From a time of innocence…
The old man could see beyond the solitary window. The lime tree, stark and
leafless in the winter sunlight, looked lost and homesick. It had been planted
here before his birth by his former master, Count Kasparov. The old man had
loved the Count, a big, florid handful of a man; kind to all his peasants in an
uncomplicated, off-hand manner. Long gone. Swept from existence like chaff
on a barn floor. The tree was his only legacy; that and the French windows.
Every other architectural feature in the vast country house had been expunged
with crusading zeal by the Mensheviks, Bolsheviks, Leninists, and Trotskyites.
After the impulses of History had faded, the ripples brought the spent tide of
revolution to the old estate.
The workers, determined to bear witness to his passing, drew aside as the
youngest member of the council approached the bed. He brought an enamel
basin and an open-razor, the steel catching daylight from the window. The old
man liked young Sascha, a good farmer; a good worker in a community of indolent,
lazy peasants. The Workers’ Collective of Varishenko. A community almost
bereft of workers. He snorted at the notion, which started a hum of animated
conversation in the high-walled room. The old man had been Commissar of this
Soviet Collective for more than fifty years. He had survived the Stalin Purges.
He had lived to read of the first man in space. He watched the ravens
gathered about the old tree. They had arrived this morning, summoned by the
aura of his coming death. They walked like hooded monks, pecking at the
iron-hard ground. Seeing them, the old man asked to be shaved. The peasants
had nodded, centuries of country knowledge in the acknowledgement. Russian
peasants know death.
Towering above the bed, Sascha was saddened to see how small the old man
looked. Commissar Rushkov had been a tall, heavy set man. He had
commanded respect by his size, his bearing and his inherent dignity. Propped up
on high pillows, his arms in front of him on the white sheets, he looked like a little
bird; a sparrow of the Steppes. He lathered the old man’s face, rasping at the
wispy grey-haired stubble. The Commissar turned to face the window.
‘Shave close Sascha,’ he whispered, ‘The Master is calling me.’
Sascha watched the old man’s eyes flare in recognition, though Sascha could see
nothing outside except the old tree and the gathering ravens. When they took to
the air, Sascha closed the old man’s eyes. The murmur of the witnesses told
Sascha of their collective fear. How would they manage without the Commissar?