By Chef TheCityOfS
When people hear my wife’s Russian, they imagine a tall blonde girl with a funny accent who wears heels for every grocery run. Reality couldn’t be farther from the stereotype: Lana is dark-haired, speaks better English than I do, and is completely obsessed with sneakers. She does meet ONE stereotype, though: she never gets cold, seeing how she lived in Russia until she was eighteen.
Not in Moscow, of course. Did you know that Moscow’s actually pretty warm? There are entire states in America where winters are far colder than anything Moscovites ever have to deal with. No, my wife comes from a tiny town far up Russian north, on the tundra. A dark, gloomy, and a very cold place inside the Arctic Circle, with extremely harsh winters and even harsher people. A place that meets the stereotypes.
I’ve met my in-laws all of two times including our wedding, both times as they traveled to the States. Frankly, I never had any intention of visiting my Lana’s hometown, until she got that fateful call nine days ago. My mother in law had had a stroke. While her condition was stable for the time being, the local doctor expected the worst could happen at any minute. Transporting her to a better hospital was out of the question as she was in no state for the kind of a journey that you’ll see described below.
My wife made travel arrangements immediately. I had a valid Russian visa from a business trip to Moscow a few weeks prior so I decided to go with her. Now, getting to my wife’s hometown isn’t easy. You’re in for a flight to Moscow, then a connecting flight to Norilsk, one of the biggest cities in the Russian tundra. From there, it’s an hour-long trip down the Yenisei river, by barge in summer and on cars over ice in the winter.
Urgently getting to Moscow wasn’t that hard. There, however, we faced additional difficulties. First of all, apparently I couldn’t actually fly to Norilsk with Lana as the city was closed to foreigners. Before we could even process that, we were told that Norilsk airport was closed for all aircraft due to poor weather conditions and the weather wasn’t expected to improve that week. I tried to console Lana as best as I could, but news of her mom getting worse drove her crazy. Soon, Lana suggested an “alternative”: it was possible to fly to a city a fair bit south of Norilsk which was safe from the storms. For a modest fee, a family friend living there was willing to take a day’s journey up the ice road to Lana’s hometown. Well, more like a night’s journey since according to him, it was better to travel at night by car’s lights than by what passed as daylight.
I told my wife she was insane. She, however, was adamant about her plan, saying she’s done zimnik (how Russians call their ice roads) many times with her dad and it was perfectly safe. She wouldn’t budge no matter how I pleaded and told me I was welcome to stay in Moscow. Obviously, that was not an option, and in the end, I gave up.
We flew to our next destination, and the cold hit me as soon as I stepped out of the plane. It was a different kind of cold, invasive and ruthless, and it didn’t care about layers of sweaters and socks I had on. I shivered imagining how much colder it was going to get.
We met with the trucker who was to take us up North. He called himself Kolya, and my wife “Sveta”, the Russian version of her name. Me, he didn’t call at all, instead referring to me derisively as “Mister Amerikashka” whenever he spoke to my wife. Lana told me with a chuckle she didn’t tell Kolya I could understand Russian, although I don’t think he would’ve cared.
Kolya was supposed to be a few years younger than my wife but looked much older, his skin and posture worn down by the harsh conditions of his homeland. He laughed at our American shoes and coats and said he would pack extra jackets, woolen socks and valenki for us “just in case.” His brother helped load his truck, which looked like it had seen the fall of the Soviet Union, and then Kolya sat down to enjoy a shot of vodka. One for the road.
My wife saw me blanch at that.
“This isn’t New York, or even Moscow,” she said quietly. “People here are a bit behind in terms of DUI. Don’t worry, he won’t drink enough to get impaired, he’s seen that kill people on the road.”
Indeed, the first shot was the last and Kolya hopped into the truck. He offered my wife the shotgun seat which, as far as I understood Russian macho culture, was basically equivalent to throwing a glove in my face. Whatever. As long as he got us there.
The road was a dark stretch of ice and packed snow powdered by the fresh snow that had fallen that morning. Snowdrifts bordered both sides of the roads and leaked onto its surface a fair bit. Otherwise, it was the same barren flat surface for miles. In the first couple of hours, we saw a few cars going the opposite way to us. Then a car going in the same direction as us overtook us and disappeared into the darkness ahead at surprising speeds. It was a freaking tiny, rusted-through Subaru. I gave up on understanding Russians then and there.
Shortly after the Subaru guy, it started snowing. Just a bit at first, then more and more. Kolya didn’t seem bothered and I tried to stay calm as well, which I managed mostly successfully until the wind joined in. Unlike the snow, it started hard from the get-go.
Have you ever heard the wind howling and become unsettled by the sound? Now imagine the same, but in the depths of a black night lit only by your car’s headlights. Except for your own vehicle, the world around is silent and devoid of life, frozen until the spring. Not that you can see much through the thick snow that is now the wind’s plaything, flurrying around the car, blanketing the windows.
Our pace slowed to a crawl as Kolya swore colorfully in Russian. “Maybe stop and wait it out?” I suggested nervously.
“We can’t,” Lana said without bothering to ask our driver. “If we stop there’s a good chance the car won’t start up again, and we are stuck here waiting for someone to pick us up. And it’s been… empty today.”
The realization we were at a very real risk of freezing to death hit me like a ton of bricks. I leaned back into my seat and closed my eyes, wordlessly praying for the best. The only response was the wind howling – and it sounded so strange. It would start low and quiet and then get louder and louder until a yowling crescendo, then cut off abruptly. Then start again. And the sound came from different directions, each starting at a different time, like a pack of wolves howling.
I opened my eyes to obvious tension in the car. Lana and Kolya were both hunched forward, peering intently through the glass for all the good it did them. Kolya glanced back at me.
“Don’t worry, be happy!” Kolya proclaimed with a horrible Russian accent. “It is all OK! Don’t worry, America!”
He was lying. I might have been useless on the ice road, but I was a criminal defense lawyer, and a good one at that. And Kolya was a bad liar. There was sweat beading on his face and neck, and his voice was forced. He was very much scared – and that made me scared, too.
Kolya murmured something to my wife, too quick and quiet for my distracted mind to decipher. She nodded.
“What was that?”
“There’s a village maybe half an hour up the road, if we keep this pace. We get there and settle down until the morning.”
“I see. Sorry about the delay.” In reality, I was extremely happy to hear that. “Bad wind, huh?”
Lana grabbed my hand, quick and sudden as a snake. “Don’t. Mention. The Wind.”
Another sound came through the storm. A long, tinny wail that sent shivers down my spine. It took me a few moments to recognize the familiar sound of the wind whistling through walls and chimney. And then another moment to realize there were no fucking walls around for the wind to whistle.
I opened my mouth to comment, and my wife’s grip tightened on my arm. In that moment, I knew to keep it quiet.
We drove in tension-filled silence as a cacophony of sounds erupted through the storm. Wails and shrieks, howls and cries – no way no fucking wind was producing all of that.
The sounds grew closer, grew louder. I grabbed my wife’s hands as we both stared desperately ahead. Through the flurry, we barely made out something – a large, dark shape reflecting our lights, or maybe piercing the darkness with lights of its own…
Kolya swore and swerved to the side. We were passing another car stuck in the snow. Its blinkers flashed.
“Stop.” Lana said, sudden and harsh.
“What?” Kolya asked, in Russian. “You insane?”
“Stop.” My wife repeated. “On the ice road, you help. That’s the rule, remember?”
Kolya gave her a long, hard look that I didn’t like at all. “That’s the rule on the road.” He echoed, and hit the brakes, slowing the car without actually stopping. I opened the door and peered outside. The driver of the stuck vehicle was already running towards us. I recognized the car itself as the Subaru that passed us earlier.
“Thank God you people were…” the driver began. “Get in, idiot!” Kolya shouted, and the guy shut up and jumped in. He was just a kid, no older than twenty, with dark red hair and a patchy little beard. He looked cold and terrified.
“Thank god!” He repeated, in a hushed whisper. “I was sure they’d get me.”
“They?” I asked, confused. Kolya and Lana turned to look at the kid in unison, and their looks could kill.
“They, yeah, I mean the wind and snow,” the kid corrected quickly. I had a sudden abrupt feeling that it was too late for that… even as I still had no clue what was going on. We drove on, and the interplay of howls and shrieks outside the car became unbearable in the silence.
“What’s your name, dude?” I asked him in my best Russian. He blinked.
“Sergei. Sergei Molchanov. My parents are… anyway, it doesn’t matter. I shouldn’t have been driving, but I wanted to make it to my girlfriend’s birthday, and…”
“Both of you shut up.” My wife barked, and we did. Immediately I noticed the change in surrounding sounds – they were much louder now. The highest pitch shrieks rang in my ears. The low, insistent howling seemed to surround the car. And every now and then, something that sounded like an actual roar cut through the night.
The car picked up the pace. I looked at Kolya and realized he was absolutely flooring the gas pedal, poor visibility be damned. His truck was lurching along as fast as it could manage in the conditions, and yet the encroaching racket made it obvious we were nowhere near fast enough.
Then the car hit something. We were all jerked forward as the truck came to a staggering halt. I hit my temple hard on the back of my wife’s seat.
“What… was that?” I groaned.
“Must have hit a chunk of ice or something,” Lana’s voice sounded strangely muffled. I remember focusing on her lips, and how pale and thin they looked. The dull resounding pain in my head exploded into something hot and overwhelming, and I collapsed into the backseat.
“He’s passed out!” Sergei called out. I wanted to correct him, but my voice wouldn’t obey me. My lids seemed to weigh a ton each – I could barely open my eyes enough to see the trio of Russians huddled together, the car’s flickering light illuminating their pale faces.
“What now?” Sergei asked nervously.
“Well, let’s see,” I don’t think I would’ve been able to understand complex Russian in that state, if it wasn’t my Lana speaking, her voice so familiar down to every inflection. “Why don’t you go out and check what we hit and if we can clear it out somehow?”
“We helped you, didn’t we?” In the car’s light, Lana’s green eyes seemed very blue. “So why don’t you help us back. After all, on the ice road, you help each other. That’s the rule.”
Kolya grumbled in agreement. Then he reached over and pulled out a rifle, and aimed it at the boy.
Sergei whimpered. “You know they’re out there!”
“Well,” Lana’s voice was impeccably calm. Cold. “I guess you’d better not speak about them out loud, then. Better not even think about them, really. ”
My eyes closed against my will. I heard a door swing open, and a rush of cold air. Finally, I passed out for real, and in my unconsciousness, I dreamed of horrified screaming and a single terrible roar that filled the night.
I came to during the day, on a couch of some local family that agreed to house us for a bit of cash. My wife fussed over me. Once she was sure I was conscious and lucid, she rushed me into the car saying we could do the rest of the drive by day, and an actual doctor could look at me in her hometown.
I settled in the backseat of the car. Vague memories haunted me.
“Where’s the kid? Sergei?”
“What kid, darling?” Lana asked, in sincere surprise.
“There was no kid, we traveled alone,” Kolya added, in Russian. And I wondered how he knew what I was asking about, or that I’d understand his answer. But aloud, I could only say: “This young redheaded guy…”
“Sweetie, I’m getting really worried. You must’ve hit your head harder than I thought. We gotta get you checked out as soon as we get back to the States. Maybe even a good checkup in Moscow…”
I didn’t really know what to say after that.
We made it the rest of the way uneventfully. Unfortunately, my mother in law had slipped into unconsciousness before we even set out for our drive, and she passed away several hours after our arrival. Lana didn’t even get to say a proper goodbye. She is absolutely devastated right now, so I’m trying my best to focus on comforting her. We’re staying here until the funeral, and I can’t stay I’m looking forward to the ride back.
My father in law graciously gifted me a proper Russian winter coat, so I went ahead and packed my American camel coat that proved terribly insufficient for the weather. As I was folding it, I noticed a few curly red hairs stuck to the light beige fabric.
And I felt so cold.