Upon the meadow-steppes of the Urals, nestled deep within Eurasia, Yvan Nyebov hunted game to feed himself, his widowed sister, and her three children. Yvan spotted a bull elk and sited his rifle. Another shot rang out from elsewhere and the elk fell. A furious Yvan stomped out into a near clearing. With each measured step he flushed pheasant and grouse from their hiding places.
“Show yourself. Thief!”
Even the natural forest sounds diminished at the broad presence and demands of Yvan.
“Do you think you can steal food from me, from my family? Show yourself!”
A hooded and cloaked figure walked into the clearing a fair distance from Yvan and faced him for a brief moment before walking toward the dead bull elk. Yvan likewise headed for the elk. He met up with the other hunter soon after it arrived at the prey.
“Do not ignore me!”
Yvan grabbed the hunter by the arm, who turned from the elk toward him. The hood of the cloak flew away revealing that the other hunter was a woman. Yvan released her arm and stared a bewildered gaze. He stammered a few non-words. The woman wavered briefly between anger and fear until she saw Yvan’s blusterings and she almost laughed. Yvan finally managed some feigned strength to readdress the situation.
“You shot my elk!”
“I’m sorry. Am I on your property?”
“No. you know that is an absurd question.”
“Then how is it your elk?”
“I saw it first.”
“Then why was I able to shoot it?”
“But I need it to feed my family.”
“And I need it to feed mine.”
“This is now funny?”
“Actually, it is. I am sorry I acted the oaf. This thing is, I need to bring home some meat. So I say we share this elk. That is reasonable, yes?”
The other hunter grabbed the elk by the hooves paired fore and hind. She bound each pair and tied these together with a strap she laid across her shoulder to drag the beast to her house. All the while Yvan stood almost in a state of shock. She set her feet homeward but took one more glance back at Yvan and took a comic pity on him.
“I have an idea. You and your family come to my house for dinner tonight. And then you and I can go hunting again tomorrow so that you family can have meat.”
“What, hunt together?”
“We may be twice as effective hunting together.”
“Good. Where do you live?”
She gave directions from that spot, and she did not live far from that point, or from Yvan’s house, for that matter. She started for her house.
“Wait,” shouted Yvan.
She stopped and looked back.
“Why are you doing this?”
“You seem like someone I can trust.”
“Why would you say this? You do not know me at all.”
“Not once did you call me ‘comrade’. If you did then I knew I could not trust you. So you get the benefit of the doubt.”
“Because you have a handsome face.”
She restarted her homeward trek.
“My name is Yvan. What is your name?”
Without stopping or looking back she shouted, “Iolanta.”
Yvan returned home and told his sister of the events of the morning and their plans for the evening. In late afternoon, when the low sun blinked through the tops of the larches, Yvan, his sister, and her children made their way to Iolanta’s house. Unlike Yvan’s stone and mortar house, Iolanta lived in an ill-formed wooden dwelling that seemed insufficient to bar the climate.
Outside of the house and hanging from a deciduous branch, the skeletal remains of the day’s bull elk hung and twisted. As Yvan approached, Iolanta walked out of her house. She bore a wide grin and she wiped her hands in meter on a stained fabric whose singular role seemed to have been a hand towel. Yvan introduced his family and everyone went inside. An older couple sat in her front room. They appeared older than they probably were, aged by life and circumstances. The man had his left foot elevated and wrapped with various discolorations at the toe end of the bandages. Iolanta introduced them as her parents. Their faces did not share in their daughter’s hospitality.
Iolanta called everyone to the dinner table. Yvan helped Iolanta’s father out of the chair and across the room. He tried to refuse, claiming he could make it on his own, but he could not, and reluctantly took the offered help. Even more reluctant was the Thank you mumbled after he sat down. Yvan’s nephew, the oldest of his sister’s children, carried the wooden stump to the table used to elevate the wounded foot.
The four adults ate at the table, while the three children sat in the living room in the same chairs that Iolanta’s parents most recently reposted. Iolanta and completely rendered the elk and from the flanks of the meat she made a stew with potatoes and onions along with the celebration of rarely available carrots. Iolanta’s mother baked a large wheel of bread that had been cooling for little less than an hour. After the offering of a solemn blessing by Iolanta’s father, everyone enjoyed that evening’s fare.
“So what happened to your foot, grandpa?” said Yvan.
He looked at Yvan burdened with the balance of enduring his guest’s presumption along with satisfying his daughters shown generosity.
“God’s health, sir.”
Iolanta handed Yvan’s sister the wheel of bread, and asked her, “Are you married?”
She sliced a piece of bread and handed the loaf to Yvan.
“Dead,” said Yvan.
No one said anything, but the press of curiosity evidented itself by the silence.
“He was an enemy of the people,” said Yvan.
“How so?” said Iolanta.
“He refused to play a piece of music,” said Yvan. “He played the violin, as do I. In fact, we played together.”
“Chamber Music Society of Glazov,” said Yvan’s sister.
“Yes, he played first violin and I played second.”
“It was my brother who introduced me to my husband.”
“And a local magistrate asked him to perform at the inauguration of a new governor freshly appointed by Moscow. He refused. He abhorred the Communist Party and Lenin in particular. He would not do anything to demonstrate any sort of endorsement or compliance to the system. So he was shot, I believe more for why he refused than the actual refusal.”
Yvan’s sister lowered her head and sipped small spoonful.
“Very fine stew, Iolanta,” said Yvan’s sister.
“Should I tell them what happened next?” Yvan asked his sister, who just shrugged.
“They asked me to play instead. I agreed. The night before the inauguration I packed up my sister’s things and moved them out. In the middle of the night I tied an old mule of mine who was near death anyway to the podium on the stage. I cut out a rough shape of a violin from a cheap piece of wood I had and tied it around my mule’s neck. I left and joined my sister and we settled here.”
“This was about four years ago?” said Iolanta’s father.
“Yes,” said Yvan. “Why do you ask?”
“Four years ago we all lived in Glazov. I was a foreman at the canning factory. My son …”
Iolanta’s father closed his eyes and fought back tears, and her mother rested a consoling hand on his forearm.
“My brother was engaged to a young actress,” said Iolanta. “The governor made his intentions clear that he wanted her. It ended with a dual at dawn and my brother died.”
“So he was shot by the governor?” said Yvan’s sister.
“He was shot in the back,” said Iolanta’s father, who then wept openly. He continued after he recomposed himself. “But I made things right. I followed him for a week and learned his routines. I snatched him when I knew he was going to an opium house. That way he would be unguarded. I rode out west to a wooded area and tied his feet to the base of a tree. I bound his hands behind his back and threw the rope over a branch. The other end of the rope was attached to the saddle of my horse. I had my horse tug on the rope, but slowly. His arms were pulled up behind his back, higher and higher. I could tell when my horse slowed down that the tension in his shoulders must have been tremendous. But I kept him moving. His screams were terrible and quite satisfying. And then a crackle and a pop louder than his screams with a sudden release in the pressure, and I knew his arms were broken. He soon slumped. I guess he was in shock and passed out from the pain. I took out my knife and cut him on both sides from the ribs and down his legs. And then I left.”
Everyone sat still and silent.
“I married a good man,” said Iolanta’s mother. “A good husband to me and good father to our children. He did right by everyone. Loved by everyone. No one ever had a grudge with him. I have cherished every day we have been together. But I never loved him so much as when he did that.”
These were the first words spoken by Iolanta’s mother.
“I remember this. He was eaten by wolves. And it was his replacement whose inauguration lead to our moving away from Glazov,” said Yvan.
“You don’t blame me, do you?”
“I blame Lenin and the Communist Party. You did what you had to do.”
The conversation turned to lighter things and soon laughter rang from the wood house. After dinner everyone went to the front room. The adults sat in the chairs while the children reclined on the floor. Yvan had brought along his violin, and he took it out from its case and tuned the instrument. He played the Meditation from Massenet’s opera “Thais.”
“That was beautiful,” said Iolanta.
“Can you play any Russian composers?” said Iolanta’s father.
“I only care for Tchaikovsky. I am not one for these modern composers. I adore the French, like Berlioz, Faure, and Massenet, of course.”
At the end of the evening Yvan and Iolanta agreed to hunt again the next day. Yvan shot a bull elk, and when the two walked up their prey Iolanta espied another elk at a distance barely in range. She sited the beast and shot him, merely wounding him, but the two were able to track and catch up him where she shot him fatally. Yvan insisted they each take an elk, but Iolanta though Yvan should take them both. Yvan sent his nephew to Iolanta’s house to help the chores Iolanta’s father were not able to perform.
Yvan and Iolanta hunted again a week later, but were only able to kill one elk, which they shared. Hunting had always been a chore and nothing else for Yvan, and now it had become a cheerful bypass. Hunting with Iolanta brought out the poetry of nature and he found beauty in world around him and not just within the concert hall.
Yvan and Iolanta hunted two days later and Yvan insisted leave earlier than they had, even before dawn. They had hunted for two hours in the dim light that occurs between the darkest of night and sunrise. They found nothing, and when the sun began to come up, even when it was still well hidden by the base of trees, Iolanta thought they should rest. She had packed four boiled eggs, which she removed from a pack and shared with Yvan, who shared with Iolanta his water.
A large capercaillie landed on a broad supervisory branch. He was slate with while speckles and red rings feathered around his eyes. Yvan pointed out this bird to Iolanta.
“Cock or hen?” said Iolanta.
“Too large for a hen. Clearly a cock. Probably searching for a hen.”
“Happy hunting, Monsieur.”
“Be quiet. They get scared easily when they are courting.”
A smaller but similar looking bird landed in a clearing in front of the tree. Immediately the male postured himself, stood still for a short moment, then flitted down to a low branch close to the ground from a fallen limb. He was then near but still above the hen. He held out his wings, fanned his tail feathers, and raised his head at the end of an erect neck with its plumage sticking out. His mating call was not as much a song, but a series of clicking sounds. They turned to double clicks that became faster and faster, and it all ended with a single loud pop.
The cock hopped from the branch to the clearing, still with tail feathers fanned, wings outstretched, and neck erect. He paced forwards and backwards before the hen, and with each step he scraped behind him the dirt and dead leaves. The hen hopped twice toward the male, and in an instant they flew off together.
Yvan and Iolanta shared a laugh before they headed back to the hunt, where thy each killed an elk for their families. Two days later, a day Yvan and Iolanta were not scheduled to go and hunt, Iolanta heard a knock at her door. She opened the door and saw Yvan up a tree. He stood on a thick branch, clenched the bottom corners of his long coat, and held them up behind him. He jumped from the branch and landed roughly. He sprung up quickly and resumed the same pose, posterior sticking out, his chin held up, and the corners of his coat held out behind him.
Yvan clucked his tongue against the roof of his mouth and scraped his feet on the ground. He did this and walked to his left six feet before turning and walking back the same six feet, all the while scraping with each step, still clucking and preening. Iolanta laughed aloud, and the commotion summoned Iolanta’s mother to the door, and soon her father.
“Do you want me to fly away with you now?”
“No away, just together.”
Yvan built another room on the back end of his house, and as soon as it was finished Yvan ad Iolanta were married. She and her parents moved into his house with her parents occupying the new room.
Yvan and Iolanta Nyebov were married for a season from three years when a loud knock on the door stilled the room with an instant terror. Everyone straightened up and stared at one another. The knock was more than loud, but contained a peculiar seriousness. The knock sounded again, which frightened the Nyebov’s more than the first knock, for it seemingly contained some life-changing timbre.
Yvan went to the door and everyone followed him but kept a danger distance behind him. Yvan opened the door. On the other side stood a high military officer with an armed retinue behind him. He wore an old scar that ran alongside a dead eye and turned inward so it blended into the corner of his mouth. He stood with his hands behind his back, but put one hand to his mouth. The officer held in his hand a handkerchief to dab away the occasional drool from the wound. He replaced the kerchief up his jacket sleeve.
The officer seemed harsh to the point of being sharp, as if one may cut themselves against him. He had the look of being chiseled, like a colorful work of sculpture. The strong olive of his uniform traced with the blood red trim and punctuated with the bold metal of earned gold trinkets overwhelmed the placidness otherwise known in this homeplace.
“Yvan Denisovich Nyebov.”
He was not asking, but declaring.
“I am General Bolinsk. I am here to collect you.”
“How do you know who I am?”
General Bolinsk chuckled. The question seemed silly to him, yet he realized it truly mattered to Yvan.
“What we know and how we know it are issues that are not your concern. The point is I’ve come to collect you.”
“For military service. We wish you to volunteer.”
“What if I refuse?”
“Then I will lead you to jail. I may attach your violin around your neck. Would you like that?”
Yvan knew further protests were invalid.
“Your nephew is too young to take, and your father-in-law is old and never recovered from his injured foot. And after I escort you to jail, I will come for your family. We need wartime workers for our factories.”
Everyone looked at each other with a solemn surrender. All except Yvan, who stared at General Bolinsk since opening the door. More specifically, he focused on his dead eye, an eye with an Octoberish look about it that signified that the General was still fighting the Revolution.
“Your father-in-law will not have to worry about being taken away to a work camp.”
“I am able to work,” said Iolanta’s father.
“It’s not that. I’ll have you shot for the murder of a governor.”
Yvan looked back at Iolanta, who showed fear for the well being of both her husband and father, deeply knowing both of the men she loved were endangered. Yvan nodded and turned back to General Bolinsk.
“So are we leaving now?”
“Does that mean you will go?”
“Since I must volunteer.”
“Fine. You are now a partisan in your country’s military. There is a train leaving Solikamsk in two days. It leaves at 9:00 in the morning. It will be taking other volunteers to their appointments. Be on that train. If you are not, then you will be designated a deserter. We shoot deserters. And we have known where you have been for the past seven years. If you try to escape and go somewhere else, we will find you.”
“I will be there.”
General Bolinsk removed the kerchief from the inside of his sleeve and redabbed the corner of his mouth. When finished, he balled up the small rag in his black gloved fist.
“Good. Thank you for your cooperation, Comrade.”
Yvan left in the middle of the night that evening. He did not wan to have a labored good-bye. He left a note for Iolanta telling her he had gone on to Solikamsk. He promised to return as soon as it was permissible and reminded her that he would love her forever and neither war nor peace could separate them. He left her his violin and a pledge of his return.
Since Yvan was technically classified as a volunteer, he was given the choice of services. He knew he did not was to fight in the infantry, so he opted for the VVS. He thought flying would offer as much freedom as possible while still under martial conditions. He also knew he would see the least amount of action in the Air Force. He had just finished six weeks of training where he learned the role of a bombardier when he was given his first mission. The VVS were to make a bombing raid on Berlin. And so, on the 8th of August, 1941, Airman Yvan Nyebov took off on his first mission.
Yvan befriended a tailgunner in his flight crew from Omsk named Airman Pytor Rostov. Pytor served as a municipal party magistrate, which meant he had no authority other than to inform. Both of his parents were revolutionaries and original party members. Pytor was raised with this new world fervor and was a devout insister of Communist ideology, and the Party served as the paradigm by which all things were judged.
Soon after takeoff, Pytor walked up from the back and sat beside Yvan. Pytor’s fingers twitched and he quickly looked about in any direction. His knee bobbed and his breathing seemed labored. He looked at Yvan and forced a smile. Yvan swatted Pytor on his knee and gave him a square of his rationed chocolate kept in a shirt pocket.
“Sorry, Yvan. A bit nervous.”
“How can you not be? I would be standing on the ice if I said I was not afraid.”
“I am not afraid to die for the right reason.”
“Can you die for the wrong reason?”
“Of course you can.”
“But is there any difference? You are dead either way.”
“It makes all the difference in the world.”
“What does it matter if we get shot down by a German fighter or crash when we land? Are you going to somehow regret after you die precisely how you died?”
“It is a matter of sacrificing yourself for a greater good.”
“How does dying for your Party advance its causes?”
“Listen, Comrade, I am not suicidal. I want this mission to succeed. Clearly our Union is better off by our success than our failure. But I am so committed to the Party that I am willing to put myself in harm’s way to defend her.”
“But do you not see that if you die then you have done nothing to advance the causes of your Party?”
“But I am willing.”
“But not wishing. This sacrifice you speak of cannot reasonably be considered dying for the right reason. When you are dead then you are dead. Your death is not somehow better because of the reason you died. I am a spiritual man. How you stand before God as you die matters, not the cause you died for.”
Pytor looked down and choked down the words of anger in deference to his friend.
“The Party does not recognize the place of God.”
“Another reason your Party is destined to fail.”
Pytor shook his head.
“Maybe up here it does not matter, but on the ground it does matter. After this war is done, it will matter.”
“Clearly you love your Party and would die for it. But isn’t there some devout Nazi willing to die for his country? Does he not also think that he is willing to die for a good cause? Clearly the Nazis and the Communists are not equally good cases for which to die. So is it not possible that one feels that he is willing to die for something he believes is right which in truth is wrong?”
“Truly the Nazi is deluded.”
“But who is to say that you are not the deluded one?”
“You support our enemies?”
“Not at all. It may be that both of our countries’s ideologies are wrong.”
“If you feel that way, then why are you here? Were you not a volunteer?”
“I was forced to volunteer.”
“So you do not fight for your country?”
“I only want to go home and live with my family.”
“And I hope you may. But you may die today, and like it or not, you would have been sacrificed for the Party, as would I.”
“And even though you say you are willing to die for what is right, when you first came over here you were as nervous as the thief who lives next to the constable.”
“Do you want me to say it? I am afraid to die. But that does not mean that I am not willing to.”
“Still, one should not tickle the dragon if he is afraid of fire.”
“What do you mean?”
“You would not have to be afraid to die if you had not volunteered.”
An overhead red light flashed accompanied by the bare of a buzzer, which signified emergence over German air space. Pytor stood to go back to his tailgun. He shook hands with Yvan and both men smiled. Yvan turned back toward his visor and opened a map for no particular reason. Their route took them over rural areas on the way to Berlin so they did not encounter any resistance while over German air space.
When they approached the capital, a small and distant explosion jostled the plane, and then another. Soon flack repeated like a chorus of field drums. The pilot headed toward the center of town in order to take out as many factories and cathedrals as possible. Yvan dropped his full complement of bombs and the pilot turned about to head home, still dealing with flack and by now all of the fighter pilots available.
The pilot had just cleared the flack, but was still perused by three fighters. Pytor did the best he could as the tailgunner to take them out. He managed to shoot down one of the three. The fighters maneuvered easier than the bomber, so it seemed almost inevitable when one of them shot them bomber. One took out the tailgun and killed Pytor instantly granting him his freely willed sacrifice.
The second fighter took out both engines on the left wing. The bomber dropped into an instant dive. Yvan struggled to get to the side exit in order to parachute free, but the destruction of the wing caused proximate damage to the hull so that the door became jammed. Yvan barely had time to realize the savagery of the moment before he felt a brief and final regret in that he and Iolanta had not settled on a name before he left. The bombers crashed and incended into a quick burning flame that left nothing but a crater and a small amount of charred metal. And as the plane crashed, the German fighter pilot who shot down the Russian bomber felt a bitter hollowness, a sudden sense of loss, and profound absence.