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Katya was young, although she was considered an “old polarnik”. Like the men she wore a dark single-breasted jacket with bright buttons and a fur cap Her tresses were gathered and pinned on the hack of her head.
She had straight eyebrows, with a vertical fold between them that would have made her face stern but for the dimples on her cheeks, which gave her a youthful look.
"Yekaterina Alexeyevna — our Katya, I mean — is a wireless operator and meteorologist, and also a mechanic and cook," said my assistant. "When you live at a small station in the Arctic, you've got to be a Jack of all trades. Katya isn't a bad hunter, either. How many bear-skins do you have to your credit, Katya? Eleven? Well, there you are. She fights a bear single-handed. I'm sure she can tell us a lot."
"I really don't know what exploit to tell you about,' she said in a deep voice. I haven't performed any exploits. But if you care to know what regular fear is like with us women, I'm willing to tell you a story."
The polarniks glanced at each other.
"It may make you men laugh to hear it, but listen just the same. Perhaps it'll remind you."
Katya got up to sit closer to us. She talked like one who'd gone through many trials. She was fairly small of stature, but sturdily built.
"I was a very young girl when I came here," she began leisurely. "I finished the seven-year school in my village and worked on the collective farm for a year. But all the time I longed to go somewhere — somewhere under the northern lights. Only I had no idea what those lights were like One winter night they could be seen in my native parts, near Ryazan, but I missed the sight. We girls were at a party that night. I just couldn't forgive myself for missing it, and I took it into my head to go north.
My parents didn't want me to go at first, but afterwards they gave in. They thought I was headstrong. But I'm not so headstrong after al — just firm.
In short, I took a course in meteorology. One day I tried to tell my girl friends what a meteorologist is supposed to do. He has to watch the weather, I told them, by weathercocks and thermometers. Some of the boys started to make fun of such easy work. They couldn't imagine what it is like to go out every four hours — day or night, in frosty weather or in a blizzard— and take down the readings of the instruments with frozen fingers. And that without ever missing your time!
After I'd finished my training I was sent to a small station on Cape Curse in the Arctic.
There were four of us on that cape. Three young men and myself. We were all Komsomol members and dreamed of exploits, and as regards love we at once tabooed it. It wasn't love we were after, out in the Arctic. Anyway, the boys were all right. Kept their word.
True, a year after, I married Alyosha just the same, but for a whole year he'd never dared to breathe a word about it. He works in Dark Bay now. I'm going back to him with our little son, after my holidays.
The boys had more energy than they could use, and I didn't like to lag behind them. We set up groups to study English, music, and singing. We also had a sports group. All the four of us joined each group. The only group I didn't join was the chess group. Women aren't much good at chess, you know.
We closely watched life on the Big Land. The Stakhanov movement had just started. How were we to become Stakhanovites? What untapped resources did we have? You can't send in more weather forecasts or radiograms than required. So Kolya recommended that I cook two dinners a day (I was both meteorologist and cook at the station) and said he undertook to eat them.
But Misha, who was chief of the station, said we must become Stakhanovites ourselves. We could and should do more than we did.
He suggested that we build a hydrological station on the ice that covered the strait, so as to take at regular intervals samples of sea-water from various depths and determine its salinity, temperature, and so on. Nobody was doing that kind of research in our area, though it was very desirable.
We jumped at the idea. We decided to cut a hole in the ice, far from the shore, build a cabin over it and live in it by turns. Besides doing our planned work we were going to make scientific observations. Those of us who stayed at the station undertook to perform the duties of the one in the cabin, in addition to their own duties.
No sooner said than done.
The boys picked a spot some ten miles off shore, where the sea was deep enough, and there cut a hole in the ice. I helped them do it. We set up a cabin of ice and snow over the hole. It was as good as any. Two of us worked out there on the ice, and the other two had their hands full at the station.
When everything was ready we radioed all about it to our chief on the mainland and got permission to go ahead.
And right away we had a dispute as to who was to start work in the cabin. Misha claimed the privilege as chief of the station, but we told him it was extra work, so he'd better keep quiet as chief. Alyosha proposed a chess tournament to settle the dispute. Well, I gave them a piece of my mind. I said though I couldn't play chess that was no reason why I shouldn't be the first to do the hardest job.
Kolya thought we should draw lots. We did, and it fell to my lot to go on duty first.
Alyosha wanted to go instead of me, of course I said no. He asked permission to see me off at least. I said I wasn't going home from a party, and started to get ready.
I put on my warmest clothes and took my rifle. At the time I was just learning to shoot, but still I was already a good marksman. Then I said good-bye to the boys. Alyosha had to take care of the cooking in my stead — he was replacing me both in the kitchen and at the meteorological instruments outside.
He saw me off as far as the instruments It was time to take the readings and I couldn't send him away.
Our dogs followed us.
They brought us both joy and sorrow. We were fond of them, those powerful, shaggy beasts, but it was hard to feed them Our food stores were under strict control, we had no right to spend them on dogs. We should've shot seal and laid in their meat during the summer. But it was autumn when we arrived; besides, we didn't quite know yet how to hunt seal. The boys managed to hit only two seal and fished out only one of them. The dogs ate an awful lot, and we had to share our rations with them, but of course we couldn't give them their fill. They were always staring at us with hungry eyes. The boys hoped to shoot a polar bear, but bears didn't show up in our neighborhood, and seal were out of the question in winter-time.
It was all Alyosha could dо to call the dogs back.
I looked (after him for a long time. It was full moon and I could see far. Alyosha kept waving his cap at me I shouted to warn him that he might get his ears frozen.
I walked down the shore and made for our snow cabin across the ice-field. I knew my way, but to be on the safe side I went by the stars. It was Misha who'd taught me the trick.
As I walked away from the shore it was lost to view, and the space around me was moonlit and white. I stopped to look at the ice, as if I'd never seen it before.
I was all alone in that wilderness. It was dead still. It'd have cheered me up had it at least rung in my ears. But it didn't — I might as well have been deaf. I even felt scared, as if I were on the moon or some other dead planet. So still… And that deathlike gleam. ..
I felt so weak, so small I could've cried. First of all I thought of Alyosha. When we were last going back to the station from the cabin I had felt nothing of the sort That's what solitude does to you!
I shouted to raise my spirits. But my voice was lost as if in a heap of cotton.
It was the scare of my life Gladly would I have shouted again, but there was a lump in my throat. No sound came out of it, just as in a dream. It was so still all around me and the moonshine so eerie. I wished at least some shadow would scurry past.
I felt I couldn't walk on. Might as well turn back and run for it. But what I had to run away from, that I didn't know myself. It's just that way children run out of a dark house or shed in a cold sweat.
Suddenly I heard a crackle. It'd been so still at first as though I could no longer hear at all — and now that crackle. It was slight, as of sparks flying a long way off.
I thought I must be going crazy because I'd begun to imagine things. All my pride was gone in a jiffy. I wished I could call Alyosha, but I'd walked so far away.
And the crackling went on and on, sticking to the same note. When I strained my ear, it was as if I heard nothing, but as soon as I stopped listening there it was again — a sort of ringing or moaning.
"The sound scared me out of my wits, I turned back and ran. Then I stopped and tried to pull myself together. What was I going to tell the boys? They'd laugh at me!
I forced myself to think of the job I was out to do. We had to find out if the water near the bottom was fresh or briny, and where the waters of the great Siberian rivers that empty into the Arctic Ocean flowed to. Those waters are warmer than the briny waters coming from near the pole. If only we could use those warm waters somehow so that the Arctic seas wouldn't freeze. There's the Barents Sea, which never freezes thanks to the Gulf Stream.
As I thought about all that I looked at the ice around me. How wonderful it would be to melt it so that Soviet ships could sail here in winter, too. Soviet people are sure to do that, they're going to transform the North.
I made myself turn to the sea, then I closed my eyes so as not to see the moonlight. I thought about sleep-walkers — moonshine affects nervous people, doesn't it?
And I 'made up my mind to go on, even with my eyes shut. I walked on like one blind, with outstretched arms, and I didn't open my eyes because I was afraid.
Suddenly I stumbled and fell. I hurt my knee badly and that brought tears to my eyes. Tears are such a great comfort!
I began to wipe my tears, but my eye-lashes had frozen together. I bad to thaw them up with my fingers. That helped me recover a bit from my scare.
Now I walked on with my eyes open. But I was still afraid to look right or left, and thought that I was a poor transformer of northern nature since it scared me so.
It was this thought that urged me onwards. I made myself go on.
Afterwards I lived in the Arctic for many years. Blizzards overtook me in the tundra and I had to hold out through gales, too, but never again did I feel the way I felt that time, out there on the moonlit ice.
I urged myself on, all the way to the snow cabin, but I think it'd have been easier for me to drag along the carcass of a polar bear.
At last I walked into the cabin and lighted the lamp. I sat down on a snow stool and cried a little. Then the whole thing seemed so funny to me. A fine polarnik and Komsomol member you are, I said to myself.
Everything in the cabin was made of snow — the couch with the sleeping-bag Alyosha and I had brought, the table, and the stool near it.
I took down my knapsack and started to make myself at home. My rifle I put down next to the lamp. I didn't care to think of how I was to get back.
I decided to begin my work right away and take the first sample of water from the bottom.
The hole we had cut was covered with a thin film of ice. I cleared it and got the instrument ready.
I walked up to the hole, bent over it, and back I jumped!
I couldn't believe my eyes. There was a human face staring at me from under the water. I could even make out its features: its nose and mouth, and its big eyes, so attentive. That face was coming up to my own. I felt like screaming as I stared back at it. So I was imagining things.
The face was rising higher and higher. I clenched my teeth to keep them from chattering. You'd have said a moustached man with awfully big eyes was coming up to me out of the water.
The face was getting clearer and clearer, as though coming out of a haze. It had two huge, almost round eyes and a moustache — yes, a regular moustache! They kept coming up, those big eyes, big and kind of curious. Staring at me, too.
I reached for my rifle, but just then I realized it was a seal. The nasty thing!
All at once I looked on the sea monster from a different angle.
It was a seal, and that meant seal meat. Had the boys been here, they'd have made sure it didn't slip. Why, the dogs were starved.
Should I shoot? But it'd go down and I'd be unable to fish it out. How was I to lure it out, then?
I'd been told by many polarniks that there's no animal half so curious as the seal. They say somebody played a gramophone near an ice-hole, and a seal came out to see what it was. But what was I to do? I had no gramophone. How was I to rouse the seal's curiosity?
I brought my face close to the water and moved it away, doing it again and again. Let the seal take an interest in my person, I said to myself. I unplaited my tresses and shook them over the hole.
But the seal wouldn't put out its head, it just kept staring at me with its big eyes from under the water. Then I recalled the gramophone once more. I began to whistle a popular Italian air. The seal listened, but didn't budge. Then I thought I'd try and win it with my voice. In my home village I was considered a good singer. Well, I sang to the seal. First I did it softly so as not to scare it away, then louder. Lastly I used the normal pitch.
The seal listened to me, but neither swam away nor came out, the mean thing that it was.
"'Just wait, long whiskers," I thought to myself. "Do you really think a woman can't get the better of you, when her dogs need you so badly?"
I could've touched its snout with my finger. Just then I recalled the way the Chukchi hunt seal in winter. The seal have to come out of the water to get some air, so they thaw holes in the ice with their breath. The Chukchi set up sharp fish-bones tent-like over them. As it climbs out of the water, the seal pushes the bones apart, they stick into its skin and then it can't get away: it can neither come out altogether nor dive back.
I had a knife with me. If I lowered my arms into the water I could grab the seal under the fins, and to keep it from slipping away I could stick my knife into its side like a fish-bone.
The hole was narrow, the beast couldn't plunge right or left and the knife wouldn't let it go down. I'd take firm hold of the knife and haul the beast out, then I'd shoot it down.
I took that decision in a twinkling. Out I whipped my knife and bent over the hole. The round eyes looked close into my face, but I was no longer afraid.
Before the seal could move I stuck my knife into its flank below the fin. Then I put my arms around it and started to pull it up.
It began to flounder. I strained all my strength, but mine was a woman's strength, after all, not a man's. Had I not held on to the knife, the seal would've slipped out and swum away. The knife didn't let it go down. The seal beat about, but could neither turn nor escape. I couldn't pull it out, either.
I lay at the hole, straining so hard my joints hurt. The beast was struggling in the narrow hole. My hands were skinned by the ice, and the water was so cold. My fingers began to get numb. It vexed me to tears. I felt I'd have to let it go, all on account of my woman's weakness. I strained all my muscles and managed to get to my knees, with the seal in my arms.
The seal's head came out of the water. At once all likeness to the human face was gone. I put one foot on the ice. One more effort and I began to lift the beast out of the water.
"You won't get away, oh no!" I whispered. "I'm not one to let you! "
I half rose to my feet and, to drag the beast out, dropped down on my side and brought it down with me. It turned out to be nearly my length.
The seal flopped and wriggled till it slipped out of my arms. I still had the knife in my hand, and I cut my other hand on it. The seal struck out with its tail and knocked down the lamp. The rifle fell down with a crash. We were left in complete darkness.
The thing was not to let the beast slip back into the hole. I flung myself on the hole and covered it up with my body. The seal lunged at me, trying to get into the water. It stank of fish and blubber.
I couldn't reach my rifle in the dark, besides, I had no idea where it could be.
We fought on in the darkness. Something heavy and wet slapped me across the face so hard my head droned. Must've been its tail. I swung my arms, trying to stab the beast.
Those who say seals are helpless on ice don't know what they are talking about. I was told afterwards that a walrus can fight a polar bear. Well, the seal fought me. Against even odds. I paid dearly for that fight. It was the first time in my life I had a tussle like that. But still I didn't let it slip away. No, I didn't!
Later on I had to sew up the seal's skin in some twenty places. I wanted Alyosha to do it, but he insisted it was a woman's job. Well, I did it. Made fur caps for all the boys. Fine caps they were.
I was bruised and battered all over. My body hurt as if clubbed.
But I felt no fear at all on my way back, though the moon and ice were the same."
Boris Yefimovich resumed his narrative. "Katya was through with her story. Masha was staring hard at her, with her chin propped on her little fist. She didn't diare to look my way.
I said, "That was a fine duel you had, Katya, a duel with yourself! It helped you to become a real polarnik."
One of the listeners said, "Yekaterina Alexeyevna's right, anyone among us could recall some scare or other he's been through. You don't get to be a polarnik without that sort of thing. "
"That's true, of course," I said. "Every man has gone through some scare like that. Only a man would hardly ever talk about it."
Everybody laughed, but no one objected.
Then they asked me to tell them something.
"Well, a captain always has a lot to tell. I cleared my throat, took a mighty pull at my pipe, .and said, 'We did a good piece of job today — carried all the coal ashore."
"I saw Masha blush. Things don't always come off as nicely as that, I went on. "Sometimes you can't sail up to an island and have to land your cargo right on the ice-foot. And at times you've got to cast off before the polarniks cian get the coal ashore. A wind springs up, then comes a gale, the ice with the fuel on it breaks off, and that's all you see of it. "
Somebody asked, "Do things like that really happen?".
"'They have," I answered
"And the polarniks had to winter without fuel?"
"All sorts of things happen," I answered. "Take Wrangell Island, for one. Ships couldn't make it. So the polarniks had to spend two winters on end without fuel. They had a chance to leave by plane, but they wouldn't. And in another place, not far 'from here, the wind broke off and blew away the ice-foot with all the coal on it."
"Wintering without fuel ... how can you?" asked Masha. The question came in spite of herself.
"It depends on who you mean," I said with a laugh. "I'm going to tell you the story of some polarniks who proved equal to that. We all know one of them. They used the wind to keep warm in the winter."
"You mean a warm wind? Are there any such winds in these parts?" asked someone in surprise.
"No — why? You can get warmth out of a cold wind as well, if only you know how to do it."
"I told them the story of an island and its courageous men."