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They had to lug an old pump engine from some redundant mine workings. Anton’s companions were Kostia and an older man, who was about fifty and whose name he did not know. The older man groaned as they ascended the slope of the workings. Kostia chuntered incessantly about his years in the army; Anton was silent, as if trying to capture, memorise and imprint himself with that moment. He probably had a presentiment that he had passed the point of no return.
In order to pull the engine to its destination, they had to pass along eight hundred metres of a steeply angled section of the old workings. Then they needed to head right to emerge on to a gallery in the horizontal section of mine workings. They traversed one kilometre, half of which lacked any rail tracks; in addition, there was a defunct section where the arched supports were dismantled and pieces of rock hung menacingly overhead; this was often the case. The total length of a mine’s workings can reach one hundred kilometres or so; when the coal in a section is exhausted almost all the equipment is removed, but sometimes equipment is forgotten in the rush to strip the area. As was the case on this occasion. The team were working their way towards their destination and were getting a little closer.
“Guys, look up carefully so you don’t catch your head on the bare rock.”
“Don’t worry, Dad, I’ve already seen something like that – if you only saw my … after that even the devil isn’t scary,” muttered Kostia, and stepped confidently into the darkness. The section, for a few hundred metres ahead, resembled a natural cave. The jagged walls of the gallery seemed as if they had been chewed out of rock. Sharply edged, many-hundred kilogram chunks hung down like pigs’ carcasses in a butcher’s freezer. Rotten boards were strewn underneath them, some whitish moss hung from the roof and large, dark puddles lay across the path.
“Come with me brothers,” Kostia announced and glanced cautiously at the dangerous, overhanging rocks. The older man followed him, with Anton at the rear of the procession. They were knee deep in water and trampled mud, and jumped upon any little island of dryness whenever possible. The trio moved further into the depths of the earth. After twenty minutes a rift, about one metre high, appeared to the right in the gallery. This was a crosscut, a small working of about ten to twenty metres in length, running perpendicular to the other working. The other working was a breakthrough, similar to the crosscut, but much longer.
“Well, we’ve not gained much here, we’ve sweated buckets and will lose our minds dragging this thing,” said the old man, taking off his helmet and scratching his head.
Kostia approached the crosscut and illuminated the murk with his lamp. There were props holding up the section of mine, but occasionally empty spaces gaped in the roof. “Sod it, we’ll take the engine through the breakthrough, there are no winches, there’s sod all, we’ll have to drag it,” he said angrily.
“Let me check it,” the old man said, clambering on to the aperture into the crosscut and illuminating it with his lamp. Then, irritably, he turned to Anton.
“Go on sonny, crawl in there, see how far it is.”
Anton crawled into the crosscut. The engine was not far away so they decided to locate a piece of rope and drag it. After a minute Kostia squeezed into the crosscut. He simultaneously cursed the director, the president and the grandma who lived on the third passageway, who would not give him any samohonka on the slate.
The engine, which weighed seventy kilograms, lay at the intersection of the crosscut and the working from where they were coming from the breakthrough. Two of them were needed to haul it. The rope was fastened on to the engine and Kostia pulled while Anton pushed from behind. It was all going like clockwork, but they needed to exit the crosscut in a place where there were no props. The roof was bare with thin strata of rock, like cake, protruding.
“Come on mother, it’s sticking, give it some,” Kostia urged Anton as he tugged the rope over his back to the exit; he hit a prop, which fell, and plates of rock poured out of the ceiling. A dust cloud rose and a piece of rock weighing about ten kilos plummeted; its sharp end pierced Kostia’s hand.
“Motherfucker,” the miner yelled, almost instantaneously. His hand was pierced to the bone and blood poured over his boiler suit. Anton rushed to help him. When he reached Kostia the wounded miner was moaning, while he looked in disbelief at the wound. Blood poured like water from a tap through hole where the bone was visible. Anton’s gaze was riveted to those red streams, his body reacted immediately, his bile rose. He had never seen so much blood. The other miner, who Anton had characterised as an old groaner, reached them. “Bloody hell, how are you?” he too was confused for a moment but he continued, “Anton, tear your shirt, we need to tie off the wound.”
Anton did not react. He looked at the red stream spreading over the fabric like life fleeing that torn body. The wound was life turned inside out, existence flipped over, a mystery, the unravelling of torn flesh. “Rip it, you twat, what are you waiting for?” the other miner urged. Anton pulled off his shirt and with trembling hands ripped off its two sleeves. “Give ‘em here.” The old man ripped the sleeves from Anton’s hands and bound Kostia’s wound himself, muttering angrily, “they’re employing boys who are still wet behind the ears.”
From The War Artist by Maxim Butchenko. Translated from the Russian by Stephen Komarnyckyj
The War Artist: A Ballistic Missile of a Book Launched on 7 July 2017