In the Night
By Varlam Shalamov
Supper was over. Slowly Glebov licked the bowl and brushed the bread crumbs methodically from the table into his left palm. Without swallowing, he felt each miniature fragment of bread in his mouth coated greedily with a thick layer of saliva. Glebov couldn't have said whether it tasted good or not. Taste was an entirely different thing, not worthy to be compared with this passionate sensation that made all else recede into oblivion. Glebov was in no hurry to swallow; the bread itself melted in his mouth and quickly vanished.
Bagretsov's cavernous, gleaming eyes stared into Glebov's mouth without interruption. None of them had enough will power to take his eyes from food disappearing in another's mouth. Glebov swallowed his saliva, and Bagretsov immediately shifted his gaze to the horizon—to the large orange moon crawling out onto the sky.
"It's time," said Bagretsov. Slowly they set out along a path leading to a large rock and climbed up onto a small terrace encircling the hill. Although the sun had just set, cold had already settled into the rocks that in the daytime burned the soles of feet that were bare inside the rubber galoshes. Glebov buttoned his quilted jacket. Walking provided no warmth.
"Is it much farther?" he asked in a whisper.
"Some way," Bagretsov answered quietly.
They sat down to rest. They had nothing to say or even think of—everything was clear and simple. In a flat area at the end of the terrace were mounds of stone dug from the ground and drying moss that had been ripped from its bed.
"I could have handled this myself," Bagretsov smiled wryly. "But it's more cheerful work if there are two of us. Then, too, I figured you were an old friend ..."
They had both been brought on the same ship the previous year.
Bagretsov stopped: "Get down or they'll see us."
They lay down and began to toss the stones to the side. None of the rocks was too big for two men to lift since the people who had heaped them up that morning were no stronger than Glebov.
Bagretsov swore quietly. He had cut his finger and the blood was flowing. He sprinkled sand on the wound, ripped a piece of wadding from his jacket, and pressed it against the cut, but the blood wouldn't stop.
"Poor coagulation," Glebov said indifferently.
"Are you a doctor?" asked Bagretsov, sucking the wound.
Glebov remained silent. The time when he had been a doctor seemed very far away. Had it ever existed? Too often the world beyond the mountains and seas seemed unreal, like something out of a dream. Real were the minute, the hour, the day—from reveille to the end of work. He never guessed further, nor did he have the strength to guess. Nor did anyone else.
He didn't know the past of the people who surrounded him and didn't want to know. But then, if tomorrow Bagretsov were to declare himself a doctor of philosphy or a marshal of aviation, Glebov would believe him without a second thought. Had he himself really been a doctor? Not only the habit of judgment was lost, but even the habit of observation. Glebov watched Bagretsov suck the blood from his finger but said nothing. The circumstance slid across his consciousness, but he couldn't find or even seek within himself the will to answer. The consciousness that remained to him—the consciousness that was perhaps no longer human—had too few facets and was now directed toward one goal only, that of removing the stones as quickly as possible.
"Is it deep?" Glebov asked when they stopped to rest.
"How can it be deep?" Bagretsov replied.
And Glebov realized his question was absurd, that of course the hole couldn't be deep.
"Here he is," Bagretsov said. He reached out to touch a human toe. The big toe peered out from under the rocks and was perfectly visible in the moonlight. The toe was different from Glebov's and Bagretsov's toes—but not in that it was lifeless and stiff; there was very little difference in this regard. The nail of the dead toe was clipped, and the toe itself was fuller and softer than Glebov's. They quickly tossed aside the remaining stones heaped over-the body.
"He's a young one," Bagretsov said.
Together the two of them dragged the corpse from the grave.
"He's so big and healthy," Glebov said, panting.
"If he weren't so fattened up," Bagretsov said, "they would have buried him the way they bury us, and there would have been no reason for us to come here today."
They straightened out the corpse and pulled off the shirt.
"You know, the shorts are like new," Bagretsov said with satisfaction.
Glebov hid the underwear under his jacket.
"Better to wear it," Bagretsov said.
"No, I don't want to," Glebov muttered.
They put the corpse back in the grave and heaped it over with rocks.
The blue light of the rising moon fell on the rocks and the scant forest of the taiga, revealing each projecting rock, each tree in a peculiar fashion, different from the way they looked by day. Everything seemed real but different than in the daytime. It was as if the world had a second face, a nocturnal face.
The dead man's underwear was warm under Glebov's jacket and no longer seemed alien.
"I need a smoke," Glebov said in a dreamlike fashion.
"Tomorrow you'll get your smoke."
Bagretsov smiled. Tomorrow they would sell the underwear, trade it for bread, maybe even get some tobacco. . . .