Richard Smyth with The Short Story
Richard Smyth with The Short Story

Featured Short Story: Maykopsky District, Adyghe Oblast, by Richard Smyth

donkey14-05-1949

Arrival of Comrade SHIRIKOV by mule at the Belaya camp, 125 km west of Makhoshepolyana (see Appendix 5.2). Appeared travel-stained but in good health. Speech of welcome by Partkom Secretary Comrade MIRSKY (see Appendix 1.16.9). Comrade SHIRIKOV swiftly established cordial relations with local populace. Nikolay Mikhaylovich NIKITIN, a military veteran (20th Rifle Division, 1940-45) and hunter not known to be politically active, is engaged as guide for a fee of SR3. After dinner, Comrade SHIRIKOV bathed and retired early.

 

15-05-1949

At sunrise Comrade SHIRIKOV and Comrade NIKITIN travelled by horse south-west into the forested hills. Comrade SHIRIKOV carried surveying equipment and specialist botany apparatus. He was seen to consult a book later identified as Comrade GULYANOV’s ‘Birds Of The Northwestern Caucasus’ (1927). During the journey the two men ate sandwiches and drank vodka. They appeared companionable. At 11 a.m. they dismounted and made makeshift camp in an area of mixed woodland. Comrade SHIRIKOV was briefly excited by the sight of a plant later identified as the yellow spring gentian (Gentiana oshtenica). During the afternoon Comrade SHIRIKOV explored the forest, taking copious notes in a blue-jacketed journal of Finnish manufacture. Comrade NIKITIN smoked tobacco and played grand-patience. Shortly before sunset he fed and watered the horses while Comrade SHIRIKOV cooked mushrooms and onion over the camp fire. The two men drank and talked for some time before retiring at midnight to their tents. From what could be heard of their conversation it concerned women, forestry, hunting, leatherwork, seafood, and the Great Stalin Plan for the Transformation of Nature.

 

16-05-1949

Comrade SHIRIKOV was absent from the camp at daybreak. He was located shortly after 09:00 in the upper limbs of a Nordmann fir (Abies nordmanniana), deploying binoculars believed to be of military issue. On return to camp he spoke enthusiastically to Comrade NIKITIN of shelterbelts and intercropping. Comrade NIKITIN appeared listless. Later he was seen vomiting into a bog myrtle (Myrica gale). At 15:00 the men struck camp and returned to Belaya.

 

17-05-1949

Comrade SHIRIKOV spent the day in his headquarters, apparently writing up his notes and preserving cuttings from the forest expedition. Following consultation with Captain of State Security MARIN it was decided that Comrade SHIRIKOV should be engaged covertly in conversation the following day.

 

18-05-1949

On emerging from his headquarters at 06:00, purportedly with the intention of listening to the dawn chorus of the birds, Comrade SHIRIKOV was approached by a covert operative and asked his business in Maykopsky District.

SHIRIKOV: I am a functionary of the Main Administration of Field-Protective Afforestation. They have sent me here to inspect and assess the composition and condition of the forest steppe, with a view to the establishment of plantations – shelterbelts, you see – on the steppe north of here. What a lucky fellow I am!

Comrade SHIRIKOV then initiated conversation on the subject of Dawn Clouded Yellows (the covert operative having persuasively adopted the identity of an amateur entomologist specialising in Lepidoptera). The conversation ended when Comrade SHIRIKOV gave a sudden start. He was asked what had occasioned his surprise.

SHIRIKOV: I’m damned if that wasn’t the call of Krüper’s Nuthatch [Sitta Krueperi]!

Comrade SHIRIKOV then departed at speed, headed for nearby trees.

 

19-05-1949

Having been observed making preparations with Comrade NIKITIN for an expedition, Comrade SHIRIKOV was approached by a covert operative who offered to accompany the men on their journey. Comrade NIKITIN was heard to make a remark of lewd character. He was sharply rebuked by Comrade SHIRIKOV. Comrade SHIRIKOV then described the proposed expedition as “rather dull work”.

SHIRIKOV: We are to travel northward to the steppe. We will spend three days [NIKITIN: Three [expletive] days!] taking soil samples and meteorological readings. It will, you see, be no pleasure outing.

Comrade SHIRIKOV was asked to characterise the purpose of the work.

SHIRIKOV: The famine of forty-six drove thousands to their graves. In the countryside of the Ukraine men pillaged the cemeteries for meat. This cannot happen again. Look to the United States. Look to their Mister Roosevelt. Twenty-two million trees in eight years. The Great Plains Shelterbelt. An end to soil erosion.

Comrade SHIRIKOV was asked how he came by such detailed statistics.

SHIRIKOV: Why, I keep in close contact with silviculturalists around the world.

While Comrade SHIRIKOV continued his preparations this information was relayed as a matter of high priority to Captain of State Security MARIN.

Later in the day Comrade SHIRIKOV was persuaded to allow the covert operative to accompany him and Comrade NIKITIN to the steppe. Comrade NIKITIN remained unconvinced.

 

20-05-1949         

The party departed for the steppe at daybreak. The weather was bright and cold and the wind blew from the west. Comrade NIKITIN led the way on a mule he named Mudakin. Sometimes the party kept to defined tracks. At other times they travelled cross-country. Comrade NIKITIN seemed fond of saying: ‘A short-cut! I promise. A fine [expletive] short-cut!’ At 08:30 he took his first drink from an unmarked bottle. Conversation was desultory. Comrade SHIRIKOV seemed engrossed in the study of the arable farmland through which the party travelled. By noon he had gathered some 35 soil samples. Progress was necessarily slow.

At 16:45 the party passed a stunted hornbeam (Carpinus caucasica). It was the last tree they would see all day.

At 17:00 Comrade SHIRIKOV pointed to the sky.

NIKITIN: A plane! A Polikarpov Po-2 if I am any judge.

SHIRIKOV: You are no judge at all, Nikitin. Your eyeballs are pickled. It is a lesser-spotted eagle [Aquila pomarina]. See, it is headed north, for the summer.

NIKITIN: Damn thing looks like a plane from here.

SHIRIKOV: Besides, you lumphead, the Polikarpov Po-2 has not been seen since the war ended.

NIKITIN: I have seen them dusting crops.

SHIRIKOV: What a fine fellow. A fine fellow.

This last observation alluded to the eagle and not to Comrade NIKITIN. It was noted that Comrade SHIRIKOV appears on all points to be an unusually well-informed individual.

The party made camp on a south-facing escarpment. Rations of cold sausage and adulterated bread were shared. A little vodka was drunk. SHIRIKOV worked on his researches while the daylight lasted. The covert operative feigned perusal of Comrade BIELSOV’s ‘Moths Of The USSR And Adjacent Countries’ (1940). NIKITOV sang coarse military ballads and before the party retired for the evening made a series of lewd suggestions to the covert operative. Note was taken.

 

21-05-1949            

Comrade NIKITIN gathered plover eggs for breakfast. Comrade SHIRIKOV expressed sympathy for the mother-bird but ate his omelette hungrily.

The party travelled east-north-east until shortly before noon, when camp was made in the open grassland and Comrade SHIRIKOV embarked on an extensive series of topographical surveys. He travelled swiftly and over considerable distances. He appears an assured horseman. It was not always possible for note to be made of his whereabouts. Comrade NIKITIN, under instruction from SHIRIKOV, spent the day folding paper into envelopes for seedlings. The covert operative assembled a moth-trap, baited with molasses.

Darkness fell before Comrade SHIRIKOV had returned.

NIKITIN: He is a canny fellow right enough but this is deceptive country. Here is much the same as there. Even a canny clever fellow might lose his way and not find it again.

The operative expressed confidence in Comrade SHIRIKOV’s navigation skills and predicted his imminent return.

NIKITIN: Aye, but what if he doesn’t, eh? What then? I’ll tell you what then. It’s just me and thee and the steppe. The butterflies and the bees and thee and me, my pet.

The covert operative maintained close surveillance of the dark grasslands. Birds were heard to call from the west.

NIKITIN: It will be a cold night.

In fact the weather was mild.

At 20:23 the light of a lantern was observed on the northern horizon. It was seen to be moving toward the camp. Soon it could be discerned that the lantern was carried by a man on horseback.

Comrade NIKITIN yelled across the steppe.

NIKITIN: Shirikov, you [expletive]! How you worried us.

Comrade SHIRIKOV rode into the light of the campfire and leapt from his horse. He appeared tired but unharmed.

SHIRIKOV: Feed and water this fine beast, Nikitin. A splendid evening! Do you hear the partridges calling? What is this, a moth-trap? What fun! Why, we must light the lamp and see what comes along. Matches, Nikitin, matches!

As Comrade SHIRIKOV went to work deftly with paraffin, matches and lamp he was asked about his day’s work.

SHIRIKOV: I must have ridden a hundred kilometres. Dry work, really, terribly dry: the mapping of elevations, the measurement of moisture and wind-speed, the sampling of soils (this unceasing sampling of soils!). Terribly dry and yet, Comrade – the wildflower scents, the rippling of the wind in the grass, as though the steppe were a beast stirring from sleep, the calls of storks high overhead, the space, the sky, the air – why, it all makes one feel a fortunate fellow indeed.

The lamp was lit. Drinks were poured. There was a smell of warming molasses. The campfire was allowed to peter.

The covert operative pressed for further details regarding Comrade SHIRIKOV’s findings.

SHIRIKOV: Oh, it will all be in my report. I have no appetite to speak of it tonight. Besides, look! Someone is coming.

A moth had flown into the globe of light made by the moth-trap lamp. It flew erratically in orbit around the trap.

SHIRIKOV: What is he, Comrade? He is a handsome little thing.

The covert operative suggested that the insect was Periphanes delphinii, the Pease Blossom, and met with no disagreement. It was unclear whether this reflected a correct identification or the good manners of Comrade SHIRIKOV. Later scrutiny of Comrade BIELSOV’s volume was inconclusive.

NIKITIN: He’s getting away.

SHIRIKOV: Molasses and lamplight are nothing to him. Love is what he seeks.

NIKITIN: Slim pickings out here, boy.

SHIRIKOV: Let him go. Let him continue with his search. Let us wish him good fortune.

The moth was soon out of sight. Soon afterwards the party retired.

 

22-05-1949

The party breakfasted on bacon, onion and black tea. Comrade NIKITIN voiced his intent to spend the morning hunting for Great Bustard (Otis tarda).

SHIRIKOV: You will have no luck, Nikitin. We are south and west of the bird’s range.

NIKITIN: There will be no roast bustard-meat for you, Comrade, when I return home with a bagful.

The badinage of the two men, though irreverent, remained broadly good-natured.

Comrade SHIRIKOV fell into thoughtful silence while assembling his surveying apparatus for the day ahead. On being questioned, he replied that he had “been thinking”.

NIKITIN: A dangerous business!

SHIRIKOV: I can see the trees. In my mind’s eye. A great rich tapestry of trees tied like a belt across the steppe. I see that it must be done – the land must be cultivated, the topsoil preserved, the winds diverted or diminished – but then there is this question of how it is done.

It was asserted by the covert operative that the researches of Comrade LYSENKO had surely established definitively the optimal process of steppe afforestation. Seedlings are planted in small groups, and work collectively to combat weeds and pests. Crop plants – winter wheat, flax, alfalfa – will aid the little trees in their struggle. The trees assist one another until the time comes for the lesser saplings to cede to the greater. This new principle of botanical science, the operative said, is central to the Great Stalin Plan for the Transformation of Nature.

Here Comrade NIKITIN burst intemperately into the conversation.

NIKITIN: The Plan is [expletive] and Lysenko is a [expletive] fraud.

SHIRIKOV: [calmly, addressing the operative] You seem to know a terrific amount about it, Comrade.

Note was taken. The query was deflected.

Comrade SHIRIKOV invited the covert operative to accompany him in his surveying:

SHIRIKOV: It will be less strenuous than yesterday. That is, if you would not sooner be butterflying? You have such a handsome net – a good cane grip, silk mesh, I envy you your outfitter – and I have hardly seen you put it to use.

The operative explained convincingly that there would be ample time for both.

By 10:00 the operative and Comrade SHIRIKOV were out of sight of the camp. The day was overcast but not dull. Hares raced through the feathergrass [Stipa pennata]. Comrade SHIRIKOV drew the operative’s attention to a serpent eagle flying across the wind. Shortly before noon he stopped his horse and invited the operative to imagine a forest where at the time there was only grass.

SHIRIKOV: It seems madness, does it not, Comrade? A woodland of oak and beech, hornbeam and larch – here! Here where there is not a tree in sight. Where a man might see clear to the churchtowers of Rostov simply by standing up in his saddle. But it can be done, I think. I think it can be done. A woodland of birdsong. Of scampering squirrels and martens. Men will come here to coppice the young trees or to hunt deer and bear and wolf – and none of your scrawny steppe-wolves, either. Mothers will bring their children to gather nuts and play in the groves of bluebell and wood anemone. Lovers might come here, eh? The air will be sweet. Can you imagine it, Comrade? Can you see it?

Note was taken of Comrade SHIRIKOV’s ardent expression and emotional tone of voice.

The operative civilly reminded Comrade SHIRIKOV that the purpose of the Great Stalin Plan for the Transformation of Nature was primarily agricultural.

SHIRIKOV: But of course! That too, Comrade. That too.

Note was taken.

A trumpeting noise was heard in the west. As though in response to a signal Comrade SHIRIKOV spurred his horse. The operative followed. At 12:23 a shallow river [see Appendix 5.3] was reached, at which Comrade SHIRIKOV pulled up, and gestured to the opposing bank.

SHIRIKOV: Demoiselle cranes [Grus virgo].

Eight tall birds with silver bodies and black and white plumes were dancing on the far bank of the river. Up they leapt and down they stooped. Their broad wings billowed like fine cloaks. The sunshine was pale.

Comrade SHIRIKOV watched in apparent rapture.

SHIRIKOV: Better than the damn Kirov, eh.

The operative offered no reply.

Survey work occupied most of the rest of the day [see Report of Officer P.P. Shirikov (incomplete), 23/05/1949].

 

horse

 

23-05-1949

Breakfast was taken hastily as there was much to be done.

NIKITIN: You will run those horses into the ground.

SHIRIKOV: It is only one day more, Nikitin.

NIKITIN: This [expletive] fool’s errand has already taken two days too long.

Comrade SHIRIKOV and the covert operative rode due north in bright sunshine. Wildflower meadows seemed to unfurl beneath the blue skies. Comrade SHIRIKOV demonstrated commendable mastery of plant identification. It was noted that Comrade SHIRIKOV is an individual of remarkable mental and physical gifts.

SHIRIKOV: It is funny to think of some hairy fellow hoeing weeds from his alfalfa here a few years hence.

It was observed that according to Comrade LYSENKO the hairy fellow might take his ease while the seedling oaks worked in partnership to drive the weeds away.

SHIRIKOV: Let us not speak of that now.

It was remarked by the operative that there might be said to be a sort of beauty in the steppe despite its lack of productivity.

SHIRIKOV: There is indeed a beauty in its uselessness.

OPERATIVE: It seems a dangerous thing to say.

SHIRIKOV: Perhaps, but who is to overhear us, a hundred kilometres from anywhere?

Note was taken of an ironic note in Comrade SHIRIKOV’s voice.

OPERATIVE: You said that lovers might come here. Once it has been forested.

SHIRIKOV: All lovers crave a shady bower, unless – god forbid it! – poetry has misled me.

OPERATIVE: It seems to me, Comrade, that lovers might just as well come to a steppe as to a forest.

SHIRIKOV: I suppose one place might be as good as another.

OPERATIVE: It is good enough, after all, for the love-dances of the Demoiselle cranes.

SHIRIKOV: And for other love-dances, too.

To the south, from far across the steppe, six rifle-shots sounded in a pattern of one-two, two-one.

Comrade SHIRIKOV calmed his horse and then, taking binoculars from his pocket, scanned the southern horizon.

SHIRIKOV: I see nothing. It must be that happy fool Nikitin, blazing away at what he fancies are bustards. They will be chukars, no doubt. But we were saying, Comrade?

OPERATIVE: You ought not call me Comrade.

SHIRIKOV: Why, then what am I to call you?

OPERATIVE: You ought not call me anything.

SHIRIKOV: You do not wish me to call you by your name?

OPERATIVE: What one wishes is a secondary concern.

Comrade SHIRIKOV looked up and pointed to a pair of large raptors flying north-west.

SHIRIKOV: Imperial eagles, I think. I have not seen them before. You are NKVD, of course?

The operative offered no reply.

SHIRIKOV: You are certainly no lepidopterist. Pease Blossom, my foot. Am I condemned? I do not recall having spoken loosely until today.

The operative offered no reply.

SHIRIKOV: I tell you, Comrade, that I am condemned, one way or another.

Note was taken of a certain pain in the eyes of Comrade SHIRIKOV.

The operative explained to SHIRIKOV that a particular pre-arranged signal was to have been given should the unfortunate necessity have arisen of placing Comrade SHIRIKOV or any other individual in state custody. NKVD officers had followed the party from the camp at Belaya and were stationed nearby in a state of readiness.

SHIRIKOV: And you have given the signal, I suppose?

OPERATIVE: I have not.

SHIRIKOV: Well, then, perhaps –

The operative explained that the pre-arranged signal was a series of six gunshots, in a pattern of one-two, two-one.

SHIRIKOV: Nikitin!

OPERATIVE: I did not know.

SHIRIKOV: They will be waiting for me at the camp.

OPERATIVE: He saw that you doubted Lysenko.

Comrade SHIRIKOV spoke briefly but volubly in respect of Comrade LYSENKO’s work and character.

OPERATIVE: Run. Your horse will carry you to Rostov, perhaps.

SHIRIKOV: But you would be made to pay for the loss, Comrade.

To the east the Demoiselle cranes were heard to hoot. Comrade SHIRIKOV turned his horse into the sun. He spoke the name of Comrade NIKITIN and smiled.

SHIRIKOV: See, Comrade, how cleverly we work together to pluck the weeds from our midst.

The horse of the operative was also turned toward the sun. The two long shadows were seen to touch and so become a single shadow.

This concludes the report of Lieutenant of State Security M.A. Pavlichenko. It may be construed as constituting a letter of resignation. It will be sealed in a seedling envelope and deposited in the river where the Demoiselle cranes dance.

***

Richard Smyth is a writer and critic. He writes regularly for the Guardian, Literary Review and New Statesman and his short fiction has previously appeared in The Stinging Fly, Structo, The Lonely Crowd, The Fiction Desk, Unthology, Firewords and Haverthorn. His novel The Woodcock will be published by Fairlight Books in summer 2021.


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