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The Old Kozak
by Bohdan Yuri
2017-04-23 12:29:02
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There's no one word that can be used to describe the color of the steppe. How can you brand green and gold, when they stand side by side, as far as the eye can see. Add the hints of lacy white umbrellas, and purple brown plumes, along with God's infinite speckling, and it becomes impossible. Easier to say that it is Ukraina, as much a part of the Mother's flesh as her black soil.

kozak01_400The Old Kozak had touched and embraced this land in a way that no man can embrace a woman. Indeed, it is the kind of love that begins with a mother’s soothing affection and nourishment. That line, from birth, is merely extended towards the mysticism which caresses nature, and soars freely from its understanding.

Sitting proudly on his "borrowed" mare. His left hand angled at his hip, while the other held a steady rein, raised, so as to gallop at a moment’s notice. He gazed out towards the event horizon; his thoughts soaring, as would a bird.

A small tear broke free from his tempered control and flowed, in unaccustomed fashion, along his cheek. There were many less wrinkles with the last such prayer. Suddenly, the horse snorted, reining back a twist towards a different angle.

The sky was clearly blue, endless; even more so than the steppe. But, as if wounded by reality's gash, a dark cloud of smoke pointed towards the scene of another Tatar raid.

Unlike the Polish or Russian cruelty, which was usually festered in devious dark corners of arrogance, the Tatars remained primitive; settling throughout Krim (Crimea), hanging on to the plundering ways of their ancestors, the Golden Horde. They constantly ran raids into Ukraina; burning, stealing, killing. The good ones they spared and sold them as slaves. A fair haired Ukrainian would bring a pretty purse of gold to most Turkish buyers. He couldn't help it. The urge to speed a hasty gallop arose from instinct but was held in restraint, as the distance was too great to have made a difference. With near shame, he chose not to pursue this cause. Instead, he held his embrace and the freedom that lay ahead.

He filled each breath with the perfume of a thousand scents and the memories that resurfaced as far away as their farm near Shpola where he'd once raised a family. When his thoughts swelled into his heart..... he bowed his head, a thankful prayer unfolded.

When his peace fulfilled, he led his horse towards a small knoll that overlooked the sea of grass. The Old Kozak made camp. He sat erect and cross-legged, a way of his past. Torn with loyalty, he fought the urge to bath his memories in the Dnipro River, less than a half day's ride to the east. Traveling along the river's path would take longer, but its current had floated countless episodes that were as much a part of his life as was the steppe. He needed to know that it was always near.

The river’stestimony had carved numerous tales of heroism. The daring sorties, launched with chaykas (small boats), that hurled the Kozaks into the face of their southern enemies, the Turks and Tatars.

How they rowed, often too anxious to await the current's steady speed. And they sang and laughed while refurbishing, that prideful boast that, a Kozak fears no man, only God. And, even with God, a Kozak felt that his chronicles as defender of the Holy Mother Church had always made him worthy enough to speak as brothers.

The Old Kozak cut off a leg from one of the cooked rabbits, bounty from the morning's hunt, and hummed an old tune while he ate. He awaited, patiently, the sunset's change over the land; a glorious rush of colors that squeezed fast paced arrays of the spectrum, before falling asleep.

Suddenly, a seam broke along the tall grass. The Old Kozak stood on alert.The path closed nearer. If it had been a Tatar, he would surely have been able to spot the heathen's fur capped head by now, bobbing near the top of the tall grass. Instead, there was no clue.

A few yards closer, he saw the reason why. It was a young boy, running afoot. The Old Kozak eased his guard and set about to make contact.

A brief struggle ensued as the Old Kozak reached out his strong arms and halted the boy's dash. The boy, unaware of his captor's identity, recklessly flayed his arms and legs, fighting whatever invisible net held him back. He grunted and twisted. The Old Kozak threw him to the ground, breaking the boy's strong desperation.

"Does a man have to cut off your legs, before you'll stay put," said the Old Kozak, with a hearty laugh.

The boy, breathing heavily, raised his head from the earthy floor and looked up at his host. A sigh, told by eyes, eased the tight fear that had pushed the boy this far. “I, I thought you were a Tatar," he said, between breaths. "They burned our farm. They were taking me to Jaffa but I, I managed to escape.”

Well done, lad," said the Old Kozak, lifting a slight smile born of pride, in the boy's face. "Come, my camp is nearby. I have some food.”

"One, one of them came after me," the boy said. The Old Kozak had already expected that, nodding in agreement.

From the knoll, the Old Kozak watched the destined path in the grass, while the boy ate feverishly. There! A distance back, the Old Kozak saw the silhouette of a familiar gallop, the barbarian. He was alone.

The Old Kozak mounted his horse and approached the grass near the edge of the knoll. The Tatar stopped his chase when he caught sight of his enemy. His thin slanted eyes searched for hidden surprises. When he saw that there were no others, he smiled and cleared his eyes into a wide open gallop. A primitive cry sounded his attack.

The Old Kozak thought to use his pistols, but when he saw the Tatar without a bow and raising his scimitar, he drew his saber instead. He spurred his old mare into a deliberate gallop. The Tatar waved his sword in rhythmic circles.

The two men crossed paths then changed direction, as the Old Kozak pulled his horse off the line. The Tatar's swipe had missed its mark. This time, it was the Old Kozak who pressed hard, while the Tatar tried to regroup his broken charge. A sharp swipe of the Kozak's saber sliced across the heathen's chest, slumping the raider
to his death.

The Kozak felt good. He had wondered if the spirit could still carry his worn body into battle, without bending his aged bones.

He grabbed the dead warrior's horse and led it to his campsite, where the boy had fallen asleep, an unfinished bone still in his hand.

Shortly after sundown, when the night’s creatures played a different song and fireflies pretended to lower the heavens, the boy awoke. Startled by an unfamiliar sound that had penetrated his guarded slumber.

"Easy lad,” the Kozak told the boy, who jerked his body upward with an uncontrolled fear.

"Who are you?” he asked, a part of him still left behind, in sleep.

"I'm a Kozak, returning to Sich,” came the reply.

"What about the Tatar?" the boy asked "He's here, I know he is."

A sudden rush then overtook his plan. "They burned our house. Father, mother, all dead…I tried, I….”

"Whoa, slow down," said the Kozak, steadying the boy's tremor with his powerful hands. "You're safe now. The Tatar's dead." With that news, the frenzy calmed itself.

“Where are you headed?" asked the Boy, his reason shielded earlier.

“To Sich," replied the Kozak, "Ever hear of it?"

"Who hasn't," the Boy responded. "Can I come with you? I want to become a Kozak!”

"Hold on there, lad," said the Kozak. "It takes more than a wish to become one. Life does not always look favorably upon the style of Kozakdom. It is, often times, crueler than the pain of death." The Kozak could see that the boy was not ready for such lofty talk. "Why do you want to become a Kozak?" he asked.

"Because they killed my parents," the boy rep1ied, bolstered by a slow building adolescent rage. "I want to kill every Tatar that I see.”

"That's a start, you have a reason" said the Kozak. "But, anyone can kill. Whether you become a Kozak, or not, will depend on your action when tested in battle.

"How did you become one?" the boy asked, with a curt defense that dared the Kozak to prove him unworthy.

"Well," said the Kozak, showing patience, my reasons come from watching the Poles slowly crush my father's spirit. It was with his, and my mother's, blessing that I left home. They died shortly after my departure." He was surprised that the years had not eased the choking memory of that day. "But, if you like, we can travel together. You can use the Tatar's horse. It's a good one, fast and light. Here, just in case," he said, handing one of his Turkish pistols to the boy, "Pull back, aim, squeeze the trigger, for use it well. God will always judge your reasons for firing its deadly ball. Tomorrow morning, we can pick up the Tatar's knives."

The boy took the gun and turned its every angle in his hands, running his fingers along the intricate parts. He’d never expected to acquire one so easily. His glowing eyes sparked a warm chill in the Kozak's heart. "Careful,” he said. "It's loaded."

"How old are you?" asked the boy. The question took the Kozak by surprise, delaying a response.Finally, he asked, “What year is this?"

"It's 1617. Don't you know?" said the boy, too busy admiring his new firearm, to press the issue. "Then, I'll be 67, come winter," the Kozak replied.

"I'll bet this gun has killed a lot of Tatars," the boy said, taking aim at imaginary targets in the night.

“It may have," implied the Kozak. "But, I've only recently acquired that gun. Its history is unknown to me."

“Still," continued the boy, grabbing for any highlight that might keep his fantasies alive. "I'll bet that you've been on a lot of campaigns. My father once told me that a few years back, when they waged war against the Turks, the Kozaks captured almost all of the Sultan's capitol. Cuns, uh, Cos, Cost…?”

"Constantinople," said the Kozak, helping out. "Yes, that's it. Did it really happen?"

"Why would your father lie, boy," replied the Kozak, rather harshly.

The boy was unsure, if the Kozak might think that his relationship with his father was anything less than respectful. “My father wouldn't lie," he added.

"No, I'm sure that he wouldn't," the Kozak assured him, easing a smile from the previous mood.

Feeling reassured, the boy pressed his excitement. "What battles were you in? Did you kill a lot of Tatars…?”

"Hold on boy," said the Kozak. "A man's life is not measured by the number of kills on his battle flag. It is caste, instead, by an unyielding spirit which serves a man well in desperate times."

Once again, the Kozak sensed bewilderment. "Let me tell you the story of two Kozaks by the names of Victor Polonich and Taras Muroz. Perhaps their journal will help you to understand."

The Kozak lit a freshly packed pipe and drew quietly on the smoky remains. "Throw some more wood on the fire, boy," ordered the Kozak. The lad obeyed, returning to his seat with eager dreams that awaited only a light to shine. The Old Kozak began:

“We were on a raiding party, with our chaykas. Our aim was to free some of the Ukrainian slaves that were captured earlier that month.

When we reached their camp, in Krim, our forces split up. You see, the slave camp was located in a village, just outside the Khan's fortress. And, it was impossible to enter one, without alarming the other. Taras was in the group that was assigned to delay reinforcements from the fort while the smaller group entered the village. It was a dark night, with a thin crescent moon, befitting our location, that shed little glare on our forces.

We approached the wooden fortress, quietly. The outer guard posts weren't expecting any attack. They were playing dice, as their glowing campfires sprayed a golden sheen on their pagan faces. We disposed of them with ease.

There were two entrances to the fort, which brought about another split. Taras went along the far wall, and positioned himself in front of the gate facing the southern hills. Suddenly, a shot, echoed from the village, followed by more shots. The battle had begun.

The Tatars stormed out of their fort, but were thrown back by the flash of our cannon, which we had transferred from our boats. They remained inside, bottled up by their own confusion as to the size of our forces. When the slaves were well on their way towards safety, we gathered our retreat, as well. It was a good time for it, too, because we were running low on powder. Already, there was hand to hand fighting along the southern gate. Anyway, in the ensuing chase, Taras was grazed on the head by a Tatar's bullet. He tried desperately to hold off the blackout, falling twice; but, the mind must sometimes give way to the limits of one's body. He was captured.

For the remainder of the night, the Tatars toyed with torture, while they decided what to do with their prisoner. Those heathen can show no mercy in their cruelty. I remember seeing a man's skin peeled off his flesh, for refusing to bow his head before the Khan. Taras was expecting no less. Instead, a slave trader from the town of Jaffa had offered to buy Taras, saying that it was a shame to throw away such good flesh.

He offered the Khan ten gold pieces. There's nothing that a Tatar likes more than gold. The trader was persuasive, and Taras was spared.

The trader was also a shrewd fellow. Taras had delivered a hefty sum into his coffers, selling for well over ten times what he had paid the Khan. Strong bodies were scarce and buyers knew that Taras would last a long time, he was a Kozak.

Taras ached for freedom, though. All that time, he was on the lookout for a chance to escape. He was surprised that the opportunity had never presented itself. As soon as the chains had collared his neck, hands, and ankles, all outlets had closed. He eventually placed his lot as a slave oarsman, on a Turkish barge.

It was a dungeon in Hell, cramped with close to 60 chained souls. Only the stench of human wastes came close to removing the thick aroma of long suffering death that greeted each new arrival. One quickly forgot about pain's sensations, if only to keep madness away.

It was here that Taras spent the next twenty years, amidst the constant beat of the Devil's drum, calling rhythm to the cranking oars as they splashed into the sea, swirling false destinies. The whip was used often. When it cracked the longest, and loudest, we knew that another slave was dead. Many times, Taras had wondered why he kept himself alive. His free loving spirit cried for light, wondering why it was dying from the darkness.

One day, on smooth waters that rowed easily, the slaves were called to full speed, setting the whip into a frenzy. They rowed hard, until, another boat crashed alongside, distorting the oars to one angle. The barge was being boarded.

Panic raised its voices, as fighting broke out on deck. Taras listened, hoping to hear familiar voices. Instead, not one tongue had raised an intimate call. They were pirates.

After the easy victory, one of the pirates, a dark bearded man with a black turban on his head, looked into the hold and told another, close by, "They'll fetch a price, in Jaffa." The chains would remain. Still, Taras found a prayer. With new exchanges, there might come a chance to escape. The hope burned deep. At Jaffa, nothing had changed. Taras was led, in chains, on the auction block. Three other prisoners, all strangers, formed the lot. Together, they fetched a fair price, though, nothing close to his previous sale.

Upon completion of the bargain, Taras and the others were taken to a cell, near the marketplace, where beggars lined the streets. One of those beggars, a dirty one legged relic dressed in rags, accidently stumbled into the slow moving column as they passed by.

The beggar fell on Taras, knocking him to the ground. Taras felt a key being shoved into his open palm. He closed the secret, tightly, and tried to understand the beggar's motive. "Tonight, the window," the beggar whispered, before the guards threw him against the wall. The beggar had spoken in Ukrainian.

That night, still chained, Taras stood by the window and listened to the plan. When morning arrived, Taras was ready; although, he had to wait before using the key. Then, as the slaves were being taken to the port area, where awaiting ships would transport them to their new masters' tasks; the beggar suddenly created a small disturbance, by overturning a food cart, blocking the street.

The commotion had released enough time for Taras to use his key, and flee into one of the side streets. A guard gave chase. Taras could hear his gaining footsteps. He stretched his stride with each new step, determined to remain free.

Taras followed the directions and dodged into a doorway, latching the lock behind him. Taras sat against the door, breathing heavily, as he tried to reconstruct the strength to kill, for freedom. The guard passed by, slumping Taras with relief. When he opened his eyes, he gazed at the room. It was small, and cluttered with dirty rags and broken debris. It seemed like paradise. He waited. A couple of hours later, the beggar arrived.

"How have you been, Taras," the beggar asked, taking the key from Taras's hand. The greeting threw Taras into a reckless search as to his benefactor's identify. He looked, with wide bewilderment, into the beggar's eyes, but could not penetrate the ragged disguise.

"I see that we've both changed a great deal," the beggar continued.

Then, carefully slipping from his crutch, which supported his only leg, he reached for a straw cushion.

“How do you know who I am?" asked Taras.

"That rose colored mark on your chest. It's still as big as your head. I can remember it well, we used to draw faces on it, with charcoal," the beggar replied.

"At Sich!" exclaimed Taras. "You've been there…?” Then, as if the beggar's matted beard and dirty face had been brushed away to reveal the memory of cleaner times, Taras recognized his comrade. "Victor, Victor Polonich! Is this you?"

"Yes," he replied, with a quivering smile that betrayed his smothering emotions. His eyes filled with joy, as Taras clasped Victor's only hand, and embraced long forgotten friendships.

“You've been on hard times, my friend," said Taras.

"No more than you," replied Victor.

"What a sorry presentation we would make before our Kozak brethren," joked Taras. "Tell me, Victor, what misfortune left you in such a condition? Mine was, certainly, less devastating than yours."

“The Tatars made sport of my flesh," he explained, “We had killed many of them, and the new Khan is a vengeful creature. There were five of us. I was the only one to survive. They kept me alive only to show the village folk that a Kozak is, indeed, only a man, whose flesh can tear easily. Fools, I could have told them that without the dramatics. In any case, they set me adrift on the streets, for all to see. In time, they had forgotten my purpose; and, I became indistinct when I caste my lot with others less fortunate. Believe me, many times, I had thought to kill myself, rather than serve their purpose; but, as you know, a Kozak must never cheat destiny."

“Yes, I’ve felt similar temptations,” Taras said. “But why had you not returned to Sich, if they no longer concerned themselves with you?”

"A curious perception took hold of me," explained Victor, pressing a greater need for understanding on Taras's part. "I would not be happy in Sich, living on the past. Instead, I yearned to be in a position that might serve a greater worth, for our brotherhood. Here, in Jaffa, I think I've found that purpose. You're the fifth Kozak that I've managed to free. That's five brave men that can aid our cause in much better fashion than I."

Taras cried, lonely, as tears of sorrow seldom face another Kozak.

"Victor, only God can reward your bravery," he said. "None of us dare to." Then, he took a deep breath and silently measured his respect for such a man. Victor sensed the honor and stiffened his back.

I can only give you a knife, in your escape. The rest, you'll have to get on your own," said Victor, pressing the need for urgency. "We must also cover your hands and collar marks, they are a sure giveaway."

"Can I not sit awhile and recall a drink or two, for old time's sake?” asked Taras, retaining a bit of his old ways.

"No, dear friend. Time is of the essence,” Victor explained.

"Already, they've begun a door to door search. But, I too yearn for familiar words. Perhaps, before I die, God will allow me to return to Sich. Now, please hurry."

When the precautions were completed, Victor pointed the direction where Taras could "borrow a horse, and maybe a few supplies. The actual parting carried their final respects.

The two men, now standing, embraced once more, and kissed each other’s cheeks. “We shall meet again dear brother,” Taras confirmed.

"And, we shall drink a laugh, of these days," added Victor.

That night Taras secured a horse from a drunken merchant, and a new wardrobe; and, by morning, had left the Krim peninsula and set foot on Ukrainian mainland soil.

Along the river, he sharpened the knife that Victor had provided, and shaved his grey beard, and head; leaving only the Kozak's trademark, an oseledets (a tuff of hair which fell to one side).”

"So, you see," continued the Kozak, to his wide eyed listener, "Even a Kozak who can no longer feed the battle's line, will always remain a Kozak, in his soul. For, a Kozak does not kill to count. He kills because he is reaching for his destiny. And, he reaches for that destiny with all the gifts that God has given him. It is these gifts, which shine brightest in a Kozak's soul." And as his soul choked on the sacrifice of his countryman, the Kozak added, “and of the two, it is Victor whose deeds shine brightest.”

The boy said nothing, but the Kozak sensed a shift in the lad's approach. They talked no more, as the stars crossed night's highway.

They lay on their jackets, edging towards sleep. The Kozak counted stars, as the boy snored gently. The sky was once more his gateway. The dreams that night, played sweetly a convincing rest that had assured the return of a Kozak.

The next morning, before proceeding north, the Kozak asked the boy, who was over armed with the dead Tatar's weapons, “Tell me, my young friend. Do you still want to become a Kozak, and risk no less than what others before you have risked?”

“More than ever,” replied the boy, with a tamed determination.

“Good!” said Taras. “So then, lad, tell me your name and we shall talk along the way…”


The end


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