity in his voice mimicking the lightness any worker would have right to feel for this day’s respite, the surcease of a days hard labor for a problem up the line.
“There must have been a broken rail, an accident, a frozen locomotive or better yet,” he thought, “a strike.”
“I think it’s the end of the line,” the miller answered, his eyes never leaving the flash of board whistling past him on the conveyor, planks which moved so quickly they would easily dismember a hand, a leg, the private and most precious parts of a man’s jewels.
“Murmansk,” the soldier replied, “What do you mean. What has Murmansk got to do with this?” In the soldiers voice was a genuine question.
“Not Murmansk, you fool,” the laborer grunted, lifting his eyes momentarily to scold the Russian soldier.
“The other end.”
The soldier looked bewildered.
“Vladivostock,” he said, his word more question than rejoinder.
“Are you drinking already,” the other inquired, his words, mocking but lighthearted. He waited for the roar of the machinery, as was its custom when grinding to a halt.
It screeched its disdain and unwillingness to continue, growling it’s determined, and implacable discontent.
“In the woods,” the miller said, looking now at the soldier allowing themselves the luxury of eye contact for the proximity of trouble, the incessant and twenty four hour monster whose care, his job, had died in its tracks.
“I heard they had a terrific storm.”
The worker looked along the rows of machinery checking to see if he was expected to do anything, if there were strong men or soldiers whose attitudes and interests were different than the likes of his comrade, here, who was willing to stand and talk a minute while someone else came to fix the problem.
“I heard they had a ferocious storm in the north.”
The soldier raised his eyebrows, wanting to hear more, a question and an acknowledgment of his lack of knowledge.
“They had eight or ten feet of snow.”
“Everything is buried.”
The soldier looked awed, struck by the harshness of a land that might even stop the forces of communism and the dictatorial hands of the oligarchs.
“A lot of men died,” the miller man continued.
He looked past the soldier, past the line of machinery watching, to see no one was watching him, that he wouldn’t get into trouble for having a conversation with a military man, that some goon or gun man wouldn’t find neither of them posted as was their jobs, not working as the state demanded and send them packing or to the commanders office for reprimand or confinement depending upon his mood, how bad were the terms of his own confinement, the harshness of his own imprisonment in this universal system of eternal, unmitigated penal servitude.
The moment he spoke, there was a loud hoot from a locomotive, a whistle and the deep grumbling of a train moving, shunting in the rail yard.
It’s movement and sounds were familiar but unexpected as there was no freight, to their knowledge, no loaded trains, as the worker had just explained, and a bad storm causing everything in the north to freeze in a seizing halt.
“There’s some Sitka spruce,” the old man at the lumberyard said, “that’s come from Russia.”
We had driven our regular and religious journey to the lumberyard looking for timber and board, some of which was to make the floor of the loft of our mountain eerie.
“Sitka,” one of the children says, “that’s the tree wooden ships use for their masts.”
“Yup,” the ancient logger repeats, “and it’s from Russia. A pretty good price too. And it’ll do you just fine.”
We collect nails, two by fours, steel for the roof repair and stop, fully loaded but happy to stand in the sun smelling the intoxicating scents of the lumberyard.
“Let’s see,” I say and we amble along the rows of neatly piled timber to the shed covering the famed spruce.
“Over there,” the old man pointed, he some distance off, sitting on the steps of the small shed where there is a telephone. Here they collect money from locals who buy material, load their pick ups and stop nearby, to pay.
We move over an aisle to where he had directed us and see, under the polyurethane a squared truck sized lot of lumber that we realize, by his direction, is the Sitka.
“Oh look,” one of the children says pulling up the edge of the tarp, seeing beneath, now open to the bright July sun, the golden yellow evenly cut, flawless lengths of board that are indeed Sitka.
Dimly I recollected this spruce came from the wilds of British Columbia, Alaska or, if the story is true, from the northern steppe of Russia.
“My parents came from Russia,” I think and move to more closely inspect the alleged treasure, a troff which, if true, must have been stolen from unpaid workers at the gulag, shipped from the arctic, fifteen thousand miles away. It must have changed hands five hundred times to land here in the woods of the North Country two oceans and seven lifetimes away.
The children watch the Sitka story unfold.
Little by little they see the nylon tarp come up and over the edges revealing the beautifully golden colored spruce.
“Yup,” the old man said, ambling now towards us, taking a liking to these ragamuffin children and their peculiar father.
“I don’t know if it’s true, but I’ve been in this business since I learned to feed and water my father’s horses, and I’ve never seen anything like it.”
His eyes glanced back and forth to the children and the spruce, but counter pointing the meaning of his words and the significance of his speaking, he closed off, gazing directly at me.
He stopped speaking leaving the faint suggestion their was, in some curious way, a relation between this spruce, of such apparent beauty, and these beautiful and self possessed children of mine, gawking at the Sitka, and the toothless old man speaking so seriously to their father.
He winked, saying again with nary a word, to regard all the wonder and beauty of being in this lumberyard. A space of land filled with trees in whose presence we lived, whose sugar we ate on pancakes, and whose live logs we sold at the market for furniture and fancy cars, was all around us.
I am given to wonder if the sounds of my keyboard will wake the children, if the sounds of my writing will intrude in their sleep, color their dreams like the entrails of a jet, air sifted and swayed into unrecognizable forms by the passage in and around other clouds.
The children sigh as I imagine the Sitka does after its protracted winter night.
Sometimes they shake and shudder in sleep passing some phantasm as I imagine man must feel, trekking along the taiga, hearing the freight train of wind howling, screaming, clawing at the bottoms of their souls, shuddering with the nightmare which, being lost in the arctic night, he must always endure.
How curious the Sitka and the children, the woodsman and the tree all sigh, boughs filled with snow, tussled heads cradled in sleep.
There is, in everything we do, in all the creatures of the planet an odd, but not unlikely similarity.
The children and I have few possessions.
In part for the demands they place upon the spirit, the demands for being well kept, the cost, in human capital of maintenance and care, and the freedom, alternatively of being without responsibility. Except to ourselves, for pleasure, for the attempt to gain peace and contentment from the moments in time through which we pass, there seemed little reason to own anything but our pride.
There is no easy way to learn the lessons all around us. We look up to the underbelly of the loft and see the beauty of the Sitka, the floor of the space where we sleep, rest from the sun, conceive children, play, laugh and wonder at the enormity of change, the magnitude of difference between the simple luck of being able to lie here, beneath the Sitka and not be laborers forced into a lifetime of suffering.
We can hardly conceive that luck of not being the miller or logger, the timber or sawyer who, at gun point, deprived of food or warmth the immediate consequence of failure was death; a freezing, starving privation, an emaciating, numbing and hypothermic death.
The miller looked to the soldier and felt the anxiety of uncertainty overcome his face.
“What is it,” he asked, a serious man whose only interest was to get a good meal, be warm at night, stay out of the gulag.
“Listen,” the mill worker answered, cocking an ear to the direction of Murmansk, the direction in which all timber traveled, the direction from which occasionally there was food or other meager provisions, but mostly trouble in return.
“Maybe it’s food and supplies,” the goodhearted soldier said.
“Maybe it’s troops and there has been a rebellion in the North Country.”
The soldier sobered suddenly despite the unexpected break in his regular activity and stood at attention. He stood, acting out the only command he knew when all else failed, when there was no one to command him, nothing better to do.
The laborer lowered his head, a poor attempt to be engaged, a reflex from the superstition that if one looked at trouble one would inevitably become part of it.
The rails shook.
The earth vibrated.
The ground between the laborer and soldier trembled, articulating the certainty that change of an unwelcome nature was immanent.
“Oh God,” the laborer whispered, his hat drawn tightly to his chin,
“Oh God,” he whispered again, seeing, on the leading edge of the rail car, the unmistakable star and crescent, the red hammer and sickle, an otherwise benign insignia which here, clearly spelled trouble of a most unfortunate kind.
At the rail station, where before the horse-less carriage, ox carts and horse drawn buggies were the only means of locomotion, the children and I walk and play.
There are old wooden warehouses edging the tracks, old buildings like ships, which lay nestled next to the wharves.
These I think must have taken freight from the city, handled and manufactured by hands to the farms, quarried stone, fallen timber cut and hauled by factories whose stores were long since exhausted.
There are trophies to be found and an ice cream store nearby.
We seek the quarry of an old iron spike, a scrap of metal from one of the ancient cars, a squashed or flattened coin some other child carefully placed and left, lost or chased away by the station master, spooked by the locals boarding or debarking and arriving home.
Like the Sitka, in trains there is something of a time gone by.
The old timber man tells us there was a time when squirrels could walk by treetop from the coast of Maine to the Mississippi.
There are stories of the past which, too simple to be anything but true, too complex in their simplicity, are like the Sitka. I yearn, in more ways than I am able to speak, for the wherewithal to give this knowledge, these understandings to these children so they, like the Sitka, will grow straight and tall.
Along the tracks, along the dry dust creek bed where tracks once lay, there are piles of iron, old tracks taken up by crane, old planks, and ties which held the iron rails in place.
Like a graveyard, the children walk amongst these old leviathans.
They rummage up and down, casting quick steps across the surface of metals and woods which, in it’s current form, is more than a hundred years old. Before this, I know it lived as a tree, a deposit of ore before even the country was formed, before a flag of these thirteen colonies was contemplated to fly.
What is in the meaning of iron rails which used to be stone and from which the foundry crushed, heated and pulverized some essential stuff to make this sleek and man smoothed steel.
Is it, like forms of dissimilar origins, that so strikes me. Is it in the essential likeness of being, all elements, however touched by man, and all lives possess.
And what of the square logs. Railroad ties that bind steel rails, allow transport of the iron horse across their perfectly engineered abyss, to cross the continent, to discover and open the new land, to pass troops or goods, manufactured stores or foods, wool or grain, blue jeans and pallets of Sitka, home.
What is the irony of wood carrying wood, wooden ties transport for wooden timber, iron horses the transport for iron cars.
There is something so simple in this it eludes me, but is, nevertheless, a relationship I want to explain to the children even as I watch them clamor over its midst, up it’s steep walls and along its shiny piled high length.
The soldier waited attentively. The laborer knew, too well, something terrible was about to happen.
They stood stiffly.
There was suddenly nothing more either wanted to say.
The surge of nausea, panic and the unpleasant but familiar companion of adrenaline preparing them for fight or flight churned their stomachs.
The train approached.
It’s locomotive, a military green was indistinguishable from the forest of trees through which it moved but for the ever looming size of the crescent moon and bright yellow sickle.
“Shut down your equipment,” the militiaman shouted.
He jumped from the freight car behind the locomotive before there was even a hint the great train would slow.
“Shut down your equipment and prepare to leave,” the soldier shouted. He held up his rifle as if he were speaking to men from a different country, citizens of a foreign flag, foreigners whose interests didn’t ultimately coincide with his own.
The soldier stared at the messenger and saluted, acknowledging his understanding and the preeminence of the newly arrived garrison.
“You,” the militiaman shouted to the laborer.
“There is no more lumber to work on, nothing else for your machines.”
He paused, seeming to raise the barrel of his rifle, not a threat pointing it to the laborer’s head, rather a simple statement making clear the insinuation of the consequence of his orders not being followed.
“Do you hear me.” His stance, aggressive and pugnacious, ready to engage in hand to hand combat made the issues abundantly clear.
The miller man looked up. He allowed the soldier to take his gaze and steeled his self-control.
“Get all of your comrades. We are leaving. We are going to the camps.”
An afterthought almost, the slightest acknowledgment the he too, was uncertain, muttered, “there is trouble.”
The words were scarcely recognizable.
“Go ahead,” he repeated, turning backwards, shaking his rifle by the stalk, admonishing the soldier and the miller not to stand still and watch, but rather to carry out his commands, obedient workers readied for their immanent departure.
“Let’s go,” one of the elder children says to the gathering.
Though three are present, there are only two of age, two who are allowed by cultural law to go forward on the expedition of which the elder speaks.
“Lets go,” he says again, rousing himself, looking after the younger, the juniors of the hunting party, the siblings who, separated by only a few years are still old enough to be comrades but not so young as the youngest to be separated and left off.
“I want to go too,” the younger demands petulantly. “I want to go too papa,” the younger insists, but he can’t and in his heart, he knows I will decline.
“We’ll be back by dark,” the eldest says.
He looks at me confidently, surveys his troop and, setting his rifle snug to his back looks again and one last time over the equipment, the gear they will carry, and his own pack.
“Papa,” the younger insists again, “I want to go. Nothing will happen to me.” You let her go and she can’t shoot any better than him.”
The young one thinks that just because the older sister is closer to the elder brother’s age, they have no more competence with a gun than he. If there is trouble, he thinks, if there is a bear who grows angry, who turns on the rag tag group, who, rather than suffer the arrows of the hunting party turns and malls one or the other of his attackers, they, the girl especially, will be in as much trouble as any, including himself.
“Papa,” the little one says, “at least I am afraid. At least I know what to do. I won’t walk in to the face of trouble.”
The elder watches the story unfold. He knows there is some truth to the facts as the little one asserts them but too there are issues of pride, issues that tell him, as the eldest child of the hunting party, the closest to me of the young children, he should go about this passage with none of the encumbrances of family that impugn his integrity, that might make him be less than the skillful and competent hunter we have tried to become, I have taught him to be.
“It’s not safe,” he says, his only comment to the issue between us all of the possibility of his younger brother attending.
“You know it’s not safe,” he repeats, shouldering his rifle, looking at the others to tell them they are ready to move out and that his serious intent, the admonition of this alpha male must be heeded, immediately.
Hundreds of workers from the mill were herded onto the train.
Hundreds of workers on whose skills and brute labor rested the whole of this manufacturing operation taking thousands of trees from the north and turning them, by slices, into the millions of board feet that will rebuild the empire, were herded into the freight car.
Carcasses of meat, provisions to feed troops, stores of flour or vodka to feed a northern garrison, the Sitka filled freight cars from ceiling to floor.
Nobody knew what next to expect.
The miller surveyed the assemblage. He recalled his parent’s stories of the Jews and concentration camps. He remembered, in his own lifetime, images of Russians going off to the labor camps, thinking Stalin was a savior.
He knew Russians went off to the front fighting a war with Hitler whose outcome forever changed the landscape and like the growing arctic ice cap, the oceans would decline and nothing of the former world would be recognizable.
“This is terrible,” the miller thought.
He had little notion what next to expect but knew it would be months before he would see his sister again, before he would sit at his grandmothers side, take tea and bread, feel the reassurance that what happened now had happened before and life would triumph, hardships notwithstanding.
“Sit down,” another soldier blared through a megaphone at the train car full of refugees.
“Sit down,” he repeated, “and you’ll be given instructions.”
Like children in a catholic nursery, children who had already been scolded more than once by the nuns, the mill men and laborers sat.
Some grumbled, some stood stiffly for a moment but in the end but for one, they all sat, young men, bearded workers, and Turks.
“What,” the militiaman said, “what don’t you understand.”
He stood, balancing his body against the edge of the door, balancing his rifle on the sling across his shoulder and nestled comfortably upon his belly.
Beside the roar of the locomotive fifteen cars ahead and the clacking of the train wheels upon the iron rails, there was suddenly no sound in the freight car filled with human cargo.
The conversations, monotones of noise, hushed wondering, anxious quickly spoken phrases ceased precipitously.
“I was a factory worker,” the young rebel began. His voice was shaken but his eyes were the color of blue, hot fired steel.
“I was a factory worker and you took me from the city. You brought me to this mill.” His hand pointed to the direction from which this crescent headed train had just come.
Half of the men in the car looked at their comrade, half averted their gaze knowing full well the outcome of conflict with authority, questioning a man with a gun.
“So I will be a mill worker,” the man’s voice started to raise.
“I will be a mill worker and cut the timbers and plane the boards,” he continued, his voice a near frantic piercing but still throttled scream.
“But I am not a conscript,” he exploded.
“I will not be a slave and you can kill me before you will steal my dignity.”
Beside the rocking movements of the train, the possession of souls in its berth, there was no sound, not even the whisper of eyes blinking, small muscles moving to enlarge or change the image in focus or a neck craning to see, turning to hide or struck in awe, twitching to look away.
The militiaman’s rifle rose from its sling to a point perpendicular to him. From its rest upon his belly, hung from the strap upon his shoulder to a line of sight, aimed perfectly to the point between the steel blue eyes of the rail worker, the leaden missile pierced the skull of the diffident objector, haplessly.
Despite my protest, all the children have set out upon the mountain to find a bear.
Though its meat is undeniably good, more in their hearts, more of the bloodlust in their palate is the unspoken right of passage, the passage of the eldest from his adolescence, the eldest child of a powerful and persuasive man to become a young man in his own right.
“Papa,” the eldest says, his tone subdued, his questions parced, his wonderment articulating only a fraction of the questions for his pride and the appearance of confidence he thinks he ought to portray.
“Do you want us to bring you back any meat.”
I put my arm to his head, draw his neck to my lips and kiss his sweet smelling scruff.
“I want you to come back safely, that is all.”
“But you’re not afraid,” he asks, his voice low, his quaking, anxious, adrenaline voice stifled asking as would one elder to another, one veteran to another.
“I am always afraid for my children, son,” I answer easily, truthfully, “but I am certain you will be fine and I know you will be careful.”
He nods, checking again and again the gear in his pack, the ammo on his belt, the mechanical workings of the bolt in his rifle, the scope attached to its blue barrel.
“But you know I will be,” he says, smiling broadly.
Speaking as much to reassure himself as me, speaking as much to say out the incantation, the hopeful prayer for a safe journey, to reassure me of his sagacity in leading this pack of ragamuffins through the woods, to the high mountain passes where he hopes to stalk and overcome the old man bruin, the great and wily, unchallenged beast of the wilderness with no natural predators but man, he sets his jaw.
We look into each-others eyes.
Whatever we see, I think, ‘how crazy to want to kill the most powerful creature of the wild, the magnificent and dreaded bear who lives without man and had no reason, given his distance, to die by his sword.’
“We’ll be fine Pa,” the boy says again, and I remember the Sitka who, despite the trials of unimaginable horror, the hardship of unimaginable trial traveled around the world and was, for this last night comforted by and pallet for the sweet sleeping sighs of these children. The same children, I have to remind myself, setting off now to make their own fortune, cut their own boughs of the wilderness and make their mark as adults.
“I worry,” And I hope time will allow them to grow in peace, to know solitude and stillness like the Sitka, to grow without the need to capture and kill, to vanquish and victor, to assert rather than becoming a part.
‘I hope,’ I think and pray the children will grow like the Sitka who, for all its journeys lives comfortably resting in the loft, a floor for the gentle sleep of the little ones in their night long dreams and the fantasies of their unconscious lives.