Alexei Panshin's The Abyss of Wonder




    My father would be grateful to Ivan for having chosen to rescue him once again when he was helpless.  But why the sergeant had done it would always be a puzzle to him.
    The only answer he was ever able to give was pretty feeble.  It seemed to him that for some reason Ivan had taken a liking to him.
    A more apt answer would be staring him in the face, but it was at such odds with Dad's image of himself as somebody who always acted from reasoned judgment that he would never be able to recognize it.
    You might say that he had a weak spot where the unreasonable was concerned.
    I recall one time when Cory and I were visiting my parents in Michigan, and all of us were in the living room watching a magic special on TV.  At a properly climactic moment in the program, the magician stood in a square open space formed by four panels lying flat on the stage.  Then the panels were raised to make an open-topped box enclosing him.  When the walls were lowered again, we could see that the magician not only had managed to conjure up an elephant, but he was now perched on it like a mahout.
    The effect was so completely unanticipated and so well-timed that the audience broke into wild applause.  The music swelled, and the magician rode the elephant around the stage in triumph.
    Then my father said, "You can tell it's really not an elephant by the way the legs move."
    Cory and I glanced at each other, but neither of us dared to utter a word.  It would only have spoiled the moment.
    There wasn't any doubt in our minds, at least, that what was before our eyes was a perfectly normal Indian elephant.  It had an elephant's trunk.  It had the oversized ears, the domed head, and the sad bags under its eyes.  And its legs were moving just like the legs of an elephant as it lumbered along.
    To say that it wasn't really an elephant seemed a strange act of denial.
    However, even if we'd been ready to grant that Dad was right and it wasn't an elephant that we were watching, but a clever illusion projected from the basement, or the mechanical simulation of an elephant, or ten men balancing on each other's shoulders and hopping around the stage inside an elephant suit, that would only have made this trick that much more tricky.  It wouldn't have changed the fact that something large and gray was there now which hadn't been there before and that it had a magician seated on its neck as it moved about.
    But my father was satisfied that he had penetrated the deception.  And that was enough to cancel the uneasiness he was feeling at having allowed himself to be fooled in the first place along with everybody else.  Now that he knew better, it hadn't happened any longer,
    Similarly, when Dad suggested that Ivan might have been prepared to go out of his way time and again to save his life just because the sergeant liked him, that would be another attempt by this man of reason to bring the disquietingly strange under control by trivializing it into submission.
    What Ivan did would be reduced from an attempt by a warrior monk to emulate the example of Christ to mere comradely assistance from an older friend.  And not only would the actual reciprocal nature of their bond not be acknowledged, but my father would do his best to disown all responsibility for the compact that he'd made with Ivan.  It was too irrational for him to want to remember.
    How irrational was it?
    Do you recall the bridge in Cory's and my fantasy novel, Earth Magic, which appears on a map, but is no longer standing?  Well, later in the story -- which, by the way, is dedicated to our fathers -- another bridge of significance, but without worldly existence, manifests itself.  The main character, a boy who is the son of a king who has just been overthrown, is sitting naked on a promontory of rock.  He has been stripped of one thing after another which he took to make him who he is: material possessions, relationships, expectations, ethnic identity, even his own name.  Now he is being hunted by his own kind and his own kin.
    He's trapped there.  He has no place to go, and his enemies are climbing to reach him.
    Then a bridge to nowhere appears before him over the void, suspended in nothing.  And the boy walks out onto that impossible bridge.
    That's just how non-rational the pact my father made with Ivan was.
    Oh, Ivan's obligation was clear enough.  In the hospital, the sergeant had told Dad that if he were to come with him, he would help him.  So it wasn't a total mystery why Ivan should have taken my father along when he left Batalpashinsk, even though Dad was only semi-conscious and a burden, rather than leaving him behind.  That was what he'd promised he would do.
    My father might act as though the sergeant had just happened to have a spare donkey on his hands and chose Dad to put on it because he had a liking for him.  But, in fact, Ivan had deliberately set out to trade the horse and cart for two donkeys because neither Kyril nor my father was able to walk, and he needed transportation to carry them further into the mountains than a horse and cart could go at this time of year. The two boys were the last surviving chicks of this mother hen of the battlefield, and he wasn't about to abandon either one of them as long as he still drew breath.
    However, what Dad had agreed to was a bit more problematic -- for him, at least.
    The sergeant had asked my father to trust in God.  But it wasn't possible for him to do that.
    Yet Ivan did rely on God, and clearly was going to continue to do it.  So by agreeing to leave the hospital without permission and follow where the sergeant led him, Dad was tacitly authorizing Ivan to trust in God for both of them.
    My father would rely upon the sergeant.  And Ivan would strive for the impossible.  If a miracle should take place, like the sudden appearance of the donkeys, Dad would accept the magic without questioning how the trick had been done, or whether they were actually donkeys at all.
    That would be his part of the bargain.  For the duration.  For as long as he had need of miracles.
    Afterwards, however, my father would do his best to put out of his mind that he could ever have made any agreement like that.

    When they made camp that night, they had roast lamb to eat.  It was the best meal they'd had in a long time, and better than any they'd have for months to come.
    Dad began feeling stronger for having eaten.  The next day, he would be more alert.
    However, Ivan began running a serious fever on that second day.  It wasn't altogether surprising that he should become sick.  He'd managed to remain on his feet while people all around him were falling ill.  He'd also been pushing himself for far too long.  Even though he was older than everyone else, he'd asked more of himself than of them, while taking less.
    Sick or not, however, Ivan was still able to place one foot in front of the other, so he wasn't through yet.  On he led them into the mountains by a path so precipitous that one of the officers was assigned to walk beside my father just to be sure that he didn't slip off his donkey and fall into the gorge of the River Tiberda below.
    On the third day, they came upon a stone church on a level place on the far side of the river.  It was surrounded by smaller whitewashed stone buildings, with another church from earlier times set on a height above.  Beyond it rose snow-covered peaks.
    This was the convent of Spasso-Preobrajenski.  Twenty nuns lived here with as many novices, a dozen aging monks, and a retired general and his wife who were here on retreat.
    The six men who crossed the rickety bridge which led to this monastery for women were a sorry-looking lot, ragged, unshaven and dirty.  The wild-eyed sergeant who led them was wobbling as he walked.  Both boys riding donkeys had one leg swathed in filthy bandages.  And three emaciated young officers came trailing after.
    They were met by an elderly nun on the far side of the bridge.  Ivan asked to speak to the Mother Superior, and he was taken away to see her.
    Kyril and Dad were led to the infirmary where a brusque nun cut away their bandages.  After she'd rewrapped Kyril's leg, she cleaned the stinking rotting flesh from Dad's blue foot and then put something on it which stung fiercely.  She informed him that the foot would heal better if it weren't bandaged again.
    Before she was finished, Ivan came lurching through the door looking like some mad mountain hermit.  But he was the bearer of good news.  Another marvelous thing had taken place.
    At the request of the Mother Superior, Sister Nina, the sergeant had told her about the two years he'd spent in a monastery near Moscow.  And not only did it turn out that she was familiar with the place, having served in a nearby convent, but she was acquainted with his superior.  In fact, the Archimandrite had been the one who'd proposed her for her position here.
    Sister Nina decided that the three officers were to be taken by a reliable guide to a village of safety.  The three sick men were to be given refuge.
    Ivan had striven.
    God's will had been done.


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