Cryptogram has, sandwiched between its main narratives set in the middle of the 21st century and the middle of the 13th, six short stories. They take place in different times and places, but their purpose is to cast an oblique light over the two men and the woman who are the central characters of the book. This is one of the six.
“I opened the gate, stood behind it and tried not to imagine those great heads twisting from side to side as they tugged my flesh from the bone. I concentrated instead on a question which I had idly considered many times from a safe distance: freedom or food – which means more to a pair of Siberian tigers? My life seemed to depend on the answer.
Both of them were no more than twenty yards from the open gate, and from me, when their attention was drawn to the laughter and derisive shouts of the guards. The tigers paused, they waited … so that when my pursuers came into view what greeted them was power in a half crouch, the quizzical stare of the never-afraid, a hint of fang emerging from vast jaws, the curious maw of death.
I suppose the guards must, for an instant, have thought of shooting them. But to shoot the Commander’s tigers was unthinkable: they’d have done better to shoot themselves and be done with it. Those tigers were the Commander’s greatest joy.
The Commander did not come to the camp often but, when he did, he waved away the salutes and went straight to their enclosure. He liked to stand, sometimes for many hours, peering through the trees for a flash of power among the leaves, listening for that roar which froze the marrow of the rest of us. Then the squeal, the grunt, the bay, the bleat, the wail or the silent surrender – it didn’t matter whether we heard or not, our imaginations were enough. We saw it clearly as if we were both victim and victor of those games: the leap, the jaws taking hold of whatever offering the Commander had brought – a goat, a deer, even a dog – the first suck of blood.
The Commander found the process calming. It was passed down to us that only these tigers made his stay in this part of the world, abandoned as it was by men and civilised gods, bearable. We were left in no doubt where we stood. We were encouraged to believe, and did so without difficulty, that those who disappeared had not been pardoned or moved to other camps, as was stated officially, but had been eaten.
Within the compound, the guards left us to ourselves. We lived in wooden huts. We slept on wooden slats arranged in bunks. The violent prisoners, or those with powerful friends, ate more than the others, did less work, lived longer.
I was the largest man in the camp. They could have brought me down if enough of them had wanted to, but I gave no-one trouble. They found it convenient to leave me alone.
By day, most of us went out in groups to the forest to fell trees. We were closely watched. One guard for every three, so a work detail of twelve had four guards in attendance, each of them armed and not in the least hesitant about firing at the first sign of trouble. Better to bring back prisoner-meat than nothing at all.
Prisoners who slipped away among the trees never got far. The weather was against them. In winter, it was sometimes so cold that spit froze in mid-air. If the climate didn’t get them, the helicopters did. It took them less than three hours to arrive from head-quarters and what good were three hours in that wilderness.
Our camp was in the shape of a swan, with a wide base and a long thin neck. The enclosure for the tigers covered the entire south end (the swan’s body) and included in its fenced area a large tract of the surrounding forest. The tigers roamed over this and hunted down whatever came through the gate.
The prisoners were confined to the ‘neck’ portion and even this was divided into two halves, men on one side, women on the other. The segregation was strict. In our camp where life was so little valued, it was strange that anyone should pay attention to the sexual proprieties; but so it was. Perhaps the Commander had daughters and saw, in the protection of these women, some universal law which would therefore apply to his own.
We had precisely marked tracks on which we were allowed to walk. At one point, as if to make us aware of the temptation we were obliged to resist, the men’s pathway and the women’s came close together. This was always closely patrolled. If a man and a woman exchanged a word or two as they passed, the guards used their boots or rifle butts on them. The female guards were as bad as the male.
There were two kinds of walkers among the men, and among the women too I couldn’t help noticing. There were the brisk ones who tramped up and down as if on their way to some important meeting. Perhaps, for these people, walking was a reminder that once they had been doctors or engineers, people to whom others showed respect. And there were the strollers, for whom this moment when they were not working or being threatened or being hit was precious, and they would savour it. I was a stroller even though before I came here I had been somebody. So was Katerina, a stroller and also a person in the life before, an anthropologist at the University. We had known each other then and had shared what we had: time, ideas, intuitions, a bed.
Where the two paths came together, the men’s path and the women’s, we walked more slowly than usual. I knew she had something to tell me. I also knew what it was, had already seen in my mind the whole proposition. We sauntered along and when we passed shoulder to shoulder, she whispered, ‘now.’
I stopped. I said, ‘Are you sure?’
‘Yes, now, why not?’ She stopped too and then it was that the guard came running. ‘Hey you,’ she shouted, un-strapping her rifle as she did so. ‘You! Stay where you are!’
I didn’t stay. I ran, zig-zagging as I did so in case she took it into her head to shoot. Her shout was now joined by a male guard and then another. ‘Come back,’ one of them laughed through his panting, ‘You can’t go anywhere. There’s nowhere to go. You’re dead meat whatever you do. So stop, save your energy, don’t be stupid.’
I didn’t stop. I ran on until I reached the tigers’ enclosure. I pulled back the bolts which secured the gate and stood behind it.
These tigers never hurried. Out of boredom, perhaps, or some other effect of captivity, they chose to defer the pleasure of the kill. They allowed their victim to see them and to smell them. They watched as it was rendered senseless by fear. They watched as it urinated and trembled. They did not move. They allowed it to look around, to step hesitantly away from them as if expecting to be pulled down at any moment, even to make a dash for the apparent safety of the forest. The tigers never minded waiting. Sometimes, if they weren’t hungry, they waited for hours. Then, with that deep and dreadful aaaong, the game in which only one outcome was possible began.
From behind the open gate, I heard the guards laughing and taunting. Then I heard their boots scrabbling on the hard ground as they turned for their lives.
The tigers loped slowly after and into the camp.
Those who saw first and understood, ran. The rest followed. Some, even though they lived daily with death, screamed. Some prayed. Terror spread across the camp and found its voice in the panicked scuffle of men and women searching for somewhere to hide, in the banging of doors, in the assembly of hopeless barricades. Then silence. Everyone, guards and prisoners alike, had taken cover, scarcely daring to breathe. Most were in the huts. Some were on the roofs as if believing that tigers couldn’t climb.
I ran to the women’s quarters and met Katerina coming towards me. We went to the gatekeeper’s lodge. She crashed her palms against the door. ‘Help,’ she cried, ‘for the love of God, let me in.’ The gatekeeper, who was a decent sort, opened it. I stepped through and knocked him unconscious with a single blow. I took the keys.
It was then that I remembered Stumpy. I have done bad things in my time but the thought of Stumpy being eaten by a tiger, well I didn’t want that on my conscience. Stumpy had no legs, that’s why we called him Stumpy. His real name was Stiva. He could walk well enough considering he had two metal poles with rubber disks at the bottom, but that didn’t mean he could outrun a tiger.
‘I’ll have to go back for him,’ I said.
Katerina nodded. ‘I’ll wait for you here.’
Everybody liked Stumpy. We didn’t have enough to eat ourselves, but we each gave him a bit of crust or a mouthful of our soup-water. The guards must have fed him too and clothed him because, instead of the threadbare woollen coats and felt trousers that the rest of us had, he was always well padded. We didn’t mind. He was like a mascot or the regimental flag. If he was fine, the rest of us could get along.
The guards let Stumpy have the run of the place. They even let him visit the women. When he was going courting, as he called it, he put on his legs with the artificial knees. This lifted him from his usual four foot six to about five foot eight and what with his smart clothes and the sheen on his skin that came from all the food he was getting, he looked quite the man about town.
His knees were his pride and joy. He never let them out of his sight except in the women’s area where, so he liked to proclaim, he had other things to entertain him. This led to a standing joke among us. ‘On or off, Stumpy?’ we’d ask as he returned. We didn’t begrudge him his fantasies, or he ours.
I found him under a lean-to among some axe handles. ‘Come with me,’ I said. I picked him up and carried him to the gate. Katerina unlocked it. No-one was there to stop us. All the guards were hiding. We ran across the open space towards the forest and it was only then that I remembered there was a second line of fencing that marked the camp’s outer boundary.
I knew that, from the outside, the gate through this fencing opened easily enough. I’d opened it myself many times when returning with a logging party. It was just a wheel that rotated. But from the inside, as I now observed and berated myself for forgetting, the bolt was turned by a key.
I didn’t know how we’d get over. The fence was ten feet high and of barbed wire. We couldn’t climb it. Katerina and I sat on the ground. This was the end. As soon as the tigers were captured, we’d be their next meal. I didn’t fear death but that didn’t mean I wanted to die, not today, not one mouthful at a time. I put my arm around Katerina and we touched our lips together – our first kiss since coming to the camp and our last.
Stumpy watched us. Then he said, ‘Do you think you can throw me over?’
I stood up. I am seven feet tall. With my arms fully outstretched I could almost touch the top of the barbed wire. ‘Yes. Will you survive the fall?’
‘Just throw me.’ He took off his poles. ‘Throw me head first.’
I did. He went over like a diver and when he reached the ground, his little torso contracted into a ball and he rolled forward head over stumps. I threw his poles over and then his knees. I knew he wouldn’t go anywhere without those. He went to the gate and turned the wheel which unlocked it.
‘Stumpy,’ I said, ‘you’re a good man.’
I picked him up and carried him into the forest. There we stopped, breathing in the beauty of all about us, a beauty made more precise, more perfect by our first moments of freedom – the grass damp in the dappled rods of spring sunlight, the larches holding us silent in their tranquil arms, the sweet briar still carrying its winter berries wrinkled like the indulgent faces of old women.
Katerina stood in a clearing and, raising her arms above her head, called as she’d been taught to do, a haunting sad call that might have been a bird mourning its loneliness. Phee-oo, phee-oo, once, twice, three times. From the trees came an answer, bew ip, bew ip, and then faces appeared, and then the bodies of men clad in animal skins.
‘These men will keep us safe. Come,’ she said to Stumpy and to me.
We followed her and soon arrived at a clearing in which a man held two stags. He indicated to me that I should mount the largest, a huge beast with a great head of horns. Katerina mounted the other with Stumpy behind her holding her waist. We were given dried meat to chew and a guide to lead us. So we went, south, south, away from the camp, the tigers and the brutality of men. We heard no helicopters. Perhaps we had passed beyond the range they anticipated.
After two days, our guide left us. Katerina spoke to him in his own language bidding him an extended and elaborate goodbye. This, she told us, was customary among the tribals. We carried on in the direction indicated, both of us now accomplished deer-riders. Stumpy, having no legs, had to hold tight to Katerina just to stay on. He didn’t complain. He travelled with his head resting on Katerina’s back and his arms around her waist. From time to time, his hands came to rest high up on her thighs. I assumed then he had dozed off and kept well behind in case he should fall.
We slept that night in a sheltered glade in the forest, covered by the animal skins that our guide had given us. I thanked God for that man and his people who, in helping us, had risked everything. Katerina rested in my embrace. Stumpy, fearing it might rain, pitched his camp some distance away in a small cave he’d found.
I had never slept better since coming to the camp. Even after our escape, I still felt that our freedom was an illusion and that at any moment we would be captured and dragged back as living food for the tigers. Now, I knew that our freedom was real and for the first time could enjoy, without distraction, its sweet smells, its clean air, its nature untainted by man’s defilements. Katerina was in my arms and so blissful was I, that I believed that even if they came for me, I wouldn’t care.
When I woke from my reverie, I saw Stumpy watching us. He was leaning against a log with the circular disks at the end of his poles digging into the ground. He was as casual as if he was in some smart café having a smoke. In his right hand was a pistol.
‘We’re going back,’ he announced.
He pulled a device from his knees. ‘I called them. The helicopter will be here any minute.’
Senseless though his words seemed, I tried to understand them. I reflected on what skein of miserable calculations had driven Stumpy to this. I watched as his eyes flicked between me and Katerina. I saw desire in those eyes and scratches of blood deep within. I listened for the whirr of rotor blades but heard nothing.
‘What if the helicopter doesn’t come?’ I asked. ‘What then?’
All I could hear about me were the sounds of life, of small flowers pushing through the green carpet at my feet, of birds whispering to their mates, of life even in this wilderness, of life in all its irrepressible possibility.”
© Michael Tobert