Chapters 15-20 of the Gray Wolf of Carpathia

Chapter 15

It was dark when the wagons arrived in town. There was no train waiting for them.

Colonel Farkas came by the wagon and Vasili heard him tell Leutnant von Kemmel, “Those bungling idiots in the Logistics Department have done it again. They didn’t finish the paperwork to get the goddamn train here on time. The men will sleep here.”

“Yes sir!” said von Kemmel.

It was a very hot night, made worse because the men were all shoulder to shoulder on the wagon bench, in their full wool uniforms. Between the grumbling, complaining, and snoring, Vasili got very little sleep.

Marik was the first to awaken. He stretched, looked at Vasili, and said, “Best sleep I’ve had in weeks!”

“Only because you can’t hear yourself snoring!” said Vasili.

The field kitchen had been set up, so the men all got to enjoy a breakfast of ham and bread.

As they returned to the wagons, they heard the train approaching the station. A piercing whistle and the wheels grinding on the rails announced the train’s arrival. The men were ordered back out of the wagons and were mustered into line on the platform as the train came to a halt.

The cattle car doors creaked and groaned as if they did not want to reveal the car’s contents. As the doors finally gave way, Vasili was assaulted by the stench of rotting flesh and the iron smell of fresh blood. The sounds of death, men in agony, assailed his ears. To Vasili, the medics on the train, squinting in the suddenly harsh sunlight, had the empty look of men who’s decency had been stolen by the misery they had witnessed.

The wounded, those that still had eyes, seemed to stare into some faraway space, as if their bodies lingered while their souls had departed. Some men were mutilated, having lost a nose, an ear, or an arm.

The mutilations were horrific. The first man off the train had no nose, the next was missing an ear. Vasili helped a man down from the train who had only one arm, his shoulder covered in a bloody, tattered bandage. Gregor stepped up next to him to help lower a stretcher holding a man with no legs.

Vasili could not help but stare at one soldier’s face that was missing the lower jaw. A medic noticed Vasili gazing at the man and said to him, “This is what it’s costing us on the front lines. It makes me ashamed to be human.”

But Vasili could barely hear the man as he felt the gaze of a soldier whose boring into him. The man’s uniform was torn and bloodied, and he shook as if he were laying in a frozen lake. The shivering never paused, while he gurgled incoherently. Vasili wondered what could turn a man into such a shadow.

Then came the dead. Dozens of litters covered in bloody, dirty sheets. Hands or legs swayed outside of the covers in time with the movements of the litter-bearers.

The sounds of men gagging and vomiting brought Vasili out of his reveries. He turned to Nicolos and said, “How can they slaughter men like this? Our animals do not suffer like this when we butcher them.”

Nicolos bowed his head and blessed himself three times. “I don’t have an answer. Only God has the answer.”

Vasili felt his pocket for Maria’s rosary, then dipped his hand inside to rub the beads. Silently, he asked Maria to pray to God for him.

Even Marik bowed his head, for once having no joke to make.

The platform was silent until Vasili heard the order to board the train. As he was about to step onto the car’s platform, a Hungarian officer yelled, “Halt! You stupid dog! Passenger cars are for Germans and Hungarians. The cattle cars are for the Imperial Army.” The last two words were dripping with sarcasm.

Vasili and the others walked back to the cattle cars and jumped up.

Alexey sniffed the air and said, “It smells like the cattle are still in here.”

Gregor laughed and answered, “No, that is just you,” which earned him a friendly punch to the shoulder from Alexey.

The Ruthenians boarded, then several companies of Ukranians.

The train sat for several hours with the men sitting in the wagon cars, packed like cattle, their wool uniforms itching, the high collars digging into their necks. Vasili began to feel lightheaded and told Alexey, “We are going to die right here from the heat if we don’t get moving soon.”

Before Alexey could answer, Leutnant von Kemmel appeared in the doorway.

“Leutnant, sir, do you know what is happening?” asked Alexey.

“Goddamn bureaucrats,” answered von Kemmel. “The Colonel did not properly sign the right form or some such nonsense. We are waiting for that little rat of a man to return with the paperwork. The Colonel is ready to kill somebody. You all should probably stay very quiet.”

“We will all be passed out soon enough,” whispered Marik to Nicolos.

Another hour passed before someone slid the door, slamming it shut and clanking the locking mechanism into place. With the only light coming through the opening between the wall slats, Vasili felt the darkness closing in on him.

The train lurched and stopped, then slowly, like a man crawling to his doom, moved forward.

As the train began its ascent into the Carpathians, Vasili peered out between the wooden slats to view the mountains he so loved. But the deep blue shadows in the valley, resisting the brilliant sunshine on the hilltops, reminded him of a train trip not so long before.

“What is it Vasili?” asked Gregor, “Your look is a thousand miles away.”

“It is only that I remember a much happier trip through the mountains as Maria and I sat together watching the sunrise from our train car,” answered Vasili.

“You must tell me of your adventures some day,” said Gregor. “I know the memory is too painful now, but I must hear of your escape.”

Vasili smiled and said, “I promise to tell everybody the whole story—someday. For now, I wonder if I will ever get to see the mountains again. Will I ever see Nadya again?”

Gregor placed his arm around Vasili’s shoulder and pulled him close. “You are the most stubborn man I know. If anyone can will himself to survive, it’s you,” said Gregor.

The corners of Vasili’s lips rose into a smile as he said, “I’m lucky to have you all as friends.”

From the corner of the car, Marik sniped, “And you are lucky to have Tóth as a friend, eh?”

Chapter 16

The train slowed and stopped as the sun was setting. The doors protested their openings with squeaks and squeals of metal. Vasili stepped off the train first.
“Get the hell out of the way asshole!” Vasili slammed back into the train as a team of horses pulling a cannon nearly ended him where he stood. He looked around and saw anarchy. Galloping horses with wild eyes being whipped by drivers screaming at the horses and cursing them. Entire companies of dogs, their tongues out from the exertion, pulling small ammunition wagons, trying to keep up with the artillery horses. Men dressed in gray, red, blue, all colors, yelling in incomprehensible languages.

The front was close now, within a kilometer. Vasili could sense it. He could see that every man on the train felt it—the perception that Death was very near. 

They formed up in column and marched through the town. The townspeople lined the street, but there was no cheering, no well-wishes. The people were silent. Men removed their hats and women averted their eyes, as if a funeral procession was passing by. In the distance the thump of artillery and the cracking of rifle fire made Vasili wonder if he could go from the farmer and mill worker in his first life to being a heartless killer in his second. Vasili shivered from the sense of doom within him.

The hazy air smelled of gunpowder. A battle was in progress. The orange bursts of shells reflected from the white clouds in the East, rivaling the final orange flow from the sunset in the west.

Őrmester Tóth ordered the men into line. “This is the time for you men to be true patriots! This is when you will fight for the monarchy!” he said.

Some of the men, mostly Hungarians, cheered wildly, as if they thought dying was a great idea. Vasili and the rest of his company stood silently. Vasili could only think of Nadya and the home he had made in America.

The pounding of the artillery built to a crescendo, then stopped. The silence was heavy, and was broken first by the sound of machine gun fire, then the pop of the rifles. Vasili could picture what that meant, and how many men were already dead or dying in the fields to their front.

“We are heading to the front in the morning,” proclaimed Őrmester Tóth. “Set up your tents for tonight and be prepared!”

Vasili looked at his friends and could tell they were barely covering their fear. He knew that his face betrayed the same.

Gregor spoke first, “We need to take care of each other. These Germans and Hungarians don’t care about us. They’ll hide behind us and let us be their shields.”

“We don’t have a lot of choice,” said Nicolos, the resignation clear in his voice. “We’ll either get shot by the Russians or by Colonel Shitface.”

Nicolos’s remark brought the men to full laughter, mostly from nerves. But it was the tonic they needed.

Alexey said, “We’ll just do what we have to. I’ve heard that the war will be over by December and we can go back to our farms. Some of us will go back to better things.” Alexey poked Vasili in the stomach with his elbow.

“Much better,” joked Vasili.

Just as the men were done setting up their tents, Colonel Farkas arrived from his headquarters. The men came to attention where they stood. Leutnant von Kemmel stood beside the Colonel and translated for those who did not speak Hungarian.

Colonel Farkas proclaimed, “Men, this is Galicia. Your duty is now to fight, and you will fight. If you do not wish to fight, you will be shot. If you do not obey orders, you will be shot. We are throwing the Russians back to their Motherland, and we will win.”

Out of the side of his mouth Alexey, imitating the Colonel’s raspy voice said, “And I will be a General, and you will be dead.” Fortunately for Alexey, Nicolos was standing between him and the Colonel.

Colonel Farkas turned on his right foot and walked back to his waiting truck, which sputtered to life and headed away towards headquarters.

Leutnant von Kemmel then spoke. “Remember, your orders will be one of the 80 phrases you learned in training. Your life and the life of your friends will depend on it.”

The sounds of battle began to abate as the sun set, and Vasili only heard an occasional pop of a rifle shot. He settled in, wondering why he felt a bit excited for tomorrow.

“Gregor,” he whispered in the dark. “What do you think it is like to kill a man?”

Gregor replied, “I don’t know, and I wish I never have to know.”

“But you know the Russians will kill you if they can.”

“Only God can decide who lives and who dies,” said Gregor.

“Then does God hate all of those dead men out there?” wondered Vasili.

“I am not God, I am a man. I will do what I am told, but only so I can live and return to my family and my farm and my church.”

Vasili sat up on one elbow.

“Gregor,” Vasili said, “I don’t know if I can return to God after this. Those men we saw at the train station. Were they all pagans? Did they not pray to the same God as we do? And yet, the poor bastards ended up like that.”

“You know what your problem is Vasili?” asked Gregor, “You think too much. God plans all things and we can only follow along.”

“So you think He planned for those men to be butchered like that?”

“I am not God. I am a man,” Gregor repeated.

The conversation did not satisfy Vasili. He had doubts before, but the mutilated men on the train made him doubt the benevolence of God even more. But he was not ready to give up yet. He gently pulled Maria’s rosary from his pocket and studied the icons placed at intervals into the design, and stared for a while at the three-barred cross at the junction of the beads. He rubbed his thumb over the body of Christ and thought about how he had prayed with Maria.

“I don’t know if God cares about me,” thought Vasili, “but Maria I know you do and I hope you will look after me tomorrow.”

The sun was not yet above the horizon when Őrmester Tóth, still smelling of his vodka excesses, came by and kicked every other man on the ground. “Up, you dogs! It is time to cover yourselves in glory!”

“Or vodka,” whispered Marik.

“Who the hell is laughing?” said Tóth angrily. “If you think this is a joke, you will not like the ending.”

The men fell into step in their marching columns. There was no more banter, each man marching in silence with his own thoughts.

Vasili’s gray uniform, his army boots, and his rifle made him look like a soldier. He looked down at his wool uniform, already stained with sweat, and wondered what would the wool look like when it was stained with blood. Even with the terrible training he received, Vasili thought that he could survive this war. He had no interest in who was right, or who was wrong, or who had started the terrible slaughter. Survival was his only concern.

In spite of the front being so near, the march to took over two hours. They were led by very indirect routes to avoid the open spaces that were covered by Russian machine gunners. The fields to their front seemed quiet, when the Russian artillery opened up.

The sound was overpowering. Vasili could hear the whirring sounds of the shells in the air, followed by the concussion of the explosions that made his chest compress. The acrid mixture of gunpowder and death permeated the air. They were just outside of a ruined village. Some stone chimneys and a few stone walls remained to mark the devastation between the lines. It seemed like nothing remained of the previous regiment.

“Take positions,” ordered von Kemmel in German as he pointed to a low stone wall about 200 feet in their front.

The wall was just visible through the greasy mist surrounding the battlefield. Vasili and his friends ran to the wall and laid down behind it.

“Prepare,” ordered von Kemmel.

Each man behind the wall checked his weapon and his ammunition, and made sure his bayonet was on his belt. As Vasili rolled on his stomach to prepare to rise, a bullet cracked into the stone in front of him, throwing spears of broken stone in every direction. One shard nicked Vasili’s face. Marik wiped the blood from Vasili’s temple and said, “This is not the last blood to be spilled.”

“Don’t be foolish,” replied Vasili.

Then another ricochet sounded down the wall from them. A man slumped over, dead.

Vasili peaked over the top of the wall and looked into the face of evil. He could see the dead lying in grotesque positions where they fell. Some men were trying to crawl back towards him, but were stopped when another bullet found them. Puddles of blood marked the many fallen. Only a few remained, hiding in deep craters that pockmarked the farmland. They could not go forward, and they could not go back. They could only wait for Death to find them hiding among the already taken.

Oddly, in the churned up soil, Vasili noticed that the soil was a very good color and would have made an excellent field to plant wheat.

Then came the single-word command from von Kemmel—“Charge!” 

“Charge!” echoed Tóth.

Chapter 17

Vasili’s regiment rose up from behind the wall and ran in the direction indicated by von Kemmel’s saber. An artillery shell exploded down the line from Vasili. He heard the agonizing screams. Body parts fell around him. Still, he had to keep running. He could hear his own breath above all the noise of battle. His heart and his feet pounded faster and faster as the he ran towards the Russians.

Vasili was trying to chamber a round as he ran forward. The bolt was stuck. He panicked for a moment until he remembered the advice an instructor had given him. Finally he cleared the jam and chambered a round as he came to a small rise at the edge of a large crater. He looked ahead and saw a gun pointed at him over the rim of the crater. The young man had appeared from nowhere and then fire exploded from the barrel. Vasili was stunned, but the bullet just grazed his sleeve. He raised his rifle, aimed, and fired. The head disappeared and Vasili began to run again.

When Vasili reached the crater, he saw the young man laying at the bottom, blood pooling around his shoulders, a single red hole through his chest, and a blank look of astonishment on his face. Vasili hesitated, and wondered why he felt no remorse for taking the life of this young man. His mother will likely never know what happened to him, he thought, but it is better you than me.

But now Tóth was ahead of him screaming to get moving, even as men began falling in groups from the machine gun fire pouring into their line. Vasili spotted his friends and was relieved to see they were still there, running and shooting. Another burst of machine gun fire to Vasili’s left barely missed his friends, but the men that were hit were nearly torn in half. 

They were within twenty yards of the Russians when suddenly the Russians turned, climbed from their holes and trenches, and ran for the rear. Most of the regiment kept firing into the fleeing Russians, the battle having turned into target practice. The few that remained raised their hands and fell to their knees among the many dead bodies littering the bottom of the trench.

Vasili, breathing heavily, his heart pumping with adrenaline, aimed his rifle and started to squeeze the trigger when von Kemmel yelled “Halt! I do not shoot prisoners.”

Vasili fell to the ground, his muscles screaming in protest, his mind racing with the horrific images he had just witnessed. He never wanted to get up again.

“Vasili!” shouted Alexey. “Are you hurt?”

“No,” said Vasili, “I’m fine, but all of these men.”

“I know, these are things that no man should endure.”

Tóth ran and yelled “Stand up you worthless Slovak! Stand up and guard these prisoners.”

Vasili rose to his feet, fighting the urge to turn his weapon on Tóth. But he did as he was told. He heard the clanking sound of a motor vehicle and turned to see Colonel Farkas emerge from his staff car.

Farkas called out to Leutnant von Kemmel, “I have won a magnificent victory here, Leutnant, have I not?”

“Yes sir, you certainly have,” replied von Kemmel. His face, for an instant, betrayed his true feelings to Vasili, but he quickly changed his expression as he looked at Farkas.

Farkas seemed satisfied to claim his victory, so he climbed back into his car and sped off toward the rear. The sounds of war suddenly vaporized. Vasili  became aware of the unnatural silence surrounding him. No one was speaking, the air had a stillness he had never felt. It was as if the entire earth had stopped.

Vasili turned around, searching for his friends. He spotted Alexey first, who gave him a smile. Then he saw Gregor, Nicolos, and Marik huddled together in exhaustion. They gave Vasili a wave, which was a great relief for him.

Von Kemmel, looking dirty and disheveled, came to Vasili and broke the silence with his order, “You and Alexey take these prisoners back to headquarters, then rejoin us here.”

“Sir, I don’t need a babysitter,” said Vasili.

“You need more than that Mihalyos. If anything happens to these prisoners, I will personally flog you.”

“Őrmester Tóth,” von Kemmel continued, “take over this trench. Regroup the men and prepare for a counterattack.”

“Yes sir,” said Tóth.

Vasili and Alexey marched the Russian prisoners three miles to headquarters, then stopped in the mess tent for some water. They were told to fill their canteens outside from the water barrel. When they exited the tent, Vasili could faintly hear gunfire.

He looked at Alexey and said, “Do you suppose that was what von Kemmel was talking about?”

“I don’t think the Russians would be back that fast. Maybe Marik is shooting at Tóth,” Alexey answered with a smile.

“Something is not right. We must get back now!”

They ran as fast as they could towards the sounds of battle. They found their regiment hunkered down back at the spot they had started from that morning—behind the low wall.

“Get down you fools!” yelled Tóth.

Machine gun fire raked the top of the wall just as Vasili and Alexey hit the ground.

Artillery fire from behind them finally drove the Russians away, but Vasili’s regiment had been decimated by the Russian counterattack. Vasili looked out over the wall as the Russians ran back to their lines. The dead from both sides were mixed together, some laying together as if in midstep of some macabre dance of the dead. Vasili thought he could walk from his line to the Russian line and not step on bare ground. And now, he thought, both sides are right back where they started; neither side had gained anything. His silent thoughts were interrupted by the sounds of the wounded, some calling for water, some calling for their mothers, then one voice calling for Vasili, for Alexey, for Gregor. Vasili knew that voice. It was Nicolos.

Gregor spotted him first and pointed him out to Vasili, Alexey, and Marik.

“We need to help him,” whispered Gregor, knowing that Tóth would never allow it.

Vasili decide they should try. He crawled over to Tóth and said, “Őrmester, Nicolos is laying out there wounded. We have to help him.”

“So that you can go down with him, you stupid Slovak?”

“I can do it. I can grab him and get back.”

“Mihalyos, if you try, I will put a bullet in your back. I am ordering you and your pretend soldier friends to  stay behind this wall.”

Vasili clutched the grip of his bayonet, meaning to unsheathe it and pierce Tóth’s throat. As he withdrew the first inch, Alexey pushed Vasili’s hand down and breathed, “You will be shot. Stop. We will find a way.”

Vasili released the grip as shouting came down the line, “Cease fire! Cease fire! We are under a truce to collect the wounded.”

Vasili glared at Tóth, who just nodded. Vasili and Alexey were over the wall and sprinting to Nicolos. He had been shot in the thigh and could not walk. They carried him back to the wall and then to a medic. As Vasili and Alexey laid him on the stretcher, Nicolos smiled and said, “It took you long enough.”

He gave a weak laugh, and Vasili said, “Maybe you are the lucky one. You will be going home for sure.”

“Maybe in a box,” said Nicolos.

“Nonsense,” laughed Alexey, “It’s barely a scratch!”

“Goodbye my friends, punch Tóth in the face for me,” Nicolos said, then he passed out from the pain.

Von Kemmel stopped and said, “You men did well for your first time. I think we taught the Russians a lesson. We must hold our position and prepare to drive them out tomorrow.”

Marik spoke up, “What is so special about this hellish land, sir?”

“It is Przemyśl fortress,” answered von Kemmel. “We must keep the Russians from surrounding the fortress and forcing the surrender. If the Russians take Galicia, they will be through the mountains and into Hungary before we can stop them. Your family, all of our families will suffer if that happens.”

The sun was setting by the time both sides collected their wounded. Many of the dead remained in the field between the two sides. But Vasili was grateful for the sunset and rest. He ate a piece of the hardtack and drank some water, then laid back and fell into a deep sleep.

When Vasili woke, the dull grays of the pre-dawn sky gave way to the brilliant colors of the late summer sunrise. Though it was a new day, Vasili felt

“Up dogs!” barked Tóth. “We are falling back to the town. The Russians have escaped during the night.”

“Then why are we falling back?” asked Gregor.

“I don’t know, General. Why don’t you go give you advice to the Colonel. I’m sure he’d be happy to listen,” said Tóth.

Chapter 18

The men marched with weary steps back to the town where they started. Again, they spent two hours on the return trip. Vasili stood in the chow line and received his ration of stale bread, dried beef, and coffee. That was to be his meal for the day.

As they finished their meager rations, Malik said, “I overheard some officers talking about a hospital in the village here. I’m wondering if Nicolos is there.”

“That would make sense,” replied Gregor, “but if you’re thinking of going to find him, I think that’s a bad idea. You know we could be shot for desertion, and Farkas made a point of ordering us to remain in camp.”

“What does that matter?” said Alexey, “He’s our friend, we need to see his condition.”

Vasili was lost in thought, still seeing the face of the young German he had killed.

“Vasili, what do you think?” asked Alexey. “Vasili!”

“Sorry,” replied Vasili, “what?”

“What are you thinking about?”

“My first kill. That young man had a family. Do you think he wanted to be here?”

“I’m sure he didn’t,” replied Gregor, “but he would have killed you, so you had to do it.”

“I suppose I did,” said Vasili, “that doesn’t make it right.”

Alexey broke into the conversation saying, “Now, what about Nicolos? Are we going?”

“Of course we’re going,” laughed Marik.

The four friends were determined to find Nicolos. The orders from Colonel Farkas stated that the men were to remain in camp. But the four of them were not going to let hawk-faced Farkas stand in the way of finding Nicolos. 

They waited until dusk, when the grays of night began to overtake the day. One at a time, they snuck past the guards on the perimeter. They followed the ambulances through the dusty streets, and in no time spotted the hospital.

Vasili could not believe his senses when he stepped through the door. The smell came first. Blood and sweat, stale cigarette smoke and urine. He saw orderlies hauling baskets of limbs leaving by the rear doors and dumping the baskets onto the putrid piles already outside. The horror shattered any remaining illusions Vasili had about war.

Vasili looked at the others and said, “There was no glory here, only misery.”

Malik, Gregor, and Alexey remained silent.

The four of them asked nurses and doctors if they knew where Nicolos was, and receiving no answer, searched the hospital. The first floor was full of the worst wounded. A corporal laid on a bloody gurney in the hallway. He had no arms and was blind.

“A cigarette my friends,” he begged, “Please, can you give me a cigarette?”

Alexey lit one and placed it between the man’s lips.

“May God bless you,” he said.

“And you,” returned Alexey.

“Hah!” cried the man. “It is too late for me.”

The cigarette fell from his lips to the floor. Alexey bent to pick it up, but Malik stopped him with his hand, and shook his head. The corporal was dead.

They climbed the stairs to the second floor and there they found Nicolos on a gurney just inside one of the wards.

“My friends!” he said as the entered the room. Then tears filled his eyes.

“Nicolos,” said Vasili, “I am sorry we were not there to help you when you fell.”

“Don’t bother, you couldn’t have done anything. None of you could.”

“The good news is,” said Malik, “you can go home! Doesn’t that make you happy?”

Nicolos threw back the sheet, revealing his leg that had been amputated above the knee.

“That won’t do me any good. I can’t farm like this. What good will I be? I should have been killed.”

“No, don’t say that,” said Gregor, “God will find a way for you. You must have faith.”

“Yes,” interrupted Alexey, “Your life is not over. We will see to it that your father and mother have all the help they need.”

“Please, Alexey, can you write a letter for me?” asked Nicolos. “I can’t sit up yet.”

“Of course. Hand me the paper and pen.”

Nicolos dictated. “Mother, I have been injured and I won’t be coming home for a while. When I do I will not be much use to you.” Nicolos drew a long breath as tears began to roll down his cheeks.

“I am sorry. I will do what I can with what I have left.”

“That’s all,” Nicolos said to Alexey.

“When we all get home,” said Alexey, “We will get you a good wooden leg.”

“And you can keep the woodpeckers away from the barn wood,” said Malik.

Nicolos broke into laughter, and Vasili said, “That’s better my friend!”

“Please, can you send it to my mother and father?” asked Nicolos. “They tell me they cannot handle mail from here.”

“Of course,” said Vasili.

“I can’t believe you idiots found me,” laughed Nicolos. “Did you get leaves?”

Malik smiled and said, “Yes, we decided we wanted to leave.”

“So you risked desertion charges to come here?” Tears were filling Nicolos’s eyes.

Vasili said, “Do you think we could let you leave without giving you a hard time?”

“Of course not,” laughed Nicolos. “I couldn’t ask for better friends.”

“We need to get going before we’re missed at camp,” said Gregor.

“Don’t get Tóth upset, guys. One of those veins in his neck might explode,” said Nicolos.

The five of them broke into loud laughter, prompting a nurse, one of the many nuns doing nursing duties, to scold them and push them out the door.

“I promise I won’t do anything stupid, my friends. Just seeing you all has cheered me up. Thank you all for finding me.”

“Of course. I will get this to the mail tent as soon as we get back to camp,” said Vasili.

Malik led the men out of the ward, down the steps, and out the front of the hospital.

“What do you think?” Vasili said to Malik.

“I think he is finished as a farmer,” answered Malik. “Poor bastard. When we get home we have to do what we can for him. At least he’ll go home to his family now.”

They continued back through the village and to their camp. Leutnant von Kemmel was waiting for them, his  arms crossed in front of him, an angry scowl marked his face.

“I could have you all shot for desertion, you know,” said von Kemmel, barely containing his anger. “You must realize that if Tóth was here, he would most likely have shot you already.”

Alexey started to explain, but von Keller cut him off, “I don’t care where you went or why you went. You fools are in the army and this is a war zone. Leaving for any reason is a reason to be shot. However, I need all the men I can get. I doubt that reinforcements will be coming any time soon, so you will be going to the brig.”

The brig was a small tent meant for two men, but the guards shoved the Vasili, Gregor, Alexey, and Malik inside and stood outside. Occasionally the guards would come in the tent to jeer at them give them a punch or two. Each time, Gregor would remind them they were named as deserters, so it would be hard to blame the guards.

The tent was very quiet as the night wore on. Vasili finally fell asleep, but his dreams were evil. He saw his friends blown to pieces and then the end of his own life. He yelled and awoke.

“Are you OK?” asked Gregor.

“It was a nightmare. I saw you all get killed.”

“It was a terrible day,” said Alexey. “I think we will all have nightmares for a long time.”

Vasili said, “I killed a man today. I never thought I would have to say a thing like that. And now I must live with it forever.”

“Sadly,” lamented Malik, “it will probably not be the last man you kill. But what choice do you have?”

“He’s right,” said Alexey, “This is a war, and you must kill the enemy or they will kill you.”

“I just hope that God will forgive this sin,” said Gregor, “or else we will be going to Hell.”

“What does it matter?” asked Vasili, “This is Hell, this is a punishment for us.”

“God will forgive us,” stated Alexey, “He knows why we do this, why it is our duty to defend our country.”

Malik grunted, “You sound like a Hungarian patriot. What have you been drinking?”

“I’ve heard many stories about the Russians and what they do to prisoners, and what they will do to our families,” answered Alexey. “I’m no patriot. I spit on the Empire, but I want my family to be safe.”

Vasili had left the conversation long before. He could not wipe away the face of the young man he had shot. The friends fell silent, and finally fell asleep for a few hours.

In the morning, the guards opened the tent and allowed them out.

The sun had already burned off the morning dew, and Vasili felt the sun like a torch on his skin. The cloudless sky was a brilliant blue. It reminded Vasili of all the days he spent with Nadya, walking through the village, talking and laughing. He hoped she would walk with him again in America.

His daydream was interrupted when he heard the whistling of Russian artillery shells over his head. Everyone ducked for cover as more and more shells pummeled the earth around them and around the village. An attack must be coming, and they must get prepared.

When a shell whistled by and a loud explosion rocked them, Vasili turned towards the village and saw the plume of smoke.

The Russians appeared from nowhere before anyone could react.

Chapter 19

Vasili grabbed his rifle, as did the rest of the men in his regiment. They only had time to get to the cover of the stone wall on the outskirts of town. The Russians appeared within 50 yards of their position. The Russian yell was all Vasili could hear. Their faces were contorted with hatred. Their bayonets sent flashes of light into Vasili’s eyes. Then came the order to fire.

The front line of the Russians was thinned out, but still they came. Again came the order to fire. Many more Russians fell, screaming. Then they were at the wall.

When his magazine was empty, Vasili used his rifle as a club. He managed to knock away the Russian bayonets and beat the men who tried to impale him. Some Russians made it over the wall, but then a wave of Hungarian reinforcements charged from the left, stopping the attack, and finally sending the Russians retreating.

Vasili looked around at the bloodied bodies. Once again, death came looking, but did not find him or his friends.

When the guns were finally silenced, Vasili went looking for Őrmester Tóth and found him behind one of the remnants of a house wall. He was snoring loudly and smelled like a distillery.

“Useless filth,” thought Vasili. He sighted his rifle barrel on Tóth, but he knew there was no good in killing him. The officers would never care what a Rusyn had to say about a Hungarian, and they would never understand a Rusyn killing a Hungarian. Vasili lowered his rifle and went looking for von Kemmel.

“Sir, may I talk to you?” asked Vasili.

“Yes, what is it,” said von Kemmel in a tired voice.

“I would like leave to go to see Nicolos in the hospital before he is sent home.”

“The hospital?” said von Kemmel. “You have not heard? The hospital was hit by a shell this morning. There is nothing left. I am sorry.”

Vasili could not hold back the tears as he ran to tell the others.

“Is he sure the hospital was hit?” Gregor struggled to ask.

“Yes, yes” repeated Vasili, “He’s sure.”

“We just spoke to him yesterday. It doesn’t seem possible,” said Alexey.

“We need to write to his mother and father. The Colonel will never do it.”

“I will do it,” volunteered Gregor. “I was very close to his parents.”[1] 

The sound of the Colonel’s car engine interrupted their conversation. The Colonel climbed out of his car and with a giant flourish of his arms, he said “We have done it again.”

He looked at Leutnant von Kemmel and said, “You see what great leadership does for an army?”

“Yes Colonel,” answered von Kemmel. Vasili could see von Kemmel’s veins bulge out in his forehead. His jaw muscles contracted repeatedly, and his neck was stretched tightly while his eyes were staring at the ground. It must have been a strain for von Kemmel to stay calm.

“You see men,” Colonel Farkas announced in a loud voice, “with my leadership you men can accomplish great things!”

“Thank you Colonel,” said von Kemmel, “we are truly inspired by your leadership!”

“Don’t stand around, do something!” said Farkas as he slammed the door of his vehicle and the driver sped away.

Von Kemmel ordered the men back into the town for the night after posting a picket line from another company.

Vasili and his friends scrounged together enough straw to use for bedding. The straw smelled like a cow had urinated in it, and they could feel the fleas jumping onto their skin. But after the day of bloody violence, and after losing their friend, they could think of nothing so luxurious as that smelly straw.

In the morning, Tóth kicked each man in the ribs, slurring “Get up lazy dogs, cuddle time is over!”

Vasili could still smell the alcohol, and wondered how Tóth had not been killed yet. When Tóth walked out of the barn, Vasili turned to his friends and said, “That bastard was sleeping off a drunk while we were fighting yesterday.”

“We all know he’s a useless coward and a drunk,” said Gregor, “That’s why he yells and treats us like dirt. He hopes no one notices what a piece of shit he is.”

Vasili could not help but laugh out loud, [2] 

“Gregor, that’s the worst words you ever used,” laughed Malik. “It won’t be long before you are another me!”

“God help us all!” said Alexey.

They fought over the same useless piece of ground for two months. They would advance, only to be thrown back by the Russians. Over and over again.

One morning, Tóth entered the barn and said, “We have our orders. We are falling back.”

The men all groaned.

“You don’t like it?” said Tóth, “You are welcome to sit here while the Russians overrun our position. Maybe they will feel sorry for you—right before they slit your worthless throats.”

Vasili packed what little belongings he had back into the horseskin backpack. He tightly rolled the gray tent and folded it over the top of the backpack. He hoisted the pack and noticed that this time his knees didn’t buckle, and the pack felt for the first time like it belonged on his back. The mental change of the past few months were showing in Vasili’s normally calm eyes.

Alexy whispered, “Vasili, you are starting to frighten me. That is the look of a wolf searching for prey.”

“Nonsense,” Vasili said. “I am still Vasili the farmer. The wolves are only in the woods and in the headquarters.” But Vasili could not clear the vision of the wolf he saw before him.

They marched for three days until they were in the foothills of the Carpathians, at the Dukla Pass. Vasili had learned during hunting trips with his father that a wind as cold as the one blowing down the pass this early in October meant a terrible winter was coming. It would be a good time to leave the mountains. It was here that the men were ordered to dig trenches.

By the middle of the month, the men had dug a complex series of trenches, each connected to another with communication trenches to easily pass between them. The ground was fairly solid, so they could dig down to five feet, then carve a firing bench for the men to stand on when needed to shoot from the trench. They felt prepared for the Russian assaults they knew would be coming very soon.

In the quiet he knew was only temporary, Vasili received a letter:

Vasili, I don’t know if you are alive. I hope you are. I can’t think of what I will do if you don’t return. Catherina is very good to me, but I can’t burden her forever. Please tell me you will be home soon.

Nadya

When Vasili finished reading, he crumpled the letter and held it tightly in his fist. Gregor noticed the tear falling from Vasili’s face and said, “Vasili, is Nadya alright? Has something happened?”

“No,” said Vasili, “nothing has happened, but I have abandoned my wife to live at the mercy of her family. How can I tell her I will be here for at least three years? It will kill her.”

“My advice,” said Alexey, “is to never tell her it will be that long. Just keep telling her you’ll be home soon. What choice do you have?”

“None, I suppose,” said Vasili.

Chapter 20

My Dear Nadya, I do no know how long it will be before I can leave this place. They do not tell us anything about the war except that we will win soon. If I could get out of here now, I would come back to you as fast as I could. But they would shoot me if I tried to leave, so I must stay until they allow me to go. Your Vasili.

Vasili, sitting in the small shelter they had dug in the wall of the trench, finished writing his letter. He addressed the envelope, read the letter one last time, then sealed it and placed it in the envelope. Whatever happened now, at least she will know I am alive and I will get home to her.

Gregor sitting across from Vasili said, “Even in this dim light I can tell you’re troubled. You should get that to [3]  as soon as possible.”

“I don’t trust them,” said Vasili. “We are due to rotate to the rear in a few days. I will take it to the office myself so that I know it will be sent.”

Vasili tucked the envelope into his breast pocket, and felt the beads from Maria’s rosary. A slight smile showed on his face.

“What are you so happy about?” said Alexey.

“Just memories, happy memories instead of this nightmare,” said Vasili as looked around their small dirt home. His smile faded as tears appeared on his cheeks.

Vasili remembered his mother’s sweet smile as she handed the rosary to Maria, and he remembered Maria’s insistent voice telling him to take the rosary from her. He knew now that the rosary was not a link to God, but only a link to his memories.

The rains arrived well before the Russians. Vasili’s world was nothing but slippery mud. The bottom of the trenches were rivers, carrying waste and rats as the soldiers sloshed through. Vasili’s dugout in the wall of the trench collapsed so they spent nights sitting in the water, trying to keep the rats from gnawing at them. Vasili and his friends were due to rotate back to the rear the day the Russians came.

First came the scream of the artillery shells, mostly misguided, but occasionally finding a target and scattering limbs, mud, and filthy water in a huge circle. Then came the infantry. Men ready to be slaughtered by men eager to do so. The thumping of thousands of rushing Russian footsteps was like a stampede of angry cattle. The blaring of the soldiers’ yells mixing with the booming of the rifles was terrifying to Vasili and the men waiting to receive the onslaught. The Russians quickly covered the flat ground to the front of the trenches, but then ran into the barbed wire.

Vasili and his friends took aim and fired as fast as they could, and watched in horror as the Russians fell, their blood mixing with the mud to make a macabre soup. Many Russians tried to jump the barbed wire but were left hanging in gruesome positions on the wires, their limbs like limp marionettes whose masters had thrown down their strings. 

But still they came on as the trenches filled with the odor of gunpowder, sweat, and urine as more men became frightened for their lives. Bullets buzzed around their heads. Vasili yelled to Alexey to keep his fool head down, but it was too late. A Russian had seen him first and Vasili saw the blood spurting from the hole left in Alexey’s hat.

“No!” screamed Vasili as the first Russians made it to the edge of the trench. The anger rose up in Vasili like magma rushing to a volcano’s mouth. He slashed, stabbed, and clubbed every Russian that came within his reach. Men had fallen around him and those that were not killed outright were trampled to death in the fight for survival. Those that fell face down were drowned in the water at the bottom of the trench.

At last reinforcements arrived and pushed the Russians out of the trenches and back to their lines. Vasili, Gregor, and Marik shoved their way through the exhausted men covered in mud and blood, who fell or leaned against the trench walls, until they found their friend Alexey. He face was serene though it was covered in blood from the wound in his head.

“My poor Alexey,” said Vasili, “I should have pulled him down.”

Vasili punched the mud wall and went to his knees next to Alexey’s body. Tears cut clean paths through the filth that covered his face.

Vasili looked at his remaining friends and said, “I tried to warn him but I failed him.”

“Nonsense,” said Gregor. “How could it be your fault? You didn’t pull the trigger. You didn’t make him stand up in the trench.”

“I should have yelled sooner or jumped up and pushed him down.”

“Then you would both be dead. You can’t take the guilt of the world on your shoulders, Vasili.”

“It’s not the world, but enough of it.” Vasili sank down in the trench until he was sitting in the morass that covered the bottom.

The burial details came and gathered the remains of the soldiers. For the Russians, nothing. They were carried away from the trenches to rot. The Austro-Hungarians were placed in a long trench grave. Vasili, Gregor, and Marik were not permitted to leave their posts to bury their friend. Gregor led them in the Panachida, then they sang Memory Eternal until they were ordered to be quiet by von Kemmel.

Vasili got very little sleep that night. The cries of the wounded between the trenches was heart-breaking, calling for their mothers, begging for water, and some asking to be put out of their misery. Now and then a flare would illuminate the battlefield, allowing both sides to view the slaughter pen. Vasili knew that his turn could come tomorrow.

For now, the friends had to mourn the loss of Alexey in silence. The slightest sound could bring a barrage of machine gun fire across the lip of the trench.

In the morning Vasili stopped von Kemmel, who was on his rounds, and asked, “When can we rotate to the rear and get some rest.”

“You have not earned the rotation,” said von Kemmel. “The performance of this outfit was pitiful if not cowardly. We had to bring in reinforcements to push back that small attack. You will remain on the front until I say you can go back.”

After two more weeks living in filth, during a quiet spell the three remaining friends huddled in their dirt hovel.

“These lice are driving me crazy,” said Marik. “I have nearly scratched my skin off. We can’t delouse because the Russian artillery could use the smoke to aim their stinking artillery. I have never been so miserable.”

“They are in the hair on my head,” said Vasili. “I want to burn my hair off.”

“Did you see what happened to poor Lucas?” said Gregor, “his gut wound kept him from getting up when the rats came. They ate the poor soul from the inside while he was still alive.”

“God protect us from that fate,” said Vasili as Gregor and Marik blessed themselves three times.

Gregor said, “Vasili, do you not wish for God’s protection?”

“God did nothing for Nicolos or Alexey. I don’t think he cares what happens to me either.”

Őrmester Tóth came through the trench the next morning rousing the men.

“Be ready to pull out in 15 minutes!”

“Where are we heading?” said Vasili.

Tóth’s answer was short and tart. “Into the mountains.”

Vasili could hear the wind making a howling sound as swept down from the mountains, a warning, he thought.

“We are in for some terrible times,” said Vasili.

Marik answered, “Death might be an improvement over what we have been through.”

Gregor said, “Have you heard the wolves howling? They seem to get closer every night.”

Vasili said, “It’s as they say about bullets. It’s the ones you don’t hear that will get you.”

The move into the mountains was treacherous. The snow had come early and was up to their thighs as they tried to march upward. The snow had silenced the air and beautified the country with crystal ice and brilliant white snow, but it was not to be conquered easily.


 NOTES: He tucks the letter away until he can go on leave to mail it. But they are caught in battles and the Colonel punishes them for (cowardice) by keeping them on the front line so he doesn’t get to mail it. He then gets another letter from Nadya asking why he doesn’t answer her and she is afraid he is dead. It is then that he feels the letter in his inner pocket.

Chapters 13 and 14 of the Gray Wolf of Carpathia

Chapter 13

“What the hell is this?” said Vasili, staring at the hunk of wood.

Tóth looked into Vasili’s eyes. In Hungarian, he said, “That is your rifle, soldier. You will treat it like the real thing. We do not have money to waste on rifles for you scum.”

Vasili knew his language was meant to intimidate him, so in Hungarian he answered, “Maybe we can beat the Russians over the head, then.”

Tóth was silent, then ordered one of the Tizedes (Corporal) to take Vasili to the whipping post and give him five lashes.

Tóth looked at the rest of Vasili’s friends and said, “I have listened to enough from you pigs. If there is any more back-talk, I have far worse punishments than a few lashes. Do you understand, peasants?”

“Yes, Őrmester!” came the reply.

Tóth ordered one of the Honvéd (Private) to bring him a chair and his vodka. When the Honvéd returned, Tóth, with a look of satisfaction, pulled out a cigar, sat in the chair, and poured a glass of vodka.

“You may begin,” he said, with a smile, to the Tizedes.

The Tizedes removed Vasili’s tunic and undershirt, then tied him to the post. Another Tizedes, a very large and muscular man, came out of a tent with a whip in his hand. He said, “How many?”

Tóth answered, “Only five—this time.”

Each slash against Vasili’s back was like a lightning strike as it tore into his flesh. Vasili tried to keep his face stoic, but on the fifth lash, he finally cried out. The Tizedes untied him and threw his clothing at him. “Get dressed and join the others in line,” he ordered.

Vasili could feel his face contorting from the pain, but he smashed his teeth together, balled his hands into tight fists, and though his body was shaking from the pain and the anger, when he stood up, he appeared as if nothing at all had happened. Though each movement was excruciating, he did as he was ordered, picked up his wooden rifle, and got in line with his friends.

The five friends were joined by five men from the tent next to theirs to form their squad. The other five were Ruthenians, who spoke a different dialect of Rusyn but did not speak Hungarian. Vasili realized that there would be trouble somewhere in the future.

After they were in line, Tóth stood in front of them and said, “I will speak in Rusyn for you idiots. I will translate all orders given in Hungarian to your awful language. I will not repeat myself. If you do not hear me the first time, you will receive lashes like here.”

“Now,” Tóth continued, “I will demonstrate the rifle drill for you. I will go through it twice, then you will practice it.”

Tóth used his rifle to show the drill positions, order, rest, port, present, shoulder, and inspection as he called out the commands. After two demonstrations, he ordered the squad to repeat the drill.

With only a few missteps and retries, they were able to satisfy Tóth. Then came the marching. They marched for hours, with Tóth constantly berating them for one thing or another.

The wool uniforms made the July heat unbearable. The sweat ran down Vasili’s back and burned his wounds, but he would not let Tóth see him wince. They didn’t return to their tents until it was time to eat.

The Ruthenians occupied the table next to Vasili and his friends. The Ruthenians would all turn to look at Vasili’s table, then some would smirk and some would laugh.

Vasili could see that Alexey was on the verge of getting up. He put his hand on Alexey’s arm and shook his head.

“Don’t do it. They are trying to get us in more trouble with Tóth.”

Alexey was not easily deterred when he got angry, and usually his six-foot height was a disincentive to most foes. But Vasili had always tried to keep him from being too foolish.

Alexey said, “I won’t take too much more of this,” and he pounced into his chair.

On the way back to the tent, one of the Ruthenians, Emil, yelled, “You liked that whip, didn’t you?”

Alexey was next to the man in a flash. He towered over Emil, but the Emil did not back down.

“How would you like to find out what a good whipping is like, boy?” seethed Alexey.

“Boy?” said Emil, “unlike you bunch of farm-raised lambs, I am fully a man and I will be happy to show you how a man fights.”

When Alexey pulled his arm back to punch Emil in the face, Gregor grabbed it and pulled Alexey away.

The Ruthenians continued their walk back to their tent, yelling taunts and making sheep sounds.

When the friends got back to their tent, Gregor came to Vasili and said, “How are you?”

Vasili felt as though he would pass out, but he was too proud to show it. “I am fine. These Hungarians are weaklings.”

But when Vasili peeled off his undershirt, he could not help but wince and moan from the pain.

Nicolos inspected Vasili’s back and said, “This doesn’t look good. You need bandages for this.”

“Are you worried I will bleed on you?” said Vasili, trying his best to seem lighthearted.

Gregor said, “This is no joke, Vasili, that could get infected. You should see a medic.”

“Never,” stated Vasili. “Tóth will be waiting for that, and I won’t give him the satisfaction.”

 Marik spoke up. “I will find you something, not to worry.”

“Marik, don’t get yourself in trouble for me. It’s not worth it,” said Vasili.

“You mean just don’t get caught, right? You know me, I can steal the ring from a bull’s nose and live to tell the tale.”

With that, Marik disappeared into the dim twilight.

Gregor said, “That fool will get us all in trouble. But I’m glad he’s doing it.”

Nicolos said, “Marik is a slippery bastard. I’ve seen him in action.”

“Oh, have you now?” asked Alexey with a lurid tone.

“Not that kind of action, you pervert.”

Ten minutes later, Marik ran into the tent, his shirt bulging with something hidden.

He pulled two bottles of vodka from his shirt and exclaimed, “One for your back, and one for our mouths!”

Vasili was impressed. “Marik, you truly are a fox. Where the hell did you get this?”

Marik was cagey. “Well, if I tell you, you might want to get some yourself.”

“I doubt that. Tell me,” insisted Vasili.

“All I can say,” answered Marik, “is that Tóth won’t be smelling of alcohol tomorrow.”

“My God, Marik,” said Gregor, “you stole this from Őrmester Tóth? What the hell is wrong with you?”

“Nothing now,” laughed Marik as he took a big swig from the bottle.

Gregor took the other bottle and poured it over Vasili’s back. The pain from the alcohol was almost as unbearable as from the lashes themselves, but Vasili knew he could not cry out. All they needed now was for Tóth to come bursting into their tent and find them with his vodka. So he bore the pain and laid on his cot on his stomach.

After the others had some good swigs from the bottle, they capped both of the bottles and carefully buried them in the dirt under one of the cots. It was dark and Tóth might come around to check on them, so they extinguished the lantern and fell into a deep sleep, as much from the day’s tortures as from the alcohol.

Chapter 14

In the morning, Vasili and his friends could hear Őrmester screaming from his tent about his vodka. Tóth threw open their tent flap and looked at every one of the friends, looked in each bag and each bed until he finally threatened, “I know one of you bunch stole my vodka. If I find it around one of you, you will wish the Russians had you.”

Marik spoke up, “Őrmester, we have no idea where your vodka went. We are not common thieves, and we know the rules about drinking. I do feel bad for your loss, though.” It took all the self-control that Vasili had to keep from smiling.

 Tóth growled, “Get your asses ready for drills. Now!”

The five men hurried to dress, knowing that Tóth would watch everything they did. They were required to march 10 miles before breakfast.

The group sat for their breakfast of tea and bread, then Őrmester Tóth informed them, “You have 10 minutes to eat. Then we have rifle drills.”

No one dared to say a word until Tóth exited the tent. Gregor spoke up first. “Do you think we will be ready for the war in three weeks?”

Alexey said, “Not if we don’t get real rifles and training to fight.”

“I don’t think we will march in a line towards the Russians. At least I hope not,” added Marik.

Vasili downed the rest of his tea and said, “If the food at the front is worse than this, I don’t know how we will fight at all.”

The five of them joined the Ruthenians on the parade ground for rifle training and marching. When Gregor marched out of step, one of the Ruthenians laughed and pointed at him. Alexey ran over and punched the man in the nose, knocking him to the ground. The other Ruthenians shouted insults at the five. “Pig Slovaks, your whore mothers must be proud of you!”

Then they charged into Alexey and his friends. Some of them wrestled on the ground, some stood and traded punches. All of them were bloodied.

A gunshot stopped them cold.

“No water, no bread, nothing today for you bunch of criminals,” shouted Tóth. “Get back in line.” As each man stood, Tóth punched them in the head. “The next time you think about fighting, we will shoot you for insubordination. Clear?”

“Yes, Őrmester!” yelled the ten men.

Vasili could see the Colonel standing on the hill. His nose stood out starkly from the bony, sharp features of his cheeks. His glowering facial expression gave him a predatory look, as if he was ready to spring onto one of them men and tear into him with his teeth. He seemed impatient, rocking back and forth with his hands clasping the horse whip behind him. Clearly, this was not a man to be trifled with. He was a man Vasili hoped never to meet. In the afternoon, Őrmester Tóth had the men line up outside the tents.

He paced back and forth in front of them as he said, “I have 80 commands you will learn in the next two weeks. These are the 80 commands that will come from the commanding officers. The officers are German, and are too important to learn your dirt languages. That means you must learn these German commands. Your life and the lives of your friends will depend on it. We will drill with these commands from now on. We have written them down for you to study. If you can’t read, I don’t care.”

Tóth then read each of the commands and what each command meant. “I won’t be repeating this more than a few times. In two weeks I expect each of you to understand and obey each command.

They integrated the company of ten with the regiment the next day, when they found out that the other companies in the regiment comprised men of all different ethnic groups. For two weeks, they drilled together, learning the German commands, but still they had no weapons.

During dinner one evening, Vasili sat down with his friends and wondered, “How are we supposed to fight? The division commander is German, the regiment commander is Hungarian, the company commander is Austrian. Most of the time, we don’t know what anyone is talking about. I’m really afraid that when we get to the front, we will not know what to do.”

Nicolos added, “We have Poles, Ukranians, Slovenes, and Serbs in this regiment. None of us will know what is going on.”

“Nonsense!” answered Marik. “What is so difficult? You point your rifle at a Russian, and pull the trigger!”

“Nothing is ever that simple.”

Gregor shared, “I have been thinking the same thing. If it is a life or death situation, we will be dead.”

Alexey spoke up, “You know we have no choice. If we don’t fight, the Hungarians will shoot us as traitors. At least on the front we can shoot back.”

“Exactly!” said Marik.

“Or maybe we’ll just have to throw our wooden rifles at the Russians,” said Nicolos.

“You don’t know how to have fun,” answered Marik.

I wouldn’t feed this food to my pigs back home,” Vasili complained. “This meat is not fresh, the bread is stale. Hell, the water tastes like it came from the latrine.”

Emil, seated with his Ruthenian companions at the next table, heard Vasili’s last comment and said, “Colonel Farkas has been stealing the good meat and keeping it for his officers only. I have a friend that cooks for them and he told me the Colonel inspects every shipment of meat and takes what he wants. Then some of the lower officers steal more to sell to the civilians around here. They are making quite a good living at it.”

“The bastards!” said Vasili. “I hope we have a chance to get those dogs some day.”

“Careful,” warned Gregor, “the officers have ears everywhere. They will hang you for insubordination if they hear you.”

As the days became weeks, Vasili noticed that Colonel Farkas seemed to be unhinged. After one drill, he called out five men, seemingly at random, and beat them with his horsewhip.

“What the hell was Farkas doing today beating those men?” said Vasili.

“Did you see that? One or two of them got out of step for one beat,” said Alexey. “He was screaming something about marching better than the Germans.”

“We’re already better than the Germans,” said Marik.

“How so?” said Vasili.

“We’re not Germans!” laughed Marik.

“You better not let von Kemmel hear that,” said Gregor, his face bright red from laughing.

“But seriously, the son-of-a-bitch cut our rations in half,” said Nicolos.

In early August, Vasili received a letter from his father. Of course, the envelope had been torn open and Vasili knew Tóth had read it. Vasili began to read the letter, but then closed his eyes and threw the letter onto his cot.

Gregor was the first to reach Vasili. He put his hand on Vasili’s shoulder and asked, “What is it?”

Vasili only pointed to the letter. Gregor unfolded the paper and read:

Vasili, Nadya wrote me a letter from the United States. She doesn’t know where you are. She said that the landlord kicked her out of the apartment because she got behind in rent. She said that she could not make enough money in the textile factory and she had to go to live with her sister on their farm in Ambridge, Pennsylvania.

You must write her a letter and tell her what has happened.

“It’s my responsibility to keep her safe and keep her in a home. I failed Maria and now I’ve failed Nadya,” whispered Vasili.

“Nonsense,” replied Gregor. “How could it be your fault that these Hungarians and Russians would find so much pleasure in making us kill one another? You were just caught in the middle.”

“But what if I had just stayed in America? Nadya and I would be safe and happy.”

“How happy would you be,” said Alexey, “knowing that you didn’t fulfill Maria’s dying wish?”

“I guess you are right,” conceded Vasili, “but it doesn’t make it hurt any less.”

The days ran together for Vasili after that. Marching and drilling. Marching with packs weighted with stones to build up their tolerance. Drilling with the wooden rifles. Then, once a day, they were given lessons with an actual Steyr-Mannlicher M1895 rifle. The lessons taught them how to load a clip, how to pull the bolt, how to attach the bayonet, and how to fire with some accuracy. 

Vasili was not a soldier. He thought of himself as a farmer and a mill worker. But lately, despite the terrible shortcomings of the training, he felt a change. He could see it in his friends as well. They were all getting used to the discipline and rigors of the soldier’s life. Vasili didn’t know if he was proud to be a soldier, or proud that he survived Farkas and Tóth.

In late August, Colonel Farkas informed the regiment they would be transferred to the front. They were told they would be sent by train through the Carpathians and into Galicia. After that announcement, they were issued their own M1895 rifles and cartridge belts.

Őrmester Tóth handed out the rifles and belts, then sent the men to the supply building for ammunition. “You will be given 40 rounds in 5-round clips. Any man wasting ammunition will be severely punished. Tomorrow, we pack up and head for the train station.”

Vasili spent some time writing to Nadya.

My Nadya, I cannot tell you how sorry I am that I’m not there with you now to help. I’ve been taken into the army and must soon go fight the Russians. I’m placing my photograph in the envelope to show you what your handsome soldier looks like. I will do whatever I have to do to return to you. I promise you that.

Vasili

He carefully folded the paper and the photograph, then slipped it into the envelope and sealed it. He addressed it to his father, knowing that he would know how to send it on to Nadya. He ran to the postal tent and left it there, hoping it would somehow get back to Nadya.

When he returned to the tent, Vasili opened his horse skin backpack and in it placed his shaving kit, his mess kit, then the hardtack, jerky, and several cans of meat he had been allotted. The only photograph he had of Nadya he placed in his breast pocket over his heart. He tightly rolled the gray tent and folded it over the top of the backpack, securing it to the backpack with straps and buckles. He slid his utility belt through the opening at the bottom of the backpack, then secured the straps and clips of the shoulder straps. A pouch under the backpack contained 80 more rounds of ammunition, adding to the 40 rounds in the pouches on his belt.

He slid his arms through the straps and settled the backpack on his shoulders. He used the brass buckle to secure the belt and then clipped his trenching tool and bayonet to his belt and threw his canteen strap over his head. His knees nearly buckled before he was done.

Vasili looked around at his comrades, and seeing the looks on all their faces, joked with Marik, “Are you sure you can carry this much weight?”

“I’ve been carrying you through training, so this will be easy,” Marik responded with a laugh.

“Seriously,” interjected Gregor, “are we expected to carry this everywhere?”

“Only where you want to eat or stay alive,” responded Alexey.

Nicolos said, “And if you don’t want Tóth to shoot you.”

Just then Tóth appeared at the tent flaps and said, “Perhaps you would like to be first!”

But behind the Őrmester came a leutnant. His collar tab had the embroidered single gold, six-pointed star. The men immediately came to attention until the leutnant ordered them to be at ease.

The leutnant looked at each of the five friends then said, “Please be seated men.”

He turned to Tóth and said with a bit of smile on his lips, “Őrmester, you may go.”

He then addressed the men in Hungarian, “I am Leutnant von Kemmel. I will be the company commander for you and your Ruthenian friends next door. Yes, I heard about your little spat.”

Now smiling he said in Slovak, “I speak several languages so please don’t try to talk behind my back in Rusyn. It is my job to keep you all in a fighting form and to see to it that you do everything, including attacking the enemy, in an orderly fashion.”

“Now, get your gear together and get in the wagons,” von Kemmel continued. “We are due in town in one hour to catch the train to the front.”

Chapters 11 and 12 Gray Wolf of Carpathia

“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.

“Vasili Gajdosh.”

“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.

Chapter 12

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.

Chapter 10 of the Gray Wolf of Carpathia

Chapter 10

In the morning, the sun was shining through the dirty window, and even Maria seemed to have her spirits lifted. She smiled as Vasili hugged and kissed Nadya and once again promised to be home as soon as possible.

“I should be home by the end of October,” Vasili promised. “Please be brave Nadya. I know that you can make it on your own for a little while.”

Nadya nodded her head without saying anything. She held her arm out and handed Maria the large-brimmed hat she had saved so long to purchase. “Take this hat,” Nadya offered, “It will help hide your face from others.”

Maria, surprised at the change she could see in Nadya, wrapped her in the tightest hug her now-frail body could provide.

“Goodbye Nadya. I shall never forget your kindness,” said Maria.

“Goodbye Maria. I have only done God’s will.” returned Nadya. She turned to Vasili with tears shining in her green eyes. “I love you Vasili Mihalyos. I will wait for you, but I will miss you every moment.”

Vasili, choked up at the emotion in Nadya’s voice said, “Whatever I have to do to return to you, I will do it. I will do anything to look at you and kiss you again.” He took Nadya in his arms and kissed her for a very long time. Finally, he held her at arms length and said, “This is how I will remember you while I am on my journey.”

Vasili took both cases and Maria held is arm as they went through the apartment door, leaving Nadya with a look of longing.

It was a short walk to the train station, but it was almost too much for Maria. She leaned more and more on Vasili, but Vasili was determined that she would appear as well as she could. He knew that if anyone suspected her illness, they would never make it on the train or on the ship.

As Vasili purchased the train tickets, Maria leaned against the wall and pulled the hat down as far as she could. She was shaking as Vasili turned with the tickets in his hand.

“Are you alright?” asked a passerby with obvious concern.

Neither Maria nor Vasili could speak the strangers language, but they understood his gesture. Vasili nodded to the man and rushed off with Maria toward the train platform. The man turned and walked away without another word.

Vasili led Maria to a bench on the platform. “We have only five minutes until the train arrives,” Vasili said, trying to reassure Maria that she could make it through this. “Then we can relax in our seats until we get to New York.”

A slight smile appeared on Maria’s face and she said, “Hopefully we can relax more than we did on our trip out of Hungary.”

“That is my little sister!” exclaimed Vasili, “You are still in there I see.” He peered under the brim of the hat and then took Maria’s hand in his.

When the train arrived, Vasili threw his bags into the car, then as subtly as he could, he carried Maria up the steep rail car steps. He found their seats and place her against the window, as far from the eyes of strangers as he could. He only hoped that the Laudanum would control the coughing while they were on the train ride, and that it would last through the voyage. For now, Maria quickly fell asleep and slept until they arrived in New York.

As the train pulled into the station, Vasili gently shook Maria’s arm and whispered, “We are here.”

Maria, apparently in the midst of a dream, shouted “Father!”

Everyone in the train turned and looked at the frail girl in the car, but Vasili smiled and shrugged his shoulders, a gesture he had learned from his Rusyn friends in the mill. It seemed to work because the other passengers then went about their business getting ready to leave the train.

Vasili helped Maria down the steps and held her closely as they found a trolley station. Vasili recognized the name of the stop they needed at the piers and they managed to board the trolley without a problem. As they exited, the conductor said something that Vasili could not understand, but from the look on the conductor’s face, he feared they would be stopped. The conductor, realizing they were immigrants, just spat on the ground and went back into the trolley.

Vasili bought two tickets to Bremen on the SS Kronprinzessin Cecille. They were both exhausted, and slept for eight hours, sitting on the pier’s benches, with Maria resting her head on her brother’s shoulder.

 When it came time to board, Vasili helped Maria up the walkway and onto the deck. He handed both of their tickets to the sailor at the top. The officer held out an arm and looked at Maria for what seemed like minutes. Finally, seemingly satisfied or at least tired of the grumbling of the passengers behind Vasili, he put down his arm and and allowed them to board.

They found a bed in steerage, put their suitcases under, and laid down to rest. The ship got underway after an hour or so, and Vasili and Maria finally got to sleep in something besides a bench. 

They were awakened by the ship violently tossing from side to side. They could barely keep themselves from falling out of the bed. Passengers everywhere were getting sick; the smell of vomit permeated the deck. Maria began to heave but Vasili was able to calm her down with more Laudanum. He was afraid that anything that upset her were start her coughing, and they would be found out.

Even in the bowels of the ship they could hear the wind howling and the waves striking at the hull, as if at any moment it could come crashing into them. The thunder resounded through the metal hull.

As the ship continued to sway from side to side, a large man appeared beside their bed. He pointed to the bottle of Laudanum, then to his mouth. Vasili grasped the bottle tightly and shook his head. The man yelled something at Vasili and grabbed for the bottle. Vasili deftly pulled it away, at which the man became enraged. He slammed his fist into the side of Vasili’s head. Maria huddled into a corner of the bed as Vasili began to rise to his feet; but the man pounded him once again. But Vasili was quick—he took the punch and rammed his head into the man’s stomach, causing him to reel backwards into another bed. He came at Vasili one more time, but as Vasili tried to avoid the next punch, the ship lurched to the side and Vasili lost his grip on the bottle. It crashed to the deck, splintered glass spreading like an explosion, and the precious Laudanum mixing with the shards and under the bed.

Vasili now lost his temper and yelled, “You bastard!” His fist flew at the man’s nose and connected with a violent collision, causing his nose to crack. Maria screamed, which caused her to begin coughing. As she coughed, she could feel the blood splashing on her fingers. The man fell to the deck, but when he saw Maria, his eyes grew wide and he scrambled away yelling “Lunger! Lunger!” Vasili did not know the words, but knew their meaning. Everyone moved away and stayed away for the rest of the voyage. Vasili and Maria were lucky the crew was so occupied with the storm and its aftermath that no-one bothered to investigate.

In Bremen, Maria got much sicker. When Vasili went to purchase train tickets, the ticket seller chased him off after seeing Maria.

Maria told Vasili, “I am scared. We are so close, but now I think I will never see Father again. I will die before we get home.”

“I will find a way,” reassured Vasili, but he felt anything but confident about his statement.

Vasili had noticed that there were boxcars being loaded with hay. He waited until dark and saw that the workers had left the doors open to keep the hay from building up the fine dust that could cause an explosion. When darkness came, Vasili carried Maria to one of the open doors and laid her down on the floor of the car. He threw in their bags and jumped up and in.

“Vasili,” Maria said, “I am very afraid. What if the train workers come around and find us. We will end up in prison for sure.”

“Vasili said, “This will work. If we move a few of these hay bales and sit behind them, they will never see us from the door, and they have no reason to look inside.”

Maria nodded her head, knowing that her brother would do what was best for them.

They climbed behind to the front of the car and hid behind a couple of stacked bales. They heard one of the workers approaching, then the sound of the door sliding shut. Just as the worker was swing the latch over to lock the door, Maria let out a small cough. Everything stopped as the worker opened the car door again. One of the other workers came over and they spoke together for a minute.

Vasili had placed his hand over Maria’s mouth, and watched the shadows in the car dance from the worker’s lantern. He hopped up into the car and swung the lantern back and forth, and front to back, then stood very still for a moment. Maria was about to let go with another cough, when the worker placed the lantern on the floor and jumped to the ground with a thud. Maria’s eyes were bulging from the strain as the door finally slid closed and the latch was pushed down, locking the door. After a few minutes, Vasili lifted his hand from Maria’s mouth and she wheezed and gasped, then coughed so hard Vasili could feel the blood on his hand near her mouth.

The train slowly started away from the station as Maria and Vasili prayed the rosary for God’s help in getting them home. They prayed with Maria’s rosary that the boxcar would go as far as Čirč and stop there.

Vasili had stashed away some bread and water in his case, and he brought it out now. He ripped the loaf in half and handed half to Maria.

Maria smiled a bit when she grabbed it and said, “I will miss Nadya’s bread and I will miss Nadya.”

“So Nadya is now your friend,” laughed Vasili. “All it took was one loaf of stale bread!”

Maria laughed as Vasili handed her the water jug.

The next night the train came to a stop. They could hear the voices of the workers shouting, the doors opening, and the cars being unloaded.

Vasili looked concerned and asked Maria, “Do you think you can run for a short time?”

Maria answered, “Can we not sneak out, just like we snuck in?”

Vasili whispered, “We were just lucky then. We may not be so lucky now.”

“I do not know. I think I might fall down. They will catch me then.”

Vasili peered out through a crack in the wooden car and could see military men in front of all of the cars.

“Now I see why they were taking hay by train. It is for the cavalry. Those are Hungarian soldiers, so we must be close to home.”

He crept to the opposite side of the car and looked through another small space between the wooden boards of the wall.

“Come on Maria, I think we can open this door quietly and get out before the soldiers find us. There is so much noise here that I am certain they will not hear us.”

Vasili lifted the door latch and slowly opened the door, stopping every few inches to be sure he was not discovered. When he finally opened it enough to fit them through, he lowered Maria to the ground and jumped down. He reached back for the bags when he saw the railman’s lantern at the end of the train.

“Hey, what are you two doing by this train?” the man shouted.

Vasili looked at Maria and said, “Run!”

By now, some of the soldiers had been alerted and were rounding the back of the train.

“Stop!” yelled the railman.

“Maria, please hurry!” pleaded Vasili.

“I cannot run any faster,” shrieked Maria as she lost her footing and fell to the ground with fits of coughing.

Vasili hesitated for only a second, then decided that he needed to leave the bags. He took Nadya’s picture from his case and threw the rest into the woods. He picked up Maria and threw her over his shoulder, then took off running as fast as he could, heading for the trees. He ran until his legs finally gave out. He dropped to his knees, then gently placing Maria on the ground before falling face first to the wet soil.

“I no longer hear them,” he whispered. “We should be safe for now.”

They waited among the trees until the sun had been up for several hours, then Vasili picked Maria up and hiked out of the woods to get his bearings. When he spotted the hazy mountains he knew so well, he laughed loudly, knowing that they only had half of one day to walk.

Maria was coughing uncontrollably now, the exertion of last night being too much for her frail body. “I can walk Vasili, put me down.”

But Vasili was not about to make his sister strain herself anymore on this journey. “No, I can carry you. You are not a burden.”

“Vasily, please take my rosary,” Maria said softly, holding her precious rosary out in front of Vasili.

“No, it is yours. Mother gave it to you as she was dying.”

“Please, it is the last thing I will ask of you,” Maria said.

“If I do, it means you are dying, and I cannot bear that thought,” said Vasili.

“I beg you, take it Vasili.” Maria’s voice was barely audible.

Vasili took the offering and placed the beads in his side coat pocket, then hurried his pace. He stopped only once, when Maria began to moan. He laid her tenderly in the grass and decided to give her last rites as best he could, not being a priest.

When it was complete, Vasili stood, and in the distance he could see Čirč. He broke into a run, though he could not feel much in his legs, and the pain in his back made him wince with every pounding step.

He ignored it all as he approached his family home. He threw open the door and Mikhal rose from the table, his face showing his surprise and joy.

 Mikhal took Maria from Vasili and held her face in his hands. “My Maria! You are home.” Tears of joy streamed past his smile. “I am so happy to see you again.”

“Father,” whispered Maria.

Mikhal’s smile was soon erased, and replaced by a look of shock, as he realized that Maria had spoken his name with her last breath.

Chapter 9 of the Gray Wolf of Carpathia

She looked at Vasili and in a commanding tone said, “Of course you cannot do this.” Nadya’s guilt at Maria’s plight seemed to vanish.

Still, Vasili stood silently, staring. Nadya’s statement had caused Maria to weep louder and even more pitifully.

“You just cannot Vasili,” demanded Nady. “It is out of the question. We have only been married four months, and you think you should leave me and go back to Čirč?

Finally, Vasili returned his attention to the room. “It is the only thing I can do to make it right,” Vasili said. “I brought her to this place and I should take her home.”

“What about me?” demanded Nadya.

“What about you? What about you?” Vasili emphasized.

“My sister is dying and you are worried only about yourself!”

Maria sobbed, “Please Nadya, do not be angry with me.”

But Nadya was not moved. “How will it look if you suddenly leave me here alone, and how am I to keep this apartment?”

Vasili, his face turning red, said, “This is how it must be Nadya. Maria is my responsibility and—”

“And what,” said Nadya, “And I am nothing because she is sick.”

“Of course not,” said Vasili, calming down. “You can make the trip with us.”

“I cannot return to Čirč. I have nothing there now. My father is gone and my brothers hate me for leaving against my father’s wishes. I knew she would somehow take you away from me. I knew it!”

“You cannot be serious,” argued Vasili. “Do you think she wants to die just to take me away from you?”

“Of course not, but that is what is happening.”

Maria pleaded, “Please Nadya, I cannot make the trip alone. My brother is my only hope. I know how much he loves you and I promise to you he will return as soon as I am home with my father. I cannot die before I see him again. God will curse me for leaving.”

“Why should I trust what you say? If you die in Čirč how do I know Vasili will ever come home?”

Vasili had heard enough. “I will take her back! You do not give me orders. I have listened to you enough and you make no sense.”

Nadya got very quiet but her eyes told the story of her anger with Vasili and her building animosity towards Maria.

“This is her dying wish,” said Vasili in a softer tone. “Please Nadya, you must understand. This is also your family now.”

Nadya walked to the bedroom door, her head bowed in defeat. “I know you will do what you want Vasili,” she said quietly, “but I do not approve, and I do not give you my blessing.”

With that, she went to her bedroom and shut the door.

Vasili looked at Maria. “Do not worry, I will talk to her. She will be see things my way,” said Vasili.

Maria, coughing, choked out, “Don’t you see it yet? She hates me. And now she hates me more. There is no changing her mind.”

“She does not hate you. She is just afraid to be alone. You must understand that she has been alone for a long time, since the Old Country, when she left her father’s house and came here. She felt alone long before she left, after her mother died, when her brothers and her father made it clear they wished they had another son. She has not had someone to love her until I came along, and she is afraid she will never have it again.”

Maria, looking surprised at the length of Vasili’s speech, answered, “Yes, but I am now her enemy because she thinks I want to keep you to myself. This is not true, but it is what she thinks.”

Vasili said, “I will take you home. It is settled. Nadya will understand.”

Vasili went to the kitchen and opened the drawer where they hid their money. He took only enough to ensure he and Maria could could afford the tickets necessary and receive decent treatment along the way. Nadya was sitting in the chair. She was quietly crying.

“Nadya, I love you and I will never abandon you,” said Vasili in a pleading voice. “You must give me your blessing for this or something terrible may happen to us on the trip.”

“So you are going then,” asked Nadya as if she had not heard anything Vasili had said earlier.

“Yes, I am escorting Maria home. I will be back to you as soon as I can. She cannot make it on her own. You can see that.”

“But why must she go back at all? She could stay here. We can make her comfortable.”

Vasili let out a long sigh and said, “I know you have nothing back in Čirč to go back to. But Maria wants so badly to see Father before she dies. If she does not, she says God will curse her. Do you want her to die thinking she is cursed?”

Nadya softened her tone for the first time since Maria asked Vasili to take her home. She said, “No, that would be my sin to bear, and I could not live with it. But Vasili, so many things can happen on a voyage like this.”

“I know. But we made it here, and I will make it back again. That is my promise to you.” Vasili laid down next to Nadya, then embraced her and kissed her with a sweetness he had not shown for months.

“I have to give you my blessing, you know that. I could not forgive myself if something happened to you and I had not. I will give you my blessing, but please Vasili, please come back to me. You and I have loved each other since we were in Čirč, and the moment we met I knew we had to be together.”

“Of course,” Vasili said in the most reassuring tone he could find.  He kissed here on the forehead and whispered, “Thank you.” He knew that he could not make such promises, but he needed Nadya to agree.

I will tell Maria and we will start packing. We will leave tomorrow.

Maria was happy for the first time in many weeks.

“Thank you, thank you,” she said to Vasili.

Vasili could see the spark of Maria in her eyes, and that made him happy.

“You should thank Nadya. She has given us her blessing.”

“But does she mean it?”

“I know her heart. She does.”

Nadya came into the bedroom and sat on Maria’s bed. She said, “I am going to be worried as much as I can bear, and I will be all alone. Just remember that when you get home, and make sure that Vasili returns as fast as he can.”

Maria’s smile faded as she said, “I know what this does to you, but I want you to know that I love you for allowing Vasili to take me. I do not know how you feel about me when you are alone, but I will love you forever.”

Nadya’s face softened and she replied, “I understand you need to go home to see your father. And go with God.”

Nadya and Maria both began to cry as Vasili sat down and hugged them in turn.

“We are family,” he declared. “Nothing can change that.”

He packed a case with clothes they would both need on the way. None of them slept that night.

Chapter 8 of the Gray Wolf of Carpathia

Vasili stood still, staring at the doctor as if he did not comprehend what the doctor had just said.

“Vasili, I said your sister has Consumption. Do you know what that is?”

Vasili knew exactly what it was. He had heard about it many times from the men at the mill and he knew what it meant. He could only nod at the doctor; he could not find words and his throat tightened as if he were being throttled by strong hands.

“Do you understand what can happen to her now?”

Nadya spoke up, knowing that Vasili was not capable of talking right now. “Yes, we understand, Doctor.” She turned to Vasili and quietly said, “You need to sit down for a little while.”

To the doctor she asked, “What do we owe you Doctor?”

The doctor, knowing the plight of these immigrants and knowing the effect of his news, said, “I cannot take your money. You have been through enough tonight. I will check back in a couple of days, but you should be prepared for the worst.”

“Thank you Doctor, for your kindness. And be careful, there is a storm coming.” said Nadya.

She opened the door and as the doctor took a step into the doorway he turned, faced Vasili, and said, “I am truly sorry. There is just nothing that can be done for her.”

When the door closed, the silence in the room was overwhelming. Vasili stood in the same spot, but now his head was bent and he stared at his shoes, worn and battered. “How strange,” he thought, “that right now I am thinking about how to fix my shoes.”

Nadya led him by the arm to his chair in the living room, and gently pushed him down until he sat. She knelt next to the chair and took Vasili’s hand in hers. Everyone could tell when Vasili was angry. Nadya only worried when Vasili was silent. She had only seen him like this once before, when his mother died.

Nadya said, “There is nothing you could have done. You are a good man and perhaps God will reward you and restore Maria’s health. You have been a good brother to Maria all of her life. When she was lost in the valley in the mountains, it was you who found her. You said you would never give up on her. Do not give up now.”

“Nadya, I wish to be alone,” was the only thing he could say.

Nadya knew there was no consoling Vasili when he was like this. She moved her hand away, stood up while keeping her gaze on Vasili, then turned and went into Maria’s bedroom.

As soon as Nadya left the room, Vasili’s eyes filled with tears. “What have I done?” he thought. “I thought I knew better than Father, but I should have listened to him. Why did she have to get sick? I promised Father, her, and God that I would take care of her, and I have failed miserably. I have no honor.”

Vasili remembered his mother and how helpless he felt as she lay dying. If it had not been for him and his brothers and sisters she would have lived. She died slowly from hunger, and none of the children realized that she did not eat so that they could. Vasili wiped his eyes with his handkerchief as he thought of all the times he had complained to his mother about being hungry. “What a fool,” he whispered.

He remembered now his father, who he left to run the small farm with only his brother Havel to help. Havel was barely 17 years old and knew nothing. “I have ruined too many lives,” Vasili thought. “I have ruined too many lives.”

“Now I have led Maria here,” he thought, “and here she will die. I deserve Your punishment God. Punish me for what I have done to this family.”

The pain in his head was almost unbearable; the pain in his soul was permanent. He stood up, went to the kitchen, and poured a large glass of vodka. He sat back down in the living room chair and drained the vodka in two drinks. But he knew that the liquor could not wash away the guilt he was feeling, nor could it stop the self-pity as he desired. Now he could remember things as clearly as if they just happened.

When they were young, Vasili would sit near the fireplace and tell Maria tales of Baba Yaga to make her scared, and just as he would get to the worst part of the story, he would jump up at Maria and make her scream. Then they would both fall into fits of laughter.

One hunting day, Maria begged Vasili to take her with him.

“It is not trip for a girl,” said Vasili. “It is dirty and when I shoot something you will see the blood.” Vasili was doing his best to make her think the worst of the trip so she would not go.

But Maria could always get Vasili to give in to her, and he relented. He told her he would teach her how to hunt, but when they got to the mountains she only seemed interested in picking the wildflowers growing in abundance on the hillsides and next to the streams.

“Vasili!” she shouted. “Come see what I have found!”

Vasili, trying to stay silent for the hunt, came quickly to see what she was fussing about, and to tell her to be quiet. When he saw she was pointing to a field of flowers, he said, “This is your first time hunting, and it will be your last!” His voice echoed from wall to wall down the valley.

But he did not mean it. He had Maria with him on most of his hunting trips after that because she was full of life and joy.

Maria’s crying brought Vasili out of his trance and back to the apartment. He could hear Nadya in the Maria’s bedroom trying to comfort Maria. But Maria could not be comforted.

Running into Maria’s bedroom, Vasili knelt beside Maria’s bed, bowed his head, and said, “This is all my fault. All of it. If we had stayed at home I could be farming and you, you could be a wife by now and living happily in your own home. Instead, I got you sick.”

Maria was weak, but she placed her hand on Vasili’s head and quietly said, “No, dear brother, this is not your fault. I wanted to be here and I am the one that talked Father into allowing it, remember?”

Vasili could only nod his head in silent acceptance. He knelt that way for a few minutes, then said, “I will ask Father Andras to visit you and give you the blessing for the sick.”

Maria answered, “Perhaps you should ask for Posledné rituály.”

“No, this is not the time for Last Rites!” said Vasili. “I do not allow it.”

Nadya had been silent until now. She placed her hand on his shoulder and quietly said, “Vasili, this is not your decision to make. It is up to God to decide.”

Vasili recoiled slightly from her touch and replied, “God cannot have her yet.”

Maria looked at Vasili, her blue eyes full of sympathy for her strong brother. “It is as Nadya says, my wonderful brother,” said Maria. “I am sad if I have to leave you, but it is God’s will.”

“There must be a way to help you,” answered Vasili.

“What did the doctor tell you?” asked Maria.

Vasili hesitated, then said, “It does not matter, he does not know everything.”

“He told you I was going to die, did he not?” said Maria in a matter-of-fact tone.

“Vasili, please stop and listen to me,” Maria demanded. “There is only one thing I am going to ask of you. But you must do this one thing for me.”

“Of course I will do anything you ask,” Vasili answered.

“Please, take me home. I must see Father before I die. Please Vasili.”

Chapter 7 of the Gray Wolf of Carpathia

One June night, Maria came home coughing. Vasili was concerned, as always, but Maria said it was probably just the dust from the factory.

“I’ll be fine in a couple of days,” she assured Vasili. “The factory is never cleaned and when you look at the lights you can see the dirt and fibers like it is a foggy day.”

“But I can see the doctor and get some medicine for you,” said Vasili.

“No, that will be too much money. It’s nothing,” said Maria, with much emphasis at the end.

Vasili did not mention it again, praying that it really was nothing to be concerned about.

It seemed like Maria never minded the hard work she had to do. Vasili would ask her about it every day, and her answer was always the same, “I can do this. Hard work doesn’t bother me. I will not be a useless woman because the work is hard.”

One day she added, “There are boys and girls younger than me that have to climb up on the machines to change the spools. One poor boy lost his leg when the loom started up while he was still on top. The owner had him bandaged up, but then told the Overseer to just take the boy home and leave him there. He said the boy was no good to anyone now.”

Vasili was moved by that story and said, “These owners think that we’re just sheep to do what we’re told; and when they can get no more out of us, they throw us away and get somebody else.”

To Maria he said, “That is why I don’t like you working there. It’s dangerous.”

Maria laughed and said, with sarcasm, “And your job is so safe!”

“That’s different,” said Vasili.

Maria and Nadya had been avoiding each other as much as they could in their small apartment, but one Sunday when Vasili had to work, they ended up seated across from each other at the supper table. Nadya was a good cook and knew the recipes from the Old Country, but she had refused to share them with Maria. On that day, Nadya had prepared halupki, a Rusyn favorite of meat and rice rolled inside a cabbage leaf.

When Maria told Nadya that the meal was delicious and that it reminded her of Čirč, Nadya casually said, “Wouldn’t it be nice to return to Čirč and maybe you could cook for your father and brothers. I imagine they miss a woman’s touch.”

Maria immediately sensed what Nadya was trying to do. While she did miss her father and brothers very much, and Nadya’s mention of them brought pictures in her mind of each of them, Maria knew that Nadya was trying to make her homesick. Maria knew that Nadya was hoping she would leave.

Maria, acting coyly said, “I have told Vasili that he’s stuck with me for life.”

Nadya reacted with barely-contained anger and shot back, “This is not possible. You must either find a husband or go back to Čirč. Either way, you must leave this house.”

Maria had not expected a reaction like that, and dropped all pretense of manners.

“You have degraded me since you met me,” said Maria in a disgusted tone. “I don’t care what you think. It’ss only what Vasili thinks that matters.”

Nadya was becoming more and more angry and blurted out, “You can get sick and die for all I care.”

Maria was genuinely shocked at that statement, and began to bless herself. “You have cursed me,” she accused. “You have cursed me to die.” Maria began to sob uncontrollably.

Nadya then said, “Yes, when we were back in Čirč, I didn’t trust you and I don’t trust you now.”

Maria shot back, “But you were the one that lured me out into the valley and then left me there. I could have died, and I think that would have made you happy.”

Nadya asked, “If it was so bad, why didn’t you tell Vasili?”

“I told him of course, but he was under your spell. He told me that you would never do something like that. He thought you liked me. He was a fool, but I could do nothing.”

“Well, Maria my dear,” said Nadya in that condescending tone that Maria hated, “I have won. Vasili is mine.”

Maria went to her bedroom, buried her face in her pillow, and cried the rest of the night.

More often now, Maria came home from work with a cough. The cough started sounding worse to Vasili, so Vasili spoke to the druggist, who sold him a bottle of Laudanum. It seemed to be helping, but slowly Maria became bedridden and very sleepy during the entire day. Vasili thought that might help the cough, which it did for a while, but with opium and cocaine as the main ingredients, he knew that Maria would have a hard time functioning, and would always want more. She started missing work which Vasili knew would be the end of her working at all.

By the end of June, Maria was only out of bed for a short time, and her skin began to look more sickly and pallid. Her beautiful eyes were sunken in and she could barely talk without coughing.

Nadya asked Vasili, “What are we going to do with Maria? She cannot work, and without that money and her being sick, this is a burden we cannot bear.”

Vasili was trying his best to hold his temper, and blurted out, “What if it was you who was sick like that? What would you have me do to you? Would you have me throw you out into the street?”

Nadya, now upset and angry, said, “Maybe you should send her back to your family.” Vasili could tell that Nadya immediately felt regret for saying that. That realization kept him from becoming even more angry, but in a whisper that still seethed, Vasili said, “If I had known you were this cruel to family, I would not have married you Nadya.”

Nadya began to cry. With tears flowing down her face she said, “I am sorry, I am so sorry Vasili. I didn’t mean that. Please Vasili, forgive me. I love you and I can’t stand to see you in this much pain. It hurts and I said what I didn’t mean.”  At that, she slowly reached her hand for Vasili’s shoulder, afraid that he might slap it away. Instead, he grabbed her arm and pulled her to him, kissing her on the lips and stroking her hair.

“I know that. I’m sorry that I lost my temper. We have only been married two months and you already have to bear this burden with me. I don’t know what to do right now, but I am praying to God for her recovery.”

“I have been going in her room after everyone is asleep and praying the rosary over her. I didn’t want anyone to know for fear it would curse her. I only tell you so that you know that I also pray for her healing.”

Vasili wondered, “Why do you feel this way now? I could see that you didn’t want Maria around here, and now you seem guilty. What have you done?”

At that Maria broke down completely and confessed, “She is sick because I cursed her. I didn’t mean to, Vasili, but I was angry and I cursed her.”

“That is nonsense,” said Vasili, not quite convinced that it was nonsense. All that he knew was that his sister needed help, and he had to help her.

One of the girls from the silk factory stopped by a few days later to see Maria, who was sleeping in her room.

Vasili opened the door and the girl said, “You must be Vasili.”

Vasili answered, “Yes, what is your business?”

“I am Illona. I work with Maria in the factory. I wanted to see how she was doing because she has not been to work in a week.”

“I am sorry Illona,” said Vasili, “Please come in and sit. Maria is sleeping and I don’t want to wake her.”

“Please, that is fine. I was praying the rosary for her last night, so I was hoping she might come back to work. We all love her there. She works very hard.”

“Of course she does,” said Vasili proudly.

Illona’s eyes began to tear up and her face turned red. She was trying to stop and trying to hide it from Vasili.

“What is it? I am sure Maria will be better. We have all been praying and lighting candles at St. Michael’s.”

“The Overseer also ordered me to give her a message.” Illona hesitated, then continued, “He said that she is fired and is not to return to the factory.”

Now Vasili’s face turned a bright red and his eyes projected a fierce anger that was welling up inside of him.

“I will go and talk to that piece of filth,” shouted Vasili.

Nadya, who had been in the kitchen until she heard the shouting, now hurried into the room, wiping her hands on her flowered apron. “Vasili, you know you can’t do that.” Nadya was the only person on earth who could calm Vasili down. “If the bosses in the mill find out, they will fire you too.”

But Vasili’s anger was now nearly out of control.

“I’s my job to take care of my sister. If I have to lose my job to do it, then so be it.”

Illona sat with a shocked and frightened expression on her face.

“I’m sorry. He told me that if I didn’t tell her myself, that I would lose my job.”

Nadya replied, “Of course, of course. I’s not your fault.” Turning to Vasili, she said, almost in a whisper, “Please Vasili, you know that Maria can’t return to work anyway. When she gets better she can go find another job in another factory. You don’t want Maria to get upset do you?”

“No, no, of course not,” said Vasili, ignoring the bit of pain he felt in his arm as he began to calm down. “Thank you for coming Illona, I’ll tell Maria that you came to see her, and I’ll tell her about her job.”

Nadya walked Illona to the door.

Vasili walked into Maria’s room to check on her. As he entered, Maria began one of her coughing fits, holding a handkerchief to her mouth. When she pulled the handkerchief away, it was splattered with blood.

Vasili could see the pain in Maria’s face, but did not know how to comfort her.

“Who were you talking to out there?” Maria wondered.

“It was your friend Illona. She came to see how you are, but I told her you were too sick to see her.”

“Vasili! That’s a terrible thing to do.” But as Maria said these words, she began to cough until she was in spasms. More blood was on her pillow.

Vasili left her room and went straight through to the front door.

“Where are you going?” Nadya’s voice had an edge to it that Vasili had never seen.

“I’m going to find the doctor to come to the house.”

“Do you know what that will cost?” said a worried Nadya.

“It doesn’t matter, this is Maria, and I must get her help.”

Vasili was about to yell, but remembering their conversation the week before, he realized that it wasn’t that Nadya cared more about money than Maria, but Nadya had never had much, and he knew that she was trying to look out for him. But where Maria was concerned, Vasili did not care what the price was.

“She is my sister, and I made her and my father a promise,” was all that he said as he closed the door behind him.

By the time Vasili returned with the doctor, they heard Maria’s terrible screams. When they rushed into her room, they found her lying on her pillow, which was splattered with blood.

“I don’t know what is wrong,” cried Maria, coughing and wheezing. “I—can’t—stop.”

Nadya was sitting on the bed with her, and said, “She has been like this since you left. I’m afraid I have cursed her.”

The doctor moved her out of the way and said, “Nonsense, she is just a very sick young lady.”

He listened to her heart and lungs, took her pulse, and felt her fevered head, then stood up with a very serious look on his face and said to Vasili, “I would like to speak to you in the other room.”

Vasili began to feel sick and he could tell that Nadya, too, could feel that there was terrible news awaiting them in that room.

When Vasili closed the door to Maria’s room, the doctor ran his fingers through his graying hair, then smoothed his thin, graying mustache. He began, “I’m afraid this is not good news. Maria has Consumption.”

Chapter 6

“And I am supposed to shout now too?” Maria was quickly maturing and getting bolder in America.

“It was Nadya, from Čirč!” said Vasili, his voice still full of excitement.

 “Yes, of course I remember her,” said Maria, with barely hidden jealousy.

“I can hear the bitterness in your voice, dearest sister. But you do not need to worry. We are in a strange land now, and I would never abandon you, even for her.”

Maria got very quiet and turned away.

Vasili, clearly annoyed with his sister said, “What is it now?”

“You know what it is, Vasili, you know what happened in Čirč. She pulled you away from me. She is beautiful, her perfect brown hair, green eyes, and always that hint of a smile on her lips. I understand why you can never let her out of you head. She would have been a wonderful wife to anyone, but somehow she chose you.”

“And I chose her,” said Vasili, interrupting Maria. “I cannot help how I feel Maria. She makes me happy.”

Maria needed to talk, so she walked the two blocks to Anya’s building, climbed the three flights of stairs, and knocked on Anya’s door.

“Maria!” Anya said when she opened the door. “I am so happy you visited! But you look sad.”

“I don’t exactly know how to feel, Anya,” said Maria, her eyes fixed on the floor.

“Please come in and sit down. You need to tell me what is troubling you so.” Anya’s soft voice was usually a comfort to Maria, but not this time.

They sat on the well-worn cloth couch in the small sitting room, and Anya sent the children to play in the bedroom.

“Tell me, Maria, what could be so troubling to a young lady?” asked Anya.

“I am afraid that I am losing Vasili,” sobbed Maria, no longer able to hold back her tears.

“Is Vasili sick? What is wrong with him?”

“No, he is not sick. He has met the woman from Čirč that he loved so much. She came here two years ago, and I thought we would never see her again.”

“But, what is wrong with that? Shouldn’t Vasili be happy?” Anya hesitated, the problem now becoming clear to her.

“And you are afraid this woman will take him away from you,” Anya concluded.

Maria said tearfully, “Yes, it happened in Čirč. Her name is Nadya Maydakovich, and she does not like me at all.”

“What has she ever done to you?”

“I am only one year younger than she is, but she speaks to me like I am a child to be sent away. I do not like the way she treats me and Vasili acts like he is under a spell—he says nothing to her about it.”

Anya smiled at that and said, “Men are puppets when they fall in love. Do not be harsh toward him.”

“I try very hard not to be angry with him, but Nadya is another thing.”

“Does she know how you feel?”

“She does not care how I feel.”

“I am sure she is afraid you will take Vasili away from her.”

Maria stopped crying and thought a moment, then said, “Nadya’s mother died giving birth to Nadya, and her father died of a sickness that spread through the village shortly after Nadya and Vasili fell in love. Nadya’s father liked Vasili, but her uncle wanted to force her to marry someone richer than Vasili. She said she would not do it. So she sneaked away one night and never came back. Vasili had not yet asked her to marry him, but I was sure that he wished to ask her because when she left, Vasili became sullen and angry. I knew then that he was in love.”

Anya said “You do understand her.”

“But when she left, I thought Vasili would never see her again. I was happy about it, and I had to go to confession for my sin.”

Maria had resented Nadya first for taking Vasili away, then for leaving him. She was happy when she learned Nadya was leaving for America and she could have her brother back, miserable as he was. 

Anya stayed quiet for a long while, then said, “There is not much you can do. I think you do not like her because she was taking Vasili from you, and she thinks you will keep Vasili from her.”

“Yes, of course you are right,” admitted Maria. “I can try to live with it as long as she is good to Vasili.”

“The only thing that makes me feel better about Nadya is that she seems so in love with Vasili. When she sees him, here face has a light like the summer sunrise over the village. I can see in her eyes that Vasili is the only man she wants to be with. I only hope that I can find a love that makes me feel like that someday.”

“I want to believe that things will not change with Vasili just because he found Nadya again, but I can see in his eyes that he has a bond with Nadya, and I think it will break the bond he has with me.”

Anya said, “Then you must watch for any signs of it. Perhaps Nadya will understand your bond with Vasili and not try to break it. She could be sitting right now, telling a friend of her worry about you.”

“Then I will try,” concluded Maria.

 For the next six months, Vasili spent much of his scarce time off with Nadya, making Maria feel more and more lonely and evoking thoughts of returning home, where her father would at least doted on her. So far, Vasili was still there for dinner and still there in the morning. Maria did not know how much longer that would last, but she assumed that Vasili and Nadya would not get married soon.

But then Vasili came home a few days later and announced with pride, “Nadya and I are getting married! The church will announce the banns starting this Sunday in the bulletin.” 

The banns were printed for three Sundays in a row, and Nadya set the wedding for April 1918. Vasili wrote to his father to tell him the good news. Mikhal wrote back to say that Vasili had better not neglect his sister. Vasili had no intention of neglecting his sister, and resented his father, once again, giving him instructions, even from the Old Country. He could not even congratulate him. Maria convinced him to not get so angry and to let their father’s comments go.

“After all,” said Maria, “he is there and you are here.”

Vasili made the face he always did when he was annoyed at Maria for being right. “Of course you are right,” he whispered, not wanting to say it too loudly. His pride often got in the way of good judgement.

The wedding was a small affair, not like the weddings back in Čirč, when the entire village would come to celebrate. Even though Vasili and Nadya barely knew anyone yet, the entire membership of the Rusyn Club at least attended.

Nadya asked Maria to be her witness and Vasili asked Gregor to be his. Maria had seen many weddings in Čirč and loved the Byzantine ceremony. Father Andras led the celebrants down the aisle, with Vasili and Nadya, hand-in-hand, just behind them. Maria and Gregor followed. Maria thought that Nadya was more beautiful than any bride she had ever seen, and even felt a bit guilty at her behavior lately.

Nadya wore a beautiful dark blue dress with a lace overlay. She had been able to sew the dress just in time for the wedding.

 Vasili was as handsome as a prince in Maria’s childhood fairy tales. He had bought a suit he had been able to buy on payments from the local tailor.

The height of the ceremony was the Byzantine tradition of the crowning of the couple, symbolizing the union of the couple and the victory of Christ over sin and death. The priest gave the final blessing and Vasili and Maria were man and wife.

The Rusyn Club threw a grand reception in the church hall for their newest member and the vodka made certain that it was a raucous affair. All of the guests had plenty to eat and the small group of musicians played the traditional music of home, while the guest danced until they were too tired to dance anymore.  

Vasili had just finished a long dance to the song Sága krásy or Beauty Saga, when he saw Maria sitting by herself with her head down. He walked to her and said gently, “Maria, please. Nadya is a good woman. She likes you and we can all live together.”

“Nadya does not like me at all,” said Maria sharply. “She thinks I will pull you away from her, and I probably would if you could see her as I do.”

“You are just being stubborn now, Maria,” said Vasili gruffly.

“And you are not my father!” cried Maria. The tears welled up in her eyes. “I know she seems to like me, but I think it is just to keep you happy. Inside, I think she cannot wait for me to leave, and maybe I should.”

There is the one thing that could soften Vasili faster than anything. That was seeing his sister cry.

He touched her cheek and gently said, “I will make it be fine. Please, you must not think like that. We are a family now.”

Nadya saw them sitting together, and ran over to Vasili to say, “Vasili, you are forgetting our guests. She will be fine.” When Maria looked up at Nadya, she knew then that this marriage would be bad for her.

Vasili found them a larger apartment, one where Maria could have her own bedroom separate from Vasili and Nadya. Life was never easy for any of them, but for the time being, they found a way to get along.

With the three of them working, Maria and Vasili were able to pay their bills and send some money home to their father. Vasili began to write to his father every couple of weeks with money enclosed, telling his father about their life now that everything was settled. He always made sure that he included that Maria was fine and getting along well with Nadya. He was not sure that Maria or Nadya felt that way, but so he wanted to believe, and so he wanted his father to believe.

Over the next two months, Vasili did see that Maria and Nadya had begun to trust each other more. He could not say they were friends, but because neither one had pulled Vasili away from the other, they were finally at least tolerating each other.

Every Sunday at High Mass, Vasili prayed to God to help the two women in his life get along. He loved his time in church with God. At the end of a week of six intense 16-hour work days, Vasili felt like pieces of him were missing. The mill work made him feel like he was working for the Devil in Hell. The glowing, molten steel reminded him of the stories his mother told him as a child about those who displeased God by doing evil works. He could not say why, but he felt evil at the end of every week. But being here in the church seemed to cleanse him and fill him for the next week.

Maria and Nadya joined the women before every mass to pray the rosary, each on a rosary given to them by their mother. This Sunday was no different. It meant a lot to Vasili to see the two of them praying together. From his vantage point on the mens’ side, it looked as if the two of them were closer than ever.

As the cantor began the Mass, and the congregation stood for the entrance of Father Potok, Vasili saw Maria begin to sway from side to side, then fall in the pew. Father Potok continued down the aisle, seemingly oblivious to Maria’s fall.

Vasili rushed over, much to the surprise of the parishoners. He  lifted Maria in his arms and carried her to the vestibule. 

When Maria finally woke up she gave Vasili a troubled look and said, “What happened?”

Vasili, with obvious concern, said, “You fainted. I don’t know why, but I am worried about you.”

“You do not need to be afraid. I just felt dizzy and then I woke up. It is nothing.”

“I am not so sure.”

“You worry about me too much. I am 18 years old.”

“I made a promise to Father and a promise to God,” said Vasili sternly, “to look after you and protect you.”

“You have done your job, dear brother. As you can see, I am fine.”

Chapter 5 of the Gray Wolf of Carpathia

As the ship entered the New York harbor, Vasili ran to the rail with Maria and Gregor to get a view of their new home. The statue in the harbor was taller and more beautiful than anything Vasili had ever seen. And then he spied the city. Never had he seen such tall buildings and so crowded together!

Vasili looked at Gregor and asked, “How do people live in such places? How can they breathe?”

Gregor smiled and said, “These Americans seem to enjoy living on top of each other. There are no farms around here, only buildings like this.”

“This is a dream,” whispered Maria. “Even our fairy tales do not have places like this.”

Soon enough, reality intruded. The immigration agents had many questions and little patience. Immigrants knew that no matter what, they had to cooperate or be denied entry. So they endured the questions, the doctors’ examinations, the mispronunciation of their names and the new spelling of their names.

Gregor had relatives in Passaic, New Jersey, so with the last of their money, Vasili and Maria joined Gregor and his family on a train to Passaic. Gregor had directions to the American-Rusyn Political and Beneficial Club. There, Vasili and Maria could get help and a small loan to get them started. Gregor invited them to stay with his sister Katarina and her husband, Oeznik, until they could find a place of their own.

“Gregor, we cannot burden your family like that,” said Vasili. “We can find something.”

Gregor replied, “Do not insult me Vasili. You would do the same. Until you get paid, you cannot get an apartment.”

Maria added, “Vasili, we have nowhere to go. Please let us go with him.”

The apartment was not large, but Katarina and Oeznik welcomed them and made them to feel as much at home as was possible in this bewildering new world. Katarina and Oeznik did not have children yet, and Oeznik made a good living as a butcher, so they had an extra room where Gregor’s family could sleep together on a bed, and Vasili and Maria could at least sleep on the floor.   

The Rusyn Club helped Vasili get a job in the Passaic Steel Company mill as a Bottom Maker in the open hearth, and Anya helped Maria get a job in the Guenther silk factory. The three families became close friends over the next month. Anya’s children even called Vasili strýko, which means uncle.

Finally, after a month had passed, Vasili and Maria now had jobs, and they found an apartment they could afford to rent. It only had one bedroom, but they were accustomed to the entire family sleeping in one room. They were only moving a few blocks from Katarina’s apartment, but it felt like they were leaving home all over again. Gregor understood, but he promised they would see each other.

Vasili and Maria were not rich, of course, but were thrilled to be away from the farmlands of their home. They both missed their father, but at least now they were never hungry, and they knew things would get better here. The mills were filthy, and they each had the worst of the jobs that were available, but they had enough to live on and always they put aside money to send back home. The neighborhood was mostly Slovak, which made them feel more at home, and familiar foods and smells filled the markets.

Vasili’s job was back breaking and felt like he was working in Hell. As a Bottom Maker, his job was lining the ingot soaking pits with coke oxide dust after each heating. It was a filthy, and in blazing heat; Vasili would go home covered in the metallic dust and often coughing out what he had inhaled. But he knew he could never make this much money working on the farm and for the baron.

Maria, working as a runner in the silk factory, spent her day running the bobbins from the Winders to the weaving machines. The factory floor was a series of boards with constant water runoff beneath, filled with aggressive rats that Maria had learned to hate and fear on the voyage to America. Maria knew girls who had lost their balance and were bitten by the rats, a fate Maria would avoid by any means. Her Overseer, a large man with an ugly face marred by a large scar running along the side of his face from his eyebrow to his jaw, watched the girls incessantly, always yelling at them to go faster, and ogling them with leering eyes as they passed by him. Maria was lucky; some girls told stories of the Overseer pulling them into his office and threatening them unless they had sex with him. So far, he had left her alone, but Maria did her best to stay away from him.

One night, after they had finished their 12-hour shifts, Maria and Vasili sat down to the dinner that Maria had prepared. Maria sat, fork in hand, staring off into nothing.

“Maria,” said Vasili with a smile. “Where have you gone?”

“I was thinking about how beautiful the trees were back in Čirč in the summer. Here, for now it is winter, and I have these gray buildings surrounding me.”

“Yes, but think of how we have food to eat, and we can send money back to father to help with his expenses.”

“Vasili, do you remember the smell of the mountains?”

“I remember the smell of the dirt,” joked Vasili. “The smell of the pigsty and the smell of the oxen farts.”

Maria smiled, and the smile that lit up her eyes. Vasili loved to see it. His sister was beautiful and would provide a wonderful life to a lucky man. The right man.

Maria continued, “I remember when Mother took us for walks to the Poprad. We would lie on the bank and watch clouds go by.”

“While I was getting kicked by the oxen trying to hitch them to the plow!” Vasili exclaimed, laughing until he choked.

Maria never felt closer to her brother and hoped that it could stay this way forever.

One day, as Maria and Vasili were eating, Maria’s eyes welled up with tears and she put her head down, trying to hide from Vasili.

“What is it?” Vasili asked with concern.

“It is nothing—I—I saw a Weaver today. Start coughing—coughing so hard she fell on the floor. She—covered her—mouth with her hand, and when she moved her hand away, it was bloody. It was awful Vasili.”

“I have heard of this. I hope you stayed away from her.”

“Yes, I was never close to her. Why?”

“There are sicknesses you can get from these other people. Deadly sicknesses.”

“You are scaring me!” cried Maria.

“Alright, I am sorry. I just want you to be safe, that is all. That is my job, and I promised Father I would take care of you.”

“You are a good brother. I shouldn’t have shouted like that.”

“It is fine Maria, it is fine.”

One day late in May, Vasili came home very excited. “Maria!” he shouted as soon as the door was open. “You would not believe who I met today!”

Maria stood in the tiny kitchen, trying to light the wood stove.

“Who is so important that you need to shout like that?” asked Maria.

“I met Nadya Maydakova!”

Chapter 4 of the Gray Wolf of Carpathia

Chapter 4 of the Gray Wolf of Carpathia
Note to readers: Č is pronounced as a “ch,” as in “church.”

Petra burst through the door of their train car.
“Quickly, you must get off now!” Petra said, his voice straining to keep from yelling too loud. “We have been betrayed by the conductor in Car 1. If they find you here, they will arrest all of us!”
Vasili grabbed their only bag, and took Maria’s hand. He could only say “Thank you Petra” before Petra shoved them out of the opposite door from where the policemen entered the train.
“May God bless you,” was the last thing Petra could get out before closing the door.
As Vasili and Maria crept along towards the back of the train, they could hear the police yelling something at Petra. Petra’s calm voice said, “I do not understand you. I do not speak Hungarian.”
That seemed to enrage one of the policemen even more. Suddenly the door to the car from which Vasili and Maria had come was thrown open and Petra was tossed like a cheap toy to the ground. Vasili and Maria had made it to the back of the train by then and hid in the shadows.
Two gunshots broke the temporary silence, followed by a short scream by Petra. Maria let out a small squeak before Vasili placed his hand over her mouth. The policeman, with gun in hand, peered towards the back of the train.
Vasili and Maria ran as silently as they could into the surrounding forest, praying that they would not be followed. They did not emerge until they heard the train pulling away. Petra lay dead along the tracks.
Maria looked at Vasili and was nearly hysterical as she said, “What have we caused?”
Vasili, knowing that there was nothing to be done, simply said, “We can do nothing for poor Petra now. I think he knew the chance he was taking.”
Vasili looked at Petra in the dim light of the stars. “We only have our suitcase. We must try to find some food and water.”
Maria was scared and shivering. She said “Where will we find those things? We have no money.”
“We will steal what we need from the Hungarians,” replied Vasili.
“No, I cannot.”
“Do you wish to live long enough to get to the ship?”
Maria nodded.
“Then we must do whatever we must do.”
They walked along the edge of the forest for several hours, and just before dawn they spotted a farmhouse set within a cleared field. Smoke was billowing from the chimney, indicating the fire had just been lit, and lamp light glowed within.
As the approached the house, the door swung inward and a man in his nightshirt ran onto the porch. He held up his hand and yelled in a language that Vasili did not understand. He realized it was German. He dropped his bag and showed his hands to the farmer, then had Maria show her hands.
“I do not understand you,” said Vasili, “but we are hungry and thirsty,” whereupon he pointed to his mouth and his stomach.
The farmer seemed to understand what he meant. He looked from Vasili to the single bag to Maria and back. He hesitated a moment, then waved them in.
The farmer’s wife was just finishing cooking breakfast and the farmer indicated to Vasili and Maria to sit at the rough-hewn table. The fire felt good after they spent the night in the damp, cool forest. The wife put down plates and cups and served them some eggs and some sort of spicy meat. She filled their cups with water.
“I speak Hungarian,” said the farmer. He pointed to Vasili and said, “you speak Hungarian?”
Because the Hungarians had forced them to learn their language, Vasili did understand. “Yes,” he nodded.
The farmer smiled and said “Good. Now, my name is Karl and this is my wife Gertrude.”
Vasili introduced himself and Maria, and thanked them for being so kind.
Gertrude said, “What has brought you wandering through the forest like that?”
Maria began to cry, bringing the attention of Gertrude, who sat next to her and hugged her.
Vasili told their tale. When he was done, he was afraid Karl would turn them over to the authorities. Instead, Karl sat back in his chair and smiled warmly. “We understand. We have had others come through here that were trying to escape Hungary, though not many with so dramatic a tale!”
After breakfast, Karl insisted on giving them some food and water, and then on driving them in his wagon to town to catch the next Northbound train to go to Bremen. When they got to the train station, Karl went to the ticket window and bought two tickets to Bremen. He came back to the wagon and handed them to Vasili.
“This is too much,” insisted Vasili. “How can I ever repay such a debt.”
The farmer guffawed loudly and said, “There is no need to worry my new friend! I am happy to help such good people as you.”
The train had stopped, so Vasili and Maria had to say their goodbyes to Karl and Gertrude, then quickly boarded the train.
As the train got back underway. Maria and Vasili slept most of the way, exhausted from the tension of the last two days. Finally, in Bremen, they were able to use most of the rest of their money to buy their tickets to America on board the H.H. Meier.
Their money could only afford them a passage in steerage, and as they stepped down the final staircase to the lower deck, Maria could barely stand the smell and the darkness. “Please stay close to me,” she pleaded to Vasili, her eyes filling with tears. “I never knew it would be so horrid.”
“Do not worry, I am here and I will watch over you.”
The next twelve days were mostly miserable for both of them. The meals were poor, even by peasant standards. The boiled beef and salt pork often smelled rotten and were barely cooked. The black bread was soggy, the vegetables were unrecognizable. The breakfast, some kind of mushy grain, tasted like old wood. Like most of the passengers, Vasili and Maria threw a good many of their meals overboard. They were constantly hungry and thirsty, so when trays of leftover fruits were brought down from the cabin passengers, they cherished them like candy.
Five days into the voyage, Maria was seasick and homesick, and tired of chasing the rats that were constantly running over her as she tried to sleep. A large man, who had been drinking, was speaking a language she did not understand. He stumbled into her space then tried to steal her bag; the bag contained the only remaining money she had. When she resisted, the man pulled her close and ran his hands over her, whispering, in his language, “Well, then, I suppose we will have to settle this another way.” Although she did not understand his words, she knew what he intended.
As the last syllable left his wretched lips, a fist hurtled past Maria’s head and slammed into the man’s nose, which burst with blood as the man fell to the deck. Vasili grabbed Maria’s arm and pushed her behind him. The man tried to stand, but Vasili placed a kick to his head, knocking him unconscious. Vasili looked at Maria and said, “Sorry that took so long.” Maria could not speak, but clutched her mother’s rosary to her chest and prayed.
The compartment fell silent for the first time since Maria and Vasili had entered. The ship’s purser then burst out of the crowd with two sailors. He seemed about to grab Vasili when he saw Maria behind him. He looked into Vasili’s eyes, then down at the man on the deck, and he understood. At his direction, the sailors wordlessly dragged the worthless man away, and he was not seen again on the voyage.
Finally, seven days into the voyage, Vasili overheard someone speaking in Slovak. He and Maria went over and found a family that was from the same district, Stara Lubovna, as Vasili and Maria. They had relatives waiting for them in America, and because they knew that Vasili and Maria could use the help, they offered to help them get to Passaic, New Jersey where Vasili and Maria could both find jobs.
The father, Gregor Petrovich, a tall and broad man with a smile to match and a mustache that covered his mouth, grabbed Vasili by the shoulders and said, “We Rusyns are of the same stock, and we must help each other as we can.” His tiny wife Anya, who barely reached to Gregor’s chest, even offered some food from home that they had been saving.
After that meeting, they all stayed together and helped each other get through the dismal voyage by telling tales from home. Vasili knew all of the great folk tales, and kept the children entertained. Maria finally felt like this voyage might work out after all.