FROST • by Oleg Kazantsev

This winter, in the year 1922, Amur grass smells of iron. Do not believe those who say otherwise – they never breathed the posthumous aridness of the cold reeds. In the mornings I breathe Siberian cold sky and imagine the taste these wiry stalks might have down there, in the valley. For some reason, only salty bitterness comes to my mind.

The White company stretches along the icy trough of the trenches, tightened as a collar around the neck of Jun-Koran Height. The hill looks out over the valley by Volochaevka train station like an angry dog, bristling with barbed wire, snarling, grinning. And we grin with her, our faces senseless in the cold.

I remember back a week ago, we were smoking in Archangelskoye with Ladogin, the correspondent for Primorsky Vestnik.

“Kindness, dear Yuri, it’s kindness and justice!” fretting because of the freezing cold, Ladogin squeezed out his stiff words and buried his head deep in his stand-up sheepskin collar, like a turtle hiding in his shell.

“And a pork tenderloin, as well,” I replied, inhaling cigarette smoke.

“ — This is the only language a dog understands. Just like people,” Ladogin’s red lips kept on moving. His beard was already covered in frost like March junipers over the creek.

“And those people in Simbirsk, who pillaged your house, who peed in your Austrian vases?”

“Those…” Ladogin took a well thought-out pause as he learned to do back in the district council. “Those are just lazy children. Cry out to them: ”Burn your master’s house!”, and they’ll burn it. But you can’t reason with a child using cruelty.”

“Well, of course, you can reason with them using kindness and justice! Just like dogs, right?” I let out a blot of smoke, and it momentarily thickened, glazed in the air. “A good phrase for some writer. Definitely recommend it to someone, Arkady Alekseyevich.”

“You need not wisecrack, Yura. Your late father admired dogs greatly. I remember how he talked about his puppies with so much love,” Ladogin slyly frowned and looked at me indulgently through his misted eyes.

“Yes, but his favorite, named Risk, once almost gnawed his throat,” I replied.

“I did not know that.”

“The house was on fire,” I spoke through my tight lips. “My father and Risk have got trapped in one room, and it was blazing all around.”

“Still don’t get it.”

“Risk attacked out of fear. Thank God, Maximka came just in time.”

“Sorry, I didn’t want to bring this back.”

“Don’t worry about it.”

“And what happened to him?” a young, almost boyish voice interrupted us. It was Rittmeister Gincharov; he and his Cossacks were to defend Archangelskoye in a couple of days.

“My father had an overcoat and a scarf on. Escaped with scratches.”

“And what about the dog?”

“Is it so important!?” Ladogin exploded. “The man’s father nearly died, and you’re asking about such nonsense.”

“It’s all right. Nothing happened to the dog. Gave him a bread crumb with a shard of glass. He ate it, the next day he died. He was a good dog.”

We stopped talking. Frost crackled in the silence.

Today it’s also going to crackle. Everything’s going to crackle — frost, guns… The wound under the bandage on Mishka Karasenko’s leg, it’s going to crack and burst as well. That spring Mishka and his brother pressed a virgin Cossack woman against the wall on her backyard. For it we spilled his brother’s blood on the fallen leaves, and Mishka himself spilled his tears. We were merciful that day. It’s not humane to kill two brothers in a row.

But Mishka is a good man. Everyone in this trench is a good man. There are no bad people in the tranches; Reds or Whites, no matter. Bad people are all there, in the valley, smeared like gray spots on the gray snow. Their numb limbs turn blue under their sleeves and collars, their fragile blood blackens under the heavenly ice. There will be a storm today, I can smell it, there will be a storm.

“And so the marine says to the Captain,” Mishka Karasenko is chortling with his shrill laughter. “This music is called bloos and in our country only black negroes play it, black as devils in hell!”

The gray overcoats listen to him, giggling in their collars and giving me quick glances.

“What does this bloos mean? the Captain asks. And the American answers: Bloos is when a good man feels bad.”

The trench exploded with laughter like a land mine.

“Is that so, sir?“ one of the gray overcoats asks me. “Is that what the American said? When a good man feels bad?”

“Blues…” A cloud burst from my mouth and swam up to the dim sun, like a bubble to an ice-hole. “Blues is when good people run out of ammo.”

We stopped talking. Frost crackled in the silence.

Born in Russia, Oleg Kazantsev came to the United States a year ago to pursue his second degree in Fiction Writing at Columbia College Chicago, which is a sharp turn for him, considering that his first degree was in Computer Science.

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