Imagine 2200, Fix’s climate fiction contest, recognizes stories that envision the next 180 years of equitable climate progress, imagining intersectional worlds of abundance, adaptation, reform, and hope. Read the 2022 collection here.
There was this girl called Zarni, a quiet, slight thing, but principled before everything, the kind of person I really bond with. She grew up in a nickel mining town, Northern Urals, not so far from my heartland.
Zarni read about me aged 7, at school. After that, for weeks and months, I would be all she talked about.
You might have done that too, in her place. Imagine your family lives by the grace of underground minerals, and that grace is slowly but surely running out: in part because the mine is exhausted, and in part because more and more places in the world have learned to reuse things instead of taking them out of the ground.
Now imagine that you read about a magical deer that can produce rare precious stones by striking its silver hoof on the rocks. Your Mum tells you the mine is running out of time, and then what? You don’t know? You would go into the woods too, looking for the silver-hoof deer, just in case it’s real.
Grandpa Slyshko, otherwise known as Stakanchik (shot glass), or Vasilii Alekseevich Khmelinin, worked as a guardsman at the firewood warehouse of a South Urals metallurgical plant. When local kids visited him in his guard house, Grandpa regaled them with supernatural tales. Grandpa Slyshko told the stories of the mineral-snake Poloz, the Mistress of the Brass Mountain, and many other beings of my kind. Secret Powers, that is. I suppose this makes him my actual grandfather.
Zarni came to me in the forest, 7 years old, empty-handed, afraid, but full of dreams, which is the proper way to meet me.
I let a golden ray of the evening sun light up the glint of my silver hoof.
She froze, looking at me from behind a fallen fir draped with mosses. Then she crept nearer, and nearer, and reached out a hand – as if to greet a dog or a cat.
“You’re Silver Hoof, aren’t you?” she said.
I cocked my head, raised my leg just so, but did not strike it down. Truth be told, producing gemstones with my hoof stings like, well, like reconfiguring atoms inside a mini fusion chamber located inside the big toe on your right foot. I don’t do it unless there’s a really good reason.
Zarni frowned, running through an array of possible things to say, and then chose this one: “Can you explain to me, how do you do it?”
And that’s how I knew I had to see it through with this one.
I appeared to her again, and again, allowing her to come nearer each time. The first time she tentatively stroked my nose, she said, eyes bright with tears,
“I’ll tell you what I really want. I haven’t told anybody, but I can tell you. I want to find a new mineral, something nobody has heard of yet, something that’ll keep our mine from running out, and the permafrost from melting, and my Mum from being sad. Can you make that?”
Two esteemed Soviet academics were having an argument about an anthology of Urals folklore that they were supposed to be co-editing.
Co-editor number one, faithful to the cultural ministry’s current policy, wanted the anthology to focus on workers’ folklore.
Co-editor number two believed – and spent several expeditions proving — that workers’ folklore did not, in fact, exist. Peasant folklore? Sure, here’s a tome. Indigenous lore? Yeah, OK, we can find some. But workers? Miners? Nah.
Enter Pavel Bazhov, a journalist, son of a miner, and formerly one of the kids who listened to Grandpa Slyshko’s tales. Bazhov’s trove of Secret Power tales was proof that workers’ stories did exist.
Bazhov wrote down three such stories for publication in the anthology and credited the stories to Grandpa Slyshko. Later he wrote down more, adding in his own embellishments and ideas and riffing on tales he had heard to produce new ones, published now under his own name.
In 1938, Bazhov lost his Communist party membership and his newspaper job over an ideological squabble. In the ensuing pit of desperation, he came up with me.
I stuck around with Zarni, sometimes coming to the front yard of her parents’ rickety wooden hut, scaring their dogs out of their wits. But the dogs got used to me. I even became a social media sensation for a while: Miners domesticate cute roe buck, watch him dance on his hind legs.
When Zarni told her Mum about her dream of a cure-all mineral, her Mum smiled and said, “You’re my precious mineral.” Zarni gave her the strongest side eye an eight-year-old can muster, but she continued, “No, really, minerals are unreliable. People are much better than any mineral.”
Zarni did not tell her Mum, or anyone, about what she thought I was. And over the years, perhaps, she decided to follow her mother’s advice and believe in herself, not in me. I stuck around anyway, watched her grow up sharp and bright as an amethyst.
She would walk around the remote-operated diggers at the mine and point out faults to me: where the casing was vulnerable to falling rock, or how the movements of their mechanical arms could be refined. If I ever showed her my gem-generating prance, I’m sure she would find a way to optimise that, too.
After high school Zarni apprenticed to become a mechanical engineer at the mine.
The best-loved character of Bazhov’s oeuvre is a little roe buck with a silver hoof. Hoppity hop, the silver hoof touches the ground once, twice, strikes again, and cling, cling, clang, gems fall fully formed from under the hoof to the feet of the lucky person who happened to come upon my trail.
In Bazhov’s tale, an old miner spends most of his life looking for me, unsuccessfully. As old age approaches, the miner takes in an orphaned six-year-old girl named Daryonka. Her name means “giving,” or maybe “gift.” The girl spends three nights in the forest in the miner’s winter hunting hideout, and susses me out.
At the end of the story, I prance around on the roof of the makeshift building until it is covered in gemstones, then vanish forever. The miner collects half a hat’s worth of pretty rocks and leaves the rest, which disappears under fresh snow.
The time came when the newly independent Komi decided to take the nickel mine back. Hundreds of people came from the river, hundreds more from the forest. They wound chains around the diggers’ treads, they welded shut the chemical stores, and they issued an ultimatum for the company to leave so they could clean up their land in peace.
I came at Zarni’s side to watch. She seemed oddly calm about the mine’s imminent closure – the thing she had been taught to fear for most of her life – although she did worry for the safety of the people who had climbed the diggers she maintained.
As the company signed its mine abandonment agreement, the Komi’s water-giant Vakul shimmered in the river. Invisible to most humans, Vakul had chemical burns on his shoulders from the mine’s leaky tailings ponds.
Afterward, Zarni’s boss Viktor Viktorovich gave an apologetic speech to his employees, citing “unexpected pressures.” (Water-giant Vakul told me: These were his people, and many like them, and others to the south, all deciding to take their land back at once.)
Then Viktor Viktorovich sacked all the technicians at the mine, Zarni’s mother included. Engineers, like Zarni, would receive a transfer to another mine further West.
After the speech Viktor Viktorovich walked up to Zarni, raised an eyebrow, and said, “I wouldn’t be surprised if you just wanted to, you know, go join your people –”
Zarni blushed under his stare, but knew better than to drop a response into his pause.
“— but you’ll be well aware that your apprentice’s contract mandates 10 years’ service after the completion of your studies.”
For a second I wished that Zarni would rebel, run away, do something, take the risk of losing her freedom or losing her Mum her pension. Even though, for me, this prospect would mean handing her over to Vakul, to whom in all fairness she probably belonged given her Mum’s Komi roots.
Zarni said, “I understand. I love my job.”
Bazhov’s workers’ tales are all set in a semi-mythical version of the before times. Before the socialist era, that is. In the eyes of the censors, this made exploitation or desperate poverty a legitimate source of narrative conflict.
So that’s my lineage. On the one hand, an empire hungry for myth that propped up its own story. On the other, many generations of miners who needed something like me. Imagine owing your existence and your magic powers to that.
Zarni did rebel on one thing: me. She had never agitated for a strike, or even really asked the company for anything for herself. Now, she promised to personally wreck company equipment, consequences be damned, if her roebuck could not come with.
Her best friend Val (apprentice chemical engineer) laughed: “This is the hill you’re willing to die on?”
But Zarni only shrugged.
Val sighed in exasperation, then went to work. She dug up some old company policy about pets. She annoyed the hell out of Viktor Viktorovich with formally worded requests. Finally he conceded. As a result, I, two cats, and 15 dogs who lived with various other engineers received our compartments on the transfer hovercraft.
Zarni’s Mum gave her a bear-hug, and me, a pat on the head, right between the antlers. She looked at me like she knew who I was.
I never once doubted that it made sense for me to go with the miners. North down the river we went, into the Arctic Ocean, West along the coastline, and then upriver again, all the way to the Lovozero lithium mine.
This was Saami land before all else. As our hovercraft hummed its way upriver, the seidas along the river — Secret Powers in the shape of big rocks, mostly, whispered to me their greetings and I nodded back. The cats and dogs pricked up their ears and sniffed the air, knowing the Secret Powers to be different here, but kept mercifully quiet about me.
An elder Saami woman, whom the literature only knows as T. F. Danilova, told the ethnographer Vladimir Charnolupskiy a story about Myandash, the proud wild reindeer god.
Danilova insisted that Myandash remain a secret from any other outside ears. The ethnographer gleefully mentions this in his writeup, confessing to denying the elder the secrecy she had asked for.
The seida local to our new mine was a rock the shape of a hunched-over troll, sitting and looking down at the mine from a hill. I bowed to the seida and it harrumphed at me.
As I was standing back up, I saw carved into the rock the figure of a tall deer, antlers stretching up into the sky. Myandash. Local hunters would scrub themselves clean in the lake then come here, offering something of themselves to the seida so that the deer would offer something to them.
Zarni and Val caught up with me, sneezing out spodumene dust and arguing. Val was saying,
“I can’t believe we’ve gotten ourselves stuck on a piece of rock with 20 people and 50 robots for company.”
“‘I’m sure you’ll find something to organise around here, too,” Zarni said.
“Easy for you to say that, you’re happy spending your time with machines. And a deer.” Val glanced in my direction.
“Do you know why I made such good friends with Silver?”
“Because you thought he would make you gemstones like the deer in the story?”
“Not just that. I wanted to find a rare mineral, something no one had ever seen, that would fix everything in the world around us. As a kid I thought Silver Hoof would make me something like that. But he never did, of course.”
Val laughed. “Instead we get to mine lithium. Look at the view!”
On one side of the hill: a slope sprinkled with tough little trees and wizened grasses, all the way down to the glistening lake. Just visible on the other side of the lake: herds of reindeer, grazing. Beside the lake: older, abandoned houses with roofs falling in; a new, pre-fab block where Val, Zarni, and the rest of the new mine team now lived; a shipping container which was the company’s command centre for the mine; and an old school building. You could just about make out the bright mosaic on the wall of the school canteen: a deer striking a glittery hoof to the ground, sending sparks of gemstones.
On the other side of the hill, the mine looked like an implosion, an upside-down barnacle the size of a mountain. Zarni’s new charges, digger robots three times human size, looked like ants in it.
“I need to take a piss,” Val said, and sauntered off towards the seida.
I was beside her in no time.
“And what do you want?”
I stomped into the ground with all three of my non-silver hooves. Zarni looked at me, at Val, at the seida, then said,
“Maybe you shouldn’t, there, Val? That looks like an important rock.’
Val rolled her eyes, zipped her fly back up. The seida and I both sighed a sigh of relief. Not that I had met him, but by reputation, Myandash hated the proximity of human piss.
The Soviet military decided that T. F. Danilova’s native village was a good spot to locate a naval base, so the civilian authorities declared the village “unproductive” and forcibly resettled its inhabitants. Danilova’s children went to work at the newly nationalised reindeer herding business, or in the mines. Her grandchildren would be taken into boarding school and taught in Russian, to catch them up with the progress of socialism. By the time they went to school, I was a required part of second grade reading. There was an image of me on the wall of the school canteen, in mosaic.
The mine ate away at the side of the hill, so that a sheer cliff edged closer and closer to the seida. Now and again, when Zarni, Val and I went to the summit, we would find offerings there: fish bones, old paper bills, reindeer antlers. Sometimes we would see the devotees, too, but they went back down the hill faster than Zarni and Val could talk to them.
The closer the mine got to the seida, the deeper the frown line between Zarni’s eyebrows, the more problems Zarni found with the robots, and the slower the cliff-edge moved.
Here’s what you can find out about Myandash from the tales gathered by the ethnographer Charnolupskiy.
Myandash took a human wife and fathered children. But later he had to abandon them, for reasons involving pride and bed-wetting. His wife remarried into human poverty, so Myandash came to her in a dream. He promised to sacrifice himself, in order that her new husband might have good luck hunting.
As a result, one of Myandash’s names is Myandash-anntug, which means, “Myandash who gives himself over.”
Another legend tells how Myandash is perpetually on the run from the thunder god Tjermes. When Tjermes catches up with him and gets an arrow into his hide, the rivers will run back, the mountains will breathe fire and the springs will run out of water. When the god’s second arrow gets Myandash between those gorgeous golden antlers of his, the earth shall be enveloped in fire and the ice will boil. (Kind of like when mine tailings are mishandled, right?) And when the god catches up with Myandash and pierces his heart with a knife, well, that’s a proper apocalypse.
“You can’t stave it off forever, you know,” Val was saying as we climbed the hill for a sunset view.
“What?” Zarni looked so caught off-guard she even stopped frowning for a second.
Val waved towards the cliff-edge. “Soon Vik-Vik will notice that the bots are stalling. And then it’s a matter of time till they work out who is stalling them. I know you put your job on the line for a deer before – don’t do it again for a rock. No matter how important.”
So ready, normally, to talk about her machines’ efficiencies, Zarni looked at a loss for words. Conveniently, she didn’t end up having to answer. We rounded the last bend in the path up the hill and there, at the top, we had company.
Three people stood by the seida. One of them wore the red trim and high embroidered collar of Sami ceremonial dress for an older woman.
“Purrh ekjne!” the elder said, then, switching to Russian for Zarni and Val’s blank faces, “Good evening. My name’s Moadran.”
“And good evening to you,” Val said, and then muttered under her breath to Zarni, “looks like someone else has noticed, too.”
They kept talking, and talking, and talking. But I stopped listening. Because behind Moadran, on the seida’s shoulder, invisible to the human eye, shimmered a huge reindeer. Antlers branching off into the sky and on fire with the gold of sunset. Feet like trunks of millenia-old fir. Nostrils like volcano craters.
Myandash looked right at me, and his eyes, deep as sinkholes, widened. His nostrils flared, his ears flapped, he threw his head back – then forward, those awesome antlers tilted toward me. My heart beat faster and I bowed, too, antlers forward but as low as I could. When I looked back up I was staring right into his eyes.
Myandash knew exactly what I was. A story for those who have little else than stories to rely on. And also, his kin.
The Saami writer Nadezhda Bolshakova wrote this new story about Myandash:
The great, golden-antlered wild reindeer is under threat from a menacing band of the Chud (i.e., Finnish people). Drunk on hubris, the Chud hunters trap Myandash and try to force him to strike the earth with his hoof, to produce gold for them. The good Saami hunter Fast Arrow shows up to save the wild deer god, and in gratitude for this, Myandash teaches the Saami how to herd reindeer instead of hunting them.
It’s remarkable that the villains of the story wanted Myandash to do my job. I am more than a little proud of this fact.
It was nearly fully dark by the time we went back down the hill and the Northern Lights drew green streaks in the sky over the other side of the lake.
“What do you think happened to Silver up there? He was going wild, jumping around and bowing and circling the seida like that,” Zarni said.
“You’re gonna say he recognized the true spirit of the land or something,” Val said, eyebrows raised.
Zarni just looked at her.
“You’re too gullible, Zar. Moadran’s clearly a skilled negotiator. Do you think her Council’s promises are any more real than those of our bosses?”
“She has principles, unlike them.”
“She sure does. But do her principles include being nice to the people who have been turning her homeland into dust and battery ingredients?”
Zarni sighed and shook her head.
Val said, “Well, I don’t buy it. Better a devil we know.” Into Zarni’s unconvinced silence, Val continued, “What’s a better guarantee of a livelihood? Lithium or… fairy tales?”
We were losing the argument and I couldn’t stand it. I jumped down from a rock above them, deciding to do something I had avoided doing for decades. If Val didn’t see the value of fairy tales, I would show her.
I chose a flat rock and started hammering at it with my front right hoof, till sparks flew and my hoof chipped pieces off the rock. I looked at Val, waited for the dawn of realisation on her face.
None came, only bafflement.
Those pieces of rock should have started turning into gemstones, but they didn’t. My power wasn’t there. Not surprising, really, given I had bowed to Myandash, to the strength of his story. But it still stung.
Upset, I went to Zarni, to nuzzle my nose into her soft palm. She stroked me between the antlers, gently. Her eyes narrowed to a squint, working out a thought.
Then she said, “Silver won’t give us a magic mineral to fix everything for us. So I suppose there’s just us, and the job we’ve been given to do. Sometimes we need to figure out what that job is, though.”
Val nodded towards where Zarni’s machines stood paused for the night. “What do you think our job is?”
On a May morning, Moadran led a line of Council representatives in their ceremonial best, Saami and Komi both, up to the seida. They stood around it, only an arm’s breadth away from the cliff down into the mine now.
Zarni’s robots, 12 giant spider shapes, chomped at the cliff, coming ever closer, but the Council team stood resolute.
Finally the diggers and the Council people were face to face. Company management was probably glued to their screens for the face off. I watched from behind the seida.
In silence, I felt everyone take a breath.
And then the diggers turned around and locked mechanical arms, to take a protective stance around the seida with the Council people.
(It took a year of preparation and a lot of difficult conversations. It took all of Zarni’s savvy for hacking her own bots. It took all of my charm and all of Val’s wits, to get, respectively, Myandash and the workforce to some kind of understanding around the mine’s future. If it worked, the mine would become a combined remanufacture site for the Council’s needs, plus deer grazing area.)
At the lakeside, two more bots picked up the company’s mobile control centre, with Viktor Viktorovich inside it desperately trying to punch in overrides. The bots rolled downhill to the lake with the container, and set off swimming at a leisurely pace in the general direction of the company’s headquarters.
By the time the company sent a delegation, Zarni had 40 bots on clean-up and site defence. The rest of the bots guarded a makeshift conference room in the abandoned school canteen. There, Moadran would negotiate the company’s surrender of the site, probably in return for getting some of the bots back.
Zarni brought me and Val up to the seida again, sat on the grass, and tugged my head into her lap.
“I understand that you may leave me now,” she said. “Thank you for staying with me all this time.”I nuzzled into her palm one last time, got up, poked Val in the butt with my antlers gently. Then I climbed the seida and vanished.
Read more from Imagine 2200:
Anya Markov (she/they) lives in London and works for the trade union movement. Anya grew up in Moscow and as a first grader earnestly believed in the silver-hoof deer.
Carolina Rodriguez Fuenmayor (she/her) is a 32-year-old illustrator from Bogotá, Colombia.