The air in the mess-hall was as thick as a bath-house. An icy wave blew in through the door and met the steam rising from the skilly. The teams sat at tables or crowded the aisles between, waiting for places to be free. Shouting to each other through the crush, two or three men from each team carried bowls of skilly and porridge on wooden trays and tried to find room for them on the tables. Look at that bloody stiff-backed fool. He doesn’t hear. He’s jolted a tray. Splash, splash! You’ve a hand free, swipe him on the back of the neck. That’s the way. Don’t stand there blocking the aisle, looking for something to filch!
There at a table, before dipping his spoon in, a young man crossed himself. A West Ukrainian, that meant, and a new arrival too.
As for the Russians, they’d forgotten which hand to cross themselves with.
They sat in the cold mess-hall, most of them eating with there hats on, eating slowly, picking out putrid little fish from under the leaves of boiled black cabbage and spitting the bones out on the table. When the bones formed a heap and it was the turn of another team, someone would sweep them off and they’d be trodden into a mush on the floor. But it was considered bad manners to spit the fishbones straight out on the floor.
Two rows of supports ran down the middle of the hall and near one of them sat Fetiukov of the 104th. It was he who was keeping Shukhov’s breakfast for him. Fetiukov had the last place in his team, lower than Shukhov’s. From the outside everyone in the team looked the same—their numbered black coats were identical—but within the team there were great distinctions. Everyone had his grade. Buinovsky, for instance, was not the sort to sit keeping another zek’s bowl for him. And Shukhov wouldn’t take on any old job either. There were others lower than him.
“It’s all cold. I was just going to eat your helping. Thought you were in the lock-up.”
He didn’t hang around: no hope of any left-overs to scrape from Shukhov’s skilly.
Shukhov pulled his spoon out of his boot. His little treasure. It had been with him his whole time in the North, he’d cast it with his own hands out of aluminum wire and it was embossed with the words “Ust-Izhmas 1944.”
Then he removed his hat from his clean-shaven head—however cold it might be, he could never bring himself to eat with his hat on—and stirred the cold skilly, taking a quick look to see what kind of a helping they’d given him. An average one. They hadn’t ladled it from the top of cauldron, but they hadn’t ladled it from the bottom either. Fetiukov was the sort who when he was looking after someone else’s bowl took the potatoes from it.
The only good thing about skilly was that it was hot, but Shukhov’s portion had grown quite cold. However, he ate it with his usual slow concentration. No need to hurry, not even for a house on fire. Sleep apart, the only time a prisoner lives for himself is ten minutes in the morning at breakfast, five minutes over dinner and five at supper.
The skilly was the same every day. Its composition depended on the kind of vegetable provided that winter. Nothing but salted carrots last year, which meant from September to June the skilly was plain carrot. This year it was black cabbage. The most nourishing time of the year was June: then all the vegetables came to an end and were replaced by groats. The worst time was July, when they shredded nettles into the pot.
The little fish were more bone than flesh; the flesh had been boiled off the bone and had disintegrated, leaving a few remnants on head and tail. Without neglecting a single fish-scale or particle of flesh on the brittle skeleton, Shukhov went on champing his teeth and sucking the bones, spitting the remains on the table. He ate everything—the gills, the tail, the eyes when they were still ijn the sockets, but not when they had boiled out and floated in the bowl separately—great fish-eyes! Not then. The others laughed at him for that.
This morning Shukhov economized. As he hadn’t returned to the hut he hadn’t drawn his rations, so he ate his breatfast without bread. He’d eat the bread later. Might even be better that way.
After the skilly there was magara porridge. It had grown cold too, and hat set into a solid lump. Shukhov broke it up into pieces. It wasn’t only that the porridge was cold—it was tasteless when hot, and left you no sense of having filled your belly. Just grass, except that it was yellow, and looked like millet. They’d got the idea of serving it instead of cereals from the Chinese it was said. When boiled, a bowl of it weighed nearly a pound. Not much of a porridge but that was what it passed for.
Licking his spoon and tucking it back into his boot, Shukhov finished and put on his hat again.