May 01, 2019

The Shah Bird

The Shah Bird
This Stalinist Empire Style station was built in the 1930s, on the stub track in the small northern town Kirovsk. These days trains aren’t running, so the railway station is deserted and deteriorating. Mikhail Mordasov

The novel Zuleikha recounts the story of a woman sent into Siberian exile in 1930 after her husband is executed as an Enemy of the People. The story is inspired by the childhood memories of the author’s grandmother and the novel was the winner of Russia’s Big Book Award. This excerpt is from late in the novel.

Zuleikha opens her eyes. A ray of sun is pushing through shabby cotton curtains, creeping along a reddish curve on a log wall, over a flowered, coarse cotton pillow with the black tips of grouse feathers poking through, and further, toward Yuzuf’s delicate ear, rosy in the shaft of light. She extends her hand and noiselessly pulls at the curtain – her boy still has a long time to sleep. But it’s daybreak, time for her to get up.

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She carefully frees her arm out from under his head, lowers her bare feet to a floor that’s cooled during the night, and places a scarf on her pillow so when her son decides to wake up, he’ll stretch, nestle his face into her scent, and sleep a little longer. Without looking, she takes her jacket, bag, and rifle from their nail. She pushes the door – the babbling of birds and the racket of the wind burst in – and noiselessly slips out. In the hallway, she puts on simple leather shoes that Granny Yanipa crafted from elk skin, quickly braids her hair, and then it’s onward, into the urman.

Zuleikha has always been the very first among the camp’s hunting artel – a work group of five – to go out into the taiga. “Your animal is still sleeping, dreaming, but you’re already set for work,” grumbles the red-bearded Lukka. Sometimes they meet when he’s coming to the settlement after night fishing and she’s leaving to hunt. She doesn’t deny it, she just silently smiles back; she knows her quarry will never escape from her.

She has fond memories of her first bear, the one she killed in 1931 at Round Clearing: if it hadn’t been for that bear, she would never have discovered how accurate an eye and steady a hand she has. All that remains of the bear is a yellowish-gray skull on a pole. She visits it occasionally and strokes it, in thanks.

The settlement’s hunting artel was founded back then, seven years ago. Achkenazi had tried to change Zuleikha’s mind when she decided to leave her job in the kitchen. He had even scolded her: “How will you feed your son?” That evening, she brought him a brace of wood grouse for the evening soup. He accepted the meat and stopped trying to change her mind. They found him another kitchen helper.

In the spring and summer, she comes back from the taiga carrying fat grouse and heavy geese with thick, tough necks. A couple of times she’s been fortunate to take down a roe deer and, once, even a quivering, frightened musk deer. She sets snares to catch hares, and for foxes she sets traps sent by the central office, at the artel’s request. In winter she hunts animals whose thick, glossy fur has already grown in – squirrels, Siberian weasels, and occasionally sables.

In summer, the hunting artel’s capacity goes primarily toward the settlement’s needs: they eat and preserve fowl, baking the feathers and down in the sun for use in pillows and quilts. The only thing they send to the central office are beaver pelts, but those don’t turn up often. The areas around Semruk aren’t for beavers.

Winter is another matter, the most hectic time. Headquarters takes all the fur animals, whether they’re ordinary squirrels and martens or rare sables that sometimes need to be tracked for two or three days. The settlement is paid for the pelts, most often in money transfers, only rarely in hard cash. The majority of the money goes toward the settlement’s budget, with some offset by taxes and other deductions (as well as state taxes, there are settlement fees of five percent added on, plus payments on the settlement’s credits), and the remainder is given to the hunters themselves. Zuleikha has already been earning money this way for seven years.

People say it’s best to hunt with dogs but the settlers aren’t allowed to have them, “as a precaution.” Even rifles are permitted only reluctantly, probably because hunting wouldn’t work out very well at all with just snares and bear spears, but no firearms. All five of Semruk’s guns are registered with the commandant’s office. Strictly speaking, they’re supposed to be given out in late autumn, only for hunting season, and then returned to the commandant in early spring, but Ignatov doesn’t follow the rules as tightly as he should. The hunters supply the settlement with meat in the summer and everyone eats well during those three warm months, making up for the long, hungry winter, which takes away a good quarter (if not an entire third) of Semruk’s population each year, as if winter is licking them away with its tongue. Those who perish are generally newcomers, the ones who arrive toward the beginning of cold weather and don’t have time to adjust to the harsh local climate.

At first they processed the pelts themselves, each on their own, but then they banded together, putting everything in Granny Yanipa’s hands. By that time, there was little use at the logging site for an old woman who was half-blind, but she didn’t need to see to remove membranes and boil the pelts, afterward drying and combing them. And so they count the working group as five and a half people, meaning five hunters plus one half, Yanipa.

Zuleikha is a full-fledged unit of labor for the artel, but another half of her is registered as an aide in the infirmary, so there’s not just one of her but an entire one and a half. Leibe has explained that she needs an official occupation, on paper, for the summer season. The bureaucratic mathematics don’t trouble her; if that’s the way things have to be, fine.

It’s more complicated for other members of the artel: there aren’t many “vacancies” for a hunter who disappears in the taiga for days at a time. Formally registering them for lumbering jobs would mean having to automatically increase a work quota that already takes tremendous effort to fulfill and sometimes isn’t fulfilled anyway. They get around the system however they can: one person might be made a file clerk, another an assistant to the settlement’s bookkeeper. They’re forbidden from joining the staff in the kitchen, lest the team there get too large. The hunters try to work off their half-time jobs at least partially, however and whenever they can, so that the summer assignments aren’t pure deception; this additional burden on them is considered worth it, though, for the opportunity to remain an artel member without restrictions. Back at the central office, Kuznets graciously closes his eyes to these hidden violations (the problem with the hunters is resolved the same way in all the other labor settlements), though he doesn’t miss chances to remind Ignatov that, “Yes, my dear man, I know everything about you and I see through you, as if you were a glass of you know what.”

Zuleikha works off her half honestly. She returns from the taiga before supper, when it’s still light, and goes to the infirmary to scrub, scour, clean, wipe, and boil. She’s also learned to apply dressings, treat wounds, and even poke a long, sharp syringe into skinny male buttocks covered in hair. At first Leibe waved her aside and sent her to bed (“You’re on your last legs, Zuleikha!”) but then he stopped. The infirmary has grown and he can no longer get by without her help. Zuleikha truly is on her last legs but that’s only later, at night, when the floors are clean, the instruments sterilized, the linens boiled, and the patients rebandaged and fed.

As before, Zuleikha and her son are living in the infirmary, with Leibe. Yuzuf’s seizures are gone, and they’d gradually stopped sitting watch at his bedside during the night. Leibe hadn’t turned them out, though. More than anything, he seems glad for their presence in the housing provided by his job. Leibe spends little time in his living quarters, only sleeping there at night.

Living in a small, comfortable room with its own stove is their salvation. Adults as well as children get sick in the freezing common barracks, with the wind blowing through. And so Zuleikha gratefully accepts this gift and works for her happiness every day until she’s exhausted, with a rag and bucket in her hands.

In the beginning, she thought that because she was living under one roof with a man unrelated to her, that meant she was his wife before heaven and people. And was thus obligated to pay back a wifely debt. How could it be otherwise? Every evening after lulling her son to sleep, slipping out of his bed unnoticed, and thoroughly washing, she would sit on the stove bench, her belly chilled until it ached, to wait for the doctor. He would appear after midnight, barely alive from fatigue, hurriedly swallow, without chewing, the food she’d left for him, and collapse in his own bed. “Don’t wait up for me every night, Zuleikha,” he’d scold her, his words slurred from fatigue. “I’m still in a condition to cope with my own meal.” And he’d quickly fall asleep. Zuleikha would sigh with relief and duck behind the curtain, to her son. Then she would sit on the stove bench the next evening, to wait again.

One time, after falling face down on his sleeping bench, as usual, without even taking off his shoes, Leibe suddenly grasped the reason for her night vigils. He abruptly sat up in bed and looked at Zuleikha, who was sitting by the stove, her hair in neat braids and her eyes cast downward.

“Come over here, Zuleikha.”

She walked over to him, her face white, mouth a straight line, and eyes darting along the floor.

 “Sit right here with me …”

She sat down on the edge of the bench, not breathing.

“And look at me.”

She slowly looked up at him, as if her eyes were heavy.

“You don’t owe me anything.”

She looked at him, frightened, not understanding.

“Absolutely nothing at all. Hear me?”

She pressed her braids to her lips, not knowing what to do with her eyes.

“I order you to put out the light immediately and sleep. And don’t wait up for me again. Ever! Is that clear?”

She nodded slightly and suddenly began breathing loudly and wearily.

“If I see you do this again, I’ll send you to the barrack. I’ll keep Yuzuf here but I’ll send you the hell out!”

He didn’t have a chance to finish because Zuleikha had already darted to the kerosene cooker, blown on the flame, and vanished into the darkness. That’s how the question of their relations was conclusively and irreversibly resolved.

Lying in the dark with her eyes wide open and her loudly pounding heart covered with a pelt blanket, Zuleikha agonized and couldn’t go to sleep for a long time. Would she fall into sin by continuing to live under the same roof with the doctor, not as a husband but as a man unrelated to her? What would people say? Would heaven punish her? Heaven kept silent, likely agreeing to the situation. People simply accepted how things were – the aide lived at the infirmary, what of it? She’d arranged things well for herself, been lucky. When Zuleikha couldn’t hold back and shared her doubts with Izabella, Izabella just laughed in response: “What are you talking about, child! Sins are completely different for us here.”

Excerpted from Zuleikha. Used with permission from Oneworld Publications. Copyright © Guzel Yakhina, 2015, 2019. English translation copyright © Lisa C. Hayden, 2019.

The End. Or just the beginning?

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