Friday, October 19, 2007

The Soldier

[From my Diplomacy commentary. Somehow, I intend to generate three of these a week. Imagine this short story longer, and with a first half.]

...Alina was a pretty girl with an inquisitive birdlike face but with the blocky body and ragged dress of a peasant. Her mother worked for low wages in the cold buildings of the Kurosky factory that were arrayed in a dusky expanse behind the family manor, where she threaded the great bolts of cloth onto the printing machines. The daughter assisted lazily among the domestic staff, preferring to daringly flutter her eyelashes at the Kurosky sons, and chatter with the other workers than focus on her chores. When she heard Captain Pyotr coming down with the men, she sweetly looked up from the basin at Marya Andreyvna, pulling her brush behind her back.

'We must finish the laundry, Alinka,' the old woman said sternly. 'Please, grab that ladle.' When Marya spoke, the wrinkling flesh on her chin danced lightly. Although she had buried three sons and a husband early in her life and had not remarried, she had developed the demeanor of a doting relative. Alina frequently called her Grandmother. She had been working at the estate since she herself was a girl, and was known to treat the young people as indulgently as she could. She winked at the girl. 'You can look at the handsome young man on the way back from the stream. Please now, don't rush so.'

Blushing, Alina returned to her task, falling to the routine of brushing and scrubbing in the hot water with her thick, red hands. When the basket was nearly full, she looked up expectantly at Marya. 'Yes, yes,' the old woman said, 'I can finish the rest.'

The day was bright, the grass soft, and upstream from the factory, the water was still clear and blue. Alina dropped the basket from her hip, and hurriedly plunged the shirts and trousers into the cool water, a stream of foam trailing lazily back toward the rocks, dappling the surface of the water with little rainbows. She had nearly finished when she heard the voices of men nearby. A smile dotted Alina's face, a sharp line underlining ruddy cheeks. She moved to the stream's edge and began deliberately laying out several shirts on a rock, listening.

The rheumy voice of Ivan Ilyavitch, she realized, was speaking to the young captain. She craned her neck toward the sound, and went even more slowly at the appearance of work. She could feel the flush on her face, but the men did not appear to be getting much closer. Ivan Ilyavitch did not move quickly.

'Tell me Captain...' The old man coughed, deep and wet. 'Tell me of the Army. Is there to be war?'

'Your hospitality is appreciated, Colonel. I don't know the extent to which you still follow the greater affairs of Russia in your retirement.'

Alina could make out a slow grumble. '... not greatly aware of movements south--we harry the Turks these days, yes?--but local events concern me greatly.' He paused for breath. 'You march to Riga, and then, I assume you sail to Sweden, yes?'

' guard the capital against the English, of all the races of Europe! They are sailing east, and the Germans and Austrians are consolidating territories too. They have made no action on us--we have even worked with Franz Kyu--but I fear the worst!'

'I have heard this as well. It is probably nothing, these European affairs. Tell me Captain, has the Tsar provisioned you for tents and uniforms? How are your men clothed? Perhaps we should discuss with Boris Ivanitch...'

The men rounded the corner to see Alina, clothes quite neglected, standing in the sun by the rock, attending their words. Recovering herself, she straightened her skirt and color suffused her brow and cheeks and she curtseyed to the two of them. She was aware of Captain Pyotr's broad shoulders, and how the sun glinted off of his flaxen hair and close-cropped beard.

The young man turned to the old, and chuckled: 'these mean serving folk never know their place, do they?' Ivan Ilyavitch wheezed.

Alina felt suddenly aware of her rags, her ruddy face, her raw hands and wet knees. She spoke no more and when the men continued on, she plunged the shirts in the stream with vigor, hit them with rocks and grunted at them, as though they held the good birth and fair hair that she did not.

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