Despite the cold, a crowd gathers.
Twenty men, their hands tied behind their backs,
are marched to a brick wall.
After the darkness of their cells,
the sun on the snow
is blinding, making the men’s eyes water.
Some shut their eyes and stumble.
Others try to see, thinking: If only
my eyes would clear, if only
I could see,
this would make sense,
this would stop.

Still wearing their civilian clothes,
worn and filthy now from weeks in the cell,
the men look like cold and wretched scarecrows
next to their smartly dressed executioners.

Two corporals position themselves
at opposite ends of the line.
Over each man’s head
they place a black, eyeless shroud.

The task is awkward and embarrassing.
The heads of many are too big.
The shrouds have to be tugged over
forehead, nose, and cheekbones, forcing
the spectators to become intimate,
if only for a few seconds,
with each man’s peculiarities.

As luck would have it, the last to be shrouded,
the man responsible for the illegal printing press,
looks beyond the firing squad
and sees a figure running and stumbling
toward them across the frozen field.
Something white flutters
in his hands. Because of the snow blindness,
because of the state of his emotions,
the condemned man does not see a normal human
running toward him, but a creature
with many legs and many arms — a grotesque angel
with a white bird in his hand.

This is the last thing he sees before the shroud descends.
In the darkness, still seeing the figure, he thinks:
What if he slips on a patch of ice
and arrives too late? What if
the message has nothing to do with me
or the firing squad? What if
this messenger lives only in my imagination?

But the messenger lives on earth.
The reprieve is real: the death sentence
has been commuted to eight years’ hard labor in Siberia.
The shrouds are lifted. The twenty men —
shaking, weeping, white-faced, embarrassed, joyful —
are marched back to their cells.

Each vows to do something with his life:
fathers to memorize the breathing of their sons;
husbands to be tender to their wives;
the law student to defend the poor;
the divinity student to speak with God;
the medical student to treat each wound,
each cough as if it were his own.

And the man in the middle of the line,
Fyodor Dostoyevsky,
the last to be shrouded, what does he vow?
I think he vowed to write nothing
from that time forward — not a single pen stroke —
unless it could be written
with the same urgency and desperate energy
as the man running and stumbling toward us
with the message in his frozen hand.