By late November, the Russians had maneuvered around the Austro-Hungarians, and had entrenched in the high mountains. The mountains had become impassible for horses, so Colonel Farkas ordered Vasili and his company to move the artillery and caisson up the rocky crags. The men were exhausted from lugging the artillery through the thigh-deep snow when they came to a steep icy climb.
Von Kemmel ordered Tóth to take ten men and drag the artillery to the top with ropes. Snow was blowing in with the wind, which gusted against the rocky hillside like the concussion from a cannon firing. It was difficult to see and more difficult to walk or breathe. A deep cleft in the rocks plunged away on the right.
As Vasili, Gregor, and Marik waited to learn their fate, Tóth spoke up.
He looked at von Kemmel and said, “Sir, this is suicide. The wind will blow the men over the edge before they can get to the top.”
Von Kemmel’s face turned red, always a bad sign. “This is my order! How dare you question my order! Those guns will be moved to the higher ground or I will shoot you!”
Tóth, having no way out, picked ten men, including Vasili, Gregor, and Marik, and told them to take the heavy ropes and secure the cannon and caisson.
“This is insanity. If one man makes it to the top, it will be a miracle,” said Gregor.
“And I believe God is being stingy with His miracles right now,” said Vasili.
“You shouldn’t talk like that. It will bring you bad luck,” said Gregor.
“I don’t think our luck could be worse, now could it?” answered Vasili.
“My friend, you are becoming lost. You worry me and I don’t want you to suffer for it.”
“Just leave that to God,” said Vasili with sarcasm.
“Can you two get out of church and back to the mountain, please?” said Marik.
The wind’s pitch was a very low bass, like the sound of a train that is still in the distance. Slowly, the wind’s speed increased, and its sound rose in pitch until it was howling like the mad sounds of a rabid wolf. The men could barely stand against the wind, and only remained upright because buried them up to their thighs. But the men pulled and tugged and pushed the heavy cannon with all their strength, inching along up the snow-covered hillside.
Then came the blast of wind, as if God himself had blown all the breath from his lungs at once. Vasili looked up as one man lost his grip and fell, screaming and tumbling into the abyss of mist and snow below them.
“The fool should have held on tighter,” said von Kemmel.
“This man has no heart,” whispered Vasili to Gregor. “But really, he is right.”
“What is wrong with you, Vasili?” said Gregor, shaking his head.
Tóth gave them a stern look, immediately stifling the conversation.
The wool uniforms were no match for the savage winds that gusted and swirled on the mountain. The remaining men made it to the top of the hill. Pulling the cannons along in the snow on level ground was easier, but the men’s muscles were spent and they could pull no more.
Von Kemmel finally gave the order to halt. The men fell into the snow, exhausted.
But their rest was short-lived. As the blizzard conditions lifted, the Russians spotted the gray greatcoats against the pure white snow. Machine gun fire zipped past Vasili’s ears with a zing, then thumped into the deep snow around him. There was very little cover and men were being picked off as they tried to retreat. They could neither advance or retreat without rising above ground level, which meant immediate death. So they dug through the snow to try to dredge enough of the frozen ground to give them cover. An artillery shell blasted their cannon into pieces, killing more men from shrapnel.
Vasili yelled for his friends. “Marik, Gregor, are you hit?”
Both men answered, “No.”
Darkness mercifully came soon after, allowing the men to move around enough to dig out entrenchments. Von Kemmel sent a messenger back to Colonel Farkas begging for reinforcements. But here, in the sub-freezing temperatures, anchored until help could come. Each day, the men huddled together for warmth. Each night, the men labored until exhaustion digging out more trenches.
After a week, the supplies were running low, and more men were lost to frostbite than to the Russians bullets. The snow let up, but was replaced by heavy rains, turning the trenches into quagmires. But no reinforcements were coming. After the rain, the weather turned freezing and more snow fell.
Orders came from Colonel Farkas to attack the Russian position. Von Kemmel sent Tóth to alert the men.
“Get ready to attack,” ordered Tóth.
“You mean get ready to die,” said Marik.
“You should watch what you say,” said Tóth.
“I’m sorry. I just don’t want to die today.”
“I don’t like this either, but it is our duty.” Tóth moved down the trench with the orders.
“I’d like to see Farkas up here leading the charge,” said Gregor, “that son-of-a-bitch is in front of some warm fireplace drinking vodka and sending us out to die.”
“And von Kemmel,” said Vasili, “he’s probably hiding back in the rear trench sipping on his flask.”
At dawn, the men topped the trench and began their assault. They tried to run toward the Russian lines, but the snow was up to their thighs, so the lead men had to shovel the snow and the rest followed in a column. Then the Russians spotted them and raked the column with machine gun fire.
“Retreat!” called Tóth, and what was left of the regiment staggered back to the trench.
For another three weeks, Vasili’s regiment suffered through the cold. Almost every man had frostbite, lice, or fevers. During one miserable night of freezing temperatures, Vasili stuffed any papers he could find into the lining of his greatcoat. Old maps, reports, whatever was lying around were used by the men to add insulation. As Vasili was cramming papers into his lining, he felt something in his breast pocket. He pulled out the letter he had written to Nadya when he thought he could mail it when they went to the rear. But they had never been relieved, and in the confusion, Vasili forgot the letter was in his pocket.
“My God,” wailed Vasili when he found it.
“What happened?” asked Gregor as he ran to Vasili.
“I never mailed this letter to Nadya. She will think I am dead, and it’s my fault.”
“How could it be your fault? You couldn’t mail it here on the front.”
“What does it matter? I have failed her.”
There was no consoling Vasili, and his friends just left him alone.
As the weather worsened, the men fell into despair. Night after night, the men lay huddled; the silence broken by the brief scream of a man attacked by the giant gray wolves that hunted them at night. One man became so desperate to escape the misery that he stood up and let the Russian sniper take his life.
After a week of quiet, Vasili wrote another letter.
“Marya, I will be home, and I will never leave you again. They can’t keep me here much longer.”
The Russians seemed to be done for the winter.
As Vasili pondered his next line, Gregor came around his side and, reading the first line, he said, “Soon there will be little Rusyns running around this Pennsylvania, eh? Your Nadya must have a heart of gold to wait for the likes of you.”
“I plan on getting started the day I get there,” Vasili answered with a wide grin.
As he folded the paper along with his photograph and placed them lovingly in the envelope, he heard the thud of artillery. It was a sound he had heard far too often, and a sound that was soon followed by more thuds, then the whistling of the shells and the hellish sounds of ice and rock exploding into shards all around them.
Gregor peered over the edge when Vasili heard the pop of metal and the thud of a bullet entering flesh. He hoped and prayed to God as he shoved Gregor’s shoulder, but he fell to the bottom of the trench. The bullet had hit him in the forehead.
“Keep your heads down,” ordered Tóth. “Attach bayonets and prepare to defend your line.”
The barrage stopped with a suddenness, meaning an infantry attack was coming. A freezing wind blew as another snow squall stung Vasili’s eyes, making it hard to see more than a few feet ahead. The first thing he saw of the Russians was the silver point of a Russian bayonet aimed directly at his head. He barely avoided the attack and had just brought his rifle up to fire when he felt the blow to the back of his head. At once, he collapsed in the trench as bodies began piling up around him and over him. The smell of gunpowder mixed with the smell of blood, and the zip of bullets mixed with the screams of the wounded. They never had a chance.
Vasili’s trench was taken by the company of Russians, and most of Vasili’s regiment was dead. The only officer left, von Kemmel, had offered his sword in surrender. The Russian colonel shot him. Vasili would not be going home to Marya. Instead, he knew his life now belonged to the Russians. The Russians who had never treated his people with anything but disdain. And now he was completely at their mercy. Tears clouded Vasili’s crystal blue eyes and froze on his cheeks as he thought of Nadya, and how he would never see her again. And she would never know what had happened to him.
For months he had kept his head down and obeyed orders. For months he had done everything they had ordered him to do. All for the love of Nadya and the knowledge that they would let him go home if he just did what he was told. But now, as he forced himself to stand and face his death, with his back against the icy trench wall, feeling his own blood freezing on the back of his head, he knew that this had all been wrong. Gregor was dead. All of his friends from home were dead, and now he was staring at the steel gray eyes of a Russian colonel and the blued steel barrel of a Nagant M1895 pistol. The Russians did not like to take prisoners.
Vasili’s thoughts were swirling and rushing and the Russians seemed to be moving in slow motion now. Vasili, in the space between inhaling and exhaling, saw the faces of his mother, his poor sister Maria, and all his boyhood friends. They were all dead, and one way or another Vasili felt responsible for all of them. His muscles tensed like a panther about to strike, and then he pounced.
Before the colonel could react, Vasili knocked the pistol from his hand. In an instant, he had his trench knive to the colonel’s throat and with one slice doomed the colonel. He grabbed the fallen pistol from the muddy trench floor and emptied its seven rounds into the two nearest Russian men. As the other eight men around him moved to fire, Vasili dove to the ground, scooped up the first Russian’s Fedorov Avtomat, and held the trigger down as he sprayed the 25 rounds to both sides of the trench.
When it was over, Vasili stood silently over the bloody remains of the Russian company. Their eyes were still open, as if the men would be eternally horrified at what just happened. He reached into his pouch, pulled out the rosary with its silver three-armed crucifix swinging between his fingers. Blood ran from his hand down the face of the cross and drop after drop fell to the earth, lost in the red morass that covered the trench bottom. He opened his hand and watched the rosary fall as the Russians had fallen, swift and lifeless. Vasili had no use for the rosary. He was done with God.
As Vasili climbed over the trench lip, he looked uphill from where the Russians had emerged. A lone gray wolf stood, teeth bared, not in a snarl, but, thought Vasili, in an approving grin. Vasili no longer thought of Nadya or going home. He held one man responsible for his fate—the bastard Colonel Farkas.
The wolf strutted into the forest, out of Vasili’s sight. Vasili shouldered his rifle and slithered over the edge of the trench, then stood and ran for the forest. He was utterly alone.
The remaining sounds of battle faded behind him and the silence of the forest swaddled him in peace. His boots pressed into the snow with a crunch, marring the unsullied whiteness with muddy and bloody footprints in his wake.
But Vasili felt no peace. His mind was purely reactionary, barely aware of his path—barely aware of his surroundings—and the only vision he had was through the film of the blood-soaked trench. He fell to his knees, scrubbing his hands and face with snow, leaving a patch of ugly red everywhere he touched. A low moan came from his mouth, barely audible. There are some things that cannot be washed away.
Vasili could only hear the screams of his comrades mixed with the voices of his friends from their exuberant childhood years. There would be no redemption. No one would raise them from the dead. I should have let the bastard shoot me. What do I have now, but memories of the dead that have surrounded me my whole life? I am not the protector—I am Death.
A darkness enveloped Vasili like a veil. In the distance, a wolf bayed. Vasili no longer feared when he heard the howling. It was calling to him. He was brother to the wolf.
It was time for the Russians to pay, then the Hungarians.
He waited for the sun to set so even in his gray clothing, he would be hard to see. The Russian lines were less than a mile from him. A strong wind came up, covering any sound he would make on the snow. With no moon, the night was dark. They would never see it coming.
Vasili crept toward the Russian entrenchment. When he was only a few yards from his prey, he could hear a conversation in Russian. Two distinct voices whispering in the night. Vasili crept to the edge of the trench and could make out the two talkers. Then, without warning, one of them light a match for his cigarette. Opposite him, the soldier could see the eerie site of Vasili’s hate-filled face glowing orange as it loomed over his partner.
Vasili’s trench knife covered the distance before the soldier could react. The other man tilted his head back to see where the knife had come from, but his airway was cut by the garrote Vasili had fashioned from the fence wire surrounding the Russian entrenchment. There was a slight gurgling sound as the first Russian expired, otherwise the night remained silent. Vasili took what food he could find on the soldiers, then crept away with his soul as dark as the night in which he moved.
The snow was heavily packed and was easily tunneled out for a shelter. Vasili ate some of the rations he had taken, then sat back. There is no warmth for me. I will never be warm again.
Vasili awoke, disappointed to still be alive. In his dreams he had recounted all of his sins—his mother dead because of him, his sister dead because of him, Nadya alone and scared because of him—and he survived while all of his friends died horrible deaths. And the vision of the gray wolf was always there to remind him of his lost humanity. If there was a God, He would have ended my life by now, and I would be burning in Hell.
For the next four weeks, Vasili roamed the snow-bound mountains. He waited until nightfall and pounced upon any unprotected Russian forward trenches. He would be gone before the Russians could react. Always managing to find food along with his kills, he survived on the meager Russian rations and melted snow.
As the winter miseries of snow and cold relented to the spring miseries of rain and mud, Vasili became more feral and looking like the gray wolf of his visions. Vasili camped in a low valley so his fire was not visible to either side. His beard had grown from his chin to his chest, he had not bathed in months,
He was nearing the Russian lines one night, when he heard a voice in Slovak say, “Gray Wolf, we know you are out there. The Russians are not your enemies. We are all Slavs. I am from Bratislava—the Russians treat me as a brother. Come in, they will not hurt you.”
I have heard these shouts across the lines before. Do they think I’m stupid?
Night after night Vasili heard the message. Night after night he continued his slaughter of the Russians. But one night he though about how the Hungarians had treated his family and his people as far back as any of the babushkas could remember. They taxed the Rusyns, and even in bad years they took what they could. The Hungarians had brutally murdered a friend who was helping he and Maria leave the country.
I don’t know if I can’t trust the Russians, but I do know that I can’t trust the Hungarians.
The nightly pleas continued, and more and more Vasili questioned his loyalty to the Austro-Hungarians. He had lost his best friends and maybe lost his wife thanks to them. What did he have to lose?
Their words are true. But why should I fight for anybody? I am free to do as I please.
One dark moonless night, Vasili sneaked into the Russian lines and was about to strike, when a flashlight blinded him. He realized it was a trap. Gunfire erupted, the bullets zinging past his face, one grazing his shoulder.
Vasili made it to the top of the trench and ran 50 feet with machine gun fire ripping up the soil around him, then he ran full speed into a bomb crater. When he tumbled to the bottom he realized he could not walk. His ankle would not support his weight. He was dizzy from the tumble and striking some of the boulders strewn along his path. As his eyes closed, he had another clear vision of the wolf.
“I am not a wolf!” The words exploded from Vasili’s mouth and echoed through the night.
But the wolf crept closer. The wolf was inches from Vasili’s nose when he realized someone was violently shaking him and yelling, “Gray Wolf. Wake up Gray Wolf.”
In Russian, the voice shouted, “Down here, I have him.”
Vasili’s eyes opened to see the face of a Russian-clad soldier smiling at him.
“There you are, Gray Wolf,” the man said in Slovak. “We thought you were dead.”
“Stop calling me that,” growled Vasili. “I don’t like that name.”
“But the Russians all call you that. It is a name of respect.”
“You think they respect the man that kills them?”
What name would you prefer?”
“My name is Vasili Mihalyos.”
The man said, “I am Ivan Uram, from Malcov, Šariš County. Do you know the place?”
Vasili nodded. They were from the same county. His man’s village was not far from Čirč. Vasili had heard of it from other villagers that had traveled through the county.
Ivan said, “Please Vasili, come back to the Russian lines with me.”
“Am I your prisoner?”
“They don’t want you as a prisoner. I’m telling you the truth. They want you to fight for them.”
Vasili was silent, a look of deep worry on his face.
“Are you afraid of being a traitor?” said Ivan.
Vasili pounded his fists into the churned up soil.“A traitor? Those bastards got all of my friends killed!”
“So you want revenge?”
“I want to find that bastard colonel and slit his cowardly throat.”
“Good. We can help. There is an entire regiment of Slovaks, and we are ready to break the Hungarian’s back.”
The chance for revenge was enough to convince Vasili.
Ivan helped Vasili up the crater wall and they carefully made their way back to the Russian lines.
The guards seemed agitated when Ivan and Vasili got to the trench, but let them pass when Ivan identified his partner.
Ivan brought Vasili a cup of warm broth. It was the first warm meal Vasili ate in months.
“What was the name of that colonel you hated so much?” said Ivan.
“Farkos.” Vasili’s face twisted in disgust.
A Russian officer approached and said, “Did you say Farkos?”
“I did.” Vasili’s answer was to the point. He still did not feel much of a connection with the Russians. But his face relaxed, and he smiled for the first time in many months, at the Russian’s next statement.
“I think we captured a Colonel Farkos last week.”
“He’s a dead man.” Vasili jumped to his feet so fast he forgot he could not stand on his ankle. He fell even faster into the muck of the trench bottom.
Though Vasili’s face betrayed the pain of standing, he did not yell. If Farkos was anywhere around, Vasili would not let him hear his pain. He sat up against the trench wall, his coat and pants soaked in the gooey brown liquid that ran like an open sewer through the channel cut into the the trench bottom.
“I’m afraid a friendly visit is out of the question, Vasili,” Ivan’s face showed a slight smile.
“It’s not funny.” said Vasili, the anger in his face now masking the pain.
“I’m sorry my friend.” He knew Vasili meant it. “We must get you cleaned up, then to the doctors. They must have a look at that ankle.”
“No doctors. I need to walk around. They will put me in a hospital,” Vasili said with finality.
Ivan agreed to fashion a splint and secured it to Vasili’s ankle. Ivan found an old crutch in one of the dugouts. The man had either been sent to a field hospital or he was dead. Either way, he wouldn’t need the crutch.
“Thank you. Now I must find that rat bastard Farkas,”said Vasili.
“I am telling you, they won’t let you anywhere near the man. A colonel has a lot of information. I’m betting they have already sent him to headquarters for questioning.”
Vasili’s eyes narrowed and his nostrils flared. “I want him dead.”
“You’ve made the hairs on my neck stand up. You know, you may have to just live with this.”
Vasili thought of his friends, and how their lives had been carelessly tossed away.
“I will never.” The seething anger made him look like a hungry wolf on the hunt.
Ivan found Vasili a place to rest his ankle in one of the dugouts. It had been many weeks since Vasili had a good rest, and once he laid prone, he was in a deep sleep.
His dreams were troubled. He dreamed of Nadya crying and pleading with him to stay with her. Then he saw Nadya slowly fade into the face of Maria. She asked why he took her to America to die and why he left her in the cold ground. She kept pleading with him, “Save me Vasili, it’s dark here, help me!”
The awful guilt was tearing Vasili’s soul apart.
His friends, covered in blood, and full of bullet wounds, now circled him. As one they chanted, “God has forsaken you Vasili.”
Vasili had long ago stopped believing in God, and yet, this hateful chant from his best friends brought overwhelming despair. Was he wrong? Was Satan tormenting him?
At the end, the circle parted and he faced his mother. She was gaunt with wide eyes. Her voice hoarse with sadness and anger. “I died so you could live, and this is how you repay my kindness, by murder.”
Vasili followed her pointing hand to the prone body of Colonel Farkas, blood pumping from the slit in his neck that nearly decapitated him.
Vasili wanted to run, to scream, but he couldn’t move. He could only stand still and listen to the accounting of his sins. Then the gray wolf appeared, crouching, moving without sound, nearer and nearer to him, with saliva dripping from his white fangs.
Vasili woke with a start and sat straight up. A stupid nightmare. This means nothing. Farkas will pay for his crimes. I will see to it.
Soon the lice started to crawl and make him itch, and the smell of gangrened flesh penetrated his nostrils, and brought him back to reality.
He grabbed his crutch and set about exploring the trenches. He was hoping to find out where the prisoners were being kept. The Russian trenches were almost exact copies of the Hungarian trenches. Parallel trenches with perpendicular communication trenches cut between them.
The Russians along each trench became silent as he passed. The disdain was clear from their expressions and whispers. They obviously knew who he was, and what he had done. Vasili’s hair and beard marked him as the wild man they had named the Gray Ghost. One of the Russians stuck out a foot and tripped Vasili so that he fell to the trench bottom. In broken Slovak, the Russian said, “Why don’t you go back to the woods, murdering bastard!” He spit on Vasili. “To me, you look more like a puppy than a gray wolf.”
Vasili knew he couldn’t win a fight here. Vasili could feel the darkness of uncontrollable anger closing in when Ivan appeared in the trench.
“Vasili, my friend! Come with me.” He helped Vasili up and led him to the rear trenches leaving the grumbling Russians behind.
“It think you need an escort,” said Ivan, once they were away from the Russians.
“I need a gun.” Vasili was not joking.
“They will come around. Remember, you killed a lot of their friends. It is only because of the promise of our Colonel Hrinko that they have been ordered to leave you be, so you can kill Hungarians instead of Russians.”
“And the first Hungarian to die will be Farkas.”
“You really have a one-track mind, don’t you?” said Ivan.
Vasili remembered the Colonel arriving after battles to brag about his brilliance. But his orderlies spoke about his lavish lifestyle. The drinking, the women.
“That monster sat back in the headquarters with fireplaces and servants, feasting and drinking, and ordering us to our deaths. The least I can do is avenge my friends.”
“I have asked around,” said Ivan, “I’m afraid they have moved your colonel to our headquarters.”
“You can’t just do whatever you want now. First of all, they would smell you coming from five miles away. I’m taking you to the headquarters to get cleaned up. Watching you scratch your lice has made my skin crawl.”
Ivan helped Vasili climb out of the last rear trench and into the headquarters camp.
“You can go back,” said Vasili. “I’m better off alone.”
“Alone to get yourself killed? Maybe that’s your wish, but that’s not what I was told to do,” said Ivan.
“I survived for two years on my own, I don’t need a keeper.”
Ivan smiled. “First of all, you smell like you need a horse groomer, but mostly, I was ordered to stay with you and keep you out of trouble. Also, to see you get what you need.”
Vasili grabbed Ivan by the collar and shoved him against a fence. “I need to know how to get to
Farkas. I think you know where he is.”
Ivan’s face never showed any fear. “Vasili, I am a peasant like you. Do you think the general’s ask me to help out and tell me their secrets?”
Vasili released Ivan and stared at the ground. “Fine.”
Ivan led him toward the medical tent. Vasili spent the time memorizing the camp layout and watching the Russian soldiers. He realized very quickly, in spite of what he had heard, that the Russian soldiers, equipment, and camps were really no different than the Hungarian side.
These men were not supernatural. They looked tired and hungry. They were peasants like him. They were not the embodiment of Satan on Earth. He could see many of their rifles were in terrible states of disrepair. It appeared the Russians were not fond of equipment maintenance. Vasili was not sure why he had once been so afraid of these men.
As they approached the medical area, Vasili’s constant shoulder shrugging indicated lice infestation. The nurses stripped off all of his clothes and burned them, and sent him to soak in a tub of hot water. His skin had small red bite marks over his entire body.
After Vasili had dried off, Ivan brought him a fresh Russian uniform.
“I don’t feel right with this uniform on.” Vasili had finished all of the buttons and was staring at the Russian eagles on his shoulder patch.
“You can take it off, but you will be naked. Your old uniform is nothing but ashes. Besides, this will keep you from being shot or imprisoned, unless of course you continue to pick fights with the other soldiers.” Ivan gave Vasili a wide grin.
“I had a friend that liked to joke all the time,” said Vasili.
“What became of him?”
Ivan cleared his throat and said, “I think it’s time to visit the barber.”
Ivan escorted Vasili to the barber, where his beard was cut off and his hair trimmed in the Russian military style.
Ivan said, “The Gray Wolf is gone, and Vasili has returned.”
Vasili faced Ivan with an icy stare. In a menacing tone he said, “The Gray Wolf will never be gone. He will torment me until one day he decides to stop playing with me eat me.”
Ivan shook his head. “You are a strange one Vasili. And very scary.”
After Vasili was cleaned up and in a Russian uniform, he looked Russian enough that most of the soldiers payed him no mind. This was exactly as Vasili had hoped. It could give him cover until he discovered the whereabouts of Farkas.
Vasili knew very little of the Russian language, but there were enough similarities that he could get the general gist of the soldiers’ conversations. He seemed distant and sullen because he rarely spoke when eating in the mess tent, and was annoyed when Ivan spoke to him. The truth was, he was listening for any rumors about where Farkas might be.
As his ankle healed, Vasili was able to get around camp. After a few days, he spotted the fenced-in area where the prisoners were kept. He knew the officers would be there, but in a building instead of a tent. Now he only needed a way to get in. He knew that if he could sneak in with his old uniform, he would appear to be a prisoner long enough to carry out his mission. But his uniform was burned.
Vasili returned to his tent and found a very disturbed Ivan waiting for him.
“Vasili, this camp is not that big. People have noticed you wandering around. I know what you are thinking, but you need to stop and think.”
Vasili feigned surprise. “Just exercising my ankle so it heals. Anyway, I saw the guards. How dumb do you think I am?”
“Revenge makes an idiot out of men. I have seen a lot of men die while trying to get revenge.”
“There is a difference between revenge and justice,” said Vasili.
“Sometimes revenge clouds justice.” Ivan sat back, obviously satisfied with his argument.
“But,” said Vasili, “I don’t care.”
“By the way,” said Ivan, “one of the medical staff found this in your uniform right before he burned it. He thought you might want it.”
Ivan handed the dirt-covered, sweat-stained, and half-torn envelope to Vasili. It was his unsent letter to Nadya. The anguish in Vasili’s face projected the torment in Vasili’s soul.
“This means a lot to you, I see.” Said Ivan, his eyes averted to the ground. “I’m sorry if it brings you so much grief. There’s much more to you than I thought.”
For once, Vasili dropped the wall he had built up and told Ivan all that had happened to him. As he spoke, he tenderly laid his fingers on the envelope as if it gave him direct contact with Nadya’s hand. He ended his story with “Though much is my fault, Farkas still must pay for his sins.”
When Vasili was finished, Ivan said, Will making Farkas pay for his sins absolve the sins you think you’ve committed?”
“It will change nothing for me. I’m doomed to live with my sins. I will not be forgiven for any of it. I know that now.”
“Maybe if you ask God’s forgiv—
“No, he’s forsaken all of us. Look around you. I don’t want His forgiveness.”
“Have you no hope?”
“What hope? Hope that I will see Nadya again? Hope that I will live through this? Hope that God will come down from heaven and put a stop to this slaughter? I don’t have hope for any of these things.”
“You can’t keep carrying these things inside you. They will destroy you, and what good will you be to yourself or to anybody then?”
“None,” admitted Vasili. But inside, he had not changed his mind.
When night came, Vasili sneaked out of the tent when he heard snores coming from Ivan’s cot. He quietly found his way to the medical tent, and by the light of the moon, found several Hungarian uniforms that had not yet been burned. He bundled a uniform under his arm and went back to check on Ivan. He was still out.
Vasili changed into the Hungarian uniform, hoping the smell alone didn’t wake Ivan, and again he sneaked out of the tent. The Russians had gotten very lax in their security, and Vasili took advantage of it.
During his earlier walk, he had noticed a weak point in the barbed wire fencing. He was able to lift the wire and crawl on his back into the enclosure. He ran to the officer’s building and tried the doorknob. Luckily, it was not locked. He pushed softly. The loud creaking made him stop. He pushed again, more gently, to open the door more slowly. He held his breath as the gap was far enough for him to squeeze through.
Several officers were sleeping in the room, but none of them was Farkas. Vasili spotted a door at the back of the room and knew that Farkas must be there. If not, there was no doubt he would be dead before sunrise. He would probably not make it out alive in any case, he thought, so he might as well go forward.
Another door to creak open. Vasili’s patience was waning as his pulse increased, and his anticipation was building. He held the doorknob to keep the latch from hitting the doorframe plate, then released it very slowly.
He crept forward as slow as his the blood pulsing in his forehead would allow. In the bed lay Farkas.
He was there, sleeping, with a smile on his stinking face, as if he had no care in the world. Vasili’s knife was at Farkas’s neck in a flash when Farkas opened his eyes. He stopped short of crying out when Vasili covered his mouth and pressed the blade slightly into Farkas’s neck.
“Please, kill me,” whispered Farkas through Vasili’s hand.
“Just do it.” Farkas put his hand on Vasili’s knife and began to push it into his neck. Several drops of blood appeared and ran down his neck.
Vasili was frozen in disbelief. He had expected to kill Farkas in silence and be on his way. At the least, he thought Farkas such a coward he would beg for his life, weeping like a child. But never did he think Farkas would want to die.
“What are you doing?” Vasili’s anger was replaced by amazement.
“I’ve seen enough.” Farkas’s hand was shaking now. “I wanted the Germans to make me an officer. I wanted to be important. I am an embarrassment to my family. I can’t be a prisoner. I must die.”
“Until this moment, that was all I wanted,” said Vasili.
“Then make us both happy.”
“First I want you to know that because of you, all of my friends are dead. Because you were such a son-of-a-bitch.”
“What unit are you from?”
“The 52nd Mountain Regiment.”
Farkas removed his hand from the knife blade, while Vasili’s shoulder muscles tensed in anticipation of drawing the knife across Farkas’s neck.
Farkas, nearly in tears, said, “Those poor souls. I tried to tell the generals that things would go badly on that front. I tried to tell them, but they wouldn’t listen to me. ‘Follow your orders,’ was their answer. You must believe me. I never wanted to stay out in the open like that. I knew better, but those bumbling fools would not listen to me.”
Vasili’s muscles relaxed a bit as he tried to process this new information.
“It seems to me that you were trying to show off to your superiors, and we paid the price while you drank wine,” said Vasili.
“No, you have it all wrong, my boy. I was at the front, just at a different position. What is your name?”
“Vasili. Only so you know who ended you. I am done talking.”
The door burst open and three Russian guards burst into the room, their polished bayonets reflecting the dim light that filtered in from the doorway. They were pointed at Vasili’s chest.
“It looks like the end for you, Vasili,” said Farkas, the hint of a smile curling the ends of his mouth.
Vasili hesitated, then threw down the knife at the feet of one of the guards.
They grabbed him, yelling orders in Russian. This was the end.
Farkas smirked. “You farm boys are pitiful. You believe anything anybody tells you. Your regiment was filled with cowards. That’s why they died.”
Vasili lunged at Farkas, but the guards yanked his arms and finally tackled him.
The guards lifted Vasili after several kicks to his head and ribs, dragged him out of the building, and threw him in the dirt. While two of them stood over him, one walked towards the commandant’s building.
One of the Russians, in broken Hungarian, said, “You stupid Magyar. He would have been killed anyway. Now, you will join him.”
“I’m not a Magyar, fool! I’m a Rusyn and that bastard got my friends killed.”
“Hah! What do I care about that?” the Russian taunted Vasili.
Out of the darkness, artillery shells suddenly whistled around the camp. Explosions, shrapnel, and plumes of dirt filled the air. A shell exploded near Vasili, but he was low to the ground. The two Russian guards were not so lucky, and Vasili realized he had pieces of them covering his body.
Out of the confusion and cacophony of artillery, rifle fire, screaming and yelling, Ivan, with his hand extended, appeared above Vasili.
“Get up, you fool. I knew I’d find you here,” yelled Ivan.
Vasili took his hand and staggered to his feet.
“What is happening?” Vasili could not remember the last few minutes.
“The Hungarians are attacking. This is our only chance to get out of here. If you wait, you’ll be shot when this is over.”
“I didn’t think you wanted out so bad,” said Vasili.
“When they shoot you, who do you think they will come for next but the man they assigned to watch you?”
Ivan put his shoulder under Vasili’s arm and quickly led him out of the prisoner compound. He feigned they were headed for the hospital, but then veered away to their tent to pick up rifles and ammunition.
As the confusion from the attack intensified, Ivan led Vasili out of the camp and into the darkness. They walked until the sound of the fighting was a distant rumble. Vasili gained his senses and was able to steady himself when they finally sat.
Ivan yelled, “What the hell were you thinking?”
Vasili, surprised by Ivan’s sudden fury, looked at the ground and said, “I know, it was a stupid idea. But he was in my reach. I had to try.”
“This time the Hungarians saved your life,” said Ivan.
“True, but that pig still lives—I have not had my revenge.”
“I think you’ll have to get your revenge some other way. Or maybe you should just go home.”
“My home is in America.” Vasili’s voice softened. “Where I hope my Nadya is still waiting for me.” Vasili reached into his breast pocket and tenderly removed Nadya’s letter. “I may never get there.”
“Please tell me you’re not thinking–” began Ivan.
“I don’t see why not.” Vasili paused, then a large grin brightened his face and he laughed.
Ivan punched Vasili in the arm as he caught on. “That’s not funny. I thought I was going to have to tie you up.”
Vasili stopped laughing. “But now, we have to survive. Let’s raid the Hungarians while they celebrate this victory.”
“So that I will be shot as an enemy and you as a traitor,” said Ivan.
“These uniforms don’t matter. We can sneak in and out, and if we have to take care of a few Hungarians that get in our way, even better.”
“Vasili, I’m glad I’m with you. I wouldn’t want to be on your bad side. Or is everybody on your bad side?”
“Well, I don’t have a good side. I’m evil.”
After looking at Vasili for a few silent moments, Ivan said, “Let’s get into the cover of the forest for the night. Maybe we can build a fire.”
For a week, Vasili and Ivan made their way toward the Hungarian lines. Both were skilled hunters, and had enough ammunition to hunt food for the week. During their meal one evening, Vasili was particularly sullen.
Ivan said, “Vasili, you are in the worst mood I have seen you in, and that is saying something.”
A grimace fell like a shadow on Vasili’s face. “I don’t want this life anymore. It’s been three years and I only want to go home. But I know when I get there, Nadya may never forgive me. In fact, I may never forgive myself.”
Ivan said, “You can always be forgiven, Vasili. If you are truly sorry for any sins. But you told me your story, and I can’t find fault with anything you have done.”
“Hah! You should talk to my father. He would set you straight on that.”
“I don’t need to hear from your father. I think he is just being stubborn. It seems like he still wants to grieve for you mother and now your sister. But sometimes, for men like that, it is easier to be angry than to grieve.”
Vasili thought about Ivan’s words. Though they made sense, he wasn’t sure he could believe them.
“You’re a very wise man, Ivan. I never thought about him that way,” said Vasili.
“I think if you could understand that, and forgive your father, maybe you could understand yourself, and forgive yourself,” said Ivan.
Vasili pondered Ivan’s words for quite a while, and at last he thought he understood.
Vasili finally spoke. “Thanks for trying to help me. This won’t be easy, but you know, I’m beginning to think I made the right decisions. Even if God has forsaken me, but I can’t forsake myself.” Vasili grinned, and felt a little more free.
Vasili said, “In the morning, let’s make our way back to the Hungarian lines and see if we can get across.”
Ivan said, “Excellent!”
Just before dawn, Vasili and Ivan crept out of the forest and carefully made their way toward the Russian front line. They were hoping to sneak by in the pre-dawn darkness. What they found when they got to the line was a whirlwind of activity. Officers yelling orders, men loading their rifles, sergeants checking each man’s equipment.
Vasili and Ivan snuck up a hill just behind the front line.
Vasili whispered, “Christ, they are going to attack.”
Ivan said, “I thought they might counter-attack, but I figured they would have done it already.”
Vasili looked over the hill and said, “You know, this could work to our advantage.”
Vasili pointed to the right side of the Russian line. “When they start the attack, do you think they are going to notice a couple of extra soldiers?”
Ivan looked worried. “But look at you. You still have that Hungarian uniform.”
“It’s gray, and not that different. They’ll be trying to avoid the bullets. Who the hell has time to look at a uniform.”
Ivan finally agreed, and they waited for the whistle to indicate the start of the attack
As the sun cleared the surrounding mountains, the trench below was fillied with an ominous red glow. The Russians leaned into the front wall of the trench, awaiting the order to go over the top.
Vasili could feel the anxiety in his chest. His heart felt as if it was rolling over and his stomach was queasy. It was always this way. Vasili could see the apprehension in Ivan’s face. “You look like you need the latrine.”
Ivan laughed. “And you look like a constipated cow.”
They both sighed, happy to have even a little relief from the anticipation of battle.
From down in the trench, a whistle blared, and the men jumped onto the firing step and out of the trench. Machine gun fire from the Hungarian trenches cut down almost every other man, but Vasili and Ivan managed to evade the slaughter while blending into the reckless violence . They crawled to one of the forward listening post trenches, which did not seem to be defended. While the sounds of battle raged and bullets kicked up small geysers of dirt all around them, the two peered over the edge, fearful that a bayonet or rifle muzzle was waiting for the on the other side. They were surprised to find a trench with five dead Hungarians. Their commanders obviously did not know all of the men here had been killed, and so they had not sent replacements.
Vasili and Ivan crept toward the main trench, keeping low and crawling over the dead, bloated bodies when necessary. From the sounds of cheering, it seemed to Vasili that the Russians had taken most of the trenches. But as he and Ivan neared a corner, they heard whispering and the sound of a rifle bolt.
Without hesitation, Vasili charged around the corner, his rifle spewing bullets as fast as he could recharge the chamber. One Hungarian lay on his back, a bullet having penetrated his skull. The other was face down in the bottom of the trench, and was still breathing, but just barely. Ivan brought his rifle upward with his bayonet above the wounded man, but Vasili stopped him before he could finish the job.
“I cannot kill a man like this without at least facing him,” said Vasili.
Ivan sighed and relaxed his stance. “Now you have rules for war.”
Vasili roughly grabbed the man’s shoulder and flipped him onto his back. With a look of horror on his face, Vasili fell back against the outer wall of the trench. He began to sob uncontrollably.
Ivan sounded stunned. “What has happened to you!”
Vasili then kneeled next to the wounded man and cradled the man’s head with his hands. He could not speak.
The wounded man’s eyes opened enough that Vasili could see the the blue eyes within the sockets that were now oozing blood, as were his nostrils. “Vasili, I would never have thought you would be my death.”
“Gregor!” was the only word that came from Vasili’s mouth.
The pounding of the shells and the desperate screams opposing forces seemed to disappear for Vasili. He knelt in the mud next to Gregor, and cradled him in his arms. He pulled Gregor’s face close enough to his face that he could smell the iron scent of the blood oozing from Gregor’s mouth. He put his hand to the exit wound on Gregor’s chest. He knew it was hopeless.
Gregor’s words were a whisper, and gurgled with a death rattle. “You’re my friend. You always stood by me.” Gregor smiled. “I suppose I would rather you do it than some Russian bastard.”
Vasili’s breaths were short and rapid as he said, “I didn’t know. I’m sorry Gregor, I’m so sorry. Please forgive me this terrible sin. How can I live with this?”
Gregor’s lips moved, but no sound emerged. His stare became fixed, and held Vasili’s tear-blurred eyes. Then he exhaled in a last, long sigh. He was gone.
Ivan bent down and put his arm around Vasili’s shoulder. “You had no way to know this man was here, but I know how you feel.”
Vasili pushed Ivan’s arm away and shoved him hard enough to put him on his back in the mud.
“You have no idea how I feel! Have you ever murdered one of your friends?” He hugged Gregor and kissed his cheek.
“Vasili, this is not murder. Many bad things happen in war. You can’t hate yourself for this. We have to go!”
“No! I can’t leave him in this mud for a coffin. He doesn’t deserve to lie like a dead rat in the trench.”
“Neither do you,” said Ivan. “But if we don’t leave, you’ll be joining your friend in heaven very soon.”
Without taking his eyes off Gregor, Vasili said, “I don’t care. After this, why should I care. Besides, it won’t be heaven for me.”
“Vasili.” Ivan squatted down to be on eye level with Vasili. “Remember that letter in your pocket. Of course you should care. You must return to Nadya, or have you forgotten her?”
Vasili titled his head back and howled in rage. “This is my torment—this is my hell! There can be no worse punishment for me.”
The sounds of the battle were slowly returning to Vasili’s ears. The haze of burnt gunpowder, smelling of rotten eggs and copper, burned in Vasili’s nostrils. It seemed to bring him back like a whiff of ammonia to someone who has fainted.
Vasili was resolute. “We can’t leave him here like an animal. I won’t leave him here.”
Ivan spoke softly. “Vasili, we must leave. We can’t stay here any longer. No matter who finds us, we’ll be shot. What good will that do anyone?”
Vasili’s tears fell and mixed with the blood running across Gregor’s face, leaving rivulets of flesh colors amidst the blood. “I grew up with this man. We played together and worked together.”
“I know. I can see it in your face. But would he want you to die here?” asked Ivan.
Bullets suddenly zipped around them and thudded into the trench wall, throwing up small showers of earth.
Vasili realized that they must leave or die. “Goodbye my friend.”
They ducked down into the trench and quickly ran to one of the supply stores. They jammed what they could into their knapsacks and with one step, leaped from the firing step and ran for the woods. The zip of bullets and the thump of rounds clashing with the trees surrounded them like a hailstorm. They ran until they were exhausted, then fell on their backs below the banks of a small stream. They listened a long time for the sounds of footsteps in the dead leaves and twigs, but they only heard the whispering rush of the creek’s water as it made its way over the rocky bottom.
After they both had drunk and filled their canteens, Ivan said, “Are you hungry?”
“How could I be hungry after that?” said Vasili. “Besides, we have to keep moving. If we get spotted, we will be dead.”
“I suppose you’re right,” said Ivan. “Let’s go until nightfall.”
When the rain started, the thick floor of dead leaves made the path slippery and mushy. The earthy smell of rotting leaves rose up around them, but the fresh rain kept it at a tolerable level. But as the rain got heavier and the sun got lower, Vasili and Ivan got colder.
“Now we have to stop,” said Ivan.
“I don’t want to stop, “ said Vasili.
“You can’t run away from today, said Ivan. “No matter how far you go, you will not be far enough. We have to stop and eat.”
“Are you going to lecture me again?” Vasili had enough scolding for one day, but he knew Ivan was right. They had to stop.
When Ivan did not answer, Vasili said, “Fine, we’ll stop here.”
There were some boulders laying around the area and they each found one to sit on. The rain had lessened, but now they shivered.
“We need to find some dry wood,” said Vasili.
“That should be easy.” Ivan’s sarcasm did not go unnoticed.
Vasili laughed and said, “Sometimes even you are funny.”
Neither had noticed at first, but Ivan stood up and pointed across the nearby clearing. There stood a small cabin that was perhaps a hunting cabin for some rich Hungarians, or maybe the family heard the shooting in the distance and went to hide in the hills. In either case, we have shelter!”
The door was open so Ivan pushed it quickly and aimed his gun inside. The odor gave away the state of the occupant. A dead Russian lay awkwardly on the floor. His blood stained the wood around him.
Ivan said, “Judging by the color of his blood, I’d say he’s been here quite a while.”
“Judging by the smell, I don’t need to see the blood,” said Vasili.
Together, they hauled the man out of the cabin.
“We need to bury him,” said Vasili.
“Do you think he deserves it?” said Ivan.
“If we don’t, we’ll soon have wolves surrounding us. I can’t believe they haven’t been here already.”
Ivan searched the back of the cabin and found an old shovel.
Vasili, searching around the cabin, said, “This must have been a garden, it will make the digging a bit easier.”
The smell of the moist dirt was a welcome memory of Vasili’s old life as a farmer. For a minute, he closed his eyes and saw his home, felt the sun burning on his skin, smelled the hay put out for the animals.
Ivan spotted him in his reverie. “Where are you?”
“Back at the farm,” said Vasili, his smile now gone as other, less pleasant memories, began to intrude.
“The wolves shouldn’t bother with him now,” said Ivan. “Let’s get inside and get a fire going in that big, beautiful fireplace.”
The smell of the blazing fire finally swept the house clean of the odor of death. Vasili and Ivan opened the packs they stuffed so quickly in the trench, and were delighted at the canned meats they had.
“I haven’t had a warm meal in days,” said Ivan.
“I’m not hungry.” Vasili had suddenly become very melancholy.
“Starving will not make you feel better,” said Ivan.
“Leave it. You’re not my mother. I will eat when I want to eat.”
“You’re acting like a child, Vasili.”
Vasili stood up and took a stance as if to attack Ivan. He stood still for minutes, glaring at Ivan.
Finally, in a soft voice, Vasili said, “You’re right, of course.” He sat back down, opened a can of meat with his bayonet, then used the hooked bayonet guard to place the can in the fire. After a few minutes, he retrieved the can and tasted the meat.
“This tastes like dog shit,” Vasili complained.
“You didn’t read the label, did you?” said Ivan. “It clearly said ‘dog shit.’”
Vasili laughed loudly in spite of himself. “You have brought me back again, my friend.”
Ivan searched the cabinets and made a happy discovery. “Vasili! Vodka!”
“I’m in no mood for drinking,” said Vasili.
“Come on, we will drink to the friends we have lost in this stupid war,” said Ivan.
They drank to all of their friends, to their loved ones, to each other. As the night continued, Vasili and Ivan relaxed and their conversations came easy.
Vasili felt nostalgic after saying his friends’ names. “Once, when I was 12 years old, I went off and was swimming naked in the lake near the village. I had been working and sweating and just wanted to cool off. Gregor and Alexey saw me there, stole my clothes, and carried them back to the village.” The memory made Vasili smile. “I had to walk back to my house naked as a newborn. The babas were outraged. One of them chased me down the street, hitting me with her broom as she yelled, ‘Devil spawn!’”
Ivan said, “Well sure, the old ladies, what about the young ones?”
“They chased me for another reason!” Vasili wiggled his eyebrows and both Vasili and Ivan fell on their sides laughing. The vodka was affecting them.
Vasili got serious and said, “But I would do anything to have them back. I could not protect them like I couldn’t protect Maria.”
Ivan said, “I know that you think all of these bad things are your fault. But that is not true.”
Vasili’s eyes met Ivan’s. “How do you know that. Has God spoken to you lately?”
“God doesn’t have to tell me things I know about.”
“And what do you know about me?”
Ivan paused before answering, “Vasili, I used to be a priest.”
Vasili looked up, surprised at the revelation. “A priest, what—”
“Let me finish,” said Ivan. “My mother always wanted me to be a priest. I had no desire for it, but she fooled me into thinking it was my best path. I had a parish. I had a wife. I was never happy, but I tried to do what I thought God sent me to do.”
Vasili said, “This sounds like a good deal to me.”
“Wait,” said Ivan. “A disease hit the village. We could not stop it. I spent day and night kneeling in prayer, but it did no good.”
Vasili interrupted, “Of course not—”
“But the villagers blamed me. They said I wasn’t a good enough priest. They said if I was a good priest God would listen to me. The entire village was convinced that I had done something terrible in my life for God to abandon me and them. They burned my house, and my wife died in the fire.”
Ivan paused as tears ran down his cheeks and pattered on the floor. “I blamed myself, Vasili. I thought they were right—I was not a good priest. The disease, the fire, my wife’s death. I blamed myself.”
Vasili remained silent, his eyes moving slowly from Ivan to the fire.
Ivan continued, “I left the Church. I renounced my priesthood and I ran to the army for solace. But I didn’t find it there, nor in the taking of men’s lives. It wasn’t until I was injured and talked to one of the doctors that I found out about cholera. It was cholera that ravaged the village, not God, and certainly not me. It was the villagers that killed my wife, not me. Vasili, we are not responsible for everything and everyone around us. Terrible things can happen, terrible decisions can be made, and you can’t control that. You are not at fault for diseases, wars, or starvation. When you carry that on yourself, it traps you in a void.”
Vasili said nothing for several minutes, his head bowed. He spoke in a quiet voice when he said, “I don’t know what I should think now. There is something inside me that has taken over, and I am afraid that even if I wasn’t responsible for my mother, my sister, or my friends, what I did in the wilds was too terrible to forgive.”
“That is the void,” said Ivan. “Those things, in the wilds, were your only release. The only way you could avoid being crushed.”
Vasili said, “I don’t know if it is the vodka or the new thoughts you’ve given me, but I am dizzy and need to go to bed.”
There was enough firewood to last the night, so the two weary soldiers banked the coals, added a few more logs, and laid on the floor in front of the crackling fire. The soothing warmth of the fire, and the smell of burning wood lulled Vasili to sleep as he thought of happier days in his home.
But after he fell asleep, Vasili was tormented, hearing the distant wolves and feeling the penetrating dark golden eyes staring at him with the same shaming stare that his father would use.
It seemed that his chest was being crushed, he imagined that he couldn’t breathe and couldn’t call out for help. The wolf had his father’s face, his growl the sound of his father blaming Vasili for his mother, his sister, and even for his friends. But then Vasili thought, Ivan is right. This guilt has blackened my soul, and it feels like a hole I can’t fill. But I didn’t dig this hole, and it’s not mine to fill.
Just before dawn, he woke, went to the door, and cracked it open. He saw the gray wolf in the tree line.
“I am no longer yours to punish,” Vasili said.
The wolf laid down for a moment, then stood and howled so loud that Ivan woke up.
“Vasili, what the hell are you doing?” Ivan yelled.
“I’m talking to my father,” said Vasili, as he watched the wolf slink away into the woods.
A large smile lit up Vasili’s face, his bearing seemed as if he was weightless and could float to the ceiling at any moment.
“What does that mean? Your father is in Čirč.”
“It means I know what I have to do.”