A Rat's Life
A young boy is charged with tending to the recently amputated Alex Krycek
From the corner of the dugout, I watch the fingers of light creep from one beam to the next along the dirt wall. When the light touches the third board, Olga comes with a cloth bag. She hands it down to me and runs off quickly, not stopping to talk. She hasn't seen the man I'm watching but she knows what has been done to him. She has no desire to see another like her Uncle Vanya.
The form in the shadows moans and then quiets again. I strain to hear Olga's footfalls until they disappear in the distance. I picture her: long legs flying, blonde braids flapping behind her like ropes. Olga runs like a deer. When I can't tell whether the sound I'm hearing is Olga or the pounding of my heart, I open my eyes and reach into the bag. A little pot of something warm and fragrant is nested into the hollow of a round loaf. The soup is for the man, but if Yuri is right, he won't eat much. I pull off a little piece of the warm loaf and chew on it, waiting. For short periods the amerikanets is quiet. At intervals he half-wakes and cries out but this is not pain; the pain comes in deep grunts. When he mumbles, he uses the words of schoolboys. He calls out to someone named Vlad for help, thinking he is being bullied.
I get up and stretch my aching legs; they prick as if from a thousand tiny pins until I lift them over and over, marching silently in place to recover the circulation. Then I pause to listen, as I must do often. From the corner comes the faintest sound of breathing. Overhead, there is nothing but the light crunching of a bird poking through leaves at the surface. Yuri has said someone will be watching us, but if the search party were to find him... I swallow and squat down, staring into the shadows. I want the americanets to wake up so I will not be alone, and yet he will not be pleasant to deal with; I know this already. But it will be better than the thoughts that fill my head now, of the men on horseback coming, hauling us up out of the shelter of the dugout and carrying us away to the camp where the terrible tests slowly kill people.
For the first time I notice two shining spots watching me from the shadows and hear labored breathing. I jump. My heart pounds but I force myself to speak.
"You are awake?"
The americanets groans. When he tries to roll toward me he chokes on a cry and then falls silent, gasping.
"It will get better," I say, though I know my words carry no power to take away his torment. "Are you hungry? I have--"
"Where... where are we?"
I point to the light filtering through the hatch above us. "Below. Safe."
He starts to roll toward me but leans on his other shoulder, also hurt. He groans and retreats to his back, panting. Even from where I am, not close, I can see the wet trails that run down his cheeks. I look away and turn my attention to Olga's bag. My stomach is half hunger and half sickness from listening to the man; each breath he takes seems to fill me with his pain. My fingers reach into the bag and pull off a small piece of the nearly-cool loaf. In the corner, the americanets stares at the place where yesterday he had an arm.
"You will be safe now," I say when I've finished chewing my bit of bread. "They cannot use you for the test now. You will live."
"Got to go," he says, still staring at the spot. He had no time to prepare; perhaps he still believes it is only a bad dream. "I didn't need to be safe here. I've got to go back... home... to America."
He starts to move again and then stops, mindful of the pain, and stares at the ceiling.
"There is food," I say, pointing to the bag. "You should eat."
He shakes his head.
I shrug. "It does no good to be saved and then invite death--"
"I didn't need saving!"
He half-rises and curses at me using words the men only whisper if I am around. The force of them backs me against the damp earth wall. I shake and tell myself it is only his pain speaking. Yuri told me this: do not be afraid, the pain makes them wild. They will come around in time. They have no choice.
The americanets quiets and closes his eyes. Slowly I squat again. He is shaking now. I reach for the blanket I've been using, swallow and lean forward.
"You must stay warm," I say carefully. "I have another blanket."
I wait to see what his reaction will be. He says nothing, makes no movement.
"I will bring it to you--"
I half-stand and move slowly, one step and then a pause and then another. When I have reached him I bend down on one knee and start to set the blanket over him, covering his feet first, then his legs. I take care not to look at his face. When I lift the blanket toward his chin, he grabs my ankle hard. I lose my balance and fall backwards, hitting my head on the pole in the center of the dugout. When I cry out, the pressure around my ankle only tightens.
"Show me," he says.
I try to pull away but his grip is like a steel trap.
"What? Show you what?" I struggle to sit up.
I hold them up, my fingers shaking; the americanets stares as if he could burn holes in them. My ankle aches. It throbs like the ticking of a clock and my whole body is beginning to shake like his, but he seems not to notice. Sweat blooms on my forehead and starts to run.
A choking sound comes from the man and he releases my ankle. I scramble to the far corner of the dugout and press myself against the damp earth. The ladder is near his feet; if I were to try to get to it, he might rise up and grab me, and it will be hours yet before Yuri or one of the others returns. Unless the men on horseback come first, and then we are all lost.
I squeeze my eyes closed and try hard to think of home--Anton and Dima and Nadya and I working on our building project. Dima didn't want Nadya included because she's a girl, but she brings the nails and so he has learned to put up with her. I listen to the sound of our pounding and our chatter and when they finally fade, I hear the quiet sobbing coming from the shadows across from me. The sound is soft, barely there, but I cover my ears; he is a grown man, after all, and I am ashamed to witness his pain. I look upward and make myself focus on the dust specks dancing slowly in a shaft of light.
When finally all is quiet, I loosen a little.
"Food?" The voice from the shadows is thick, unsteady. "You've got something--?"
He takes the pieces of bread I hand him, torn from the center of the loaf, the part that will be easier to chew. I hold each piece at arm's length and let go the second he takes it; I will not chance his iron grip again. After five or six pieces he doesn't ask for more. But I am supposed to encourage him to eat.
"There something else?" he says, sniffing. "I smell something."
"Soup," I say. "But for soup you must sit up."
He surprises me by not refusing. He struggles until he's propped himself against the wall but it's taken all his strength. He sits there shaking, unable even to hold the spoon and I must feed him, slowly, awkwardly, until he says no--no more. He will throw up.
He closes his eyes and rests his head against the wall behind him.
"What were you doing here?" I venture. I have only seen Americans once before. It is not Moscow or St. Petersburg, this place I live in.
"Came with a fr--" He looks at me and stops. "My brother dragged me here. Just... hiking. Never should've--"
"He is your brother, the other one?"
"The one who crashed Kirill's truck."
"No, he--" He glances toward the streaks of light in the ceiling, then closes his eyes.
"Kirill is in danger now. No truck, no value to the camp... He's my friend's father," I add softly.
The americanets only frowns. After a few moments he pulls himself up straighter, leans on his remaining arm and winces.
"Hey, help me here, will you?"
"What do you want?"
"I need some fresh air."
"You can't go up there. The men with the horses--"
"Look, kid, I'm going to puke right here if I don't get some fresh air pretty soon. How long are you going to want to sit around here after that?" He is weak but his words are strong, impatient.
My nose wrinkles. "Maybe," I say, "if we only lift the hatch a little--"
He holds out his hand, but in the end it takes much more than a hand to get him upright. I must put my arm around his waist and let him lean against me; we struggle awkwardly trying to rise and I cringe inside as his efforts pull me against him. I can smell his shirt, and the blood from his wound, and his stale breath laced with the vodka they gave him afterward. When finally he is on his feet, he continues to clutch at me. If I were to let go of him, he would soon collapse.
"You won't make it up the ladder," I say. "You will fall and your arm will be much worse."
He pulls me closer. His body is hot, feverish.
"No. Got to go up."
"I am supposed to protect you. I cannot tell--"
"Look, I'm going to be sick." His body sways. "I've got dollars... American dollars... in my pocket. More money than your family makes in a month. Think of what you could buy. Just help me up this... fucking ladder." His breath comes in gasps, heavy with pain.
"But--" I am not sure whose reaction I will fear most: Yuri's if I let this crazy americanets be captured after all their trouble, or that of the stranger I wish I were far away from.
Before I can find anything else to say, he leans toward the ladder. I must step toward it to avoid falling and so we reach it. As he grabs a rung with his hand, I step back, finally free. The americanets leans forward against the ladder and pants. Then one leg rises tentatively, searching for a step. He does not reach high enough.
"Kid--" He half-turns. "What's your name, anyway?"
He turns back to the ladder and shakes his head.
"Help me," he says, "Aleksei. Come on. Put my foot up."
It is not only the first step he needs help with. Each time I must not only lift his foot, but then push him up until his hand grasps the next rung. When he reaches the top and tries to push on the door, I am sure he will fall off the ladder with the effort and come crashing down on top of me. But somehow he manages. The next thing I know, daylight floods the dugout and the americanets has thrown himself outside on the surface. I scramble up the ladder to find him lying on his back, panting. He stares at the tree tops as if his focus could give him the ability to fly up and away to America.
"You must come back down," I whisper from between gritted teeth.
He says nothing but only pants, eyes closed. Tears run past his temples and into his hair. I look from one tree to the next, searching for movement, my heart pounding like a runaway horse.
"Which way," he says, "to the road... the... the road I came on? How far?" His eyes are open now. They are dark green, like hard emeralds, and bore into me.
I shake my head. "You do not understand. The men from the camp. I cannot--"
"I... I need to find him."
"Your brother who crashed Kirill's truck?"
"He didn't. That... that wasn't my brother. That was someone else."
But I know the driver was American. How many Americans can be here in the woods?
"My brother, he... we got separated... near the road. I have to--"
"The search parties have been everywhere. We have been everywhere. If your brother was there, someone would have found him."
He only shakes his head, rolls painfully and manages after some effort to sit. He is very pale.
"It isn't safe. You are not strong enough--"
He leans toward me and catches me by the arm. "Do you have a brother, Alyosha? Would you leave him behind?"
His breath warms my arm; his fingers pinch and I squirm. "No. I mean, I have a brother, yes, but--"
"Which way? How far is it?"
"To the road? Nearly a kilometer."
He pushes against me to right himself. "Hand?"
I stand and take the hand he holds out, then struggle to pull him upright. It is madness, what we are doing. If he faints along the way, I will run. I will tell Yuri I had no choice. I cannot let the guards find me and make me tell about our men and the dugouts.
We move slowly. The americanets uses me as a crutch, his arm around my shoulder. Three times we stop when he can go no farther. I take him off the trail and he lies in the bushes on his back, staring up. He refuses to close his eyes.
If there is water nearby, I bring him some and when his panting has quieted, we go on. The final time, when I return with water, he greets me with the stem of a plant he has plucked from beside him. When he names it, something inside me grows cold. How does he know this word if he is from America? Are the plants there not different? And his speech flows so easily. The only foreigner I ever heard spoke like a child, grasping for words. He called me Alyosha by the dugout, I realize now, and how did he know I am called that? I told him only Aleksei.
"Ready?" I hold out my hand.
He is growing weaker; I must lift him and I nearly fall before he is upright once again. On the path he drapes over me and I want only to run, not only because he is too close but because a terrible thought has occurred to me: if it is all a lie, if he is not actually American but Russian, lost in these woods but not one of us, he could be from the camp. He could be a guard, injured and lying so we would not kill him. From the road he could find the camp and tell the others about the dugouts, about Yuri and the men. About me.
When we are ten meters from the road I can make myself go no farther. The man leans against a tree on shaky legs, resting, but when he calls for me, the words come flying out of me before I can think: vy ne americanets! You're no American. When I realize what I have said, I turn quickly and run as if he were a demon from a fairy tale who could grow wings and pursue me. But I know he is only a man. I hear him shouting after me--Alyosha, Aleksei.
When I know I am far enough away, I slip under some bushes, shaking, and wait to catch my breath. My eyes squeeze shut but behind them I see a pale, weak man with only one arm collapsed on the ground. I tell myself he does not deserve my help, that he is dangerous, but finally I can stand the picture in my head no more. I get up and start carefully toward where I left the man, taking care to stay hidden. Finally I see him. He is staggering up the rise to the road but as I watch, he stumbles and falls in a heap on the ground. I think he has passed out; perhaps he is dead. But a minute later he stirs, then rises and makes a second attempt. This time he takes only three steps before he collapses and disappears from my view. I wait, counting the seconds, but he does not rise again. I tell myself to go, I have no further business here, and yet something draws me closer to the place. When I am perhaps a dozen meters away, I hear the rumble of a truck. I duck down behind young trees and watch as the truck stops suddenly. Three men rush out and look at a spot in the road. Perhaps they have hit a deer or found something fallen from another truck. But no, they are lifting something, carrying it. It is the man; they are laying him in the bed of the truck, talking excitedly.
I do not wait to see whether he is known to them. I turn while they are occupied and run as fast as I can for home. The men, when they hear my story, are furious; they tell me I am lucky to have gotten away. If they had known, they would have taken more than his arm. But that night--no, not just one night, but for several--I see the man in my dreams: lying in the dugout, struggling along the path. I try to watch for signs of who he really is, traitor or no, but I can never tell with any certainty. And from Ivan, who works in the camp, we have learned nothing one way or the other.
Two days later I find myself wandering the woods near the dugout, walking the trail the man and I had taken. At our final resting place I stand and consider the stranger yet again. My foot pokes at the layer of dead leaves in front of me and I notice something green in with the brown, the corner of a piece of paper, folded. I reach down and pick it up. It is money--American money. I cannot read the lettering, but in each corner I recognize '100'. I do not know how many rubles it is worth; he could easily have lied to me, or the bill could be counterfeit. I put the money in my pocket and when I reach home, I work it into a chink in the flooring beneath my bed.
But in the middle of the night, unable to sleep, I find myself on the floor, pulling the mysterious bill from its hiding place. I tell myself sternly that it has no power to reveal anything about the man's intentions. And in the end what does it matter whether his story was true or not? Life is full of deception, a walk through a dark woods filled with creatures waiting in ambush.
But perhaps this is exactly why it matters.
© bardsmaid 2005 |