Tanner's Twelve Swingers

Page 3

After a while the boy woke up, crying lustily, and she fed him and put him back to sleep again. “Such a good boy,” she said.

“He will need brothers and sisters.”

“And we have worked to provide one for him.”

“This is true,” I said. “But can one be certain of the results?”

“I do not understand.”

“When one wishes to grow a tree, one puts more than a single seed into the ground.”

“We have planted two seeds already,” she said, grinning.

“Would not a third seed make matters trebly sure?”

She purred. “You will be here several days. By the time you leave, I have a feeling that the ground will be overflowing with seeds.”

“Would the ground object?”

“The ground shall have no objection.”

“After all,” I said, “one ought to leave as little as possible to chance.”

“Especially when there is so much pleasure in the planting.”

“This is true, too.”

“I love you,” she said.

And so we undressed a second time and moved again to her straw mattress and labored there most happily for the greater glories of Macedonia. Once more my marvelous son slept placidly through the joyous cries of love. And when it was over, I clung to her until she appeared to drift off to sleep. Then I drew away from her and covered her with blankets.

“I wish you could stay with me forever,” she murmured.

“So do I.”

“Why must you go to Latvia?”

“It’s a long story,” I said. And she stirred, as if prepared to ask for that long story, but instead she abruptly relaxed and this time she slept as peacefully as Todor.

I put my peasant clothing on once again and sat cross-legged in front of the fire, glancing now at my son and now at his mother, then turning my attention to the map I had drawn on the earthen floor. It would not do to leave the map there, I thought. Once I left Macedonia, it would be better if no one knew where I was going. I used another twig to obliterate the map, then pitched it into the fire and watched it burn.

Why must you go to Latvia?

A good question, a legitimate question. And my answer, while answering nothing, had surely been true enough.

It was a long story…

Chapter 3

Karlis Mielovicius and I crouched in the shelter of a clump of scrub pine. Fifty-odd yards to our right a dozen riflemen crept resolutely forward. When they drew even with us, I extended one arm parallel to the ground. The men stopped in their tracks, then dropped to their knees and brought their rifles to bear upon the ramshackle wooden structure ahead of us. I held my arm out straight and counted to five, then dropped my arm abruptly.

A dozen rifles snapped in unison, peppering the clapboard building with a steady volley of shots. Karlis and I sprang into action. He yanked the pin from a grenade, counted as he ran, and hurled the grenade into the open doorway. I counted with him and ran at his side. Then, as the grenade sailed into the building, we both threw ourselves to the ground.

The explosion tore the little shed in half. The riflemen were moving in now, firing as they ran, pouring bullets into the crippled shed. The gunfire dropped off as Karlis and I reached the doorway. I held up my arm again, and the rifle fire ceased entirely, and we went inside.

The shed was empty, of course. Had we been participating in an actual invasion of Latvia, the little building would have been strewn with the broken bodies of its defenders. But we were thousands of miles from Latvia. We were, to be precise, some five miles south and east of Delhi, in Delaware County, New York, where the Latvian Army-In-Exile was presently holding its annual fall encampment and field maneuvers.

“ Mission accomplished,” Karlis barked in Lettish. “Return to formation, double time.”

The riflemen trotted back to their tents. Karlis broke out a pack of cigarettes and offered me one. I shook my head, and he lit one for himself. He smoked with the great gusto of a man who limits himself to three or four cigarettes a day and who consequently enjoys the hell out of the ones he smokes. He sucked great drags from the cigarette, inhaled deeply, held the smoke way down in his lungs, then expelled it all in a vast cloud.

“The men did well,” he said.

“Very well.”

“I was less pleased with the close-order drill, however. But our marksmanship is good, Evan, and our men work with enthusiasm. We may be pleased.”

He was a huge, blond giant of a man, standing just over six and a half feet, weighing just over three hundred pounds. The U.S. Army might have had trouble finding a uniform to fit him. The Latvian Army-In-Exile had no such problem, as the dark green uniforms we all wore had to be individually tailored. Karlis’s required rather more cloth than the rest, that’s all.

Together we walked back to the tent we shared. It was the only tent in the entire encampment that had no beds in it. Since none of the army cots were long enough for him, Karlis preferred to take his king-size sleeping bag into the open and stretch out on the ground. I had no need for a bed, so on our first day in camp we’d had our double bunk carried away and moved in a pair of reasonably comfortable chairs. I sat in one, and Karlis sat in the other, and together we watched the sunset.

Karlis outranked me. He was a colonel in the Latvian Army-In-Exile, while I was a major. Our ranks may seem more impressive than they actually are. We have only officers in the army, no enlisted men. One aim of this form of organization is, admittedly, to provide our soldiers with the ego-gratification essential for an army in exile, but there is more to it than that. Our small group of men must be more than an effective fighting unit. Each of us will ultimately be called upon to command; when we invade Latvia, we will have to lead the workers and peasants and other patriots who flock to our standard. By providing every man with officer status, we will be better prepared to command our new recruits on the other side.

After all, there are only one hundred thirty-six of us, and we’ll have our hands full.

Karlis stubbed out his cigarette on the sole of his boot, then automatically field-stripped the butt and scattered the shreds of tobacco to the wind. He balled the remaining bit of cigarette paper and flicked it away. Then he sat down again and sighed.

“Does something bother you, my friend?” I asked.

For a moment he seemed to hesitate. Then he said, “No, Evan. I am tired, that is all. Tomorrow we go home, and I will not be sorry to go.”

We had been in camp for a full week. For seven days we had spoken nothing but Lettish. For seven days we had arisen each morning at five and had put ourselves through a whole regimen of military activities, ranging from marching exercises to mock military operations, from classes and demonstrations in bomb-making and the use of various weapons to double-time marches with full field pack. We broke ranks each night for dinner, but the nights, while officially our own, were invariably given over to political discussions and songfests and folk dances. While an athlete like Karlis could stand up better than most under this sort of schedule, I could well appreciate that he would not be unhappy to return to Providence and the judo academy where he worked as an instructor.

A bugle blew, and we went to dinner. We ate well – the day’s heavy exercise had provided almost everyone with a good appetite – and then we lingered over coffee until the women and girls of the Female Auxiliary made their appearance. It was the final night, and the program called for folk dancing around the bonfire and whatever additional delights might occur to various couples.

But Karlis had grown increasingly depressed. “I’m going to the tent,” he announced.

“You won’t stay for the dancing?”

“Not tonight.”

“The girls are lovely,” I said.

“I know. But it hurts my heart to see them. Lettish women are the most beautiful on earth, and the sight of them tears at my soul.” His voice dropped to a conspiratorial level. “If you wish their company, I do not blame you in the least. But I have two bottles of French cognac in my knapsack. I have been saving them all week, and one of them is for you.”

The girls were lovely, but many of them were wives and sweethearts, and there didn’t look to be enough unattached ones to go around. Besides, a week of hard work had taken its toll. Suddenly the thought of a good bottle of cognac held more appeal than the idea of dancing heroically around the campfire until one collapsed exhausted. I conveyed my feelings to Karlis, and together we headed back to our tent.

He found the two bottles, handed one to me, kept one for himself. We did not have glasses and made do without. We opened the bottles, offered the inevitable toasts in Lettish to the speedy liberation of Latvia from the yoke of Soviet domination and, that bit of formality safely out of the way, drank deeply from the bottles.

We put a good dent in both bottles before any real conversation got going. The moon was almost full, and we sat drinking in the moonlight and listening to the sounds of joy filtering through the night air from the campfire. Letts are good at having a good time, and the bunch around the campfire seemed to be doing just that. Letts are also accomplished at touching the very nadir of depression, and Karlis was drifting to that very point.

I have a touch of the chameleon about me. Had I stayed at the campfire, I would have joined in the fun. Now, in the moonlight with Karlis’s cognac in me, I shared his mood. I became quite maudlin and ultimately I dragged out the charcoal sketch of my son Todor and showed it to Karlis.

“My son,” I announced. “Is he not beautiful?”

“He is.”

“And I have never seen him.”

“How can this be?”

“He is in Macedonia,” I said. “In Yugoslavia. And I have never returned since the night of his conception.”

Karlis stared at me and at the picture, then at me again. And then, quite suddenly, he began to cry. He cried with his whole body, of which there was a great deal. His massive chest heaved with great sobs, and I remained respectfully silent until he managed to regain control of himself.

And ultimately, his voice choked with emotion, he said, “Evan, you and I, we are more than fellow soldiers, we are more than comrades fighting together for a great cause. We are brothers.”

“We are, Karlis.”

“To have such a wonderful son and never to have seen him, that is a great tragedy.”

“It is.”

“I too have a tragedy in my life, Evan.” He drank, and I drank. “It is this tragedy that keeps me from dancing with the lovely Lettish girls at the campfire. May I tell you of my tragedy?”

“Are we not brothers?”

“We are.”

“Then, tell me.”

He was silent for a moment or two. Then, his voice pitched low, he said, “Evan, I am in love.”

Perhaps it was the cognac. Whatever the cause, I thought that those were the saddest and most poignant words I had ever heard. I began to weep, and now it was his turn to wait for me to get control of myself. After I had had another drink, he began to tell me about it.

“Her name is Sofija,” he said softly. “And she is the world’s most beautiful woman, Evan, with golden hair and the skin of a fresh peach and eyes as richly blue as the Baltic Sea. I met her at the Tokyo Olympics in nineteen sixty-four. You know that I represented the United States in the shot put.”

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