AN IKON FOR IRENA
THROUGH THE SIBERIAN GLOOM THE YAKUTS CHANTER BEHIND THEIR SYMBOL OF PAINTED WOOD. THE SOVIET GEOLOGIST, WHO LOVED STARK FACTS AND HIS BEAUTIFUL WIFE, FOUND IN THE TORCHLIGHT THAT NEITHER OF THESE WAS EVERLASTING IN A WORLD NOT RULED BY THE STATE
ANATOLI ILIYTCH PETROV, Member of the Academy of Science, twice winner of a Stalin Prize for geology, walked slowly across the tundra. His shoulders were hunched against the constant wind. Usually on these walks between the blustery drilling site and the bleak camp Petrov’s eyes stared straight ahead. He liked to search across the flat treeless plains, marking their precise limits in that broad band of grey haze where they blended into the Arctic sky. Such definitions pleased Petrov. It was good to see exactly where earth ended and sky began. By knowing such details, he thought, man controlled himself and the world about him.
Today, however, Petrov’s eyes were following the black squiggles on a strip of electric logging paper. The ends of the long strip flapped whitely beyond his hands. His head moved in little nods of agreement, interpreting the impressions made while the logging machine had been lowered into the shaft. The resistance of various layers of rock to
an electric current had outlined on the paper a cross section of the earth strata through which the well had been bored. To trace the oil well’s profile through the frozen clay of the permafrost, down past the sheets of gypsum, rock and salt was very pleasing to Petrov. It confirmed the findings of science. It testified to the rigid ordained order of the world. The strip of logging paper was food for a mind that fed on facts.
Even more than that, the electric log backed up his own conclusions. For years he had been studying the few geological findings made in the Siberian Arctic. Putting them all together had led to the deduction that oil must be present in the north—in large quantities and in specific areas. Such conclusions were too important for o. Soviet citizen to keep to himself. Petrov had immediately notified the Oil Ministry of his beliefs. To the State fell the regulation of men and their works, another fact he considered just and fitting.
Those at the Kremlin had given him ships and
equipment. They made it possible for him to come to this desolate spot between the wide, black, lonesome, north-flowing waters of the Yenisei and Lena Rivers. The men of the Kremlin had placed their trust in the word of a Soviet scientist that oil would be found in the great wastes of Siberia. They had accepted his proposal to start work hundreds of miles north of the Arctic Circle and much nearer the Pole than the geologists of other countries had ever dared drill before.
Petrov realized the acceptance was provisional, however. The State needed oil and would provide lavishly for those who could produce it. But there was a limit to its trust. If oil was not found within what Moscow considered reasonable time limits, a project would be wiped out and with it a scientific reputation.
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official had warned him bluntly that he would have to prove his conclusions in a hurry. The State would not tolerate the use of valuable materials for long without results. Such items as steel pipe and drilling bits were too rare to waste.
And so far the well had eaten up quantities of both and its progress had been plagued by delays.
The drilling could not be started on schedule because some vital equipment had gone astray. Then the strata of harder stone had proven to be thicker than Petrov had expected them to be. Three times the drilling mud had frozen in the shaft, until he’d discovered that salt water in the mix would keep it liquid. These circumstances had been impossible to explain to a State that did not accept excuses. Petrov knew that the pressure of jealous colleagues plus the fact the State still had no oil for its investment meant that he could extend his time no further. Already he could sense that Moscow’s patience, tried by his difficulties, was swiftly running out.
The electric logging record was the first comfort he’d had. Every little hill and valley on the strip of paper recorded certain geological conditions the drilling bit had met and passed. They were as he had surmised. With a spell of luck a few days more should see the well at the level where he was certain oil would be found.
Smiling with the hope of success —not because it would bring him glory but because it would stem from unchangeable fact — Petrov folded the strip of paper. He slipped it into his greatcoat pocket. It was summer on the Arctic plains but that only meant a variation in the degree of coldness. The one gift of the season was an absence of snow. Now the stony tundra was mottled with patches of greyishgreen moss. The long, unpainted frame buildings of the camp thrust themselves from the cold earth like weathered ridges of rock.
Petrov hurried along the ribbon of path as he neared the camp. He looked without seeing at the dormitories, the hospital, the tractor garage and the administration building where the red flag flapped and slapped at its pole. If anything had been one inch out of place—a refuse can moved from its usual spot, a guy wire down from an aerial pole at the radio shed—Petrov would mark it instantly. But as long as things were in order he did not notice. His only interest now was to show Irena the log. He half-ran along the main path to the administration building, turning up the branch that led to the end where he and Irena had two cubbyholes.
“Irena!" he called excitedly, the door banging behind him. “Irena! Come look at the log!”
Years ago, and then very dimly, Anatoli Petrov had been aware that his wife was a beautiful woman. Though he had long since dismissed her beauty in favor of more important facts she still had her looks. She was tall—as tall as Petro\—with high cheekbones and skin so white it made her black hair shine with glossy brilliance. She was dressed like a man, which was appropriate for she did a man's work —Irena Petrov was the doctor in charge of the camp hospital. His wife's medical training was the fact making it possible for Petrov to have her with him in the Arctic. Here, again, the geologist admitted the importance of reason over sentiment. A doctor was of use. A wife could only be classed
as a pleasant, but unnecessary, luxury at the Arctic camp. He was proud of her ability, although alarmed that she often worked herself to physical exhaustion.
From the competent eagerness with which Irena examined the log it was plain she shared Petrov’s interests as well as his outlook on life.
“You are nearing the Permian zone, Professor!” Since the days of their honeymoon Irena had addressed her husband by his academic title.
“Yes. In spite of the trouble we’ve had we should be in the oil-bearing
structure soon.” Petrov smiled with the sudden surprised enthusiasm of a small boy.
Irena’s dark eyes glowed. The color flushed under the white skin of her cheeks and her head lifted in quick pride. “I'm so happy. It will be wonderful to have accomplished this
She took his hand, squeezing it softly. They stood like that for a few moments, until they recollected themselves. Then the geologist and his wife turned brusquely back to their separate duties.
THE NEXT few days were so important that Petrov did not dare to leave the drilling site. There was too much at stake. Moscow was getting more obviously impatient. Petrov knew the full responsibility was on his shoulders. The men working the rig were competent enough, but they had to be watched all the time. Even though their jobs were mechanical ones they made mistakes constantly. Those he had hand-picked to come on the expedition could be trusted to do most tasks well. The rest had been appointed by the Party, of course. They were
responsible for political activity, and Petrov knew they sent their own reports of affairs back to Moscow. He had grown used to the necessity of their inefficiency, however, accepting the facts of government which didn’t interest him at all. After many years of putting up with Party bunglers on his jobs he explained away their slowness as understandable since they, too, were dealing with something they knew nothing about. In all his work schedules he allowed for the margin needed because of their waste. Now he stayed at the drilling site to be sure they did not exceed that margin.
But the men worrying him most on this job were the natives. It would have been prohibitively expensive to import unskilled labor to this remote region. Petrov had been given authority to use the Yakuts, the nomadic Turkic tribesmen who for centuries had grazed their reindeer across the endless tundra. They were to do the manual work. There was plenty of that. Coal had to be mined from a seam which had been charted years before by an early Arctic explorer, then carried to the camp power plant and the rig’s steam boiler. There had been the work of setting up the camp buildings. And the Yakuts did all the heavy surface labor, too. One of them was even driving a tractor, pulling loads of coal from the mine to the rig.
He’d expected these natives to give him trouble, but not quite in the way they chose. Before coming to the Arctic. Petrov had imagined the Yakuts as children. He'd anticipated careful instruction in the simple details they would have to know in order to work. Also needed would be an elementary political education, so they might grasp the full implication of the work they would be doing. These things, he thought, would take time at the beginning. He was rather hopeful about the political training being easily absorbed. The Party had spent much time instructing all the peoples of Russia, even tribes as remote and unlettered as the Yakuts on this cold rim of the Soviet world.
From the beginning the Yakuts had not responded according to plan. It was not that they were backward about learning the work. After being shown what wanted doing they did it perfectly. In fact, they were rather a nuisance about work. They asked about other jobs and wanted to try them. too. This interest nettled Petrov. He was used to workmen doing what was assigned to them, no more. That was how work was meant to go: each completing his own task without continually asking questions about another's.
Nor could he exactly complain about their political indoctrination. The Yakuts were attentive listeners to the lectures given them at night in the administration building. Seated in a ring at the political instructor's feet, their fur-lined coats steaming in the heat, they flashed white teeth in their yellowed faces and eagerly bobbed their sleek black heads. They remembered all they were told. Even the Yakut children could repeat the glorious history of -Josef Stalin and reel off names and dates from the times of the October Revolution. Yet Petrov was uneasily aware that somewhere, something was wrong.
They didn't have the proper attitude about the value of their labors to the Motherland, for one thing. He’d intended to impress them with the honor of this work. Their pay was to have been the few stores they needed to live. Having little. Petrov reasoned, they would be satisfied with little. But they’d refused his offer. Before
getting them to work he’d been forced to triple his wage offering. That had not only set the drilling back, it was a fact he knew would require involved explanations in Moscow. But it was that or seeing the whole Yakut tribe melt into the tundra at the heels of their reindeer herds.
Another irritating trait was even more serious. These people—simple, primitive, almost unaware of the privilege the fact of Soviet citizenship implied—were corrupt with superstition. Nor did they try to hide their failing. One of the first questions Uluk, the old but still physically powerful Yakut leader, put to him was to ask the date of Easter! The chieftain’s long, narrow eyes had been grave, telling Petrov he was afraid the tribe might have been incorrectly celebrating the resurrection of Our Lord. Naively, Uluk had explained the tribe had seen no priest for years, that the Yakuts wanted to be sure their own calculations of the date were accurate!
Petrov almost felt sorry for the man.
He remembered the old people in Moscow who still superstitiously crossed themselves while passing buildings that had once been churches but were now museums or classrooms. He’d taken advanced scientific courses for awhile in such a building, laughing with the other students at the janitor who accused them of sacrilege because they smoked and kept their hats on indoors. Poor fellow! He couldn’t grasp facts, any more than could this primitive Uluk ceremoniously calling down the blessing of God.
At least this last period of drilling was an effective antidote to all the childish fancies of the Yakuts. They’d been getting under Professor Petrov’s skin. The hymns they sang at their work, their ritualistic thanks before eating food, their trust in a pow-er beyond the world had begun to seem almost natural in the eternity of flatness stretching all about the skeletal derrick, washing around the huddled buildings of the camp. Within the past week Petrov had actually come upon a Yakut kneeling on the cold tundra, his face glazed with stupid ecstasy as he prayed. After such nonsense, contact with the realities of drilling was reassuring.
Petrov thoughtfully rubbed a pinch of the mud that flowed up from the well. The feel of the telltale bits of ground rock and clay the mud brought with it spoke volumes. The fragments gave him a running record of just where the drill bit was cutting. He kept a wary eye on the driller and the boilerman, capable workmen both but inclined to forget the limitations of their equipment. Already there had been one half-day breakdown. And he had prevented a real disaster by seconds when he'd checked a pressure gauge the boilerman was supposed to be watching.
With the same intent anxiety that he gave gauges and drill pipe, Petrov watched the Yakut laborers shoveling coal into the boiler and mixing mud in the mud pit. All during his anxious supervision he jotted down dial readings, times, mud densities and other pertinent facts. It was comforting to put the circumstantial details into crisp letters and symbols.
“Why do you write all the time?” Lluk was asking the question. He stood by the frozen coal pile near the drilling rig where he’d been helping some of his tribesmen. Uluk was too important to be assigned menial work. He spent his time seeing that the others did their jobs. If Uluk found someone tiring he pitched in on the task. Sometimes he worked alongside one of the
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Yakuts just from sociability. The two tribesmen, thickset and jovial, would sing and laugh together as though at play.
“I keep an accurate record of everything that happens,” said Petrov patiently. It occurred to him that this man might be shown the foolishness of his beliefs by a simple exposure to science.
“And what does this writing tell you?” Uluk was greatly interested.
“It tells me facts so I can determine what is in the earth, thousands of meters below. Knowing them. I can find the oil hidden there.”
“The earth is God’s.” Now Uluk seemed less puzzled, more sure of himself. “We have been told that He has bound up the secrets of the earth, and of Heaven and Hell besides. Then you must write in your book the things the priests once read to us from the Book of God.”
“I write down facts,” said Petrov, sharply. “Those things the priests told you long ago were dreams, imaginings. These are the records of science. Because of them Russia is great, not a backward country as in the days of priests.”
"That may be true.” Uluk's tone expressed doubt. “But then there were many reindeer in the north. Since the time wrhen officials came from Moscow and made us drive the reindeer all together so they died by the thousands for the lack of feed, our herds have not been the same. Nor have our people been happy since the priests have gone. Our children cannot marry. Our dead cannot be buried in the ways that are fitting to God.”
Petrov sighed. Closing his notebook, he laid it on the timber railing of the derrick platform. Against the steamy chuffing of the boiler and the whir of the rotary table turning the bit far down in the well, he pitched his voice in another effort to make the short sallow-skinned nomad understand.
“Things may have seemed better to you then, Uluk. But they were not.
\ Now the State has the interest of the people at heart. It encourages the development of Russian men and Russian resources. Look at this.” Petrov pointed up at the stark latticework of the derrick. “Do you remember any drilling for oil in the Siberian Arctic in the days of czars and priests?”
“No," said Uluk, simply. “But I do not remember the need for it, either. What is this oil to do? There are no roads here. Nothing but moss grows on the tundra. We Yakuts have no machines. The oil will be too far from the rest of Russia to be used by the people who live there.”
“It will be used here," said Petrov. “The State will order a refinery built in this region. Then ships of the Red Fleet may fuel in the Arctic Ocean. Then planes of the Red Air Force may fly from bases here in the north.”
Uluk wrinkled his low forehead under its black bang of hair. “Why are these ships and planes needed among the Yakuts?"
“To protect Russia from those who would attack her from the north.” Petrov s voice went flat. He spoke in his classroom tone, as though reading a lesson he had himself heard many times before. From the doubting look on the chieftain's face it was plain the argument was not impressing Uluk.
Petrov decided on the third, and psychological, approach. “If priests are so necessary to life. Uluk, then why are the ways of your people so pleasant? i You are all well fed and clothed. You laugh and joke among yourselves at ! work. Your children are strong, your 1 wives good to look upon. Would you
not be less fortunate if the absence of priests was really important?”
“No.” Uluk answered without a moment's pause. "Though the priests have gone, and with them the word of God, we still have our Ikon."
“An ikon!" Petrov could not hide his contempt. “An image made by the church is worse than a dream.” he said with finality. He was tired of arguing with this simpleton.
“But this is a picture of the Son of God.” Uluk ignored Petrov's scorn. Now he was the one explaining, slowly and patiently, trying to make Petrov understand. “In times of great need the Ikon helps us. When the moss is dying we pray before it so we may have food for our reindeer. When the snows will not go in the spring, or when our children lie ill. we also pray. It is very old and powerful. The Ikon is in my tent now. If you would like I will take you there so you may see for yourself how fine a thing it is."
"Thanks. Uluk. but I won't trouble yrou." The geologist gave up in the face of such obstinate ignorance. Probably. he thought, it was useless trying to salvage the minds of the old ones. "These figures and facts of mine are more useful titan ikons. If vou can’t see that, your children trill discover it in time."
Picking up his notebook from the splintery railing Professor Petrov walked down the steps of the drilling platform, brushed past Uluk and went around once more to check on the boiler gauges.
A DAY later, with the bit grinding _TJL two thousand metres below the drilling platform, cutting almost to the edge of what Petrov hoped would be oil sands, trouble struck again in spite of all his care. The long thin stem of pipe twisting in its sheath of mud snapped off near the bottom of the well.
After drawing up and stacking more than a mile of pipe, Petrov was left with an empty hole. Near its bottom was a hollow section of metal and a jammed bit that must be removed before the well could be finished and oil brought in.
Fishing for pipe and bit far down in the earth was a ticklish job at best. But this one was worse than usual. Petrov had sweated these problems out before. He had, in fact, made his own grappling tools to supplement those issued by the Equipment Section of the Soviet Ministry for Oil. Foreign oil journals often carried descriptions of devices used for such purposes in the decadent British and American petroleum industries. Though surprised by these signs of technical vigor he’d adapted many of the ideas for his own use. Even these didn’t seem to work
Time after maddening time, Petrov would sense the grappling tool take hold. It would begin lifting the broken pipe and bit, only to have them slip free and fall to the bottom of the hole. He half-crouched on the platform, staring at the pulley block joggling up and down in its efforts to get the grapple in place. As the pulley line slowly began raising the broken stem he’d start to relax. Then the miserable experience would begin all over again. Finally, Petrov began operating the pulley himself. After the grapple was fast to the broken piece, he’d apply power to the pulley with agonizing slowness, holding his breath in fierce concentration. But he had no more luck than the regular pulleyman. A slight difference in feel, almost imperceptible to anyone not trained on a drilling rig, would tell him he must try
Petrov began to worry. If he didn’t get the bit out soon he would be in serious trouble. The messages from Moscow had been full of curt questions for the past three days. The last had ordered him to abandon the project, break up the camp and return. He could guess to what he’d return. Desperately gambling on success he'd sent a short reply that oil had been found. Now he had to find it soon or be exposed by a contrary report from one of the Moscow appointees in his crew.
All day he worked trying to clear the well. Through the grey half-night of the Arctic summer he kept on trying. Irena came down from the administration building with hot food for him. The Yakuts, clustering around the drilling platform aware that something was wrong and too filled with childlike curiosity to leave until the trouble was mended, murmured with pleasure as Irena came across the tundra. They all loved her. She treated them like the children they were, making them presents of wooden tongue depressors and bits of bandage at the hospital, joking with them while giving inoculations. They laughed and waved when she went up on the platform and opened the pot of hot food. Petrov wolfed rit down without stopping his
“Do you think it will take much longer, Professor?” Irena tactfully did not suggest defeat.
“It shouldn’t!” Petrov’s voice was taut with exhaustion. “It’s really a simple break. I’ve examined the end of the pipe and there’s nothing unusual about the problem. The shaft is straight. The casing is keeping the well clean. And I’m using exactly the right grapple for a problem like this one. By all the rules we should have had everything fixed by now.”
“I’m sure you will soon, Professor.” Irena’s words were as affectionate as a caress.
Petrov was too absorbed to notice
her tone, or too worried to respond with affection.
“I’d better get it cleared soon. You know what this weli means to us. The ministry has already received news of my success and I don’t have much time to make good on the report. It’s not that I’m afraid of there not being oil here. I’m as sure of that as geological fact can make me. But this delay on top of all the others could be fatal right now. There are too many men back at the ministry who would like an excuse to get rid of me for good. And I'll have to tell the truth about condi-
tions in my radio report soon, or run the risk of tales I can’t control from here.”
“Just don’t worry. That’s the main thing now.” Irena smiled but got no answer. Petrov was trying to secure the grapple again. She leaned back against the railing, admiring her husband who seemed so sure with the tools of his profession. It felt cold to her on the drilling platform. She shivered slightly and turned up her collar.
“What has gone wrong with the Professor’s well?” Uluk was standing on the ground below, his black eyes
shining like buttons in the yellow circle thrown around the base of the derrick by the rig’s working lights. The tone of his voice was curious but respectful.
“The pipe has broken off down in the earth.” Irena turned away to cough, then bent her face down toward the squat tribal chief. “Now he must catch hold of it down there and bring it back up so the drilling can go on.” She smiled at Uluk while speaking. Irena was especially fond of the old man.
Uluk warmed under her interest. His voice betrayed his concern as he glanced
at Petrov, so taken up with the operation of the pulley that he neither saw nor heard what was going on.
“It is bad to lose the pipe, is it not? All day the Professor has been disturbed. We have watched him frowning and talking to himself.”
“Yes,” said Irena, softly, careful not to let Petrov hear. “It is bad to lose the pipe.” She went on, glad of
someone to whom she could pour out her worries. “Losing this pipe is particularly bad. This well must be finished soon and oil found, or the State will be very angry." The prospect of failure, which she had tried to ignore, clutched at Irena’s heart. She felt chilled in spite of her warm coat° and shuddered involuntarily. “But he will have the bit up soon.”
Uluk looked at her keenly, his black eyes soft. He stood there, deep in thought, before speaking.
“I should like to help him.” Surprising as the offer was, Uluk seemed serious.
“That is very generous of you, but I’m afraid there is little you can do.” Irena spoke with kindness. “You see, this is a technical problem. It takes much study to understand. Though the Professor would be grateful for your offer he is the only one with the knowledge needed to clear the well.”
Uluk waved her explanation aside. “I have heard about knowledge. The Professor has told me of that. I was speaking of help that is even better —help from the Ikon.”
“What do you mean?” Irena was bewildered.
“Whenever we have great trouble and need special help we pray before our Ikon. It is a good thing for men to do.”
“I don’t think that would aid the Professor.” Irena was patient, though her reaction to the ikon was the same as her husband's. “He must do this work himself.”
“But let us try,” Uluk pleaded. He smiled up at her, not asking a favor but for the privilege of helping a friend.
Irena hesitated. She remembered the Professor’s scorn when telling her of the Yakut superstitions. If he thought such nonsense was being practiced in his behalf he would not like it. And, though she was more tolerant than Petrov of the old ways, it also made her sad to see people delude themselves.
But Uluk was insistent. She couldn't bring herself to insult him by refusing aid so proudly offered.
“You will say it is not against your wishes for us to try to help Professor Petrov?" The chief smiled up at Irena, seeing that his persistence was having
“Yes, Uluk, if you people would like to do so.”
Irena turned back to watch Petrov. He was still trying to clear the well. Seeing the worried frown on his face made her sad. She coughed violently, turning her head again so he would not
If she had realized what her permission would involve Irena would never have given it. When the Yakuts left in a group she assumed Uluk had taken them back to their reindeer-hide tents to pray for help. She had. in fact, congratulated herself when the clusters of spectators vanished. Irena had been afraid the audience might begin to get on Petrov's nerves.
But, looking across the half-dark tundra, she saw that L'luk intended to bring the ikon to the rig itself.
The Yakuts had lighted torches and were coming back in a slow procession across the plain, moving to the tune of a deep chant. Uluk was carrying the ikon in the lead. The torches flared brightly as the procession neared the derrick. The lights and the low voices
suddenly reminded Irena of her early childhood, something she hadn’t thought of for years. Then, in the village church, there had been processions like this. The sound of chanting, and the sight of censers smoking with heavy clouds of incense, came back to her as though she were still a Little girl. She stared at the ikon, moving with the procession. The angular figure was beautifully executed. It was obviously the masterwork of some sixteenth-century artist, lovingly painted in a northern monastery' and probably carried to the Yakuts by some missionary' priest. Through the flickering light the great sad eyes looked at her with a strange intensity.
“What are those fools doing?” Petrov was by her side. The chanting and the torchlight had distracted him from his work.
“Uluk asked me if they might help you by praying to their ikon. I had no idea they’d bring it over here. Do you want me to ask them to take it back to their camp?" Irena looked anxiously at her husband.
"You might as well ask the reindeer not to graze the tundra." Petrovpointed contemptuously. "Look at l'luk 1 He's so carried away with his foolishness that he couldn't hear himself. let alone you. No. we'd better let them finish. I've got more serious matters to worry about." He watched them for another moment, then went back to the job.
Irena stood by the railing, trembling in the night air. while the Yakuts circled the rig. Their faces, usually smiling, were fixed with solemn fervor. Their voices exulted in the ancient chant, the words of the ritual swelling across the dusky tundra. The ikon was carried on a long staff, which two young boys held when Uluk finally halted the procession. He faced the image with the rest of the tribe behind him.
Then, without a word, they all knelt on the cold earth and began to pray.
Irena had not meant to be impressed, but she couldn't help herself. The sight of those bare-headed figures kneeling before the ikon affected her deeply. She felt sorry for those simple people whose trust was so misplaced. If she could only make them understand, to show them their error without disappointing them too bitterly. This was the kind of devotion, she thought, that only the State deserved.
The spectacle held her so long that she forgot about Petrov'. When she turned to watch him Irena immediately sensed the change. The pulley cables were running smoothly through the blocks, bringing the pipe steadily up the shaft. She stood by her husband and held his hand until the broken piece of stem and the bit were safely out of the well. Petrov smiled at her in sudden relief.
“The coincidence couldn't have been happier for Uluk. He won't stop talking about this for awhile.”
Irena smiled back, happy because the strain was past. “You’re right. Here he comes now to crow about it.”
Uluk did not seem surprised to find the workmen fitting a new bit to the end of the stem. His face was still grave, but pleasant.
"It is all right now, Professor? The well is clear?”
“Yes.” said Petrov. “Now the drilling can go on.”
“We are glad for you," said Uluk. simply. “We knew that the Ikon would not fail."
Petrov didn't try to answer. He smiled at the old chief and lifted his shoulders helplessly as he turned to his
OIL CAME in at 2040 metres, a fine, high-gravity crude with *• steady flow. Petrov knew there were millions of barrels in the pool. He said as much when he sent a full report to Moscow. The reply more titan repaid all his work and worry. It was not the nature of the message—containing the briefest formal acknowledgment—but the fact that it was signed by one of the highest Party officials. Petrov knew he had done very well indeed.
There was •' celebration at the rig with all the workmen—Yakuts included—drinking vodka and singing rousing songs. Everyone felt gay about the success of the well. Professor Petrov and his wife walked down from the camp to have a drink and enjoy themselves with the men. Looking at her. Petrov could not remember her ever having such a high color before.
Uluk was the first one they saw. He laughed and smashed the flat of his hand on the bottom of a vodka bottle, crying gleefully as the cork popped out. "Are you not happy. Professor, now that the Ikon has helped you?”
Petrov’s smile was indulgent. “Science found the oil, Uluk. The shaft would have been cleared with, or without, your prayers to the ikon.” “No, no, Professor!” Uluk was shocked. “The well was cleared because we brought the Ikon here! Surely you must realize that.”
“I only realize that my grapple caught the broken pipe, as I knew that it would all along. Such occurrences are not uncommon. Uluk. That is fact, like all the rest of the world.”
“Facts only begin to tell the story of the world,” Uluk said simply. They could see he was hurt.
Irena hurriedly broke into the conversation. “Don’t quarrel with Uluk, Professor. This is no time for arguments.” She smiled but without real gaiety. She felt that her eyes were burning in her head.
Petrov' noticed how unwell she suddenly looked. His eyes searched her face closely. “Shall we go back to the camp? I’m sure Uluk will excuse us.” “If you don’t mind, Professor. It's silly of me, but I am so tired I can hardly stand.” She smiled weakly at Uluk. They went back along the path with the noise of the celebration growing dimmer in the distance, Petrov half-carrying her most of the way.
By the next morning both Petrov and his wife knew the truth. Working with quick detachment, and using her last reserves of energy, Irena made a series of tests. She ran through them twice, like a good technician, carefully examining blood and sputum smears under her microscope to doublecheck her findings. There could be no mistake. She had been stricken with miliary tuberculosis, a virulent form of the disease. It had evidently lain dormant in her for years, fostered by poor food and long hours, to break out after the rigors of Arctic life. Now her blood was filled with the tubercle bacillus, infecting her organs as it flowed through them. Already the disease had weakened her gravely.
Petrov sat by her bed, his head in his liands. The triumph of his oil discovery was forgotten in the horror that faced him now. Then he roused himself to action.
For two days he fought the disease tirelessly. He ate little himself in his effort to tempt Irena’s appetite. Her white face grew paler by the hour. The skin beneath her eyes became dark. The veins stood ridged and knotted on the backs of her hands. Petrov gave her all the medicines he could find recommended in her books, although they seemed to have no effect. But he fought on stubbornly, using every' trick he knew to give her strength and ma ke her smile.
Irena spoke to him once when she had her breath. “It is not far away. Professor.” She caught his hand on the bed covers and pressed it weakly. "I have seen too many die with this to think it can last much longer.”
“Don't be foolish, dearest.” Petrovbrushed aside her words and forced a smile. “You're going to get better. You've got to get better.”
Irena turned her face to the unpainted board wall. She did not say
The technicians and the other members of the expedition came to the door, one by one. to offer help. But there was nothing they could do except mumble their regret and go away again. Petrov was grateful for their interest, but he wished they would stay away. He hated to leave Irena for a moment. The second night he refused to go to the door. The knocking was so insistent. however, that he finally got up from the side of the bed and went to see who was there.
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Uluk stood outside on the path. His long dark eyes were soft with sorrow. “When will the Doctor be well enough to see us again? We are sad to learn she is ill.”
The sight of Uluk stiffened Petrov’s resolve. He smiled at the chieftain. “She will be well soon. She is verysick just now but we have good medicines to cure her. If you will excuse me now I must get back to her bedside.”
Uluk turned away and walked down the pathway into the summer dusk.
Petrov forgot about the nomad when he got back to the bed. Irena was fighting for breath. She coughed in racking spasms until she grew so weak she could cough no more. Her eyes seemed sunk in ber head. The lids burned feverishly to his touch. He set to work to fight death away from her
Perhaps an hour later he noticed the sound. It must have been going on for some time for, even after he became aware of it. Petrov could not be sure that it wasn't the wind on the Arctic plains. Twice he dismissed it from his mind as imagination. Then, after folding a fresh cold cloth and laving it on Irena's forehead, be tiptoed through the other room and opened the outside door.
For a moment he could not grasp what he saw. Then the torches flaring wildly in the dusk, the sight of dark figures kneeling before the frame building, and the low steady hum of the voices reminded him of the night at the rig when the shaft had been jammed. Of course! Uluk and his tribe bad carried their ikon to the building. They were praying to it in the hope that Irena would be helped.
“Poor fools," he thought. But he was too busy to go out and ask them to go away. He had to get back to Irena. He worked in dull agony, trying by acting to keep his grief at bay. The sound of the praying never stopped. Cnee he went to the door and looked out again. The Y'akuts were still kneeling before the building, their broad backs to the door. Over the round bowed head of Uluk the torch-lit eyes of the ikon stared serenely back.
When he went back to Irena's bedside she seemed to sleep easily. The fever slipped away from her body. Her breath became regular. Her limbs relaxed in rest. Relief flooded through him with the feeling the tide had
turned. As the room whitened with dawn she stirred, opened her eyes and smiled at Petrov.
“Good-by. Anatoli.” The words were faint but very clear.
Then the sound of her breathing diminished so gradually that it was difficult to tell in which instant she died.
■ 'OR minutes Petrov could not move. r He could not bring himself to believe Irena was gone. His hands clenched and unclenched helplessly. The ache of emptiness spread through him like a stain. Then, very gently, he pulled the sheet over Irena's face and walked numbly into the next room. There the lowhum of voices broke through the icy walls of his thought.
Pushing the door open he stepped out among the kneeling Yakuts. All the weariness and grief exploded in his
“You may stop praying to your ikon, Uluk!" he shouted bitterly. “My wife is dead! Medicine could not save her, nor could your senseless prayers. Y ou must acknowledge now that your bit of paint and wood is just that, and no
Uluk rose to his feet and came to Petrov. His face was kind. Behind him the low sound of the prayers never stopped.
“I have not said the Ikon was more than that. Professor. We pray to God, not to paint and wood. The Ikon helps us talk to God more easily, that is all.”
He smiled gently at the geologist. “Nor have I said we are always answered in the fashion we may desire. This time God has answered that it is His will your wife should die. The will of God is always good. You maybe sure of that, even if it does not fit man's facts exactly'. It is not for man to say what the will of God shall be. We ask only to be part of God's plan.”
Petrov looked deep into the eyes of the chieftain. He thought of speaking but realized that nothing would ever really be worth talking about again. The world was now too empty for words. Instead, he turned and went back through the door. As it closed he was struck by the look on Uluk's face. It was that of a man who had great compassion but, even more, deep within him a profound abiding peace.
Somehow that look made Anatoli Iliytch Petrov wonder more than anything he had ever seen before. ★