THE BOLSHEVIK AND THE WICKED WITCH
PIOTR POURED THE VODKA WHILE THE DOCTRINES OF KARL MARX DID BATTLE WITH THE WITCHES AND WEREWOLVES IN THE FOREST OF BLACK OAKS
J. N. HARRIS
WHEN HE heard mortar fire to the northeast Piotr guessed what was up—not a revolt of the garrison at Ivanjic, nor bandit activity, but a border raid from the puppet republic of Transylvania, over there beyond the Grynetzoff Forest.
If the raiders managed to pin down the Ivanjic garrison—the only effective defense force in the area—they would come belting through the Grydz country, spreading terror and propaganda, and collecting everything in their path that wasn’t screwed down&emdash:cattle, wines, food stores and what was known with grim humor as Marshall Aid, that is, any American bulldozers or trucks that could be found.
So Piotr, whose cottage lay much too close to the point where the railroad and the highway crossed the Grydz River, moved Tina and Josip and little Stefanie back to Tina’s old village, out of harm’s way, then hurried home to the cottage, because he might be able to prevent serious depredations. He hadn’t been back long before he knew the worst. The garrison at Ivanjic had been celebrating the Balkanian Independence Day with the native cherry brandy. The raiders had attacked the walls with mortars and only by prompt and determined retreat had the garrison been able to save itself.
A truck arrived in Piotr’s barnyard, and men pounded on his door. Piotr admitted them, and was duly humble. While not a Bolshevik—a term reserved for the elect—he mentioned that he was at least one who longed for t he day of liberation from the bourgeois government which had usurped power in Balkania.
But the men were not interested; they were peasant soldiers who didn’t c&re about such things. After a short, but noisy, argument, they ordered him irto the back of the panel truck, where there were already half a dozen frightened prisoners. Two Sten gunners stood by the tailboard, and never lost their wooden composure even over the worst bumps.
Piotr became uneasy. This procedure did not fit any known pattern. Would they be taken back as prisoners, for interrogation at leisure, or to be recruited as saboteurs and agents?
The frightened passengers were unloaded in a square of the market town aad prodded with bayonets into the crypt of a deconsecrated church. For an hour or two they lay in the damp crypt, among ancient graves and broken machinery, and every now and then half a dozen new prisoners were herded in. When evening came they were led upstairs one by one, and given a brief interrogation by a Transylvanian officer.
Piotr was astounded to find that the officer was his cousin, Feodor, d.*essed in the Russian-style uniform of a Transylvanian lieutenant, and wearing two Russian medals on his breast.
“Well, well, Cousin Feodor,” Piotr said.
“I am not your cousin,” Feodor said. “Cousins and mothers and relations are leftovers from the silly superstitious bourgeois age, when the rich kulaks and the bourgeois and the counts used witches and werewolves and priests to keep the peasants frightened and in good order.”
“Well, ex-cousin Feodor,” Piotr replied, “if anybody knows about being
frightened by witches it ought to be you. You were even caught by one. Have you recovered yet?”
Feodor’s lip curled up in a sort of smile. “Exactly what I mean,” he said. “We were peasant boys—well-to-do, but peasants nevertheless and we were frightened by silly tales about wolves and Red Riding Hood and angels and witches. Now I am a Bolshevik, and 1 know the truth. I am no longer afraid of anything. You always despised me, now you can know what fear is. You are still a peasant.”
Piotr was silent for a minute, examining the smart and very new uniform.
“Speaking of fear,” he said. “Do you ever stop to wonder what the Little .Fa-ther in Moscow would say if he knew that you once enlisted in the German Army that you wanted to be a Stuka pilot?”
Feodor was coldly superior. “When 1 was taken to Russia for political indoctrination and training at the officer-cadet, school 1 told my mentors all about my attempt to steal a German airplane and take it with me to aid my Russian brothers in their tight against fascism,” he said.
“Oh,” Piotr replied.
The guards led Piotr back to the crypt, where he sat down on a crate and lit one of those villainous black cigarettes which differentiate southeastern Europe from the civilized world.
“You angered the Comrade Lieutenant,” one guard said. “That is not wise.”
“No, not wise at. all,” another said. “He is Continued on page 58 really from the political branch, and is receiving combat experience with the Bibishkin force. He is an expert at dialectic, whatever that is, but it is important in the Party.”
“It means arguing,” the first guard said. “Only clever people understand it. How was it you angered the Comrade Lieutenant? About witches, and Stuka bombers, wasn’t it?”
“It wasn’t much, ” Piotr said. “In the war Feodor was young and silly. He set out for Belgrade, the nearest big garrison point, to join the Luftwaffe. He wanted to be a Stuka pilot. Oh, he joined all right. The Germans put him in uniform and sent him back to the labor battalion here. The rest of us here were conscripted into the battalion, so we teased Feodor about being the only volunteer, and called i bim ‘Stuka. ’ I deserted and fought with the Partisans, but I was caught— visiting a girl, you might know. I used to think Feodor betrayed me, because he knew the family gossip. Two years I was prisoner—in Rumania, in Hungary, then right near Berlin, at Potsdam. Nearly all the way back I walked, but my luck, my patron saint, they brought me home, and I found I had a little son, so we were married — in the war there was no priest here. Ai, yi, it is a weary business. Now more prison—Siberia maybe.”
The guards exchanged a glance.
“We don’t know, friend,” one of them said.
Piotr smoked his cigarette in silence. The guards were men like himself— peasants. He felt no anxiety about talking to them. They were the kind for whom politics must be put in terms of animal fables in order to make it intelligible.
In the morning a guard brought coffee in a large can. One man smacked his lips and said: “The squirrels in the Grynetzoff Forest will go hungry; we have taken their acorns for our coffee.”
Later the prisoners were prodded out to the square where the early morning light fell on a squalid landscape. The liveliest objects were four Transylvanian deserters, swinging from flagstaffs and telegraph poles, as an object lesson for their former comrades-inarms. The square itself was littered with old paper and posters, food refuse and filth, and what was left of a burntout truck. The buildings were barbarous — corrugated iron, concrete block, and a Byzantine church.
Presently a jeep approached at a furious pace and galvanized all the troops in the square. They jumped to it; fell in, dressed the ranks, and those engaged on errands or duties moved at the double. The jeep braked fiercely in front of the church, and a man emerged.
He was a little above medium height, but the breadth of his chest made him look squat. His face, too, was wide and squat, with wide-apart blue eyes, and cheeks as red as Balkan cherries.
“Bibishkin!” somebody said, and the word echoed back and forth across the square.
A major and two captains emerged frpm the church, bearing maps and documents. They saluted smartly, and held a brief conference with the General. As they turned to go, his eye fell on the prisoners.
“Ah!” he said in a loud jovial voice. “So these are the guests that your political branch has invited to return with us, eh, Comrade Lieutenant? Well, well, well, they look a thoroughly depraved lot, right opportunists to the
man. You will handle them, though, my little dialectician. Ah! You are the clever one. I appreciate that lecture on dialectics that you gave me in the caserne at Ivanjic.”
“I was—I had drunk too much cherry brandy, Comrade General.”
“Nonsense. Impossible. You hadn’t drunk enough. Your statement smacks of chauvinism or left damnfoolery. Well, be careful of your little playmates, and allow them no deviations, left or right, if you want to get them back to base safely.”
THE RAID was nearly over. Men appeared from time to time, driving cattle or hogs, and ancient American panel trucks kept driving in with weird mixtures of loot. Adenoidal children stood round in rags and watched, openmouthed. When they got in the way, the guards would shout, and they would move back a few feet.
After they had stood around for two hours, the prisoners were marched out, with no breakfast other than the acorn coffee. For an hour they marched on the level, then the road swung up the side of a mountainous ridge, where the dust was not so thick, though the going was much harder. Up and up they went, until they came to thick fir trees, and the road doubled back on itself.
“Slow—slow—slow,” Piotr kept repeating in a low voice. “Let the guards shout and prod you. That will wear them out, make them lose their tempers; and it will keep you fresher. Don’t let them hurry you—you’re going into slavery.”
In that philosophy Piotr had distilled the experience of many marches as a prisoner, and the mounting irritability of the guards showed it was working. From time to time Piotr would stop and turn round, to look back over the valley —he could clearly see his own cottage, and the fields that were part of him. Then the guards would shout, and two or three would tush to the point where the stoppage was. Unhurried, and with studied insolence, Piotr would turn and plod on. Then, like a lazy brown caterpillar, the column would resume its slow crawl up the mountainside.
As the ascent grew steeper, conversation ceased, giving way to sporadicgrunting and cursing. Mules and asses at the rear became difficult under their heavy burdens, and there was general relief when the narrow pass at the top —guarded against ambush by an advance party of picked alpine troops —was reached.
“A lucky thing Bibishkin avoided Ivanjic on the return journey,” Piotr said to the bearded man beside him. “This way we go through the Grynetzoff Forest. Our chances of escape will be good, if we can delay long enough. We must see that we don’t cross by the ferry tonight.”
“Ah,” the other said, “there is already some delay. I believe we are to be fed.”
Sure enough, the order came to fall out. Men were detailed to collect firewood. The others eased packs, dropped rifles, and sank down where they were. The prisoners simply sank down. A moment later Sergeant-Major Alexandrov came through the ranks with a corporal, lashing the guards with his old soldier’s tongue; he sited sentries at strategic points above the halted column, and checked the tendency to relax and collapse which had already set in.
“You see,” Piotr said, “it is harder on the guards than on us. Patience, men. The right moment will appear.”
“Piotr Ivanovic,” a fellow prisoner said. “Last night in the church the guard said you had angered the Comrade Lieutenant by talking about Stukas and witches. We did not hear the story about the witches. Let us hear it now.”
“Well,” Piotr said, “my ex-cousin, the dialectician, before he made peace with the Communists and went to be trained in Russia, before that time he was a peasant, like us, and superstitious, believing in werewolves and witches and evil spirits. But he had better reason than most. He was once caught by a witch, and frightened half out of his life.”
He paused, as two prisoners, accompanied by guards with fixed bayonets, came around with a warm soup, rolls of sour rye bread, hunks of strong cheese and — Kyrie eleison—a large raw onion per man. It was a banquet, and represented the swollen state of the raiders’ food supplies, replenished from the larders of the Balkanian villages.
“Yes, go on, Little Piotr,” the bearded man said, and bit courageously into his onion the way a civilized man might bite an apple.
“Yes, tbe witch,” Piotr continued. “It happened like this. When we were young, our mothers being sisters, the Comrade Lieutenant and 1 used to go to visit the grandmother, like the girl with the red riding hood in the tale. My father would send a man with us, and we would ride by the river road on donkeys, with the man leading them. Bibishkin avoids that road, because the river gorge is a better place for an ambush. This road goes to the same place, but through the Grynetzoff Forest. Well, we were about eleven, I am not too sure of the age, when . . .”
SUNFLOWERS stood high above the white picket fence, and fat white geese rushed out to hiss at the donkeys. The grandmother came to the gate, too, to welcome the little boys, and a slim brown girl of fourteen peeped with saucer eyes from behind the old woman’s skirts . . . Katrinka, the lazy maid, breaker of dishes, scorcher of ironing, teller of tales . . . Katrinka could tell wonderful tales of werewolves, men who turned to wolves at night and lurked in the oak forest. Katrinka knew them by name, and could identify them by their howls. There were witches, too. Why, one lived in a hovel just inside the woods, back of the little cow pasture. Her name was Granny Lodznik, which sounded just like the Balkanian word for flier —a sinister
coincidence. At sundown she said the Lord’s Prayer backwards, and thereafter it wasn’t safe to approach her hovel until dawn. One New Year’s, just as the cattle were talking in their stalls (they always do), Granny Lodznik said the Black Mass, and the Devil himself came to her kitchen to sample the Hell’s Brew that always stood on the stove. You could smell brimstone on the path for weeks afterwards. And then once, on a hlessed Easter morning ...
Usually about that time the grandmother would come and drag Katrinka back to work, with an offer to box her ears. They were wonderful tales. Piotr was all for going straight, that night to watch the witch at work. Feodor laughed—witches were an old woman’s tale. He didn’t believe a word. He wouldn’t be afraid. Only, that night he had a cold, an ague was coming over him, he didn’t want to worry the grandmother, and a hundred other excuses. Piotr laughed and bullied him into it. They took a crucifix and some beads to ward off evil, but Feodor couldn’t bo dragged past the witch’s woodpile. He said he wanted to stay there and keep guard . . .
It was dark, and the thick oak trees made the night even darker. There was a pale light from the window, and Piotr tiptoed over. At first he could see nothing, but as his eyes grew accustomed, he saw that the old woman was sitting in front of a low fire, in a rocking chair, with a cat on her knee. “One of her familiars!” Piotr thought, and hoped he might see her suckle it— Katrinka had told him that witches were equipped with extra nipples for that purpose—but it looked just like an ordinary pussy cat, and she was stroking its ears. Piotr stopped being frightened. “She’s just an old woman!” he told himself. He was standing on a stick of firewood, and now he shifted his position, to get a look into the corner, but the firewood slipped and, though he tried to cling to the sill, he fell with a clatter and ended up in a heap among the currant bushes.
There was a shriek from the house, the door was flung open, and the old woman dashed out onto the path. The influx of air made the fire flame up, and the glare of it made horrible silhouettes of the gnarled old creature. Piotr, like a trained poacher, lay still, but Feodor was frightened out of his wits and ran squealing for home, right across the old woman’s path. She swooped like a hawk, and caught the badly frightened boy in her bony old claws, and shook him, screaming gibberish at him in her fright . . . later interpreted as some of the most frightful imprecations and spells in all witchcraft. It was when she raised her stick that Piotr was galvanized into action—it was a knobby old root, on which Katrinka had seen her flying one Walpurgis Night—she lifted it above her head and, old as she was, it would certainly be a terrible blow. Piotr didn’t know what moved him, but he was out, racing towards her, shouting, “ Nyet, nyet; nahshta, nahshta !” Feodor slipped from her fingers, and ran squealing all the way home. The old woman fainted just as Piotr clutched at her skirts.
He started to run, too, but then something made him go back—a decision that made Katrinka shudder deliciously when she heard about it, for she knew that it was not a faint, but a trance, an unholy trance. Piotr drew a bucket of water from the well and splashed some in the old woman’s face. When she came round a little he helped her into the house. There was no stove. She cooked in the fireplace, and that was where the Hell’s Brew stood. He tried it, and it tasted like coffee. She gave him a little cake, too, with silver balls on it, that was a trifle stale. He patted the cat—just a cat . . . nevertheless, at the first decent opportunity he bade her goodnight and, after walking with dignity for the first twenty yards, he knocked several seconds oft Feodor’s time for the remainder of the journey. The grandmother was furious and insisted on sending peace offerings of sausage and goose-liver paste—via Katrinka—on the following day. Only her greater fear of the grandmother enabled the wretched girl to accomplish her mission.
Never again could Feodor he lured near the old woman’s house after dark. Perhaps Piotr’s description of what he said he had seen in the hovel put him off. It started with three wolf cubs under the bed, and an owl chained to the bed post . . . Katrinka was thrilled . . .
Hli COULDN’T tell it just the way he thought it, with a sweet pain of remembrance for the days that had seemed better. These men wouldn’t understand . . . they were hardened by years of war and toil. It was a funny story to them. The Comrade Lieutenant was caught by a witch . . . a little man in an alpine hat, with huge black mustaches sprouting from his thin face, looked up from the cheese he was eating. He was leaning against a tree, and he looked up and sang, in a rich baritone, “The Comrade Lieutenant is a witch lover—.” Everybody
laughed, and the little man munched and improvised a ballad, which went well with the tune of a popular marching song. Here and there others threw in a word.
That afternoon they sang it on the march and, when Feodor caught the words of it, he was furious. He ordered the column to march in silence, and kept sending guards back to catch the culprits who were singing, like a distant angel choir, just loud enough to be heard. Thus the guards were tired and irritated, and Feodor was in a fury, when four men suddenly broke ranks and headed up the steep bank for cover. Not a shot was fired until they had a full thirty yards’ start, and the first Thompson gun burst was fired at the silly range of eighty yards.
Feodor screamed at the guards to shoot, to kill them, to run after them and bring them back, even as the
Sergeant Major tried to get everybody back in line. A dozen guards started raggedly in pursuit, although it was plainly hopeless. Then some prisoners broke for cover on the downhill side, but the canny old Sergeant Major had whipped round that way to mend the fence, and so one man was shot down and another wounded in the first rush. All but one of the remainder put their hands up and walked back to the column: one determined fellow escaped a hail of shots to get clear off into the bush.
The road was now descending sharply, and the fir trees of the summit were giving way to squat thick oaks of ancient vintage. “There will be no catching them now,” Piotr said. “Lucky devils.”
The man shot down twitched for a while, then lay still. Three prisoners were given spades and told to bury him quickly. The other man had been slightly wounded in the foot. The wound was dressed, and the guards prepared to mount him on a pack animal, but Feodor had a better idea. The man should walk, on his bound-up foot. A picked sentry, a Neanderthal fellow with no glimmer of intelligence in his face, was detailed to walk beside him, and if he fell too far behind, to finish him . . . that would deter
But even when the burial service was over there were still five guards missing —five of those whom Feodor had dispatched to chase the escapers. The Sergeant Major smiled knowingly, the prisoners laughed grimly.
“I will give them five minutes more,” Feodor said. “After that they must find their own way back.”
“They have already—back to Balkania,” a voice from the ranks said. Desertion both ways was one of the problems of border warfare.
THE sunflowers still stood high above the white picket fence, and there were even geese to hiss at the newcomers, though by nightfall they would surely be safely eaten. There was the same old-fashioned flower garden and the same tulip tree on the lawn. But there was a jeep parked beside the well and two motorcycles leaned against the gate. On the green by the kitchen door some soldiers were lounging, and in their midst stood a plump, rather pretty woman with large round eyes—by the Holy Mother! It was Katrinka!
A young officer came out of the house and trotted across to the leader of the weary column. After a short consultation the prisoners were herded into the yard, just as the General, looking very hot, but exuding peasant good nature, drove up in the jeep at his customary pace.
Katrinka looked at the newcomers carefully but failed to recognize Feodor in his strange clothing. Presently, however, she raised a shout.
“Piotr,” she screamed, and rushed forward to embrace him, greatly to the disgust of the soldiers who had been entertaining her. “Oh, Piotr, how your grandmother will welcome you ! But what are you doing here?”
She looked quite concerned when she realized the truth: he was a prisoner. “Oh oh oh oh oh,” she said, in a much lower voice.
No servant problems bother us— Observe my family:
It gets along without much fuss With just one servant, me.
Bibishkin, in the act of dismounting, had watched the little scene with some amusement. Katrinka, shouting over her shoulder that she would fetch the grandmother, dashed off into the house.
“You have a grandmother here?” the General enquired. “That is nice, you have a chance to visit with her.”
“I could have waited till New Year’s,” Piotr replied, truculently, and Bibishkin slapped his thigh and laughed heartily.
But when the grandmother was helped out through the door, it was Feodor whom she recognized. She looked at him a long time.
“Well,” she said at last, “my father wore the Emperor’s uniform in the war against Prussia. It was in the year that I was born. Two of my sons were killed in the war against the Emperor. Now I have a grandson who fights for the Czar—the Czar who knocked the churches down. Of all the armies you could have chosen I think you picked the worst.”
“Oh, come,” Bibishkin said. “I have heard that the Rumanian Army is worse than anything here, and we improve with practice. Is this, too, a grandson of yours? I thought he did not believe in families.”
“He is not my grandson,” the old lady said, sepulchrally, with a disowning note in her voice.
“I have no grandparents,” Feodor said, “nor parents either.”
“That is most interesting,” Bibishkin said conversationally. “You were perhaps manufactured by the best dialectic materialistic method in a test tube at Dnepropetrovsk, and your reflexes were conditioned by the great Pavlov himself. Fetch over the other grandson, and see if the old lady will have him."
Piotr came forward, and embraced her silently.
“Ah, yes,” Bibishkin said, turning away. “Now, my little Bolshevik, how did you make out with your guests? How many did you lose en route? Five? That is all? Splendid—and any guards? Five as well? Wonderful. The scoundrels will no doubt pursue your prisoners right to their homes. Oh, what’s that? Speak up—one also was shot, and one wounded. Better yet. But haven’t you hanged the wounded man yet? What was the delay—had you no rope?”
And with that the great Bibishkin strode into the house. Feodor stood, a little dazed, while the Sergeant Major unobtrusively began detailing water and wood fatigues, sentries and cooks, and doing what else was necessary to prepare for the night.
Presently Feodor sent three guards at the double down to the barn, then summoned the man who had been wounded while attempting to escape. The poor fellow was near collapse. He had limped behind the column all afternoon, sometimes falling thirty yards behind. Then, as the wooden-faced sentry prepared to do his duty, the man would spurt into a limping run, each step contorting his face, until he had overtaken the other marchers. Then he would begin to fall behind again, and the performance would be repeated. His comrades sang to him, and during every sprint they cheered and shouted encouragement.
When the three guards returned, bringing saw-horses and planks and a length of old rope from the barn, the wounded man looked startled, then slumped in despair. Better to have fallen and been shot on the road . . .
The planks and sawhorses were quickly made into a rough platform, and the rope was flung over the limb of an oak tree. The wounded man was hoisted to the platform, his face pale
and expressionless, and then Bibishkin emerged from the house.
“What is this?” he asked. “A folk festival? Where is the music? I did not receive my invitation. What is it all about? A hanging? The Comrade General said what? Why yes, of course I did!’’ .and the General bellowed with laughter. The two colonels with him started to laugh, too, then all the men', including the prisoners, and excluding only Feodor and the central figure on the improvised gallows.
“Comrade Lieutenant,” the General shouted, choking. “I think you should test that rope first, personally. Come along, Ilyitch.”
The reprieved man fainted, and Feodor stood there, looking at the ground . . . Public humiliation ! When he got home he would be broken . . . it was not wise to teach generals about party doctrine . . . the General did not seem to give a damn ... he only made jokes. He said that fighting men did not have to trouble with such nonsense. Nonsense! And Feodor, stung, had pointed out to him that it was dangerous to call the party’s doctrine nonsense. The General then looked horrified . . . comic horror, and called him Beria, and slapped him on the back. General Bibishkin was little better than an oafish clown, a peasant. How could such a man receive preferment?
Many another had asked the same question about Bibishkin, a happy thug who had appeared in the Spanish War, had been taken to Russia and trained there as an officer. In the German War he had risen steadily, a natural leader of troops. Not since Suvarov had such a comical fellow reached general rank. When the puppet government was formed in his native Transylvania, Bibishkin was repatriated as a hero, and he had survived two serious political purges by simply laughing uproariously at the very word politics. He was a heathen with a magneticcharm, and no conscience whatever.
HERE, get a waiter to help this wench serve,” Bibishkin said at dinner in the farmhouse kitchen. “Too many officers are pinching her bottom. Get the other grandson up—the genuine grandson, then he can visit his granny like a bourgeois. And Ilyitch, pass that bottle along. Tonight we are celebrating.”
Piotr was brought to the house. The grandmother had gone to bed, but he was able to slip in and see her once or twice. There were sentries at all doors and windows. He begged Katrinka to find everything drinkable in the community and give it to the guards.
“We don’t know what’s ahead,” he said. “There is some order to bring a few prisoners back. They want to recruit agents and saboteurs. We would probably never know freedom again.” As bursts of song arose here and there, Piotr realized that drink was certainly flowing freely. In the kitchen, where Bibishkin was letting his hair down with his officers, the party was also getting a little rowdy.
Piotr was given a white jacket and set to work opening bottles, carving geese, serving and cleaning up—there was a lot of cleaning up.
“Enjoy yourselves, enjoy yourselves,” Bibishkin said. “Soon we will be back to garrison duty. You there, Comrade Lieutenant, you look unhappy. You are at home here—a bourgeois idea, no doubt, but sometimes we can be a little bourgeois. Don’t be frightened—we are soldiers here, not political officers. Why are you such an unhappy fellow?”
“The peasants here are still in the Dark Age,” Feodor said shrilly. “They have not been freed by a glorious revolution. They are superstitious, and they still go to church. They believe in witches and werewolves and patron saints—oh, they are a collection of kulaks and Lumpenproletariat.”
“Little Comrade,” Bibishkin said. “I tell you a secret. I am a peasant too. In Moscow, on the Red Square, I believe in the Little Father Stalin and all that materialism stuff, but down in these woods—oak trees, oak trees, all through the valley, wild boars and deer and wolves—oo, hoo, hoo, hoo—down here / believe in witches, because it feels that way. My grandmother told me all those stories. Now tell me, haven’t you ever seen a witch?”
“Of course he has,” Katrinka said, exercising the privilege of a well-formed woman among the brutal soldiery. “Why a witch caught him once ...” Urged on by the hilarious shouts of approval, Katrinka, saucer-eyed, recounted the tale that Piotr had already told that day. By the light of a lamp on the table she was able to tell it with effect she loved to tell a story, and centuries of superstitious tradition were reflected in the conviction with which she repeated, and embellished, it all.
Piotr maintained a wooden face, but once he glanced at Feodor, who was simply looking at the table, with a slight sneer on his face.
“This witch -she is still here?” the General enquired.
“Oh yes,” Katrinka assured him. “She is a very old witch now, and the Devil will soon come for her. Mistress sends me with food to her every day and I sweep her hovel—ugh! She can’t die in the daytime, so I am not frightened of meeting the Devil there, but after dark, 1 would no more go than Feodor, on whom she put such frightful spells.”
“Ah, Feodor would not go?” the General asked.
“Oh, no, my lord! Nothing could make him!”
“That is a lie!” Feodor shouted, in a passion.
“Ah,” Bibishkin said. “A lie. I wouldn’t go there, but the Comrade Lieutenant would. Splendid. Now you
will go and bring me that pot of.......what
was it—Hell’s Brew? Yes, bring the Hell’s Brew from her hob. It sounds delicious. Does it really make you see the past and future?” Katrinka solemnly assured him that it did, and Bibishkin ordered Feodor to leave at once on his mission.
“The Comrade General makes a fool of me,” Feodor complained.
“That was done long before my time, in a test tube at Dnepropetrovsk,” Bibishkin said cheerily, and then roared “Go!” in a tone which suggested that his huge good nature had its limits. It was a tone, too, that few people cared to disobey.
As Feodor went out Piotr slipped into the pantry, and discovered that the sentry on guard at the pantry window was caving in at the knees. Katrinka had been feeding him cherry brandy and vodka all the evening. He stared with unseeing eyes as Piotr climbed out -it was the same window he had used as a boy—then the sentry turned tobe sick. Behind him Piotr heard raucous laughter, then the opening disharmonies of a song. Ahead of him he saw the shadowy figure of Feodor, staggering slightly, so he hurried forward.
FOR security reasons the Sergeant Major had corralled every possible jeep, truck and car and turned their headlights on the doors and windows of the barns and sheds where the prisoners were bedded down. This meant running every engine for a while at intervals through the night, which in turn provided something to keep the sentries on their toes.
Piotr rapidly overtook Feodor, and walked close behind him, without betraying his presence. Thus he was able to get past the headlight beams playing on the front and rear doors of the barn. Passing the sentry was easy after that. Piotr simply dropped to the ground when he was once more in darkness, and waited till Feodor was challenged.
“Tovarisch!” Feodor replied to the challenge. “It. is your platoon commander.”
“And who is with the Comrade Lieutenant?”
This started quite an argument, because the sentry swore he had seen another figure cross the headlight beam, and Feodor, talking a bit thickly, told him he was a drunken dog, seeing double. By that time Piotr was halfway through the oak forest to Granny Lodznik’s hovel.
“I will be like the wolf in the tale,”
he said happily. “First I will go and devour the grandmother, then I will wait for Red Riding Hood.”
He was in high glee as he approached the hovel, but when he got really close the hair suddenly rose on the back of his neck and he felt all his skin creep. The door was open, and candles were guttering eccentrically on a low table. Over in the alcove, where the bed was, there were dark figures, like all the witches in all the fairy tales ever told, and at that moment a wolf howled — right in front of the door. The moon had just appeared from behind a cloud, so Piotr saw, within seconds, that it was the villainous German shepherd dog which Mother Czym, the midwife and practical nurse of the hamlet, had acquired when retreating German occupation troops left it behind. Slowly his heart regained its normal place and speed, and he entered.
“Mercy on us,” the two old women shrieked, and Piotr suddenly had a nasty turn. Granny Lodznik lay dead in the bed, nothing left of her but ashygrey skin over the old bones. Mother Czym and her sister Lotti had just finished laying her out.
“She was very old,” the midwife said, “and all these soldiers about—it finished her. She died at sundown.”
“Oh,” Piotr said. “Well, Mother Czym, I came to warn the poor old thing. My cousin, that swine Feodor—
you remember him?—he is an officer in the Transylvanian Army. They have sent him here as a practical joke to steal the old woman’s coffee pot—you know the tales that idiot Katrinka tells about it—and I was afraid he would scare her to death. But now, I see that you can scare him to death—he is a traitor and deserves it. Will you hide behind the curtain of her little cupboard, and will you, Lotti, crouch by the foot of the bed, there, and both veil your faces. Wait till he is well into the room, then come out slowly—and shriek.”
The women looked at each other.
“He is a Stalin man—a Bolshevik,” Piotr said.
Silently the women adjusted their veils and went to the proper positions. Piotr listened at the door.
“He is drunk and may take some time to find the way,” he said. “Be patient—it is a good work.”
The dog, which had merely sniffed at him as he came in, wagged its tail and blocked his path as he went out. He patted it, and led it to the side fence, where he tied it to a loose picket. Still there was no sign of Feodor.
Piotr was free now—in his own woods. Nobody could catch him. Yet he couldn’t forget the others in the barn, especially Bratsleff, the wounded man. Silently and swiftly he retraced his steps. Halfway back he met Feodor, walking slowly and staring straight ahead. When a twig snapped Feodor started violently. Piotr stepped into the shadows to let him pass, then ran all the rest of the way.
DISARMING the sentry from behind was no difficult thing; it was a trick Piotr had learned—and practiced—in the Partisans. It was also easy to yank the fuse out of the truck whose headlights played on the rear window of the barn, and he heard the drunken cursing of the sentry who had to come over and see what was wrong. Piotr ignored him and crept to the window.
“Quickly, men,” he said. “Carry Bratsleff, two of you; there is a donkey loose in the pasture that we can catch for him. Hurry, we have only a few minutes.”
Fortunately most of the guards were hog drunk — in fact some of the prisoners were too, and as a result got left behind. One incautious sentry, who poked his head in to see what the commotion was, was clubbed and dragged inside. The escapers mustered in the shadow of the barn, then slunk off after Piotr, passing close to the American panel truck where two men were fumbling and cursing trying to get the lights on.
They had just reached the pasture, and a young lad was closing in on the loose donkey for the wounded man to ride, when they heard a frightful screeching. Every man dropped to earth, but it was hardly necessary. Feodor, screaming wildly, wasn’t noticing anything. He was running for home in blind panic, and behind him flew an angry German shepherd dog, dragging a stick behind it on its leash. He didn’t even stop when the sentries challenged him, so it was only to be expected that he would be shot down —there were those who said it was a kinder fate than the one Bibishkin was planning for him when they got home.
“We must hurry,” Piotr said. “Beyond this little ridge they will never find us. Just do as I tell you.”
Inside he felt warm and happy; his patron saint, his luck, had not let him down. Tomorrow night he would see Tina, and would tell the little ones a bedtime story. He would tell them the tale about Little Red Riding Hood and the wolf. ★