For three years I kept transferring the following notation from one notebook to another: "There's a forester in Karobatovo Village, Perm Region, who killed his son, a deserter, during the war. See him."
When in Perm Region, therefore, I decided to go to Karobatovo.
I reached the village towards evening of an autumn day. There were five lights in the woods, as the village consisted of only five houses. I knocked on the door of the last house. Tall black fir trees grew all around. A dog began barking in the gloom. Then a man coughed as he came down the creaking stairs from the extension on top of the house.
"Does Fyodor Orlov live here?"
"What difference does it make? Come on in. We're always glad to have company."
The kerosene lamp cast its light on the log walls. A neat old woman appeared from behind a painted partition, greeted me and then went back to pottering by the oven.
The man did not seem surprised at the late visitor. He pulled down a pair of warm felt stockings from the top of the oven for me. While I was changing into them he set a heavy iron pot of steaming potatoes and a dish of mushrooms on the table. His head barely cleared the ceiling when he stood up, and when he sat down on the low bench his shadow took up half the wall, which was covered with framed family photographs, as is the custom in peasant houses.
"Are those your children?"
"Yes," he said and sighed. Then he lit a cigarette.
I decided not to ask about his son. If he said anything, good and well, if not, we'd talk about the woods and hunting.
During the long evening he told me a bit about himself. He was born here, in the forest region of Perm, and he believed he would probably end his days here as well, in the village of five houses with its haystacks and cemetery beyond the farthest house at the other end.
"I'm as old as these woods are. The rings on the trees say they're over seventy, and I'm halfway into eighty."
The old man had been a scout during the First World War and was awarded a St. George Cross for valor. All during the last war he had made skis for the army. Orlov had spent his life in the woods, moving occasionally from one section to another, though never changing his job of forester. That is why he knows every inch of the countryside like the back of his hand.
The old man is still a good shot. The talk turned to hazel grouse and woodgrouse, and we decided to go hunting the next morning. We got out our cartridges and whatever else we were taking along, so as not to forget anything in the morning, and finally put out the lamp. I could see the black branches through the window and the blue spots of moon light near the oven. A dog was barking hoarsely outside.
I could not fall asleep for a long time. The moonlit square moved onto the oven, then to the wall covered with framed photographs. I could just make out the faces. There was one of a girl, another of a young boy standing beside a bicycle. And a young boy in a sailor's cap. There was one of the family, with the mother and father seated on stools in the middle and five barefoot children lined up behind.
It was a foggy morning. We could barely make out the haystacks beyond the village, which disappeared the moment we left it. The swampy soil slopped underfoot. The dog would dash off excitedly, then come running back to jump up on Orlov, trying to lick his cheek.
"All right, Maika, I know you're glad we took you. Go on, get to it, girl."
The dog's job was to find a woodgrouse, but we were out of luck. After a while we began losing interest in the hunt. We were drenched and tired and decided to make a campfire and dry our things.
However, the old man did not take off his coat or boots. He smoked a cigarette, held his wrinkled hands over the flames for a few moments and then said: "I'll walk around here a bit."
He was gone for an hour and a half. I was beginning to worry, wondering whether I should fire a shot into the air, when Maika came running up. She shook herself by the fire. Orlov was right behind.
"It doesn't look like you've bagged anything."
He warmed his hands over the flames again. Then he listened to a woodpecker drilling.
"My son is buried here. My eldest boy."
A tense silence followed. He did not wait for my question, but continued, "My eldest boy... The grass grew over his grave and hid it the very first year, but I remembered the birch trees near it. I couldn't even find them now. My eyes aren't what they used to be, and my memory's all shot.'"
I told him I knew the story from a man who was from his village and now lived in Moscow.
"You must mean Yegor. Yes, we tramped through these forests together many a time ... I've carried my cross for twenty-three years. Whenever I-get into an argument with anyone they throw it up to me, they tell me I killed my own son. What can I say? I did kill him . .. Yes. And there's nothing I can say to them. I can't go around explaining. Sometimes I talk to my dog. We're out for hours together. So I start talking to Maika... She's a mighty intelligent dog and understands me . . . I've had a lump here for twenty-three years..." The old man suddenly covered his face and sobbed.
Orlov's son and five other boys from the village went off to the war in 1942. Karobatovo was bigger then, with eighteen families living there instead of five. The boys were not downhearted, though their mothers wept. Fyodor OrloV was the only man of the village to accompany the young woodsmen to the assembly point. They did not talk much on the way, but Fyodor did say: "Don't let us down, boys. We only live once, but what kind of a life will it be if the Germans get here? Hold your end up, boys!"
The young recruits must have seen action very soon after. That summer two families received death notices. Two other boys wrote home from army hospitals. There was no word of Orlov's son, Ivan. Whenever someone was believed missing in action during the war the family always hoped for a miracle. Fyodor Orlov loved his son and kept comforting his wife, saying that Ivan could not have just disappeared without a trace.
And then traces began to appear, but not as Ivan's father could have ever imagined. First, the women at the well began whispering, and then his friend, a carpenter from the next village, gave it to him straight.
"Ivan's hiding out in the woods. He's a deserter."
"I'll kill anyone who tries to spread such a filthy rumor! There's never been a deserter in our family!"
But it was not a rumor. Chickens began disappearing from the nearby villages, and honey frames from beehives. A goat disappeared, and then a cow. All this belonged to soldiers' wives or widows. The woman whose goat disappeared came to see Fyodor, her infant cradled in her arms. "What'll I feed my baby now? It's all your son's doing! They've spotted him in the woods."
There was talk that Ivan had sneaked home to see his mother when Fyodor was out on his rounds. His wife wept and swore he hadn't and that she had not laid eyes on the boy. Each morning Orlov awoke with a start, stung anew by the one thought that gave him no peace: "Ivan's a deserter. A coward." Fyodor turned gray in six months. Then one day he. put some bread in his knapsack, took his gun and went off to the forest.
Once every five days he would return for food and go off again. He became ill, either from being constantly chilled or from nervous tension. "I could barely get about. I didn't shave. I was a bag of bones."
On the fifteenth day of his search the forester saw tracks at a crossing by a stream that led to a little island in the swamp. He noted that the bark had been cut from some birches for kindling. There was a bark-covered hutch in the middle of the island. Fyodor walked around it. All was still. There was an iron stove inside. A shovel and a ring of keys lay beside it. A small pail of flour stood in a corner. Fyodor went outside and hid in the bushes. No one came that night. The next morning he saw someone carrying a sack over his shoulder heading towards the hutch.
"I would have known him in a million. He was tall and good-looking. I shouted: 'Ivan! What's happened, Ivan? Look at me! See what you've done to me? Go back, they'll forgive you. If you go back to your outfit, they'll forgive you!'" Ivan dropped the sack, turned and ran. That's when his father raised his gun .. .
Fyodor returned to the village the next day. Then he went to the militia station and said he had killed his son. They didn't believe him, but his wife did the moment she looked at him. She fell to the floor and moaned, "You killed him! You killed our boy!"
"She died three years ago," Orlov said. "I stood on my knees by her bed and she said, 'I forgive you for everything, Fyodor.' But I could see it in her eyes. She hadn't."
A woodpecker drilled. First on an asp, then near our campfire again. The old man stroked the dozing dog.
"We buried him in the woods near here. For a while I just stumbled around. It's easy in the books, but when it's happened to you, you keep on thinking about it all the time. It's like a rock on my heart till the day I die."
"What about your other children?"
"They're ail grown and gone away. One's in Perm, another's in the Far East. My youngest girl, Klava, comes to visit and writes to me. Otherwise, I'm all alone. I took a woman in. We're living out our days together... This is the first time in twenty years I've spoken to anyone about this. Not counting my dog. I talk to Maika a lot... But how can I explain what the times were like then, during the war, and how hard it is to bear it now?"
We put out the fire. The sky had cleared. There was a snap in the air that had put a crust of ice on the leaves lying out in the open. They even crunched under the dog's paws.
"Well, it looks like winter, doesn't it, Maika? Yes, winter's just around the corner."