The future is out there on the permafrost

The Bolshevik advance, striking in the bitter cold of night, had taken Jára Cimrman’s small squad of Czech fighters by surprise. The last survivor, carrying no provisions, Jára had fled into the forest. Stumbling into trees in the starless black, falling over roots, before long he was lost and disorientated. Wandering, directionless, he gradually became aware of a muted grey-white light, endlessly reflected and refracted by snowflakes steadily drifting towards ground. Revealing the snow-covered branches of pine trees, the light signified daybreak. Obscured by a heavy blanket of cloud the sun remained concealed. Jára realized an icy death awaited him unless he returned to the tracks of the Trans-Siberia rail line. Yet lost within the endless wilderness he could not tell north from south. Even if he could it would not help; in the heat of battle he just ran and now could not recall the direction of his flight.

Jára’s path to this frozen wilderness, deep within the heathen hinterland of Russia, had been long and perilous. Forced from his Prague home, conscripted into the Austrian army, he had fought Russian troops on the Eastern Front. Captured, he willingly switched allegiance, joining the renegade Czech Legion fighting for freedom, battling the Central Powers across Ukraine. The October Revolution and Lenin’s acceptance of Germany’s peace treaty forced another change. The Czechs would cross the vast plains and forests of Russia, taking the Trans-Siberian railway to Vladivostok. From there American cargo ships would carry them to France, to rejoin the fight on the Western Front. Except that the Bolsheviks had betrayed them. Now, along thousands of kilometers of steel rail, from the Ural Mountains to the Pacific Ocean, the Czechs were fighting for every town.

Alone and adrift amongst endless trees, uncertain of direction, surrounded by this vast uninhabited expanse of ice and snow, Jára knew oblivion awaited him. Frozen to the marrow in the center of his bones, Jára fell to the ground. With his final strength he succeeded in sitting up, resting his back against the bark of a pine tree, but he could move no further. Is this how his life would end? Far from home. Far from anywhere. He fell asleep.

Jára awakes to the sight of a Mongolian, clothed in furs, countless ribbons and feathers hanging loosely down. He is seated astride a large white reindeer with huge branching antlers; neither smiling nor frowning. Watching intently, yet not exactly staring. In one hand the man holds a drum of animal skin, in the other a bone drumstick, head wrapped in leather. The man begins to gently beat the drum with a slow regular rhythm. Jára can feel his heart pulsing weakly, synchronous to the drum beat. The Mongolian begins to sing, a soft whistling like the distant wind. Wisps of mist thread through the trees. Gently the drummer reduces the drum beat to a soft whisper, halting his singing when the drum becomes inaudible.

Inexplicably Jára’s thoughts suddenly turn to home and family. He remembers the unsent letter in his coat. Putting his hand into his pocket he takes out the letter, raises his arm towards the man, and using the broken Russian he has learned in recent months, speaks. “Take this letter. It is for my wife. She is far away. If I am to die here it must reach her.”

Trotting the reindeer forwards, the Mongolian bends down and takes the letter from Jára’s outstretched hand. The reindeer, with rider still seated, then steps backwards to its previous station, its broad hooves firm on the snow. The Mongolian holds the letter in front of him, and then carefully peels off the stamp. From a pouch tied to his belt he takes a small book, places the stamp into the pages of the book, and then returns the book to his pouch. Next he tears the letter into tiny pieces, scattering them like snowflakes in the air.

“No! My last words to my wife, thrown to the ground!“ Jára, aghast at the man’s actions, but too weak to fight.

“Why do you wish to die? So many possible futures exist, in the earth beneath the snow, waiting for the sun of summer to return. When your mind perceives something, this is but the collapsing of innumerably many futures into a singular now. What causes one particular future to become now? Do the gods ordain it to happen? Or do you wish it to be? Are those answers different or turns of the same circle of life seen from another side? Walking in the forest one day a man sees the corpse of a reindeer. The moment before he perceived it, was the beast dead or alive? Maybe it was both, but then did the mighty forest beast die because the man wished it so?”

Jára is astonished to hear the Mongolian speaking in perfect Czech, his mouth neutral, not appearing to move, but his voice soft and gentle, no malice or threat. After a pause, the Mongolian continues. “My people are the Evenks. We live in balance with the spirits, with the cycles of the earth. You assume we are a primitive people. You are wrong; the tunnels across all existence, unseen by your science, are known to us. You wonder why I kept the stamp, if it has mystical power. Earths spirits have no use for paper tokens, it has no value. Your postal service amuses me. I kept it because it is useless.”

“My wife, will she ever know what becomes of me?”

“Your souls braid like woven ribbon. Every grain of your mind entwines with a grain within hers, a connection across both time and space, but a bond that has no need of time or space. Separation, an illusion of the mind, not the spirit, does not exist. When death is near, your wife’s soul will be closer still.”

Jára, overwhelmed once more with exhaustion, passes out. He awakes to find himself in the streets of Prague, surrounded by children laughing and playing. His wife is at his side, his son, older than he remembers, is holding his hand. Jára turns to his wife to kiss her. He closes his eyes.

He awakes again. A wood fire burning on the ground in front of him, his heavy wool overcoat is hanging from a tree branch, drying in the heat from the fire. He is blanketed by a thick warm coat of reindeer fur. A cooking pot is simmering on the fire; the aroma of a meat stew awakes pangs of hunger in his stomach. The Mongolian is nowhere to be seen. Jára eats the stew and prepares to leave. The future is out there on the permafrost. Time to make it happen.