The Siberian sky was even bigger than the day before, the mountains around the rolling grasslands even higher, and the amount of grass on those grasslands even shorter than yesterday, and the ten ‘yesterdays’ before then. This morning, it was the wind that rose up bright and early to greet Alexi on his way from ‘back West’ to somewhere over the horizon. It felt cold, but had a strange kind of warmth to it. Alexi felt a chill on his skin and a tingle of Fire inside his chest. Strange that it was a ‘tingle’ of Fire. It was something, anyway. He’d find a word for it to put into his report, perhaps a colorful phrase for his diary. Yes, changes were afoot for the adventurer whose first journey away from his Native Moscow brought him to a land where few really knew much about Moscow, and even fewer cared about it. But one thing never changed on this autumn day in what the calendars back home said was nearly half way through the nineteenth century, the century of Industrialization in the rest of Europe. The stench of sweat on deerskin and wolf-hides from the heavily bearded Cossack trapper sat next to him atop the supply wagon.
“So, this is Yakutia?” Alex muttered, staring at the small map that didn’t fit the landscape in size or proportion of named elements, yet again. “When will we get to our destination?” he dared to ask.
“When we get there I suppose, Captain,” the Cossack replied in Ukrainian to his Russian superior. He appended his assessment and proclamation with another spit aimed at the ground, some of which was blown onto the young Captain’s newly-issued uniform.
Alexi blamed it on the wind. Nature and man seemed to be conspiring to make him look rustic and ratty when he reached his new post, snow, rain, mud and treks through thorn-laden bush already having taken its toll on his uniform. He rubbed the sputem off the wool, than took out his handkerchief and polished the buttons and various other pieces of metal on it which made the cloth, even if stained, seem both special and sacred.
“Metals, Captain?” The skunk-smelling, dirt-encased Ukrainian trapper who seemed as insistent on not looking after his appearance as Alexi did to take care of his commented. “You know that if you shine them, it will scare away the game, and attract the kind of animals who want to put US into their stew.”
“Perhaps,” Alexi replied. “But the Natives here are Christian. And I represent a Christian Nation. And if we don’t take pride in who we are and what we represent—”
“—What did YOU do to be exiled to this place?” The Ukrainian interjected, homesick, lamentful and bitter, all at the same time.
“I was promoted, by General Rosminkov himself!” the twenty-five years aged, but not old, Alexi answered, contemplating the riches he would bring home to his betrothed Elena, or the palace he would build for her once he reached the civilized region of this ever-increasingly uncivilized place. “I was promoted, above many, many other candidates, to Captain!” he added.
“Because someone in Moscow didn’t want you to be a Lieutenant, or a Major, or anything of any importance in any place that is important, orâ€¦.home.” The trapper kept his eyes forward on the team of horses under his reins. He pulled up his sleeves and unloosened the leather straps around his coat and wiped the sweat off his brow. On his wrists, imprints of shackles. Around his neck, rope burns. They looked very old, but seemed to also be very fresh.
Alexi couldn’t help but stare at them. He had stared at them for over a week, his indiscression allowed by the man who bore them. It was as if the Ukrainian trapper wanted Alexi to see the evidence of his pain, torture and, perhaps pride. He always remained silent while Alexi did his ‘stares’, but this time, the trapper conscripted, or perhaps contracted, to be a guide demanded something other than silence. “What deed or merit or mischief did you do to be banished out here?” he asked Alexi. “You don’t look wise enough to have done anything revolutionary, at least on purpose.”
The trapper stopped the horses, inspired by the wind blowing through the patches of low-lying birch and pine that had learned to grow bent and small. His eye seemed fixed on something behind, or within, the trees.
“I was promoted!’ Alexi insisted that the driver of the wagon, who looked more like a horseman than a team driver look at his insignia again. “To Captain in the Czar’s Army. Seeâ€¦Captain Alexi Korsikov!” “Soâ€¦that’s it!” The Cossack smiled. “You were banished from Moscow because you took the Czar Alexander’s name as your own.”
“I was baptized as Alexander, youâ€¦.youâ€¦.” Alexi had formulated the words to yell back at the guide who was his inferior but, out here, was his superior, and only source of knowledge about how to get from where he came from to where he was supposed to be.
“You were cursed with your name, Captain Alexi Korsikov. As you were cursed whenever you did whatever you did to be posted out here in no-man’s land.”
“And what is your name, ‘Vladimir’?” Alexi inquired of the man who didn’t quite seem to fit the label given to him when assigned to him at the supply fort back in Yeniseysk.
“Ahâ€¦so you know who I am NOT!” The Cossack replied.
“Soâ€¦who ARE you?” Alexi asked, kindly and openly. Not aristocrat to peasant. Or employer to employee. Or even officer to enlisted man. But man to man.
The Cossack finally took his eyes off the ‘tree spirits’ he seemed to be speaking with within his mind, crossed himself, and turned to Alexi. “When you come here, or are ‘promoted’ to being sent here, you stop being who you were. And can never be who you were, ever again.” His voice was kind, understanding and scarier than any Spirit of Demon in the woods. Not that Alexi was scared of such things. After all, he was born to aristocracy and had earned his rank. His father had been wounded fighting the Catholic Poles for Mother Russia and nearly died in an artillery barrage defending the Motherland against the Islamic Turks. Alexi swore on the Orthodox cross that hung around his mother’s neck till the day she died that he would honor his father’s memory, and legacy. And bring what they were in Moscow to this landâ€¦so far away from Moscow. In service of the Country and God that sent him here.
Alexi could feel the Cossack talking to him well beyond the words, but didn’t want to listen to what he had to say. Something had eaten up the better part of his mind, or the sane part of his Soul, and diseases of the mind, like maladies of the body were contagious. He had to remain healthy, and focused on his agendas. The young Captain’s agendas were set in Holy Stone, and he needed only one answer, firmly yes or no. “When will we be at the Fort? Which by my calculations should be one day’s ride.”
“One day’s ride away, I suppose,” the Cossack replied. “God help us.” With that, he spurred the horses forward at a brisk trot, the short-grassed plains providing ideal footing for their hoofs and smooth traveling for the wagon which had no more than another day of stability to its wheels.
Alexi’s journey Eastward led to places where the grass gave way to rock, then the rock hard ground to snow. The kind that made the wheel, an invention of ‘civilized’ man most impractical. “We’ll have to leave the wagon here,” the Cossack spit out through his frost-covered mustache, as he tried, once again, to get the horses to move the load of supplies forward. They were mostly useless supplies anyway, at least according to him. Machines that served no clear purpose to him other than to make the wagon heavy, or impress someone from Moscow out here with what was in plentiful supply back there. All sorts of machinery that told time or measured distance, once way or another, in a place where ‘life’ and ‘death’ were the only measures of anything that mattered anyway. “The only idiots who care about what time is it have too much time on their hands, or their hands scratching their balls because they have boring lives in comfortable houses that keep out the wind, rain, snow AND sunshine,” he repeated. And as for the soil sample analyzers that Alexi insisted as being part of his cargo of ‘essential supplies’ for the fort he was to be posted, the Cossack grumbled the same response, yet again. “Captain Alexi, the Natives here let their horses and cattle eat grass and they drink mare’s milk with their steak. It is only a fool or an arrogant bastard who thinks that they will ever learn to grow wheat, or anything else.”
“But what if one day, they need bread?” Alexi countered, putting every ounce of energy in his miraculously non-frostbitten body into pushing the wagon wheel out of yet another rut in the ‘road’ which was claimed by the kind of snow he never saw in Moscow, St. Petersburg, or anywhere he had been during his training as an academic geologist and, by professional necessity, military engineer. “Civilization cannot exist without bread,” he asserted with as much conviction as Newton’s Law of Physics, upon rested most everything he else he thought or dared to think about. “It is as basic as F equals M A squared.”
“Squared, you say?” the Cossack laughed, letting his half of the wagon fall into the snow, helping himself to a bite of dried Siberian rabbit, ever plenty if you knew where to find it, washed down with Ukrainian rum, for which there was always room on every supply wagon sent to the still uncharted East. “What is squared?”
“To YOU square is the basic unit of measurement, which makes it possible to grow corn and barley, which makes that ‘communion wine’ you are getting drunk on even possible!” Alexi fumed. “Professor Captain Alexi, I can make rum out of anything, God help me,” the Cossack wagon driver asserted, with a deeper brand of indignation than he had ever expressed to his assigned human cargo. He pulled all manners of roots and berries from under the snow and crushed them into liquid with his thick, muddy, blister-covered fingers, most strongly by those digits from which he had lost a portion to what was most probably a human knife. “I can make this rum from these roots, these berries, these twigs, and if it is necessary, a branch from this tree that I can use to knock you senseless and make wine from your own flesh and blood. Just like Jesus, you would be made immortal, Captain-Professor Alexi! I would call your rotted, fermented and maybe a little bitter tasting liquid flesh ‘Alexander the Grapes’.”
“An impossibility,” Alexi noted with a condescending grin. “Human flesh does not contain enough sugar in it to produce ethanol. Which is the main ingredient in rum, or anything else in this wagon which I am officially declaring expendable.” Alexi removed the three barrels of rum from the wagon, finding twice as many more hidden underneath them. “Besides, men under my command must be clear thinking. Moral. And be dedicated to serving God, country and—”
“—-themselves,” the Cossack asserted, making his point and intentions very clear with a hand pistol aimed directly at Alexi’s head.
“You are going to shoot me?” Alexi challenged.
“If you don’t put that load of rum back on my wagon, yes, I will,” the very fatherly reply.
Alexi put the barrel of firewater down. There was something very fatherly about this Cossack. Like his own father, who he remembered as being kind when he could, hard when he had to be, but always caring. Always reasonable. Always in the service of a Higher Cause than Alexi appreciated. A Decembrist Revolutionary who stood up to the Czar’s Ministers in defense of what the good Czar stood for, or should be standing for. A father who disappeared one night after being acquitted of all treasonous charges against him, only to have his throat cut by common beggars in the streets for his gold pocket watch and a handful of kopeks. A father who saw to it that Alexi be given the best education possible after his death, and all the contacts needed afterwards to implement what he had learned. A father who seemed to be inhabiting this Cossack’s bloodshot eyes, scared and deformed body and assertively ‘eccentric’ mind, somehow.
“What are you looking at?” The wagon driver asked.
“I don’t know,” Alexi said, seeing the Light around the Cossack’s head turning black and ‘common’, as was the case when his father inhabited others before. “I don’t knowâ€¦” slurred out of his quivering lips, now very much feeling the cold.
“No, you don’t know much,” the Cossack, now possessed by his own ghost of ignorance and cruelty, grumbled. “But I tell you this. You arrive at the fort without this rum, and whatever soliders you still have in your command will dessert you, or kill you.”
“Soâ€¦these are an essential part of the cargo?”
“Not anymore,” the Cossack said, taking all the barrels off the wagon and laying them in the snow.
Alexi breathed a sigh of relief. He gave his precious engineering tools a pat of assurance, and stroked the boxes of his most treasured cargo. These were leatherbound books, some written by old masters, others containing ideas about chemistry, engineering and ‘political’ science he had been writing himself, the ideas in search of a laboratory in which they could be implemented. After, perhaps, the detail of seeing it they were actually true. What better place to make a name for himself on his own terms in Moscow than the wilderness of Siberia, which he referred to in his maps as ‘Moscow East’! He would be the master out here, and was trusted by Masters. Why else would he be sent out here? And with all of this equipment, and orders from High Command that said nothing more than “In Your Father’s memory, make something of yourself, and this place We will be waiting to hear from you, soon.” Suddenly, Alexi felt like he was where he should be. That he very soon would be in the place where his destiny had led him. A place where he could and would excel all of his teachers in Moscow, most importantly, his most revered mentor, his father. A place where there were other pioneers as well, cultured, educated and Visionary. And a place—without rum, or a guide to get him there, by the looks of the make-shift ‘non-square’ wooden sled the Cossack was loading the supplies onto, and the horses he was hitching up to them.
“What are you doing?” Alexi asked.
“Relieving you of this brew that, as you said, ‘distorts the mind, and weakens the spirit’, Professor-Captain Alexi,” he smirked. “And relieving you of me.”
Alexi was speechless. The Cossack had much to say, in his own language—Ukrainian, with a Siberian diction and phrases he didn’t understand. But with a subtext that said “I quit”.
“I will leave a horse for you, and this wagon of essentials,” he said. “East is that way, where the sun rises. West is the other way, where sons of bitches send bastards, bitches and whores to the East. You go Eastâ€¦Straight East. A few days if you are lucky. A week if you are smart. Never if you are too smart, or very unlucky.”
“And you go?”
“Further North,” the trapper-mercenary-wagondriver ex-convict repeated. “But before I do, I will permit you to ask me one question, which I will answer truthfully, on my mother’s grave and butchered children’s eyes.”
Alexi thought about what to ask the ever-elusive pain in the ass, teacher, and sometimes friend. A question about the past, perhaps? Like what he did or was accused of doing that caused him to be the victim of so much government cruelty, and the perpetuator of such in the world the government doesn’t recognized as legal, or know about at all? A question from his present, such as if he was also being paid off by the British, Turks, the Hudson’s Bay Company or others who sought to own, control or profit from still unmapped wilderness that Russia had ‘legally’ claimed as its own as a result of 600 Cossacks and 9 Missionaries viciously cutting down Native rebellions 200 years earlier—in a land where the KNOWN Native population still outnumbered Europeans by at least two hundred to one. Or a question about the future, such as where he was going? What was the real potential of this endless wilderness that looked so small on the maps back in Saint Petersburg or Kiev? Was this place where Nature was free to express her most extreme manifesting, blistering summers and bone-numbing winters, deserts and swamps, steep mountains and endless flatland, created by God as heaven for bold, intelligent pioneers, or by the devil as hell for those who were exiled here, by the hand of others, or miscalculations they had made themselves. Or perhaps, what was his real name?
“Come on, Captain Alexi,” the Cossack asked again. “I am waiting for your one question, which I will answer honesty. A promise I have made to no man, ever!”
“Why?” Alexi’s mind found his mouth asking, without clarification in words, linked to so many questions in a mind that wanted, and now needed, answers.
“Because that is the way it is, was and always will be!” the trapper shouted back. With that, he disappeared into the woods. Alexi looked to the East, where there were no woods anymore, but there was ‘open’. The kind of ‘open’ that he yearned for in Moscow. And which scared the crap out of him now.