Come!Said Illya, come my friend, it's only a few kilometers. Come. His friend took another step and, for once, didn't fall-his practice with snow shoes, though learned on the journey, was getting better; He only fell about every fifty paces and, to make the point, Illya still laughed, would come over, pull him up, dust off the snow and get him started on toward the next "incident". With his wonderful Russian sense of humour he always laughed, always helped his American friend up and took the opportunity, while he was still in the snow bank, to teach him another florid curse in Russian. While it may not have been the way Russian was taught in school to foreigners, or even in Moscow to Russians, over time he was learning; He had the confidence to feel he could go in to a restaurant and order breakfast with some hope of getting what he ordered. Conversations were....problematic but he tried which made Illya smile into his magnificent Sable lined heavy Suede coat, pulling up the collar, pulling down his Astrakhan hat and extending-again-his strong hands in their heavy gloves. "Now, my friend, say, 'You are the egg of an ugly pig....' ". His friend would repeat to himself and then say it. "No, louder, with venom, swear at the snow, swear because it empties your bowels....."And he would.
Only love could create this trip. Each of them hauling sledges weighing 100 kilos as well as their heavy clothes, boots, using Eskimo wooden sun googles in the brilliant Siberian sun. Sixty degrees above the equator, thirty degrees from the North Pole, the Taiga was stark, brilliant, white, dark, long nights, short days. When they'd first left there had been only a bit of day, just the crescent of light on the horizon, briefly, He hadn't had a beard then, or as mentioned, any ability to use snow shoes, pull a sledge, control two dogs, Laika-named for the Russian dog that went into space and Jones, his dog that had never gone anywhere until now. When they made a bivouac at night, the dogs and the minimal fire Ilya built out of seemingly nothing were their instruments of warmth. And, of course, their own body heat. Their external clothes were made so that they could be opened and then re-closed to form a sort of furry sleep sack. And then there was snuggling. As they heated their protein and fat rich food, they could be together, Illya teaching him Russian and, to add encouragement, all the terms for sexual congress. And, as the days went on, his friend learned got stronger, more observant, more....Russian. In his fractured, fragmented patois, he sounded like a street tough from Moscow which is what Illya liked. It's what he had been and the ability to revert, somewhat, was comforting to him.Familiar. He was creating a partner that would be similar to him. Of course their values would be different, their views different, but their motives were parallel. He thought about that as they moved on until he heard the now familiar sound of a soft "plop" followed by a string of filth that made him smile; His friend was learning.
As it was close to the end of light, such as it was, Illya decided that since his friend had already made an "impression" in the snow, they'd make their simple camp. The dogs were the contractors who dug the cave and used their fur to pack it smooth. The sledges were pulled up to form a barricade, the back packs were let down, they both sagged onto the snow in their home for the night. First thing, Illya had shot a few rabbits as they'd gone along that day and now he took them from the arrows, frozen stiff, and tossed them to the dogs who first played with them until they thawed a bit then ate them, regurgitating the fur and bones. He also had a large can of regular dog food, principally horse meat, which at this point they needed. A small fire was built and the men ate the simple food, heavy in fat and calories with beef tea made from concentrate in a pan; Snow melt was an endless source of water so the pan was soon bubbling, the gallon of beefy extract good and essential. That night there was a treat, a good Russian chocolate bar for each.
Night which never really went away now was darker, easy to see the stars now that the clouds had cleared. The absolute silence made a crackle in the fire seem like a rifle shot. Illya knew they were almost there so he had a duty to perform. A simple one but one that would be important.
"Have you picked a Russian name for yourself? Can you write it? With one finger dragged through the snow he spelled out "Alexi"...Illya laughed, He was proud of Alexi, he'd chosen a name that embodied Russian history and yet with the sad Tzar's relatives, held a link to Europe. Alexei the son of the last Tzar, murdered with his family in the basement.
On these nights they lay there, looked at the stars and moved into a pleasant state that was neither sleep nor wakefulness; It was on the verge of all things and yet none of them. Illya put his gloved hand on Alexi's face, "It's not far now, maybe two days...do you realize we're twenty two days away from the town we left, more than two thirds of the month. You've gotten stronger, more alert but...I regret, no better with your snow shoes. When we get established at the place we're going, you can use cross country skis, they're easier. " And there was a pause. "Sorry you came?" Alexi leaned up on his shoulder, put a hand on Ilya's face, 'Nyet'". They both laughed. "You should say, "You chopped cock for brains, of course I'm not sorry I came. What would I have done if I had not come?Chased you, realizing I'd made a mistake in not going.....Then what?You wouldn't know I was behind you and..." there was no point in stating the obvious.
Illya looked at the stars, at the dark and smiled into it. "Yes my little refusenik, I wouldn't know but...the dogs would, they would have come to me, cried, begged, run off a distance toward you and then come back. So I turn back and....there you are, tipped over in a snow bank your snow shoes in the air like the cheap antennas on top of a Moscow apartment building. The dogs, they love you too." He leaned over, kissed his friend then covered his face in the Sable hood and was silent.
Morning was when they wakened although it was dark as it would be for most of the day. Toward 10:30 there would be a slice of light, a pale, feeble light but enough to travel by. Their camp was quickly torn down, the straps for the sledge went under their legs and over their shoulders while back packs, put on last, balanced the load and made the runners move more smoothly.
Every day or two Illya would take some of the valuable fat and grease them;No product worked better than real animal fat-Alexi remembered how he'd made him strip while they butchered boars-he said for men the fat from another male was better. Having collected the grease, he gutted it, seeming to engorge the feel and smell of warm intestines as they fell over his naked body, some of the intestines looping on his erect penis like sausage in a shop. Illya coated him with the intestines, rubbing him, dragging length of it through his groin, tying his balls and cock with it, kissing him with the blood of the animal in his mouth. It wasn't a conventional butchering as he was looking ahead to storage and transport. He knew it would almost immediately freeze when taken outside so spoilage wasn't a consideration.
When it was all done he squatted down, still naked in the warm abattoir, brewed a bowl of hot water, added some spices and four pieces of meat. A poke with the fork meant they were done; Alexi was summoned, a hand was put over his eyes. There was the sound of chopping and then Ilya held something toward him, something warm, steaming, meaty.Alexi ate it and then several more pieces. Illya looked at him and in some seriousness, said, a man isn't a man until he's devoured the testicles of another male-it may be that one day we fight each other to snatch them and eat them. One day we both may have unmanned each other and roam the places we are to hunt other men to provide us with our manliness." Boar balls are considered to be especially virile...he watched him, knew he would keep them down, relish the taste and smiled. "You are more the man of my forest each day. Soon you will fight me for the balls of an animal, eat them raw and smack your lips."
The next day involved a change, the trees grew fewer, if bigger and the snow grew hard, easier to navigate on the narrow gliding of skis walking, made pulling the sledge easier. He wondered why the dog never were hitched and allowed to help but Ilya said this was making a man out of him, a strong back, a sense of himself and his accomplishments. What he did not say was that the dogs were effectively serving as perimeter guards against larger, prey animal, in specific bear who would consider a dinner of man more than a tasty treat-not caring whether he ate the balls or the shoulder first.
And so it went. The dogs raced around the men, spied a snow shoe hare or a marmot and the chase was on. Through the day they were lucky sometimes so much so that feeding them was unnecessary. A treat of whatever, they were happy and they rolled over forming warm cushions for the men when at last they slept. When the fire was guttering, Illya commenced his lesson and on any given day would teach him how to say divergent things; Anything from how to inquire at the train station for the express from Yekaterinburg to saying, "No I've had your sister but you look tight assed, you'll do." What happy laughter. Alexi took to making his own oaths not always successfully but never without either humour or confusion. As in , "Excuse me please do not wash your balls in the bidet whilst I am pissing in it." As Illya thought, it was often time hard to know what he meant but...he tried. He was becoming the street tough that his soul demanded and his body needed; The strength of another man to match his own, that was the man he was making. One day, in the snow, they could strip, like Eskimo, to their pants and wrestle for hours, the heat of the contest obliterating the potential death of the cold.Eventually, they would wear nothing save their boots, steam coming from their balls, the warmest external part of a man. It might never happen but some time, the fight would take a turn for the personal.No anger, just the desire to win, to claim....something. The unspoken prize being their balls, swinging in a wrapping of steam, but there, waiting to be grasped, dragged to a mouth and worried through the flesh to get the treasures within.
The last day was the longest. Illya and the dogs sensed they were near the end of the journey and now, at the end, could admit it had been tiring for all. Starting early, Alexi noticed that there were even fewer and fewer trees. He knew there was a line above which trees did not grow but to him, the sentimentalist, he liked to look about and see trees; Somehow they were the only normal things in this where first the sun didn't rise and then the sun didn't set but whichever it was, there was always the snow.
Several hours in, Illya turned to him and pointed, "Home" That's where we're headed. See, the dogs are already running back and forth hoping we'll go faster. From the first sighting to getting to it seemed both long and short. Alexi realized he'd miss pulling a sledge, falling down, spending nights with his companion, the dogs. Doing everything from identifying stars to gently sexing each other but now they were here. At a tree.
As they drew closer it got larger, surely the largest tree this far North. The dogs dashed into the lower branches and then out. Finally the two men drew up and Illya said, "Welcome, my friend, to our new home for the winter, all the time of the dark until the first light sends us....well, somewhere. But come, let me show you around our home and pulled back some of the lower branches that swept the ground.
Alexi was amazed. The lower branches on the interior had been cleared away leaving a living space at least ten square meters and ten high. Some one had been here before, worked at this, formed branches in to tables, places to sit. At one side there was a real fire place that vented out and away from the tree. "Come" said Illya, "there is another place...." If you knew how to find them there were actual steps that led up at least twenty meters and there was....a nest. A place to sleep but almost circular. It was lined with skins and furs and was just the right size for two men and, if they chose, the dogs.Alexi was taken aback, this wasn't what he'd expected. Although just then he wasn't just sure what he'd expected, this was such a diversion from his usual places to sleep. Illya put his arm around him, "Here my friend is our own private place, no one knows it's here and even if they found the down stairs, a few quickly tossed boughs on the steps renders them invisible. Alexi plunked down only to find how soft and inviting it was. It almost said come, sleep on me, under me, you will be warm and welcomed.
He would have stood there, entranced, longer but Illya was off down the stairs saying they needed to get the dogs fed, the sledges unpacked, their own packs opened and sorted. There was one camp light which shown brightly in the tree house but, as Illya said, as much as could be done should be done in the dark, it was their blanket, their friend, the thing that granted their privacy.
There was only a waning gibbous moon which provided almost no light outside and in the branch shrouded interior, no light at all. One moved by a sense of sound of the other, often falling over the dogs who were quiet footed and knew their way around. But at last it was all done.Things stored. Well, for just then, off loaded waiting for more formal places for them. The sledges were turned into surprizingly comfortable couches and lolling in front of the little stove was both warm and intimate. As tired as they were, Illya made strong chocolate and boar bacon. Alexi could barely stay his mug from falling from tired, sleepy hands.
Up the stairs made of boughs and into their nest. Ilya helped Alexei out of his clothes, which felt good after so many days, then undressed himself. How cleverly things were thought out.. There was a large bucket that had a small heat take off from the fire below and was full of warm water. They washed themselves and, like animals shook themselves dry. Alexi moved to look for some clothes but Illya stopped him, made him lay down on the furs, covered him with one or two skins and furs. The animal skins becoming his skin.
"Why have you brought me here?"
"Because my family has a tradition, when you are going to mate with a man, you must see if he's strong enough, interested enough and, most important if he loves you enough to follow you wherever. My Alexi, you've done that and now we are a mated pair. But one thing is left, your virginity, and when we get to that is unimportant. Lets savour waiting in all the other ways. The last thing you will give me and I will take will be the first man and the last man; We are a mated pair, if one dies, so does the other, there is never another after that, never even the thought of another. He held him, his whole body making contact and Alexei knew he had given himself to this man forever. Their flesh seemed to protect them from the cold, their lips were hot, Ilya surrounded him with his arms and laid him down.
"What if I had failed? What if my strength wasn't enough?"
"Well, your fat would have made good grease for the runners, your body would have supplied both the dogs and I with fresh meat and I'd have had your nuts as a special treat. After that, your carcass would be left behind for the scavengers that are following us now, the wolves, the bears.....we are their warm meat. For a moment the dogs would have tried to protect us but....they would be easily killed and then they'd come for us." He said this as calmly and matter of factually as if mentally checking a list of things to make sure he had. One of those things on the list was their own death, it was just accepted.....
Alexi looked out at where the crack in the limbs was and thought....I do love him. I had to learn it and now like two animals we are mated for life....this wonderful tree, this amazing custom....How could he be stark naked with a man in a tree who would eventually take all of him for his own privilege and property? But then, was there a better way?He sighed and relaxed toward his mate who threw a sable rug over them and they slept; In his dreams he saw the day when they would eat each others balls and wondered how they would taste? Would that be the final joining, when, apart from life, there was nothing left to give his man or was that the end, after they had consumed part of each other, did they continue on over days? Eventually dying providing their dogs with food....he dreamed of that and how he would anticipate giving himself, his body, his flesh, his blood to the man he loved. Only in death is love eternal.....
Eight months later they appeared on the Kamchatka peninsula hitching a ride to Vladivostok. Two hairy men, with their dogs and their kit by the side of the road. Some driver with a truck let them load it all plus the dogs and three puppies onto the rear and bounced on.
Illya and his mate thought, almost in unison, how quickly can we do what's necessary and then head back. This time each man would pull two sledges, so strong had they become and plan to be gone.....forever.