Alexei Panshin's The Abyss of Wonder




    Although he wasn't yet aware of it, Dad's active service as a rifle-toting warm body was already over.  He wasn't able to point a gun just now, and the White Army would only continue to fall apart at the seams.
    There really hadn't been much genuine substance to his military career.  It could almost seem that the whole desperate cavalry gambit of the White Army had happened for the sole purpose of reaching out to him in Voronezh, snatching him up and carrying him away, and then setting him down here in Ekaterinodar, just a little worse for wear.
    He would gradually begin to regain strength from his bout with typhus.  However, when he attempted to walk, he discovered that his left foot had now turned blue, and two of his toes were green.  It was all that he could do to hobble a little on the outside edge of his foot.
    A nurse told him that his foot should be amputated before the gangrene had a chance to spread to his leg.  But the doctors were too busy just then to attend to the job, which would prove lucky since it left him some ability to move when he had to.
    After the passage of another week, he looked up one day from his book to find a visitor at the foot of his bed.  It was Ivan Kashirin, his sergeant.  He had come here in search of his men.
    Ivan was the most experienced soldier in my father's unit, a twice-wounded veteran of the Great War in Europe.  Dad admired his competence and the uncanny ability of the sergeant to keep a cool head even in the most heated moments.
    In terms of the authority that he'd been forced to assume, if not his actual rank, Ivan was their company commander.  It was he who'd given the youngsters what training they'd had.  In the brief time available to him, he'd done what he could to teach them not to be either stupid or foolish when bullets were flying at them.  He'd kept them together through the disastrous retreat as much by his bearing and example as by the orders he gave.  And he was still doing what he could to look out for them now.
    Ivan's path of spiritual advance was through combat.  If he'd happened to live in a society which recognized people like him and made provision for them, he might have been an excellent samurai, Knight Templar, or Lakota warrior.  As things were, his life served as a battleground for the contending sides of his nature. 
    In his youth in northern Russia, he'd been a leader of hooligans, thrown into jail on more than one occasion for disturbing the peace.  He had also earned the highest Russian medal for valor, the Cross of Saint George.
    When he first entered the army, Ivan's physique won a place for him in an elite guard regiment, where he rose to be a sergeant.  But women had a way of hurling themselves at him and expecting him to catch them.  He'd committed the error of making love to the wrong noble young lady, and as a consequence found himself assigned to an infantry regiment in Siberia.  Even so, it wouldn't be the last time in his life that he would toy with a mistake of that kind.
    On the eve of the First World War, he was a novice in a monastery near Moscow.  But with the permission of the Archimandrite, he'd left the monastery to rejoin his old guard regiment, and later to fight in the White Army.  The last time that my father heard from him, he would be in another monastery in Serbia.
    But he would never make a very good monk.  Such were the conflicts in his soul that in circumstances of routine, peace and ease, he became a drunk.
    It took the immediate challenge of wartime to call forth the best in Ivan.  Combat gave him an active opportunity to exercise his higher nature at a time when it really counted.  Under fire, responding creatively to the needs of the moment, he found it possible to be responsible, resourceful, unselfish and persevering.  And he did even better in circumstances of chaos and disaster.
    My father would owe his life more than once to Ivan's ability to rise to the occasion and his refusal to ever give up.  Dad would never really understand why the sergeant kept rescuing him, not realizing that Ivan was following the demands of an inner calling which would not let him do otherwise, or that his own degree of responsiveness might have anything to do with what happened to him.
    The sergeant was here to tell him that the Red Army was now just fifty miles away and would soon be reaching the city.  But if any of his men in the hospital were able to move, they were welcome to come with him.  They would travel as far as they could by rail, and then go south.
    That could only mean into the mountains -- or over the mountains to Georgia, which had used the uncertainty of the moment to declare its independence from Russia.  Ivan was telling him that they weren't merely retreating any longer.  They were fleeing now.
    Dad showed the sergeant his foot and said that he couldn't walk far.
    Ivan said,  "Put your trust in God.  What have you to lose?  Stay here and they shoot you.  Go with us and maybe you will make it, God willing.  I will help you if you decide to go."
    My father placed no credence in religion, so it meant nothing to him to have the sergeant speak of reliance on the will of God.  But he did understand that the Red Army was on its way, and he had no illusions about the mercy it would have for him when it got here.
    During the period they'd run Voronezh, the Reds had revealed themselves as even more impressed by a technical solution to a problem than my grandfather.  Not only had they taken Mihailovka away from the committee of peasants who'd seized it, they had confiscated the peasants' own holdings, as well.  Then they'd merged all of the land into one gigantic state farm in the image of a factory.
    The peasants longed to own more that was theirs alone, and not to share everything while owning nothing, and so they'd risen once more.  For this reactionary behavior and willful refusal to be properly grateful, they'd been put down harshly.
    As somebody whom the Bolsheviks defined as a counter-revolutionary, Dad could hardly expect any greater sympathy from the Reds.  Bad foot or not, his chances had to be better with Ivan.  If the sergeant was willing to give him a hand when he needed it, he'd do all he could to keep up.
    At the appointed hour, then, he rose from his cot.  Ivan took his duffle bag and helped him down the stairs.  My father was afraid that somebody would try to stop them, but so much had normal military and medical discipline broken down that nobody questioned their leaving.
    However, he would be the only one who followed the sergeant from the hospital.


Border courtesy of FDZ Graphics
Bullet courtesy of Dreamcatcher Graphics