The mountains were white with a bluish sheen, like sugar loaves. Round and treeless, they were coated in a thin layer of solid snow, packed down by the winds. The snow in the ravines was deep and firm – it could hold a man’s weight, while on the slopes it seemed to bulge up in huge bubbles. These were the shrubs of the dwarf pine, sprawled over the earth, which had bedded down for their winter night before the first snow fell. It was these shrubs that we needed.
Of all the northern trees, I loved the Siberian dwarf pine the most.
I had long understood and treasured the enviable eagerness with which poor northern nature hurried to share with man, who was just as destitute, its simple riches: to bloom the faster for him with all its flowers. Sometimes in a week everything would race into blossom, and within a month of summer’s arrival the mountains bathed in rays of the almost never-setting sun would redden with lingonberries and blacken with midnight blueberries. On the low-growing shrubs – you didn’t even need to lift your arm – big, lush, yellow rowanberries burst with ripeness. The honeyed mountain dog-rose: its pink petals were the only flowers here that were scented like flowers, all the rest smelt of nothing but damp, of bog, and this accorded with the spring silence of the birds, the silence of the larch forest, whose branches were slowly donning their green needles. The dog-rose guarded its fruits right up until the frosts, and from under the snow it stretched out to us its puckered fleshy berries, whose leathery, purple skin hid a dark-yellow meat. I knew the gaiety of the vines, changing their hue over and over in the spring: now deep rose, now tangerine, now pallid green, as if sheathed in coloured kidskin. The larch trees reached out their slender fingers tipped with green nails, the pervasive fat willowherb carpeted the ground cleared by forest fires. All this was delightful, innocent, noisy and hurried, but all this was in the summer, where the dull green grass mingled with the verdant glint of the mossy rocks sparkling in the sun, which suddenly appeared no longer grey or brown, but green.
In winter all this vanished, blanketed in the crumbly, stiff snow that drifted into the gorges and was compacted by the winds, so that in order to ascend the mountain you had to hack steps out of the snow with an axe. A man in the forest could be seen from a mile off, so naked was everything. And only one tree stayed ever green, ever alive: the Siberian dwarf pine. It could predict the weather. Two or three days before the first snowfall, while the autumn days were still hot and cloudless and no one wanted to think about the impending winter, the dwarf pine would suddenly stretch out its huge, two-fathom paws along the earth, nimbly bow its straight black trunk, two fists thick, and lie down floppily on the earth. A day passed, then another, a small cloud would appear, and towards evening a blizzard would start blowing and the snow would fall. If, however, low snow clouds gathered late in autumn, a cold wind blew yet the dwarf pine did not lie flat, you could be quite certain no snow would fall.
In late March or April, when there was still no hint of spring and the wintry air was tenuous and dry, the dwarf pine all around would rise up, shaking the snow from its green, vaguely gingery, garments. Within a day or two the wind would change, the warm air streams heralding the spring.
The dwarf pine was a highly accurate instrument, so sensitive that now and again it was fooled, it would rise during a momentary thaw. Although it never rose ahead of a thaw. But before the weather could cool, it would hurriedly lie back down in the snow. Or this could happen: you started up a nice hot bonfire in the morning so that you’d have somewhere to warm your feet and hands by lunchtime, you piled on some extra firewood and left for work. Within two or three hours, from beneath the snow, the dwarf pine would stretch out its branches and slowly straighten up, thinking that the spring had come. Before the fire had gone out, the dwarf pine lay back down on the snow. The winter here was two-tone: the soaring, pale-blue sky and the white earth. In spring, the previous autumn’s dingy yellow rags were bared, and for a long time the earth would wear these beggarly clothes, until the new foliage mustered strength and everything began blossoming – hurriedly and passionately. And here, amid this dismal spring, this relentless winter, the dwarf pine sparkled, shone intensely, dazzlingly green. What’s more, nuts grew on it – little cedar nuts. This delicacy was shared among men, birds, bears, squirrels and chipmunks.
Having picked a clearing on the sheltered side of the mountain, we hauled branches, small and larger ones, we pulled up the dry grass on the mountain’s bald patches which the wind had stripped of snow. We had brought with us from the barracks some smouldering firebrands taken from the lit stove before leaving for work – there were no matches here.
We carried the firebrands in a large tin can fitted with a wire handle, taking great care not to let them go out along the way. After pulling the brands out from the can, blowing on them and holding their glowing ends together, I kindled a flame and, putting the brands on the branches, I heaped up a bonfire – dry grass and small branches. Then I covered all this with the larger branches, and soon a plume of blue smoke was tentatively drawn by the wind.
I had never before worked in the teams which gathered the needles of the dwarf pine. The work was carried out by hand: we plucked the dry green needles like feathers from game birds, grabbing handfuls, we stuffed the sacks with the needles, and in the evening we delivered our produce to the foreman. Then the needles were taken away to the mysterious vitamin plant, where they were boiled up into a dark-yellow, thick and sticky extract with an indescribably repulsive taste. We were forced to drink or eat this extract (whichever we could manage) every day before lunch. The taste of the extract spoiled not only lunch, but dinner too, and many saw in this treatment one more source of stress in the camp. Without a shot of this medicine in the dining rooms it was impossible to obtain dinner – they kept a strict watch over this. Scurvy was everywhere, and the only medically approved remedy was the dwarf pine. Faith conquers all, and despite the fact that this “medicine” was later proven completely ineffective as an anti-scorbutic and it was abandoned and the vitamin plant shut down, in our time people drank this foul-smelling muck, spitting it out, and they recovered from scurvy. Or they didn’t recover.
Or they recovered without drinking it. Absolutely everywhere was teeming with rosehip, but it was not harvested, no one used it as a remedy for scurvy – the Moscow instructions had said nothing about rosehip. (Several years later they began delivering rosehip from the mainland, but as far as I know, they never did organise their own local supply).
The instructions treated dwarf-pine needle as the only provider of vitamin C. Now I was a gatherer of this precious raw material: I had grown weak and they had transferred me from the gold works to pick the dwarf pine.
“You can go and work on the dwarf pine,” the taskmaster had said in the morning. “I’ll give you a few days’ kant.”
Kant was a widely used expression in the camps. It meant something like a brief rest, not a proper rest (which was called pripukh) but work which would not wear a man out, some light, temporary work.
Work on the dwarf pine was considered not merely light: it was the lightest work of all, and on top of that, it was unsupervised.
After many months of work in the icy mines, where each stone glistening with frost would burn your hands, after the clunk of the rifle bolts, the barking of the dogs and the obscenities of the overseers standing at your back, work on the dwarf pine was an enormous pleasure, felt by each exhausted muscle. The dwarf pine team was sent out later than the ordinary posting to work in the dark.
How good it was to warm your hands on the tin with the smouldering brands, taking your time to walk to the mountains, so unfathomably distant, as I had thought earlier, and to climb higher and higher, the whole time sensing in joyful surprise your solitude and the deep winter mountain silence, as though everything bad in the world had disappeared and there was only your comrade and you, and the dark, unending, slender trail in the snow leading somewhere higher in the mountains.
My comrade watched my slow movements with disapproval. He had worked on the dwarf pine for a long time and rightly guessed in me an unskilled and weak partner. We worked in pairs, our earnings combined and divided equally.
“I’ll do the chopping, you sit down and pick,” he said. “And get a move on, or else we won’t make the quota. I don’t want to leave this place for the mines again.”
He lopped off boughs of dwarf pine and hauled a great pile of these paws to the fire. I broke off the skimpier branches and, beginning at the top ends, stripped away the needles along with the bark. They were like green fringe.
“You need to speed up,” my comrade said, returning with a new armful. “That’s no good, brother!”
I could see for myself it was no good. But I couldn’t work any faster. My ears were ringing, and my fingers, frostbitten since the start of winter, had long ached with a familiar dull pain. I tore off the needles, broke whole branches into pieces without stripping the bark, and shoved the plunder into the sack. But the sack refused to fill. An entire mountain of stripped branches like cleaned bones had already arisen near the fire, yet the sack carried on plumping and plumping and accepting new armfuls of dwarf pine.
My comrade began helping me. We were making headway.
“Time to go home,” he said suddenly. “Or else we’ll miss supper. We haven’t got enough here for the quota.” And, taking a large stone from the cinders of the fire, he shoved it into the sack. “They don’t untie it there,” he said, frowning. “Now we’ll make the quota.”
I stood up, strewed the burning branches about and raked snow onto the glowing coals with my feet. The fire hissed, went out, and at once it turned cold; evening was near. My comrade helped me to hoist the sack over my shoulder. I staggered under its weight.
“Tow it along,” said my comrade. “We’re going downhill, after all, not up.”
We barely made it in time for soup and tea. This light work did not merit a main dish.