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     © Copyright Valery Gorban
     WWW: http://zhurnal.lib.ru/g/gorbanx_w_w/
     WWW: http://www.artofwar.ru/gor/index_tale_gor.html
     Date: 25 Feb 2004
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     I would like to express my gratitude to Elena Tchirkova and Lawrence G.
Kelley for their assistance in translating my stories



     Around two hundred meters from the commandant's office an old woman and
a small girl walked  through  a wasteland scarred  with ditches and littered
with smashed  bricks.  The old  woman,  dressed  in  typically dark  village
clothing, pushed a  wheelbarrow filled with rubble. The  five year-old girl,
who stood scarcely  taller  than  the  wheelbarrow  itself,  skipped merrily
alongside.  She could hardly pass  by  a single flower that caught her fancy
without stooping over to pick it.
     "Oh, look, Grandma, a string!"
     The weak-sighted old woman bent over sideways, trying  to make out what
her  granddaughter had seen, and at just that  moment heard someone shouting
from  the guard posts outside  the commandant's office, nearly unseen behind
mounds of trash.
     "Hey! And just where do you thing you're going? Go back!"
     "Screw you!" grumbled the old woman. "What do you want me to do  - cart
this stuff  back home? Right, and  now..." With that, she firmly shoved  her
barrow forward and tilted it on its side to quickly dump the load.
     Something  banged.  A strange  dark  object  bounced up from the grass,
struck the  side of  the wheelbarrow, careened away, and exploded in a cloud
of black, fiery smoke. An OZM  fragmentation  mine that had long awaited its
appointed hour hurled thousands of steel fragments in all directions.
     The old woman, flattened by the devastating blow to her legs, emitted a
piercing scream and crawled toward her granddaughter, leaving a bloody trail
in her wake. The girl lay on her back, gasping and gurgling pink bubbles.
     Men from  the  commandant's  office  ran over  via a circuitous  route,
skirting the minefield.  At  a  distance of about a hundred  meters from the
wounded, some of the  troops dispersed  to either side. Dropping to one knee
behind various forms of cover and  shouldering their automatic weapons, they
kept a tense lookout over  the nearby "green area" and  covered  the two men
who went further. The latter started off almost on hands and knees, intently
peering into the grass and probing suspicious sectors with  rods. One of the
men made his way silently, while the other, without dropping  his guard  for
so much as a second, muttered to himself:
     "That's just what we needed - the chance to crawl right into the middle
of a minefield! Thanks a lot, Granny, you lousy saboteur! Sanya, Stop!"
     His partner froze, hugging the ground. Meanwhile, the talkative trooper
pulled out an imposing knife, removed some turf with precise, circular cuts,
and carefully  laid it  to  the  side. He then  loosened the  soil around an
unknown object and, inserting his fingers  beneath it, smoothly extracted  a
brown, ebonite-like cylinder from the ground.
     "Apparently no surprises this time..."
     "Don't  mess with the rest of  them, there's  no time to screw  around.
Just mark them with flags so we don't trip them on the way out."
     It took the men about ten minutes to reach the old woman and the girl.
     "They're alive  and still breathing!  Look -  here's  shrapnel from the
mine!"
     "At this range it should have cut them to pieces!"
     "The mine may have stuck rather than  bouncing up the way it should ...
Or the wheelbarrow may have shielded them - see, it looks like a sieve."
     While talking,  the combat engineers performed a cursory examination of
the wounded. One of them quickly administered  promedol to the old woman and
applied tourniquets to her shins. The other picked up the girl.
     "She took hits in the throat and the right side of the chest. And a few
in the legs too. What do you think, can we give her promedol?"
     "Don't  know,  Vovka. Just  rush her  to  the doctor, he'll sort things
out!"
     Vovka  dashed through the  corridor hastily cut across  the  minefield,
zigzagging gracefully between  the marker  flags like  a  downhill skier. He
knew that in their hurry, he  and  Sanya could easily have "overlooked" more
than  one  hideous  surprise.  But  Vovka, nicknamed "Daddy-Well-Done",  was
running his own race, knowing that his five-year-old sweetheart Natashka and
one-week-old twins  - who had not yet even seen their  father - were waiting
for him at home, far away. He hurtled across the killing field,  holding the
girl to his breast, panting and whispering in her ear:
     "Hang on,  Little One, hang on! Don't be afraid! I'm your uncle - and a
good one! In just a minute our Doctor Aibolit will check you  over  and give
you some candy. It won't hurt - just hang on, Little One!"
     Sanya  lugged the old woman. He hoisted  her  onto his back,  carefully
watching beneath his feet and silently listening to her wail as he went.
     "She said, `Grandma, there's a string!' Oh, what an old fool I am! What
have I  done  to deserve such a  punishment? Dear God, may  I die a terrible
death, but please save our little darling!"
     A  Ural truck and the escorts' BTR were waiting for  them  on the road,
across from the site of  the incident. Next to those vehicles stood "Chopin"
- the OMON commander  -  and the doctor from  the commandant's  office, whom
everyone  respectfully  called "Doc"  to his face but  "Aibolit" behind  his
back. The commander's long, sensitive fingers,  which he held on the forward
stock of his automatic rifle as  if it  were the  neck of a guitar, left  no
doubt about the source of his personal callsign, which had long since become
his second name. The OMON troops, having taken cover behind the armor of the
BTR and using their field glasses to observe first the "green area" and then
the wounded, were quietly discussing the event:
     "Why the hell did  she crawl out there? Look, one "Mines!" warning sign
is posted there, and out further is another..."
     "She must  be 100 years old, if a  day, and probably can't see a damned
thing, the blind old fool."
     "Shit, those combat  engineers  are walking one  very fine  line! After
all, who hasn't planted mines out there - the Chechens, our guys - yet there
are no sketches or maps! The Devil himself couldn't figure things out!"
     "Still, you gotta try  to rescue  them. Look,  the old woman  is  still
moving, sort-of."
     "Fuck  the  old hag! But it looks  like  the youngster has  had it. No,
wait,  she  moved her hand! See how  Daddy-Well-Done  is rushing  - she must
still be alive!"

     The Doc rushed out to meet Vovka and carefully took hold of the girl.
     While Doc attended to her,  Sanya  arrived carrying the old woman. OMON
troops,  together  with  Chechen  women  who  had  run  out  from  the house
next-door, bandaged her.
     "Ask them where the little girl's  parents  are. And tell them  to find
'em quickly," Chopin barked over his shoulder while assisting the doctor.
     "She only has her grandmother," replied a hefty OMON  trooper of around
forty with  the classic  look  of  a  company  first sergeant.  His  fingers
trembled as he attempted to light a cigarette. "The women say her father was
killed  while  fighting  in the anti-Dudayev  opposition. Dudayev's security
forces killed her mother  too.  They hauled her off in broad daylight, raped
and shot her!  But the entire  street teamed up to save the girl and the old
woman, hiding them."
     "We  need  to get to the hospital, and fast! The little  girl's trachea
has been nicked. It's not too serious, but there may be pulmonary bleeding,"
Aibolit told the commander, as he finished bandaging the girl.
     Chopin nodded silently. The  driver, who  had been squatting by one  of
the  wheels, darted headlong into the cab of the  idling Ural while two OMON
troopers,  having thrown open the vehicle's rear gate earlier, jumped aboard
and prepared to receive the old woman. But  after  an instant of hesitation,
Chopin issued a staccato order:
     "Escorts - onto the Ural. Put the  old woman on top of the BTR. Doc and
the girl - get into it. The vibration is less."
     Aibolit nodded in agreement, carefully lifted the girl, and  crawled in
through the side hatch. Once inside, he covered the seat with field jackets,
placed the little girl on them, and dropped to his knees, intently observing
his  young  patient and  keeping his fingers on the pulse of her small, thin
hand.
     In his long years as a physician, Doc had seen a great  deal of blood -
particularly in the last few months. But  on that day, he just felt agitated
and knew that he was not alone. Aibolit noticed how  unusually irritable and
upset even  these exceptionally experienced men  around  him were. And  that
their commander's  lips were trembling  - a commander who had clearly  "been
around" and routinely looked so bold and energetic.

     Chopin was sitting on the  porch of a two-story  field hospital. He had
taken off his "sphere,"  which  was black with sweat inside, and placed  his
automatic weapon on his  knees. He fixed his eyes on something distant above
the heads of his men, but without really seeing it. Squatting in a group  by
the BTR,  his  troops talked in  hushed  voices  and passed around the  last
cigarette from a pack that they had crumpled and thrown away.
     A young, 25-year old nurse came out onto the porch and sat down next to
him. She was astonishingly attractive but had a tired, sullen face.
     "The grandmother  didn't make  it. Heart failure.  But  the girl's  all
right, and she won't even have noticeable scars."
     "That's good - a little girl shouldn't  have  scars, especially  on her
chest. It doesn't  really matter while she  is small, but she  could develop
complexes when she grows up," said Chopin, nodding his head knowingly.
     Suddenly  the nurse  tensed up  and turned  her face away, straining to
hide her tears. But they poured forth regardless, and she abruptly  rose and
ran back inside.
     Confused, Chopin turned to the young medic smoking beside him,  who had
heard  the conversation: "What's  wrong with  her?  Is  she new?  Hasn't she
gotten used to things yet?"
     "Oh, damn, was  that ever a  direct hit!" he drawled out with a mixture
of reproach and sympathy. "In January, she herself was wounded while pulling
troops out  from under a  mortar barrage. Cut  her stomach  all  apart. They
sewed her up, all right, but what  kind of plastic surgery  can you  do in a
cellar by candlelight? So now she can't have children. Her husband found out
and left her. But then Mikhalych, our chief  doctor, got rid of him, saying:
`I  can  find other physicians, but  they  should be human beings too.'  And
imagine,  her husband served  right  here  in  this hospital," the  outgoing
informant explained, adding with gusto "the j-jerk!"
     Chopin got up and nearly raced after the nurse, who was standing by the
window at  the end  of the corridor. She was  no  longer crying but quivered
spasmodically from repressed sobs.
     Chopin  clutched her  to his  breast and stroked her hair, saying, "I'm
sorry, but I didn't know."
     "It's okay. Have you  come for something?" She made an attempt to smile
and  wiped away what remained of her tears with the palm of her  hand. "It's
just  that  I'll never  get  used to the fact  that I'm not  really  a woman
anymore...  just   a  sort-of  gutted  flounder.  Something  for   temporary
gratification."
     Chopin suddenly grew  angry. "Don't be a fool!  When  was the last time
that  you looked  at yourself in  the mirror? Someday you'll meet someone  -
maybe even more than one "someone" - who will just  kiss your  feet! And  if
he's  a real man, not some shit like your ex, he'll adore your scars. As for
children, there is your  Goddaughter - an orphan - along with half a town of
kids just like her. Gather them together and give them love. They'll be more
precious to you than even your own could be."
     Following on the heels of the standard expressions of  consolation that
she had come to despise, this unexpected dressing down affected the nurse in
an  equally  unexpected  way. Suddenly, she  smiled naturally and openly  at
Chopin, placed her hands on his shoulders, and gazed into his eyes.
     "Do you really think I still look alright?"
     "You  look lovely. And you're a real human being. The guys  who survive
this  war will be searching for  women just like you. They'll beat a path to
your door with fire and signal flares - even in the daytime!"
     Aibolit  went  into  the  corridor,  smiled  knowingly,   and  squinted
approvingly at the two,  as if to say, "What a great  guy the commander is -
he  certainly  knows  our personnel." But meeting  Chopin's cold, restrained
stare, he quickly pretended to be preoccupied and headed for the exit.
     "Well, it's time for me to go. Take care of yourself. And don't be such
a bonehead!"
     "You take care of yourself too, my  friend. There aren't that many real
men around, either." She kissed him tenderly, as if he were a close relative
whom she had known for a thousand years.

     Upon returning to the commandant's office, Chopin ordered his driver to
take him to the limits of the surrounding guard posts. He spoke briefly with
those in charge of the work details,  then got onto the running board of the
Ural and  glanced  around. The combat engineers had already stretched a wire
obstacle along the edge of  the minefield. The obstacle consisted of lengths
of telephone  cable and  sections of  critically scarce barbed wire,  and it
bore fresh warning signs in Russian and Chechen  that fluttered in the wind.
Daddy-Well-Done and his mates were digging in the field beyond the obstacle,
emplacing the new mines that they had just received the day before.
     Chopin rubbed  his temples with his hands and stood there briefly. Then
he said, "Let's go!" and slammed the door.
     As if to answer him, mortars began to  thump somewhere beyond Grozniy's
air-port,  filling  the  air   with  their  deadly  rustle  and  nauseating,
heart-rending wail.




     1 OZM - an antipersonnel fragmentation mine of the "bouncing Betty" type

     2 Nickname for Alexander

     3 A narcotic  antishock  medication  that Russian forces carry  in  their
individual first-aid pouches

     4 Nickname for Vladimir

     5 Character in a well-known Russian children's film

     6  Ural-4320  - a  five-ton truck widely  used by  Russian military and
paramilitary forces

     7 BTR-80 - an armored personnel carrier

     8 OMON - elite special purpose forces within the Russian police

     9  Dzhokhar  Dudayev, the leader of  the Chechen separatists until  his
death in 1996

     10 A round titanium helmet worn by Russian special purpose forces
     Chopin's colorful Russian epithet literally means "ruptured condom."


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