Zygmunt Frankel

SHORT STORIES


THE TOSSED COIN

Now that it was evening and the village was quiet, they could hear, for the first time since the war started, the distant rumbling of heavy guns. It sounded like a thunderstorm somewhere far away but their experienced ears knew the difference. They watched the dark horizon for flashes but there weren't any.
"You'd think you have forgotten what it sounds like over the twenty years, but you never really do," said Ivan, the kolkhoz accountant. Everyone, even his wife, except sometimes in bed, called him Ivan and not Vanya, Vanyusha, or Vanyechka. He was too serious for that. It was the same with Vassily, the kolkhoz manager, who sat with him on the river bank behind the village, both smoking cigarettes, a half-bottle of vodka on the grass between them.
"No, you never do."
"When do you think they'll get here?"
"Can't tell. Could be tomorrow if they are on the offensive, could be in a few days' time, or could be never if we manage to stop them."
"That would be the first time since this war started."
"There is always the first time, but it doesn't look like it for the time being."
"No."
"It's easier to be an expert than a prophet, and we're not even experts. Not on this sort of war with all the tanks and planes. You've done yours on foot and me on horseback."
"I was never an expert on the last one, either. A month at the front and then shot in the leg and taken prisoner, and afterwards knocking around Germany for a couple of years, and by the time I got back the revolution and the civil war were over."
"How is your German? You may need it again soon."
"Rusty after all these years, but I should manage. They might call us up at the last moment, though."
"Not you with your limp, and both of us over forty. They did call me up, though."
"Did they? Then how come you're still here?"
"It's a special assignment. That's one of the things I wanted to talk to you about tonight, away from curious ears." He looked around. The moon was up by now, and the brightly lit river bank was deserted. The river made almost no noise, and there was no wind in the trees. A cow mooed sleepily in the village, and then everything was silent again. The distant gunfire went on.
"A lot of ammunition being used up tonight," said Vassily, and took a sip from the bottle.
"Yes. You know, I sometimes think, maybe because I'm an accountant, that in the long run it's not ideology or justice or even the fighting spirit that decide a war, but plain mathematics: how much money, industry, and manpower can you put into it, what your reserves are, and how long can you hold out. Whoever's got more guns, ammunition, and soldiers over there tonight is going to advance tomorrow, although it doesn't have to keep up for the rest of the war. Maybe if you gave me the exact figures of the industrial and manpower potential of Germany, Italy, and Japan, and then us, America, and England, I could work out who's going to win, and perhaps even how long it's going to take. Maybe that's how prophecy works."
"I don't think they know themselves, otherwise whoever's going to lose wouldn't have started the war or would have done more to prevent it."
"You said you've been called up."
"Yes, to lead a partisan group in the forest around here. I am taking some boys from the village, and they're also giving me a couple of experts, one on explosives and the second, I think, mainly a political commissar, and some weapons."
"How about taking me along?"
"No, Ivan, there's your limp."
"It's hardly noticeable."
"It won't be after a long hike with a load. We won't be able to operate too close to the village. If the Germans suspect any connection they will take hostages and shoot or hang them, and maybe burn the whole place down as well."
"Did you do that during the civil war?"
"Of course, and so did the Whites. Afterwards there was the famine in the Ukraine and the deportations and the purges. It's terror and it works; kill one and scare a hundred. No reason why the Germans shouldn't do the same."
"You might not have to use me on long marches. Even if you don't need an accountant in the forest, I was quite good with a rifle and can also repair all sorts of things."
"No, Ivan, you might be more useful in the village."
"Doing what, translating?"
"To start with. Afterwards, you'll have to play it by ear."
"Play what by ear?"
Vassily looked around again to make sure they were alone, and took another sip from the bottle. It was almost empty. A shared half-bottle of vodka was not enough to make them tipsy; it only added intimacy to the conversation.
"Look", Vassily said. "We're old friends, and this may be the last time we're able to talk heart to heart. What are your real and strongest loyalties, after all you've seen and been through, including the five years of labour camp just because you've been abroad through no fault of your own?"
"My wife; my children; my friends, with you at the head of the list; this village; the girls we used to fuck, all of them except our wives now married to other men and growing old; this river and the fish we caught in it and the ducks we shot; these woods and the strawberries and mushrooms and the hares we snared in winter; the fields with all the grain and potatoes we might not be able to harvest this year; our balalaikas and the vodka. I mean I think I'm a good Russian and a good kolkhoznik, but motherland and the Party are very big. Have you ever met a very tall and fat woman, however beautiful? You can like her and want to fuck her, but she's too big to really fall in love with; you can only really be in love with someone your own size, or a bit smaller."
"Same here, even if I'm a party member. By the way, we'll have to set fire to the fields tomorrow morning when the wind is blowing away from the village; there's a scorched earth policy, leaving nothing to the enemy. It's going to be a tough and nasty war. My party membership was almost automatic after I've been in the civil war on the right side, and I like to think I've been a decent kolkhoz manager afterwards."
"You were. Any trouble during the purges, while I was in the camp?"
"Don't remind me. Some louse - I am almost sure it was a stupid and primitive red-haired fellow from town who had served in the same platoon as me in the civil war - denounced me to the NKVD, after he had tried to set up some black-market food deal with me and I refused. Not that I wasn't tempted but he was too stupid to risk a partnership with. Then he must have got scared that I will denounce him - everyone was denouncing everyone else in those days, to settle accounts or to prove one's loyalty or both - and he must have decided to denounce me first, but the letter, from what I was able to gather during my interrogation, was so primitive that even the NKVD did not believe it, and I think they got him instead of me because he disappeared shortly afterwards. You were lucky to get your five years just before the purges started and to come out when they were almost over."
"I suppose so, even though I didn't enjoy it much. People were dying in those camps like flies. It makes you think."
"So long as you don't think aloud. I suppose it's the same in Germany."
"I suppose so. From what I understand, that Hitler of theirs was first democratically elected and then tightened the screw, rather like our own party after the civil war."
"Those elections look like a piece of sugar you throw to the people to make them believe it's they who decide. The only thing is, it's probably better to be ruled by one of your own than a foreigner. God only knows what we'll be able to do about it."
"To do something about it? We? Who do you mean by we?"
"You and me. Vassily and Ivan. To save this village, or as much of it as possible."
"What do you think we can do?"
"Look, Ivan. It's never just the man at the top and a lot of tiny little people at the bottom. There are always some people in-between,, and you and I are somewhere between Stalin and the little kolkhozniks; nearer the bottom than the top but still in-between, and we now have to make a few decisions, before the Germans arrive."
"What about your secretary?"
"A pitiful little arse-licking prick, always trying to guess which way the wind is blowing and never able to decide anything. No, Ivan, it's just the two of us."
"And what decisions are we talking about?"
Vassily took a coin out of his pocket, tossed it, caught it on the back of his hand and in the same movement covered it with his other hand.
"Heads or tails?"
"Heads or tails what?"
"Who's going to win the war?"
"We've already said we can't know at this stage."
"Exactly," Vassily said, and put the coin back in his pocket without looking at it. "It could be the Germans and capitalism for the next century or so, or it might be us ruling half the world. In either case, if we play our cards right, this village might survive with as little loss as possible."
"Play our cards right? Like what?"
"Like the French, for example. They've got this Marshal Petain who had signed armistice with the Germans, saving some of France as a sort of independent state, and they've got this general de Gaulle who is fighting on with the Allies. If the Allies lose, a part of France remains saved under Petain. If the Germans lose, then France has won against them under de Gaulle. We could do the same here, Vassily de Gaulle and Ivan Petain. I'll be in the forest fighting the Germans, and you in the village appeasing them. Whoever wins, at least a part of the village will be saved."
"And whoever loses will be shot or hanged, like that Petain or de Gaulle?"
"Yes, for the good of the village, so that as many of our people as possible should survive the war. In your case, I wouldn't overdo the cooperation; for example no bread and salt on a tray when the Germans arrive, just offer your services as a translator and wait and see. You can tell them about your five years in the labour camp. Make sure that any food the people hide is well hidden. If any girls want to marry German soldiers, let them. The Germans consider us a sort of lower, servant, race. We don't know what they are planning for us in the long run if they win the war. Maybe marrying them and bearing their children could save the girls' and the children's lives in the long run; you never know ."
"And you in the forest. You'll have to operate somewhere as far from here as possible, so that it doesn't occur to them to shoot hostages from this village."
"Right. On the other hand, we may have problems with food, and you'll have to let us have some. The army promised regular air drops of food and ammunition, but I don't know how much you can rely on it they get pushed much farther back. Keep some food at your place. We'll only come for it at night; preferably when it's snowing or raining so there should be no footprints left by the morning, especially since the Germans might use dogs to follow us. If we win and both of us are still alive, I'll testify that you have cooperated with us all along. But I don't know how much that'll help. There's an ugly atmosphere after a war, and a need for scapegoats, guilty or not."
"And if the Germans catch you?"
"With exceptional luck, they might send us to a POW camp, but it would be rather noble of them to treat partisans as regular troops instead of executing them out of hand."
"And if the Germans win and you are still alive? You won't be able to stay in the forest forever."
"No. I'll probably sneak into town - coming here would be too risky - on forged papers or something of the sort - you might be able to help with that - and then maybe somehow bring my wife there. We'll wait and see."
"The tossed coin."
"The tossed coin."
They took another sip of vodka each, finishing the bottle, and then listened to the distant gunfire.
"A plague on both their houses."
"A plague on both.

# # #

1997 Zygmunt Frankel - All Rights Reserved.
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