Letter from Kolmya Gulag, 1937



Dearest Sventla,

The snows have come at last. We have a few weeks’ respite from digging the canal, turning instead to indoor labors. Currently I am employed sewing emblems onto the thick woolen jackets worn by our military comrades in Moscow.

It is not like when we were children. Here, the snows will so alter the landscape in a single night to make even a Siberian woodsman become lost in the forest, never to be seen again. The snows too have a long memory, and are endlessly vengeful. Last year–or perhaps the year before, since I lose count–one of my fellow exiles made so bold as to curse the snows. It was not a month later when he went with a work party to chop firewood and did not come back. When the thaws came in late May, one of the guards found his fully clothed bones tangled in a tree, thirty feet off the ground. You see, the snow had been piled that high.

It is my hope the censors might actually allow this letter to be mailed, since as you see there is no reference to the modern world or political opinion. It is simply a story about the snows.

I continue to enjoy the best of health and wish the same for you all, always.

With love and affection,



Sunday Photo Fiction


Concentration camps were created in the Soviet Union shortly after the 1917 revolution, but the system grew to tremendous proportions during the course of Stalin’s campaign to turn the Soviet Union into a modern industrial power and to collectivize agriculture in the early 1930s.

GULAG was the acronym for the Main Administration of Corrective Labor Camps. Gulag prisoners could work up to 14 hours per day. Typical Gulag labor was exhausting physical work. Toiling sometimes in the most extreme climates, prisoners might spend their days felling trees with handsaws and axes or digging at frozen ground with primitive pickaxes. Others mined coal or copper by hand, often suffering painful and fatal lung diseases from inhalation of ore dust. Prisoners were barely fed enough to sustain such difficult labor.

In the eyes of the authorities, the prisoners had almost no value. Those who died of hunger, cold, and hard labor were replaced by new prisoners because the system could always find more people to replenish the labor camps.




Getting away, she called it. We need to get away from it all.

He thought it was more like bringing everything with them. Packing up  the comfortable city life full of conveniences unimaginable a century ago, things like hypoallergenic pillows and gluten-free pasta. They brought their stove, their tent, their memory foam mattress, their propane appliances, LED lamps, a video player. She arranged these things in camp to mirror their house in town.

He looks at what he took with him when he fled the camp for good three days ago.

A knife, a flint, a fishing line and hook.


Friday Fictioneers




“Does your life unfold like a map? You can’t see it while you’re in it. A gnat trapped in the clockworks cannot tell you the time.”  He stares out the window at the unchanging city, the ever-changing sky.

“Too busy dodging the gears and avoiding getting crushed, I suppose. It’s your move.”

“Am I to believe you came all this way for chess? Really?”

“I don’t suppose I’d see you otherwise. You never leave this place.”

He holds up a finger. “Careful with the absolutes, boy. They are sloppy and imprecise. How many times have I told you? Never encompasses past and future both, and you will find such cases  to be exceedingly uncommon.”

“So I should never use it? Never say never?”

He shakes his head. “That is a cliché, another imprecision that also serves to reveal an unoriginal mind.”

“It’s your move.”

He picks up his black bishop. “I mean no insult, you understand. My only purpose is to instruct you.”

“As an object lesson? You sit here in this apartment. You never go out. You have no friends, no family who will speak to you.”

“Except for you.”

“Except for me. But I ask you, why would you give me advice?”

He turns his eyes again to the window. “I suppose for the same reason as most old people. To lessen the burden of conscience.”


Sunday Photo Fiction




Photo by CE Ayr

Her stories are all half-stories. She remembers the wall but not the door, the journey but not the destination. First names or last names, but never both. Nothing is true, nothing is false.

The priest is summoned. At her confession, she will not completely recount her sins. He cannot absolve her.

She gets up from kneeling  and walks to the window and stares out into the twilight. A boy leads a mule through the narrow alley below, its hoofs clattering on the cobbles as it staggers beneath its load.

She seems to smile, but her face is wet with tears.


Friday Fictioneers






Join the Royal Flying Corps and Share Their Honour & Glory, the poster had said in tall blue letters.

Lies,  thought Peets as he strode across the slushy grass in his boots and helmet and leather flying coat. The only glory was a cheap, easy kind you only felt at first when you wore your wings and your Sam Browne belt with a revolver and sounded your boots on the tiles and pretended you didn’t notice women staring at you.

Mirror glory. Vainglory.

As for honor, well. Getting behind an enemy and firing your machine guns into his back hardly seemed honorable, nor did shooting down unarmed observation craft caught unawares, nor did shooting at the soldiers on the ground.

He remembered the discussion with his friend the Subadar earlier in the day.

“When you return, perhaps I will tell you the tale of the Vimana,” the Subadar had said.

“What’s a Vimana?”

“Some say it is a castle in the sky. To others it is a golden chariot employed by the Gods to deliver to us our fates.”

“Sounds unlucky,” said Peets.

“Luck, like dreams, is usually determined by its interpretation,” said the Subadar.


This is a fragment lifted from a short story about a young American flier in France in 1915 when  the life expectancy for pilots was measured in days. Let me know if you’d like to read it in the comments and I will send it to you.


Sunday Photo Fiction







She’s back from the hospital.

For the first time in twenty-five years, she’ll be home for Christmas. No more touring.

I suppose I knew what I was getting when I married her. She was fond of reminding me herself.  In truth, it was when I saw her play that I truly fell in love with her. Her hands calling the beautiful music from the cello cradled in her legs like a beloved child.

Of course there were no children. There was her, me, and the cello. Three of us.

A kinder man would put the cello back in its case.


Friday Fictioneers

Ne Plus Ultra



If it is true that God speaks in irony, then my story is a case in point. She was the Loyalist and I the agitator, yet it was I who stayed. It was my activities which called attention to our family, alerted the authorities and, ultimately, incurred their wrath. She, who loved her country right or wrong,  forced to flee her homeland and leave behind all she knew.

At the gangway, I sought to comfort her that we would see each other again, that this was only temporary. We knew it wasn’t true. The home we knew was already gone, changed into something else and never to return.

I stood well back from the crowd as the ships left the jetty, ever alert to the approach of police or soldiers. The captain allowed a single blast of farewell from the ship’s horn as they slipped into the fog.


Sunday Photo Fiction

A Fable



A woodcutter was working in the forest. He swung his axe without ceasing, for he was a proud man who did not believe in weariness.

Soon, he had felled every tree within reach until all that was left was The Ancient Giant. Generations of woodcutters had refrained from cutting this colossal tree, which had a girth the size of a moderate tower.

He felt no such qualm. Just as the sun set,  the mighty oak fell with  an enormous crash.

In its stump sat a curious little man, arms folded in consternation.

“You’ve made your bed,” he said.


Friday Fictioneers




I’m sure you saw the newsreels. The whole damn country watched ’em. Hundred-foot tall ape climbs the Empire State clutching a dame in his sweaty mitt, swatting down the Army’s planes like they was flies. Oh, they got him all right, and then come the intellectuals from the college wanting to study him, the reporters looking for a new angle on a story everybody was covering,  the politicians eager to earn some points with the public.

But after that, after they hooked up a crane and hauled the giant corpse out to Fresh Kills so chop into pieces small enough to fit into the incinerator, after the people and the cops and the photographers all went home–that’s where we come in. We work for the City. Our regular job is to keep the sidewalks swept, the ash cans empty. It’s easy work, mostly. A little cold in winter, a little hot in summer, but it’s necessary. Best of all, it’s regular.

Except when something like this happens. Then we’re working overtime for as long as they tell us to.

I probably won’t see my family for a month, not that they mind so much.



The Cubs Win, But We Lose


Think about 1908 for a second. This is the year the Model T debuted, the year the Wrights finally unveiled their flying machine to the public. Theodore Roosevelt’s hand-picked successor William Howard Taft was elected as president. The Dow closed at 60.7296, a solid recovery after one of the many panics.


In 1908, there were 88.7 million people in the United States, and more of them died of tuberculosis — around 67,000 — than any other disease. The average age was 49. Infant mortality was a huge killer. There were 2,468 suicides by firearms. Now it’s roughly 21,000, which means that today more Americans per capita take their own life with a gun, even though the chances are they have much better living conditions than a hundred and eight years ago.

The Singer Building was the tallest in the world. Bette Davis was born. Mother’s Day was invented. Classical music was just music, organic food was just food, there was no such thing as an electric guitar or a cake mix. Coca-cola was sold at a pharmacist’s in an amber-colored beer bottle.There was no such thing as a world war and oceanic travel was dependent on the amount of coal a ship could carry to fuel its boilers. Jack Johnson was the heavyweight champion of the world, but institutional racism slammed the door shut behind him until Joe Louis opened it back up thirty years later.

The World Series was created in 1903, and in 1908 the Cubs had won three out of five. After that, nothing. The longest unbroken losing streak in sports, or anything else. And amidst the joy and celebration, I find myself inexpressibly sad.


As long as the Cubs lost, history was alive. The losing streak was unchanged. As far as I can tell, it is one of the only things in public life that has remained unchanged throughout the modern dynamism of the 20th (and now the 21st) century when we measure obsolescence in three-year cycles and every generation has a catchy moniker to distinguish it from its predecessors. Celebrities like Lauren Bacall and Jessica Tandy, who died long ago as old ladies, weren’t even born in 1908. But now this streak is consigned to the dustbin of history. It had a beginning, a long middle, and an end. It’s history, but not living history.

Ask any Boston fan whether they resent that the Southie kids of today see the Sox as winners. Winning streaks never last so long. One loss and they’re over. Maybe there will be another. Look at the Yankees. Who cares?

There’s something special about a losing streak, about a legacy of continual failure that galvanizes people in a way success never can. And when it stretches back a century or more, it connects you to the past  like nothing else. My Uncle John was born in a world where the Cubs were losers, and he died in that same world. Same with my dad. Long live failure.


On the positive side, we only had eight planets then. We have eight planets now. Maybe everything merely circles back upon itself in the end, anyway. Maybe Henry Ford was right and history is bunk.