The first time in a boat on the water! When we reached the open water, the first thing that struck your eyes and ears was the silence. A silence that conquered everything, swallowed every sound. We were frightened by so great a silence and we shouted, hit the water with our oars to diminish it, to drive away that dreadful quiet, but everything we did, even our slightest word, seemed a token of silence, as if our every movement, whatever we might say or shout, was mute, the small, gentle waves engulfed every sound, which was as if it had never existed. The spoken word would strike the mirror of the water and bounce back vanquished, powerless. If you hear nothing but silence, it means that sounds don’t even exist. The water quivered, ruffling evenly in every direction we looked, we couldn’t even tell in which direction it was flowing, as its only concern was to lie in wait for the cry, the sound of the boat, the spoken word, to capture them in a fine spider’s web and annihilate them. The silence was also dangerous, it knew how to cry out, to rebel, to swallow anything and anyone that dared to defy its orderly motionlessness with foreign sounds. It was like the silence before the creation of the world, before the first man, before the first day. The silence before all words, before the articulation of meanings, the silence of the foetus in its mother’s womb. And we entered it through a hole in time, through an error. It was a silence that brought no peace, it was neither comforting nor tranquil. It was heavy and oppressive and we felt how our presence disturbed that empire of primordial silence that seemed to know neither the nature of things nor the will of God. And even so, we almost realized it too late. Seldom did the sun appear, and the clouds and the sky were all one colour, an indivisible whole. The fish let themselves be caught so that they could escape that silence, they too were prisoners of the silence, which could swallow us at any moment and more quickly than we could ever have imagined. There were two women from Bessarabia with us, who were also amazed by that strange water. They had fished before, on the coast of a sea, where the waves rose as high as a house, but the sea spoke to the humans, day and night. If it swallowed you, the wave would let you live and carried you to the shore. The sea was alive, raucous, roaring, dangerous, even if you didn’t understand what it was saying, but it was alive like an animal, like a person who never shut up. But here, everything stood still. Nothing moved, the sun neither rose nor set, day wasn’t day and night wasn’t night. It was the same unchanging silence. It was so terrible to hear the silence in your own shout that we preferred to say nothing. Better the silence when all are silent than the silence when all are shouting. It was only on the water that we felt that eerie silence; on dry land, everything went back to normal. We could hear our words, we would utter them and rejoice. We would come back to life, become human again, whereas the water froze our hearts. But our fear was as nothing compared with what was to come. When I experienced the first whirlpools, with the terrifying roar of the water, I would have preferred a thousand times the original silence of the water, which still let us return safe to shore, with nets full of fish, to the death that taught us a lesson, whirling us around it, as if in a cruel and dizzying dance.
Women cost less than men. Especially after a war. At Smert-Reka there were only women, on the water there were only women, seldom did a man appear, only at the beginning, to teach us how to handle the boat. As I discovered later, the men caught fish with special ships, in which they also had an ice tank, so that the fish wouldn’t spoil when they spent a long time on the water, there were many of them, they didn’t need to row, they weren’t afraid of waves, unlike us. But you couldn’t find fish like that anywhere else. We had ramshackle boats and there were only women, many of them had never seen so much water in their lives and didn’t know how to swim. I was one of them. There was a pond outside our village, but I never learned to swim in it. Nor did the smert—death—in the name of the river make us think, although I spoke Russian quite well, I’d even been to school. The river had a different name, it was the giant Ob, long and wide, like no other in the world. The Smert was just our section, a kind of bend along one bank of the river, which was so wide that it resembled a sea more than a river. The water stretched up into the sky, and it was as if we were hauling fish not from a river, but from the sky. The men fished in the river with their ships, the women in the sky with their boats. Sometimes, in the evening, I would gaze at the horizon and try to find the line that separated sky from river, but I wouldn’t be able to find it. Like the steppe I first saw when I got off the train after a month’s journey, when the sky was both above and below. Here, too, river and sky seemed to have made a pact and each coloured the other to form a single mass.
But when we thought how we were fishing in the sky, so close to God, we would gain courage, because at first, I was so afraid of that water, of the waves that were like tiny saw-teeth, that I would grasp the crucifix around my neck, I would clench it between my teeth and pray ceaselessly to God that I might return safe to shore. I think that the newly arrived specialist was also seeking the bourn between water and sky. There was a little hill on the riverbank, a stony rise. I liked to climb it in my moments of respite and look at the horizon; later, I made a cross out of pebbles, I tended it, tidied it, put back any pebbles that had fallen out of place to spoil the cross. I used to go there and think of my mother, who had remained alone on the Anarhaiul steppe, of my father, to whom I don’t know what had happened, and of my brothers, who had remained in Romania, I would think of Eugen, who had been taken by ship further up the river, I would pray for their health and that God keep them. In that solitude I could think of them, I could pray. There was no church there; there were no houses. A vast emptiness, water and sky, waters and skies. I would look at them and marvel. Finally, I would pray that the Lord might let me come back safe from the waves the next day, so that I could come to my cross of pebbles and pray. Then I would see the boat nearing the bank, I would go down to help drag the net from the water, and I would get ready for my shift on the open water.
They took us out on the open water early in the morning, we had our net at the ready, we let it fill with fish and then it was back to shore. All of a sudden, in that perfect silence, we heard the whistling, the roaring, at first, we didn’t understand what it was. It was as if a warplane were flying overhead, past our very ears. Then the wheel of water, then the hole. A few metres away from us, a wall of water lifted up, and next to it, the hole, the roar of hell. I have never heard or seen anything more terrifying in my life. Lord, we had gone up into the sky to fish, but one step away from us, hell was moaning! The fish became still, no longer struggled in the net, hell was sizzling, roiling, boiling, howling, threatening us, calling us. The boat was heading straight for the hole in the river, despite our rowing with all our might to put it behind us. Death bared its fangs at us, with a menacing, terrifying grin. We were powerless, desperate, but we fought, we rowed with all our might, we tried to escape. Lord, take back your fish and save us! Let go of the net, girls! The fish quick enough to have fled us were swiftly pulled to the bottom of the cauldron; brief was their joy, and in an instant, they vanished into the mouth of the cruel, ravening dragon. Now it was our turn. “Lord, we’ll die, Lord! Let us pray!” When the wave drags you toward death, when you hear the bottom of hell howling, you have no time or else very little time to think that only a miracle, only the will of God might save you. I remembered the monster that slept at the bottom and sometimes awoke, opened its mouth and snap, swallowed everything that lay in its path. I remembered the specialist’s advice: “Don’t fight it,” and I told the girls to stop rowing. We were at the edge. When you have a foe so dire in front of you, don’t fight it, just let yourself float, give yourself up to the will of fate. On the other side of the boat there now appeared a smaller hell, as if one were not enough, a smaller whirlpool, a little cauldron, compared with the first one. The bigger hell immediately sensed it and grew furious. Our boat was rocking, our prayers were going up to God. For the bigger whirlpool we had become a foe too puny, we no longer mattered, we no longer interested it. Then, in a mad leap of waters, the big, ferocious hell, the first to have appeared beside us, cast us onto the open water, so that it could get at the smaller whirlpool and swallow it, whereas we had been in its way, we had been hindering it. Our boat was violently cast toward the bank. We heard the triumphant shout of the big whirlpool, now even bigger, after its dreadful coupling with the smaller one. We could no longer see the hole in the water, we heard only the growling, the barking, the roaring of all the devils in the hell of damnation. When the beast of the water felt all yield before it, it roared once more, whistled, hissed, and I saw it move away into the middle of the river, farther and farther away from us. The whirlpool moved away as quickly as it had approached, and it no longer resembled a cauldron, but rather a spiral, which wheeled and drew the water down to the bottom, as if a mill wheel were revolving down there. Then it sank with such wails that even the scales of the few fish that had not fallen from the boat stood on end, like our hair, which bristled upright in terror. The boat took us to the bank by itself, without our making any effort, without our rowing, and we arrived with a few fish, not empty-handed. They were waiting for us on the bank, for the roar of the water had reached their ears too, even if the holes in the river could not be seen from the shore. Only the specialist could see them. He came up to me joyfully and held me in his arms, like a dear brother. It was a miracle of God that we had escaped. Smert, he said, nothing more. Smert, I replied, as if we were greeting each other after a long separation. Nature had driven us out, we had invaded her space, and she needed a little solitude. The bosses glared at Kirill Sergeyevich.
Kot had been agitated that day, he had clung with his paws to my clothes, probably trying to warn me in his tomcat language not to go out on the river fishing. When I came back, he was overjoyed, the dear thing had even brought me a mouse as a gift. He knew that once, during the great famine, I had been mad about mice, but now they sometimes gave us a fish, they gave us plenty of bread, and we no longer ate mice. I shared my fish with him, he also fished for himself. It wasn’t hard in those waters teeming with fishes. He knew that, but he wanted to show me his joy, he didn’t come to meet me empty-pawed, since he knew that we might not have met again.
Translated by Alistair Ian Blyth