Alexei Panshin's The Abyss of Wonder




    My father only began to appreciate the turmoil that he was being rescued from as he limped after Ivan through the streets of Ekaterinodar.  Ordinary life had been suspended and there were military and civilian refugees everywhere trying to find some way out of the city.
    It was late winter, and the passes in the Caucasus Mountains to the east and south were snowbound.  The Black Sea lay to the west.  And now the Red Army was coming from the north.  People no longer had anywhere to go, and still they looked for some miracle that would save them just as Dad was now being saved.
    Looting was already starting to take place.  They heard several shots being fired, and they passed a man lying dead in front of a broken store window.
    Two trains were at the station.  They made their way through a growing crowd of refugees held at bay by armed soldiers, and Ivan led the way to a boxcar at the end of one of the trains. 
    Inside it were three horses, three carts, and a dozen men.  My father only recognized one of them -- a young Ukrainian named Kyril from the other platoon.  He was hobbling, too.  Since Dad had last seen him, he'd been wounded and he had a crude cast on his leg.
    None of the other students who had enlisted with my father in Voronezh had managed to make it this far.
    Soon the train began to move.  The chaos of Ekaterinodar was left behind them, and they headed east.
    Kyril filled Dad in on what had been happening to them while he'd been sick.  The few members of the company who still remained had joined some Kuban Cossacks and the group of Kuban Assemblymen that they'd been ordered to escort.
    Together they'd hijacked this train.  And Kyril had later gotten his wound in defending it.
    Their intention had been to become a part of the ongoing evacuation of the White Army to the Crimean Peninsula in the Black Sea.  But the boats had already left.  Now the Kuban horsemen and foot soldiers were going back to their home in the mountains.
    The train crawled along at a slow pace, stopping frequently.  There was almost nothing to eat.  All that Dad was given was one piece of black bread and a little salted fatback.  But he'd developed dysentery again, and the lack of food helped to dry up his runs.
    After they'd traveled for two days, they came to the end of the tracks.
    At that point, the Kubans led their horses from the boxcars.  They said farewell and set off for home, the Cossacks on their horses, the Assemblymen on foot.
    Twenty soldiers were left by the train along with the three carts and one horse.

    It wasn't immediately apparent what they ought to do next, so they formed a circle to reach a decision.  Although three young officers were present, Ivan Kashirin was chosen to preside.
    Some of the men had become so hungry, tired and dispirited by this time that if they had been left to themselves, they would have stayed right where they were until the Reds arrived.  They didn't have much to contribute, though.
    And there were those who'd just watched the last trace of security they knew disappearing into the distance, and didn't want to lose contact with the Kubans.  They thought the group should try to trail after them.
    However, Ivan was in favor of going south to the mountain town of Batalpashinsk, not too far away.  The prospect of a nearby town was appealing to all of them.  And that is where it was decided they would go.
    The horse was hitched to the best of the carts, and Kyril and my father rode in the cart along with the bags.  Everyone else walked. 
    Batalpashinsk was assumed to be only two days away, but it took them four days to get there.  My father would never be as hungry again in his life as he became on this trek into the mountains.  During that time, all he had to eat was one egg that Ivan found for him, which he ate raw, and the corner of a piece of cornbread that a passing mountaineer broke off and gave him out of pity.
    The six days of difficult travel and near-starvation that followed Dad's departure from his hospital bed took their toll on him.  By the time they got to Batalpashinsk, he wasn't completely unconscious, but he was no longer aware of where he was or what was going on around him.

    Ivan would tell Dad later of the cold reception they were given by the town.  As soldiers with guns, they couldn't be ignored altogether.  But they belonged to the White Army, and the local people were aware that the Reds were now winning the war.  The townsfolk didn't want to make any moves that would get themselves shot.  Neither did they want to make the mistake of doing anything they might be asked to answer for when the Communists came.  So they kept as much distance from the men as they could.
    Nonetheless, most of the soldiers were completely spent.  They had been surviving on starvation rations for a longer period than my father, and they had just had four days of hard walking while he'd been riding in a horse-drawn cart.  They could go no farther now.  They were ready to remain in Batalpashinsk to await their fate.
    But not Ivan.  Never Ivan.
    The sergeant was determined to keep on going as long as he was still capable of taking another step.  Giving up was contrary to his faith, which demanded that he place his trust in God, but never do less than his utmost.
    Right now this meant that through some marvel of transformation he contrived to alter the horse and cart into two donkeys and some food.  Or perhaps he was able to find the one person in Batalpashinsk who was prepared to look upon a swap of that kind as too attractive an opportunity to pass up, even at this uncertain hour.
    Ivan placed Kyril and my father astride the donkeys, and pushed further on into the mountains.  They were accompanied by the three officers, who were lent additional strength by their conviction that they were in greater danger from the Reds than the enlisted men who had chosen to stay behind.
    Dad had nothing whatever to say about what was happening to him.  He had just sufficient awareness and enough of his old horseman's seat to stay on the donkey as long as he was given support by the sergeant or one of the officers.
    In his memoirs, he would describe his situation.  He wrote:
    "lvan's determination to go on in spite of all odds was typical of his conviction that our destinies were in God's hands.  'God willing' was for him no mere slogan but an article of faith.  I was going with him because at this point I had no will of my own."


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