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9 April 1945, Moscow. His footsteps echoed in the empty street.
Above him, framed by the snub-toothed silhouettes of chimney pots, the darkness shuddered with stars.
With hands shoved deep into the pockets of his coat, Pekkala made his way towards the Cafe Tilsit, the only place open at this time of night.
The windows of the cafe, blind with condensation, glowed from the light of candles set behind them.
Pekkala put his shoulder against the heavy wooden door and a small bell, tied to the handle, clanged as he entered the room. He paused for a minute, filling his lungs with the smell of soup and cigarettes, before heading to a quiet table at the back.
Pekkala had been coming here for years.
Before the war, most of the patrons who wandered in after midnight had been workers coming off their shifts – taxi-drivers, whores, museum guards. But there were also those who had no place to live, and some who, like Pekkala, fled whisperings of madness in the quiet of their empty rooms.
Here, at the Cafe Tilsit, alone but without being lonely, they chased all their demons away.
Nine years at a labour camp had taught Pekkala the value of this strange, wordless communion.
Schooled in the art of solitude by the lacquer-black winters of Siberia, he had come to know a silence so complete that it appeared to have a sound of its own – a hissing, rushing noise – like that of the planet hurtling through space.
Soon after he arrived at Borodok, the director of the camp had sent him into the woods, fearing that other inmates might learn his true identity.
Pekkala was given the task of marking trees to be cut by inmates of the camp, whose function was the harvesting of timber from the forest of Krasnagolyana. In that vast wilderness, Pekkala lacked not only the trappings of a civilised existence, but even a name. At Borodok, he was known only as prisoner 4745.
Moving through the forest with the help of a large stick, whose gnarled root head bristled with square-topped horseshoe nails, he daubed his handprint in red paint on trees selected for cutting. These marks were, for most of the other convicts, the only trace of him they ever saw.
The average life of a tree-marker in the forest of Krasnagolyana was six months. Working alone, with no chance of escape and far from any human contact, these men died from exposure, starvation and loneliness. Those who became lost, or who fell and broke a leg, were usually eaten by wolves. Tree-marking was the only assignment at Borodok said to be worse than a death sentence.
Everyone assumed that Pekkala would be dead before the ice broke up in spring, but nine years later he was still at work, having lasted longer than any other marker in the entire Gulag system.
Every few months, provisions were left for him at the end of a logging road. Kerosene. Cans of meat. Nails. For the rest, he had to fend for himself.. Only rarely was he seen by those logging crews who came to cut the timber. What they observed was a creature barely recognisable as a man. With the crust of red paint that covered his prison clothes and the long hair maned about his face, he resembled a beast stripped of its flesh and left to die which had somehow managed to survive. Wild rumours surrounded him – that he was an eater of human flesh, that he wore a breastplate made from the bones of those who had disappeared in the forest, that he wore scalps laced together as a cap.
They called him the man with bloody hands. No one except the commandant of Borodok knew where this prisoner had come from or who he had been before he arrived.
Those same men who feared to cross his path had no idea this was Pekkala, whose name they’d once invoked just as their ancestors had called upon the gods.
For Pekkala, after those years spent in the forest, some habits still remained. Although there was a bed in his flat, he never slept in it, preferring the hard planks of the floor and his coat rolled up as a pillow. He wore the same clothes – a hip-length double-breasted coat, heavy brown corduroys and a grey waistcoat – no matter what season or occasion. And, thanks to the Cafe Tilsit, he often ate his dinners in the middle of the night, just as he had done out in Siberia.
Now, in the sixth year of the war, almost all the men who dined at the cafe were in the military, forming a mottled brown horde that smelled of boot grease,
Most of them sat at one of two long, wooden tables, elbow to elbow, eating from shallow wooden bowls.
As Pekkala passed by, a few of them glanced up from their meals, squinting through the smoky air at the tall, broad-shouldered man, whose greenish-brown eyes were marked by a strange silvery quality, which people noticed only when he was looking directly at them. Streaks of premature grey ran through his dark hair and a week’s worth of beard stubbled his wind-burned cheeks.
Pekkala did not sit at the long tables. Instead, he made his way to his usual table at the back, facing the door ...