Tales from the Wooden Man 1

Carpathian Gray

The impenetrable Carpathian night had consumed the day as Vasili lay shivering in the trench they had dug in the ice—ice so frozen that he had broken his shovel. The army had issued him the gray wool uniform that barely kept out the cold. This was no place for a man. The Carpathian Mountains were wicked, even evil, and most deadly to men, and this winter had been the worst any of the men could remember.

“Vasili, you Rusyn dog! Wake up before I shoot you!” Vasili knew enough Hungarian to understand the korporal’s order, and he was smart enough to know what happened to those who did not obey.

“I am awake. What is it?”

“We are hitting the Russian bastards in the morning. Be ready!”

“I am ready,” Vasili mumbled with the only energy he could find.

As soon as the korporal left, he closed his eyes once again, almost hoping that they would not open again. But Mary was home waiting for him. His thoughts wavered between Mary, his wife in Passaic, and Maria, his poor sister. She was only a year younger than Vasili, and he could only remember when the letter arrived from his father. It said, “You must return Vasili, your sister is dying.”

Maria, Vasili’s golden-haired sister, was only 18, two years younger than Vasili. She had always been weaker than other girls her age, but Vasili had always taken care of her. He kept her safe and vowed to always do so. She had gone to the U.S. with Vasili two years earlier, but when she got sick, she had very quickly returned to the homeland to be with Mother and Father. Now Vasili’s tears froze on his cheeks, remembering Maria’s sweet face and knowing that he could not protect her, and knowing he had failed her completely.

Vasili had little choice but to endure the endless days and nights. He had not asked for this; he was not a soldier. But when the Hungarians came to Circ and found that he was not a U.S. citizen, they forced him into the wagon with the rest of the men they had conscripted. Now he faced the Russian army, just over the ridge, and the consequences of that meeting must be to win or to die. Capture by the Russians meant torture and starvation.

Vasili had finally drifted back into sleep when the scream ripped into the night air. This was not the scream of war wounded. This was a scream of unearthly terror.

From the trenches throughout the mountainside came the sounds of men praying. These were veterans who had seen the horrors of modern warfare, yet now they huddled in their ice holes, rosaries in hand, whispering their pleas to God to spare them this night.

In the morning, Vasili crawled from his hole to see how his friend Janos had fared during the night. The streams of blood running from the foxhole had frozen so fast that they remained on the surface of the snow, shiny and bright crimson. The red ice reminded Vasili that his time was soon. And when it came it would not be peaceful.

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