Tales from the Morning Room
The Commissar reined
in his horse and reached for his water flask. As he drank, his eyes never
ceased their search of the horizon but he saw nothing. He replaced his
water flask and rode on.
In the silence of the afternoon the boy sat on the verandah of the shack whittling a piece of wood. Behind him an old man slept fitfully on a rocking chair. A few scraggy animals scratched for food on the bare ground in front of the shack or sought shelter from the blinding sun in the shade of an old well. The handle of the well creaked slightly, its wood drying in the heat. The grasslands of the steppe beyond were burnt brown.
A sound broke the silence, startling the boy. Uncertainly he put the wood down and listened intently. He heard it again: a jingling of harnesses and the creak of wheels. Men were coming; soldiers. The hens squawked and ran in panic underneath the house while the two geese stretched their necks in the direction of the sound and hissed threateningly. The boy wondered if the soldiers were good or bad; great uncle Vanya had spoken of them in those terms.
He stayed where he was, not thinking of flight, knowing nothing of what lay across the leagues of grass, knowing only this farmstead with its wooden shack and outbuilding, the worn area before the verandah where the birds picked incessantly at the bare earth.
There were about thirty soldiers, some on foot, others on horseback, and some, badly wounded, in an open cart. The boy shaded his eyes to see better. The men were listless, their heads hanging, leaning on rifles and one another for support. All were burnt by the sun. A smell of ordure and smoke wafted to the boy.
One of the riders detached himself from the column and rode towards the child. As he approached he appeared gigantic. The rest of the soldiers watched and waited. The man, Popov, saw a boy of about nine years old, thin, dressed in rags but with an open friendly face. He looked kindly at the child, reminded of his own children.
"Where are your mother and father, little one?"
The boy shook his head. There had only been great uncle Vanya, always.
Popov nodded gravely, misunderstanding the child’s reaction for fear.
"Don’t be afraid," he counselled. "We shall not harm them." He turned stiffly and pointed. "There has been a battle, over there. Two days we have been on the steppe. Without water. My men are wounded, need water."
He looked at the well and the boy, understanding, grinned and ran over to the verandah where he picked up a wooden bucket.
"Good boy," laughed Popov. "Come, men. There is water here. We’ll rest a while and the child will bring us water."
The soldiers, animated by this news, came forward. As the child saw their wounds, he frowned, not understanding what had happened to these men. They passed him, giving him dull glances, seating themselves painfully on the ground. Those in the cart were carried off and placed in its shade, propped against the large wheel.
Flies from the wounded buzzed round his head as he tied the bucket to the rope and placed a heavy stone in it to weigh it down. The handle creaked as the bucket descended into the cool dampness and the men looked up expectantly. A sigh ran through the troop as the splash of the bucket hitting the water reached them.
The boy struggled manfully to wind the heavy bucket to the top but Popov kindly shoved him aside and took over. Men came over to watch as the bucket neared the top. Popov was just reaching over to untie it when everyone was frozen by a scream. It was a soldier in dementia, one who had been lying by the cart. Now he was lunging forward shrieking for water and clawing at the bucket so that it was nearly knocked from Popov’s grasp.
A dozen hands tore at the man, pulled him away but too late. In the struggle the bucket had fallen into the well.
Popov watched the men subdue the demented soldier, and then looked glumly into the well, not yet aware how serious their predicament was. As they tried several expedients their hopes were high but with each unsuccessful attempt these began to fade. A rope had broken under the weight of a man and dredging had proved useless.
A cry startled them. It was the old man, awake and alarmed. Popov and the boy calmed him and he went to get food for the troop.
At their wits end, the soldiers turned to the boy. He was light enough and agile; with luck he would reclaim the bucket. The child, pleased at being singled out by these worthy warriors, was willing; and with a grateful pat from Popov allowed himself to be tied to the rope and lowered into the well.
It was dark and clammy but the boy turned his trusting face up to the light. Popov smiled at him, his hand signalling care to the soldier on the windlass. The boy gasped as his feet touched the bitterly cold water but remorselessly the rope was lowered and he became immersed in its chill depths. Remembering what he was there for he gulped a lungful of air and ducked his head under. His face scraped against something soft and slimy and in panic he struggled to get his head above water. He bumped against the side of the well, felt again that soft touch, and in terror and darkness cried out soundlessly as the water filled his lungs.
"What is happening?"
Popov, in anguish as he realised the child was dead, turned in surprise. It was a young lieutenant who had spoken. As he explained, he felt the weight of responsibility lighten.
The officer nodded and took over the recovery of the body. Caught by weeds it was only with effort that they raised it above the water. They gathered sorrowfully around the body as it was drawn out and laid on the ground. The boy’s great uncle cradled him in his arms and crooned a lullaby.
There was a shriek. It was the demented man scrambling for the child. He grappled with the wet clothes, buried his head in them. And then they realised in horror that this was not grief or remorse. The man was drinking the water out of the clothes. With curses, they moved to fling him off then abruptly, stopped.
Alarmed at the sudden silence the man looked up. A pair of boots was before his eyes, a man in the uniform of a commissar, a revolver in his hand. He shot him.
Aghast, the company stood in silence. Popov eventually found the courage to speak. "Comrade Commissar," he said hesitantly, "the man was out of his mind with thirst. He did wrong but ....". He could not quite finish.
The Commissar ignored him, walked over to the front of the shack, motioned the men to fall into line before him. He stared at Popov. "You are?"
Popov explained. "We were in Comrade General Zevtushenko’s army, sir ...." Here he hesitated "which won a glorious victory over the army of General Zorkhov."
"Why are you here?"
"After the battle we became separated from our forces."
At this point, the young lieutenant stepped in.
"My dear Commissar," he took him aside, "your little games mean little to us here. We all know the battle was a disaster. These men here fought heroically, I’m sure of that, but, outnumbered they had to retreat. With no command, with our forces totally disorganised what could they do?"
"They should have fought the enemy."
The lieutenant laughed. "Where is the enemy, Commissar? Please where is the enemy? You know how dispersed these battles are. Without food and water and an enemy to fight what could they do?"
He shook his head; continued. "No, Commissar, you’ll let them live. I know you will. You need them to fight your battles. In your eyes they’re traitors. You’d like to shoot them like you shot that man there. Was that to stiffen them, Comrade; put some resolve into them? They’re dying of thirst, Commissar. Shoot me if you like but don’t shoot them."
He turned back to the men. They had heard and eyed him with interest.
A shot rang out. The Commissar had shot the lieutenant in the back.
The men stared in horror but he ignored them. He questioned Popov about the well, and learning the water was unobtainable, ordered the men to move out. Any who strayed or fell behind would be shot. They must make all speed to rejoin the army which was regrouping to the north.
It was a long hard journey. Two men died of their wounds and the Commissar put a bullet through the brain of one who refused to go any further. Ragged and mutinous, they passed through a harsh and hostile land, still steppe but white and bleached in the sun and without water. Thirst was terrible, but the Commissar, cold and indifferent, rode on.
And then there was a marsh, great flats of reed and moss and boggy ground. In an instant, all including Popov were uncontrollable, and rode into the marsh, heedless of the shots the Commissar fired.
He followed them, hunting them down. Three men in an abandoned wagon, unable to crawl the few feet to their salvation, watched in horror as he calmly shot them. Popov, half-hidden by reeds, his hands cupped and full of water, never heard him come upon him. Nor the others, each and every one, ruthlessly exterminated.
Coldly, the Commissar watched a horse sink into a bog. He reached for his flask, took a long draught of water, then turning rode off in search of other deserters.
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