Then, remembering what Baba Yaga had said, Andrei undid his breeches and displayed his backside to the Tartars. So offensive was the sight, they chased Andrei. He ran over fields and through forests. He crossed streams and climbed mountains. He ran through swamps and over deserts. But every time he looked over his shoulder, the Tartars were behind him.
When he had crossed thrice nine kingdoms, Andrei came upon the hole in the ground. He could hear the Tartars’ hoof beats behind him, so he leapt into the hole. When he landed, he ran again, only not so far this time. Finally, he found Baba Yaga’s hut. It stood on a pair of enormous chicken legs, and surrounding it was a fence made of human leg bones.
“Little hut, little hut,” cried Andrei. “Stand the old way with your back to the forest and your front to me.”
The legs turned until the hut’s entrance was facing Andrei. The Tartars’ horses thundered down the path to the hut. Baba Yaga’s face appeared in the doorway.
She looked hungry.
Ivan awoke when the screaming started from the German barracks. He sat up in his bunk, breathing hard, as if he had just surfaced out of water and not sleep. He sat for a minute, cold blood pumping through his veins.
There was nothing left to do now but wait for the guards to come. It wouldn’t take long for them to figure out that every soldier who was affected had had the stew at mess that night. From there, it was easy to find out who made the stew. And then it was a short walk over to the prisoners’ barracks.
Some of Ivan’s camp mates stirred, and he could see their eyes glistening in the dark. They turned to him, as if they knew he was responsible for the commotion. Ivan could sense the hostility in their stares. Most of them were just trying to survive. The Gestapo had standing orders to kill one hundred Russians for every German who died at the hands of the resistance. A lot of Germans would die tonight, probably horribly. Who knew what those mushrooms would do? Surely, even the SS wouldn’t kill so many Russians?
His hand trembling, Ivan reached down to the foot of his mattress and eased a half-empty bottle of vodka out of the stuffing. He pulled out the cork and took a swig. The eyes followed his movements, but he didn’t care. He wouldn’t be needing the liquor again, and the small amount of comfort it would provide them might make them think a little more kindly of him. Ivan toasted that thought and took a large gulp, consuming half the remaining contents.
Then he pushed the cork back in. The eyes followed his motions as he found the rip in the mattress ticking and stuffed the bottle back in. Enjoy it, he thought. Whatever joy anyone could scrape out of this life, they were welcome to, as far as he was concerned. He himself had found precious little.
I was born in a bad place, he thought. In the Middle Ages, the serfs here had suffered much under the Princes of Kiev and their Landlord representatives. When the Mongol yoke descended upon the rest of Russia, this one small area, not more than seventy square miles, had successfully resisted. The Mongols had sent in one army. It never returned, and they didn’t try again. But that had only been a brief respite, a two hundred-year interlude of relative freedom, and even then the area had been terrorized by bands of brigands. After the Mongols left, the Muscovites came and the serfs suffered even more than under the Kievans.
The voices outside were getting closer now. The vodka allowed Ivan to put on a façade of calm, but inside he could feel it cracking. His guts quivered, and he wondered if he could even stand up straight.
Suddenly there were boot steps in the barracks, and shouts of “Achtung!”
Ivan lay back in his bunk and pretended to have just been awakened by the noise, though fear kept him from closing his eyes. When an iron hand grabbed him by the arm and pulled him out of his bunk, it took very little effort to feign innocent indignation and take a swing at one of the guards. A baton raised and came down with a crack on Ivan’s head, opening a cut over his eye.
“I have done nothing!” he shouted. He swung wildly again, but his hand hit one of the guard’s helmets. Ivan cried out as his finger radiated pain. He tried to bend over but they grabbed both his arms and force-marched him out of the barracks and into the cold night. They dragged him across the yard toward a two-story dacha with a steep roof and a cellar.
Having seen partisans walk into this building before — and, more importantly, be carried back out again — Ivan’s fear exploded into panic. He started to struggle again, but his arms were held too tightly to escape, and his knees were too weak to dig in his heels effectively. If the guards even noticed his resistance, they gave no sign.
They burst through the front door of the dacha. Gaslights burned dimly in the hall. The screaming was louder inside and it echoed off the plaster walls. Several soldiers stood in the hallway.
They gave Ivan hard looks as he was dragged past them.
A doorway near the end of the hall opened and a German in a medical uniform stepped out. The man spotted Ivan and stared at him. There were no powerful emotions in the stare, only grim resignation, which Ivan found harder to bear than the outright hostility of the soldiers. As they shouldered him past the open door, Ivan turned his head and looked inside.
And immediately wished he hadn’t.
He only caught a glimpse, but that was enough to show him how horribly effective the mushrooms had been. The room was some kind of infirmary. Laying on a gurney was a figure covered with a blood-splattered sheet. It struggled against the leather straps that restrained it. Ivan couldn’t see a face, but peeking out of the top of the sheet, were long furry ears and out of the bottom, hooves. It screamed with a man’s voice.
Then Ivan was past, a scream building in his own chest, but his throat was paralyzed. His mouth opened and closed but no sound emerged.
The cellar door was at the end of the hall. One of the soldiers rushed forward and opened it. Ivan was propelled toward the blackness. Helpless, unable to even lift his arms to cover his head, he stumbled through the doorway into pitch black. As he fell, his screams found him, and they continued until his head collided with the concrete floor of the cellar.
There was a different smell in the cellar, something that overpowered the stink coming from Ivan and from the corner he used as a privy. He lay in the middle of the room, his face pressed against the concrete floor. His eyes were glued shut by dried blood and gummy tears. Even the slightest attempt at movement brought waves of pain shooting from his side.
They’d broken a rib on the first day.
But the strange sweet smell curled into his nostrils, winding its way past the swelling and the snot to tickle his membranes. Ivan could feel a sneeze building, and suppressed it. He didn’t want to think about how much a sneeze would hurt.
Instead, he pried his eyes open, groaning with the effort. Sitting on a wooden folding chair in front of Ivan was an ancient woman. She wore a long peasant skirt, blood red, and a black tunic. Her hair was pure gray and shot out of her head at alarming angles.
But her most striking features were her eyes. They had a gentle slant to them as if she was from the east, and the irises were red. Hanging out of her mouth was a cigarette, honest to God American tobacco. That was the smell that had awoken Ivan.
“How did you like my mushrooms?” she said. Her voice was a throaty cackle.
“Who are you?” said Ivan, although the question was mumbled and he didn’t think she would be able to understand it. She did, though.
“Well, that’s gratitude for you,” she sighed, white smoke billowing from her lungs. “I let your friends steal some of my precious mushrooms and you don’t even remember my name.”
“Baba Yaga,” stammered Ivan. He tried to sit up, but howled in agony at the pain shooting through his side.
She eyed him with contempt. “You think you have it rough. Try living for a thousand years with rheumatism. Sometimes, I’m barely able to move for centuries at a time.”
She waved her hand, and suddenly Ivan was sitting cross-legged on the floor. He stared at her, terror building in his chest. His heart beat so strongly, it caused his cracked rib to throb.
He had seen Baba Yaga once before. Four years ago, when he and his then future wife Milla, neither of them yet sixteen, had sneaked off for a day of picnicking and illicit lovemaking. On a deserted road, they found a path that led down, even though the surrounding land was flat. At the end of that path was a hut set on stilts inside a bone white fence. They both knew whose hut it was, but before they could run, they saw a face in the window. It smiled a toothless smile, all its lines drawing up like a cat’s cradle. Ivan and Milla didn’t stop running until they stumbled into the village.
The partisans had used his knowledge of the hut’s location to strike against the invading Germans with some of her stolen mushrooms.
“Thank you, Baba Yaga,” Ivan mumbled.
Baba Yaga inhaled and then blew the cigarette smoke out her nose. She looked at Ivan with an uncomfortable frown, as if she had a stomachache and he was the cause of it. “Well, the mushrooms?”
Ivan lowered his gaze to the floor in front of her. “If there is a price to be paid…”
“Your friends already paid it,” said Baba Yaga. She flicked some ashes onto the floor with an efficient tapping motion of her thumb. “Not much meat on people these days.”
Ivan almost swooned. He could feel his stomach rebelling, wanting to eject whatever was inside it. But of course there was nothing.
“What I’m wondering is, what’s next?”
“I imagine they’ll kill me soon,” said Ivan, looking down at the floor again.
Baba Yaga nodded. “That seems likely. And that would be a satisfying ending. But maybe there’s another way.”
Ivan eyed the witch with dread. In every tale he had ever heard with Baba Yaga in it, she made deals, offering to fix the hero’s troubles with the evil prince or stepmother, in exchange for something impossible or unspeakable. When the hero found himself unable to keep his side of the bargain, Baba Yaga would get upset and start loading firewood into her oven.
The tales usually ended with Baba Yaga being tricked and winding up inside the oven herself.
Ivan shook his head and almost laughed. What could he possibly offer Baba Yaga? His life? She didn’t seem to want it. And besides, the Germans already had a claim on it. How worse could things get?
“What do you mean, Baba Yaga?”
The cellar door creaked open, and someone wearing boots descended the stairs. Ivan blinked the blood out of his eyes, and tried to lift his head to see who it was. But pain and nausea overcame him, and his chin flopped back down on his chest. The two guards, one on either side of him, held him up like a half-empty sack of wheat. They were delivering Ivan’s daily beating.
The boots scraped to a halt in front of him, and a voice, speaking German, came out of the fog. In answer, one of the guards grabbed Ivan by the hair and tilted his head back. When the blood drained out of his eyes, Ivan saw that he was being regarded by a Major wearing a black SS uniform.
The officer motioned toward the chair on the other side of the room, and suddenly Ivan felt himself being lifted and dragged. His stomach rebelled at this treatment, forcing him to double over with dry heaves. Dropped into the chair, Ivan examined the cracked concrete of the floor while the Germans set up a table and chair in front of him. Pain coursed through his body, every scrape, every bruise radiated agony.
And yet, around the edges of the physical suffering, another sensation was creeping in. It took a few moments of examination, but Ivan finally recognized it as worry. As much pain as he was feeling, he knew he wasn’t numb to it yet. He could feel more.
When all the banging and thumping stopped, the boots clicked across the floor. A chair was pulled out and someone sat down. Every sound left a mark on Ivan’s consciousness, like an ice skate on a frozen surface.
“Look at me,” said the voice in heavily accented Russian. Ivan sat up, fighting his churning stomach and the colors that wheeled through his vision. “I am Major Stultz, and I have been sent here to get a certain piece of information from you. Do you understand?”
Ivan nodded. Stultz was maybe thirty years old. He removed his cap to reveal dusty brown hair. His uniform was clean and straight.
Stultz looked up from the papers he was examining. “You will answer me when I ask you a question.” He nodded to the guard on the left, who stepped up from his position, and smacked Ivan with iron hard knuckles.
Ivan’s head snapped sideways. The pain threatened to overcome him. It pulsed in his cheek like a fire. He gritted his teeth and bowed his head until it cleared.
“Well,” said Stultz. “Do you understand?”
The Major nodded, and looked down at his notes. “On March 11 of this year, you were made a cook of this camp. Is this not so?”
“A position of great trust.”Stultz looked up at Ivan. “Trust which you have abused.”
“I don’t know what you’re talking about.” Maybe there was a way to convince them that they made a mistake.
“I suggest you dispense with further prevarication. We know you are with the partisans. One of your fellow villagers informs us of this. Who is your contact?”
Ivan looked at Stultz and knew his fate was already decided. “I don’t know his name.”
The Major’s blue eyes regarded Ivan for a long moment. “Eventually we will learn everything you know about the partisans. For now, though, there are more urgent matters to discuss. What did you put in the stew three nights ago?”
Ivan drew a ragged breath. “Beef, sliced potatoes, a few beets…”
Stultz motioned to the left hand guard. This time the blow was delivered with a baton. The inside of Ivan’s head exploded with light. Even though he cried out in pain, he could still hear the sound of his skull cracking. He tried to blink away the light, but it refused to vanish, even when he felt himself slipping into unconsciousness.
“Wasser,” said Stultz. One of the guards walked away. Ivan heard a metal clank and then footsteps returning.
He screamed when the ice cold water was dumped on his head. The shock dragged him out of the comfort of his unconsciousness and into the waking world of pain. Blind and shivering, he tried to lean forward, but the guards prevented him.
“Now what did you put in the stew that night?” said Stultz.
“Mushrooms.” Ivan’s sight was beginning to clear. The Major wrote something in his notes.
“Who gave them to you?” he said, not looking up.
Stultz’s eyes rose from the paper, and regarded Ivan. “That much we could figure out. What I’m interested in is the origin of the mushrooms. Where did you get them?”
“I don’t know. I just do what the partisans tell me.”
The Major’s eyes flicked towards the guard on the right. He issued terse instructions in German, and the young guard grabbed Ivan’s left wrist and pulled it forward, laying it on the table, palm flat. Ivan looked up at him, but the boy didn’t return the gaze.
The other soldier walked behind Ivan, and then appeared on his left side, next to the first guard. He leaned forward and slapped a pair of pliers on the table, looking at Ivan significantly.
“One last chance,” said Stultz. “Where did you get the mushrooms?”
Ivan’s heart pounded and his entire body tingled with heightened sensitivity. Surely he had suffered enough. After all this they would believe him. A cold draft whistled through the walls and Ivan shivered. His head bowed, and he watched the drops of blood and water fall from his face. They hit the concrete floor and splattered. And as Ivan watched in horror, the drops moved like mercury. They arranged themselves into Cyrillic letters. Three fingers.
He squirmed in the guard’s brutal grip.
“Oh, God,” mumbled Ivan.
“What?” said the Major.
“I don’t know, I swear.”
Stultz gave a bored sigh and nodded at the guard with the pliers.
“No, no,” Ivan cried as he felt the cold metal pry his little finger from the table. The jaws closed on the finger and gradually began to exert pressure. Ivan screamed as he felt the bone bend. He kicked at the guard holding him and tried to claw at the man with his free hand, but to no effect. Ivan’s flailing legs knocked his chair across the room, and he wound up scraping his knees on the floor. The bone gave with a tiny crack, like opening a walnut. Ivan’s throat became raw from screaming.
Ivan could see the colors pinwheeling in front of him again. His body grew cold and clammy. He felt like he was falling, plummeting toward the darkness at the bottom of his vision.
Cold shivering clarity returned, and Ivan was kneeling before the table. He wanted more than anything to fall to the floor, even though it was cold, hard, and abrasive, but the guard was still holding him up.
Looking up, Ivan saw Major Stultz studying him.
“This can all end now,” said the Nazi. “Just tell me where you got the mushrooms.”
Ivan wanted to speak, but his throat hurt too much. Instead he just shook his head.
Then the screaming started again.
After they broke two more fingers, Ivan hung in the guard’s grip. He could think of nothing but the pain and making it stop. In his croaking voice, he begged them for the chance to tell them everything. His chair was retrieved and he was deposited in it.
“Well, where did you get the mushrooms?” said Stultz, crossing his arms in front of him.
A cold look crossed the German’s face. “Are you trying to scare me with fairy tales?”
“No,” said Ivan, waving his good hand to ward off any more punishment. “That’s what the villagers call her.”
“Her real name?”
The guard with the pliers mumbled, “Judenhexe.” Jewish witch, if Ivan could remember what little German he knew. Stultz snapped at guard.
Ivan leaned forward, cradling his mangled hand. If they thought he was shedding tears of remorse, so much the better.
The two guards were conversing with the Major. He was questioning them, and they were answering in defensive tones. The Nazis had been trying to find Baba Yaga’s hut for some time, although they didn’t know her name. They had just heard the rumors of an old woman, possibly a witch that lived in the forest. The Germans, being a methodical people, wanted everyone in the area accounted for. Especially if they might be a threat.
Finally, Stultz cut short the guards’ protests and addressed Ivan.
“You can lead us to this old woman?”
Ivan looked up and nodded, his face blank. I’d be happy to, he thought.
All Ivan could feel was the sensation of movement, many kinds of movement. He swayed from side to side and the colors in front of his eyes spiraled like fireworks. But primarily he seemed to be hurtling forward. With an effort, he opened his eyes.
The first thing he saw was Stultz sitting in front of him. The Major was twisted around, looking at Ivan and talking. Or at least Ivan thought Stultz was talking. He could only see the Major’s lips moving. With an effort, Ivan concentrated and gradually began to understand what Stultz was saying.
“…you must remain alert or we’ll miss the path.” Ivan blinked a couple of times and looked around. On his left was the guard who had held him down sitting with his back as straight as an arrow, eyes obstinately facing front. The boy probably didn’t spend much time in the company of Majors.
And on Ivan’s right was scenery, trees, bushes, and wild flowers. It all would have been very nice if it hadn’t been rushing past him at an impossible speed. He clutched the side of…well, he didn’t know what it was, but it was metal and seemed solid enough. Then it dawned on him: he was in a staff car.
He’d never been in any kind of motorized vehicle before. When he was five the commune had gotten a tractor from the government. One of the men gave all the kids rides on it. But before Ivan’s turn came up the tractor broke down. When they couldn’t fix it, the men hitched it to a team of horses and hauled it behind one of the barns. It never ran again.
“Are you awake?”
Ivan looked at Major Stultz, who repeated the question.
“Are we close?”
Ivan took a closer look at the scenery but all he could see was a green blur. He shook his head.
“We’re going too fast.” It was as if his senses were returning one at a time. Suddenly, he felt cold. The wind from their movement cut through his shirt so easily, he might as well have been bare-chested.
The Major snapped an order to the soldier sitting beside him in the driver’s seat and then stuck his hand in the air and waved it. Curious, Ivan turned in his seat and looked behind. The car was being followed by three large troop transports. These slowed down as the car decelerated.
“Better?” said Stultz.
Casting a look to the west, Ivan judged there was about an hour left of daylight. They were on a forest road, made of dirt with weeds growing down the center. The trees that stood by the roadside were tall and hadn’t turned yet.
“Yes,” said Ivan, “We’re very close now.”
“Let me know when you see it.”
Ivan nodded and then hugged himself and shivered. His hand throbbed and every bump the car bounced over created darts of pain that shot up his arm. He wondered what day it was. The last thing he remembered before the staff car was being dumped on the cellar floor after Major Stultz had finished with him. Ivan looked down at his hand and saw that the fingers had been set and splinted. He didn’t remember when that had happened.
Up ahead, in the reddish light of the evening sun, he saw a twisted oak.
“It’s across the road from that oak tree.”
Stultz scanned the indicated area for a second, then twisted in his seat and regarded Ivan. “I don’t see it.”
“It’s only a path. You’ll have to get out and look for it.”
The Major sniffed, but then turned around and made a signal. Breaks squealed and engines idled as the convoy rolled to a halt. Stultz swung out of the car and walked crisply to the oak tree, sparing it a cursory glance. Then he examined the wood on the opposite side of the road.
Ivan couldn’t help but smile when the Major did a double take upon spotting the path. The man’s Nordic features, already pale, blanched.. The Nazis were brutally efficient, but they were also superstitious. That factored into the plan. They were brave enough to come, and efficient enough to bring enough soldiers to do the job. Or so they believed. The three transports carried two thirds of the Nazis in the district. But they were just human enough to be scared.
To Baba Yaga fear was like spice.
Stultz turned and gave the convoy a signal. Ivan heard the sound of truck gates being unlatched and dropped and then of boots scuffling out of the transports. Fighting the pain that dulled his senses, Ivan turned around and saw the Germans forming a line by the side of the road. The Nazi sergeants barked at the soldiers to get the line straight. Their officers stood in a discreet circle around Stultz.
Apparently satisfied with his men, the Major looked at Ivan and motioned to the guard. The boy climbed out of the car, ran around to the other side and lifted Ivan out of his seat by his upper arm. Ivan stumbled but the guard held him upright, while towing him across the road to Major Stultz.
“How far down the path is the hut?” asked Stultz, not looking at Ivan.
“Not far.” A chill from deep in Ivan’s gut came over him and left him lightheaded.
“We will go first. You will follow to witness the superiority of German technology over Hebrew mysticism.” Then Stultz barked out a few commands in German and the line of soldiers started to move.
Ivan bowed his head in order to hide a smile. He didn’t know anything about Hebrew mysticism. But he did know that Major Stultz was about to encounter a Slavic fairy tale and he doubted that German technology would be enough.
When Ivan was able to look up again, most of the Nazi troopers were on the path. The guard tugged on Ivan’s arm and started pulling him forward.
An icy wind, a harbinger of winter, blew in from the northeast. Ivan hugged his arms to his chest and bent into the wind. He felt his teeth chattering.
The guard stopped and gently leaned Ivan against a tree by the side of the road. Ivan swayed on his feet, but didn’t fall, as he watched the boy run to the car and retrieve something out of the back. When he returned, he placed a blanket over Ivan’s shoulders. Ivan looked at the German in disbelief. The boy gave him a slight smile and a nod.
“Tovarich,” he said in a soft voice.
Ivan couldn’t think of any reply.
When they reached the hut, the troopers already had it surrounded. Major Stultz stood in front of his men, staring at the curious edifice. It was just as Ivan remembered it, a bullet-shaped hut, sitting on thick stilts. Surrounding the scraggy garden was a white fence, which even in the dying sunlight hurt the eyes if watched for too long.
There was no door, though, and this seemed to be what was giving the Major pause.
Ivan took a ragged breath and then, as loud as he could manage, said, “Little hut, little hut, stand the old way with your back to the woods and your front to me.”
He looked at Stultz, who was staring at him. The Major had a disapproving look, and seemed about to motion for some kind of disciplinary action, but was stopped when a collective gasp rose from his soldiers. Ivan looked back at the hut and saw that a door had appeared in the side facing them.
Then the sky darkened and an icy Siberian wind sliced through the trees, stirring up dead leaves in a hundred miniature funnel clouds. The soldiers cursed and covered their faces. And arriving on the wind, over the sound of the cursing and the rustling, was the insane cackle of an old woman.
Something was happening to Ivan’s sight. It was as if everything — Baba Yaga’s hut, the Nazis, even the air itself — was made of sand and that sand was spinning like it was in an hourglass. Ivan held up his bandaged hand and examined it, his chest constricting. He too was disintegrating. Only it didn’t feel like his body was slowly coming apart like a dried-out sandcastle. He felt no pain other than the dull ache from his injured fingers.
What was more, the sand was not spiraling away like an hourglass’s. It just spun. And soon, Ivan became aware of other sand being added into the mixture. Swirling through his sight were the distorted images of dark figures with bowed legs and fur hats. Ivan recognized them from his history. They were Mongols.
In the same spiraling way, other thoughts began to trickle into his brain, alien thoughts. Ivan soon had access to a whole new set of memories. Andrei was fourteen years old, considered an adult in the Middle Ages. He’d watched helplessly when merciless invaders swept across his land. Through Andrei’s eyes, Ivan saw a village charred and still smoking. Bodies with faces he recognized were lying on the ground, their stomachs split open, intestines spilling out of the wounds. He saw the fathers that had been executed and the mothers who had been raped and then killed, all in front of their children, who were then killed also. Ivan didn’t have to imagine the grief, the guilt; he felt it.
A few days after that, when Andrei encountered the Mongols again, he roared in defiance, charging them with a wooden spear. He killed a horse and ran, the invaders in pursuit. He ran through the forest where their horses were slow. He ran until he came upon a familiar road, and then a path he had stumbled upon once before on a hunting trip. A path that went down even though the land around it was flat.
Ivan, of course, knew the rest from the tales told around his mother’s table.
Nazis, he thought, answering an unasked question for this new presence. The two groups of invaders stood side by side now, their bodies disintegrating in this hellish wind.
“I won’t kill them,” said a broken voice. Ivan turned and saw the bent form of Baba Yaga, standing in her garden gate. Unlike her surroundings, the old crone’s outlines were sharp. She was hunched over, wearing rough peasants’ clothing, and her hair shot out of her head in unruly gray streaks.
“They are my minions, so if you want them dead, you must do it yourselves.”
Ivan nodded and bent down to pick up a submachine gun that had appeared on the leaf-littered ground. He cradled it in his right arm, at the same time that Andrei was picking up a sword. Caressing the cold metal of the gun, Ivan wondered what Andrei would do. Was there enough anger there to pay this price for empty vengeance? In a way Ivan hoped not.
The sun hung on the horizon as if anxious to see what they would do, and the icy fingers of the north wind tore at Andrei’s tunic. The sword was so cold it numbed his hand. He wondered if that would help him do this. Ivan looked at Baba Yaga, who was growing impatient.
“Well,” she said. “Are you going to decide? I can only meddle with time for so long.”
Ivan hefted the submachine gun. He pulled the bolt back with a metallic click and gingerly held the barrel with his two good fingers.
Come on, Andrei, he thought, decide.
Andrei looked at the Nazis. Are they bad?
Very, thought Ivan. Worse than yours in many ways.
In all the stories, the hero gets away.
Fairy tales, Andrei. In the tale they tell about you, you get away too, and the Mongols are eaten. But nobody believes that. We’re Slavs and we love a good tale with a happy ending. Perhaps because we know that it almost never works out that way in real life.
Andrei nodded and took a few practice cuts. Then, taking a breath, he charged at the nearest gray uniformed figure. Ivan fired on the Mongols, mowing them down like wheat. Images of their blood-splattered bodies mixed with gory views of Nazis being split open like over-ripe beets. Blood splashed on the ground, mixing with gore from the other bodies and the other time.
Through Andrei’s eyes, Ivan saw Major Stultz’s skull cut open. The Nazi officer’s mouth gaped in horror as the blade of Andrei’s sword descended upon him. Likewise, the guard who had wielded the pliers during Ivan’s interrogation met a similar fate, the sword slicing through his jugular vein. Blood sprayed into the air.
And then Andrei came to the boy, who stood paralyzed like a lamb under the ax. Ivan considered asking Andrei to spare this one, but didn’t. The guard had held Ivan down when they broke his fingers. Ivan now watched every detail of his evisceration. He shrugged the blanket off his shoulders.
It was over in a few minutes, and they stood among the dead, panting, their breath jetting out in clouds of steam. Andrei trembled, the full weight of his acts pressing on him. He turned to the west, trying to catch one last look at the sun, to take in one last clear blue sky.
But Ivan could have told him that full night had already fallen.
Ivan watched as Baba Yaga smiled. It was as gruesome a sight as he’d ever seen.
“Good, now help me get them inside,” she said. “It’s time to start fixing dinner.”
Ivan watched as the executioner, one of the ex-partisans, kicked the rickety chair out from under his victim. The woman dropped and started kicking her chubby legs in the air as she swung from the noose. Ivan tried to remember why he’d condemned her. Probably she’d refused to cooperate with the partisans during the occupation. The evidence was rarely conclusive in most such cases but Ivan felt it was better to err on the side of caution.
The executioner, who was on a tight schedule, grabbed the woman by the waist in a bear hug and pulled down until her neck snapped. Then he nodded to his assistant who untied the other end of the rope. The body folded onto the executioner’s broad shoulder. He plopped it down into the mud and removed the noose, which they set up for the next prisoner.
In the village, they were already calling him Ivan the Terrible. Not to his face, of course, but late at night, around their kitchen tables when they could trust the company. Or so they thought. Most of those cases hadn’t been tried yet, although Ivan wanted to get to them before Berlin fell and Stalin turned his attentions to domestic matters.
Ivan leaned back in his canvas chair and fingered his new mustache. When it filled in it would be just like Stalin’s. Then Ivan would have some pictures taken; him and some freshly hung enemies of the people. He’d send the pictures to Moscow. A little flattery couldn’t hurt.
In a year or two though, Stalin would learn that Ivan had always hated the Soviets and still hated them, and then he’d be the one dangling from a rope. Baba Yaga had assured him of that. Until then he had a debt to pay, a debt of blood. She had kept her promise. The Nazis did not re-occupy this area. Even when they were retreating from Stalingrad, the Germans avoided the village and its surroundings, like the water in a stream flowing around a rock.
Pouring himself another vodka, Ivan wondered how Andrei was getting along. Of course his story had been over seven centuries ago, but. Ivan and Andrei had shared a moment before continuing on their separate paths. It was hard not to think of him as still alive somewhere, repaying his debt just as Ivan was repaying his own. Local history spoke of a ruthless bandit terrorizing the area in the years after the Mongol invasion. He’d killed many people before meeting a terrible end. Ivan raised his glass in a silent toast to the boy.
The next prisoner was a child, thirteen at most. His grandfather had been the guilty party, having been seen on the streets, cheering the Nazis’ arrival in the village back in ’42. But the old man had raised the boy and treason tended to run in the family. As the child stood on the chair, his knees shook and he looked around with wide eyes. His gaze fell on Ivan for a minute, and those young eyes examined him. Ivan drank his vodka in one gulp and thought that it was good his face could evoke such fear.
The executioner kicked the chair.
|Charles Ebert has been writing science fiction on and off since high school. Last year, he published a novel, The Sword of Dalmar, through Createspace. He has sold stories to Encounters, Electric Spec, and Aoife’s Kiss. He’s also published three short stories in Aphelion and had two stories win honorable mention in the Writers of the Future contest. He is a librarian in Durham NC. (charlesebertwriter.wordpress.com)|