“Why should Shukhov worry?” Kilgas was kidding him.
“He’s got one foot out of here already.”
“Yeah, the one without the boot,” someone butted in. They laughed. (Shukhov had taken off his left boot-the one with the hole in it-and was warming his foot-cloths.)
“Shukhov’s sentence is almost up.”
They’d given Kilgas twenty-five years. In the good old days it was always ten. But in 1949 they started slapping on twentyfive, regardless. Maybe you could last ten years and still come out of it alive, but how the hell could you get through twenty five?
Shukhov sort of liked the way they pointed at him-the lucky guy nearly through with his sentence. But he didn’t really believe it. Take the fellows who should’ve been let out in the war. They were all kept in till forty-six-“till further notice.” And then those with three years who’d gotten five more slapped on. They twisted the law any way they wanted. You finished a ten-year stretch and they gave you another one. Or if not, they still wouldn’t let you go home.
But sometimes you got a kind of funny feeling inside. Maybe your number really would come up one day. God, just to think you might walk out and go home!
But old camp hands never said anything like that out loud. Shukhov said to Kilgas: “Don’t start counting up all the years you’ve got to go. Whether you’ll be here for the whole twenty-five years or not is anybody’s guess. All I know is I’ve done eight of mine, that’s for sure.”
So you just went on living like this, with your eyes on the ground, and you had no time to think about how you got in and when you’d get out.
Shukhov looked up to the sky and gasped. It was clear, and by the sun it was almost noon. It was funny thing how time flew when you were working! He was always struck by how fast the days went in camp – you didn’t have time to turn around. But the end of your sentence never seemed to be any closer.
It looked sort of eerie all over, with the bare plain, the empty compound, and the moon gleaming on the snow. The guards had already gotten in place – ten paces away from each other and their guns at the ready. There was this black herd of prisoners, and in among them, in a black coat like everybody else, was that man, S-311, who’d worn golden shoulder straps in this time and been pals with a British admiral. And now he had to carry hods with Fetyukov.
Shukhov lay down with his head to the window, and Alyoshka was on the other side of the bunk with his head the other way so he got the light from the bulb. He was reading the Gospels again.
Alyoshka’d heard Shukhov thank the Lord and he turned to him. “Look here, Ivan Denisovich, your soul wants to pray to God, so why don’t you let it have its way?”
Shukhov looked at Alyoshka and his eyes were narrow. They had a light in them and they were like two candles. And he sighed. “I’ll tell you why, Alyoshka. Because all these prayers are like the complaints we send in to the higher-ups-either they don’t get there or they come back to you marked ‘Rejected.’ “
In front ofHQ barracks there were four boxes with seals and one of the security guys came along every month to empty them. A lot of fellows put slips in those boxes and they counted the days-a month or two months-waiting to hear.Either there was nothing or it was “Rejected.”
“The trouble is, Ivan Denisovich, you don’t pray hard enough and that’s why your prayers don’t work out. You must pray unceasing! And if you have faith and tell the mountain to move, it will move.”
Shukhov grinned and made himself another cigarette. He got a light from one of the Estonians.
“Don’t give me that, Alyoshka. I’ve never seen a mountain move. But come to think of it, I’ve never seen a mountain either. And when you and all your Baptists prayed down there in the Caucasus did you ever see a mountain move?” The poor fellows. All they did was pray to God. And were they in anybody’s way? They all got twenty-five years, because that’s how it was now-twenty-five years for everybody.
“But we didn’t pray for that, Ivan Denisovich,” Alyoshka said, and he came up close to Shukhov with his Gospels, right up to his face. “The only thing of this earth the Lord has ordered us to pray for is our daily bread-‘Give us this day our daily bread.’ “
“You mean that ration we get?” Shukhov said.
But Alyoshka went on and his eyes said more than his words and he put his hand on Ivan’s hand.
“Ivan Denisovich, you mustn’t pray for somebody to send you a package or for an extra helping of gruel. Things that people set store by are base in the sight of the Lord. You must pray for the things of the spirit so the Lord will take evil things from our hearts. . . .”
“But listen. The priest in our church in Polomnya . . .” “Don’t tell me about that,” Alyoshka begged and he winced with pain.
“No. But just listen.” And Shukhov bent over to him on his elbow. “The priest is the richest man in our parish in Polomnya. Suppose they ask you to build a roof on a house, your price is thirty rubles for plain people. For the priest it’s a hundred. That priest of ours is paying alimony to three women in three towns, and he’s living with a fourth. And he’s got the bishop under his thumb. You should see the way he holds that fat greasy hand of his out to the bishop. And it doesn’t matter how many other priests they send. He always gets rid of ‘ em. He doesn’t want to share the pickings.”
“Why are you telling me about this priest? The Orthodox Church has gotten away from the Gospel. And the reason they don’t put them in prison is because they have no true faith.”
Shukhov looked straight and hard, and went on smoking. “Alyoshka,” he said, and he moved the Baptist’s hand away and the smoke from his cigarette went in Alyoshka’s face. “I’m not against God, understand. I believe in God, all right.
But what I don’t believe in is Heaven and Hell. Who d’you think we are, giving us all that stuff about Heaven and Hell? That’s the thing I can’t take.”
Shukhov lay back again and dropped the ash off his cigarette between the bunk and the window, careful so’s not to burn the Captain’s stuff. He was thinking his own thoughts and didn’t hear Alyoshka any more, and he said out loud: “The thing is, you can pray as much as you like but they won’t take anything off your sentence and you’ll just have to sit it out, every day of it, from reveille to lights out.”
“You mustn’t pray for that.” Alyoshka was horror-struck. “What d’you want your freedom for? What faith you have left will be choked in thorns. Rejoice that you are in prison. Here you can think of your soul. Paul the Apostle said: ‘What mean you to weep and to break my heart? for I am ready not to be bound only, but also to die for the name of the Lord Jesus.’ “
Shukhov looked up at the ceiling and said nothing. He didn’t know any longer himself whether he wanted freedom or not. At first he’d wanted it very much and every day he added up how long he still had to go. But then he got fed up with this. And as time went on he understood that they might let you out but they never let you home. And he didn’t really know where he’d be better off. At home or in here.
But they wouldn’t let him home anyway. . . .
Alyoshka was talking the truth. You could tell by his voice and his eyes he was glad to be in prison.
“Look, Alyoshka,” Shukhov said, “it’s all right for you. It was Christ told you to come here, and you are here because of Him. But why am I here? Because they didn’t get ready for the war like they should’ve in forty-one? Was that my fault?”