By Maureen Frost
The Carpathians. God, how had he ended up here? Bela used to hike through places like this as a boy, the grim, thin bones of the mountain showing up through the grass – the raw bare spine of the earth; some wolf off in the distance, following a trail, tail down, nose to the ground. And now here he was himself, down on one knee, leaning against his rifle.
He looked up at Sandor, the boy shivering in front of him. The lad seemed to be growing smaller every day, dwindling into his uniform, the grey of it matching his skin – at least the parts that had not been chewed raw by the vermin that had taken to infesting their clothes, their hair. Bela stood up, smiled.
“I think it’s just past that ridge.” He took out his canteen, handed it to the boy, only water – not food unfortunately, food was what Sandor needed – but it was better than nothing. “Really just a day or two’s march from here, we’re almost there.”
He slapped the boy on the arm, meaning the gesture to be reassuring (reassure Sandor, reassure himself). Not far off the rest of the men were huddled around a little orange fire perched atop an upturned log. A fire – not necessarily advisable right now, not advisable but necessary – something the Commander had allowed – the men looking used-up as they stood around it, emptied-out,. Were the Russians doing the same thing, were they also huddled around a meagre little fire, willing it to increase in size, to somehow grow large enough to keep the wind at bay, or were they closing the gap now between themselves and the regiment?
Just a few moments’ rest, that’s all they needed.
“Come on Ferenc, let’s get some food.” Sandor dutifully followed behind, his uniform hanging loosely around his legs.
The night was thin. Well, they could keep going. They could force-march until they reached Uzhgorod, complete their mission, then they could get some real rest at last. He sat and watched the men – empty-eyed – each one lying stiffly on the ground, faces like clay, hands unmoving by their sides; something red bobbing on the grass (possibly that little fire, unattended now, still waiting for its chance to make good its escape). He sat down not too far from them, placing his weight against a boulder, a round thing that was a light brownish colour, streaked with veins of pink. It looked almost soft, malleable, but it would hold him. His hand moved against it, smooth and cold under his palm. His eyes closed, something they did without his knowledge or consent, and oh – there was Franci, at least he thought it was Franci, could be someone else; slim as a twig, her dark hair pulled back, a tall plume rising like an exclamation mark from her mauve hat. She was laughing at him, not unkindly, “But you do know that actors are exempt, you don’t have to go?”
Well of course he knew that, everyone knew that. But he also knew that something more was expected of him, or perhaps it was that he expected something more of himself – something like that – someone expecting something; maybe he was expected to die out here, the Emperor expecting no less.
They went down to the beech trees, she just ahead of him – a silver knife cutting through the dusk; she took his hand but they did not go into the forest.
“Here’s something to eat Captain.”
“What’s that?” Food at last. He looked up to see Sandor in front of him, tin bowl in his hand. “No, none for me thanks.”
“But you haven’t had anything.”
“I’ve had plenty. You take it.” God, Ferenc would never get home again if he didn’t fatten up, if he didn’t get something to hang that uniform of his on other than a few thin bones, sticking out like a wire hanger.
He sat and watched them all lying there, staring up at the barren sky.
The fire burned down, a few sparks that popped and hissed when Olasz kicked over the embers, the whole thing finally giving up the ghost, falling into ash. A fan of trees beyond them, their interior dark, just the type of place the Russians could march out of, bayonets raised in front of them.
Sandor sat down beside him, folded in his scrawny legs, bony knees pointing to the sky, the windings of his leggings hanging loosely around calves, not much to wind around, they seemed just for show.
“So, you’re from Gyor?” Bela began to dig into the dirt with a crooked little twig.
“Well, not exactly. Not too far from there though; I’m from Ivan.” Sandor scratched at his leg, offered him a lopsided smile.
Ivan… not sure really. Bela kept his features serene – no sign that the name didn’t bring any images to mind. Must be farm country, a rustic collection of buildings hanging onto the coattails of a larger town. He could hear some of the other men snoring. How long could they stay here? Should be safe for a while, should be enough distance between them and the Russians by now, and the men needed this rest. Possibly though he’d talk to the Commander – in a moment, just a moment.
“Fairly nice country there. I’m sure I’ve played somewhere near Ivan a couple of times, The Wild Goose I believe.” Recognition from Sandor. Must be right –good guess – although possibly every small town had a Wild Goose Inn. “Ever been out of the town, like say to Budapest?”
Sandor swallowed, a great effort, as if he had to force the food down his windpipe.
“Oh yes, we went when I was ten. We sold some cattle at a market and went to a fair. I remember that fair very well. I rode on a carousel; it was a beautiful night and there were fireworks.”
Bela tried to get comfortable against the boulder. He smiled. “Yes, fairs are memorable. But did you know, just before this, just before all this…” He waved his hand expansively at the sleeping men, the trees full of potential Russians, the war that had spilled itself across all of Europe. “Just before the Declaration we had a hurricane, well a near-hurricane in Budapest? Not many people seem to remember that.”
Sandor shook his head, his eyes wide, his spoon hovering over his plate, held in a delicate hand, the bones thin and finely carved. Bela began to button his jacket, to gather his pack. They should get going.
“Winds of 90 kilometres per hour tore off part of the roof from the Basilica, plopped it squarely in the middle Bajcsy Zsilinszky Rd., smashed up the boats in the river. I sat the whole thing out in the basement of The Marble Trumpeter, listening to the torrent. The innkeeper broke out the Tokaji, said it was now or never and he’d rather we drink it than let it go to waste, floating off down the street if it should come to that.”
Sandor swallowed hard, his hand still fluttering slightly in the air, a small bird with no place to land. “Sounds like a kind of judgment.”
Bela looked at him sharply. “What did you call it?”
“Judgment, sounds like a judgment for our part in well, all of this.” He too spread his hand across the whole mountain scene.
“That’s just what the papers said – a taste of what was about to come.” He stood, put his rifle over his shoulder. “All of this, all of Europe engulfed, and only one day of storm as payment. Hardly seems equitable.”
He leaned down, grasped Sandor by the hand and pulled him up just as the sky overhead turned a deep incendiary red. He watched it flower.
The ground exploded where the fire had been burning, sending rocks and ash and men into the air and then down again, not necessarily whole any more. Someone had started shouting, possibly it was him. Damn it all – they’d stayed too long. The Commander had let them rest, he himself had said nothing; they’d been lying here like red marks painted on the ground. They couldn’t be missed – judgment.
Dust flew up into the air and he reached out, blindly staggering forward, colliding with something, someone on the ground, falling to his knees. It was Sandor, his thin hands hovering above his chest, now just a pulpy mess. Bela knelt over him, grasped his hand hard, as there was another rush of air, not done with us yet. Gritting his teeth, he looked into the boy’s eyes, watched as Sandor watched as pieces of rock and gravel haled down on them, dusting Bela’s back and shoulders; and as the pink rock that Bela had been lying on only moments ago was blown apart, nothing more than a smoking hole in the ground – and him along with it. Or would have been except that, well, he hadn’t been there; he’d been kneeling beside Sandor instead, trying to staunch the flow of blood from the boy’s chest. He tried to lift the lad’s head.
“Well,” Sandor finally managed, “surely this must be equitable.” And closed his eyes.
Maureen Frost loves books and writing. She lives in Toronto and is a retired book-seller, an occupation she thoroughly enjoyed for over 16 years. She is an enthusiast of all things Ancient Egyptian and of old movies. Any spare time she has she spends watching, researching and writing about classic films and history. Her latest work can be found in the online journal Eurynome, and she has an upcoming piece soon to appear in Circa.