Yurka went over the potatoes: small, for planting; large, for food. He had only a few left: merchants had stopped transporting products from Ukraine, and buying from Russia was too expensive. There was almost no money to buy. After the substation was shelled, electricity outages were common and the mine was flooded. Miners stopped extracting coal and stopped getting paid. The people wondered where they would go if they didn’t know anything and couldn’t work as miners. A neighbor went with his son to Belarus: they worked as assistants at the bakery. He praised it, said things are well there. The chief of bakery gave them a room in a hostel and their salaries were paid on time. They only returned six months later and did not go back; now they are roaming around the Donbass*, hiding so that they won’t be taken to the “militiamans” or Ukrainian armies.
A knock at the gate distracted Yurka from his heavy thoughts. He got up and looked out into the street. “When I reminisce of the devil, he is sure to appear.” Kolyadyn, a former school friend, stood by the fence. Now he is a commandant’s company commander in the DPR** army. “He has settled in such a soft place!” Yurka convulsed with a slight contempt for his former friend.
In past times, together, they were playing football in a park stadium. Near the school: dangerous. The boys smoked secretly. The teachers would see from the school windows, they would tell their parents, and their fathers would whip them. Yurka’s father smoked himself, so he could not detect the smell of tobacco from Yurka, but his mother sometimes spelled it, complained to his father; he would whip Yurka a couple of times with a belt, but not so much for punishment as for order.
Here father flogged Viktor Telepnev. He flogged him so hard that the child’s ass became striped. Yurka remembered his second friend. Why the hell did he go to the militia? Kolyadyn was clever: he himself lead the commandant company. He settled down, made his sons platoon commanders. They sit in the commandant’s office: they are on duty, are instructing patrol officers, the bullets around them do not whistle. And Telepnev flew down to the very bells distributed to the checkpoint, to the front: there was no place further. He walked once again on patrol and fell under the sniper’s gaze. He put down Viktor and his two companions.
“Where are you, stupid? Well, you were a soldier in the army? You served at the Kapustin Yar space center as a rocket tester. From a machine gun, six bullets fired every six months. But here, with the war, here other skills are needed. You went straight across the square. When the sniper missed the first of you, the remaining two, instead of quickly running in zigzags to the nearest trees or bushes, stopped, ogled at the corpse and began to guess: what happened? And they themselves were killed right there.” Yurka remembered his deceased friend and his heart became bitter.
He went to the gate, unlocked it, and let in the uninvited guests. They greeted him with a handshake, walked into the yard, and sat down. They had smoked cigarettes recently.
“Well?” said Yurka questioningly.
“There is such a job…” Kolyadyn stated.
“I will not fight.” Yurka interrupted him. “I’ve already been at war, in Afghanistan. That was enough for me.”
“No, there will be no fighting…there is another job…” Kolyadyn stalled, searching for the words. “You said that in Afghanistan you were on the burial team.”
“Yes, I was. For my last three months. When their carpenter was killed in an unauthorized absence, they took me…”
Yurka was a witness and a minor participant in those events. In Afghanistan, he served in the special forces, went to the “combat”*** and was awarded a medal. But not everyone was lucky as he was. In his own group, “spirits”**** killed the commander, a young lieutenant. It happened by chance: one word—war. The group got on the trail of a caravan that was looping and hiding in the gorges, meaning it had weapons.
The pinwheel had hung and the soldiers began their descent. First, the ensign went: he was the group’s deputy commander, the soldiers followed him, and the lieutenant was penultimate. The last one to jump was another officer who had arrived from the Union in a separate detachment of GRU***** special forces for further service. The lieutenant was going on vacation, and the battalion commander told the newcomer that while you take control of his group, we will send the lieutenant on vacation, and then we will understand where you will serve. The group flew on reconnaissance at the same time to check the area, coming across a caravan. They reported to the base and began to chase the caravan.
The bullet hit the lieutenant in the throat, severing his carotid artery. Blood gushed from his neck. All those who jumped hid down on the ground and began to lurk behind the hummocks and stones, so as not to be hit by the sniper’s next shot. The ensign shouted to the lieutenant mate, “Senior lieutenant, you must fly back to the base quickly! I’ll figure it out myself!”
The pinwheel soared up and the “spirit” sniper tried to get it with a bullet, but the special forces noticed him and opened fire. The sniper disappeared. Although it was not too far to fly, the pilot did not have time to deliver the wounded man to the hospital: the lieutenant had lost too much blood and had died.
And in the hospital, they had an emergency. The one soldier on the burial team left the hospital without permission and did not return. Then they found his dead body—there was no way to escape—all routes were blocked.
Gromov****** reprimanded the chief of the hospital: the commander chastised his subordinates very sternly over the casualties. The medic, in turn, punished the head of the burial team on the same day he signed an order on the seconding of an ensign to the USSR. The guilty seem to be punished, but who will prepare the dead to be sent out? Corpses cannot pack themselves.
A new chief for the burial team was quickly found: there are many people who want to serve in a full and warm hospital. But the soldiers had constant problems—one was recruited, then the next, all stupid—they could not hammer a nail or wield a saw.
And then Yurka appeared: the son of a miner and himself a miner before joining the army. He was familiar with electricity and trees—hands on place, the guy in charge—and the coalpit and intelligence service taught him discipline. He packed his lieutenant like a chrysalis and, at the same time, tidied up the joinery and carpentry mechanisms, removing the “snot” of the electrical wiring, sharpening tools, adjusting the racks and workbenches. The warrant officer realized that the soldier had what he needed and tried to persuade Yurka to remain in the funeral team.
At first Yurka was offended. But those with whom he met in the hospital shouted, “You, what, do you want to go to your GRU for an extra time? To walk to the battlefield? Stay here! You have three months before your demobilization! You will go back home alive.” Yurka remembered his mother, father, home, Petrovka*******, and agreed.
He returned home. Mother laid the table, his friends came running, the neighbors came. The feast lasted until late. Then he told Kolyadyn about the funeral team.
That’s how it turned out.
“What else?” Yurka looked inquiringly at Kolyadyn’s eyes.
“Your job will be to pack corpses. Well, our work is not that necessary: their relatives would take them away. Yes, our work almost does not happen: it was mostly “knocked out” boys. Whoever is from Russia—those who will be picked up—need to be packaged for shipment. Whoever is not from Russia we will bury here.”
“What’s the catch?” Yurka guessed that Kolyadyn was not done speaking. “What is the salary?”
Kolyadyn looked at the soldiers who had come with him. They rose knowingly and left the yard. “A small salary, but at least it is better than nothing. There—another…” Kolyadyn looked Yurka in the eyes so that a chill ran down his back. “Corpses, you know. They have watches, rings, money in their pockets, and… ” he made an expressive pause, “crowns on their teeth. Well, the clock, rings, and money the boys immediately take away, they do not reach us. But the crowns: I will put my man in the emergency room, he will send all the corpses with gold to you. You will take a fifth for yourself and give the rest to me. I also have to share. If the corpse is not completely dead, you must take an awl, you must calm it down…”
“And if I refuse?” Yurka struck melancholy.
“You’ll disappear without a trace.” Kolyadyn again looked Yurka in the eyes so that he understood that he was not joking. “We don’t need you walking around the township and telling people what you were offered to do this job. The issue has already been resolved. Get ready today; you start work tomorrow morning.”
The aidman at first brought the corpses on a cart, then brought amputated limbs in a bag. Yurka nodded at his desk in the corner, and he dumped the lot on him. Yurka continued to drive nails into the boards. The orderly realized that the undertaker was not in the mood for talking, turned, and left. Yurka looked at the open coffins with the dead and began to shove the limbs in with random bodies. He was not afraid that in Russia one could open a coffin and find a third hand or leg in a dead man—there will be no scandal—who will go here from Russia to figure out why this happened…
With this corpse, a third leg, so that it was not scary to walk on mines. With this corpse, a third hand to throw grenades further. And with this corpse—the most valuable—a second head to think better, think if it was necessary for him to go to war. He opened the corpse’s mouth, saw a crown glittering in gold, took the pliers, and pulled it out. The second crown he pulled from the second head…
* Donbass: a region in eastern Ukraine with a highly developed coal industry, covering the Donetsk and Lugansk Oblasts. “Donbass” is shortened from Donetsk (“Don”) and “bassein” (“bass”), the Russian word for “pool.”
** DPR: Donetsk People’s Republic, a self-proclaimed republic in the Donbass.
*** “combat”: fighting to eliminate anti-government forces in Afghanistan.
**** “spirits”: soldiers of the anti-government forces in Afghanistan.
***** GRU: Main Intelligence Directorate (Russian: Главное разведывательное управление, tr. Glavnoye razvedyvatel’noye upravleniye, abbreviated GRU [Russian : ГРУ]), the foreign military intelligence agency of the Soviet Army General Staff of the Soviet Union.
****** Gromov: General Gromov, the commander of the Soviet troops in Afghanistan.
******* Petrovka: Petrovsky district of Donetsk.
Serge Clause was born on March 24, 1955 in Donetsk, Ukraine and is a citizen of the Russian Federation. He graduated from the Military Academy of Strategic Missile Forces named the “Great” Peter (Moscow), specializing in electronic computing machinery. Serge has written for numerous arts and sports publications in Ukraine and Russia.