Alexei Panshin's The Abyss of Wonder




    My father met Ahmed again at the moment that he most needed to.  This was in the Caucasus Mountains during the Civil War, years after they'd last seen each other.  Their encounter would be wholly unexpected, and a great relief to Dad.
    He had just turned nineteen then.  As a straggling soldier in the White Army, he'd agreed to join a prospective battle on no more than the hopeful promise that he would be able to find some weapon for himself after he got there.  Instead, he'd jumped from the moving wagon that was taking him to the fight at the sight of mounted men bearing down on them with raised sabres, and sought refuge in an unharvested field of corn.
    Now he was running from the Red Army once more with no idea of what to do next beyond somehow finding his way back to the monastery where he'd been in hiding.  He and Kyril, his companion, had spent a cold night in the woods, not daring to light a fire, with nothing more to eat than a few sour wild cherries they'd found.
    They were walking along a mountain road when a voice called out for them to halt.  Two men approached them from the brush with drawn guns.  Dad was afraid they'd fallen into the hands of the Communists.
    But these men were wearing traditional mountain garb.  What's more, the taller of the two looked strangely familiar.
    It was Ahmed!  And even though my father was no longer the same boy that he'd once permitted to ride along with him, Ahmed knew him, as well.
    "Alyosha!" he said.  "We meet again.  Where is your horse, and what are you doing here, so far from home?"
    Exactly what Dad was doing there at that moment can't have been completely clear to him--which is what made meeting this way so utterly incredible.

    When the White Army took Voronezh, there had been nothing to keep Dad at home any longer.
    All that his father had to give him was further blame for the collapse of his world.
    He'd said goodbye to Nadya Kotlerova, the daughter of a state prosecutor under the Tsar, as her family left town on the train.  She and her brother had been the best friends that he had, his haven from the emotional thunderstorms raging at home.  She gave him his first kiss as they parted, and she would send him her photograph by a hand-to-hand route through his sister Shura, but he would never set eyes on her again.
Alexei Ivanovich Panshin    And he'd stood in the town square near Leon Trotsky as the organizer of the Red Army delivered an impassioned speech from the back of a splendid black horse urging resistance to the counter-revolutionary forces that were advancing from the south.  He'd been impressive to watch and to listen to.  But if the Communists were to come back to Voronezh, the only certainty they had to offer someone like Dad was that the older he grew, the more suspect and offensive they would be prepared to find him.
    Soon after the White Army got to the city, their recruiting posters appeared on the streets.  Many students were ready to enlist now that the chance was here.  My father, nearly eighteen and a political liberal of largely untested conviction, joined a bunch of his fellows and they all went down to the recruiting office and signed up together.
    He returned home to collect his underwear and say goodbye.  His mother was at morning church service and had to be sent for.  She and his sisters cried at having the youngest of the family leave so suddenly.  Dad believed that his father was secretly proud of him, but couldn't bring himself to say so.
    When my father departed to join his group of forty new recruits, it would be the last time that he would see his home and parents.

    Dad enlisted in the White Army with the expectation of becoming a cavalryman and riding on in triumph to Moscow.
    But that wouldn't happen.
    The offensive that took Voronezh and then stuck there was not the stuff of which triumphs are made.  Rather it was a last desperate act that had run out of breath and come up short of its goal.
    Now the army was overextended.  After less than a month the Reds counterattacked to cut its lines of supply and isolate the occupiers of the city.
    My father's platoon and the other that made up his company were thrown into the initial resistance.  They were pulled from the training ground, placed in horse-drawn carts, and taken to the battlefield where they assumed positions on one side of a river.  They managed to hold in place for three days.  Then artillery was brought to bear on them and they were forced to fall back.
    Instead of moving on to Moscow, Dad went in exactly the opposite direction.  And he wasn't riding a horse.  He walked.

    My father's fighting career was short, futile and ugly.  It only lasted for a period of two months.  It consisted in its entirety of defeat and retreat.
    And it would come to an end with him lying on a cot in a hospital with a case of typhus and with gangrene spreading through his left foot.
    The stand they'd made by the river had helped to buy time for the army in Voronezh to begin its evacuation.  His unit would then become part of the general pullback.
    But they came under continual harassment as they moved.  Again and again his company was drawn into skirmishes and small engagements.  They kept suffering losses and continuing their retreat.
    One month after they first began fighting, only two dozen of the forty youngsters who'd enlisted in Voronezh were still on their feet.  The rest were sick, wounded or dead.  The other platoon had been even harder hit.
    Dad took a superficial bullet wound in his left hand.  That earned him a hot bath, the boiling of his clothes to rid them of lice, and a week of rest -- each of which he valued.  After that, however, he would be returned to his unit in order to retreat some more.
    At the end of the second month of this, the army attempted to make a stand with a forest at its back.  It was late December.  The nights were frigid, and the toes of my father's left foot became frostbitten.
    Once again, his company was in the thick of things for three days and held their ground.  But at the end of that time, they had taken so many casualties that they were no longer an effective fighting force.  Those who remained were pulled from the line, placed on a troop train and sent south to become part of an attempt to regroup.
    Before they left, however, they were forced to watch as a man was killed in reprisal for an incident in which three soldiers had been shot from ambush.  Witnessing this was difficult for my father.  Nobody seemed to care very much whether the person being executed was actually guilty, and that troubled Dad.
    He had rejected the Russian Orthodox religious beliefs of his upbringing -- that was one of the quarrels his father had with him.  Nonetheless, this killing felt like an atrocity to him.  When there was an outbreak of typhus on the train, and Dad was among the first to fall sick, it would pass through his mind as he was drifting into delirium that somebody who did believe would call this retribution.
    But while he was lost to the world, they had the good fortune to overtake a hospital train at a railroad station along the way.  His sergeant, Ivan Kashirin, took advantage of the opportunity and had the sick and wounded transferred from one train to the other.
    When my father regained awareness several weeks later, he found himself in a military hospital in Ekaterinodar.


Border courtesy of FDZ Graphics
Bullet courtesy of Dreamcatcher Graphics