Alexei Panshin's The Abyss of Wonder
During the next week, Dad set down the
events of the crossing in a journal. (He would call it a diary, but it
was clearly begun just afterwards.) Fifty years later, he
what he'd originally written in December 1920 into his memoirs.
The second entry -- which is quite remarkable -- is titled "At the Mountain Camp." It tells of a dream that my father had very shortly after they arrived there, and then reports a speech made to them by General Savin.
We reached a snow-covered clearing, surrounded by tall fir trees, by nightfall the next day. There were several small log cabins on one side of the clearing, and the Cossacks had already lighted several huge campfires. They had their horses tethered, and were clustered around the fire. It was an eerie picture, or perhaps a wild dream.
I joined a group of Cossacks who were singing one of their beautiful haunting songs, and then I dozed off. The tall fir trees and the campfire gave way to the familiar surroundings of our living room in Voronezh. I was sitting on the sofa with Shura, and then someone else entered the room and I recognized Nadya. She was smiling as she paused on the threshold.
I wanted to rise to greet her, but suddenly I realized that my legs were gone and in their place were hideous-looking stumps. I stretched out my arms to Nadya, but I could not move. The smile left her face, and with a mournful cry she was gone.
I woke up with a start, to the cry of a hyena. My legs extended away from the fire were numb with cold.
The return to reality was so startling that for a moment I thought I was losing my mind. I got up, stamped my cold feet and then sat down again by the fire shivering, not so much from the actual cold as from the emotional upset caused by the dream.
In his memoirs, my father adds that for years afterward he had recurrent terrifying dreams in which he needed to escape from something, but was unable to do it because his legs refused to move.
This vision of Nadya Kotlerova, Dad's friend and almost-sweetheart, and of the old life she represented which was now beyond his ability to reach was so disturbing to my father that he went looking for Ivan and Kyril to tell them about his dream.
He found them in one of the log cabins. Kyril was sleeping, and Ivan was repairing one of his boots.
Ivan asked Dad if he'd fallen asleep outside. And my father described the shock he'd just had.
When he was finished, Ivan told him that General Savin was going to address them shortly.
In the journal he kept, Dad wrote:
Half an hour later everybody gathered around one large fire. The General sat on a log, looking as if he was still trying to come to a decision. Then he spoke:
"Friends, last night I got a message that General Wrangel evacuated all his forces from the Crimea on November 15th. This means that all organized resistance to the Communists now is at an end and we are entirely on our own. We still have two choices: one is to go back to the monastery and wait there for the Bolsheviks to come. The other is to try the pass. If we go over and make it -- and I must tell you that a party of some 20 tried it a week ago and did not make it -- there is no assurance of how we will be received on the other side.
"I am no longer your commander. I am just one of you. I have made my decision, and you must decide for yourselves. There is no disgrace if you decide to stay behind. But those who want to go with me must be ready at daybreak.
"It will be a long hard day ahead of us. And, of course, we must leave our horses here. I have made arrangements with the Cherkessi to pick them up. This is our payment for the provisions and the guides that will lead us."
The third entry in Dad's journal is
As soon as there was light enough to see we started walking. It was snowing again, but not hard, and once again we soon broke through the clouds, and this time into the rising sun. We were told to go in single file, and above all, to be quiet. Loud shouts or a shot could start an avalanche, an ever-present danger at these altitudes. We, with the old General and his wife, were placed toward the end of the line.
The sun was now shining brilliantly, and it made my unprotected eyes ache from the reflection on the unbroken stretches of the whitest snow I ever saw, all around us. The panorama was breathtaking. We were ascending in a zig-zag formation up a steep incline. The men ahead of us trampled the snow down so that we, at the end of the line, were walking in a snow tunnel, with only our heads above the snow banks.
We were told later that the guides, of whom there were five, took turns breaking the trail. It was hard and dangerous work, because one false step could plunge a man into the deep, snow-covered crevasses. But somehow through years of experience these men knew all the landmarks and kept unerringly climbing up the mountain.
I was told that all of them are smugglers who make a number of trips a year over the pass, but never after the trail is covered with deep snow. Each of them carried a long staff with which he probed carefully before taking the next step.
Our line of people looked now like a gray snake wriggling its way up the white, snow-covered mountain. To the left of us we could see a glacier, and all around us were snow-covered peaks looking like white fairytale giants. Below us the view was cut off by the gray clouds through which we had emerged not long ago.
And all around us was silence such as one encounters only in the mountains when the air is still. One realized how complete the silence was when several times during the ascent it was broken by the rumble of avalanches, a frightening roar that I cannot compare to anything I ever heard before.
The summit of the pass looked like a saddle among the peaks, but it seemed incredibly far away above us. I did not have a watch, so I cannot say when we reached the summit, but it must have been at least two o'clock in the afternoon.
The ascent did not involve such a long distance, but it was a slow and fatiguing climb, even for those of us at the end of the line. We moved without stopping, and I wondered at the stamina and the astonishing determination displayed by our elderly couple. Even though we carried most of their possessions, it was a feat for them to keep moving through all those hours of uphill climbing.
Before we reached the summit we passed a small lake, now mostly snow-covered. It must look like a gem in the summer. Though there was no visible vegetation anywhere around, the lake must be surrounded by an alpine meadow. A frozen cascade descended at our end of the lake, and the ice shone brilliantly in the sunshine. It would be a roaring stream in the summer.
When we reached the top of the pass we found those ahead of us gathered in a group. There would be a half hour's rest, we were told, before we started down. We must reach some cover before dark. It was not safe to remain for long on the unprotected mountainside. The wind could start up, and the blowing snow meant disaster.
We found going down easier and faster. Perhaps the mountain sloped more gently, or maybe it was the knowledge that we had made it that spurred us on. Our spirits soared, and if not for the repeated warning to keep quiet, we would have shouted, yelled, sung, or even danced with joy. But whatever the reason, we forgot how tired we were, and made our descent in what seemed like record time.
Before it got completely dark we reached the first scrubby mountain growth, and camped there for the night. There was even dead wood around to build small fires. Some had cooking utensils with them, and were seen cooking something, but most of us were happy to have boiling water from the melting snow to drink, with bread and whatever other food we had with us.
We shared the food with our old couple. They were so very grateful for our assistance in crossing the mountain, and wanted to give us something as a remembrance. Since we would not accept any of their jewelry, they presented each of us with a silver ruble as a souvenir.
It would not take very long before Dad's silver ruble had been spent on necessities. The certificate the general had signed would serve him a little longer -- until he was given another certifying him a genuine (honorary) Kuban Cossack.
The last that my father would see of the old general was about a week later in Sukhum, Georgia. He was walking down the street with his greatcoat over his arm. He was taking it to the bazaar to sell, having decided that even as sentiment it was only a burden to him.
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