The impenetrable Carpathian night consumed the day as Vasili lay shivering in the trench they had scraped out of the ice and snow—so frozen that it was nearly as hard as the rock below it. The army had issued him the wool clothing that barely kept out the cold. Humans were not meant to live in these conditions, but what choice did he have?
The screams of the wounded from the day’s battle echoed down the canyons until stifled by the gray wolves. It chilled Vasili as it did the other men to hear the final cries in the dark, knowing that any one of them could be next. Tomorrow they would see the streams of red, frozen so fast that they never soaked into the snow. The bright red ice would remind him that his time was soon. And when it came it would not be peaceful.
If they were attacked, he would never be able to fire a shot. Everything on his Steyr Monnlicher M1895 was frozen. It took him five minutes to defrost the gun enough to allow the bolt to operate and the trigger to move. Far too late as the flashing bayonets would come over the lip of his hole.
They could never surrender. Vasili knew what it meant to be captured by the Russians. The Russians hated the Hungarians, the Germans, and the Austrians. But they had a particular hatred for the Rusyns because of the Rusyns’ stubborn attempts at separation from Russian influence.
“Vasili, you dog! Wake up before I shoot you!” Vasili knew enough Hungarian to understand the sergeant’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 now. Get up and get ready!”
The fear rose to a peak in Vasili as he heard the charge of the Tsarist army echoing through the hills.
“Vasili! Wake up, Vasili! You are screaming again in your sleep!”
“I am sorry Marja, I cannot help myself.”
“I know Vasili. Is it the war?”
“It does not matter. It is just a nightmare.”
“But why will you not tell me about it?”
“Just go back to sleep. I am fine.”
In the morning, Vasili sat at the small kitchen table, his palms pressing into his eyes, his fingers gripping his blonde-hair.
“Is it the headaches again?” asked Marja as she hugged him around his shoulders. In the two years since Vasili had returned, he had been plagued by these awful headaches and nightmares from which he awoke screaming in terror.
“Yes, of course,” replied Vasili. “They never stop.”
Marja’s hand inadvertently went to pat Vasili’s back, making him pull away from her and flash his angry blue eyes back at her.
“I’m sorry. I’m so sorry. I did not mean to touch there. It was an accident,” Marja apologized.
“I have told you,” Vasili spat out, “you do not touch there, ever.”
The scar on his back was a constant reminder of the scar on his soul. It was the scar that meant he could never be forgiven—not by the priest, not by God, and not by himself.
“Father Durisin keeps asking why you do not go to mass.” It was Sunday, and Marja was carefully changing the subject and trying delicately to prod Vasili to go to church with her.
“That is not Father’s business,” growled Vasili. “That is my business.”
The Byzantine religion was deeply rooted in all Rusyns. It was not just an obligation, it was a way of life, and it permeated everything a good Rusyn did.
Marja turned to finishing the breakfast dishes without another word. She knew better than to push Vasili too hard. There was a space within him that Marja could not fill. God could not fill. It was his alone to bear. They had known each other since childhood in Circ. They had spent many hours walking the mountain paths into the beautiful Carpathians. Marja often wondered why her father left in the first place. The farming work was hard but peaceful. They were far enough from the Hungarians that they rarely came around to torment them. There had been animosity between the Hungarians and Rusyns for longer than anyone could remember, and they had been subjects of the Hungarian Empire for a thousand years, but Franz Joseph was especially determined to eliminate their language and their culture, turning them into Hungarians.
“You go alone. I have nothing to say to God today.”
“Please, it is your soul I pray for.”
“My soul is black, and I will be in Hell.”
“I just want you to—”
“Enough!” Vasili was shouting now. This weekly conversation had taken place since he returned from the war that had taken his humanity and his soul. Every time they had this conversation, Vasili would stare at the wall, his thoughts kept securely to himself, reminding him of how this journey started.
Vasili had been a farmer like his ancestors for as many generations as the family could remember. They had just enough land to feed themselves and had lived in the same log home built by his grandfather. Their two oxen helped with the plowing, the one cow gave them milk, the six sheep gave them wool, and the two pigs would give them pork.
His village sat at the foot of the Carpathian Mountains. The people of his village had no time to stare off at the mountains to appreciate the beauty and majesty. But Vasili knew those mountains. His father Mikhal had taken him hunting there since he was a small boy.
There were many rumors of a great country called America where many of their friends had gone. They knew only that the streets were gold, and a man could do whatever he wanted to do, and be whatever he wanted to be. When Vasili dreamed, he dreamed of such a place. Tall mountains, wheatfields as far as the eye could see, and cities, where so many people lived that they had to live in tall brick buildings. Often, his father would smack him in the back of the head when he caught young Vasili dreaming of that land.
His father would scold, “Vasili, do not dream of what you cannot have.”
“You and Mother were married there, why can we not return?”
“To that place, never,” Mikhal spat the words. “We could not stand the smell. The factories were the only places for people like us. I have told you this many times. All those people living on top of one another. The smoke and soot, we could never breathe properly. This is where we belong. This is our land.”
“It will never be our land so long as the Hungarians can come and take it. They have taken almost everything from us to pay for that Emperor to live in gold palaces. One of these days, we will not be able to pay the taxes, and they will take our land like the Kovalchiks.”
“No, one day we will have our own land. We will not live under the boot of the Magyars forever.”
“I will be long dead before that day comes, so why should I wait?”