Alexei Panshin's The Abyss of Wonder




    Ten days later, five Red Army Cossacks came riding into the monastery from Batalpashinsk.  The old general and his wife were quickly spirited out the back to higher ground.
    When the Cossacks arrived, the three men -- Dad, Kyril and Ivan -- were still recovering in the infirmary.  And there would be one tense moment when the leader of the detachment spied my father's boots -- the felt boots of a White Army officer.
    But Dad told the man the truth.  A nurse in the hospital at Ekatarinodar had given him the boots because his had gotten worn out walking south from Voronezh.  So far, he'd only been able to get a foot into one of them, and he'd carried the other along with him.
    Perhaps because my father looked too young to be an officer, his story was accepted, and he wasn't shot on the spot.
    Before the Cossack left, he told them that as soon as the road was clear of snow and ice, a wagon would be sent along to pick them up. But the wagon never came.
    Dad wasn't sure whether this was because the mountains around held too many White Army stragglers, or because they'd somehow been forgotten.

    After three weeks, my father had recovered sufficiently to leave the infirmary.  He moved into a shed in the orchard.
    Several dozen beehives were kept among the trees in the orchard.  And boys from a nearby mountain village thought it was great sport to steal them.
    Dad was given the assignment of guarding the beehives.  To do this job, he was handed an 18th Century blunderbuss, a weapon which couldn't be aimed, but only fired in a general direction.
    Then, one spring night, he thought he heard a sound.  He loosed a shot into the sky, just as he'd been instructed to do.
    The noise woke the nuns.  However, it was less successful as the gesture of intimidation it was intended to be.  In the morning, a hole was discovered in the woven fence that surrounded the orchard, and several beehives were missing.

    Each year toward the end of May, when the snows had melted in the high meadows, a few of the old monks would set forth from the monastery with a couple of herd dogs and drive a dozen cows and a flock of goats up the mountain to summer pasture.  The monks would live in rude huts in the alpine meadow until snow came again, milking the animals twice a day and making cheese.
    This year, it was thought prudent for Ivan, Kyril and Dad to go with them.
    So up the mountain they went after the monks, the dogs, the cows and the goats, not to come down again until the first snow fell in the middle of September.  All around them, Russia might be in flames and turmoil, but the three soldiers would pass this summer as though they were on a long vacation in a world apart.
    They went swimming in a cold mountain stream.  They fished for trout and then cooked their catch over an open fire.  They drank fresh milk and ate new-made cheese, and they poked fun at the monks, telling them what an easy life they had and how lazy they were.
    Once or twice a week, with the aid of the donkeys that Dad and Kyril had ridden from Batalpashinsk, novices would bring food up the mountain.  They would cook a meal for the men, and then go back down with a load of cheese to be ripened in the monastery's cave.
    The only work the soldiers did that summer was to cut hay during two intense weeks of effort at the end of June, and then several more in the middle of August.  Ivan and Kyril, who were experienced at this, wielded the scythes.  My father had the job of raking the long grass they cut and stacking it.
    The most vivid memory Dad would retain from this summer would be the experience of standing high on a mountainside, with blue skies above them, looking down at thunderstorms raging below.  They could see black clouds lit here and there by lightning, and they could hear the sound of distant thunder. But they were above it all, unaffected.
    Storms like these were even more striking at night -- the stars overhead calm and remote, the storm flaring below.  At a moment like that, Dad felt tiny and insignificant.

    In September, with the cheese and hay all moved to the monastery, they followed the cows and goats down the mountain through newly fallen snow.
    Sister Nina had invited the three soldiers to spend the winter at Spasso-Preobrajenski.  "God willing," she had said, "everything will be all right."
    My father returned to his shed in the orchard.  Ivan and Kyril found space for themselves in the monks' dormitory.
    During the following month, Dad helped to move the beehives from the orchard to winter shelter and assisted the gardener in trimming the fruit trees.  Ivan and Kyril fed the livestock and did the fall plowing of the monastery's extensive vegetable garden.
    After a time, they would be joined by a White Army major, a stocky little Siberian who had grown tired of hiding out in the mountains and fending for himself, and wanted a warm place for the winter.
    The major made himself right at home at the monastery.  He might be a married man with three children at home, but his greatest need at the moment was for a woman.  So he singled out a middle-aged nun and moved in on her like a lion with an eye for the vulnerable zebra in a herd, and began an affair.


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