Aosho- Halle: Soldieers
Egon Valmat looks at his watch. The morning train is late - again. He adjusts his thick scratchy coat. The wind picks up but there is still no sign of the Sun. He looks up and down the platform then to the cold grey sky.
Tremka is the last stop on the Syeam line. Depending on the direction of the wind, trains can be heard as they pass the lake with long trails of steam ascending over the hills, floating to the south however, Egon has not heard or seen any sign.
A few soldiers gather at the end of the platform. They share cigarettes and mugs of tea. It has been a long time since Egon can remember a morning without the sight of soldiers on his platform.
The cold underscores everything - the presence of the soldiers, the lateness of the train and the gnawing hunger that scratches at his patience.
Egon fidgets with his coat collar. The material is harsh and the button holes are tight. He can’t open the slit with his gloves on to secure the top button.
Egon has already placed the mail bag on the platform. He knows a soldier will check its’ contents before allowing Larz the conductor to take it onboard.
If everything had gone to schedule, he would already be inside his station master’s cabin resting over a hot mug of tea and a rye loaf covered with thick butter dipped into a bowl of honey.
Egon had sent his reluctant assistant Lorus to the village square for any news that had reached the checkpoint - perhaps an accident, snow on the tracks or the most likely cause; soldiers commandeering the train and harassing passengers. He heard many instances of army trucks halting trains to confiscate much needed supplies.
A soldier approaches. Nikolay’s hometown of Cremanski was not too dis-similar to the wretched hole he found himself in. He’d been conscripted to save the world from fascism. His face cast down against the chilled wind. He too struggled with layers of clothing, his gait struggled under the load, muddy boots went out in a semi-circular motion before finding the platform.
As he got closer to where Egon was standing his baby blue eyes came into view. Egon thought he could be no more than nineteen or twenty, around the same age as his son. The young soldier smelt like urine.
Egon tipped his hat, barely able to recoil from the stench. Probably hadn’t washed this week, Egon surmised.
Nikolay queried the lateness of the train. Egon shrugged. With little conversational Russian he could not communicate to the young soldier, which he knew he would find frustrating, but the late train was more of a problem.
Egon did not care anymore what the soldiers thought. Egon’s day was governed by the timetable. It controlled events and his relationships. The train being late triggered a chain of events over which he had no control.
The young soldier, muttered under his breath, cursing the powers that had sent him to such an uninviting desolate outpost, with their smelly ugly inhabitants. He missed his grandmother’s cooking. The cold he could put up with but not these ignorant country hicks who spoke like they were throwing up and smelt like rotting cheese.
Nikolay looked at Egon who could offer nothing more, so he wrenched his coat as far around his throat as he could and walked back to his Corporal who had sent him to interrogate the Station Master. Walking back he admonished himself for not gathering more information for he too was caught in a chain of events outside his control.
Egon could hear the soldiers muttering, so he moved further away than was necessary along the platform. His concern for missing morning tea was exacerbated by not having Lorus by his side in case the train did show up.
A few villagers lined up at the shutter, wanting to escape the brutal life that had descended, but not before papers were checked and suitcases searched.
Egon’s eyes drooped, he was sleepy. The inactivity caused his mind to wander. He thought of a time when there were no soldiers.
The Germans had come and gone. They were impressive, always present, shiny uniforms with body language which left no one uncertain as to who was in charge, but that too was as distant as the non-existent steam Egon was waiting for.
Nobody had been able to explain why the Russians were here. To Egon they certainly didn’t act or speak like they wanted to be. They had no consistent uniform, smelt and threw rubbish into the streets.
Egon often passed a contingent of soldiers leaving the Barnhausse as he walked through the square on his way to the station in the morning. The same soldiers checked papers and luggage on the platform, sometimes still drunk from the night before.
There were reports they interfered with local businesses; taking what they wanted and never paying. At least the Germans had left locals to their own devices and allowed normal day to day life to continue.
In the early days of the occupation it had become clear the town of Tremka was not a threat, it’s only interest to occupying forces was the train line; to ensure no insurgent activity was detected but as they were on the end of the line it was easily patrolled, now the Russians had been sent to re-assign Tremka for whatever role it had been designated.
At least the rain had ceased. Egon didn’t mind the cold, or the wind, but the constant piss of rain got into everything. The Sun would not be seen for a few more hours as the mountains hid the morning from view.
Pale bluish streaks of light could be seen over the chimneys as smoke plumed a few feet before being buffeted by the stirring breeze. The threat of light brought the coldness into focus. The dark and cold seemed natural allies, and with the expectation of morning, the cold dug in its heels.
Egon counted fourteen people on the platform including six soldiers, which looked absurd, as most of the passengers were elderly, returning to Gramsk. Some he recognized, so accordingly tapped the worn felt tip of his cap.
Egon had long ago stopped checking tickets, as the soldiers did so while ensuring each bundle of papers were in order. They were checked so often, that the loose bindings almost invariably came undone, and then soldiers would have to help each other as the stamps and signatures were revealed in the gloom.
Lorus appeared at the end of the platform. He was stopped by a soldier but was soon recognized and allowed to pass.
Stinking soldiers, Egon muttered. What did they expect the nitwit boy to be carrying?
Lorus slipped on the icy platform. Constant traffic of boots made small potholes of dark slush. He shuffled under many layers of clothing. His old boots squeaked and slid which made him frown.
Egon’s hunger was getting impatient, as the boy edged his way along the platform. Egon was anxious to know anything about the missing train. A glance at the overhead platform clock - it had passed six o’clock.
Well! Well! What news?
Lorus struggled to catch his breath. Nothing! No one has heard a thing. It’s a mystery!
Egon frowned, There are no mysteries, the train is late, that’s all.
Egon left the young man and walked towards the station master’s cabin.
Well come on, don’t stand there, we must call Embrezza, immediately!
The hapless Lorus followed, head bowed, feet shuffling, as if it weren’t enough to be shunted from pillar to post, now he was being shouted at.
Lorus wondered what his boss had been doing since he had been away. The village square was not easy to get to in the dark, and it was cold. The brick paving was treacherous and where it wasn’t covered in ice, mud took over.
He was stopped by soldiers twice and searched before being allowed into the village square. He knew they were looking for cigarettes and food, but Lorus had thought ahead stuffing a wad of tobacco down a sock.
He waited in the town square next to the waterless fountain; the pipes frozen. A statue with a face everyone knew from childhood looked straight ahead; impassive, the same no matter what the season.
Kata Ramuk had not known the Germans or Russians; his heroic deeds were of a time when the enemy was less defined, regional and spasmodic. Ramuk had summoned the warring tribes under the banner of returning to Vianlat.
Lorus admired the granite statue - the edges of his moustache weather beaten, his peasant clothes a motley blur of grey and blue-green moss where the granite was exposed.
The Post Office which bore the town’s founder name was closed. Lorus’ instructions had been to wait for an army truck, approach and ask for any news. He didn’t see the point at the time and still didn’t as he waited in the pre-dawn dark. The bakery was open. The chimney was alive while all around seemed dead. He checked his pockets for a coin to buy a loaf but found only holes.
He’d done all that had been asked of him and was now being treated like a fool.
Who cares if the train is late? There’s never anyone on it, the soldiers don’t care. How I wish I was one of them. One day I will leave here and go far away to have adventures.
Lorus wanted to be home, in his bed, even though he shared it with his younger brother. He loved lying in his bed smelling the smoke from the kitchen fire as it permeated everything he owned including his prized woollen gloves.
For as long as he could remember, smoke had been central to his life. The long winter months were only barely tolerated by the constant fire in the kitchen; where meals were cooked, clothes were dried and where his family congregated.
He had been charged with the most important - in his eyes - job of all; keeping up the supply of dry wood to quench the insatiable hunger of the fire.
The hearth was the heartbeat of the family, the depot of the central nervous system. Without it they would certainly perish.
Lorus had helped his father build a drying room made of bricks from mud dug and carried from the pit at the bottom of the gully that ran in front of the house.
Careful not to venture too close to the ablution area, they had carved a square hole out of the earth to get to the thicker less porous mud. It had taken weeks of back breaking work to cart the thick heavy black soil out of the ground, up the slippery rock face and across the moss covered hill to the area cleared for the drying hut.
They made bricks out of the pile of mud by scooping it into wooden frames his grandfather had made. Lorus remembered sitting at his grandfather’s feet in the yard surrounded by chickens as he carefully sawed the wood for the drying frames.
Lorus and his father with the occasional help from his younger brother spent hours scooping the mud into the frames then laying them in rows to dry.
It had been planned so the bricks would dry in the hottest part of the year, which meant the hard back breaking work had been done when the humidity was at its highest. They baked each brick in a kiln which took ten bricks at a time. The entire process took months to complete - months he would never get back.
Lorus walked inside the Station Master’s cabin watching his breath vapour before passing through it.
Lorus remembered how hot and sweaty he had been while the drying hut was built, but now his fingers felt like icicles and tears welled in his eyes as the never ending flow of his memories made him feel like a passenger on a train going faster and faster away from the last time he felt happy or at least less miserable than he was now.
We must call Embrezza, Egon shouted as Lorus closed the door.
The ticket window would have to be opened even though there seemed little point.
As Egon called the operator, Lorus went to remove the solitary piece of wood that held the shutter up.
With his gloves still on he couldn’t unhinge the rotted window frame as it was stuck, so he removed a glove with his mouth so the other hand could hold onto the shutter. He could hear voices on the other side - a few locals but the loudest voice was Russian.
Egon was having trouble getting through on the telephone. As his voice deepened and the grunts got louder Lorus could feel the frustration simmer for he knew what was coming.
Lorus wondered if Egon had drunk his tea yet, then noticing the small gas stove was silent realized he hadn’t. He continued adjusting his gloves in an attempt to dislodge the shutter when a loud noise from the other side of the window jolted him back.
A soldier continued to shout. Egon bellowed on the telephone, but still the shutter would not budge. All the commotion surrounding him ceased as the train’s whistle could be heard over the din.
Lorus turned to alert Egon but he was still immersed in his protestations to the operator that he must be connected to the Station Master at Embrezza immediately.
Lorus! Open the damn shutter before that soldier shoots it, hurry up, then put the urn on and get the rye out so it will thaw.
Lorus felt the shutter loosen but wasn’t quick enough to remove his hand. The pain was silent at first, the coldness in his fingers buffered the initial shock, but as his brain caught on to what had happened it soon made up for it.
Lorus reached for his gloved hand with his uncovered hand and bent over. The shutter opened to reveal a stunned looking soldier and the sight of the train approaching.
Egon was annoyed at the sound of the shutter opening as it made the conversation with the Station Master at Embrezzza harder to hear.
Hold on, I can hear the train now, I can see it.
Egon hung up and shouted. What are you doing? There are people wanting to buy a ticket, hurry, the mail bag needs to be opened for those bastards to check.
But Lorus did not move, he could hardly whimper as he felt his face blush with warmth. His glove was already sticky, wet and thick with blood. He never felt or remembered hitting the ground. Luckily he fell to the side missing the edge of the bench.
In frustration, Egon rushed to the door then heard the chair slide as Lorus hit the floor. At first he assumed the boy had merely tripped over, so Egon kept walking but on the platform the soldier who’d been shouting behind the shutter turned the corner and grabbed him by the arm. Stuttering his words Nikolay managed to convey what he’d seen.
The train came to a halt and people were disembarking. Egon was in no mood for anything else other than doing his job, but he forced himself to obey whatever the soldier wanted.
Egon was led begrudgingly back inside the cabin while two local women peered through the now opened ticket window anxious to see if the prostrate figure on the floor was going to move anytime soon so they could check-in their luggage.
Egon noticed the small blonde haired figure and the oversized coat. He surmised the boy had fainted, and was already wondering when the boy was going to be in a fit state to work again.
Apologetically, Egon released the soldier’s grip, bowed and thanked him as other soldiers arrived to see what the hold-up was. The train’s conductor had been summoned to see why the mail bag hadn’t been opened.
Larz, Nikolay and Egon looked over Lorus’ fallen body. Egon was almost too scared to roll the boy over lest what he might find. Together they propped his head up and surveyed him. It was Larz who noticed the limp, still gloved hand, and pointed.
Nikolay removed the rifle from his shoulder and held the boy’s arm, while Egon reluctantly started to remove the glove. It was cold, heavy and moist, as he slid it over the wrist a thick trace of blood in the shape of a baby snake glistened under the solitary overhead exposed light bulb.
The glove was slowly removed until it reached the base of the fingers. Egon tried to use more force but something was obstructing its path. Tilting his head, he touched the middle finger which was bent at a right angle. Three men looked at each other unsure what to do next. Egon’s mind swirled, thoughts collided with no release.
Nikolay felt sick at the smell of blood - a strange smell - neutral yet industrial, his throat clenched as his mouth went dry.
Larz rested on his haunches, bent over and pulled the boy’s thumb out then one finger at a time. The last finger removed resembled a fallen bird he had seen walking through the forest. Skin morphed into blood, some bone and nail came adrift.
They swallowed hard. They held their breath. The last remaining finger in the glove was bent at such an angle it folded back on itself.
The Conductor looked at the Station Master. Egon stood up, slowly, his back in spasms from kneeling, his thin ankles struggled under the pressure, he slowly moved his legs towards the table. He looked for the paring knife used to slice the small under ripe apples they found in the grove behind the station.
Egon handed to Larz, rather ceremoniously, the small blunt implement.
Nikolay, who’d seen enough, went to assist cordoning off the cabin from eager onlookers.
Larz shifted his position as his feet were going to sleep. He held the glove and inserted the tip of the knife into the thread. He sawed it backwards and forwards with no success. The wet cloth held the knife tip.
Hold his hand like this!
Egon tentatively held the small hand flat - palm up. Its rigidity surprised him. He did as instructed, feeling more secure in being directed.
Larz tore with friction rather than cutting the threads of cloth at the base of the finger. He pulled and the finger released somewhat, stalled again until it reached the last knuckle.
Lorus was coming to, his body shook, like a shiver in the morning when the bedclothes are turned over and the stalking cover of cold morning air hits the heat rising from the body.
Egon placed a hand on his shoulder and ensured his head rested easily on the coat that had been placed on the floor. The smell of urine hit their noses at once, but it was dismissed and accepted as they instinctively knew the same would happen to anyone in this predicament.
Larz could no longer accept the level of progress so with a swift yank pulled the glove off, which caused Lorus to bolt upright as pain seared up his arm. The broken finger now lopped on the other side. On the next finger a small bone protruded where the nail had been.
Now that the scale of damage had been assessed, the Conductor tore strips of the glove and wrapped the two injured fingers together and instructed Egon to get a towel from which he could make a sling to hold his arm to his chest.
The train stood dormant, uninvolved with the events in the cabin. It rested like a giant mechanical beast - a monolith - a symbol of where life was headed. Nikolay looked at it with envy, as he knew it would soon head back along the mountain pass, past the lake and onto Embrezza and beyond, a beyond he could not quite fathom, but it was not here, where life stayed regimented - as same as the day before. He felt the inertia of momentum as perceived stagnation was overrun by a feeling of missing out on whatever was happening elsewhere without him.
Egon was relieved he no longer had to sit next to the result of Lorus’ incompetence. He walked towards the first carriage behind the engine car. The soldiers checked then swapped the mail bags over and were now sharing cigarettes while talking to the driver.
Passengers were escorted along the platform and assigned carriage numbers.
Everything seemed to be getting back to order however, without any involvement from Egon, which at first he found frustrating, a warm feeling of relief wandered over his internal landscape.
His thoughts turned to food, so he walked back along the platform smiling - a strange sensation indeed, and topped his cap at the soldiers and passengers who seemed quite happy to be finally doing something.
Lorus was being helped up by Larz and one of the boys who worked at the mill. Lorus had the soldier’s coat over his shoulders so that his small head was only just visible. His posture was hunched, he whimpered like a hungry kitten which annoyed Egon.
That was nasty, said Larz.
Egon sniffed, stupid boy, should have been watching what he was doing, hopeless he is, never does anything right.
The Conductor was taken aback with the Station Master’s lack of compassion. He’d always been a prickly character. Larz looked at his watch, passengers were boarding and the shunting process to turn the engine car around would start soon. The two men stared at each other, and with nothing else to say tipped their hats and separated.
Egon didn’t know how long he would have to make do without his assistant. He would most likely have to visit him at the Klinic, and maybe would have to visit his parents but for the time being he put that out of his mind.
Egon changed the platform sign to read Embrezza, with the metal rod that stayed hooked on the wall. After being dis-connected, the engine car would circle around the station on a side track and be re-connected at the front of the carriages. The process would take twenty minutes or so, and most of it done without him. His only task was to set the shifting gears to alternate the two railway lines. Something Lorus would normally do as he watched the platform for late arrivals.
The platform was empty but for a group of soldiers and an elderly couple near the restrooms. Egon walked towards them - a man and a woman. They stood impassive next to their luggage.
As he passed them, he detected a slight fragrance. It was familiar yet exotic, a scent of summer and open fields. Egon paused to allow the woman’s smile to permeate his being. The man stayed rigid and looked down at his shoes as if in prayer or deep consideration.
Egon noticed how well dressed they were, yet he could not place the aroma. The train blew short whistles and the engine belched black smoke.
Larz walked along the platform shutting each carriage door. Children looked out of windows, some reprimanded by adults to sit inside. Egon heard the Conductor speak to the elderly couple.
May I assist you with your bags?
To which the woman answered ever so politely, why thank you, we normally travel light but this one is heavy.
Egon left them without turning around and went into the shed that housed the sliders and gears for changing the tracks. He pressed the current setting to disengage and waited for the engine to appear through the window on the opposite side of the station.
He waited four minutes before seeing the steam come from the front chimney, then went back to the slider and engaged the setting which allowed the engine to swing round in front of the carriages, leaving the mail cart now at the rear of the train. When the engine was out of sight, he reversed the process so that the tracks were back in their original configuration.
Egon walked out of the shed. He heard a sound like a gust of wind, and walked towards the front of the train. By the time he got there, the train was still a hundred yards down the track slowly reversing back. All eyes were on the engine car as the Conductor walked towards Egon whose hunger was now beyond his normal capability with his impatience growing accordingly.
The two men watched the engine car connect to the first carriage, the driver hooking the chain and braces locking them into position. Two of the soldiers helped with the bracket and nut, so all looked set.
With a wave of his hand, and a final look down the platform, caps were doffed and the soldiers disappeared from the platform. Egon was left alone to bathe in the soothing desire for a hot cup of tea and rye loaf dripping with honey.
Walking back to the hut, he saw a suitcase alone on the platform near where the elderly couple had stood. It annoyed him that it hadn’t been noticed before. The suitcase looked odd. There was something about the way it stood that unsettled him but he couldn’t pinpoint exactly what.
As he stood over it, he was sure it belonged to the couple as the elderly were prone to forget things, but he could not exactly remember what luggage they were standing next to.
He studied it carefully, it was obviously expensive, although there was no badge displaying the maker’s name. It had a solid brown base with gold caps on each corner, leather straps sewn into the fabric and curious patterns; swirling browns and soft purples flowing along the sides with a perfectly embroided tree perched on a hill.
He realized why the position of the suitcase annoyed him so.
If I were waiting for a train I would have placed the bag by my side so it would sit this way pointing to the train but it sits at an angle pointing to the hill, he thought.
Egon went to pick the suitcase up but was halted by the same aroma from when he walked past the woman on the platform.
I will ring the Station Master at Embrezza to inform him that one of the passengers, an elderly woman, has left a suitcase behind.
The aroma was so surprising he stood up and sniffed the air. It wasn’t until he bent down again did he recognize the aroma - lavender. He wasn’t sure but he thought he could also hear a gentle hum. Again he stood up, but both the smell and the sound stopped.
He picked the bag up but almost fell over as the weight of it surprised him, he could barely hold it with two hands, and the smell and sound became more noticeable.
With a mixture of panic and frustration Egon half carried and dragged the suitcase along the platform. Inside the cabin he tried to lift it onto the table but it was too heavy so it remained on the floor while he made a cup of tea and took the rye bread out of the cool box.
Seeing there was nothing else to be done, Nikolay left the urchins to sort out their own troubles. He lit a cigarette at the end of the platform and looked over the expanse of snow and rubble that no one ventured onto.
Nikolay thought of his mother writing letters to her sister detailing, in graphic terms, the slow decline of his father and how she spent most mornings cleaning the blood smeared sheets his father woke up in after he had coughed up blood and phlegm as the fever took hold.
Nikolay’s sister Yelena was a permanent fixture in the kitchen fixing meals, chopping wood and arguing with the men in the village over the price of their beets.
What he remembered most was the light, or lack of it. Kislovodsk was a harsh landscape but nothing compared to Yasnaya.
After father died his mother was left with no income so was forced to live with her sister but there was no room for her children. Nikolay was sent to the orphanage at Yasnaya and Yelena to Pulovski to work as a seamstress, but as Nikolay found out from her letters, she spent most of her time standing on the street selling scraps of material so local women could repair their children’s clothing.
Yelena visited him twice in the five years he was at Yasnaya but then the letters stopped and one day and as he walked to the gymnasium for dinner, he realized he was alone in the world.
He had a friend at the orphanage - Arkadi, a Georgian peasant’s son who’d lost his father at sea and was sent to the orphanage when his mother could no longer afford to keep him. They had a picture in their dorm of a soldier in the Crimea. He looked so menacing yet full of life. Night after night the two boys went to sleep after talking about how they would one day join the army and live with the same fire in the eyes of the soldier on their wall.
Now as he looked at the desolate outpost he’d been sent to he couldn’t be any further away from his dream. Surely it wasn’t his fate to be stagnating in a place so far from home that looked and smelled like a piggery.
He finished his cigarette and contemplated lighting another one when he saw a glint of light coming from an isolated clump of dry grass sticking out of the snow on a slope of rubble.
He walked towards the platform edge but could not make out the shape. It would be difficult to walk around the platform so decided to jump from the edge. There was no danger as the train was positioned at the other end and was being switched for the return journey but it would appear like he was escaping or at least exposing himself out of the norm.
The thought of doing something different threw all concerns for appearances away. Something inside pushed him forward, the chance of anything breaking the monotony was too much to resist. He almost fell as he plunged into the soft snow, his gun swung round his shoulder with such force he had to grab it which meant he had nothing to steady himself.
Looking up to see if he had been spotted he wiped his pants and adjusted his cap. The object that had propelled him off the platform was not far away but there was a slight incline covered with loose gravel and his stiff hard boots struggled with the change in topography.
He had to almost crawl up the slope then across a plateau of larger boulders until he was upon the object. A strange sensation emanated from its gold colour.
He smiled as he saw the suitcase. He instantly thought he had retrieved something valuable as he imagined some fugitive swinging it out of a carriage window to escape being caught with whatever was inside. He stood over the suitcase unsure of what to do.
I should alert the Corporal. He’ll want to set-up a watch to see if anyone comes back.
The thought of being the one sitting out in the cold waiting for some criminal took care of that. An image of his mother sitting by candlelight at night writing letters encircled him. So much time had passed, so much hope had faded.
He reached for the suitcase and was surprised how heavy it was. By picking it up he felt released from his penance. By dragging it to the edge of the platform he was an accomplice. By heaving it onto the platform he had joined the underworld far from the regimented enslavement of his country.
He reached back through the years to be at his mothers’ side again.
He climbed onto the platform making sure he was not seen. He looked down the platform. All eyes were on the switching of the engine car.
He hid behind a stanchion that kept the telephone wire out of the snow. He placed the suitcase on the ground to confirm resilience and determination to be outside the cave he had constructed in his mind.
The scent of lavender reminded him of that first train journey to Tremka. It had been a bright spring day and the fields were alive with bees and goats. The open window filled the carriage with blossom from which the locals made the most aromatic honey he had ever tasted.
He looked at the swirling design on the side of the suitcase – an embroided tree looked familiar but he couldn’t place it.
As his hands felt the two clasps on top he felt a slight vibration run through his fingertips. His mother smiled at him from her writing desk. She appeared serene – happy; content that he had matured into a worthy son.
The clasps would not open. He checked for a secret lock or panel, anything that would open the suitcase. Its weight was a sure sign something valuable was inside but then something unusual occurred to him.
Nikolay sat back. The suitcase appeared brand new as if it were bought that very day but he had found it slightly upturned in the snow, amongst gravel and the wild dry grass that grew between railway sleepers and rocks yet there was not a mark on its surface as if it were still on a shop shelf.
He touched it once more, again vibration - the sensation soothing and restrained yet with no sound.
The train’s whistle blew. He quickly stood up. He picked the suitcase up in both hands but saw the Corporal at the signal box talking to that stupid Station Master.
Nikolay took a few steps then released the suitcase, leaving it stranded on the platform.