"It has come! It has come!" the gray-haired woman shouted excitedly. She caught her breath as she ran up the steps of the dreary cottage two at a time. At the top, she stopped in front of Vladimir Antonovich, who was standing on the dilapidated porch out of the heavy rain.
He rubbed sleep from his eyes as he reached to help her. She yanked an official-looking brown envelope from beneath her soggy sweater. "Here," she said, pushing the thick envelope toward him, using both hands. "Take it before I faint."
"Mother, what is it?” He helped her sit on a rickety chair by the gray wall, waterlogged by frequent rain. "Where have you been? You should not have gone out in this kind of weather. I've told you before that it could kill you. Why won’t you ever listen to me?”
"It came by special delivery," she interrupted impatiently. "I caught the postman down the path. I thanked him personally for you and for the village." The words were chopped and breathless. "He told me the mail van from Moscow got here early today. Open it, my son."
He stood by the wall and tore open the envelope while she talked.
"It must be your orders," she said, starting to stand.
He nudged her gently back onto the chair. "Rest," he said. "You'll have a heart attack if you don’t settle down. Please."
"Not today. I'm too excited. The envelope will be your opportunity, Vladimir, your chance to get out of here and away from him. God, I'm so happy for you."
“You should not have gone for the mail, Mother. You should have kicked my boot to wake me up. I must have dozed off here on the porch after they released us because of the inclement weather and the soggy fields. What a son I am. While I sleep, you get drenched. I hope you can forgive me.”
"Please, don't fret so. You needed a little sleep. God knows you won't get very much of that with the Army." She used her wet apron to wipe her face. "Well?" she said, watching him scan the letter. "What do they say? You'd better hurry and tell me. He'll be coming before long, and you know what that will mean."
"Let him come. Soon, I won't be here for him or his stupid boot."
"Quickly," she prodded. “He's due home early today. He could come any minute now. What do the papers say?"
"Give me a chance to read, will you?" Browsing the notice, he noted the date stamped at its top right-hand corner. 2 April 1969. He pulled more papers from the envelope, and quickly scanned them. Then, sighing, he looked down into her inquisitive eyes.
"I guess this is it, Mother. I'm ordered to the Course of the Young Soldier near Kiev to begin my basic Army training. God, how I hate to leave you here alone with him, but what can I do? When the Army calls, you have to go or face the consequences." He smiled weakly.
"It will be fine, my son. I am sure. Meanwhile, I think I'll bake you a cake tonight." For some reason she felt relieved that he was leaving this place, even though she knew how hard the Army could be, especially lately. Still, it might not be as bad as here, so long as he remained careful and did exactly what he was told to do.
At least there, he might have a chance to become somebody, not a brute like his stepfather always tried to make him be. If only his real father were still alive. How different things might have been. But fate did not grant such choices often, only pain and grief, and sometimes a loving son who cared.
"Don't do anything that will upset him,” Vladimir said, interrupting her reverie. “You know how he is about being wasteful. And cakes to him are extremely wasteful."
"You deserve a party, and I'm going to give you one," she said softly, “no matter what he says."
"Just be careful." He suddenly wondered if he'd survive the brutal Army training. A conscript’s life was not a pleasant one, he’d heard. Maybe his stepfather could advise him on the matter, but he doubted it. He'd never had any time for such talks with him before, why would he now?
"At least they've ordered you to duty during the spring," the mother said. "That's a lot better than having a snow bank covering your feet in the fall."
At her words, Vladimir remembered conscripts were usually called-up in the spring or fall depending upon when their birthdays were. Since his was in January, he was ripe for the spring call-up like all other eighteen-year-olds.
"It doesn't really matter when," Vladimir said. "It will be hard all the same."
"You'll make us proud, I'm sure of it."
"Oh, Mother, I don't see how I can make anyone proud. I'll only be a common soldier, not an officer.”
"It will make no difference. Common soldiers have made their families just as proud as any officer could. It's not the grade that counts, it's this." She placed a hand over her heart. "And this." She touched her forehead.
"He would never be proud of anything I did."
"Of course he would. You'll see. He'll help you all he can."
"I don't think so. I talked to Andrei, and he told me that his father personally visited the local military commissariat. Arrangements have been made for him to be considered for a position as a conscript sergeant. He won't be required to attend the Course of the Young Soldier like the rest of us. He'll attend a six-month sergeant's school where he'll learn to command common soldiers like me."
"It will all work out, you’ll see. Maybe they will even select you for officer cadet training when they see how bright you are. You did well on all of the tests, and you're healthier than any boy in the village."
"It will take more than that, I'm afraid."
"Well, you were a member of the local Komsomol group since you were fourteen. That should count for something."
"I don't think so. I'm destined to serve as a soldier for my two years and that's that. And as far as the Youth Group is concerned, I never did very well with the politics of it all. The hiking and camping were the only things I ever really enjoyed."
"I will talk with your father. He'll be home from the bureau shortly. Maybe he can talk to the commissariat tomorrow and then we'll see." She nervously twisted the end of her soiled apron when she mentioned the father this time.
"He has already talked to them," Vladimir said, looking out at the muddied lawn. "I found out that there are some in the village who have received deferments because of their father's pleadings with the authorities. Others have been selected for conscript sergeant training, while others have been told that they would be sent to officer's school. All of this happened because their fathers intervened for them."
"That's what I've said, my son. Your father can…"
"My stepfather can do nothing for me because he does not want to." He sounded angrier than before.
"Surely he can talk to the officials."
"As I said, he already has. He saw the chief of the local commissariat. He even bribed him, I've been told. A girl I know that works at the office told me she overheard the conversation herself. She has never lied to me. And that’s more than I can say about my stepfather."
"If he took the time to see the commissariat, he must be trying to help you. Why else would he go there, if he didn’t want to help?”
"He went to bribe them not to give me any special training or what he called easy assignments. He told the official he'd served in the Great Patriotic War himself as a private, and had met the Nazis head-on like a man. He did not want his only son to begin an Army obligation with a gold coin in his ear. His son must be a man is what he told him.”
“But why would he do that?"
"It is his way. You know that better than me."
"I will talk to him. Sometimes, he can be an understanding man, at least agreeable, if I catch him in the right frame of…”
“No, he is never in the right frame of mind. You will only make it worse if you try to talk to him. I will be gone to the Army in several weeks. I won't be able to protect you then. You know how he is when any of his decisions are questioned, and as far as I know, he is neither understanding nor ever agreeable.”
"I will talk to him."
"It will do no good."
"I will try."
Vladimir Antonovich shrugged his wide shoulders. He opened the cottage door for his mother, and followed her into the drab living room at the edge of the kitchen.
Touching her shoulder, he turned for the square bedroom at the far wall where he could rest and think about the Course of the Young Soldier, and the stories about it and its training sergeants, who supposedly wore heavy boots even to bed, so they would always be ready to jack up a new recruit day or night.
He'd heard plenty about the three to four-week course and the Army’s atrocious discipline, and everything he'd heard sent shivers down his spine. He hoped that most of what he'd heard had been nothing more than simple exaggerations, but his heart told him otherwise.
Even some newspapers had confirmed irregularities during the initial training period and after. A soldier’s life was always in jeopardy in peace or war, especially before he’d learned to cope.
* * *
While Vladimir rested, the father arrived home in a huff like usual. He threw his jacket on the hook behind the kitchen door, and then flopped onto a hard chair at the hard table in the middle of the room. Not speaking, he looked at his wife by the wood-burning stove at the far wall while he picked up the vodka bottle from the table. She had placed it there for him like every other day.
He poured himself a half-a-water-glass full, gulped it down, and then poured another. Wiping his thick mustache with the back of two fingers, he continued to watch his wife at work by the stove, suspecting something was amiss by her unusual silence.
She continued to prepare the evening meal without speaking, but periodically glanced over her shoulder at him as she worked. She knew most of his quirks quite well by now. After all, she'd been married to him for the past fifteen years or so, after his last wife had left him for a younger, less violent man.
She knew he demanded that his evening meal be warm, and expected that she be punctual in its serving. Any deviation could result in a swift and often times brutal admonition, which might include a severe blow to the head or worse, depending upon how many vodkas he'd consumed before he'd come home from work. Somehow, she was able to endure. He did at least provide shelter and food for her and her son, if nothing more, and that had counted for something, she'd often told Vladimir. She was forever trying to soothe the anger and hate that burned deep down in his throat.
"Where's the boy?" the father finally asked. He poured himself another glass of vodka.
"In his room. His notice came."
"Good, maybe the Army will make a man out of him. I never could."
"Don't be so harsh on the lad. He's a good boy."
"Good boy?" He banged on the table. "He's now eighteen. He must become a man soon or he may never live to see any glory in his brooding eyes. He never listens to me no matter how hard I try to teach him with my words, or with the toe of my boot."
She saw that he was in one of his moods again. She wiped her hands nervously on her fresh apron as she walked over to the stone fireplace at the other wall. She used its fire to boil water sometimes while she cooked the main meal on the wood-burner behind her.
At the fireplace, she picked up a heavy poker. She began to turn the crackling logs beneath the iron water pot boiling there. When the fire was sparkling better, she returned to the stove to stir the soup. Somehow, she felt more confident now. She would ask him.
She talked over her shoulder, avoiding his eyes. "I've heard that some of the boys in town have received early deferments," she said softly. "Some have even gotten special military schools." She wiped sweat from her forehead with the back of her hand, and then pushed a long strand of gray hair out of her eyes.
"That will never happen with my son. He needs no such nonsense. He will be a soldier, or die trying."
"Tell me, my husband; is it true that you bribed the local commissariat?" She stopped stirring the soup a moment, and listened for a reply without turning to face him and his eyes and anger.
The direct question caught him off guard. He finally jumped to his feet and moved swiftly to the stove. He pulled her around by the shoulder, and placed his face inches away from hers while he spoke.
"Who told you that? It's a damn lie."
"A girl at the commissariat overheard…"
"Vladimir says he knows the girl well. She wouldn't lie to him, he said."
"Damn bitches in the commissariat lie about everything. That's their job. They're paid to deceive the newly conscripted boys in town, so they won't run away from their military duties even before they arrive at camp. Those bitches wouldn't know the truth if it were pasted to their stupid lips like the cheap rouge they wear."
Holding her by the shoulder, he slapped her hard across the face. "I won't listen to such lies. Do you hear me? Now, finish your work here. A man needs nourishment after a hard day's work at the bureau."
Returning to the table, he poured another glass of vodka, and then sat back in the hard chair. He would have to talk to the commissariat again tomorrow.
He must be informed that he has a talkative girl in his office, one that might be better used in the fields with a shovel in her hands rather than sitting on her brains in a warm office at a typewriter. He'd see to it personally.
When Vladimir heard the commotion in the kitchen, he sprang from his bed, and rushed to the side of his mother. At the stove, he saw that she was upset and sobbing. He turned to his father with his hands clenched at his sides.
"What have you done to my mother this time?"
"Done? I've done nothing that is of any concern of yours, my half-assed son." He smiled at the reference to the fact that Vladimir was his stepson by this, his third marriage.
"Then why is she crying?" He moved closer to the table, and looked down at his stepfather with fiery eyes. He could take a lot of things from this man who called himself his father, but not the senseless brutality against his mother.
The father stood and faced him toe-to-toe. He had the look of an experienced bull, readying himself to react to the slightest provocation.
Vladimir, like always, was the tantalizing tease, the red flag blowing in the breeze, urging the bull to the fight.
"I demand that you apologize to my mother."
The stepfather smiled wickedly before he slashed out with a fist that connected directly to the tip of Vladimir's nose. It knocked him to the floor.
"Is that apology enough?" He stepped back so his stepson could stand, but readied himself in case the boy had not yet learned his lesson.
Vladimir jumped to his feet. Blood covered his nose and mouth. His mother handed him a towel while she clicked her tongue and made a face. He wiped his nose quickly, and glared at the bullish-looking man still standing before him, smirking.
"Please, he's but a boy." The mother wrung her hands, and then reached out, pleading.
"That's the problem. He's nothing but a boy, and will always be one unless he finally decides to become a man." The father pushed her aside. “Get out of my way.”
Vladimir threw the bloody towel to the floor. "You lay a hand on my mother again and I will kill you. I mean it this time." He spit out the words like he wanted to kill him right now.
Suddenly, Vladimir felt the back of his head hit the floorboards. He opened his eyes and saw stars in the whitewashed ceiling beams. He sat up and shook his head. He'd not seen the blow coming that time.
It took him a minute, but he was finally able to stand. Taking a gulp of air, he wiped blood from his mouth and nose with the sleeve of his shirt. Then, he raised his fists to fight some more.
"So, you want to play today, is that it? The father asked, rolling up his sleeves. "Then play we will." He kicked out, almost knocking Vladimir to the floor.
Vladimir caught himself and bounced back like an agile ropewalker that had momentarily lost his footing. He struck his attacker squarely in the forehead with his fist, then jumped back swiftly as he raised his hands to guard his face.
He could take a direct blow from a fist to the nose; he'd done it many times before, but the boots were something else again.
Mr. Antonovich moved back and forth in front of him like a nervous wolf ready for a kill.
Vladimir struck out at the smiling face, but missed it completely. The father moved to the left and punched him in the stomach, then the face, and then the back of the head while he was bent over. Looking up, Vladimir held tightly to his stomach. He felt bloody bile burn his throat.
After a few more blows to the face and the back of the head, he fell to the floor with a loud thud. He heard his mother screaming in the background just before he passed out completely.
When he woke up, he found himself lying on the kitchen table on his back. His stepfather was slapping his face, cursing him still. The mother tried to pull him off, but she wasn't strong enough.
She pleaded with the husband while she tugged on his arm, but he wouldn't listen. He kept pushing her away while he continued to slap Vladimir hard in the face. She could see he was completely out of control. When she could no longer take it, she turned to the fireplace and picked up a poker.
Shaking, she slammed it down at her husband's back. It missed the intended spot, but did catch him in the shoulder. He released Vladimir to rub the hurt, and turned to face her. There was foam at the corners of his mouth. He looked like a mad bull ready to make a second charge.
"So, it has come to this. My own wife strikes me with a dirty poker." She'd never seen him quite this mad before. His face was a blotch of fury, something from hell. The look and the voice frightened her so badly that she finally dropped the poker. She covered her face, and waited for the blow she knew would come.
Antonovich slapped her hands away, and then smashed her in the jaw. The blow knocked her to the floor. With her down and out of the way, he returned to the business with Vladimir.
Vladimir surprised him this time. He was up and waiting. He kicked him in the thigh, and then punched him in the face with a solid left hook. Bouncing around the room, he looked for another opening. He'd obviously caught his second wind, and was ready to fight some more.
Antonovich rubbed his jaw, and then his leg as he moved back into battle. He had a strange smile on his lips, almost evil. "Let's see if you can take it better than you can give it you, you boy." He emphasized the word boy to anger Vladimir more. He knew he hated to be called that even more than getting kicked in the back of the legs with a heavy boot.
Turning to the place where his wife was lying, he picked up the poker she'd dropped before. He lashed out quickly, beating Vladimir in the head, on the back, on the legs, in the chest, anywhere he could strike. He was a madman, completely out of control, crazed, in a world that only he could know.
Soon, Vladimir was down again. He struggled to avoid the painful blows. He finally raised a hand, but it was ignored. The father continued with the beating. No son of his…by blood or marriage…was going to be disrespectful to him, not in his own home he wasn't.
Mrs. Antonovich moaned as she tried to move herself onto an elbow. With effort, she was finally able to raise a hand. She called out to her husband. "Stop! For the love of God, stop." She was crying hard now. "He's my son, yours by marriage. Do you want to see him dead so badly that you would kill him right here on my kitchen floor?"
She tried to sit up, but the pain was too great. She slumped over onto her back instead, and wailed loudly like before, gulping at the air.
The father hesitated, then finally stopped the beating and turned to his wife. He dropped the poker and rubbed his hands over his face like he was trying to wash away the pain and anger, the madness that had overcome him.
He dropped to his knees by her, and held her in his arms, talking some kind of nonsense that she'd heard before. He finally picked her up, and carried her to the small living room off from the kitchen. There, he stroked her moist cheeks with both hands while he tried to make her comfortable on the sofa. On his knees on the floor, he asked her for forgiveness like he'd always done before when he'd lost control.
Groggy and beaten, Vladimir struggled to the table in the middle of the room. He flopped down onto a hard-backed chair. The vodka bottle was still standing there despite the commotion that had knocked him and the vodka glass to the floor earlier.
He picked up the bottle and placed it to his puffy lips, and drank deeply. Coughing, he suddenly fainted, then slumped to the floor, his head resting by the chair.
* * *
When Vladimir awoke the next day he was in bed, naked. The mother was at his side, smearing his body with lotions and salves and smelly grease made from special herbs that her mother and her grandmother before her had taught her how to prepare and use years ago before they'd both passed away.
She knew the remedies would eventually soothe and heal the cuts and bruises covering her son's body. And she also knew that he'd been fortunate even though he'd suffered painful cuts and bruises. At least there were no broken bones, and her husband had not killed him although, God knows, he'd tried.
Vladimir raised his eyelids slowly when he felt the hands of his mother greasing his body. He tried to sit up but couldn't. He pressed himself painfully into the pillows, and kept his eyes closed to protect them from the light.
"Rest, my son; that's the best medicine, it and my lotions."
"Where is he?" He squinted a moment, cupping his eyes. The eyes were black and blue and bloodshot like someone had slammed his face into the side of a cement wall, or like a bull had crashed into his face head-on, poking him in the eye with a pointed horn.
"Gone. He went to the commissariat. He said he would try to get you a deferment until fall. He doesn’t think you are in proper physical condition for the Army."
"Please, rest, sleep. Soon, you'll feel better." She rubbed grease into his legs as she spoke.
Vladimir slipped into a deep sleep again. He slept fitfully for several days, moaning in the night with his terrible pain. His mother, and later a local midwife, continued to administer the salves and lotions.
By the time he was able to sit up; a thin, gray-haired doctor with metal-framed spectacles came to examine him. He had to verify that he was unfit for military duty at the time. The doctor sucked in his breath when he saw the ugly cuts and bruises. He was a little worried, too, about Vladimir's reflexes. He suspected there was something wrong with the nerves in his back.
When the doctor sat at the edge of the bed, he looked up at Mrs. Antonovich, who was standing nearby, twisting her apron. The doctor cleared his throat noisily. "Don't stand there like a pregnant hen," he said. "Quickly, get to the kitchen and fetch me a bottle of vodka. It's very important to my work and me."
"Vodka?" the mother asked incredulously.
"Vodka," the doctor said. "A lot of it. And make sure it's warm. Not hot, warm."
Flustered, the mother rushed for the kitchen. She wondered if the doctor might have developed a new home remedy that she'd not heard about before.
While the doctor waited on the mother to return, he talked briefly with Vladimir before he began to make out his official report. He told him he was sure that he'd get the deferment until at least the fall when the next group of conscripts would be called-up, “but,” he said, “do not worry, the Army will surely wait for you however long it takes.”
"Will I ever be able to beat him?" Vladimir whispered. Groaning, he tried to sit straight in the bed.
The doctor glanced at him, then at the beamed ceiling, and then back to his own wrinkled hands. "There are generally two ways to handle a problem such as yours, Vladimir." He pushed his spectacles along his bloodshot nose as he pulled air in through his mouth, sighing.
"You can bow to your fate, accept things as they are, and then continue on with your life, here or elsewhere, or…"
"Or you can eliminate the problem once and for all, using your own imagination to do the job."
The doctor raised a speckled hand. "That's all I can tell you, lad. You must think it out for yourself. Now leave me alone. I have a report to write. Lie back and rest. Tomorrow, or at least by next week, maybe in a month or two at the latest, you'll feel better, I'm sure."
The doctor made a short note to help him prepare his final report for the authorities later. He wrote, cause of accident: a charge from a wild bull.
An insane bull that should be shot before he finally killed someone someday, he thought. He closed the thick notebook when he saw Mrs. Antonovich rush into the room with a warmed bottle of vodka and a large water glass in her hands.
"Ah, just in time," the doctor said. He stood to take the glass and bottle from her.
"Do you intend to rub it on the boy," she asked, "or are you going to use it together with other medicines to help heal his wounds?"
"His?" the doctor asked. He shoved the glass into her hand, and then pulled the top from the bottle. "I hardly think so." Smiling, he put the bottle to his lips and drank greedily. He emptied the bottle by a quarter at least before he took a breath. "Ah, that was good," he finally said, holding the bottle up to see how much was left.
He sat on the edge of the bed, and held the bottle by its neck at the ready on his thigh. He looked at Vladimir, who was half asleep now. "You see, the vodka has clearly calmed the boy," he said, taking another swig. "It works every time."
He started to replace the cap on the bottle, but changed his mind. He took another gulp before he stood by the bed, saying, "He'll be fine." He handed the almost empty bottle to the bewildered mother. "Just keep the bottle handy in case I have to return." With that, he left hurriedly without looking back.
* * *
During the next week while he was healing, Vladimir's mother and the midwife visited often to grease his aching body. Several men from the village, including the bearded social leader, visited him as well. The leader expressed concern for Vladimir's wounds, and hoped that he'd be healed sufficiently for the Army by the fall, and the glory that awaited him there.
Vladimir's father never bothered to look in on him. "I'm too busy," he always said, and then he'd gulp his vodka at the kitchen table like before, ignoring everyone around him. He was satisfied to be in his own world all alone, thinking of the things he'd missed in the Army himself.
Soon, Vladimir began to feel a little better. He felt so well that one evening after his mother had left him alone with a warm bowl of soup and a chunk of coarse black bread, he slipped quietly out of bed. He moved carefully across the room to test his legs, touching sturdy furniture along the way to maintain his precarious balance.
Finally, he stopped at the far wall where a cracked mirror sat, dusty but serviceable. He looked at himself, naked, in the tall glass that ran six feet up from the floor. He saw the cuts and bruises that covered his body, his face; the dark, puffy eyes; the thickened lips, bruised and red, split open at both ends. He moved to the right so his face was centered on the crack in the mirror.
He looked like a two-faced monster. Opening his mouth wide, he clenched his teeth gently together and smiled. He saw that all of the teeth were still intact, aligned in their proper places. He smiled again. Blinking his puffy eyes, he stuck his tongue out and wagged it at himself. He said "Ah," then held his throat with both hands, and said it again. He gagged.
While he studied himself, he noticed that his long gray tie was lying on the top of the dresser. He wrapped it around his neck, then stood back away from the mirror and admired his bruised body. He thought about tomorrow's visit by Inessa Kostenko, his first true love, the one he'd soon have to leave behind when he left alone for the Army, and his duty.
Pulling the tie closer to his throat, he wondered what his stepfather would say if he could see him like this, naked with a stupid tie around his neck. The stepfather always made him wear the tie to school, "to keep up appearances," he'd tell him. All it ever really did was keep him busy fighting the bullies who taunted him everyday, calling him a sissy or mama’s boy or worse.
He won some fights, lost others, but he never stopped wearing the tie. It was one of the many disciplines drilled into him every day by his stepfather to prepare him for a glory he'd never known before, and never would unless he finally decided to become a man, or so his stepfather said.
"Your future is not in your head but in your arms and fists," the lectures always started. "Discipline the body, the mind will take care of itself." After the talks, he more often than not would goad Vladimir into another bloody fight, "to the finish," before he'd allow him any rest or time to think.
Vladimir yawned and rubbed his belly as he moved back to the bed. He pushed in beneath the warm blankets, and pulled them snugly to his chin. Sighing, he placed his arms behind his head and closed his tired eyes.
He slept fitfully at first, dreaming about Inessa Kostenko. He could feel her warmth near him even now. Eventually, he turned onto his side, moaning. He began to have visions of his stepfather's empty grave, and how he planned to put him there. He didn't know how or even when yet, but he did know one thing for certain. Someday he would kill the old man, if it took him the rest of his life.
Maybe the Army would teach him the how of it, and then he'd only have to worry about the when of it. He could hardly wait for fall to arrive. Then, he could begin his arduous Army training which, he was sure, would teach him, among other important things, the skills he would need to do the final job, provide him the knowledge that would prepare him properly for the final battle to see who the real man of the family was, after all.
Fidgeting in his sleep, he poked a naked foot out from beneath the blankets to touch the cool dampness of the room. Suddenly, his toes began to wiggle, almost like in cadence to the commands of a burly drill sergeant, who was shouting obscenities into his ear.
In his sleep, he cringed.
Extracted from "A Crooked Path." Copyrighted Jan 9, 2002 by Robert A. Gallinger.