The Ghosts of Progress


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The Ghosts of Progress

The hushed breeze was all that made noise for miles in every direction. The vast emptiness of the plains, extending towards all corners of the Earth, was made emptier by the soft breath of the wind. It resonated throughout the farthest reaches of the Steppes. An occasional pocket of dirt was picked up off the ground by a wayward current of air, only before being dropped a few yards away, deeper into the impenetrable Siberian wilderness. The tired sun was difficult to discern, hidden beneath a sheet of grey tinged cloud. Its many rays filtered through the thick veil of cloud, immersing the landscape in a deluge of soft light. The entire scene was mild for the time of year; it was late December, yet the ancient banks of the Irtysh had only just frozen over and the cattle still managed to graze beneath the pale sun. Flocks of thrushes and grey sterlings still hovered in the skies, unaware that in a matter of weeks the late winter will set in and freeze everything in its sight. There was an uneasy peace about, the algid winds from the north had yet to take hold but they were surely on their way. A storm was fast approaching.

Days passed. It was now early January and the slow winds and soft glare of the sun had vanished, replaced by the violent gales of a Siberian winter. The snowfall was far greater than anticipated, and coupled with the biting winds, few dared to step outside. Some miles to the north of Tobolsk, where the mighty Irtysh bends and heads east for a brief period, lay the isolated outpost of those who were constructing a section of the Trans-Siberian. Nestled between the snow-capped junipers and pines were a few log cabins, scattered throughout a desolate expanse. Above the entrance to the camp, flanked on either side by crude palisades, was a long sign, arched above the path below. It read Progress, and was used as an unofficial name by the workers. In the centre of the camp there were a number of broken and unused carts and wheelbarrows with all manner of construction tools strewn around them, seemingly thrown to the ground in a state of confusion and haste. Miles of brand new tracks lay on the snowy surface, unable to be installed because of the treacherous conditions. Many of the cabins were vacant; apart from a few, as most had gone south to escape the freezing winter.

By the edge of the brooding forest on the outskirts of the small camp, on a low hanging ridge, overlooking the frozen embankments of the Irtysh, lay the most isolated of the cabins. It was log, like all the others, yet it was the oldest cabin in the encampment. The wood had now worn thin, and it barely lasted through the previous winter. The roof was piled with a thick layering of snow, and icicles hung down from it. Every now and then the icy winds crept into the cabin through a few slits in the door and a cold shiver filled the small wooden room. The frost bitten window-panes were freezing to the touch, and inside where the walls joined the ceilings there was never a lack of cobwebs, all of them frozen stiff. The three inhabitants lay numb in their tights bunks, all attempting to find some comfort and warmth in their cold sheets.

It was at the time of day when light usually crept through the windows that Anatoly found himself to be awake. Yet there was still darkness. He had been up for at least a couple of hours, tossing and turning in his sheets, attempting to fight off the subzero temperatures of the night. Yet it only registered in that moment that he was fully awake, and not in some sort of trance-like lunacy, existing somewhere between the realms of the living and those trapped in an eternal midnight purgatory. The room was covered by a veneer of darkness, a hollow sheet of night that was invisible to the touch, yet biting to the body. Anatoly arose in his bed. Shivering, he reached towards his feet and grabbed the thick jacket that he had put to warm the end of his bed. He wrapped it around himself. There were another two beds in the cabin. Anatoly’s bunk was farthest from the door. To the left of Anatoly lay Vasily, and obverse to him lay Roman. Roman’s bunk was closest to the fragile pine door and in fairness he was given a thicker jacket and an extra pair of socks by the two other gentlemen. Anatoly observed their pitch black silhouettes, somehow being able to make out the faint outline of their respiring bodies. Anatoly thought to himself how on the other side of that faint line, outside that dim outline of life, lay nothing. There wasn’t even anything to compare it to. There was literally nothing out there, other than him and his two lonely companions. There was nothing on the other side of this old wooden box. He stopped thinking about his situation for a brief moment. He paused, and then reached beneath his sturdy bunk and pulled out a rusty box. It was his tobacco ration, supposed to last for another fortnight yet he knew he would smoke them sooner. Besides, this storm would probably be over in a few days, he thought to himself. He rolled himself a cigarette. After placing the box back beneath his bed, next to his torn boots, he lay back down. He shook his tiny box of matches to see how many were left. They made a small noise. Enough for now, he thought. He sparked a match upon the box, lighting his thin cigarette, and for a split second the entire cabin was drenched in an ocean of light. A small wave of heat appeared, warming Anatoly’s frostbitten fingers, only before being cast out forever as the infinite night resumed its presence in the cabin.

The hollow winter light filled the room. The tapered shadows that had once occupied the entire cabin retreated to the corners and hung low, escaping the cold light of day. Anatoly opened his weary eyelids. He propped himself up against the wall, rubbed his eyes with his cold knuckles, and looked at his companions. Vasily was sitting on his bed, legs crossed, engrossed in a book. He had noticed Anatoly awake.

“Good morning!” Exclaimed Vasily. “You seem to rise later each day.”

The words slowly made their way through the silent air. It took a few moments for Anatoly to understand the statement.

“What time is it?” he replied, unsure of how long he had fallen back to sleep for.

“It is still the morning hours, my friend. Here, have a sip of this.”

Vasily got up off his creaking bunk and walked over to Anatoly. He handed him a flask of warm kvas. Anatoly happily accepted, quietly thanking him. Vasily smiled and walked back to his bed, returning to his book.

“I find it difficult to wake up…a lifetime of rising to the clang of hammers and the blowing of horns has certainly left its mark on me!”

It had been weeks since morning reveille had been sounded. The majority of the camp, including most of the high ranking staff, had gone south to Tobolsk or Yarkovo for the winter. No one had been there to make the camp’s inhabitants rise each morning, and there was no need for them to either. Work had been suspended following the onset of snow a number of weeks prior. Anatoly sat with his head against the cold wooden wall, reminiscing over the previous summer he had spent in Moscow. He thought back to the warm days he had spent on the banks of the Moskva, in his hometown of Molokovo. He would take long walks on its sun drenched shores, and spend hours fishing for tench and tyulka in its becalmed waters. A distant memory now, he supposed. He brought himself back into the present moment, looking around the cabin. He had failed to notice Roman. He was perched on the cold wooden floorboards, in the centre of the cabin, attempting to start a fire. The one from the night before was the last bit of warmth any of them had seemingly felt in weeks. Beside Roman lay a scarce pile of logs, barely enough to last for a couple more nights.

“I went out earlier.” Said Roman, his eyes, as blue as the Volga, fixed on Anatoly.

Anatoly slowly sipped the last bit of kvas he had been given. He quickly glanced at the small pile of firewood.


“This was all I could gather. There is no more deadwood by our cabin and the trees are frozen stiff. We couldn’t cut them even if all three of us went outside.”

Vasily put down his book.

“But what about the centre of camp? Surely we can salvage something from the disused carts, or from the porch of the postal office? That whole thing is falling apart.”

He looked at Roman anxiously.

“It would be too dangerous to attempt, given the current weather. This was all I could find,” declared Roman, striking a piece of flint against the log pile.

Vasily glimpsed outside through the window. The snow was falling faster than it had been in the night.

“What were the conditions like when you went out, Roman?”

“I only managed to make it back. If I had stayed out another half hour, I wouldn't have been able to return through the forest. I would have had to go around the whole camp. I would have been trapped in this blizzard.”

“Do you think we will be snowed in?” Added Anatoly.

Roman paused for a few moments.

“In a matter of hours, perhaps. It is more of a question of when than if.”

Both Anatoly and Vasily looked at each other in disbelief.

A few hours had gone by. The snow was now hurtling to the ground, with sudden bursts of hail adding to its potency. The small fire had been lit, and was burning on scraps of wood. Even with the small log pile Roman had fetched from the camp, the three men had overestimated how great their supply of wood was. Anatoly was occupying himself by writing on a small piece of plywood. He knew in time he would have to give this up to the fire. Vasily was back to reading on his bunk, possessing the only book in the frozen cabin. Roman was peeping through a tiny gap above the door, where it met the ceiling.

“Come here! Now!”

Anatoly and Vasily sprung out of their bunks and raced over to the door.

They each took turns looking through the gap.

“We’re snowed in,” screamed Vasily, with a saturnine look to him.

Anatoly shook in his freezing boots.

“That has to be at least 5 feet of snow!”

Roman gazed towards the window.

“Maybe even 6.”

Anatoly and Vasily both followed Roman’s gaze. The small window panes were covered by a thick sheet of white snow, with the three men looking at each other dumbfounded as to how they had not noticed earlier. Roman put his head in his hands for a brief moment, and then looked up at the two others, swearing in his native Ukrainian.

What will we do? Asked Vasily, looking at him.

“What can we do? This snow is piled too high to try and move and if we manage to get the door open it would cascade into the room…we would freeze to death in a matter of minutes!”

Anatoly interrupted.

“And are we not freezing to death now? Anyway, we will we be out of firewood by evening and we have little food to eat as it is. We have bigger things to trouble ourselves with,” his voice growing in conviction with each word he spoke.

“Bah! You fool!” Snorted Roman. “None of that will matter when we are all dead!”

Vasily paused for a moment, his eyes piercing into the tired floorboards.

“What if we break through the snow? And go to Abram’s cabin? It is only a half mile up the ridge. We would be there a good hour before darkness falls! His lot will be able to help us.”

“A half mile is not a half mile in these conditions. We would have to cut through the camp. Make it three miles easy. They’d have to dig for hours to find our frozen remains. Anyhow, if this door comes open we will all be dead!” Roman’s tone was filled with reproach. “We will stay here. And we will sit by the heat of the fire. And then I will decide what we do!” He snarled at the others.

Anatoly moved towards Roman, standing over him. “I will overlook your condescending tone if you heed the gravity of mine! We have to try. I’m not dying in this box!”

He walked towards the log door. It was shaking in the violent wind.

“What are you doing?” Screamed Roman.

“Get away,” added Vasily. “Roman is right!”

Anatoly slowly tugged at the door, but the force of the snow outside was almost too great; a sudden stream of white filtered into the room through the gap that Anatoly had created.

Vasily and Roman raced to the door and slammed it shut with all their strength.

“Are you mad?” Screamed Roman.

“What were you thinking?” Exclaimed Vasily.

“What would you have us do? Die in here?”

The snow began to melt from the heat of the fire.

An odd calm came over Roman. “Both of you. Sit down. We will figure something out!”

The three men slowly walked back to their bunks, all of them staring into the narrow, claustrophobic space of their freezing cabin.

The dim light of the fire flickered amidst a sea of distant shadows. They edged closer and closer, until they had encased the cabin in a blanket of night. The window-panes could not be considered as such anymore; only as sheets of frost, as the glass became harder to make out under the translucent covering of ice. The snow was still piled up against the cabin, with more falling onto the fragile structure with each passing minute. The cold wind had started blowing through the tiny gaps in the door again, in an attempt to extinguish the small flames of the fire. The three men each sat at their bunks, in silence, languishing in their frozen predicament. All of them had eaten the last of their rations, with only a few tins of fish and a handful of stale bread remaining as their salvation from starvation.

Roman broke the silence.

“That’s it,” he cried. “This fire will be out before the night is over.”

“What are you suggesting?” Stated Vasily, questioning Roman’s intentions.

“We need things to burn. We can throw our underclothes into the fire. And this piece of plywood. This will keep it burning for a little while longer.”

Anatoly stared menacingly at him. His thoughts consumed him. What would he do now? He did not want to comply with Roman or Vasily. He found himself still staring solemnly into Roman. He snapped out of his daze and reached under his bed, shivering, and grabbed the rusty box. He opened it, yet to his shock his tobacco was frozen stiff. He picked up a clump of it; it was freezing to the touch. He quickly dropped it back in the box. It must have frozen in the night. He threw it at Roman. It reached the end of his bunk. Roman opened it, realizing what was inside. He motioned towards the fire. Anatoly, coming out of his delusional state, nodded. Roman threw the contents of the box in the fire. A light haze of smoke filled the air briefly.

“We will have to burn more if we want to stay alive.”

“What do you suggest? Stated Vasily, asking Roman.

Anatoly spoke. “You know what he wants,” pointing at Vasily’s book.

Roman nodded.

Vasily reached for his book. He gripped it tightly.

“No. Are you mad? We are not desecrating a book of the Lord.”

“It’s only the Bible. Plenty of them with Abram’s lot. When we get out of here...I’m sure you will be reimbursed by the old kook,” muttered Roman.

“He’s right.” Said Anatoly. “Hand it over.”

“Do you want to forsake us all? I’m not giving this up to keep a few flames burning for a few moments longer. Forget it!”

The three men continued to argue.

Outside, the blizzard was unrelenting. The beams of the cabin rocked as the violent gales swayed the whole building in its violent embrace. The fire in the cabin flickered as the men shouted and screamed at each other. Then, in the heat of the moment, just as the situation inside had reached breaking point, a violent gust of wind gushed in through the cracks of the cabin door. The small fire, dancing in the endless night, was quickly doused by the rapid force of the wind. All light in the cabin had been drowned out in a split second. The profound emptiness of the night returned. There was nothing in the small room but a cosmic darkness. The three men stopped their arguing. Their screams and shouts were replaced by an eerie silence.

All that could be heard, in the blackness of the room, was the frozen breath of the three men. They each remained unmoved, perched on their brittle bunks, staring at each other in their pitch black cabin. Their long stares could be seen no longer, but were felt by each of them. They all knew the fire had to be started again.

Vasily gripped his Bible.


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