FRIENDSHIP At no other time was it as crowded and noisy in the dugout of the second platoon as on that night. All the men from the battery had come together on such an unusual occasion: Simon Honcharenko had received a letter. And from whom, just think of it! It was more than a half year now since he had lost his wife and son. Every one in the battery knew this. His friends from the plant in which he worked before the war had informed him of their deaths in the autumn of last year. They also mentioned the circumstances under which it had happened. One night German bombers attacked (he railway station. The train his family was on alone suffered some twenty deaths, his wife and son included. There at the station they buried the dead in a common grave, that is those of the passengers who could be recovered from the wreck, for quite a few were devoured by the flames and never found. His Petrus must have been among them... And today he unexpectedly received a letter from his boy. The letter was actually written by the tutor of an orphanage somewhere by the upper reaches of the Volga. On the last page were the scribbles of a child. Evidently he had begun school this year: “You see, Honcharenko, your son’s already a scholar of sorts.” The more Simon Honcharenko read the letter, the less he could believe that happiness had come his way. He probably would not have believed the message at all were it not for the foresight of the woman who enclosed a snapshot of the boy in the letter. Besides, she must have told the boy that the snapshot would be sent to dad before it was taken. Holding his breath, the boy’s face was strained, and the eyes – well, hard as he tried he could not help blinking. The photographer had retouched the snapshot here and there but to no great avail. The picture was now passed from hand to hand. The men crowded around the table to have a look at it. Everyone liked the boy very much (well, it could not be otherwise). Moreover, the boy defied any criticism. Therefore, if anyone made a remark about his eyes, even if this kind of “criticism” referred not so much to the boy as to the photographer, everyone practically pounced upon the “critic.” “Now, that’s too much. In the end, you’d want the boy not to blink at all.” “What a crank! Why, it’s even better that way. You see right away that he’s natural and alive!” The remarks were accompanied with jokes and laughter. Simon, the happiest of all fathers in the world, was sitting at the table with letter in hand. Lost in thought, he did not hear or see anything around him. Only at times when the men would get too overexcited, he would raise his head in alarm and say in mock severity, “All right, all right, boys, watch out how you handle that snapshot!” “You found just the right people to do that!” ironically remarked Tsibulko, who was on duty in the dugout that day. “They’ll paw it to holes. And generally, how long will this go on. Why, the dugout is filled with smoke to the point of choking. All right, all guests here get moving! And besides, the supper is getting cold.” He put a loaf of bread, a canteen and some mugs on the table. “Sit down, boys,” he said, as he was about to open the canteen. “Wait a minute, Irakliy hasn’t come yet,” Simon stopped him. Without saying a word Tsibulko put down the canteen. He was even a bit embarrassed: now, how could he have overlooked Irakliy’s absence. Irakliy Mosashvili, who was on the same crew as gunner Simon, was on sentry duty. He would come in any minute now, as one of the men had already left to relieve him. Probably he told the unusual news to Irakliy, for the moment Irakliy entered the dugout, he stopped and with one hand pressed to his heart said with emotion, “Simon!” His teeth flashed in a smile from under his black moustache. But he suppressed his emotion. First he put his rifle in the arms rack, took off his overcoat, and then came up to the table, extending his hand to Simon.
“Simon, I’m really glad for you! Congratulations from the bottom of my heart!” “Thanks, Irakliy,” Simon answered, moved, and gave a firm handshake. Irakliy sat down at the table and said cheerfully, “Well, where is he? Show him to me!” He was given the snapshot. A silence fell over the dugout. Irakliy looked at the snapshot for a long time, then nodded his head in enthusiastic approval. “A fine boy! Wow, what a wonderful son you’ve got there, Simon!” “Nothing I can complain about,” said Simon with a happy smile. “A wonderful boy!” Irakliy repeated, and suddenly, with no reason at all, he sighed. “Hey, what’s the matter with you?” somebody joked. “What makes you sigh that way?” Mosashvili said nothing in reply. Everybody guessed that Irakliy must have recalled that he had no son, but only daughters, and that must have made him very unhappy. Just then Kuznetsov, a gunner on the second crew and the first joker in the battery, went and said in sport: “Irakliy, you know what we’ve decided here during your absence?” “No, I don’t know. What is it?” “Another friendship like that between you and Simon won’t be found in the battery, or even in the whole battalion. Don’t you think this friendship must be sealed somehow?” “Good wine needs no bush,” Irakliy said with a faint smile. “What do you think about it, Simon?” “Exactly the same,” Simon replied gaily. “Our friendship with Irakliy was tempered in battle. It’s friendship till death.” “Yeah, exactly – till death,” Kuznetsov would not calm down. “We’re in the war, and here death isn’t much of an unexpected guest...” “Oh, go to hell, will ye!” said Tsibulko unable to control his feelings. “You begin with laudations and then end with prayers for the repose of the souls of the dead. Why don’t you get to the point, Kuznetsov, instead of beating around the bush. See what we’ve come up to! In a word, Irakliy, the whole thing is very simple: Simon’s got a wonderful son, while you’ve got three daughters one prettier than the other, and one of them is sure to be a match, so we’ll drink to their health and that’s all to it.” 2
Everyone in the dugout broke into laughter. But Mosashvili sat there with head hanging, as if he had not heard anything. Suddenly he raised his eyes on Tsibulko, reproachfully shook his head, and with passion ringing in his voice and a Georgian accent more pronounced than ever, he said: “Don’t you make a joke out of this sort of thing!” During supper, however, he relaxed and cheered up. He drank with everyone else to the health of Petrus, then to a reunion of father and son in the near future. And all the while he did not take his eyes off his friend. Whenever his eyes met his friend’s he broke into a happy smile and shrugged his shoulders in joy.
his breath, the boy’s face was strained, and the eyes – well, hard as he tried he could not help blinking. The photographer had retouched the snapshot here and there but to no great avail. The picture was now passed from hand to hand. The men crowded around the table to have a look at it. Everyone liked the boy very much (well, it could not be otherwise). Moreover, the boy defied any criticism. Therefore, if anyone made a remark about his eyes, even if this kind of “criticism” referred not so much to the boy as to the photographer, everyone practically pounced upon the “critic.” “Now, that’s too much. In the end, you’d want the boy not to blink at all.” “What a crank! Why, it’s even better that way. You see right away that he’s natural and alive!” The remarks were accompanied with jokes and laughter. Simon, the happiest of all fathers in the world, was sitting at the table with letter in hand. Lost in thought, he did not hear or see anything around him. Only at times when the men would get too overexcited, he would raise his head in alarm and say in mock severity, “All right, all right, boys, watch out how you handle that snapshot!” “You found just the right people to do that!” ironically remarked Tsibulko, who was on duty in the dugout that day. “They’ll paw it to holes. And generally, how long will this go on. Why, the dugout is filled with smoke to the point of choking. All right, all guests here get moving! And besides, the supper is getting cold.” He put a loaf of bread, a canteen and some mugs on the table. “Sit down, boys,” he said, as he was about to open the canteen. “Wait a minute, Irakliy hasn’t come yet,” Simon stopped him. Without saying a word Tsibulko put down the canteen. He was even a bit embarrassed: now, how could he have overlooked Irakliy’s absence. Irakliy Mosashvili, who was on the same crew as gunner Simon, was on sentry duty. He would come in any minute now, as one of the men had already left to relieve him. Probably he told the unusual news to Irakliy, for the moment Irakliy entered the dugout, he stopped and with one hand pressed to his heart said with emotion, “Simon!” His teeth flashed in a smile from under his black moustache. But he suppressed his emotion. First he put his rifle in the arms rack, took off his overcoat, and then came up to the table, extending his hand to Simon. “Simon, I’m really glad for you! Congratulations from the bottom of my heart!” “Thanks, Irakliy,” Simon answered, moved, and gave a firm handshake. Irakliy sat down at the table and said cheerfully, “Well, where is he? Show him to me!” He was given the snapshot. A silence fell over the dugout. Irakliy looked at the snapshot for a long time, then nodded his head in enthusiastic approval. “A fine boy! Wow, what a wonderful son you’ve got there, Simon!” “Nothing I can complain about,” said Simon with a happy smile. “A wonderful boy!” Irakliy repeated, and suddenly, with no reason at all, he sighed. “Hey, what’s the matter with you?” somebody joked. “What makes you sigh that way?” 3
Mosashvili said nothing in reply. Everybody guessed that Irakliy must have recalled that he had no son, but only daughters, and that must have made him very unhappy. Just then Kuznetsov, a gunner on the second crew and the first joker in the battery, went and said in sport: It was late in the night when the men took to their cots. However, even then Simon and Irakliy went on whispering for a long time under their overcoats. In the end, one of the men could not stand it any longer. He turned over heavily on the squeaking cot and said angrily, “Well, the night’s wasted as it is, but I wonder who’s still mumbling there?” “All right, sleep, katso*, sleep,” Irakliy said in a whisper. “We’ve already finished talking. Sleep.” “Ah, that’s you” – the voice became instantly milder and added, apparently through a smile – “our matchmakers!” From then on, whenever Honcharenko and Mosashvili were mentioned in conversation, all the men in the battery referred to them simply as “the matchmakers.” With lime the two also got used to that name. But they never called each other in this way even in their best of moods, and they never recalled Tsibulko’s joke, as if they had colluded on this point beforehand. This was apparently hard to abide by, since now they talked so much about their children. No wonder. They had kept silent about them for too long a time: Honcharenko – because it was not his nature to bother anyone, even his best friend, with his troubles, and Mosashvili – because of his extraordinary sensitivity and tact. At times when he received a letter from home, in which his wife would write about the children, his parental heart would swell with desire to share his joy with someone and, of course, above all with his closest friend. But it never happened that he was the first to talk, save perhaps when Simon would start asking questions. But even then Irakliy would relate the contents of the letter with restraint and caution lest he hurl in any way Simon’s heart which was sore with grief. Now, when Petrus had been found, everything was different. With the greatest of considerations both of them tried to retrace their path of friendship, along which every seeming trifle – an arrested gesture, or phrase – at times concealed, as a lump of earth may hold a precious stone, an unexpected and even hitherto unforeseen content. Hence their thirst for intimate conversation. Whatever they would be talking about, they would invariably come to their children. This happened whenever there was even a little time to spare, when a smoke was not rushed. But lately such periods did not occur that often: fierce battles had set in. Battles and marches. Today their battery had been on the march from the early hours of morning. One after another the guns moved at a sluggish pace along the muddy spring road. The wheels sunk deep into the black Slobodian soil. The engines of the prime movers roared, and the gun crews had to shove and to push to get them out of the mud. Bathed in sweat, sullied with mud, their boots covered all over with sticky dirt, the men moved heavily beside their guns. No one was in the mood to talk. The only thing that was on their mind was to get as fast as possible to where the cannonade thumped and where their comrades were anxiously waiting for them. At long last they pushed their way to the highway. “Every-bo-dy mount!” sounded the command. “Phew, at least now we can have a smoke,” said Honcharenko, as he made himself comfortable on the gun carriage. But while he reached for his cigarette case, Mosashvili handed him his tobacco pouch. “Here, smoke, Simon!” *
katso – friend (Georgian)
“Is this to mean that your tobacco is better than mine? Didn’t we get it with the same rations?” “Not at all, the tobacco’s the same, but take a look at the pouch!” “Yeah, the pouch is something!” said Simon reflectively, as he took a pinch of tobacco out of it. “It’s a bit faded, though, but still dear to you I suppose! Listen, how many cigarettes have we rolled from it during the war? Thousands I guess!” “That’s one of the reasons why it’s special to me.” “And what’s the other?” “The pouch’s a present from my daughter. She embroidered it herself.” Startled, Simon stopped rolling the cigarette, glanced at his friend, but did not ask anything. Rolling his cigarette, he started his memory in motion. No, he was positive about it – Irakliy had never mentioned it before. I couldn’t have really forgotten such a thing, he thought. He must have passed it over in silence. Involuntarily Simon recalled other things, seemingly as insignificant as this incident about the pouch, but no less touching for that matter. So he must have kept silent about such things not once or twice, but a thousand times, Simon thought. A warm feeling of gratitude, respect and admiration for his friend welled in Simon’s heart. Lighting his cigarette from Irakliy’s, he bent very close to his face, and looking with screwed up eyes at Irakliy, said, “I must say you’re an extraordinary person, Irakliy!” – and after thinking for a while, he found the right words – “You’ve really got some grit, man!” No wonder they were friends, understanding each other at a hint, at a nod. So in this instance as well Irakliy had no need to inquire what Simon had in mind. After a spell of silence he answered in a very simple but solemn way: “Every man, Simon, must have grit … when it is necessary.” And by the tone of his voice you could hear that he implied something more than Simon wanted to say. The engines of the prime movers hummed evenly along the highway. The heavy guns rolled softly on their rubber tires, only the dirt sizzled under their wheels. The noise of the cannonade ahead of them was becoming louder. From time to time the wind wafted a bitter smell of fire that was apparently close by. As Simon’s thoughts wandered freely he could not cut short the conversation with his friend. Not so much out of curiosity as to please him, he asked after a long silence, “Which of the daughters gave it to you? Was it Naya?” (Simon still mixed up the unusual names of Irakliy’s daughters. He mentioned just this name because he remembered it best, for lrakliy mentioned it somehow more often than the others). “No, that’s a present from Eliko, the oldest daughter. Naya is the middle one. She doesn’t know how to embroider yet. But, Simon, you should see what a lovely child she is – always merry and gay. When she was little still she would come to the vineyard and before you saw her you’d first hear her chirp like a bird in a bush.” lrakliy sighed and grew silent. Simon made no response. For some time they kept on smoking in silence, and perhaps that moment visions passed before their eyes – one was seeing gray mountains and his village immersed in green orchards, and the other, his large city by the deep Dnieper. lrakliy broke the silence. “Yeah, Simon, what a pity we didn’t meet earlier, before the war. You’d come and visit me. One month on our vineyard would add another ten years to your life.” “As you see it just didn’t happen. Whatever places I’ve been to! I holidayed in the Crimea, I was in the Urals with my workmates installing machines at a new plant. But I’ve never chanced to be in your parts – the Caucasus.” “Oh, that’s all right. When the war ends, we’ll go there right from our unit. You’ll be my guest of honor. On the way we’ll make a stop on the Volga to take Petrus along.” 5
“Thanks,” said Simon with a smile. “But you see, lrakliy, the point is that visiting won’t be on our minds for a long time after the war. It’ll take more than one or two Five-Year Plans to sweat it out and... There, take a look what the fascist bastards have done!” Presently they drove into a village, or rather into a spot that once had been a village! On both sides of the streets smoke welled from burning orchards, and only the black smokestacks looming above the ruins marked the sites of former human habitation. There was virtually no one in sight in the ruined and razed village. On their way they saw but one gray oldster and two or three old women. Like phantoms they walked about their yards digging out of the heaps of brick and clay some twisted iron hardware and fragments of crockery that once had been household utensils.
In one of the yards an old woman had already built up a whole heap of such ware: small vats, pokers, a charred bench on which, beside a little bucket and dipper, lay a cradle. They stopped just across from this yard to fill the radiator with water. The old one started to bustle, took the bucket and dipper and came up to the draw well. “Don’t bother, granny, we’ve got a bucket of our own,” said the driver as he approached the well with a tarpaulin field bucket. Without saying a word, the old woman drew up the bucket from the well, put it on the log frame, and scooping up some water with the dipper handed it to him. “At least I’ll treat you to some water since I haven’t got anything else. See what that devil’s tribe has done.” “What can be better than water on the march! And from a native well at that! And from a kind soul!” One by one the men drank from the dipper and thanked the old woman. Then someone asked, “Where are all the people, granny, we don’t seem to see any around?” “There aren’t many left,” she said sadly. Then suddenly she started to sob. “Yesterday we and the Red Army men buried those the fascists shot during the retreat. The whole village came to the funeral – two old men and half a dozen old women. That’s all that’s left of our community now! That’s those who were lucky. The others were driven away like a herd of cattle. You should have seen what went on that night...” She wiped the tears with the palm of her hands, and asked, “Sons, have you by chance met any of the Matiashivs? I’ve got three sons in the Red Army.” 6
“You see, granny, the front is big,” Simon answered. “Could be that in some place or another our mothers are inquiring about us just as you do now. Your sons will be writing soon, you just wait for their letters.” “I am, I’m waiting, sons. Guess I’ll be expecting my daughter-in-law any day.” She brightened up at once, and wiping her parched lips with the edge of the kerchief, added in a confiding undertone: “When she was leaving for the interior with the collective farm she was already with child. So I’m expecting her to come with a grandson. And though we’ve got no house, we’ll hang the cradle on a cherry tree till a hut of some sort is built. With a child in a cradle it’ll be easier to begin life anew.” With eyes half closed she sadly shook her head. “My God, what bitter grief we’ve come to see! Who could have thought about a year ago that this would happen, who could have foreseen it in the wildest of dreams! How could the earth hear such monsters without going to pieces!” “Every-bo-dy mount!” sounded the command. The men surrounded the granny in a tight circle, trying at least to comfort her with a touch of the hand or a kind word. Then they rapidly left for their guns. With the village already behind them, they still seemed to hear her words ringing in their ears and searing their hearts. Now everyone was under (he impression that (he guns were moving at an unbearably slow pace, although the prime movers drove along the smooth highway at top speed. Beyond the river they entered a valley. After a long silence Irakliy said, “A wonderful old woman, isn’t she?” “Oh yes,” Simon agreed pensively. “And how well she expressed the thought about the cradle! You know, Irakliy, after meeting her I seem to see the world from a new angle. It’s become brighter somehow.” He flicked open his tobacco case, offered it to his friend first and, after rolling himself a cigarette, continued: “Come to think about your invitation. Well, I mightn’t see that day, Irakliy, my friend!” Irakliy tried to interrupt him, but Simon would not let him. “War is war, and Kuznetsov was right when he said that day that death isn’t an unexpected guest in war.” “Listen, Simon, what’s the matter with you today! You’re telling me all this as if it only concerned you.” “Why only me? It concerns everyone of us!” And only after he had said this, Simon realized what a harsh slice of bitter truth he had offered up for this friend’s consumption. To compensate for his harshness, he changed to a cheerful, jocular tone “Oh, forget it, Irakliy, the barrel of wine (you write this to your wife) can wait. If I don’t make it, my son will grow up and visit you instead of me. Now you just imagine that picture, my friend!” He deeply inhaled the smoke of the cigarette and with eyes half-closed went on in the same way – you could not tell whether he was really joking or only pretending to joke: “The best lime of day to call on good people is in the evenings.’’ “Why in the evenings?” “Because by then everyone’s done his chores, you don’t have to give a helping hand, and supper has not yet been served.” “What a joker you are, Simon!” “Just then the young wayfarer arrives. ‘Hello, Uncle Irakliy,’ he’ll say. He’ll call your name, but he’ll be a total stranger to you. And by the looks of him – covered with dust, a knapsack behind his back – you’ll see that he’s come from distant parts. ‘You don’t recognize me, do you?’ he’ll say. ‘Why, I’m Petro Honcharenko! During the war you and my dad wiped out the fascists with one and the same gun, you shared the same gun carriage during marches...” The column slowed down and halted all of a sudden. 7
“Why’d we stop?” Irakliy asked, looking around. Simon did the same and saw at the head of the column the commander standing by two men mounted on gray horses from the battalion reconnaissance platoon, who had been sent out ahead of the unit. “Hey, you matchmakers,” came the merry voice of Kuznetsov from the gun bringing up the rear of the column. “It seems we’ve got here just on time! D’ye hear that wonderful music?” Nearby, right beyond the forest, the battle raged. The loud reports of exploding shells and mortar fire and the sputtering rattle of machine guns merged into an uninterrupted, solid din. Ambulance trucks rushed out of the forest and sped past the column on the highway. From the same direction came a file of wounded men. Covered with dust, only the eyes gleaming on their faces, they seemed to have emerged from a pit. Some of them had their heads or arms dressed in blindingly white bandages. A man from the column asked what had happened. A wounded soldier, who seemed to be accustomed to talking to the deaf or above a loud noise only, shouted at the top of his voice: “We’ve beaten off four attacks today. Seems like they’ve launched a fifth!” One after another the prime movers turned off the highway and after driving about a kilometer along a ravine, they halted and the crews took up firing positions in a cherry orchard. While the guns were being placed, the telephonists laid a line to the forward observation post. Some minutes were spent on finding the range, and hardly half an hour had passed after they had arrived, when all the guns of the batteries were firing in salvos, or in single shots, lifting the cherry blossoms in a white whirl above the orchard. Only during the evening did the firing somewhat abate. But there was no sleep to be had that night. When the battle alarm roused the battalion from sleep the stars were still shining overhead, only the constellations had shifted in the bowl of the sky. The first lights of dawn were breaking through the darkness. The trees in bloom, so fairy-like white and tender during the day, had now turned heavy and dim and seemed to have dissolved, spreading across the valley in a gray mist. Here and there gigantic oaks, black and ominous like visions in a delirious dream, rose above the veil of mist and, seemingly too weak to bear their heavy crowns, broke down to pieces with a horrible crash. The crews quickly took up their positions by the guns. And the work resumed. They fired at the German batteries. And the Germans returned the fire. Occasionally the shells would land in the cherry orchard. One of the guns in the second battery was hit. But in the end, after about an hour of exchanging fire, the Germans were silenced. “Not a bad start for this day, Simon,” Irakliy said cheerfully. “The end of it mustn’t be bad either!” Simon answered in the same tone. “It seems to me, though” – he shook his head with concern – “it’ll be a hot day!” The cannonade roared across the entire front. The fighting was exceptionally ferocious in the sector neighboring the Guardsmen. It looked like the Germans intended to strike a blow just in this place. Dozens of their batteries relentlessly placed their fire here throughout the entire depth of the defensive. Apparently the numerical strength of our artillery in this sector was no less. The ground roared as if ten stormy nights brought into one were hurling forth all their accumulated ferocity. From time to time enemy bombers, invisible in the night sky, came thundering from beyond the forest; above the cherry orchard they turned toward the highway, and after some two or three minutes deafening explosions shook the earth like a rolling avalanche, and for a long time echoes pealed from the forests and ravines. This went on till morning. Then the cannonade gradually subsided. Once again it sprayed up for a number of minutes like a billow hitting against the sea coast and then dispersed into broken rifle and machine gun fire. The men by the guns stationed in the orchard pricked up their ears: earlier they had not heard this kind of fire. Their faces took on a severe cast.
With impatience they looked at their battery commander who at the moment was talking over the telephone. Presently he put down the receiver and summoned all the platoon and gun commanders. When they came running, he briefed them on the situation. It had become rather tense. A group of German tanks, supported by at least a battalion of submachine gunners, had managed to pierce the defenses of the neighboring Guardsmen. In the vicinity of the “Comintern” State Farm our infantry and artillery had cut off the submachine gunners from the tanks, and after dispersing them had begun to neutralize the enemy troops. Our attack aircraft were now engaging the tanks. “The ‘Comintern’ farm is five kilometers to the left of the highway,” said the battery commander, “which means that we are six kilometers away. So be on your guard!” Then he gave a detailed outline of action for every crew. Almost that same moment came the warning call from the antiaircraft observation post perched high up on a poplar: “Tanks – to the left of the highway!” The warning call seemed unnecessary, for the men by the guns already saw the tanks themselves. At first two tanks emerged from the forest. Then, like a herd of elephants more pushed forward out of the underbrush, breaking and crushing the young pine trees under their caterpillars – there was no time now to count how many. The gun commander, tearing his eyes from his field glasses, gave the command: “At the tanks! Over open sights! Armor piercers!” Before the command had been issued, the gun was turned through ninety degrees, its muzzle now pointed straight at the highway. The loader punched home a round, Irakliy shot the lock. “Ready!” But Simon, his eyes glued to the sight, did not hurry, choosing what tank to hit first. There were about twenty of them. After crossing the highway, they slowly crawled along as if following a scent. Several meters before the ravine stretching from the highway almost to the cherry orchard, they split up into two groups – one turned to the left to go round the ravine, and the other moved along the western edge directly at the battery. “Get him!” Simon said to the locker. Irakliy pulled the lanyard. The gun went up in a roar, that very instant a column of black smoke welled from the head tank and it stopped. The other tanks seemed to be at a loss, but then the second tank abruptly burst into action, bypassed the burning tank, and firing its gun lurched forward at full speed, followed by the rest. “Get him!” Now the ammunition carriers, loader and locker hardly managed to keep up with the pace. The intervals between the shots numbered seconds. However, Simon Honcharenko proved to be a remarkable sighter – only a few of the projectiles missed their mark. After less than a minute, two tanks were on fire, and the third, its treads smashed, was brought to a standstill. However, another six machines, with the clatter of (racks and spitting fire, were heading at full speed at the battery. So far their firing had no effect. True, the men on the first gun crew, having no chance to look around, did not know what was going on by the other guns where most of the shells exploded, although the first crew as of yet had no casualties. And all of a sudden. At first the gun commander was torn out of the ranks: a machine gun burst cut him down. Almost at the same time a shell exploded nearby. The shock wave threw Irakliy to the ground. When he managed to get on his feet, he saw that both of the ammunition carriers and the loader were dead. Now there were only three men at the gun: the layer, he and Simon. Irakliy grabbed a round and hurriedly punched it home. “Ready!” But for some reason Simon did not give the command to shoot, although the tanks were no less than four hundred meters away. Maybe he did not hear him? 9
“Ready, Simon!” Irakliy shouted this time. He looked in his direction and froze: with his head pressed against the sight, Simon was not aiming any more. “Simon!” Irakliy rushed to him. But Simon did not hear him – a narrow little band the color of cherry ran across his forehead: he was dead! The moment Irakliy realized this he felt as if his life had been snubbed out. In despair he pressed his face against Simon’s shoulder. But immediately, summoning all his will, he tore himself away. The tanks were now some two hundred meters away. There was not even any time to remove the body of the dead, so Irakliy slightly moved aside Simon’s head and in this way, temple to temple, he peered into the sight. Almost without changing the sighting, he pulled the lanyard. The projectile exploded a meter off the last tank. Irakliy gritted his teeth. “The last armor piercer!” shouted the layer from behind his back, as he handed him the round. Irakliy loaded the gun, shot home the lock and pressed his eye against the sight. “Well, Simon,” he said through set teeth,” I tell you, now Irakliy won’t miss!” Through the sight he saw how the heavy bulk of the machine was moving right at him. “Hit him!” the layer shouted impatiently from behind. “Take it easy!” Irakliy replied in his mind, for that instant he would have hardly managed to move his lips even if he tried: all his body strength had been sapped by emotion. His heart throbbed against his ribs, though it never missed a beat. A feeling of strength and selfconfidence literally intoxicated him. Were he not in a hurry, he would let this tank come up right to the muzzle of his gun and then he would hit it point-blank with all his fury. And then – come what may! But the insistent thought of his comrades there by the other guns urged him on: “Hurry, every second is dear!” Irakliy was about to pull the lanyard, but checked his movement: all of a sudden a second tank lunged forward from behind the head tank and, carrying on a constant fire, bypassed it. By the explosion Irakliy surmised that it must have spotted the second antitank gun (which was probably being brought into action just then) and wanted to crush it before it made the first shot. “Why, you bastard!” Irakliy said through set teeth. “Turn the gun to the left!” he shouted over his shoulder. The layer grabbed hold of the trails and in the heat of the moment swung the gun at a far greater angle than it should have been. Now both of them were completely defenseless, earlier they had had at least the shield to hide behind. The bullets poured forth at them like hail – they clanged against the carriage, against the wheels, one had pierced Irakliy’s shoulder. The tank, thundering with its caterpillars, was already some fifty meters away. Another second – and he would meet the same fate as those he had seen on the highway beyond the village. But Irakliy was far from this thought. He wondered rather whether this would happen afterwards, or whether he still would have time to hit the tank first? The outlines of the tank had not yet appeared in the sight. For the first time Irakliy’s heart missed a beat. Then, suddenly – he even uttered a sigh of relief – the tank was in the sight. He pulled the lanyard. Some paces from the gun muzzle an explosion of tremendous force rent the air, seemingly before Irakliy had pulled the lanyard. An explosion and a whirlwind of fire! In a split second the entire world was turned into a holocaust for Irakliy... However, this was not death. The world returned to him in the guise of a twilight in a hospital ward, of a voice he seemed to have heard before, calling out his name. “Irakliy, come to now, fast.” Irakliy looked intently into the bandaged face, but he did not recognize it. “Who are you?” “Don’t you see, I’m Tsibulko.” Even then Irakliy eyed him suspiciously, and at long last he recognized him. 10
“Where are our men?” he asked, his eyes filled with alarm. “Where should they be? Where everyone is,” Tsibulko replied calmly. “Don’t you hear?!” From behind the window, through the quiet of the evening, came the hardly audible thunder-like rumble of the cannonade. “Irakliy,” – after a moment’s silence Tsibulko bent down to his friend and whispered enthusiastically, “Irakliy, what a man you are...” He wanted to choose the right words to express his real feelings, but could not; then they poured forth of their own: “A daredevil! All of us were practically flabbergasted when you turned that gun. And then, when everything was over, we measured the distance: it was a little less than twenty paces between you and the tank when Kuznetsov smashed its turret to pieces right from the first shot!” “What about Simon?” He looked at Tsibulko with such intensity as if he expected him to say the usually jocular, “Hey, Simon, your relative over here is worried about your whereabouts!” and Simon would immediately come with a smile on his lips. “What is it I can do for you?” he would say. But Tsibulko did not say a word. He guessed that Irakliy did not know anything about Simon’s death. Sooner or later he must know! So Tsibulko decided to break the news: “Simon... and not only him – Ovcharov, Petrusenko, Khadjibaev – we lost seven men from our battery during the engagement. And from your crew...” But Irakliy did not hear him any more. As from the light of a flare that suddenly cuts through the dark of night, Irakliy’s memory, hitherto enveloped in mist, was unexpectedly illumined by the scene of the battle and that part of it when having shouted “Ready!” he raised his eyes to see Simon dead his head pressed against the sight, not aiming any more. “Is that you again, Tsibulko!” came the severe voice of the nurse. “Go to your ward at once.” She came up to Irakliy, sat down at the head of his bed and bent over him with a worried look. His face, as if hewn of stone, did not betray the slightest movement. From under the eyelid a tear broke away and slowly rolled down the temple and under the bandage. 11
For some days after this Irakliy did not respond to anyone’s call. He almost never opened his eyes – retiring in this way into himself, he grieved for his friend in silence. Eventually he calmed down a bit, but for hours on end his brow would be knit in meditation. Suddenly one day, maybe it was because it was such an unusual sunny morning and from behind the window, in the orchards, the first cuckoo sounded the call of spring, he livened up and turned into his old self. When the nurse came into the ward, he addressed her for the first time in all these days: “Nurse, please sit down at my bedside.” When the surprised nurse sat down on a stool at his bed, he added, “We’ll write a letter to my wife.” “Should have done that a long time ago!” said the nurse joyfully. The first lines she wrote herself, without his prompting-where he was, how he was feeling. Then she read the letter to him. The last sentence mentioned about his coming home for some time after leaving the hospital. “What else should I write?” Irakliy thought for a while and started to dictate: “And now listen to me attentively, Madam, very attentively. Some days ago I lost my dearest friend in battle. You know whom I have in mind – it’s Simon. There are no words, Mariam, to describe my pain. At times it seemed to me that a man who had experienced the joy of such a friendship and then lost it would never be able to throw off his grief. But suddenly it came to me (lately, this happens frequently with me, Mariam, I seem to forget even the most important things and have to call them to mind) – I remembered and understood that I had been completely wrong! Since it would be impossible to describe it even in a very large letter, I’ll be very brief: I’ll come home not alone, but with the little son of Simon, Petrus. He’s a complete orphan now. But in our family he’ll forget that he’s an orphan.” At this point Irakliy stopped and remained silent for a long time. “I’ve already written it down,” the nurse reminded him. “Cross it out” Irakliy said unexpectedly, displeased with himself. “Cross everything out beginning with the place where I’ve said that he’ll forget. I shouldn’t have said that. He cannot forget anything! He must not forget anything! Even that he’s an orphan. He should remember this all his life and tell his children how he became an orphan, how he, too, had a father and mother and a happy childhood. But then the damned beasts came – they killed his mother, robbed, burned and reduced his country to ruins... He should remember all his life and tell his children how his father and a great many other fathers and brothers of other children defended the country with their sweat and blood, facing sure death with open eyes. For they knew that they could only win. Not to win meant to give themselves and their children up to the mockery and slavery under those bastards!” Irakliy grew pale with excitement and exhaustion, and beads of sweat broke out on his forehead. Overcoming his weariness, he added after a while, as if summarizing his thoughts: “He must remember all this all his life! He must not forget anything!” Then he shut his eyes and covered them with the palm of his hand, and remained silent for a long time. The nurse sat at his bedside without moving. Now he’ll fall asleep, she thought. And indeed, already half-asleep, having apparently repeated the last phrase once again, for it was said with the same intonation, albeit in Georgian, Irakliy deeply drew the air into his lungs and calmed down. The nurse stood up silently from her place and tiptoed away from his bed. 1942
Translated by Anatole Bilenko Valor. War stories. Dnipro Publishers. Kiev, 1975 Illustrations from Andriy Holovko. The Red Kerchief. Short stories Dnipro Publishers. Kiev, 1979