“I have seen Ceylon, which is paradise, and Sakhalin, which is hell.”
- Anton Chekhov, circa 1890
Sakhalin Island, The Far East, Late Autumn 1888 - V.N.
“That’s three times now I was certain I was going to die. You know, it’s funny, I don’t think most people consider the possibility of a bear playing a part in their death. Though this is Russia, so perhaps more people should. We have lots of bears. Also tigers - if you are in Siberia. I didn’t see any when I was there, but the men in the etapes told stories. About tigers.”
I wait, but there is only silence in the small room. I turn my head to look at him, but he isn’t looking at me. He’s looking studiously down at his low, Japanese style desk, feet tucked under him and crossed at the soles. It amuses me that I can see them so perfectly folded under his bottom even in profile. I wonder what he is writing. I watch him carefully move the brush across the page as he holds back the sleeve of his yukata. I still think it looks like a dressing gown.
“Am I boring you?” I ask, hoping he will say no.
“No,” he says. “You were talking about tigers.”
I smile, pleased he’s been paying attention. “Only that, being a Russian, one ought to consider the potential part a tiger might play in one’s death.”
“There are no tigers here, Mr. Nikiforov.” His accent makes it difficult to know if he is amused or irritated or neither.
“No, but there are in Siberia.”
He pauses then, straightening, setting his calligraphy brush aside. His movements - like the movements of most Japanese I have met - are always graceful and economical. In a way they remind me of the ballet, and for a moment I ache with homesickness. He turns towards me, somehow able to keep his legs folded beneath him as he pivots. He cocks his head as he looks at me, the rims of his spectacles catch the light of the lamp. He folds his hands in his lap. And I think - not for the first time - that I am falling hopelessly in love with him.
“But we’re not in Siberia. We are on Sakhalin,” he says, and now I see the quirk at the corner of his mouth and I know he is amused.
“We are,” I agree with a sigh.
His expression softens and he looks down, gaze averted from mine. There is something there, like sadness or loneliness. “And you wish you were not. You would rather be in Siberia?”
I study him for a moment, and there is quiet in the room again. Quiet unlike anything I have ever heard anywhere else. I think I can hear the snow falling. “No,” I say after a moment. “You are not in Siberia.”
He raises his head, face red with a blush that is beautiful. “That-” he stammers, “that is a ridiculous statement! You’re only saying so because if you had been in Siberia and attacked by a tiger I wouldn’t have been there to take care of you and you probably would have died.”
I laugh at that, and at him. His wide eyes, his red face, his flustered affect. But the laughing hurts and I wince and groan before recovering myself with a ragged breath. “You’re right, probably.”
He stands with a huff. “Luckily for you this is Sakhalin and it was a bear and I am here.”
“Yes, lucky for me.” I chuckle as I watch him stand and walk around the sunken fireplace. An irori he calls it. I like watching his socked feet on the woven floor mats. “What are you doing?”
“Heating some water to make tea and hope it puts you back to sleep.”
I smirk faintly, watching him pull the lever that lowers the kettle over the fireplace. Then he opens the sliding wooden door to the balcony, which lets in a blast of cold air, though I barefly feel it under the thick blankets draped over me. “So I was boring you.”
“No,” he says again, coming back inside with a pot full of snow. He kneels beside the irori, rubbing his hands together before adding coal from a nearby basket. He puts the pot of snow into the coals. “I just think you need to rest. The doctor said you can’t possibly make the trip back to Korsakovsk Post until your leg can bear your weight and your ribs have mended enough for the ride back in a sled over snow.”
He bustles around, getting up to go to the shelves, getting this and that. I think he is also making rice.
“And if the winter goes on too long the snow will become too much even for a sled. Then you are stuck here until spring, or until you can walk back by yourself, Mr. Nikiforov.”
Sometimes I think he just likes saying my name.
“I don’t think I would mind that, Katsuki-san,” I say with an impish smile.
He snorts rather abruptly and then starts to laugh, waving his hand at me as he hovers over the irori . “Please don’t. It sounds ridiculous when you say my name like that.”
“Then you should teach me proper Japanese,” I answer matter of factly.
There’s a moment of quiet again. “No,” he says finally. “No, there really wouldn’t be much point. All the Japanese in Kusun-Kotan speak Russian.”
“I could speak it with you.” My voice softens. There is another moment of quiet.
“No... no.” His voice seems like it’s carrying something heavy. “You should close your eyes. I’ll have some tea and rice for you soon.”
I fall silent then, but I don’t close my eyes. I watch him from the futon. My leg aches terribly and the crude cast around it is heavy and uncomfortable. I feel hot and itchy under my bandages. I wonder if I will ever dance again.
I watch him, falling in love with every economical movement of his body.
By all rights I should be miserable. My body broken, left to be cared for like an invalid. I should hate my circumstances: lying on this futon day in and out, the close, ever present companionship of this young man into whose care I was left.
He must resent me, and I ought to resent his resentment. And yet he accepted my care as if it was the most natural thing in the world, with a bow and murmured words of acquiescence. He has never made any complaint other than telling me to go back to sleep or get more rest. Even when I wake him in the night, crying out in fevered pain that wrenches me from sleep, he doesn’t complain. He rises quietly from the futon next to mine. Checks my forehead for fever. Queries me quietly in the darkness. Inspects my bandages for bleeding. Brings me water and a cool or warm towel for my head. And then waits until I fall asleep again.
I should be ashamed to be cared for like this.
I should be ashamed and miserable.
But I’m not. Lying here, watching him, knowing he will sleep beside me tonight and be there if I wake; that we will spend tomorrow together while he writes or bustles about, tidying up for lodgers that are never coming, while I blather pointlessly about tigers and bears... I am happy. Happier than I have any right to be, and happier, maybe, than I have ever been.
St. Petersburg, Russia, 1881 - V.N.
When I was a young man I was foolish. I think that can be unilaterally said of young men. But in my case I was more foolish than most, an unfortunate side effect of my station in life.
My family was wealthy, and somewhere in the low middle of the aristocratic pecking order. We had a big house near the water and my mother and father threw parties there. They were lavish and anyone who was anyone in St. Petersburg usually turned up. So I had an easy childhood, fawned over by my mother’s friends. I looked more like a girl when I was little, and I was always dressed up and paraded around for the parties. When I was about six or seven, recognizing my boredom and in an effort to keep me from the foibles of most bored young boys, my mother enrolled me in the school of the Imperial Ballet of St. Petersburg.
I excelled at ballet. I have no false modesty about my abilities as a dancer. I premiered on the Mariinsky stage at only fourteen. I was beautiful and talented and quickly gained both popularity and fame. Vitya they called me as they threw flowers on the stage. At parties I would dance in my bare feet, drunk and happy. Sometimes I would dance the women’s parts, to the raucous amusement of our party guests. I drew the attention of lovers early, both men and women. Though I learned quickly enough where my preference lay.
Because I danced and was a member of the ballet I did not have to go to University, even though I thought it might be fun. My parents encouraged me to focus on my career, on my notoriety. They enjoyed it at least as much as I did. But to me dancing wasn’t work, despite how much time and effort I put into it. And so there was always a somewhat unfulfilled, idle feeling about my life at that age.
Young men grow restless easily.
It was at one of those upper crust parties that I met my first Narodniki . He had a bored, superior air about him that I couldn’t help but be attracted to. People were always fawning over me, but his eyes barely even looked at me. I learned from a friend he was a Polish noble enrolled at the Polytechnic, and I honestly thought that was rather boring. I might not have approached him at all had I not overheard a young woman call him - in all seriousness - Kotik, “Kitten,” like that was his name. It sounded like a pet name a lover uses, but that’s not how she said it.
“Kitten, is it?” I asked with a laugh, approaching him, drink in hand. “Is she your lover then?” I knew she wasn’t, but I asked anyway.
His eyes moved over me finally. He had a stern set to his mouth and dark brows and dark hair, but there was a fineness about his features. Due to his nobility, I suppose. After a moment he turned towards me. “No. It’s just a nickname.”
I eyed him with what I fancied was a conspiratorial gaze. I was already drunk. “I see. You don’t find that embarrassing? Being called Kitten?”
“No, not at all. It’s something only my friends call me,” he answered coolly.
“Can I call you Kitten?” I asked, my lips curling at the corners. I saw then that spark of grudging interest in his eyes that told me I could have him.
He stared at me for a long moment and then smirked suddenly, chuckling. “No, I think you’d better not. For now anyway.” He held out his hand. “Ignacy Hryniewiecki.”
His hand was warm in mine and considerably solid, though still soft like the hands of the aristocracy always are. “Victor Nikiforov.”
“Ah. The dancer. I’ve heard your name, but didn’t put it to your face,” he said with a faint, returning coolness. “I don’t go to the ballet, or really patronize any of the arts unless it is the work of the people.”
My brows raised at that. “The people? I’m not a person?”
“You are not a narodnik , no. One of the common people. The peasantry. That’s what I mean. Poetry. Folk art. That kind of thing. Things with real Russian spirit. I have no patience for the ‘arts’ that serve no purpose other than to amuse the bourgeoisie.”
I just nodded. “I see. Ballet is... one of those arts?”
This innocent enough question lead to my first lecture on the philosophies of the Narodniki , the “Populists.” One of many social and revolutionary movements within Russia that made lofty the virtues of the common peasant, and called for the denunciation of the upper classes. I can’t say that I was particularly interested in the plight of the common man, their values, or the state of oppressive Tsarist rule. But I was enamored with Ignacy Hryniewiecki. And every word he said was like the poetry of the people he loved so much.
Eventually I, too, would call him “Kitten,” which was the name he was called in Narodnaya Volya , the People’s Will. Usually I would murmur it in his ear when we were done fucking in one of my family’s many beds. Because of Ignacy and my restlessness, I was easily pulled into the seemingly harmless world of these socialist idealists. I was a fringe member of the People’s Will at best. Usually just showing up to meetings for Ignacy’s benefit so I could drag him off with me after.
Our trysts weren’t really intended to mean anything. I still had other lovers and I think he found my sexual appetite rather un-populist. My bourgeoisie hedonism seemed to irritate him, and I would just laugh at his serious face. But I think - I know - along the way we developed an earnest tenderness for one another. It wasn’t love. I didn’t love Ignacy, but I cared for him. About him.
So I was happy when he asked me to walk with him through the city one Sunday morning.
“Tomorrow,” he said when I came to call on him Saturday evening. “Come on a walk with me in the morning. There’s something I want to show you.”
I didn’t usually like going out early on Sunday, and had planned to get quite drunk that night. But there was an odd earnestness about him. Something almost desperate for me to say yes, and so I did, happy to be wanted by him.
It was March, so technically spring, though in all truth March is still winter in St. Petersburg. It was cold and the streets were slushy from cart wheels and horses and people walking. We walked along the Catherine Canal, and I couldn’t help but think that Kitten was oddly tense and alert. We hardly talked at all and when I spoke to him he answered only with grunts or single words.
Then suddenly he took me by the shoulders and pressed me against the stone railing overlooking the canal. He kissed me hard and then said simply, “Stay here, Vitya,” before hurrying off down the crowded street.
Blinking after him I did as I was told, thinking he meant to bring something back for me. I enjoyed surprises. I ignored the stares of people who’d seen us kissing, and waited a few long minutes before the sound of clopping hooves and heavy wagon wheels drew my attention. Coming over the bridge was what could only be a royal convoy. The big, black carriage of the Tsar was impressive and foreboding, and sad somehow.
I straightened up to show my respect when suddenly an explosion ripped the air apart.
There was screaming and confusion and the cart upended. I covered my ears, sucking in a terrified breath as I scanned the crowd for Ignacy. I saw him, and to my horror he was standing close to the procession. The Tsar had stumbled out of his damaged carriage, unhurt, but obviously rattled. I breathed a sigh of relief.
And then my Kitten yelled, “It’s too early to thank God!” and threw something at the Tsar. There was another explosion and both the Tsar and Ignacy were engulfed in it. There was just more screaming and panic. People fled from the bridge and the narrow canal street, shoving one another.
I also ran. Perhaps that might seem cowardly, that I ought to have gone to Ignacy, to see if he was alright. And maybe if I had truly loved him I would have. But I didn’t. My lover had - in all likelihood - just killed the Tsar of the Russian Empire. I wanted to be nowhere near him.
I ran all the way home and didn’t leave for several days. At first I thought everything might be alright. The news of the assassination was everywhere, and everyone knew that the Tsar’s police force was rounding up all of the members of the People’s Will that they could find. But surely that didn’t mean me!
I hadn’t believed in any of their silly claptrap. I’d only wanted Ignacy’s attention. Certainly it had been fun to play at being the revolutionary, but I’d never actually wanted to do anything revolutionary.
Of course they came for me. I was easily recognized on the streets of St. Petersburg, and plenty of eyes had fallen on me when Ignacy had kissed me in public like that. The police were offering rewards for information on members who might have been involved in the assassination. I’d been there. They’d seen me with Ignacy, the man who’d killed the Tsar, only a few minutes before he threw the bomb. Of course I was involved with the People’s Will. What other explanation could there be?
My mother shrieked when they drug me out of the house. My father blustered and was for once in his life at a loss for words. Had I told them sooner they might have gotten me out of the city. Might have hidden me, but I hadn’t really believed I would be accused of participating in an act of revolutionary violence, let alone treason and assassination.
They held those of us they’d rounded up together in a miserable prison for weeks, which turned into months as they questioned us and other witnesses. We, the People’s Will, waited for our trials.
Waiting in those prisons was the first time I was sure I was going to die.
But when the trials finally came they were over quickly enough with little care or attention paid to who was really involved in what. We were all associated with the assassins. So we were all - to some degree - guilty of political dissent. Those directly involved in the assassination plot were hanged. Perhaps it was my parents’ influence or money, or even my own popularity that ensured I did not. Or perhaps they actually believed my testimony and saw that I had done little wrong other than make very bad choices about my friends.
No, I wasn’t hanged. Instead I was sentenced to katorga , penal exile, sent away from European Russia, never to return.
I was glad I wasn’t going to die. But when I was told I was being sent to Sakhalin, I thought it might have been better if I did.
Sakhalin Island, The Far East, Late Autumn 1888 - V.N.
I’m awoken by the sound of raised voices, both of which are familiar and dear to me. Blinking blearily towards the sliding door that leads to the vestibule, I push up on my elbows. Immediately my ribs protest and I gasp softly in pain, but I don’t lower myself back down onto the futon. The heater table laid over me makes it difficult to sit up any further.
Katsuki-san - or Yuuri as I sometimes call him - calls it an oki-gotatsu . It’s ingenious and I think perhaps one of the best ideas the Japanese has to export: a low square table attached to which is a thick blanket on all sides. Beneath you can set a coal burner or hang it from the underside of the table. This way you can stay quite warm even in the coldest weather just by staying under the blanket.
Of course you have to be careful not to upend the coal burner. Which, despite much preemptive worrying from Katsuki-san, I have not managed to do yet. Between the oki-gotatsu and the ever burning irori I have yet to be cold here despite the miserable season.
The door flies open with a loud, sharp crack of wood on wood, and my darling little brother is standing there. Face red, hair wild, green eyes shining with anger, but also concern. He is adorable.
“Yuri?” I try to sit up a little more and wince.
“What is this about you being mauled by a bear?!” He is shouting and I can see Katsuki-san behind him, frantically grasping for the back of his wool coat.
“Please, take your boots off!” He’s tugging on Yuri, trying to pull him back onto the lower dirt floor of the vestibule.
“Huh?” My little brother can make any sound a snarl. Lip curling, he stares with unabashed derision at the poor Japanese man who has obviously been hit by Yuri like an unexpected storm. “What the fuck do my shoes have to do with anything? I’ve come to see my brother. Now let go of me, you goddamned Jap!”
“Yuri!” My voice is like a whip crack. “Do not be rude to Mr. Katsuki. Apologize and take off your boots. ”
Yuri balks and then flushes and flusters. He deflates and turns around abruptly, shoving Katsuki-san’s hand away as he sits and starts to unlace his boots. “Sorry,” he grunts.
I watch them both, Yuuri hovering, obviously anxious as he waits for Yuri to take off his boots, and then following him into the room, looking at me nervously. “Mr. Nikiforov you should lie back down.”
I smile softly at him. “I told you to call me Victor.”
He flusters at that and then mumbles something I can’t hear. Or maybe it was in Japanese. Either way it is almost more adorable than Yuri.
“Why would you want to lie down? You look like an invalid,” Yuri snaps, sitting down behind me and abruptly putting his hands on my shoulders, pushing me forward to force me to sit up further.
My cast-bound leg jerks beneath the low table and my ribs scream in pain. I gasp. A cold sweat comes to my face. My hand windmills, seeking something to steady myself on, and it slaps loudly against the low table as my knuckles go white.
Yuuri is at my side immediately. “What are you doing?!” he cries, physically shoving Yuri aside. I don’t think I’ve ever heard him sound angry before. It’s an exciting new experience despite my pain.
His arms cradle me as I lean back, taking pressure off my ribs.
“I’m...I’m sorry, Vitya,” Yuri gasps quietly, looking at me with wide, scared eyes. “I thought it was only... they only said something about your leg. I didn’t think it would hurt you.”
I smile at him, though I know it must look strained. There is still pain tight on my face. “It’s alright, Yuratchka. You just need to slow down. I’m always telling you so.”
“I’m sorry,” he mumbles again, and I can tell he is about to cry.
“Yuri?” Katsuki-san’s voice is infinitely softer and kinder than the one he had used only a moment before. “Will you help me make your brother comfortable? See that cushion with the back there?”
Yuri glances cautiously at the strange cushion chair near the little desk Katsuki-san writes at sometimes. “You mean that thing?”
“Yes. Bring it here. It isn’t heavy.”
Yuri does as he is told and in a few moments and with only minor additional pain I am propped up in a partially sitting posture. Though I would have been happy just to remain held up in Katsuki-san’s arms. He tucks the blanket of the oki-gotatsu up around me, and then touches my forehead to check for fever with an absent familiarity that makes my chest ache.
“Come, sit under the oki-gotatsu with your brother,” he says gesturing to Yuri. “I’ll ... give you some privacy and then make some tea and something to eat.”
Yuri gawps at Kastuki-san sullenly as he lowers the pot over the irori , green eyes following him suspiciously until he shows himself out the way they both came in. Yuuri bows and shuts the sliding door to the vestibule much more quietly than my little brother had opened it. Slowly Yuri’s eyes return to me, and he sniffs once as he wriggles closer and under the blanket. I chuckle at the look of surprised delight that crosses his face at the warmth he finds there.
“Well at least he is keeping you warm,” he grumbles.
I smirk faintly. Katsuki-san is doing much more for me than that.
“Did you come all the way from Korsakovsk by yourself? On foot?” I ask.
“Of course,” he sits up haughtily. “As soon as they came back and told me what happened and I got that letter from him ,” he tosses a disdainful look towards the door, “I wanted to come. But of course I couldn’t because of work and then the snows.” He wilts a little. “I tried to come with the doctor last week, but I couldn’t. There was too much work and they sent me to Alexandrovsk Post to help with a cargo shipment from Nikolaevesk.” He looks at me almost pleadingly. “I came as soon as I could.”
“I know.” I smile at him softly. “You didn’t have to come at all, Yuratchka.” My hand seeks his under the warm blanket, and he grips it tightly, like it is a lifeline, as he has done many times in our years together.
“Yes, I did!” He hisses, and now he does start to cry suddenly. “I was so worried. I couldn’t believe they just left you here to be cared for by some stranger some... some Japanese! Not even a Russian.”
I purse my lips and squeeze his hand. “Yuri, listen to me. Mr. Katsuki has been very kind and very caring. He has probably saved my life, and he is my dear friend now. Please be respectful of him, and know that I am being very well cared for.”
He stares at me in silence for a moment, wearing the expression he knows I cannot read through. Then he says bluntly, “So did you really get mauled by a bear?”
I laugh softly, amused by the absurdity of the question. “Well... Not exactly. There was a bear, and I’m sure it would have loved to maul me, but no, it didn’t actually get the chance.”
“So then what happened?” he asks, a look of mild irritation coming over his pretty face.
I smirk and sigh. “It was the horse. I was riding the road outside of Korsakovsk--” I leave out the part where I was doing so only to visit Katsuki-san at the minshuku , “--and the bear came out onto the road. It’s very late in the year for one to be awake, so something must have disturbed it in its den, or perhaps it hadn’t eaten enough and needed to find more food.” I shrug and sigh at the inevitability of the end of my tale. “Whatever the reason there was a bear. It stood up on its hind legs and then made as if to charge. I pulled out my revolver to fire a shot to scare it, but I also scared the horse, which was already very skittish. He reared and his hooves slipped on the icy trail and we went over together. I tried to jump clear, but my foot was caught in the stirrup.”
I close my eyes, remembering the heart wrenching feeling as the horse lost its footing. The split second I thought I might escape unharmed, and the moment I knew the horse was going to land on me. The cold sweat returns and my brows crease for a moment as I relive the whole thing and then take a deep breath.
“Well, the horse landed on me, of course. My entire left leg was caught under it. It’s been broken pretty badly, but the doctor said it should heal as he was able to set the bones and he didn’t think any of them were crushed.” I smirk faintly. “Then to add insult to injury, the damn beast stepped on me and kicked me in the ribs as it was struggling to get up. At least two are broken, according to the doctor.”
I give Yuri another faint smile. “That’s why I can’t sit up very well yet.”
Yuri wilts a little at that. “I’m sorry, I didn’t know. I... I’m sorry.”
I squeeze his hand. “It’s alright. I’m fine now.”
We sit in silence for a few long moments and I wonder what Yuri is turning over in his head. He always prefers time to think on his own. After a moment his fingers move in mine.
“How long until you’re better?” he asks quietly.
“I don’t know. The doctor thinks I probably won’t be able to travel back to Korsakovsk until the spring. The snows will be too heavy once real winter sets in and a sled ride will likely be too rough.”
He looks at me intensely, green eyes blazing. “Then I want to stay here with you and the Jap.”
I blink, furrowing my brows. “Yuri... You can’t just...” I sigh. “I’m already imposing on him more terribly than anyone has a right to. I’m completely in his care, he cannot be asked to take care of you, too.”
He bristles visibly. “I don’t need anyone to take care of me! If anything I would be helping him. I can help take care of you. Help you get strong again so we can go back to Korsakovsk together.” His fingers tighten in mine again. “You took care of me all these years. I should be doing the same now. When you need me, I should be here.”
I look at him for a long moment, and I feel a sad heaviness in my chest seeing how much he has grown. At 15 my Yuratchka is certainly not a child. He has had a harder life than anyone I know, and living in a penal colony that is saying something.
I love him terribly. Sometimes it frightens me how much, and I think I must know the fear and love of a parent. Though he is not my child and not even truly my brother, somehow he is still mine. He is in my bone and my blood. I touch his cheek. “What about work? We need money. The house? Food? The gardens? The horse? We can’t just expect Mr. Katsuki to feed and house us both out of his own pocket because he had the misfortune of finding me.”
His expression becomes determined and I can tell he has prepared arguments for me. “Work will practically stop completely once winter and the heavy snows come, so no one will miss me. We have money saved and we can rent the house back to the Governor. He can let it to convicts or visitors or officials, or whoever. Then we’ll be getting some money and keeping squatters out will be his responsibility.” He leans forward, his expression imploring and eager. “And I will be helpful and respectful to Mr. Katsuki. I promise. I will help with chores or shoveling snow or whatever he wants. Please, Vitya... please. Don’t... don’t leave me alone in Korsakovsk all winter.”
That attacks my heart, as I’m sure he knew it would. Not just because I do not want him to be alone and lonely, but because there could be real danger in doing so. We live in a penal colony with convicts of all types: murderers, rapists, thieves, pedophiles. Yuri, even at his wildest, is beautiful. He is slender and slight with the face of an angel. I have protected him as long as I have known him from scum who would possibly harm him. To leave him alone is also to take away that protection. And the winter makes bored and desperate men of many.
“Yuri...” I says, hesitantly. The door slides back again before I can say more and Katsuki-san comes back with a tray with tea cups and bowls for soup. He pours hot water from the kettle over the irori into a tea pot and then into each of the soup bowls, stirring each for a few moments with a pair of chopsticks.
“I’m sorry. It’s not much,” he says, setting the tray on the oki-gotatsu .
“It’s more than enough,” I say.
“What is this?” says Yuri, staring into one of the bowls of soup. He sniffs at it cautiously.
“It’s miso soup,” Kastuki-san says, and I can tell there is a bit of fraying at the edges of his voice.
“No. Soup has potatoes in it.” Yuri sits back, crossing his arms over his chest.
“Not Japanese soup.” Katsuki-san moves closer to me. He’s used to helping me eat. I can tell from the expression on Yuri’s face that he is displeased by the familiarity with which Katsuki-san brings the bowl of soup to my lips and steadies my head with his hand.
I hold my breath and wait for the moment I feel his fingertips curl ever so slightly at the nape of my neck.
Siberia, Russia, Spring 1882 - V.N.
In 1881 there were two ways to get to Sakhalin Island. The first was overland through Siberia along the Amur Cart Road. The second was via ship from the Black Sea and out into the Indian Ocean and around Asia. I’ve heard the horror stories of both, and lived the horror of one. When I learned I was to be marched overland with a group of convicts all headed into katorga in Siberia and beyond, I wished for a ship’s passage. Later, when I heard what it was like on those ships, I was glad I was able to see Siberia on foot.
They waited until spring, nearly a year after the assassination of the Tsar at the hands of my Kitten, before they began our march. This allowed for two things:
The first was for the convicts and the families of convicts, who had chosen to follow them into katorga, to make arrangements for the long trip and their even longer life in exile. Homes, furniture, belongings all had to be sold. Trunks with warm clothes and enough food and money had to be packed. Horses or mules sometimes had to be purchased.
The second was for ensuring we would spend only one winter crossing Siberia, a trip that generally took eighteen or more months on foot. If we left in early spring we were likely to reach Sakhalin by late summer the following year.
Because of my status as a political convict - rather than a criminal one - and my family’s position and money, I was allowed a full trunk of my own into which were packed mostly warm clothes, a couple pictures of my parents, some of my favorite books, and a good amount of gold and silver bullion, which my mother was clever enough to have hidden in a false panel in the bottom. A good thing, too, as the guards made no secret of searching the convicts’ belongings and stealing whatever was found to be valuable.
The political exiles were lucky in that we were not forced to walk fettered to one another as the criminal exiles were. Those poor and destitute men were shackled together 8 to 10 at a time and forced to march like this for hours on end throughout the day and often into the night if we were not making good time. And making good time was nearly always impossible, because shackled men do not move very swiftly. The fetters and the cold caused no end of anguish, and not just for those who had to experience it, but for those - like me - who had to witness it.
I thought I had seen and known suffering in the prison in St. Petersburg, but at that time I was still an utterly naive child when it came to the ways a man can suffer.
The men shackled together marched first along the road, with those like me who were not shackled but still kept under guard marching next. Behind followed a sad and bedraggled collection of wives, husbands, children, and even elderly parents who had all chosen to follow their condemned family member into exile. I wondered then what kind of love or dependence could have inspired anyone to willingly follow another down this road.
At night we would stop at etapes , way stations set along the road. They were neither comfortable nor clean nor even safe. Here murderers, rapists, thieves and charlatans slept in the same cramped rooms as the wives and children of their compatriots. Violence was frequent, as was the abuse of the aforementioned women and children.
It was at one of these etapes some time into our march that I first noticed Yuri Plisetsky and his grandfather. The old man had apparently been growing sicker as the march went on and his coughs and ragged breathing were a matter of concern among the guards. Fear of tuberculosis was strong, and the old man was separated from the rest of the group by force so as to ensure it would not spread among the sleepers in close quarters.
Exhausted and despondent as I was, I hardly paid attention, even when I heard a young boy’s cries for his grandfather. Such cries were common. It wasn’t until they took on a different quality, one of utter terror that I looked up from my disgusting meal of cereal gruel and potatoes. The boy was being drug into a dark corner by two filthy men with hard, dark eyes. No one else seemed to notice, or else they were simply too engulfed in their own misery to care.
Almost without realizing, I was up and after them, my porridge forgotten. I was no fighter, but ballet had made my body strong and fast. I suffered a split lip and a black eye, but had given at least one bloody nose by the time the guards realized what we were about and came to break up our fight. When we were pushed apart I took the boy with me. The hard eyed men glared at me, their sport ruined, but they couldn’t say anything about it with the guards close at hand.
We returned to my spot along the wall, which someone grudgingly gave up when they saw me return. The boy - who I admit I had thought a girl at first - was shivering and crying, obviously frightened out of his mind. I didn’t have much experience with children, but I found it wasn’t so difficult to anticipate what he needed.
“It’s alright, little one. Those men won’t hurt you now,” I said soothingly, petting his dirty blond hair back from huge, wet, green eyes. “Where are your parents?”
“They took grandpa away,” he wailed, sniffling.
“Oh.” It was all I could think to say, as I didn’t know if ‘took him away’ indicated that he’d died or that something else had happened. He started to cry softly and I stroked his hair again. “My name is Victor. Would you like to stay with me until your grandpa comes back?”
For a long moment the boy stared at me owlishly and then said bluntly. “Will you try to touch me?”
Taken aback, I couldn’t help but bark a laugh, but then shook my head. “No. No, I will not.”
“Grandpa said there are bad men that will try to touch me. You aren’t a bad man?” his eyes narrowed on me, keenly appraising for such a young boy. I wondered what his life had been like up until now.
I smiled softly, feeling a twinge of sadness even as I did. “No,” I said. “I’m not a bad man. Just a stupid one.”
That night, and most nights after, Yuri slept curled against my chest and tucked inside my jacket. The next day his grandfather - in respect of his ill health - was released from the shackled chain gang and made to come march with the political exiles. Yuri, not having any other family to march with, stayed with us.
We got to know each other well, and together the old man and I shared the burden of looking after the wild young boy. When Yuri got too tired to walk or his feet bled from blisters or cold or damp, I would carry him on my back or on my shoulders. In the etapes the three of us would always sleep together, the old man and I making a shield of our bodies to keep Yuri safe from the unsavory characters we were forced to live with.
Being together made the march more tolerable. I would tell them of my life in St. Petersburg, the parties my mother threw, the ballets I had danced in, the wondrous sights of the city. They would tell me about their farm, the scrubbed white walls, the vegetable garden and the chickens they kept. They told me how Yuri’s parents had died of tuberculosis, the old man giving me a look that told me he knew his own fate was to be the same. We never talked about what we had done to be convicted of katorga .
And then, one morning in winter, the old man could not rise from the hard, cold boards of the etape. I knelt close to his side and told him not to worry, that he could die in peace, that I would care for his grandson. He died with a smile on his face, stroking Yuri’s cheek with gnarled, near frost-bitten fingers. Yuri cried, and so did I, but we had to keep moving.
I carried him all that day. And sang to him all that night. And that is how he became my little brother, my bone and my blood. My Yuratchka.