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Across the Neman River
(Part three to: “From the Baltic” 1916)
Anton’s mother threw her arms around his neck, pulling him until his face was pressed tightly against her cheek (it was 1916, and WWI was in full strength, and it was winter, and the Russian Army was going from farm to farm and taking all the younger males to go off to war, leaving the oldest son at home, or the only son if there was only one: leaving them to take care of their farms, and livelihood of the family, Anton’s father had died that fall, fallen off the roof of the house while repairing it).
“I’m afraid, Anton!” she whispered, unable to keep back her tears any longer, “I’m so afraid if you do not get out of here and down and around Grodno – I hear its occupied by Germans, and find your way to Warsaw and then America, you and your brother will be stuck here, and they will simply take you anyway, and put you in the front lines and be killed in this silly war!”
“There’s really nothing to be afraid of, mother!” he replied, rubbing her back with the palm of his hand, tenderly.
“I’m still afraid if you don’t get going, Anton. They may come back and you’ll not be able to leave, and stuck here in the Russian Army, or taken captive by the Germans, or put into the Polish Army, and God forbid that happens-find a way across the Neman River, or hop a train-go to America, and have your brother go to South America.” She continued to hug him desperately. “I’m so troubled-that I’ll never see you again, Anton, but it is better for you and your brother to go. I’ll go to Warsaw as soon as the war is over, send me mail here, and let me know where you are or will be, and I’ll let you know where we’ll be in Poland.”
He kissed her, “Don’t be frightened,” he said, “Nothing will happen to me, and I’ll do as you ask, and I’m clever enough to handle these military rats.”
She hugged him even tighter, with all her strength, pressing her lips against his cheek, and then she pushed herself from him, and went to the door. Anton’s brother, waiting outside heard the door open (she had already said her goodbyes to Anton’s brother), and before she could say another word they were out of distance, she’d have to yell, and she dare not.
She stayed put, just standing there for a very long time, trying to absorb what just took place, that she had just lost two sons-to the new world to be, I mean she was saying to herself, “They really left, they are gone, they will not be home for dinner, never, ever again.”
Everything seemed so quiet in the cold winter outside, as she stood with the door open looking into nothingness. She didn’t know how long she stood there, a minute, or maybe ten-minutes, but all of a sudden standing in the arch of the open doorway, her ear picked up a sound of footsteps.
A soldier came around the corner of the house, gripping his rifle in both hands. Somewhere in the far-off distance, perhaps still in the woods, between the farm and Grodno, with heavy boots on, crouching through the snow, were here two boys, Anton, twenty-four years old, his brother, twenty-two. There were no lights to guide them, and in all directions there were soldiers, and farms and the woods, and roads.
And now Anton’s mother heard voices right behind the soldier who was gripping his rifle. She knew she’d have to give them a false story where her two boys were, and then they’d put sentries on all sides of her farm, waiting to see if they’d return, but without waiting any longer she began slowly backing away from the door, moving silently over the wooden floor, as she left the snow outside.
The Russian soldiers were pacing back and forth with a slow but heavy gait. An officer was talking to one of the soldiers, the one who had been gripping his rifle. He was mumbling something to him, in a chilled low voice, perhaps about the cold, or snow and then took out a paper, then dropping his hand with the paper on it to his side, he approached the door, and had sentries nearby, ready to be posted, and then came the knock on the door. She wondered with a sudden rapid filch-a thought: what am I going to say. And the knock came again. She could hear the officer beating his arm against his side, to keep it warm, cursing the cold. She was not certain where her boys would be by now, but they were far enough wherever-from the house. She was mad that these men came to enslave her boys, for a war they never started. If they had come as friends, she would have ran to the door to open it, nor would they be walking in the snow somewhere, to go someplace, and soon it would be dark. She knew this was just the beginning. She also knew the Germans needed to be driven out of Russia, by Russians. The officer had been glimpsing in the window, and she knew he had already seen her, and as he reached for his pistol, she opened the door, and she was glad he had put it back into his holster.
The Homespun Lie
(Part four: “From the Baltic” 1916)
She felt no hate in her heart for these soldiers, human beings: the force in her was stronger than that, yet her Christianity compelled her to do nothing, but be allowed to be confronted, to show little, if any resistance. She knew if they saw hatred inside of her eyes, it would have sharpened his senses and prevented her boys from accomplishing what they was about to do, was actually doing, escaping the farm to go to the Americas. She knew they were moving step by step closer-and so that the young officer’s revolver was firmly planted back into its holster, she hated this war. She felt sorry for them young soldiers. They were all young men, very young men at that. She still felt she would not have had the need to lie to them if they had not come with the intention of kidnapping her two boys and destroying all that she possessed. She had a lot to live for-I say did, because no longer would they be home to work, to share the holidays with, to go hunting with their brothers in the autumn woods, or spend the long winter nights sitting back and laughing in front of the hearth-now all she’d have was lonely walks with her youngest boy, rain-drenched fields, they could not plough them alone, and this newly lit inferno blazed inside her mind.
While she gazed at the young man’s face she felt no remorse for the lie she was about to tell, but all the same she felt sorry for him-if this war had never been started by some young fancy rich aristocrat over in Serbia with Austria, Anton might still be working in the fields, or as a tailor in Grodno, instead of saying they both had died someplace in Russia or Poland, taken earlier by soldiers, Polish soldiers (as not to blame the Russians). She said their bodies were someplace in Russia or Poland, or Germany frozen in the snow-dead, so she was informed, and until spring, she’d not know exactly where, then thawing would come about, their flesh exposed, hopefully the crows will not get them: she told the young officer, and she added: that she was going to go look for them come summer and hopefully find their unmarked graves. She told the young officer all of this and more. But of course none of this did happen, and the young soldier said in return, “Yes, I understand, but since we have come, it is best we stay a few nights in case they return from the dead.”
His face painted a terrifying picture of what could be expected if indeed they (the two Siluk boys) were captured, and she proven to be a liar. And she knew what to expect, first of all her home would be burnt to the ground, their fields taken away from her, and perhaps her and her youngest son sent separately to some Siberian prison, she had read of such things in the newspapers.
The young officer searched the house carefully, but found nothing of interest, examining half a dozen jars of jam, and some fish in a frying pan ready to be cooked. He stood close to the heat of the fire in the hearth, “So where is your younger boy?” asked the Russian Officer, then he grabbed a jar of jam, and stuffed it into his pocket, didn’t wait for the second lie, and he left the house, and hurried down along side of the back of the house to eat the jam with his fingers.
The Abandoned Barn
(Part four: 1916)
When the two boys reached the clearing of the woods, they stopped and waited and looked about, it was getting dark, and the cold of the snow was seeping through their leather boots. They saw an abandoned silo, a dilapidated structure, once belonging to a farm, the farm now had been removed evidently-or blown to bits by the Germans, around the dwelling were crows, and the closer they got to the structure, rats were running to and fro-the whole silo was weather-strained.
They approached the barn cautiously, as they got to the door, finding it ajar no light or sound, just rats being disturbed, hearing their footsteps in the snow, perhaps listening to them for the last several minutes, scrabbled about, Anton stepped inside, and several rats jumped over the step to and slant of the door-reluctantly leaving, it was so dark inside, Anton could not even see the walls. He lit a match, found wood on the floor, piled it together and started a fire leaving the door ajar, and his brother now inside with him. Then they all sat down. The reception for the rats were clear and distinct, they didn’t come back. Yesko, his brother, as far as he was concerned, a little rest was fine, but was determined to get to the Neman River in the dark if need be that very night, and as fast as they could, because the Germans were destroying everything that looked suspicious: farms, and taking up the rails at night so the trains would not take the Polish-Russians to locations or villages, or farmers to safety, setting trees on fire to clear passageways, and they were building outposts from Grodno stretching outward into the other districts, pretty soon the whole area would be surrounded with the enemy. They could even hear some cannon-fire far-off in the distance, and the rumble sound of moving artillery, nothing nearby though.
Anton’s first thought was: I know there are patrols, and should they find us, we might be mistaken for traitors of one army or the other, or by the enemy the Germans, should someone spot the light that is, from the ajar door, but should they close it, and fall to sleep they’d get asphyxiated. So Yesko’s idea of rest and then get on the move to the river was sounder.
As the two brothers looked outside from the slightly opened door, against the pale sky, and smudged moon, no sound or movement around the silo, warm and now crouching, then standing beside the side of the door, “Anton!” said Yesko, Anton moved cautiously out the door back into the snow, they had stayed in the silo less than an hour, and they found their way to the main road, convinced the road would lead to Grodno, and the Neman River, and perhaps to Warsaw, and then to Prague, from there they didn’t know, it was all par for the course, they’d find out then, even if they had to fight toe to toe with the Germans in the city.
Anton stopped a small truck on the road, and asked the driver what it would cost to drive them on to Grodno, “Two hundred Rubles, or one hundred and fifty Franks,” said the solo driver of the truck (Anton had been given 1000 rubles by his mother before he left, every penny she had), feeling incapable of walking a step further that evening, they had walked fifteen miles, and it was forty miles total to Grodno, consequently, twenty-five miles more to go, and first light would be soon.
“Take a loaf of bread,” said the driver to the two brothers, “you both look so tired,” and Anton took one of many out of the basket on the floor, between the three in the seat of the small truck, and ripped a piece off for him and one for his brother and the driver who introduced himself as Mordecai.
After a half hour’s traveling it was necessary for the two boys to get out of the truck and push the truck out of a ditch, filled with ice and snow. Then once back in the truck Anton’s strength had gone, and he fell to sleep out of exhaustion.
“Where you boys from?” asked Mordecai.
“A farm some twenty miles back or more,” said Yesko, then he hesitated for a moment, unconvinced that if he should say anything more, and the driver noticed his reluctance.
“What is your work?” asked Yesko.
“A farmer and political instructor!” he replied.
“What is that?” asked Yesko.
“I’m part of the partisan task force for the Baltic region.”
“Can you help my brother and me?” asked Yesko.
“Well,” said Mordecai, “there’s a train that you can catch in Grodno that cross the Neman, it goes to Warsaw with a stop at Bialystok, and from there westward-if that’s what you mean. You’ve got to make people believe you are from the Baltic Mining Company, and you are on vacation to see your loved ones in Warsaw, if asked. I should not ask anymore questions lest I get questioned about you two myself, and have to tell the officials what I know-although I don’t much, and they have ways to make you tell, just get on that train one way or the other, and figure out what to do when you get in Warsaw, when you get to Warsaw that is.”
Then Mordecai shifted to a lower gear, as the truck climbed an embankment.
Once into the city of Grodno, Anton, his face wind burnt, yet smooth-shaven, a dark overcoat on of wool, buttoned tightly up to his chin, and a worn-out cap with fur inside, pulled over his ears, feeling the numbness completely out of his fingers, jumped out from the front seat of the truck, and looked about and there in front of him was the train station. He witnessed German patrols, and knew this would be dangerous. They both stood with their backs against the train station, and contemplated.
Note: Everything changes in time, Grodno, is now called: Hrodna, and it now resides in what is called the country of: Belarus (at one time it was a part of Poland, and at another time Independent, and another time, it belonged to Russia. It is considered a part of the Baltic, and at one time, a part of Lithuania). No: 612 “Across the Neman River” /No: 613 “The Homespun Lie” (May 1, 2010); Dedicated to the youngest Siluk, Cody Jr. (The story is about Anton Siluk) EC
“The Abandoned Barn,” No: 314, written 5-2-2010.
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