Alexei Panshin's The Abyss of Wonder




    It was not until the 26th of November, New Style, that they were finally able to leave the monastery to begin the attempt on the pass through the mountains.  It was snowing when they left.
    They hadn't been able to go as promptly as they would have liked.  They'd held the defile that led to Spasso-Preobrajenski while they gathered necessary provisions and informed everyone who might want to join them.
    Altogether, there would be more than eighty people in the party.  Among them were the retired general and his wife who'd been on retreat at the convent.
    They felt they couldn't remain there.  They had to go, too.  So Ivan, Kyril and Dad were appointed by General Savin to assist them in making the crossing.
    At the outset, the old couple wanted to take everything they owned with them.  But Ivan pointed out that nothing could go that couldn't be carried, and the soldiers were already burdened.  Their considerable possessions would all have to be left behind.
    And they would be, for the most part.  But one object couldn't be abandoned.
    The three men would be asked to lug the physical sign of the general's rank over the mountains -- his splendid-looking but cumbersome ceremonial greatcoat, silver gray and lined in red.  The coat was excellent for standing in a single place and looking imposing, but it wasn't made for fleeing over mountains.  It would be a trial for them to carry, and they would take turns doing it.
    However, before they left the monastery, the old general was able to exercise the powers of his rank that he still retained to do a useful turn for Ivan, Kyril and my father.  They lacked documents.  Taking considerable pleasure in being able to use his official seal again, he made out certificates for each of them identifying them as members of his old command -- the 2nd Ordnance Commission of the Southern Russian forces -- and then signed and sealed them.
    When Red Army troops moved in to occupy Spasso-Preobrajenski two days after they departed from the monastery, the snow had turned into a blizzard.  There would be no pursuit of their party, which was large and well-armed.  Instead, the mountains and the bad weather were counted upon to do their work.

    General Savin planned to make the crossing in three stages.
    First, he moved the party to an abandoned military camp halfway between Spasso-Preobrajenski and the foot of the pass.  In former times, it had been used for the training of mountain troops.
    The Cossacks rode their horses through the falling snow.  The old general and his wife traveled in one of three horse-drawn sleighs.  The other two were filled with provisions.  Dad was among those who walked.
    This place was to serve as their base camp.  There was an assembly hall here, and a dozen cabins with fireplaces and bunk beds.  They would make the bunks more comfortable with hay from old haystacks that still remained.  The Cossacks established two great fires in the clearing and began to roast sheep.
    But it was snowing harder now, and there in the camp they would stay while the snow continued.  They would find it discouraging to be stuck in this place for one uncertain day after another, listening to the wind howl and watching the snow get deeper.
    The snow was still falling late on the fifth day when Ivan Kashirin -- who always knew what was going on -- informed my father that they were about to break camp and move closer to the pass to wait for the blizzard to end.
    Then Ivan asked Dad, "Do you believe in miracles, Alyosha?"
    My father answered with a denial and a recitation of the direness of their plight: "Miracles?  I don't.  All this looks like a bad dream to me.  The Reds may be 15 versts behind us, the mountains are all around us, and we are trapped like hunted animals, with only that pass ahead."
    Do you find it at all strange that my father could be so adamant about denying any belief in the miraculous at this moment when it looked like nothing short of a miracle could be enough to get them over the mountains to Georgia?
    It seems strange to me.  By my reckoning, at least, in order for my father to get to this moment of denial, an astonishing series of unlikely happenings and fortuitous events -- call them miracles -- had been necessary, from the cavalry paying an unexpected visit to Voronezh to snatch Dad from the hands of the Communists to the convenient existence of a cornfield still standing in November for him and Kyril to hide in.
    And yet, the only one of my father's experiences that he would ever suggest had appeared extraordinary to him, and not just his good fortune or the way things happened to go, was having Ahmed pop out of the bushes to offer him a fairytale future as a prince of the mountains.
    In short, the only miracle that Dad would ever be capable of acknowledging as such would be the one miracle that he'd turned his back on.  And so great would be his determination to be rational at the moment Ivan asked his question that my father wouldn't even remember that his encounter with Ahmed -- which he'd later call the most incredible incident of his life -- had taken place just a few weeks before.
    Dad did not believe in miracles.  And he wasn't going to believe in miracles.
    Even so, here they were in a predicament my father could see no rational way out of, but which still had to be coped with.
    Ivan said, "Well, I do believe in miracles, Alyosha.  And I believe in God's will.  Remember, I was a monk once.  Well, almost a monk.  But now we'd better get ready."
    And he picked up his pack and started for the door.
    Whatever was Dad to do now?
    He remembered what Ivan had said to him when he'd been lying in a hospital bed in Ekaterinodar with a blue foot, and the Red Army approaching, and he'd just doubted his ability to keep up with the sergeant.  It seemed that once again he had the choice of following Ivan and his reliance on God's will, or giving up and waiting to be shot.
    My father took one last look around the cabin.  And then the man who refused to believe in miracles followed the man who did believe out the door.
    It was still snowing when the party set out from the base camp, the Cossacks astride their horses, and the old general and his wife in the only sleigh.
    But the timing of their move was just right.  As they moved higher something happened that helped to lighten their spirits.  The clouds fell away beneath them, and they emerged above the storm into a starry night, with the trail ahead of them brightly lit by the moon.


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