I am finishing a historical fiction novel taking place in Russia about the famous warrior-acrobat Cossacks. It has been a challenge but also great fun. I consider it an “Eastern Western,” primarily true to its historical context but also containing, in my opinion, that great Western liberty and spirit.
Глава 1 (Chapter 1)
Ivan Petrovitch Shostakov sat silently atop his horse, a proud chestnut-colored animal from the Don river region. They were both perfectly still, as if taking part in a moment that, although eventually forgotten, could never be erased from the omniscient memory of history. Beyond them, as far as the eye could see, rolled a beautiful array of features; endless fields of tallgrass and feathergrass, splotches of sand, and rich black chernozyom dirt.
This was the Russian steppe.
Softly the white wind blew its murmuring song into Ivan’s ear, and softly the large clementine sun descended towards the horizon, that indefinable boundary between earth and sky.
This was his life; for he was a Cossack.
These were the moments, alone and at one with the world, which seemed to elevate a man’s life high above the realm of ceaseless labor, into a fleeting paradise. The sky turned purple and pink clouds drifted lazily across its neverending expanse. There was not another person in sight and both freedom and danger were so very close. How Ivan wished to fly high in the sky with the eagles he often saw, free of all cares, enjoying at every moment the endless undulating landscape. Alas, this was far from the truth. The gelding pawed the ground impatiently.
“I know you want to go, Smetsky, but I need one more minute,” spoke Ivan. He was busy thinking about his wife and her long pregnancy. She was already due. Time flew by quicker than the starlings flew at night; in a flash everything was changing. “If I only had a son, perhaps we could be rid of debt by the time he comes of age. As much as I can work, it is still not enough to keep the family afloat. Maybe with some help, some extra money eventually, we could keep going.”
Their monetary situation had been going downhill for years, and even though Ivan and his wife Lucya had started out somewhat wealthy, now they had a number of debts and only a modest fortune. His ancestors had consisted of registered Cossacks, but now his family was a shadow compared to its former glory. They had one daughter before, named Vadia, who was now six years old. Vadia was an adorable, thin girl with dark brown hair, and she helped around the house with small things, but the fact was that she would be gone eventually and Ivan would be stuck doing all the work himself without enough money to hire any help if things continued along their current path. Ivan prayed for good fortune as sincerely as he could, and finished his prayer with the sign of the cross made with three fingers as was the current fashion.
Smetsky’s ears perked forwards. Ivan heard a rumbling far away on the horizon, barely existent but threatening nonetheless. The man looked diligently for its source but saw nothing at all. There was a slightly nervous energy in the air. He lived a distance northeast of RostavonDon, in the transition zone between the primitive and untamed nomad steppe and the southern Black Lands of rich soil and plentiful farming. The Cossack had ridden out to the steppe in order to be alone and think without interference. “It’s time to go back now, Smetsky,” he declared, pulling the reins to the left and giving him a tiny bit of pressure from his right leg.
The horse cantered off, happy to be moving again. The fast rock of the speed and the grass hurrying by gave Ivan a familiar feeling of comfort. There was little he liked more than riding quickly, whether by himself or with other people. Ivan had been out by himself for many hours, and although he said he was hunting, that was actually just an excuse to be alone and clear his mind.
The Cossacks were formidable warriors able to shoot a hole through a playing card at a full gallop, ride standing up, or hang off their horses securely with only a foot in the saddle at that same blistering speed. Their skills at dancing and acrobatics were similarly masterful.
Ivan wore a long blue kaftan tied with a silk sash, a jambiya knife from Persia tucked inside. Atop his head was the traditional single long lock of hair, and atop that was his warm grey papakha hat, not that it was necessary to wear warm clothes at that time of year. At its lazy pace, the sun set further and the land began to darken. As he pressed on, Ivan passed by numerous hills and increasing numbers of human habitations. Eventually the lights of his settlement peered softly out at him. Ivan arrived at his town, Zernovoy, just as the sky was beginning to turn black. Millions of stars illuminated the heavens and there was scarcely a cloud in sight. The moon was nearly full, casting a soft glow the color of straw over the steppe and grasses. Ivan knew almost every star in the sky, and he could find his way home by their light or by the compass that seemed to naturally be in his head. He could not even remember getting lost once.
Ivan Shostakov dismounted as he entered the boundary of the village and walked with his horse past the houses of two of his neighbors. Smetsky followed him without the necessity of being led, as they had been close friends for years. Once they turned off the rutted road and reached his house, Ivan grabbed the reins and moved them forward, tying them to a small Tshaped hitching post.
The Shostakov’s dwelling was typical in style but larger than most of the others in the village. It had a thatched roof and white walls, and the inside was divided into three rooms and a root cellar. Something unknown made him very disconcerted, so the Cossack stopped for a moment as his horse’s ears perked frontwards warily. In the house they heard a dreadful moaning sound. There was a moments silence as the Cossack summoned up the bravery to take action.
Ivan ran inside.
His wife was giving birth, and the midwife was already there. Even before he heard anything, Ivan knew there was something wrong. Vadia was nowhere to be seen.
“What is happening?” he asked, terrified.