“So you’re off to the Tsar’s war, are you, Stepan?”
“Yes, Uncle Foma.” The tall Cossack sat down on the wooden bench, arranging his rifle carefully by the wall. “We’re all off to the Tsar’s war, as you put it.”
“And the prospect of fighting makes you happy, does it?” The old man with the bushy white moustache grinned. His teeth were worn and stained. “Tell me the truth, doesn’t it make you feel like a young man going to see his suitor?”
Stepan blushed furiously for no apparent reason. “It’s not like that, Uncle Foma.”
“Don’t tell me that. I remember my young days.” Uncle Foma waited as his wife put two tankards of kvass down on the table. They drank. “It’s not what you think,” the old man said afterwards. “It’s not a clean or tidy business, you’ll find, war isn’t. But I suppose each generation has to find that out for itself.”
“Maybe so.” Stepan carefully drained the last of the tankard of kvass. “That was good,” he said politely.
“So, did you say goodbye to your parents yet?” Foma enquired, wiping the kvass off his moustache. “Or are you going home again before leaving?”
“I came to say goodbye,” Stepan said, obliquely. He stood up slowly. “I’ll be going then, Uncle Foma.”
“All right, but remember what I said. It’s serious business, the war is.” Uncle Foma called to his wife. “He’s leaving.”
“Goodbye, Aleksandra Grigorievna,” Stepan said, bowing slightly. She had never succeeded in getting him to call her Auntie Shura. “I’ll be back after the war and shall see you again.”
“You won’t say goodbye to Nadezhda?” Foma’s fat wife asked.
“No time,” Stepan said. “Tell her I was here.” He went out to where his brown horse waited, head hanging, under a tree. Swiftly clambering on its back, he arranged his sword and the rifle around his shoulders and urged the horse into a trot. Glancing back over his shoulder, he saw old Foma standing at his doorway, kvass still in hand, watching him.
Just past the line of the trees which screened him from Foma’s house Stepan pulled on the reins and turned his horse’s head sharply right. He trotted past the trees, and then turned right again, forded the little stream and came up to Foma’s property from the back. There was a small barn and some haystacks between him and the house. Dismounting, he tied the horse to a tree’s branch and went to the barn.
“Nadia,” he said softly, “it’s me.”
“So you are going after all?” Foma’s daughter sat with her arms around her knees and refused to look at him.
“The Tsar commands,” Stepan said. “What else can I do?”
“Oh, I don’t know. Run away, perhaps. Go somewhere else. Do anything except join in this war against the Germans and the Austrians.”
“They’re our enemies,” Stepan said, sitting down on the hay beside her. It was dark in the barn, and cool.
“Are they? Have you ever seen a German, or an Austrian?”
“No...” Stepan thought a moment. “No, I haven’t.”
“There, you see. And now you’re going to leave me here and go away and fight people you’ve never seen and perhaps get killed.”
“I don’t intend to get killed.”
“What you intend hasn’t anything to do with how things turn out.” Nadezhda looked up at Stepan and he saw her eyes were bright with anger. “Look here, this war will destroy you and me and all of us. It will destroy everything we know, and for no reason at all. They can’t make you go, can they?”
“What do you suggest then? I make myself a laughing stock to all the Cossacks? Everyone will be going, except me.”
“How does it matter if they do laugh at you? It’s not going to be quite so funny if they all get killed, is it? And even if you don’t, if you only get wounded and crippled, like old Semyon with only one arm...”
“Listen,” Stepan said violently, “the war will be over in six months. Six months, do you hear? What could possibly happen in six months?”
She laughed, a short harsh laugh. “Six months? Six years, don’t you mean? We’ll all be old before we meet again, Stepan.”
“I have to go,” Stepan said. “It’s the Tsar’s command, and the Tsar is our father.”
“Go on. Have you ever seen the Tsar, our father as you say?”
“I don’t have to...” Stepan stopped suddenly. From quite close they heard Aleksandra Grigorievna calling. “Nadia...Nadia?”
“I must go,” said Nadezhda, rising and pulling at her skirt. “Don’t go, Stepan, please?”
“Kiss me and I’ll think about it.” Stepan bent his lips for the touch of hers. “I’ll think about it, all right? I promise.”
“See that you do.” Nadezhda wiped her eyes on her sleeve and walked out of the barn. Stepan waited a few minutes in the cool darkness. He wished obscurely that he had not come to see the girl. He began to think of the war and what she had said, and rubbed at his moustache vigorously. After some time he decided she wasn’t coming back and quietly slipped out, dodging between haystacks to where his horse waited.
Riding away from the barn, sword at his side and the rifle over his shoulder, and the good brown horse between his knees, he looked up at the blue sky and down at the yellow fields and thought again of how fortunate he was to be a Cossack and riding off to the Tsar’s war, and how soft and weak women were. And then he thought of the war which would be so soon over, and how he would come riding home again, with a chestful of medals that he would show off to Nadia’s admiring eyes.
The horse’s hooves trampled the dust.
Copyright B Purkayastha 2010/12
(Note: This story is meant in part as homage to one of my absolute favourite pieces of fiction, Mikhail Sholokhov’s Quiet Flows The Don.)