The story begins as the routine day begins. The narrator, a nameless political prisoner in a nameless Kolyma labor camp, is sent out with the other prisoners for the day’s work. There is no checklist for the prisoners; they are simply lined up by fives so that the guards have an easy time of counting and multiplying. Today the narrator’s brigade has an easy job—sawing wood with a circular saw, a task that usually falls to a more privileged prisoner group, the common criminals. The saw, like the prisoners, moves slowly, growling in the bitter cold of the far North. The third prisoner assigned to the woodpile works separately, splitting the brittle, frozen larch logs that fall apart easily, despite the fact that he can barely wield the hatchet.
The brigade has a few minutes of free time after stacking the wood because their guard has gone indoors to warm up and they have to wait for the remaining brigades to finish and gather for the collective march back to camp. They take advantage of the break to comb through a nearby garbage pile, a heap of trash they have been eyeing all day long. Picking through one layer after another, they collect the scraps and castoffs that may mean survival for another day—discarded socks, the odd crust of bread, leftover cutlets frozen hard.
The narrator keeps scratching because he alone of the three has not yet found anything useful. He turns up something he has not seen in years—a child’s drawing...
(The entire section is 556 words.)