A Free Man
THE GATES OF TIKHVIN PRISON, which routinely opened twice a day to trades people and government officials, were opened under special circumstances approved by the Prison Governor himself, shortly after dawn on a warm Monday morning in March, in order to release prisoner number 1EZ8L.
Prison number 1EZ8L, previously known as Kolya Yagovkin before his imprisonment, stood motionless on the edge of the world which had been returned to him. The shadow of a wood-framed watchtower stretched across the narrow path which led to the only road in or out of the prison camp. Beyond the road, and surrounding the prison on all sides, was a dense, impenetrable forest which stretched out for over one hundred kilometres in every direction into the Russian wilderness. Further to the east, beyond the forest, lay the great expanse of the Steppe.
Kolya, fixing his gaze on the road, glimpsed his friend, Andrey Charkov, who was leaning back casually against the hood of his newly purchased car: a rosewood coloured Ford Model A which had only recently begun production at the Moscow Car Assembly Factory. Picking up the small cotton sack which carried his few meagre belongings, Kolya walked slowly to where Andrey had parked his fashionable car.
A smile spread itself across Andrey's gaunt, pale face as he watched Kolya walk down the path towards him. It had been fifteen years since they had last seen each other.
'Kolya, is that your face I see staring blankly back at me? Why you haven't changed a bit - even your eyes are still young!' said Andrey, opening his arms and embracing Kolya as if they were reunited siblings. In doing so, Andrey became aware of how emaciated Kolya's once broad shoulders had become.
'What are these rags they have you wearing?' asked Andrey, looking at Kolya, who was dressed in a dark navy woollen shirt, with matching woollen trousers. The shirt was torn at the sleeves and the trousers covered with dried mud. 'At least they had the decency to give you a respectable pair of shoes to wear,' added Andrey, surveying the brown brogues which Kolya wore. The brogues appeared new enough as to have never been worn before.
'The shoes are those I wore the day I was sentenced,' explained Kolya, looking down at the still presentable brogues. 'It is only the second time I have worn them.' Lifting his head so as to look at Andrey, Kolya's thin lips broke into a barely perceptible smile.
'Once for walking into prison...and once for walking out!' said Andrey before breaking into loud, deep laughter. The unexpected noise caused a flock of wood pigeons to flee from a nearby spruce tree.
Feeling somewhat embarrassed by his friend's jovialness, Kolya turned to face the prison for one final time. He stared briefly at the high grey walls which for so long had kept him from all the things he had longed for. Not wanting the image of the prison to be forever engraved into his memory, he quickly turned away again and climbed silently into the passenger seat of the glistening Ford Model A.
'There are many things for us to tell each other,' said Andrey, having taken up his position in the driver's seat. He then turned the key in the ignition, setting the car in motion, and so beginning their journey away from Tikhvin Prison.
For a short while they discussed Andrey's current affairs. Kolya discovered that his friend had still not married, and had instead focused a great deal of time and energy in advancing to the position of Head Shipping Clerk for the Baltic Sea Steamship Company. 'It is a wonderful thing to witness so many hundreds of ships entering and leaving the port,' said Andrey, with obvious pride in his employment. 'Occasionally - when we have the more exotic cargo to deal with - I even get the reckless urge to stow away on the next ship heading out to sea. How exciting it would be to visit the cities of Amsterdam and Liverpool...or perhaps New York!' At the mention of New York, Andrey began to whistle a tune by Cole Porter. 'And yet, despites these urges, I know that I shall likely never leave Petersburg; travelling is in the end a young man's game.'
It had been so long since Kolya had seen the sea that he could barely imagine what it would be like to set off on such a voyage.
'Tell me Andrey, are you still playing the violin?' he asked, recalling how his friend was once the famous child prodigy of their college. Kolya had been jealous of Andrey's ability, for he had often wished to receive the adulation of his elders, who had adored and fawned over Andrey. It was only whilst in prison, when faced with the long silences of the night, that Kolya had begun to miss listening to his friend play.
Kolya began to think dreamily of the youth which they had shared in each other's companionship, 'I remember Professor Tsukanov,' he continued, 'telling us in class that you could be as great as old Leopold Auer himself. The professor used to stand before us and say: "Now my dear boys, always remember that no man can face his future and know with any certainty what road he will take: for life will often decide to punish us in our greatest moments, but my dear boys, I can tell you one thing with absolute certainty: Andrey Charkov will be a great violinist! Yes indeed. The walls of Saint Petersburg Conservatory will bear his portrait long after we have passed into dust. "'
'That period of my life is now over,' replied Andrey, not wanting to remember the immense promise that once lay expectantly in his talents. 'I was even forced to sell my Baroque some winters ago.'
'You sold your violin?' cried Kolya, instantly wishing to admonish his friend, but not knowing the reasons behind such a decision.
'Once my father died there was no time - or money for that matter - to continue in playing the violin,' answered Andrey, fixing his gaze on the road ahead. 'My mother sent me down to the shipyard the day after his funeral to register as a dockhand; I have not played the violin since we were young men in college.' continued Andrey, glancing at his rough hands, which were resting on the steering wheel; he thought fondly of how his once slender fingers could be worked to create even the most difficult of vibratos; and yet now, with his fingers misshapen from years of hard labour, he knew that he would never again be able to play the violin so brilliantly.
On hearing the regret in his friend's voice, Kolya made the decision not to ask any further questions which might recall memories of what had been lost. 'Have I left imprisonment only to find that others have willingly given their freedom away?' he thought to himself.
An hour soon passed where neither friend spoke a single word. To Kolya, it was an hour which seemed longer and lonelier than any of the days and weeks of solitude he had been forced to endure in prison. The car continued to judder in haste along the narrow, uneven road which appeared to stretch to the upmost edge of the horizon. Kolya, sitting silently with the side of his face resting against the window of the passenger door, watched the endless line of spruce trees pass by. The morning was still warm and cloudless, but Kolya wished for rain; he wished for the arrival of a violent thunderstorm which would uproot the trees along the road; he wished for the sky to turn black and vengeful.
'In some ways you should count yourself lucky, Kolya,' said Andrey unexpectedly, and in doing so, breaking the heavy silence which had weighed like a monolith upon the car. 'This road we are driving on was most likely made by tens of thousands of prisoners; through rain and wind and snow they would have been forced to dig into the frozen earth. I remember my father once said that if you found dug up any piece of highway, that there is a decent chance of finding some old worker's bones buried beneath.'
'But what has any of that got to do with me being lucky?' asked Kolya, not understanding the point which Andrey was trying to make.
Andrey did not reply immediately; he maintained his silence for several seconds, as if mentally rehearsing the words which he was about to say.
'We must all, in some way, pay for our sins,' he replied finally, whilst simultaneously steering the car around a large tree branch which had fallen onto the road.
'And have I paid for my sins?' asked Kolya. It was a question he had asked himself many times before.
'You have been forced to pay too much for what you did,' answered Andrey, remembering how he was stood next to Kolya the night when so much was destroyed.
'But nothing has changed...no one has been saved,' continued Kolya dejectedly.
Andrey, who for several weeks had attended court every day with Kolya's mother, could still not accept that his friend's punishment had been just.
'Fifteen years Kolya, for fifteen years you were forced to waste your youth in that rotten place - and for what reason? What right did they have to take those years from you when all you did was defend yourself, honourably I might add, against that vile drunk, Ruslan Gusev?'
'And what of all the years I took from Ruslan? How many did I take from him, Andrey? Five perhaps? Fifteen? Thirty maybe?'
Andrey shook his head bitterly, 'Nonsense…if you hadn't then someone else would have. Ruslan had dug his own grave long before you played cards with him; he was just waiting for someone to push him in.'
Despite the many years which had passed, the idea of ending another man's life continued to fill Kolya with horror. 'I still dream of that moment Andrey; knowing that Ruslan would reach for his pistol in order to rob me of my winnings. How I wish I had let him take every penny I had; how I wish I had never fired that first shot,' he said, whilst looking at Andrey and noticing how his friend's face no longer kept the childlike features which he so remembered him by.
'Ruslan was a convict, a thief, an adulterer, and a drunkard; you must understand, Kolya, that you did this country a great service by killing him. There are some men who do not deserve life.'
'I only wish that it had not been forced upon me to decide.'
'Let us not dwell on the past,' said Andrey, slowing the car down, 'Today you are a free man and that's all that matters. Your mother is very excited to see you again.'
A warm sea rose within Kolya at the thought of meeting his mother again. His father, who he had barely any recollection of, had been killed during the war; whilst, as a result of his mother's refusal to remarry after his death, there had been no other brothers or sisters born to keep him company.
His mother, who was now approaching her sixtieth year, had visited him once in prison, but had grown so uncontrollably upset that Kolya had begged her not to visit again.
'Is she well? he asked, wondering what affect age had had upon her.
'Your mother grows younger by the day,' answered Andrey with a smile. 'Only the other week she knocked at my door asking to borrow a spade, in order that she could begin digging flower beds.'
'Gardening!' laughed Kolya. The thought of his mother's vitality pleased him immensely. 'When I was a boy she wouldn't even let me walk home through the mud!'
Kolya's thoughts quickly turned to that of the only other woman in his life.
'Where is Sophia, Andrey?' asked Kolya excitedly. Sophia had been the one true love of his adolescence. In prison he had often envisioned the long blissful years of happiness which they would share as soon as he was released. 'Has she grown up to become the finest dressmaker in all of Petersburg?'
'You will perhaps not have heard, Kolya, but Sophia has been married for some years now,' said Andrey, in the knowledge that his words would cause pain to his friend. 'She has left Petersburg in order to go and live in Moscow with her husband.'
'Married? To who?' asked Kolya hurriedly. He was unable to comprehend how Sophia, who he himself had once almost proposed to, could love another man.
'Vasily Durchenko - you may know of him perhaps? They were introduced at the wedding of Sophia's sister.'
Kolya recalled how he had read a newspaper in prison which included an article on how Vasily had amassed a great fortune through introducing a revolutionary method of crop harvesting. 'Vasily is very rich,' said Kolya gloomily.
'Not as rich as he once was,' replied Andrey, with a hint of pleasure in his voice.
The prospect that Vasily could be his equal rather than his superior interested Kolya tremendously. 'What do you mean?' he asked.
'I heard he lost a lot of money in Moscow,' replied Andrey, taking great delight in another man's downfall. 'I received a letter a year or so ago from a cousin of mine, who just so happens to be well positioned within the Ministry of Land Affairs, informing me that Vasily Durchenko had invested unwisely in the construction of several large estates. As a consequence, I believe that Vasily and Sophia are now renting a small apartment in the Kapotnya District.'
'The Kapotnya District?' questioned Kolya, knowing that the south-east districts of the city were not the sort of places where one would choose to live if given the choice.
'Indeed,' replied Andrey. 'I imagine that it must be a very difficult situation for the both of them, especially with the children.'
The mention of the word children tore like a scythe across Kolya's heart. 'Children!' he cried, not daring to believe that Sophia would bear the children of another man. 'Why did nobody think to inform me that Sophia has entered into motherhood?'
'I must apologise, Kolya,' said Andrey in what was barely an audible whisper, 'I thought that the hardship of prison was already enough pain for you to be forced to endure. I saw no reason to force further pain upon it.'
And yet the pain that was kept from Kolya was now raging like a desperate fire within him. It was not the pain that is born from a betrayal, for Sophia had made him no promises concerning their love, but the pain of knowing that one's most guarded hopes have been instantly shattered.
'How many children are there?' he asked, despite not wanting to hear the answer.
'Two,' answered Andrey, sensing that every mention of the children was increasing the state of distress that was playing out inside his friend. 'My cousin has informed me that Vasily and Sophia have two young and pretty daughters: Anna, the oldest, is seven years old, whilst Natalya, who is by all accounts the mirror image of her mother, is almost four.'
Kolya closed his eyes and tried to picture the faces of the young, pretty daughters; yet where he should have seen gleaming eyes and sparkling teeth, he found nothing but a haze of black fog shrouding their delicately designed features.
'And what of Sophia? I imagine that she is very happy with this new life she has made for herself in Moscow?'
Andrey fell silent; causing Kolya to suspect that there was an untouched truth which Andrey did not wish to speak of.
'Is Sophia happy?' he asked again, this time more forcibly.
Andrey, slumping deeper into the driver's seat, shook his head mournfully. 'I am afraid that I have received little news of Sophia. My cousin says that she is rarely seen in public, expect during society balls when Vasily must present himself as the prominent bourgeois he once was. However, there are rumours - which I have heard in passing and cannot possibly confirm - that a great and unknown misfortune has befallen Sophia. They say that Vasily has now become ashamed of her.'
'And who is they?' The idle gossipers that you associate with in the bars along the Neva I presume!'
Andrey, startled by the sudden anger in his friend's voice, momentarily took his eyes off the road and turned to face Kolya. 'I would not have told you if you had not asked!'
Realising that his friend had been wounded by his comments, Kolya attempted to subdue his own anger, 'I am sorry, Andrey. It is not you that I am angry with,' he said apologetically, 'I loved - and still love - Sophia very much. You cannot imagine the torment that grows within me when you talk of how she lives unhappy and unloved. And now I begin to feel that I may never see her again.'
Despite Kolya's best efforts, the pain caused by Sophia's departure from his life was still raging within him, and after a few seconds of silence he felt an immense swell of anguish rise up his chest from the pit of his stomach. 'She has been taken from me, Andrey. Sophia has been taken from me!' he lamented, before covering his face with his trembling hands.
There was nothing that Andrey could say to assuage the misery which had clasped his friend's heart.
Once again the car fell into silence, and it was after almost an hour without a word being uttered, that Andrey realised Kolya had fallen asleep.
The journey was over halfway complete when Kolya awoke. On opening his eyes he found that the world had blossomed into a fine spring day. Andrey had rolled down his side window, which was allowing the perfumed aroma of efflorescent flowers to mix with the stifled air already inside the car.
'Andrey, did you bring the shaving kit I requested?' asked Kolya, whilst pulling out a small pocket mirror from his cotton sack. On viewing his reflection he saw that dark rings had formed around his eyes.
'It's on the seat behind you, in the satchel,' answered Andrey. Kolya turned and found a tanned brown leather satchel exactly as Andrey had promised.
'If you wouldn't mind,' began Kolya, having opened the satchel in order to view the shaving knife, 'I'd be grateful if we could stop for a short while so that I can have a shave. I'd like to make myself appear vaguely respectable before I turn up on my mother's doorstep.'
'Splendid idea!' agreed Andrey. 'My legs are starting to become cramped anyhow. Where should we stop?'
Kolya, whilst peering out into the surrounding boscage, had noticed that a shallow stream was running adjacent to the road. 'Pull-up over there, where there is a parting in the trees,' he said, pointing to an area on the edge of the road, forty or fifty feet away. 'I'll use the water from the stream to wash.'
With a quick turn of the steering wheel the car was brought to an immediate halt at the desired location. After turning off the engine, Andrey, who had not eaten for almost a day, left the driver's seat and made his way around the car towards the trunk. 'I have packed us some chicken, cheese and bread,' he said whilst unfastening the leather buckles on the trunk, 'I shall prepare lunch whilst you smarten yourself up. Only do not be too long: I have the worst hunger!'
Kolya had stepped out of the car, with the shaving kit held in his left hand, and was gazing up at the cloudless sky. 'Is it possible that a man can ever truly atone for his mistakes?' he asked.
Andrey spat a piece of tasteless chicken skin onto the ground before wiping across his face with his shirt-sleeve. 'A man must find a way to live, in spite of the troubles that his mistakes may cause him.'
'Even if the world decides to punish him in other ways?' replied Kolya, now switching his gaze to Andrey, and in doing so, revealing eyes which were filled with immeasurable grief.
Andrey could not bring himself to look at his friend and so turned his own eyes away, 'Come now, Kolya, we will soon be home and then you will see how much you are loved.'
'Perhaps you are right, Andrey,' said Kolya, a resigned smile slowly breaking across his face. Andrey recognised the change of tone in his friend's voice and was greatly relieved that the melancholia had passed as quickly as it had arrived.
'So let us eat and be on our way,' said Andrey, taking great delight at the prospect of lunch.
'Give me a few minutes to shave and then I shall join you,' shouted Kolya, from over his shoulder, as he walked off through the long grass towards the stream. He disappeared behind a row of tall spruce trees and out of Andrey's sight.
Andrey, in Kolya's absence, busied himself with preparing lunch. He cut several thick slices of bread, which his mother had baked several days earlier, before spreading a thin layer of margarine across each slice. The chicken, which had been roasted, was also cut into thick slices and placed onto a small plate along with the cheese. Andrey had also brought himself a pirog, filled with sweet-tasting apple, which he ate whilst waiting for Kolya to return. Twenty minutes or so had elapsed when Andrey began to wonder what was keeping his friend.
'Where have you disappeared to?' he called out, in the hope that his friend was somewhere close-by. 'Your poor mother will soon start to think that you have decided to stay in prison!'
Having heard no response to his calling, Andrey put down his plate of food and went in search of Kolya. 'Fifteen years you have waited and now you decide to make us late,' he said, walking through the long grass towards the spruce trees which Kolya had passed behind. The sound of rushing water informed him that the stream was not far off.
On reaching the stream, Andrey, who was struck by the clearness of the water, set his gaze along the embankment.
'Kolya!' he shouted, after sighting his friend - who was only a short distance away - lying prone amongst the grass beside the stream. Andrey, crossing himself several times in the Orthodox manner, ran obliquely across the dewy earth to where Kolya lay.
'My God, Kolya - what have you done?' he cried, before making the sign of the cross over himself once more.
At Andrey's feet, nestled in the grass, was the shaving razor which he had brought for his friend. Upon the blade clung a thin, glistening layer of blood. Andrey looked at Kolya's outstretched arms and discovered that beside each hand the grass was stained crimson red. Praying that there was still time to save his friend, Andrey, whose entire body had grown cold, knelt down on the grass in order to turn over the unmoving body.
'Say something, please!' he cried in hopeless desperation as he turned Kolya over. Andrey saw the deep lacerations which had been made into each wrist, and from which there was still a steady flow of blood streaming from the wounds.
'If I had come sooner this would never have happened,' he thought, pressing his fingers to Kolya's neck in search of a pulse. The colour had drained from Kolya's face, and his lips were almost a light shade of blue. On finding no pulse, Andrey knew that his friend was dead.
'You were a free man...your life...your life had been returned to you,' he said disbelievingly, whilst kneeling over the body. His own hands were covered in blood, and his shirt was sticking to his back from sweat. With his heart beating violently within his chest, Andrey lay down in the grass next to his dead friend.
There was no sound to be heard apart from that of the rushing water nearby, and on gazing upwards, Andrey watched a skein of returning geese fly serenely across the bright, cloudless sky.
It was then that he began to cry.
Mark is a poet and novelist from the UK. He also writes short stories. Mark has previously been published in Now Then, The Cadaverine, and Ink. magazine