by Silent Draco
A life sentence is complicated by who pronounces it, and with what method …
“Husband,” said Hilda patiently, “bitte, why is it that we must return home by train? Could we not have returned by steamer? Business is very good for you. It is early October, beginning to cool and get dark.” Johannes put down his book, looking fondly at their two sons asleep in their seats. “My dear, we had the entire summer to see the wonders of the north, and let me meet with some prospective customers in addition to the importers.” She pouted slightly, and scolded “Ja, but the return trains may take two weeks, and that is if we’re not delayed by express trains, and put up in some ramshackle, dirty hostel.” She wrinkled her nose in disgust at Soviet “cleanliness,” and her tucked-up blond braids shook slightly.
Johannes remonstrated gently, to not disturb the boys. They’d walked around much of the permitted area of Moscow, seen many wonders, and were happily exhausted. “Ach … This is 1956, and some restrictions lifted. We had two weeks of White Nights in Leningrad, folk dancing and symphonies at midnight. Much walking and rides in the forests, and tales of ghosts and spirits, then two months to see all the sights of Novgorod, Moscow, and the museums. You and the boys had the best part of those days, as I had so many meetings with customers and long, detailed negotiations with customs …” he smiled fondly, and the other “meetings,” not quite interrogations, that I could not speak of. “But now we have priority trains with few stops. Moscow to Minsk, Minsk to Brest and then Warsaw, Warsaw to Berlin, then Berlin to Frankfurt, and finally to home.” But we have one more visit to make, Liebchen, and must be a surprise. You are a good woman; thankful we met, but some days…
As the train slowed to enter Yaroslavl, Johannes announced a surprise side trip to the family. “We may exit the Bahnhof, so finish packing our things. We have a visit to the farms and woods, to see an old … acquaintance and avid drinker of my teas.” Hilda narrowed her eyes. “Here? This is … small. Where do we go? How do we get there? And who do we meet?” Johannes simply said, “Alles en ordnung. We will be met and conducted there. Our baggage may remain in storage, but we have our small bags and necessities for a few days.”
It was one thing to move onto the train platform and stretch their legs; it was quite another one to debark and leave the platform. Johannes presented his documents and tickets to the assistant stationmaster. The functionary reviewed these, then cleared his throat and said: “Uh, I must bring up to station master and security. Come with me.” Hilda and the children looked on with alarm as Johannes was hustled to the main office, into a discrete door marked “Rail Telegraph.” The NKVD duty NCO looked up in interest. “Comrade Sergeant,” began the assistant stationmaster, “there is a problem with a German national and family. They wish to make unscheduled stop and delay here, four days. Is your officer near?” The sergeant’s eyebrows rose, and her gestured abruptly for the papers. His brows beetled as he reviewed the passports, travel itinerary, and tickets. “Nyet. Business. Wait, is secure zones. You proceed as scheduled, no change.”
Johannes asked politely, “Comrade Sergeant, I ask for delay and side trip, location is not in secure area. There is more endorsement I wish only you to read. Is … sensitive.” He extended a folded letter, hand shaking only slightly now. The sergeant grunted, read, and flushed redder as he reached the end:
The sergeant all but threw him into a metal chair. “Private, secure German spy to seat!” Two privates, eyes wide, then held machine pistols on him. Turning to his assistant, he peremptorily ordered a telephone line to Directorate 3 in Moscow, saying “Spy and wrecker. Forged passes and letters, I bet. Comrade Captain will be pleased, when returns from … returns.” The sergeant’s color deepened at delays, while the sun climbed the window. The office telephone buzzed twice, and the duty operator answered it: “Yaroslavl detach … nyet, officer at … da, Sergeant is here …” His eyes widened, “Da, Comrade Inspector.” He whispered “Sergeant, is Moscow, Directorate 3. No ears.” He beckoned to the remaining guards, and they left the room, closing the door firmly.
The conversation began with a note of surly satisfaction. “This is Sergeant Pereskovy. German national detained on suspicion of espionage …” He went silent as a quiet voice overrode him. “Chief Inspector Pereschenko, Taiga Detatchment. Please confirm reference code on letter,” crackled with authority. The sergeant looked at the page, and read the reference. “Good. Ask Schmidt for countersign.” Turning to the prisoner, the sergeant spat: “You, Schmidt, what is countersign?” Johannes relaxed slightly, “Countersign five eight th-th-three, K-kilo Tango Gamma, B-beta Zhhuuu 41.” “Comrade Chief Inspector, stuttering spy says 583KTGBY41.” A minute later came the reply. “Confirmed.” Was that a tremor, or just line effects? Pereskovy now felt uneasy.
“This is not a secure line. Your orders, Sergeant: Release him immediately, escort politely to his dependents. You shall publicly apologize for the mistaken identity and ask his pardon. Then permit to depart the station. No questions will be tolerated.” Hearing a pause and incipient protest, the Chief Inspector continued, “Corporal, there is large difference between counting trees from a tower, and something worse. Obey.” The line clicked dead. In Moscow, the Chief Inspector shuddered, found the small “cleaning fluid” bottle, and poured a generous slug into his tea. He looked at the file once more, closing it one would a casket. They cannot see my thoughts. Holy saints and martyrs, save me! Some officious fool disturbs Her, she knows me, that fool Colonel, and another “example!” He coughed heavily, furtively crossing himself as he doubled over, grumbling “blast this cold!”
Corporal Pereskovy followed his orders. Johannes bowed slightly and replied, “Your apology is accepted. Travel permissions and restrictions can sometimes be hard to follow, and mistakes can be made by even the most careful. Ahh … thank you for your diligence.” Gathering up his family and their small bags, he steadily walked out the main doors of the station. On the end of the access road was an old wagon and driver. “Comrade Schmidt?” asked the driver, “I am to take you and yours to path, as directed.” Hilda continued looking at Johannes in amazement. “Nein, my dear, later. Get in with the boys.” Johannes lit a cigarette, fumbling with his lighter to cover the trembling in his hands. Mein Gott, what else could possibly go awry?
An hour later, the boys had nodded off from the rhythmic creaking of the cart, exhausted by fresh air and the sights of the countryside. One more hour passed; Hilda jumped slightly as the driver reined in near a copse of trees and a small stream. “Tovarisch, Ivan has brought you as requested.” Johannes got out of the cart and handed Hilda down, as Ivan helped him to unload the sleepy boys. “For your troubles and courtesy, sir,” Johannes smiled, handing their driver a quarter-kilo tin of coffee. Ivan’s eyes lit up at the gift. “Spacebo, but it was my duty and courtesy for Her,” he said in a low voice, quietly crossing himself in the Orthodox way. Johannes nodded, gave him another tin for his priest, and then said to Hilda and the boys, “We are visiting an old friend, one whose life I had saved.” As She did for me, also. “We need to walk along the path to her cottage. This is a wild area, but have no fears.” As if there was more to fear and respect in these woods than Her, he though privately.
Two kilometers down a shady, soft-surfaced path, Hilda asked: “Do we go much farther? We have good shoes for walking, but I will need to rest soon. And we must keep the boys out of the stream. Wet shoes are not good.” Johannes looked in a clearing by a bend in the stream, and caught his breath. “We are very close,” he said, gesturing to an old woman gathering branches. The boys looked over in interest; seeing twigs and birch branches, they could not resist the impulse to gather more for the old woman. She laughed in delight, speaking in very broken German, “ah, good boys bring more and bigger ones! You help old Granny to carry, so big and strong?” The boys sang out “Oh yes, Papa says it is the good and Christian thing we do!” She flinched only slightly and turned to the adults, nodding. “Good boys … like father. Johannes, welcome to my home and hearth. Welcome to all.” “Boys, take the bundles up to her little wood shed, then wait for us. Madam, may I present my wife Hilda? Hilda, this is … Babushka is what she has me call her.” Hilda curtsied slightly, feeling odd at the pleasantries exchanged in the woods with a grizzled peasant woman. “Come, my dears. Water is hot, and we will have tea.”
To Be Continued…