• THE VULCARI

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    VULCARI

    It was the evening of the fifth day. Mikhail knew he had failed. The howling and huffing was so faint that he could only hear it by stopping and concentrating with all his might. But it was there. If he had held onto any hope, it was now gone. He was almost relieved, knowing for sure that he was soon to face his death.

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    For the last nine months he had been a prisoner at the Norillag Siberian Gulag (work camp) along with his two friends from Stalingrad (now Volgograd), a city on the Volga River, two hundred seventy miles north of the Caspian Sea. Their offense was participating in a food shortage protest in the city center. They had been holding up signs and chanting with the other protesters, when the Cossacks came thundering down the street on horseback, trampling over the fleeing people and slashing with their long sabers. Behind them were Red Guards sweeping up the survivors. The three friends had been dragged to a dark, dank basement jail cell, and suffered through a sham trial the next morning—by evening they were in a drafty boxcar headed northeast. They had been allowed no phone calls—no contact with anyone—and no one represented them. When Mikhail Borakov protested that they had done nothing, the bailiff smashed him in the mouth with the butt of a rifle. The brutal guard who shoved him on to the train grabbed his ear and said, “If you have a family, I will track them down and personally make sure that they starve to death.” Bound and shackled, he could do nothing but curse, and then cry as lay on the rough wooden floor of the train car. What would his wife and small son do to survive?

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    Mikhail did not look like a typical Russian. Instead of being stocky, short necked with coarse black hair, he was tall (not a tall as 6’ 9” Peter the Great, but still – 6’ 4”) strong as a young bull, with big hands and feet, and blond hair from his ancestors in Ukraine. At twenty-four he was in the prime of manhood:—now sentenced to use that strength somewhere in the wilds of Siberia. He knew well enough that he would probably never return once the train ride ended. His grave would be somewhere among the endless birch trees, quickly forgotten as just one more of the stream of men marched off to a working death by Stalin’s pogroms. Eventually over 18 million of these unfortunates lived out their wretched lives in the Gulag camps, building and toiling in the lumber, railroad, road building and mining industries in Siberia – a third of a million eventually went through Norillag.

    After two miserable cold weeks on the rails, he and his two friends ended up in the mining camp, one hundred forty miles to the north of Norilsk—located above the arctic circle. Norilsk was at that time Russia’s most northern city, in the center of a vast wilderness. The deep mine produced nickel, cobalt and copper. Ten thousand plus convict workers, surrounded by ever present guards to enforce obedience through endless days of backbreaking toil.

    But no fences. Where would you go if you escaped? Down the rutted road south to Norilsk—passable only in the three summer months, and patrolled by guards? Snow covered the ground 280 days of the year—there were six weeks of total darkness in the winter, a year-round average temperature of 15 degrees fahrenheit, and sometimes ten feet of snow on the ground. There had been a few escape attempts, but most were found dead within a week if at all. Lots of wolves lurked in the stark, bleak woods. It was easy to lose one’s bearings and wander off the road, lost in a monotonous snowscape with no landmarks to steer by—even the stars obscured by falling and drifting snow. To the north held not the slightest possibility; it just got colder and more rugged; endless miles of trackless tundra once the forests stopped—a frozen desert. Even supposing there was a slim chance that a northern jouney went well, and you were somehow able to trap some food, and make it down the long slope to the Arctic Ocean, there was no place to go from there—you would end up as dinner for a hungry polar bear.

    And there was one other reason for not going north. Something was out there. In the dead of winter, in total blackness, you could hear an animal snuffling, scratching, and huffing, and on occasion low-pitched howls and guttural roars that made your stomach contract. The guards were afraid, and never hunted to the north to provide fresh meet; and after dark, none of them ever went beyond the camp boundaries, in any direction. There was nothing to see but the trees killed by the pollution from the smelter anyway. Still, occasionally someone would disappear, and the guards blamed it on the Marowit, a mythical beast who lived in the forest that was the god of nightmares. Others just said it was a pack of wolves, or a large wolverine, maybe even a Siberian tiger, but no one wanted to go out and check, especially at night. The official version was that inmates went crazy and just wandered off, yelling and growling. A fellow worker told Mihail that he had seen one of the guards pick up a chewed-off arm in a clearing near the camp – maybe just wolves. Others said they had sighted something black, red-eyed and very large, which moved faster than a man could run. Most of the prisoners believed that it was just a very large brown bear, of which there were many around. But then a man who had been there seven years told Michail, “There is something else out there; some sort of demon from hell.” He called it the Vulcari—the Black One. It was said to be a gigantic creature, resembling a wolf, which sought the bodies and souls of men. Some said it had some of the look of a man—but covered with fur and monstrous in size – one man swore he had seen it in mid-summer, just waiting.

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    After six months Mihail and his two friends, Ilia and Pyter, had gotten used to the daily routine and were learning how to avoid the worst of the system, how to get more food, when to hide underground where the temperature was a constant 55 degrees. Mikhail even proposed to one of the section managers that they construct underground housing to avoid frostbite and reduce the number who froze to death above ground. It was good reasoning because the average life of a gulag worker was five years—twenty percent had to be replaced every year. It was easy to see the never-ending decline towards death, just by looking at a man’s graying countenance or watching him cough up blood.

    There were no real medical facilities, just one doctor whose main interest was pickling his liver with as much vodka as he could consume. He had over 10,000 charges to look after, and he gave up doing so almost immediately after joining the gulag. There were professors, business experts, teachers, doctors and other professionals and highly educated men among the political prisoners in the camp. They tried to practice their skills to help their fellow captives, but as time went by and their health failed, they went the way of all the others.

    The suicide rate was five percent a year; each worker knew that there was no way out, and many considered a quick end a better alternative than being worked to death — to be worn down to nothing by the monotonous twelve-hour grind, 7 days a week, 365 days a year.

    The camp commander, Colonel Dimitry, was a sadist, and since his own five-year term at the camp was punishment for bungling his prior military assignment, he took it out on the men. Occasionally when someone committed suicide or died, especially if the man was well regarded, Dimitry showed his distain by having the body hauled about a mile into the forest during the day and left there rather than tossing it down an abandoned shaft. Of course, no one dared venture out at night, but a body left in the woods was always gone by the next day.

    As the weeks went by, the fall equinox (September 21st) approached; a month after that, there would be a scant four hours of daylight; by the first of December six weeks of total blackness would begin.

    It would have been simple to escape during this time of slackening light, but the chance of success was almost zero. The three of them were worried sick about their families with winter approaching; each of them realized that this was going to be their final resting place. Or if they did get away, they would be torn apart by wolves or whatever creature was out there. Finally Mikhail said, “I’m going to go; staying here is a guarantee of a slow death. I can’t leave my family helpless while I waste away; I must try something.”

    Pyter replied “We will never get out of this place alive! if we try an escape before winter, there will be guards as we head south; if we wait until winter, we’ll die frozen in the dark.”

    “I want to go southwest”, Michail continued, “towards the Ob River, where it runs into the Gulf of Ob before moving slowly into the Kara Sea. The easiest city to reach is called Salekhard; it will be easy to blend in. It’s a long journey—just over six hundred miles—but I believe we can do it. Twenty miles a day on snowshoes—that makes 32 days. Figure 40 days to give us a margin. Fortunately there are no high mountains this side of the Urals. We can pack 20 days worth of rations, and kill what we need as we travel. What say you—are you ready to leave this death camp behind?”

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    Ilia and Pyter looked at one another with apprehension and despair. “Wouldn’t we be better to hope for a political change, or Stalin’s death, or some miracle from God to free us? If we try to escape across these vast forests, I don’t think we stand a chance,” said Pyter. “ Look at our hands,” said Mikhail. Already our fingers are hardened and swollen from the work and cracked from the mine dust, there are sores on our bodies; we are not as healthy as when we arrived. And what about the nosebleeds we get almost daily, from the arsenic smoke pouring from the smelter? Even the trees are dying from the pollution. We’re still strong but marching towards our death every day. I doubt that we’ll last five years. Let me say it again, it is certain death to stay, I’d rather take my chances out there where I can at least control my fate.”

    “Maybe you are right,” said Ilia, “I feel less like a man and more like a mule each day. Already I think more about black bread and thin cabbage soup than about my family back in Volgograd.

    Alright, I’m willing to chance it, what about you, Pyter?”

    “Let me have a day to think about it,” he said. “I think I will go, I just need to get my courage up. I’m still frightened that there is something out there that terrifies everyone including the guards.”

    “Well, if there is, it will be a quick death,” said Mikhail, “Better than rotting in here.”

    Pyter’s mind was made up for him when he found he was to be assigned to a different part of the mine the next week—there he would have no friends to protect and help him.

    Two days later, on the thirtieth of September, they had accumulated their supplies: compass, matches, homemade hatchets, dried food and several layers of clothing, the last being waterproof reindeer skin. They started out right after their early dinner of rotten potato soup and herring. Some of their close friends knew what they were planning and wished them well, pressing them with extra supplies.

    Within three hours they were five miles from the mine, and decided to stop for the night in a dense stand of birches, assured that nothing could get through. They cut branches for beds, and got a few hours of restless sleep, broken by the first light of a grey morning. The night had been completely silent. With compass in hand they moved directly southwest, occasionally crossing small streams that were frozen. By the end of the day they believed that twenty more miles were behind them, and that no one would be interested in pursuit.

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    Once again they found a safe place to shelter, but they weren’t alone. There were grunts and huffing in the dark forest, and a strange roar. It seemed to be coming from several hundred yards outside their stand of spruce. They stood awake all night leaning against the trees holding the long knives they had made from mining tools. Mikhail said he thought it was a wolverine that made that kind of noise, assuring his companions that the Vulcari, The Black Beast of the Forest” only came out during the pitch-black months.

    Just before dawn, the noise stopped. Pyter immediately announced, “I’m through— I can’t go on, knowing something is out there that seeks my blood.” And despite Mikhail’s and Ilia’s urging, he took off immediately, retracing their steps back toward Norillag. “Unless he gets all the way to camp tonight, whatever it is out there will find him—” said Mikhail, “if the wolves don’t hunt him down in broad daylight. But since it hasn’t snowed he should be able to move quickly.”

    Neither wanted to talk about the huge, clawed paw prints in the snow as they started off, continuing southwest.

    They pressed on, heading toward the Yenisei River, only about 60 miles to the southwest. Ilia thought they should be able to make it to the river in two more days. It had snowed about a foot when they stopped and lit a fire under a spruce, deciding quickly to keep it going all night. Then crackling noises started as if something was creeping though the forest. They finally gathered enough wood to make a fire ring and slept inside it. They saw more of the same large tracks in the morning – Ilia wondered what kind of animal might be stalking them. “We are committed now,” said Mihail, “we have no other choice but to go on. Could be a tiger – but I think the two of us, with our knives tied to poles, could handle whatever it is.”

    As they started out, they began to hear the yipping of wolves. Pretty soon, howls were on both sides of them. “Stay close to the trees,” said Mihail, “in case we have to climb. ”

    The wolves got closer and closer until one came within twenty-five feet, snarling, its teeth bared. In a flash, they both climbed the same tree! Eventually the pack of seven wolves circling the tree got tired of waiting and trotted off. About four p.m. the two climbed down and again made a fire circle, one keeping awake at all times to stand guard, but they heard nothing during the night. Having lost a day’s travel, they started off early in the morning, staying close to large larch trees in case they had to escape again.

    Finally they came to an open space that was about two hundred yards wide but seemingly unending to the north and south. Mikhail said that since they had not heard or seen any wolves, they should eat something and then cross as rapidly as possible. They were about half way across the gap when the pack broke from the trees on their right. They moved as fast as they could on their snowshoes, with Mikhail in the lead. About twenty-five yards away from the closest trees, Ilia stumbled and the pack caught him, dragging him down. He shouted for Mikhail to go on. But Mikhail started back, meeting a huge black wolf that had left the others. Mikhail steadied himself, and as the wolf launched through the air— lips pulled back, jaws agape—he formed his massive fingers together into a point and drove them down the animal’s throat, then curled the fingers into a fist that wedged in its gullet. He grabbed the wolf by its ruff with his other hand, and raised it overhead, then crashed it down across his knee with such force that the back was broken. Before the pack could turn on him, Mikhail ran for the trees and scrambled up the first one that would hold his weight. Glancing back, he could see that he had been too late to save Ilia—wolves were tearing at what was left of his body. Mikhail turned his head and looked away.

    After the ravenous wolves devoured the body of the black wolf, they came to sit at the base of his tree. But within an hour they trotted off. Very carefully, Mikhail clambered down the tree and moved rapidly to the west. As dusk fell, he found a huge spruce tree with lots of dead boughs and dry needles underneath. His hands and feet were freezing and he hurried to prepare a fire. He gathered some dead branches, cleared the snow and was able to start a small blaze once he had removed his gloves. But just as he was loosing his boots, the snow from the branches above cascaded down on the fire, on him, and all of his possessions, including his matches. It took a while to find the matchsticks, but when he tried to light one, it was too damp, and his stiff hands shook so much he couldn’t strike it anyway. He rolled over and lay in the snow, thinking that freezing to death, while unpleasant for a while, wouldn’t be that bad of a death. But then he took heart, as he spied an oddly snowless patch under the tree; he crawled to it, then put his hands under his armpits to warm them. There was also a slight warmth from the ground, right next to a huge exposed root. It made no sense.

    He pawed into the loose branches and needles – the further down he burrowed under the root, the warmer it seemed to get. He was confused, but as his torn fingers ripped into the needles, he could feel the temperature rise. Finally he reached into his bag and pulled out a sharpened spike. He plunged it in several different places then removed the debris. Eventually he had a man-size tunnel, three feet below the huge root; the temperature rising as he dug. The needles and branches finally gave way and there was an opening deep under the tree. It was warm, maybe 50 degrees, but there was a fetid smell. In the fading light he crawled into the opening, expecting to see a root still smoldering from a lightning strike. Instead he could faintly see brown fur, lots of brown fur. It was the hibernation den of a large brown bear. He counted the bear’s breaths—about eight per minute. The beast was fast asleep, but warm—ready to awake if disturbed. He curled next to the bear’s back finding a place where he could fit, and thawed out his hands and feet.

    He got his belongings, quietly dragged them down the enlarged tunnel and into the den, then went back again and covered the entranceway with large branches, pulling some down with him, being extremely careful to not touch the bear. During the night he could hear something around the tree, something that shook needles down into the den. The next morning he again saw tracks and a claw slash ten feet high on the spruce. But whatever it was, if it was the Vulcari, the beast didn’t seem to come out during the day. He would have to make significant progress today in order to get to the Yenisei River, but decided to stay another night to rest and gather his strength, and to stay warm. He had about decided that it might be better to build a raft and pole himself up the Yenisei rather than trying to cross the forests to the Ob and Selekhard, still five hundred miles away. Maybe he would meet some Yakuts along the river as he headed south.

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    The next day, as he continued his journey, he sensed something was following him. He couldn’t hear anything except the very faint rustle of snow being trodden or maybe it was just snow falling from the trees. As the sun headed down, about four pm, he guessed he was about five miles from the river—but he couldn’t take the chance of not getting there before dark. There was no place he could barricade himself in a stand of trees, and the ground was covered with two feet of snow, so finally he climbed a very large white larch and tried to find a branch that would hold his weight. As he struggled to to stay awake to keep from freezing, he realized that he had failed. He was still hundreds of miles from any civilization, had lost his two companions, was running out of food, and had a real possibility of freezing to death that very night. And he sensed that whatever was stalking him was really just playing with him; it could take him any time. His death was imminent. He took some comfort in knowing the journey was about to end. At least he had tried; he didn’t regret that.

    He waited until the sun was up to about twenty degrees above the horizon, then climbed stiffly down and jumped up and down to get his circulation going – his feet and hands like blocks of ice. Then he started off, moving as fast as he could towards the river. The noises behind him were closer now and louder, but he didn’t want to climb a tree. Maybe it was just a wolverine, maybe even a moose. Finally he could see the river. It was not frozen over, but large chunks of ice were slowly moving north, some bumping the bank. He started cutting branches and trimming them into poles to make a raft, when he heard a crash behind him. He turned, and there was a huge black creature coming for him— it must be the Vulcari, he thought—roaring towards him like a hurricane. There was no time to climb a tree; he took the only choice he had. He grabbed a pole, vaulted onto an ice flow, and pushed away from the bank.

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    The thing came to the edge of the water and let out a hideous roar. Mikhail turned around in fright, to see if it was going to enter the water. What he saw made his blood run colder than the ice on which he stood. The monster was twice the size of a brown bear, but it was coal black, and had long arms and legs with huge claws. But it was the head that brought the most horror. The snout was elongated, with fangs protruding, and the eyes were red. There was a smell like it had fed on the dead. It tore into Mikhail’s remaining belongings, ripping them to shreds, then continued to roar and claw the snow even after Mikhail was at mid-stream. Terrified, Mikhail used his pole as a paddle and moved as fast as he could for the opposite side of the river, fearing that this infernal beast would try to come out onto the ice floes. He watched as the Vulcari galloped downriver until it was hidden by a bend. “That’s the last I’ll ever see of that devil,” he thought.

    He finally reached the other side, stepped off the floe to safety, and tried to gather his wits about him. He sat with his head in his hands, tears freezing half way down his cheeks, thinking about his lost companions and his family. To himself he thought, “I’ve survived this far, maybe there is still a chance – I’ll start south along the animal trails beside the Yenisei.”

    Just then he heard a crack. He turned and his heart sank, it was the Vulcari, its nose sniffing the air, a hundred yards away, saliva dripping from its massive jowls, its red eyes now rolling towards him. The thing had gone down river until it found a place to cross. Mikhail weighed his options – there were no ice floes big enough to board and he had only the one pole to defend himself. With resignation he threw the pole at the oncoming Vulcari, just as it lunged for him, then jumped to the side, his one foot sliding under the water. The Vulcari tried to catch itself, screaming and howling, its claws reaching out for him, but plunged into the river. The demon could not swim. Mikhail watched the black horror go under the water, again and again, until at last it did not surface.

    With a faint hope that he would still see his family, he knocked off the ice that had frozen to his boot and started up river, the Vulcari sinking in slow motion beneath the icy river.

    Joseph Ollivier
    Talesuntold.net

    October 2015

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