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The Luck of Mikhail Samsonovich

by Victoria Elliott

Mikhail Samsonovich exemplified the new Russian man. Mikhail Samsonovich was self-made, successful and solid. Mikhail Samsonovich was a man with a plan: an entrepreneur with a good idea and the sweat and strength to make it happen.

He drilled for oil in the least friendly parts of Siberia. He worked with his crew and shared the proceeds. “Mikhail Samsonovich,” his crew would say, “you are the best boss in the whole of Russia. No-one thinks like you.” And he smiled and slapped them on the back and pulled his weight with the rest and bought his round at night.

Mikhail Samsonovich’s crew were the luckiest crew in Siberia. That’s what the other drillers, gathering around on a cold night with a fiery spirit clutched in their fingers, used to say. “How do they do it? Finding their way, every time, to a fat profit and a cushy number. They don’t know what it’s like to be trying to squeeze a living like us.” And they would mutter and grumble and try to think of ways that they could join Mikhail Samsonovich’s crew.

Mikhail Samsonovich’s crew were drilling in the far north of the country. Their breath turned to ice in the air and their eyelashes frosted like the fairy-dusted eyelashes of dancing girls back in good old Volgograd where the snow was not cold but the oil did not flow. They had been drilling here for four weeks, sampling seams and planning their retirement on dreams of rushing black gold. “Tell me, Mikhail Samsonovich, what would you do with a million American dollars?” asked Gregor Denisovich.

“I would retire to a house in the countryside where it snows for only two months of the year, keep goats, warm my toes at a fire and love my wife and cherish my daughter, Gregor Denisovich,” replied the great bear. “But I’ll never do that while you’re dreaming instead of working, my friend.”

The hole they were drilling was deep, but so was the seam they were seeking. They had followed the seam for days, sure they were on it every moment, and every moment it seemed to retreat before the drill bit. And the oil, when they found it, was small and poor and it was all out before they could blink, but the drill went on drilling and then they could hear, in a rush of air from the ground, the sound of a thousand screams a lifetime away. Mikhail Samsonovich’s men grew pale and stepped back, and Gregor Denisovich’s hand slipped from the control panel, as they listened to the far-off noise.

Breaking their silence, Mikhail Samsonovich hoarsely cried, “Stop the drill.” Gregor Denisovich’s hand, used to taking orders from the voice of Mikhail Samsonovich, moved to the switch of its own accord and the drill’s whine died and the sounds were clearer now. And he turned back to the crew and they saw on his cheeks the water melting from his eyelashes, forming tears.

After a while the screams grew less distressing: they continued at an even pitch of moan and groan and shriek, predictable and rhythmic. The crew found themselves able to move, to shoulder equipment and to look away. Only Mikhail Samsonovich stood, still looking at the bore-hole and thinking and watching, his strong solid face untouched by expression.

As the evening drew in, pallid and colder still, the men approached. “Mikhail Samsonovich, are we to remain here all night?” they asked. “It is cold, and an unlucky place this would be to spend the night. We must start back to reach the camp before darkness cloaks our beds.”

Mikhail Samsonovich did not stir or move his eyes away from their fixed position on the bore-hole, where the snow was melting. After a long moment he replied, “Those who wish may go, and those who wish may stay. For myself, I will watch here the night and in the morning we may be rich.”

The crew grew uneasy at this, and muttered amongst themselves, and some chose to go and some to stay, but Mikhail Samsonovich never flinched. And Gregor Denisovich remained, and Piotr Ivanovich and Piotr Sergeievich; the first for loyalty and the two others for their belief in the golden hand of luck that lay on Mikhail Samsonovich, and for the greed awoken by his words. They gathered around their master and all four grew still and silent and watched and waited. And still the murmurings of pain drifted up to them.

After a while Piotr Ivanovich said, “Mikhail Samsonovich, why is the snow melting?” And the great bear of a man who was his master said,

“I am glad you have noticed that, Piotr Ivanovich. I had been wondering that since I saw the frost become tears on the face of Gregor Denisovich. Let us widen the hole a little and I believe we shall see.” And widen the hole they did, and they sat around it as if it were a campfire, the three crew laughing and joking and sharing dried beef around, just as if the screams of the damned were not drifting up to them from the abyss.

But Mikhail Samsonovich sat and stared and thought, and in the morning he knew.

Those of the crew who had left and gone in the early evening; those who had tried to return to their camp before night fell were never again to laugh or joke or drill for oil or be envied for their luck in being taken on in Mikhail Samsonovich’s crew. Six were the ghastly grey snowmen found beside the road halfway between drill site and camp; two were never seen again, for the depths of a Siberian winter may conceal many secrets.

But Mikhail Samsonovich had sat and stared and thought, and in the morning he knew.

Gregor Denisovich and Piotr Ivanovich and Piotr Sergeievich had fallen into a disrupted doze as the night wore on and the pale moon lit the barren land. Piotr Ivanovich dreamed of the father who had beaten him as a child; Piotr Sergeievich of the long-ago cellar where noises crept from the corners; and Gregor Denisovich? He dreamed of the day his son had died, and it was his fault because he should have taken him to the hospital sooner, but it was so expensive and he’d hoped that the cough would just go away.

If Mikhail Samsonovich had slept then perhaps he would have dreamed of a world where his family lived in splendour in the south, where he never saw them because he worked so hard and slept so little, but he bought them everything. But Mikhail Samsonovich did not sleep; he did not dream; later, perhaps, he would wish he had.

In the morning Gregor Denisovich and Piotr Ivanovich and Piotr Sergeievich awoke to find they were sitting on grass. Damp, cold grass, but grass. Mikhail Samsonovich was on his feet and swinging an ice axe and calling to them to join him to do what they did best: to dig and seek for buried treasure. “Come, my friends,” said Mikhail Samsonovich, “here I think we may find something worth more than oil.”

They laughed, uneasily, for what can be worth more than oil? And as they worked they sang, to distract themselves from the sound they barely noticed any more, the screams and moans, which grew fractionally louder with every inch they descended. And their songs were of Mother Russia, of family, of love, and dark tales of far-off days in the long ago.

The hole, when they finally rested at the day’s end, was deep and wide and warm. They had broken through to a ledge above a cavern, and they sat on this ledge, the bear and his crew, to see what fate had brought them. It was bright in that cavern, under the frozen ground of Siberia, and warm — no, it was hot, and a pleasant contrast to the ice and snow of the surface, for a while. The ledge stood at the top of an immense slope which led downwards to a vast canyon and a plain, a huge view which dwarfed them sitting there, though Mikhail Samsonovich was not a small man.

Piotr Sergeievich was not a brave man, and he did not choose to stay and see through the discovery. For he could see the source of the sounds his brain had been hearing all day though his ears had done their best to ignore them. He scrambled away and out of the hole and he was found the next day by a passing driver who took him to a hospital where his family eventually found him, crying and muttering about the darkness and the noise; and he was never again a greedy man, nor a successful one, nor a sane one. The others did not flee; their minds did not crack; later, perhaps, they would wish they had.

After an hour or maybe only a minute, while they surveyed the valley, Mikhail Samsonovich and his men noticed a figure toiling up the slope towards them. It was dressed in a grey suit and carried a briefcase, and seemed incongruous and also slightly out of focus, though Gregor Denisovich said afterwards he could never have put his finger on exactly what was wrong with the figure.

It reached the ledge, put down its briefcase and reached forward a hand to shake. “Mikhail Samsonovich, we presume,” it said, though Gregor did not see its lips move, nor was it a voice so much as a pressure in the air of his head. Yet none of them thought it odd that the figure should know the name of Mikhail Samsonovich.

“We’ve brought the contracts,” said the figure, and Gregor Denisovich was always unsure after of why it said “we,” but they accepted it then and Mikhail Samsonovich nodded and simply held out his hands for the papers to read them.

“You knew we were coming?” asked Mikhail Samsonovich as he opened the envelope with his name on and passed one each to Gregor Denisovich and Piotr Ivanovich, each of them with their names printed on the outside. Three was all the envelopes there were.

“Of course,” said the figure. “Read carefully, but our legal advice is second to none and we wanted you to be happy with the details. This is, after all, a partnership and not one of the... old-fashioned deals.”

After reading, the great bear held out his hand for a pen, and the figure gave him an outdated quill with a diamond nib. Smiling apologetically it said, “But some things do not change.”

Gregor Denisovich and Piotr Ivanovich did not understand, but Mikhail Samsonovich did, for it was he who had sat and stared into the bore-hole all night, and who had known in the morning when the others awoke. So he took the pen and poised the nib over the inside of his forearm, where the blue veins run strong and clear and he pressed the sharpness of the nib in for a moment, so that a ruby drop formed on the diamond, and then he signed. And just so did Piotr Ivanovich, for he was too far in to back out now, and so did Gregor Denisovich, out of loyalty to his master.

And so it was that Mikhail Samsonovich gained the rights and responsibilities to build houses and apartments on that slope, the hill of Avernus, as it was known, which was indeed worth more than oil. And he and his crew created a resort which was sought-after and exclusive and warm even in the depths of the coldest winter. So the three did grow rich, and were envied for their luck. And in years to come, builders gathered around on a cold night clutching a fiery spirit in their fingers to envy Mikhail Samsonovich whose wife and daughter lived in comfort in the south where the snow was not cold, and enjoyed the ease and beauty that his luck had bought them.

And at night Mikhail Samsonovich would sit with his crew in his air-conditioned mansion, for the heat was really too much all the time, and sit and stare and listen until, at last, he really knew the price which was not written on the contract he had signed but which nonetheless he had paid. Perhaps later he wished he had not.

Copyright © 2009 by Victoria Elliott

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