“Maria,” Mikhal wailed, “wake up!”
By now, Havel and Ilko, Vasili’s brother and sister, had run into the room shouting happy greetings, but they stopped short when their father cried out. They looked from Maria to Vasili, then back to Mikhal as they too cried.
Looking up from Maria’s lifeless body to Vasili, Mikhal’s eyes were full of anger, his breathing was shallow, as he yelled, “What have you done Vasili! What have you done!”
Vasili, met his father’s gaze and said, “It was Consumption that killed her, not me.”
Havel put his arm around Vasili and whispered, “Maybe you should come with me outside.”
Vasili nodded as Havel led the way out of the door.
When they were away from the house, Havel stopped and said, “He has not been the same since you two left. He is always sad, but when he saw you and Maria, his heart must have been overflowing with joy. Then it was crushed. Please do not be angry with him.”
Vasili answered, “I am trying very hard. He has no idea what I have been through, and he has no idea how hard I tried to keep Maria safe. I just could not,” and he began to cry. “Why has God done this to our sister?”
Havel said, “It is not for us to know, Vasili. We cannot know what God has planned for us.”
Vasili argued, “If God loves us so much, why does he make us suffer?”
Havel shook his head and shrugged his shoulders. Vasili knew that Havel had no more answers.
Vasili spent that night at his cousin’s house, and when he returned in the morning, Havel told him that their father had gone to see the priest. Some of the village women helped Ilko to dress Maria in one of the better dresses Maria had left behind when she went to America. They gently laid her in her old bed and combed her hair. Vasili sat with his head down in the corner of the room thinking about Maria’s big smile and her shining blond hair swinging behind her before she put it up for the day. He already missed her smile, and he missed her sparkling eyes.
But more and more he wondered why had God abandoned her to die so horrible a death? He placed his hand in the side pocket of his coat and fingered the 59 beads of the rosary that had now witnessed the deaths of two owners, his mother and his sister. Perhaps they were cursed instead of blessed.
His reverie was broken as he heard Havel say his name. “Vasili, Father is returning with Father Lipnik. Perhaps you should wait outside.”
Vasili’s answer was curt. “No.”
The front door opened and Mikhal ushered in Father Lipnik. Mikhal glared at Vasili, but did not speak to him. Father Lipnik made his condolences and proceeded to the body of Maria. He brought the bottle of holy oil out of his cassock and blessed the body, finishing by making the sign of the cross with oil on Maria’s forhead while whispering the Byzantine prayer for the dead.
Vasili was tempted to wipe the oil off, seeing something useless spoiling his beautiful sister’s face. But he knew better than to cause trouble now.
“Was this girl administered last rites?” said the priest as he stared intently at Vasili.
“Yes, Father, I administered them.”
“What do you know of the last rites” Mikhal broke in.
“I watched when they gave them to Mother, and I had no choice.”
“Yes, of course,” Mikhal’s sarcasm was obvious. “It is always the same with you. You did nothing wrong, you did the right thing, you had no choice.”
Vasili was in no mood to have a fight now. He stood, stepped deliberately to the open door, and kept walking. He stayed away until the funeral day.
The priest circled the casket three times, swinging the censer and chanting the Panachida. The smoke from the censer completely filled the small room with the woody odor of frankincense.
Vasili could not bear to look into the casket where Maria lay, her blonde hair still framing her youthful face, so he sat silently in a wooden chair at the far corner of the room.
“Why did I ever think to take her to America?” thought Vasili.
Mikhal, angry and red-faced, stomped away from the mourners and crossed the room to Vasili. “See what you have done, you foolish boy?” he accused.
“I did the best I could. I thought she would be be able to live with us and be happy.”
“Happy! Does she look happy now? I knew what it was like in America. I lived there digging their coal, and I could not stand the place. This is why I returned. I am a farmer. You are a farmer.”
Nadya and Maria and I were going to be fine.”
“What do you know? You are married for four months.”
Vasili bent his head and could not lift it again until his father had moved away.
“It is all my fault,” he thought. “I promised to take care of her, and all I have done was cause her death. Father is right, I am foolish.”
Vasili stood and walked through the door, hoping that the fresh air would cleanse him of the sadness that was clinging to him now.
He walked through Čirč, wondering if leaving had been the right thing to do. He had been determined to better himself, to leave the Hungarians behind, to make his family and his village proud that he was a Rusyn. As he wandered along the creek that ran through the village, he heard the thump of horses’ hooves. He could see the dust rising in the distance and he knew this was not a good sign.
He could still hear the chanting refrain from his father’s house:
“Vičnaja pamjat’. Blažennyj pokoj. Eternal Memory. Blessed Repose.”
As the tears made their way past his cheeks, the pounding got louder until he could see the blue capes trailing in the wind. The soldiers wore the red pants, blue overcoats, and tall plumed red hats that identified them as Hungarian Hussars—fierce and intense men. He had heard that there was trouble with Russia, but what did that mean to the farmers here in Čirč?
“They can all kill each other and go to hell as far as I am concerned,“ he thought
“Eternal Memory. Blessed Repose and Eternal Memory.”
He spat in the dirt as the first horses came into view between the houses. “You, come here!” commanded the officer, using his saber to point to Vasili, then to the ground next to his horse. “Now!”
Vasili forced himself to walk to the side of the tall brown horse.
“What do you want?” he asked.
“What is your name?” demanded the officer.
“What does it matter to you?” sneered Vasili in his native Slovak.
The enraged officer answered by turning his blade to the side and smacking Vasili in the head, knocking him to the ground. Vasili sprang up to find the point of the saber only inches from his nose.
“You will speak to me in Hungarian, not in that peasant pig language! Now try again Rusyn,” shouted the officer through his clenched teeth, emphasizing the last word as an insult.
“Are you from Čirč?”
“Yes, but I have just come from America, so leave me alone.”
The officer turned to his men and mocked “He has just come from America! Perhaps we should leave him alone!”
At that, the entire Hungarian company exploded with laughter.
Turning back to Vasili, he bent low over his horse’s neck, again pointing his saber at Vasili’s nose as he said, “We know who you are. We have been looking for you. You owe us three years by law, and you are inducted into the great Austro-Hungarian Army as of now. The wagon will be along in 24 hours, so be ready or you will answer to me.”
He stood up in his stirrups and announced in a loud and pompous tone, “We are looking for the following men: Nicolos Petrovich, Gregor Mihalko, and Marik Demjan. The Russians want to invade us and kill you all. If you want to protect your wives, your family, your village, you will gladly come and fight the Russians.”
By now the entire village had gathered in a circle around Vasili and the Hungarians. Mikhal pushed through the crowd and into the circle yelling, “Get away from my son! You cannot have him! Your emporer has taken enough from us, and this is too much.”
A rifle butt slammed into Mikhal’s face and he fell to the ground, the large gash in his cheek bleeding into his mouth.
Spitting blood, Mikhal promised revenge upon the soldiers who laughed at him as they would a crazy man dancing naked in the street.
“The next time, old man, it will be the bayonet and you will not be cursing us. You will be dead.”
Mikhal picked himself up and stood defiantly. He held his head up and slowly walked back into the crowd, disappearing into the sea of frightened and silent faces.
Vasili returned to his father’s house where Father Lipnik was now completing the P:anachida. Mikhal placed the lid on the wooden coffin, and six of the village men lifted it. Father Lipnik, chanting and swinging the golden censer, led in front of the coffin, followed by Mikhal, then Vasili, Havel, and Ilko, then the entire village as the procession meandered slowly on the path to the wooden church on the hill. The weathered shingle siding led up to the two steeples, each topped by the three-barred cross of the Byzantine faith. The single bell tolled once every three seconds, adding to the sad tone of the congregation. Father Lipnik entered the church, walked to the altar, and circled it three times behind the iconostasis, the wall of icons picturing the venerated saints of St. Cyril and Methodius Church. But Vasili could not stop staring at the icon of the Archangel Michael with his flaming sword.
The long Parasta, liturgy for the dead, was nearly complete, as the people went for Communion. As Vasili approached Father Lipnik, the priest withdrew the chalice and told Vasili, “My son, you have not confessed your sins, and you cannot partake of this Mystery.” Vasili wanted to shout, “I have done nothing wrong,” but thought better of it and simply walked back to his kneeler, his eyes looking at the floor, his face burning under the glare of the villagers. Father Lipnik gave the final blessing.
The pall bearers lifted the coffin once again and carried it out of the church as the mournful tones of “Vičnaja pamjat’. Blažennyj pokoj. Eternal Memory. Blessed Repose” nearly brought Vasili to his knees. Havel and Ilko were crying uncontrollably, but Vasili could see no emotion on his father’s face. The congregation now followed Father Lipnik to the graveyard just behind the church, where the helpers nailed the coffin lid shut and lowered Maria’s body into the dark earth. As the coffin disappeared, Vasili once again fingered the beads of the rosary Maria had given him. He wondered if the rosary or the flaming sword of the Archangel would decide his fate.
Vasili was in the Austro-Hungarian Army, and he knew it would be a long time before he returned to Čirč, and an even longer time before he could return to America and kiss Nadya’s sweet face.
Vasili slept in his father’s house the night after the funeral. He had very little to get ready for the army wagon since he had thrown away his suitcase in the forest on his way to Čirč. After breakfast, Vasili faced Mikhal, Havel, and Ilko.
“I’m sorry for what I have done to our family,” Vasili said.
Havel began to speak, “No, it was not,”
But Mikhal interrupted, “We’ve said enough about this. Your brother is going to fight for the dirty Hungarians and we must pray for his return.”
Vasili, losing all of his religion except for the rosary that Maria gave him, was about to tell his father that they could keep their prayers, but he thought better of it, thinking, “I can’t leave them while they are angry with me. Papa believes a prayer will help, so I must allow it.”
The four of them then knelt in prayer with Mikhal pleading for the safe return of his son.
From down the road they heard the beating hooves and a voice yelling, “The army wagon is here!”
Vasili hugged Havel telling him, “Please take care of Ilko, you must do better than I have done.”
Vasili then hugged Ilko and said, “You must listen to Papa and to Havel, and be safe.”
Ilko nodded, causing the tears caught in her long blond eyelashes to be let loose, and fall down her cheeks, dripping to the floor.
Mikhal surprised Vasili with a huge hug, clasping his hands around Vasili’s shoulder blades and kissing him on the cheek. Mikhal then whispered, “I forgive you for taking Maria to America. Now you must forgive yourself.”
Vasili, closing his eyes to stop the tearing, could only say, “Goodbye Papa. I will never forgive myself for what has happened, but I will return to you and I will return to Nadya in America.
“Go with God,” shouted Mikhal as Vasili walked out the door and down the street to his fate.
As he passed the house of Nicolos Petrovich, Nicholos, Gregor Mihalko, and Marik Demjan stumbled from the doorway. Vasili could see that the three of them were up very late drinking.
Marik shouted to Vasili, “Hey Vasili, we get to go shoot Russians!”
Vasili was sad to see one of his friends so excited about killing. He said, “Marik, you have wanted to go to war since you were a little boy. I don’t think you will find it so attractive when the Russians are shooting back.”
Marik, still a little tipsy from the night before, smiled broadly and said, “Vasili, you talk like an old man! Besides, we’re defending our people.”
Just then Nicolos, always the peacemaker, took Marik’s arm and said, “I hope we can all live to be such old men.”
Marik burst into laughter, slapped Vasili on the back and began to march towards the wagon. Gregor, as usual, was quiet.
The small transport wagon was old. The wooden sides were ridden with holes; the canvas top was thin and fraying, much of it flapping in the breeze. It was small, meant to hold only two or three men, but now the five of them must crowd into it. It was pulled by two unmatched horses. One horse was larger than the other and Vasili thought, “This army must be full of idiots or they are so poor they cannot afford the right horses. It is almost impossible to control a wagon with two horses that are so different. If they can’t get the horses right, what chance will I have to survive with their training?”
Vasili had little time to think about anything because the officer with the wagon was impatient.
“Hurry, little dogs, we need to get to Presov by nightfall. I am Leutnant Jarabinec. You are now the property of the Imperial and Royal Army. You will have the privilege of fighting to save your families from the Russians. If you do not fight, and you try to run, you will be shot. Do I make myself clear?”
The four men nodded and mumbled.
Jarabinec raised his horse whip above his head and shouted, “This whip is for those who do not know how to speak to an officer in the Imperial and Royal Army. You will address me as Leutnant and when I ask you a question I expect you to shout the answer to me. Do you understand.”
“Yes Leutnant!” shouted the four of them.
Vasili wished he could take the horse whip and thrash the Leutnant in the face, but the Őrmester, Sergeant, stood nearby watching intently. The look on his face told Vasili that any aggressive move could be his last.
“Now that we have that understood,” sneered Jarabinec, “get moving and load yourselves into the wagon, move!”
The four men jumped into the back of the wagon, accompanied by a fierce looking man who introduced himself as Őrmester Tóth. Tóth was short, no more than 5’8”, his head looked to be too large for his body, and with the high collar of the Hungarian uniform, he seemed to have no neck. His full round face was not friendly, and his scowl looked permanent. He reeked of alcohol.
As the men took seats on the hard wooden benches on the wagon sides, Tóth pointed to the three stars on his collar tab and said “Őrmester,” and in Slovak said, “Sergeant. Do you not understand your own language, or do you always look that stupid?”
“Őrmester,” said Marik with a smile, “we could not ever look as stupid as you do right now.”
In one motion, Tóth kicked Marik in the face with the heel of his boot and drew his gun.
“If we did not need so many people at the front right now, I would shoot you and throw you into a fire, you impudent peasant.” It seemed that Tóth’s almost comical appearance belied his belligerent attitude.
Marik, his nose streaming blood, began to rise from the floor, but Nicolos bent over and placed his hand on his friend’s shoulder. Nicolos whispered, “Don’t be stupid. You don’t want to die like this, do you?”
Before Marik could respond, Tóth stood over him and, still pointing the gun at Marik’s head said, “I will be happier to see him die at the end of a Russian bayonet.” He holstered his pistol and sat back down.
As if to punctuate the misery of the four young men, the wagon ride on wooden wheels, with no suspension, made them feel every rut and hole in the road—and there were many. The road was unpaved and because there had been no rain for several weeks, the dust from the wheels penetrated the wagon and hung over them as if they had blankets over their heads. Then, about an hour into the ride, the rain fell as if God was punishing the land. The roads became slithering mud pits. The horses could barely move the wagon, which slid to the side of the road and was buried almost to its axles in the sticky sludge.
“Everybody out,” called the Leutnant from the front of the wagon.
“What the hell now,” said Marik.
“You really have not learned your lesson, have you?” asked Tóth as he reached down, grabbed Marik’s shirt, and threw him head-first into the mud. “Any other questions?”
Vasili, Nicholos, and Gregor jumped from the wagon without a word. They sank up to their ankles into the soft muck as they waited for instructions. Leutnant Jarabinec, from his seat in the front of the wagon barked out, “What are you waiting for? Push this wagon out of the mud!”
Vasili muttered, “I would love to push your face in this mud.”
Tóth leaned in to Vasili and said, “Let me hear that again Rusinko.”
“It was nothing Őrmester, I am ready to push.”
The four recruits were able to shovel some stones under the wagon wheels and create a pathway back to the road. With the over-tired horses pulling and the four young men pushing, the wagon was finally freed. The men scraped what mud they could from their boots and jumped back into the wagon.
After a long silence, Vasili thought he would pass the time with some conversation.
“Marik, what have you been doing while I was away?”
A big smile lit up Marik’s face and he said, “Drinking!”
Nicolos spoke up, “Don’t let him fool you Vasili. He has been doing his own work and helping out on my farm. My Father fell ill in April and Marik has been working every evening to get our work done.”
“Marik!” said Vasili mockingly, “who knew you had a heart?”
Marik’s face turned scarlet as he said, “Well, there goes my reputation!”
“How is your father?” Vasili asked Nicolos.
“He is feeling better now. It was a broken arm, but he’s getting older so it took longer to heal.”
“And Gregor,” said Vasili, “You have been extra quiet this day.”
Gregor looked up and said, “I have been working my ass off, that is all. I wished to get away from the farm, and look how God has answered me!”
Vasili laughed, “It is a bad idea to go around wishing, you know.”
Marik looked over at Tóth and asked, “Őrmester, will we have vodka at training camp?”
Vasili and Nicolos laughed loudly as Tóth looked up from the floor and said, in a deliberate and menacing voice, “You are trouble, but I will see to it that you either get in line or pay a heavy price.”
“I will pay anything for good vodka,” Marik shot back.
“You are lucky that I don’t take care of you right now.”
Vasili was glad for the conversation. It helped to keep him from thinking about all of his mistakes that led him here. He really did not even mind the rough wagon ride, made worse by the wooden wheels and no springs.
Just before nightfall, the wagon came to a stop. Vasili thought, what is that horrible smell?
Leutnant Jarabinec yelled, “Everybody out of the wagon!”
Of course, Őrmester Tóth had to add his commands to the Leutnant’s. “Now, move, move, move!”
Vasili and his friends emerged from the wagon and saw acres of canvas tents around them. Men were marching, officers were yelling commands, and in the middle of camp they could see smoke rising from the cook’s fires. The four of them had never seen this many people so close together. The stench of poorly maintained latrines, along with the smell of poorly-cooked food, was nearly overwhelming.
Vasili’s face must have given away his thinking as Tóth said, “Part of being a soldier. You will get used to it.”
Vasili surveyed the area and said, “My cattle and pigs do not smell this bad.”
Tóth seemed not to hear the comment.
He looked around at the other conscripts also just arriving in camp. Most of them seemed dazed, as if they were still not quite sure what had happened to them. Some of them were dressed as if they were just plucked from the farm—bare feet, short, loose pants, ragged, patched shirts and wide brimmed hats of various colors marked them as area farmers.
“Take your belongings and follow me,” Tóth commanded.
Nicholos, Gregor, Marik, and Vasili fell in line behind Tóth, who led them through the maze of discolored tents, and finally stopped in front of a tent that looked as if it would house three people comfortably.
“You four will be sharing this tent with another of your kind.” Tóth declared.
“This tent?” demanded Vasili. “This tent can’t hold more than three men.”
“This tent is your home. You can live in it or live in the brig. I couldn’t care less which one you choose.”
The four went in and saw that someone had already claimed one of the bunks, so they each took one of the others. They laid their cases down when Tóth spoke up. “Ah, here is your new friend now,”
The man, dressed in the gray uniform of the army, bent over to enter the tent, and when he straightened up, Vasili had to catch himself to keep from falling.
Vasili exclaimed, “Alexey! I thought I’d never see you again! I can’t believe my eyes! Praise God you’re alright!”
Marik, Nicholos, and Gregor were already running at Alexey, each giving him a bear hug and praising God for their good fortune.
“Vasili, it is so good to see you.”
“I thought you were going to be killed.”
“No,” replied Alexey, “but I wasn’t too sure for a while.”
“Tell us what happened to you,” said Nicholos.
“Enough!” shouted Tóth. “Now we have the five peasants from the farmland, and I have to make you into soldiers.”
Tóth pointed to Vasili, Marik, Nicholos, and Gregor, and said, “Follow me at once! We need to at least make you look like soldiers before we can watch you get killed.”
Marik leaned over to Vasili and whispered, “He seems like a nice fellow.” Vasili and Marik burst into muffled laughter as Tóth gave them an angry look.
Tóth led them to the quartermaster’s building where they each handed a pile consisting of the gray uniform of the Imperial and Royal Army and boots. The black hobnail boots were made from decent leather, but with very little padding on the inside.
Gregor complained, “I will have blisters within the hour walking around in these. And wait until the nails start poking through the bottom.”
Tóth told them, “Just shut your mouths and get back to your tent. I want you in uniform and ready to train in one hour.”
Gregor and Marik grumbled a bit, but Nicholos and Vasili led them back to the tent with no complaints. When they returned to the tent, Vasili gave Alexey a bear hug, lifting him off the ground.
“My old friend,” exclaimed Vasili, “I thought you were dead! I thought that night was the last anyone would see of you. I now have a chance to thank you for what you did for Maria and me.”
“But what the hell are you doing here Vasili?” asked Alexey. “Did they catch you later in the journey?”
“No, no, after you gave yourself up, we managed to make it to America. I met Nadya Mayadakova and”
“That beauty? I bet she wanted nothing to do with you,” joked Alexey.
“No? Then why did she marry me smart-ass?” laughed Vasili.
Alexey pretended to choke and said, “What the hell? Married? And you left your beautiful bride to return to Hell? Have you gone mad? Are you ill?” Alexey mockingly placed his hand on Vasili’s forehead.
“No, my friend, I had to return with Maria.”
“And how is the delightful Maria?”
“I had to return so Maria could die at home,” said Vasili as sank to his cot.
“I am so sorry,” said Alexey, “what happened? She was always so full of life!”
“Consumption. She got it at the horrible plant where she worked. I came back to bury her,” said Vasili as tears began to course down his face.
Alexey put his arm around Vasili and said, “I know how much you loved your sister. But there is nothing you could do to stop God’s plan for her.”
Vasili had no time to start a religious argument. They had to be out of the tent in 20 minutes. He looked around at his good friends as they dressed. The field gray woolen pants with button fly, the field gray tunic with five buttons down the front, hidden by a flap of cloth. The woolen feldkappe, with the cold weather ear and face flaps buttoned up at either side of the front of the hat.
Vasili smiled, looked at his friends, and said, “We are actually wolves dressed in sheep’s clothing.”
The boots were not as bad as Vasili thought they would be. At least they fit and seemed that they would protect his feet.
Őrmester Tóth appeared at the front of the tent and ordered them out on the field for marching and weapons training.
As they left the tent, each one of them was handed a hunk of maple wood that somewhat resembled a rifle.