The ice had not even begun to break,
no boat could possibly sail yet,
but the letters lay in a pile at the post office,
with all their requests and instructions.
Among them trying vainly to leave,
in the scrawls of fishermen,
were reproaches, complaints, cries,
awkward confessions of love.
In vain the huskies gazed out to sea,
searching the waves through the fog,
lying like gray hillocks
on the bottoms of overturned boats.
But, like a ghost, dreamed up
from the desperate monotony,
the ice-covered mail boat
showed her gray masts.
She was beaten up and dirty,
but to the fishing village
her chilly, husky voice
sounded like the sweetest music.
And the gloomy sailors, throwing us a line
to the shore, like Vikings,
carried canvas sacks full of people’s souls.
And again the ship went out, tiredly,
her hull breaking the ice with difficulty,
and I sat in her dank hold
among the piled sacks.
Tormented, I searched for an answer
with all my restless conscience:
‘Just what am I, in fact,
and where am I going? ‘
Can it be I am like a frail boat,
and that the passions, like the waves, roll
and toss me about? ‘ But my inner voice
answered me: ‘You are a mail boat.
Make speed through the angry waves,
heavy with ice, to all those people
who have been seperated by the ice,
who are waiting to get in touch again.
And like the first sign of the ship
for which people waited so long,
carry onward the undying light
of the duty that links us together.
And along the foaming arctic sea of life,
through all the ice and against the nor’wester,
carry with you those mailbags
full of hopelessness and hopes.
But remember, as you hang on the whistle,
as soon as the storms die down,
steamers, real ships,
will go through these waters, not afraid anymore.
And the fishermen, standing up in the barges,
will look admiringly at them,
and their sleek, velvety whistles
and make them forget your husky voice.
But you, with the stink of fish and blubber,
don’t lower your rigging gloomily.
You’ve done the job on schedule.
Be happy then. You are the mail cutter.’
Thus the inner voice spoke to me,
impressing upon me the burden of prophecy.
And amid the white night of the Arctic Ocean
somehow it was all morning for me.
I didn’t think enviously
of someone else, covered with honours,
I was simply happy that a few things
also depended on me.
And covered in someone’s fur coat,
I was dependent on so much,
and like that letter from Vanka Zhukov,
I dozed on heaps of other letters.
Translated by Tina Tupikina-Glaessner, Geoffrey Dutton, and Igor Mezhakoff-Koriakin