At ten steps – fifteen maybe – Father Ivan turned back but the barrack was already gone. Snow blasted east and west and north and south and up and down and back and forth, erasing everything beyond the rag on his face. Beyond which might be the sunny isle that sometimes appeared to him. Palm trees swaying in time with the hula girls. An icy blast shifted course and the vague shape of a guard tower loomed before again disappearing. He was still in the gulag but now he might find his way.
Father Ivan had argued with himself about making this trek. The children were lost, their fate sealed. Too many mouths to feed so twenty had been taken from the barrack last night for execution in the morning. The irony – that word from another world – to be spared a bullet to the head only to die in this Siberian storm too dangerous for even the guards to go out in. But it wasn’t only the irony that intrigued him. There was also its symmetry; that instead of being shot by a guard, one of those long ago removed from any human feeling, it would be God Himself, in the form of this pure white storm, created by His own hand on this very morning, to deliver the final blow.
He gauged the distance. What would take five minutes at another time might take ten or twenty today. He pushed against the maelstrom, stooping at the shifting blasts of wind to brace himself from being driven down into the snow. The sugar angels in his pocket might crumble. The children might already be gone. Had he taken too long to decide? Or had the sugar angels taken too long to make? If the children were gone, his trouble wouldn’t be wasted. Those back in the barrack would have them and he would too. The chance that some might still be alive warmed him. He wondered if it was for the children he was doing this or for himself and the cold again rushed in to grip him.
At first it was only a thought. Taking his flour and sugar from its hiding place and then others adding to it from their own small caches. He’d made the dough and molded it into angels. Browning them on the stove as the others watched. And then, when the angels were ready, realizing that there was no turning back. He had to deliver them. When the children had been taken away, they’d called out to him. Father Ivan! Father Ivan! He could still hear their voices. Not that he or anyone else could save them but he could bring them sugar angels. He held onto that thought and continued on.
His focus narrowed to the next step as he struggled to stay straight. He felt for the contours of the ground under his foot wrappings. Was it still smooth like the path under the blowing snow? It seemed to be. Had he gone far enough? But then another thought flashed in on him. Could he have gone too far? Was that possible? If so, he’d never find them. He’d never find the barrack again either and would stumble around more and more lost until he finally fell. The sugar angels would be only for the guards who found him after the storm. Such a complete failure was too terrible to imagine so, pushing away his panic, he veered slightly to the right, searching at each step for that rutted ground near the cage.
He thought he heard a cry and stopped. He tried to hear if it was truly a cry or only the wind howling. He heard it again. But even if it might be a cry mixed in with the wind, it was too far away to tell for sure. Pushing on further his ankle turned so he again stopped, this time to prod at the snow. Yes! A rut! A deep one too which meant he was close! But then again came the thought that he’d gone too far and again he pushed it away. His course was set and there was nothing for it but to go on. The cage was more than twenty feet wide in the direction he’d chosen. He couldn’t have miscalculated so much as to miss it. It had to be just ahead.
Then suddenly there was the wire, a foot from his face. He touched it to be sure and followed it to the left. Turning a corner, the ruts under his feet grew deeper. The gate had to be only a few steps more. Unless he’d been wrong the whole time and had ended up somewhere else in camp. Panic seized him again but then he came to the heavy wooden gate and knew that he’d found the cage. A guard had left the gate unbolted so that he wouldn’t have to bash it free his next time there and which, luckily for Father Ivan, would have been impossible for him in his condition. He lifted the hook and cracked open the gate when the wind snatched it from his hands, whipping it wildly back and forth. He threw himself inside to keep from being smashed on its return.
That his fall had broken the sugar angels didn’t matter so much as it would have a few minutes before. He tried to see as he struggled to his feet. He wondered if they’d been taken someplace else when, through the swirling white, he glimpsed a rise in the snow across the cage. As he got closer dark splotches on the mound told him that these were the children. Here was where they’d huddled together for warmth. He looked for any movement in the mound but there wasn’t any. He was too late.
Brushing off some snow, he lifted a small body. The mound shifted as it disentangled from the others. He laid it to the side while saying a silent prayer. Then he removed another and another and then paused to gather his strength. He asked himself what he was doing. He avoided looking at the faces, ones he’d be sure to recognize. He decided that all he could do was give to each of them their own prayer so he went back to his task. As he reached the second layer of children some warmth escaped from a hollow he’d made in the mound. He lowered his head down into the hollow and there, shielded from the storm, his face absorbed the warmth still trapped inside.
He luxuriated in the stillness there until an old familiar fear for his own life began to intrude. Would he have time to say a prayer over each? And, if he did, would he still have the strength to get back to the barrack? He decided to say a common prayer for those left but would rest here first in the warmth. But only for a minute, a very short minute. He pushed and prodded the little bodies until the depression was large enough and then, turning on his back, he settled down into it. He felt the little bodies surround and embrace him. He would say his common prayer here. This one though, protected from the howling wind, he would say aloud.
“Ah, my children, so here we are” – The sound of his voice startled him. He went on. “A strange place where we’ve ended up. A strange place indeed. But, my sweets, I want you to know that our time here together has been, in more ways than I can tell you, the most precious in my life. I can’t see you, Sasha, but I know you’re here… close by… with all your friends… I’ve been wanting to tell you that those things we spoke of… all those places and things that seemed so important to you aren’t really… The important thing is that we care for others. Here we have cared for each other so we should rejoice in that and be happy. This is what I know. This is what matters.”
He stopped. He’d meant to talk about God and how they would be with Him today so why was he telling them this? And why did he pick Sasha to speak to and not Ludika? Or little Madja… precious Madja… But then he decided they would understand and that the names now didn’t matter so much anyway.
And why did he talk of this place? This terrible place. Was he talking to himself? Or feeling sorry for himself again? The absurdity of it. Such absurdity that in his earlier days would have made him laugh. That he, Ivan, would end up in a pile of corpses, alone and forgotten. He thought of his wife, the only woman he’d ever loved. How she’d left him because of her fear and how he’d let her go because of his arrogance. How he’d become a priest to learn humility. How the Russians had come to Ukraine, how he’d joined the partisans and was captured by the Bolsheviks. How he’d survived the gulags one after another and now past sixty was somehow still alive. The newsreel flickered through his brain and then the wind howled again to disturb his reverie. It was time to go. He began to get up when he thought he heard something. Not a voice but a murmur maybe, “Sasha? Is that you?”
It was quiet but then he became aware of something to his left. He saw the fingers of a tiny hand move. He gripped the hand. It was still alive, “Can you feel this? It’s me. Father Ivan.” He waited for an answer but none came. “Here. I’ve brought you a sugar angel. I’ll give it to you.”
Father Ivan struggled to pull the bundle from his pocket. Unwrapping it, he took a broken piece of sugar angel and placed it in the hand. He tried folding the fingers around it but they wouldn’t – couldn’t grip. The piece fell and disappeared. Father Ivan again gripped the hand with his own and felt it grip back, “Not to worry. This is better anyway, isn’t it?”
Still no answer. If he was going to leave it had to be now. But to leave he’d have to let go of this hand and as much as he knew he should and as hard as he tried, he couldn’t. Father Ivan then cried for the children and for himself too. They were together now, one and the same, freezing in the storm.
He thought about death. This time his own. There was still this one new thing to experience. Will there be more to it than just going to sleep? He’d spent half his life believing there would be, that he and the children would be with God today. He hoped it was true. But then no one can know the exact truth of such things and even if it wasn’t, it was better to live like it was. If life was only about winning the next contest, getting more and more food and more women and more things and more time to do it over and over again, then all those who ever lived and all those still alive had already lost.
He brought a piece of sugar angel to his lips. He tasted the sugar as it melted on his tongue. He wondered if he died this instant would the taste of sugar angel last forever. It was possible. At that moment anything seemed possible. Either way, if he didn’t go now, he’d soon find out.
The cold was creeping in fast and any warmth left would soon be gone. He thought again about the barrack, about pulling himself up and making one last desperate push for it, but then he didn’t. He wondered if he still had a choice and found that he couldn’t move his leg. It wouldn’t move. Next would be his arms and after that his whole body would no longer be his. He’d be left with only his thoughts. And maybe that wouldn’t be so bad either.
He gripped the hand after it didn’t grip back. He let go of all that mattered and all that ever would. He went to sleep with the children, together and not alone. As he closed his eyes, he thought of how odd it was that he’d never had a child of his own until this very moment. He’d finally found one true thing. These children were his now and would never be taken away from him again.
Harvey Huddleston’s fiction has been published in Otoliths, Literary Yard, CC&D Magazine, Academy of the Heart and Mind, Mystery Tribune and The Scarlet Leaf Review.