Alexei Panshin's The Abyss of Wonder




    Then, one morning in late October, a group of horsemen came to the monastery.
    The men were Kuban Cossacks.  My father recognized some of them from the train the previous March.
    They said the Red Army only held the Caucausus lightly, and resistance was still alive in the mountains.  In a few days, an attack would be launched upon Batalpashinsk.  Every able-bodied man was needed.  Who would come?
    The major was the first to volunteer.  His behavior was about to be made an issue at the convent and he'd worn out his welcome here.  This gave him a good reason to leave.
    And the call of patriotic duty was more than either Kyril or Dad could resist.  They agreed to join the fight, too, even though they had no weapons to fight with, not even a blunderbuss.
    When fifty mounted men appeared at the monastery on the appointed day, my father climbed willingly into one of the two empty carts they'd brought with them, along with Kyril and the major.
    However, Ivan didn't go.
    Dad would write that he couldn't remember why Ivan stayed behind.  And he would suggest that he may have thought that the attack had little chance of success.
    No doubt that was true.  Even had the raid on Batalpashinsk gone exactly as it was supposed to, there was no chance that a little beehive-stealing escapade like this off in the Caucausus Mountains was going to turn into the rallying point for a defeat of the Red Army throughout Russia.
    However, that kind of thinking doesn't sound like Ivan, who was never a man to duck a fight in a good cause simply because the odds were against him.  It's much too sober, rational and after-the-fact.  Even if he'd been given to calculation, I doubt that Ivan had either enough information or sufficient perspective on the overall state of the war to make any strategic assessments just then.
    It seems more likely to me that the sergeant reacted to the moment as he encountered it.  And if he didn't volunteer when they were first approached or climb into the cart when all the others did, it was because something about the situation didn't feel right to him.
    A cavalry strike in hopes of finding a store of weapons and ammunition in a Batalpashinsk held by only a few defenders may have seemed both underplanned and overhopeful to him.  Or maybe he smelled a rat.
    In the event, the would-be attackers never reached their goal.
    As soon as they got to more open country, the Cossacks went trotting on ahead of the slowly-moving carts, which were now filled with men, all of them officers but Kyril and my father.  In their hurry to push on, the Kubans were soon out of sight.
    And then they came pellmelling back pursued by men on horseback.  The Reds had known in advance they were coming and had been waiting for them in ambush.
    It was as though the opposition to the Bolsheviks, which had been scattered through these mountains like so many separate blades of grass, had conveniently gathered itself all together in a bunch, and now the scythe was being swung to harvest the crop.
    When Kyril and Dad took in what was happening, they went over the side of the moving wagon during the one moment in which it could be done.  They dove into a field of corn that by some happy chance was still standing unharvested this late in the season, and then did their best to make themselves invisible.
    In the final glimpse my father caught of what was going on, one cart had already been brought to a halt.  The Siberian major had taken over the reins of the other.  He was standing up, desperately whipping the horse on, but he was being rapidly overtaken by mounted men, bared sabres in hand.
    And that was the last my father would ever see of him.

    If throughout the summer, Dad had been above the storm, he'd put himself right back in the middle of it now.
    He and Kyril spent a miserable night lying low in the woods, afraid they might get lost, and also afraid of being found.  It rained.  They got wet and then cold, but they didn't dare to light a fire lest they give themselves away.
    What they ought to do next wasn't clear.  In the morning, all they could think of was to set off back up the road to Spasso-Preobrajenski, as though if they were to ask Ivan, he might have some answer for them.
    Then, in this moment when my father was most in need of guidance and direction, out of the brush stepped one more miracle, gun in hand.  It was the most romantic figure of his former life -- Ahmed the Moslem guard with whom he'd ridden the boundaries of Mikhailovka when he was a boy.
    What an unanticipated thing to happen!  No wonder Dad could think of this as the most incredible incident of his life.
    Ahmed was taken by surprise, too, but he recognized my father as the boy he'd once known now grown up, and he called him "Alyosha." He asked Dad in a joking way where his horse was and what he was doing here so far from home.
    My father explained what had happened to him and Kyril and said they were on the run now.
    Ahmed said: "Why don't you go to my village with me?  They will not get you there.  I will find you a pretty girl.  You will marry her, and settle among us."
    What a golden prospect to hold in front of Dad at a moment like that!  Just to be asked cheered him.

    Ahmed and his companion led them to a clearing not far away.  And there my father saw mounted horsemen forming two separate circles.
    The riders in the larger ring were Cherkessi like Ahmed, more than a hundred strong.  They'd arrived on the scene the previous day just in time to turn back the Bolshevik pursuit of the Kuban Cossacks.  They were now gathered around their chieftains, imposing-looking men at the center of the circle.
    The smaller ring of horsemen were what remained of the Kubans.  At their heart was a respected general named Savin whom my father didn't know.
    Nearby stood a handful of White Army officers in their tattered uniforms.  None were men who'd been in the carts with Kyril and Dad.  But the two of them were recognized by one of the young officers who had walked behind their donkeys from Batalpashinsk to the monastery, and he brought them into the group.
    The men in the clearing had been trying to decide what to do next, just like my father and Kyril.  There appeared to be three choices open to them -- to continue to fight, to go back home, or to flee Russia altogether.
    The Cherkessi had come to a decision.  To fight further would be to invite the destruction of their villages and families.  They were going to return home and lay down their arms.
    Hearing this settled matters for the Kubans.  Without the assistance of the Cherkessi, there weren't enough of them to fight on.  Nor was it possible for them to go home.  Unlike the tribesmen, they were men in uniform, and, at the least, the officers among them would all be shot.
    The only course remaining open now, General Savin told them, was to cross the Caucausus Mountains into Georgia.
    The Cherkessi declared that it couldn't be done.  It had been snowing in the mountains for nearly two months and the passes were closed. But General Savin and the men who followed him saw no other choice, and they were determined to try.
     So a deal was struck.  The Cherkessi would attempt to guide them over the mountains, and in return they would take possession of all the Kuban horses.

    There was one person who did have an option as to which way he would go -- my father.  However, when the Cherkessi turned off onto a separate trail for home, Dad said goodby to Ahmed.  He'd thanked him for his offer but told him he couldn't accept.
    The reason my father would give was that the cultural gap was just too wide for him to bridge.  It was too late for him to become Cherkess now, let alone a Moslem.
    Once again, no doubt that was true.  Dad would have made a very bad Cherkessi, and no Moslem at all.  At the same time, it also sounds like another rational gloss to me.
    I think it was more like this:
    Ahmed and the picture of possibility he painted were a romantic dream sprung to life from out of Dad's past.  When my father was a boy, a storybook adventure like that would have held the greatest appeal for him if Ahmed had ever proposed such a thing some moonlit night when they were riding fence together or eating porridge by the herdsman's fire in the meadow.
    However, while he was growing up, every easy dream that Dad had ever had had been stripped away from him.  First, there had been his father's successive losses of property, then the hardships and narrowing of horizons of the First World War, followed by further reductions in the family's fortunes and his future prospects under the Red occupation of Voronezh.  During the past year, he had enlisted in an army about to begin its retreat, been under fire and been wounded, been forced to participate in an arbitrary execution, suffered the threat of death from typhus and of amputation for gangrene, and spent months in isolation on a mountain top.
    I think my father's participation without a weapon in the abortive attack on Batalpashinsk was his last futile gesture at holding onto a life for himself in Russia.  And now he'd become so hopeless and disillusioned that an outright impossibility like crossing mountains deep in new snow to an unknowable future could appear a more plausible course for him to pursue than the fulfillment of some fantasy he might once have entertained about going home with Ahmed, settling down among wild and free tribal horsemen, and marrying a pretty mountain girl.
    When the Cherkessi went their own way, my father was among those who continued after General Savin and the Kuban Cossacks back up the road to Spasso-Preobrajenski.


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