Varlam Shalamov: Someone Else's Bread

It was someone else's bread, the bread of my comrade. This comrade trusted only me - he'd gone to work on the day shift and left the bread with me in a little Russian wooden case. Nowadays they don't make cases like that - natty little cases covered in artificial crocodile-skin - but in the twenties every good-looking girl in Moscow used to have one. In the case was bread, a ration of bread. If you shook the case, the bread rolled about inside. The case lay under my head. I couldn't sleep. A hungry man sleeps badly. But what stopped me sleeping was this bread, someone else's bread, the bread of my comrade. I sat up on the boards... It seemed that everyone was looking at me, that everyone knew what I was about to do. But the orderly by the window was patching something. Another man - I don't know his name but he worked on the night shift too - was lying in someone else's place in the middle of the barrack, feet towards the warm iron stove. This warmth didn't reach me. The man was lying on his back, face up. I went up to him - his eyes were closed. I glanced at the upper tier of bed-boards - there, in the corner of the barrack, someone was sleeping or else just lying awake, covered by a heap of old clothes. I lay down again in my place, determined to go to sleep. I counted to a thousand and then got up again. I opened the case and took out the bread. It was a three hundred gram ration, cold as a piece of wood. I raised it to my nose and my nostrils caught a mysterious, barely perceptible scent of bread. I put the bread back in the case and took it out again. I turned the case upside-down and emptied a few crumbs of bread into the palm of my hand. I licked them up with my tongue; my mouth immediately filled with saliva and the crumbs melted away. I no longer hesitated. I nipped off three small pieces of bread, little ones, the size of my little fingernail, put the bread in the case and lay down. Then I nipped off little crumbs and sucked them. And I fell asleep, proud that I hadn't stolen the bread of my comrade.

Translated from Russian by Robert Chandler & Nathan Wilkinson


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