17 June, 2009

The Salt Mines of Nerchinsk

It was political prisoners used to work the mines, which was foolish of the system, for what better place to discuss rogue political ideals with like-minded thinkers, than deep within the cavernous infinity of Siberian darkness? It would not be a foolish assumption to think the eventual Revolution began within the frozen salt mines of Nerchinsk katorga.

Katorga labor was, in those days, generally used for mining lead ore, salt and silver. Also in foundries, wine-making and salt-processing factories. This particular katorga, also known as a frozen work-camp of the Russian Empire, had been in operation since the 18th century, and was located in the Nerchinsk okrug of Transbaikalia, between the rivers Shilka and Argun near the border to Mongolia. This was the most remote prison camp in European Russia, and since the establishment of the Nerchinsk Katorga Administration, this particularly brutal base had been reserved for the tortuous vassalage of political prisoners, keeping them as far away from the major cities of Moscow and Petersburg as it was possible to get.

Prisoner 90137 wiped his brow. His face was sore and tight, his hands cracked, his lips flaked and bleeding, all from the salt in the cave’s atmosphere. Residual salt. Skin peeling, falling away. Salt in his lungs, his hair. In his eyes and filling his nose with a stinging dry, agony. He exhaled and began again.

“Mikhail!” rasped a voice from down the shaft, “Do you have a sip, brother?”

He did.
Liquid was at a premium here in the caves, as dehydration was the leading cause of death among the salt miners, and liquid that would not freeze was more valuable than gold. He rummaged through his knapsack and slid the regulation flask down the shaft where the faceless worker’s withering hand reached out from within the darkness to clutch it.

“Thank you, brother,” the voice rasped. And with that, Mikhail took up his pick and began again.


As he returned from the mines and stood at the entrance of their barracks, he caught a glimpse of Shura washing herself in a basin, her beautiful hair unraveled and flecked with the thawed light of the wasteland that would always be imprinted upon his mind as their first home. He bathed in the autumnal light of this hazy evening, and realized he had asked Shura to be his wife just over a year ago. Light, he thought, has a funny way of imprinting itself upon your memories. He was suddenly stung with regret. How quickly things had altered.

For all his talk, for all his rhetoric, his dreams and visions for the future of The People were minute in comparison to his dreams and visions of a future for Shura. He loved her and all that she was more than he had ever loved anything. And his commitment was not a promise to honor her throughout his life, no, it was, more than anything, a commitment to opening his unpracticed heart. To endeavor to give her, not all that he had, but all he knew she deserved.

She felt him enter and her body responded to his presence. She moved towards him with a knowing tranquility. Half dressed and hair unleashed, she wrapped herself around him. And he tasted, as he did every day, of salt. Her embrace revived his weary muscles, his cracking, knotted bones. His body felt older and more pickled every day, but her touch revived him like a cool, soothing wash of water. Every glance, every touch revived and buoyed him.

But Shura’s love was not in her glances, or her touch; her love was the palpable warmth of feeling behind these things. In the still of the bitter nights he would enfold her while they talked, and they would make plans and dream. She would lie in the circle of his arms, leaning into him while enclosing his hands.

After a day in the mines, he would come to her for a few moments of sanity, to talk long in to the night, to listen, to have his life held in her sane and discerning mind; to hold hers, to provide some semblance of helpful commentary, and to bask in a contentment that felt like the warmth and strength of a divine hand upon his chest.

She placed her cheek against his, and a flood of emotion rose within him; swollen, bursting, like the waves of an inner ocean. It was this surge of feeling that moved him to kiss the palm of her hand with a covetous thirst, as if drinking in her very essence. The salt of Nerchinsk may indeed have been slowly preserving him, but it purified him too. He was falling, dissolving into her. He relinquished himself to the ebbing pull of her tide, dissolving like a grain of salt in a body of water.

“Shura,” he whispered in to her neck, “Shura, I love you.” He held her with his crumbling fingers, and inhaled deeply the scent of her hair.

She did not need to reply, for the devotion in her eyes and her steadfast grip on his face said it for her. She kissed his mouth, tasted the salt and smiled.

“Your kiss makes me think of King David,” she said.
“King David?” he asked.
“Yes. From Scripture. The salt covenant. Every time we kiss you taste of salt and I think of it. Papa always said salt signified permanence, loyalty, fidelity. It is a symbol of unchanging, incorruptible purity.” Her face formed a small, quiet smile and she kissed him again.
“ ‘Should you not know that the Lord God gave the dominion over Israel to David forever, to him and his sons, by a covenant of salt?’ Chronicles.”
“Every kiss is a salt covenant?” he asked, smiling.
She grew very serious, “For us. Yes. The unbreakable promise.”

And suddenly, he was overcome. She was in every way his equal, his partner in life. He had found a person who was a reflection of all he cherished, and it was with her sense of life, her way of living, that he had fallen in love. It was reflected in her tiniest gestures, her way of seeing the world, her distinct, irreplaceable Self. He adored her with both his spirit and his reason, and it was the greatest reward of his life. It was not, in any way, a sacrifice; it was the transmission of life. Yes, he thought, Yes. He clung to her for a lingering moment, then lifted her up, and took her to bed.

Everything he could do for her now was about love.

“Should you not know that the Lord God of Israel
gave the dominion over Israel to David forever,
to him and his sons, by a covenant of salt?”
- 2 Chronicles 13:5


  1. AnonymousJune 18, 2009

    OMG...I L-O-V-E THIS !!!!!!!


  2. Please tell me i get to be a beta reader. Seriously. :) I'll give notes and everything. Fantastic.


  3. I shared this with my Grandmother. She was speechless, and asked me to write here (in her stead) that this is one of the most beautiful things she's ever read...and she reads a lot. :)



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