Shukhov found himself standing beside his bed, his rags draped over his body, his pockets empty. His knees were bent with exhaustion – from work the day before – and his hands trembled in the cold wind that filtered through the gaps in the door. He strained his ears, but he was unable to hear the beat of the reveille. Glancing down at his valenki, they were the same old worn felt that he knew too well. He knew not how he found himself by his bed, but sensed that this was his own time. He must make use of it – he trudged his aching feet towards the door and caught sight of a frost settling on the window. His whole body was screaming with fatigue. Why was the camp so quiet? Perhaps they had all made their way to the mess-hall already.
As Shukhov placed an uneasy step into the cold morning, he knew he must be quiet. He tightened his jacket around his body – it had ripped the week before, exposing his back to the elements. The cold hit Shukhov like a wall as he exited the barrack-room. His face was shrouded with confusion as he searched the camp with attentive eyes, but he could not see a soul. The stars still shone brightly in the early morning twilight. The snow creaked under his boots as he took a few tentative steps forward – he did not know what was going on. Where was everybody?
The camp was empty. He had been abandoned. Normally, zeks would be rushing round, each on their own business. The camp looked like a different world when it had no prisoners. Funny that, Shukhov thought. A prison is nothing without its inmates. Nonetheless, food was still the agenda in Shukhov’s mind. He realised he should search the camp. He walked past the barrack-room, past the high wooden fence round the lock up; past the kitchen and on into the mess-hall. Empty. Not a soul was to be seen. His stomach reminded him again that he was in need of food; he began to inspect the kitchen, and to his pleasure there were steaming pots of skilly waiting to be served up: but nobody was there to eat it.
Except for Shukhov.
There was one rule in the camp: eat as much as you can. And since there were no other zeks around, Shukhov decided the vegetable skilly was his. And there was so much of it! He scoured the room for bowls – they were in the corner. He scurried over and – without knowing whether they’d been washed – took one from the stack, and commenced to fill his bowl with the soup. He leaned over his spoil and began to eat with contentment. After scraping the bottom and rim of his bowl, he prepared another bowl. He had never had so much food. Imagine, Shukhov thought, a starved zek acquiring food for thousands. Again, with pure delight in his eyes, he scraped the bottom of his bowl with a crust of black bread, and savoured the moment; it seemed to him that this was what life was about.
His hunger at last abated, he stepped outside into the cold for the second time that morning, and once again began to ponder why the camp was vacant. Where had everybody gone? Surely they couldn’t have left him? But Shukhov didn’t panic – it wasn’t a zek’s concern. He diverted his gaze across the snowy courtyard. The door to the doctor’s-room had been left ajar, and to Shukhov’s amazement a wisp of smoke was struggling out of the chimney. He made his way across the icy concrete, and as he placed a foot through the door he was hit by a wall of heat. His eyes stung from the smoke. The fireplace in the corner had been left alight, seemingly only a few minutes before. Shukhov, confused, searched the room for any sign of what had happened, but his attempt was in vain. He strode out of the doctor’s-room with a new strength in his limbs, and as he turned his gaze to the left, he saw it – the camp gate was open! Not just ajar, but wide open! And for the first time that day, Shukhov felt the blood stream through his body as he purposefully set off on a sprint to the front gate. Freedom was in his mind. His family at home.
He placed one foot in front of the next in the snowy courtyard, tripping over his own heavy limbs. Breathless from his fall, he crept along the floor to grasp the iron of the front gate. Having hauled himself back onto his feet, he stumbled through the column, and as he reached the second gate, a wave of relief flew through his body; he was free.
“Shukhov!” Someone shouted his name.
“Shukhov!” He opened his eyes, and as usual, at five o’clock that morning reveille was sounded by the blows of a hammer...