Monday, June 20, 2016

Tarawa! by T.R.Hart

Tarawa! by T.R.Hart

   Tarawa Atoll is located at longitude 17300' East (173 degrees, 00 minutes), latitude 126’ North within an archipelago (chain of islands) known as the Gilbert Islands. They were named for Thomas Gilbert, a British Merchant, who was the first European to describe Tarawa. On June 20, 1788, he arrived at the lagoon which christened Charlotte Bay in honor of his ship, and the Island was named Matthew Island in honor of the owner of his ship. Arnold (Lloyd) Gladson, a young marine aboard the amphibious boat heading to Tarawa on November 20th, 1943, like most of his comrades had never even heard the word "Tarawa", but they knew what to expect when they landed on its beaches.
“Lloyd” was barely out of High School when America was attacked by Japanese planes at Pearl Harbor on Sunday morning, December 7, 1941. The United States was quickly embroiled in a two "Theater" war. The European Theater would be fought against the military regimes of Germany and Italy. The Pacific Theater would be fought against the Japanese Empire. Britain and Russia were allied with the Americans is a desperate struggle to overcome the global ambitions of the "Axis" powers.

   The Island was heavily defended by Japanese forces entrenched on the Island. Gladson could feel his heart racing as they approached.  His throat was tightening. Of course he was afraid to be wounded or even killed, but his greatest fear was: "How will I react in a combat situation?" Would he perform his duties as a U.S. Marine admirably, or would he be a coward?

   This was to be the first amphibious island assault known as "Operation Galvanic". Would it be successful?  Japan had been victorious on land, but its navy had suffered a decisive blow at the Battle of Midway a year earlier. Now, Japan's ability to supply its troops inhabiting the Island perimeters of the Japanese Empire was threatened.  The U.S. combined force strategy was a two pronged systematic attack of the Islands in a "Leap Frog" fashion. Some of them would be invaded, others isolated and cut off from supplies.  The young marines had no understanding of "island hopping" strategies. They were ordered to take the island. First they would have to hit the beach, ominously known as "Red Beach" for the blood that would be spilled on it.

Day One – November 20, 1943

   The amphibious landing craft were now lining up to hit Red Beach 2 on Betio Island, Tarawa. Gladson began to scribble down notes of his observations. "Men, too anxious to sleep the night before were slumped on their rifles dozing to the drone of the motor and lapping of the waves against the sides of the boat.  Suddenly, a shell exploded about 50 yards behind us creating a large pillar of water rising up into the air. I never had time to duck." He was thinking: “that could have been us."
   The boats quickly spread out and toward the beach. The Destroyers let out a barrage of fire to "soften up" the enemy positions. Warplanes from the aircraft carriers zoomed overhead and began strafing the beach.  "Surely", they thought," who could survive that!"  The men cheered thinking that this would be an easy victory but the worst was yet to come.

   Exactly six minutes before the scheduled landing, the young marine gets his nerve up and sticks his head out of the boat to take a look. What he sees rattles him. "The boat in front is hit" we writes, "the sides of the boat just fall apart...some killed men are floating in the water while the others are drowning trying to swim to safety while being pulled under by all their heavy gear."  Shells start to burst above their heads. Red hot fragments litter the floor of the boat. One hit the coxswain's helmet. He's okay but shaken up. Other boats are on fire, some are damaged and out of control, or sinking. These boys aged 18 or 19 who should have been playing baseball or taking their sweethearts to get a milkshake are now dead men.

   No one anticipated the low tide. The boats got stuck on the coral reefs. The men got out and pushed for their lives to get the boats off of them. Japanese machine guns were firing on them. Most were lucky to be behind the boats, other men waded into the waist high water towards the shore. They were like sitting ducks falling face forward into the waves. The blood was turning the beaches red, but they kept coming.

On the Beach 
   There was heavy machine gun fire hitting the men upon landing. Corporal Long gave the order to move in one by one. Miraculously no one was hit in the gunner’s crew despite having to stop ever 20 yards due to the machine guns ferocity. The men still had about 75 yards to go to get off of the beach, Gladson felt his legs cramping under his heavy load. No amount of conditioning could have stopped the reaction his body felt under these extreme circumstances. His nerves were shaken. He rolled over into a ditch to avoid being hit. The guys in back of him were not so lucky. He “bummed” a cigarette from Fletcher, who lay next to him, but couldn’t light it as his hands were shaking. Within seconds they were running to take cover behind a blockhouse “neutralized” by the first wave of marines who landed before them. Realizing that they had been separated from their squad, Charlie, the third man in their little group, sneaked away under sniper fire to find the Major. Somehow Charlie got back to them with the message that they should make their way to the main beach crossing the lagoon, leaving the heavy gun behind.. One by one again they made their way through the water, but not before Gladson fell face first in that “stinking water”. 

   They finally made their way to the command post. Their relief had turned to disbelief as they were given a gun and told that they were now part of the infantry. The rest of the day was a nightmare. The soldiers werefighting off suicidal attacks from the Japanese garrison. There was a heavy toll on human life on both sides that day. Gladson remarked the rest of the day was a “blur” to him.

Day 2 - November 21, 1943

   Gladson awoke the next morning in a foxhole after a brutal day of fighting. There were wounded men everywhere. “Bongi” the gun crew chief that he had been friendly with met up with Gladson and his men. He appeared dazed and confused. His crew had been transporting the heavy gun across an airstrip when they were attacked. Bongi’s men were all killed. He was the sole survivor.

   Japanese snipers were picking off Americans at an alarming rate. Despite the success of the American’s offensive and the annihilation of the main force of Japanese troops, pockets of resistance were still holding the rear guard protected by the snipers. A long, lanky soldier from Texas that the men called “the Kid” took it upon himself to deal with the “sniper problem”.  Stealthfully moving through the enemy lines, he managed to "take out" six snipers who had been successfully killing the advancing Marines. Dirt plumes rose from bullets hitting the ground around him. The "Kid” slithered back on his belly daring the Japanese to hit him. He returned to cheers from the men. The “Sniper problem” had been solved. No one ever knew “the Kid’s” name or whatever became of him, but no one forgot what he did that day.

Day 3 - November 22, 1943

“Our gun crew had been relieved of infantry duty, much to our relief”, wrote Gladson on last day of fighting on Tarawa. “We were sent back to the beach to set up the heavy gun that we left on the beach… we were to “cover” the next wave of soldiers who would be coming in on the next wave.  Then we were ordered to help bury the dead which was horrible duty…we were relieved only by the knowledge that our missing lieutenant was not among them. The men began carrying ammunition to the trucks to supply the front line when two of his crew, Joe and Swede, were hit by either fragments of an exploding shell or sniper fire. They were quickly brought back to the beach, loaded on a boat and then transported to a waiting hospital ship. Both men survived.

   As evening approached the men were overjoyed to see their lieutenant stepping into the chow line after fighting on the front lines for two days. Japanese troops had been told to fight to the last man. Wave upon wave of ‘banzai” attacks were launched against the Americans.  They had been mowed down like fields of wheat. Their bravery was no match for overwhelming forces and enormous firepower. Arrogant Japanese officers had underestimated America’s resolve to fight and they had wasted the lives of their young men in these desperate attempts at victory. ”The Japanese commander had bragged that the Island would take years to be taken. It took only three days but not without many killed and wounded.


   It was estimated that one of every three marines who landed on Tarawa beach were killed. Every second man was wounded. The battle lasted only 76 hours from 9:10 AM November 20th to 1:30 PM on November 23rd 1943. The American forces lost 894 men killed in action, and 2,086 wounded. The Toll was much higher for the Japanese garrison. They had lost a total of 3,636 men in the fighting. They had resolved to die for their emperor according to the “Bushido Code” of the Samurai. Only 1 officer and 16 men, realizing the futility of dying, surrendered. Sadly, only 129 of the 12,000 Korean laborers forced to construct the defenses for their Japanese masters survived.

   There has been controversy surrounding the decision to engage the enemy at Tarawa. There      was much public outcry when they learned of the heavy toll on American troops to secure a tiny Island just 10 ft. in elevation, 12 miles long, and only 800 yds. at its widest point. The death toll at Saipan, Iwo, and Okinawa would ultimately dwarf the loss of life at Tarawa.

   Today Tarawa is now known as the Capital of Republic of Kiribati. Its large lagoon and reef, formerly abundant with fish and shellfish, is now endangered due to the population explosion on the Islands which number approximately 50 thousand residents. There is little rainfall, but enough to maintain breadfruit, papaya and banana trees as well as coconut and pandunas, a fibrous fruit resembling pineapple which is cooked, eaten raw, or used as dental floss. Causeways connect the islands, but during low tide they can be traversed on foot.

   Although he was unaware of it at the time, Lloyd Gladson was shipped out on November 24th back to Hawaii where he would remain until the end of the war. He was one of the lucky ones who never fought again - he survived! “Lloyd”, as he preferred to be known as, returned to the United States after the war, married, raised a family and became a grandfather of the ‘greatest generation”. He living to a ripe old age until his death on May 3, 1999. He never forgot what he had witnessed, nor did he forget the boys who died in the battle. Many of the survivors would go on to fight at Saipan, Iwo Jima, and Okinawa. A few lived long enough to reach Japan and become part of the occupying forces. He thought about what would have become of the young men who died in the battle. What if they had lived to enjoy the love of their families? How many would become professionals and of those who were the “dreamers”? He could not think about them without wiping a tear from his eye.  Until his last day he saluted his fallen friends with the Marine Corps motto: “Semper Fi!”


Saturday, June 18, 2016

The Last Time I saw Charlie – by T.R.Hart

The Last Time I saw Charlie – by T.R.Hart

  I got a call last Sunday night. It was my High School buddy with news from the old neighborhood. It's rare that I visit there anymore, but Jimmy keeps me informed about all of the goings-on there. 
We always plan to meet at the St. Patrick's Day parade in Philadelphia the Sunday prior to the actual holiday. Since we are two divorced dads, we planned to stop by the old pizza shop and get dinner with our kids. I always look forward to the St. Patrick's Day parade. It's an opportunity to celebrate my Irish heritage, and, after a brutal Philadelphia winter, I regard it as my "Irish Spring".

  Children seem to always get sick when you have plans. So, instead of enjoying a parade gossiping with my friends, and getting a cheap meal, I spent the day taking care of my snotty kid and watched the event on the television. The weather is always dicey on that day, but "Irish Luck" prevailed. 
The weather was beautiful!

   Well, Jimmy and I got to talking about this person and that person and the old pizza joint that we hung out of as teenagers. He brought his kids there to get their traditional Irish meal of: Pizza, soda, onion rings, and yes...French Fries. He bumped into this girl Kathy that we knew. They recalled a particular time that I was the victim of a skating ring prank. I was a novice skater desperately trying to keep vertical. The group that I was with all held hands and formed a line. I figured this would be a good way to stay off the ice rather than sitting on it. I was wrong. It seems that I was at the end of the "whip" that got "cracked". Never could I have imagined the velocity that I could reach that night. I didn't make much of an impression on the girls, but I sure did make an impression on the wallboards.

  After chuckling for a moment at my own expense I asked him about the old place. A couple of teenagers were eating there but most had abandoned it for cleaner pizza shops with a less "rustic" atmosphere. The pizza parlor changed hands since those days. One of the former owners died, the other went back to Greece, and the new owner was from the Middle East. They kept the Greek Helmet on the window, but gave the business a more Italian name which I can't recall. Debbie, the high school cutie who took orders and ran the cash register went to college, married a rich guy, and lived happily ever after. The workers are now Mexicans who speak little English, but there was one person who still works there after all these years...Charlie.

  According to my buddy, Charlie, whose name would sound more like "Chollie" with a Philly accent, was still delivering pizzas. His was dressed in his denim attire, topped by his  signature Jeff cap  pulled to his eyebrows concealing a receding hairline.  He kept fit by running up and down the stoops and porches in the old neighborhood while his open fake leather jacket flapped in the wind. He was still the "Mayor" of the pizza shop, shaking hands while he greeted customers that he pretended to remember. He made a fuss over Jimmy's kids and swore that he remembered me too, but I doubt it. He sat and chatted with them while he waited for the next delivery. The two men reminisced about the characters that used to haunt the old place.

  There was a young married couple who lived in the apartment over the store. They were always dressed alike in denims looking like twins. Dweebs, the husband entered the store once with a bag of pennies he had saved for a long time to buy a pizza for dinner. Often bored in their claustrophobic apartment,  they would come downstairs and hang out with their toddler trying to gather any gossip was going around town. I never saw either one of them read a newspaper except for the comics section.  They seemed to exist on the shop's menu and we all wondered if the child was well taken care of. We felt sorry for them because we all thought that they were a little bit slow mentally. One night the two were overwhelmed in their inability to calm their child's tantrum. Sweet Debbie tried to calm the situation and made the mistake of saying "Aw...she's a good girl, I wouldn't mind taking her home myself." About an hour later they appeared with the child and a packed suitcase!

  It has always been known that truth is stranger than fiction. Jimmy and I talked for about a half an hour. I told him that the last time I saw Charlie was shortly after the "schoolbus" incident. This was an event that everyone knew about but was never in the news. It seems that Charlie, who was working as a school bus driver decided to take a little vacation. 
   One Friday after he had left the last student off the bus, he decided to keep driving. For some reason known only to him he wanted to go to Indiana. I asked him:"Charlie, what possessed you to take a school bus and drive it to Indiana?" Well, he gave me his usual goofy look, and shrugged his shoulders. "Lord knows, I don't know why I did it", was his response. "Didn't you think that the bus company would notice that one of their school buses was gone?" He gave me a dumb look and said, "Well, if I didn't run out of gas in Ohio I would have made it to Indiana." 

   Needless to say, Charlie lost his bus driving job, and because he was harmless the company decided not to file charges. Since then, he has been delivering pizzas, and earning a living doing odd jobs. Jimmy didn't catch where he lived or with whom, but he is still the happy-go-lucky guy we knew years ago.   Their conversation ended when the owner called him to make some deliveries. Charlie "God blessed them" and darted out the door. Then Jimmy told me, "That's the last time I saw Charlie."   


Tuesday, June 14, 2016

The Probe - Story and Illustration by T.R.Hart

 Their jubilation had turned to anguish. The mission to Haumea had been completed without any complications. The probe had landed exactly where they had wanted it, and had compiled information about the surface and its composition for more than a month. Visuals were streaming back to the mission control center. Everything was perfect. Then, suddenly, it happened! The probe stopped transmitting to the Earth.                                         
    Her face was illuminated by the pale blue light emanating from the screen.  All the others had gone home after spending days of frustration trying to reconfigure the program on the probe. One of the ships was in the vicinity and would attempt to recover the Lander and the valuable information contained in its files. This was still considered a risky operation in such a distant part of our Solar System. Space exploration was still in its infancy, but the spacecraft were much larger and better suited for travel than those before. Several base camps were established; the largest were on Mars and Saturn's moons, but none offered the hospitable environment found on Earth. Her interest in this operation would be different. She knew the mission's commander.
    She had always been the person least likely to be noticed in a room full of people. A small, thin woman with dark hair pulled tightly back into a ponytail, her glasses seemed too large for her head. The small features and shy demeanor belied her kind and generous nature.  Her life was given for Science and although she never regretted her decision, the years were often lonely and uneventful.  The History which she learned was not the kind that most people were accustomed to. Most had been taught from one war to another, but as a young girl she had been consumed by reading of explorations from the earliest known chronicles of Egypt's voyage to Punt and to the latest explorations in Outer Space. Her mother had eagerly watched on a small black and white television at her neighbor's house while Neil Armstrong first stepped onto the Moon taking the "giant leap" for mankind. On that summer's night, while still in communist occupied Poland, her mother yearned to become an astronaut.
     Her mother never became an astronaut. Instead, she had become an engineer and met her husband, Magdalena's father, also an engineer, while at the University. They immigrated to the United States before she was born. "Maggie", as her friends called her, was the first American in the family. She remembered little about her father. He was kind, soft spoken, and although she remembered him as being so tall, he was average in height. She loved him and was so confused when he did not return home one night. She remembered her mother screaming and pulling her hair. "Why?"..."Why! He should die so young?" The plane crash occurred on his return from a building project in some Third World nation. Her mother was heartbroken. She never remarried.
Part 1: Haumea
     Haumea is a dwarf planet like Pluto, but sixty percent as large. Like its neighbor Haumea is a cold and desolate with temperatures below -50 degrees Kelvin, or, for the layperson, -433 degrees Fahrenheit.  It lies in a distant region of the Solar System known as the Kuiper Belt at our solar system's frontier. It was now in its perihelion, or closest in orbit to our star, the Sun. The distance measured from our planet to the sun is measured in A.U.s, or Astronomical Units.  Haumea's distance is 35 times greater than our distance from the Sun. Its peculiar elliptical shape may be responsible for its rapid rotation. A Haumean day is only 3.9 hours. A cold hellish place to be, and Commander Collins and his crew would be there within days.
    Maggie and the Commander in the Astronaut were in the same training program in their youth. She was the brainiest of them with an encyclopedic knowledge of terrestrial planetary geology. He was the clean cut kid with the engineering degree, and "Top Gun" piloting skills that he acquired in the military. . Maggie and Patrick Collins were at opposite ends of the program's hierarchy.  She was the shy one. He was the born leader.
   Collins was shorter than the rest of the candidates, but he had earned the respect from the other candidates for his coolness under pressure and his ability to make others feel good about them. Maggie loved his company. She had thought that the other female candidates would be like sisters in this male-dominated field, but she was wrong. The women were competitive and saw her mental acuity as a threat to their success. The men weren't threatening and liked Maggie for gentleness, dedication and camaraderie.  The physical training was hard for such a fragile woman like Maggie. She had passed the physical requirements through sheer will. Brian was always there to cheer her on, and so did the other men.
    Her mother was so proud that she, her daughter would become an astronaut. She could only dream about it. She lived for Maggie's happiness. The physical hardships her daughter had overcome seemed to insure her placement in the program, but no one could have predicted the end of her career from claustrophobia. That smothering feeling she experienced in the tight confines of the simulator triggered the panic attack rendering her incapable of performing even the slightest movement. Maggie froze. Her heart raced. She felt the closeness of the walls of the simulator closing in on her.  She forced herself to move clawing her way through the hatch. She wrenched off her helmet as if there was no air in the suit. Pat was the first to help her as she trashed about hysterically. There was no doubt in her mind. She had washed out.
   5:28 A.M. Earth time Mission Control: The technicians were groggy from the exhaustive schedule that they had been keeping while speculating on the cause of the abrupt cease of transmissions from Haumea.  A violent rocking of the probe gathered from the last transmitted visuals raised speculation of a tectonic event. Perhaps a tremor or maybe something like an avalanche had occurred, but no seismic activity had been recorded in the last minutes of the probe’s data recordings. Others had suggested the remote possibility that a meteorite could had impacted the probe. The odds of this occurring were infinitesimally small, and besides, if it had been hit, it wouldn't cause the violent shaking back and forth that was clearly seen in the photographic record. Risky as it may have been, it was decided that the manned expeditionary ship Heracles would send a shuttle to inspect the cause of the Lander’s demise. Strangely enough, on this cold forbidden world, data recorded by the instruments found the presence of warm water.
    The colonization of space had been the goal of all the exploration programs created in the early 21st century. It was hoped that Mars, our nearest terrestrial neighbor, could be restored to an earthlike environment as it had been when our Sun was larger and Earth was more like Venus. As the Sun cooled so did the Earth. Mars, which had been warm like the Earth became cold and inhospitable to life. Could it be made hospitable to human life?
   The Moon had been an outpost serving as a manufacturing plant for spaceship production. Hopes were high that the Red Planet could be terraformed through a combination of biological manipulations and thermonuclear implosions at the planet’s Polar Regions which would in turn release the carbon dioxide into the thin Martian atmosphere. It would then be captured by cultured vegetation to create an oxygen rich atmosphere through a process of transpiration. The hopes of all the greatest minds on Earth were frustrated in their attempts to achieve this mammoth undertaking. They had not realized that the smaller mass of Mars was incapable of retaining an atmosphere as its gravitational pull was insufficient. The largest colony still existed on Mars, but it had still been inhospitable and home to the hardiest or most desperate humans emigrating from an ever growing population from Earth. The decision was made to seek earthlike planets outside our own solar system. The Argo project had been establish to seek these other worlds and develop outposts with mining operations to provide the water and fuel along the route.
   The exploratory spacecraft were extremely large ships named for the heroes of Jason’s Argo. They were the considered the battleships of space exploration. Their shuttles served as the reconnaissance craft. The shuttle was designated Hylas, named for the companion and servant of the hero Heracles, also known as Hercules.  Aboard the shuttle was Commander Pat Collins and pilot Matt Webb. They had just disengaged from the belly of the mother ship and headed towards the surface of that strange bean shaped dwarf planet, Haumea.  Every action was monitored by a vigilant orbiting crew. The greatest fear that their communication would be interrupted or even worst, lost during the descent was palpable on Heracles and at Mission Control. Hylas began the descent.
   It was so quiet aboard Hylas that Collins could hear his heart beat. The only other sound heard by both men was their breathing. As they lost contact momentary with the mother ship, Collins and Webb nervously waited for any signal. “We can hear you breathing loud and clear guys…your sensors are detecting some atmospheric conditions…can you give us some visuals?” The camera focused on the Haumean landscape. It was somewhat fuzzy at first but minor adjustments on the onboard computer system sharpened the pictures to reveal rocky structures interlaced with what appeared to be icy flows between them. Immediately the images were transmitted through the great distances of space and to the Earth. At Mission Control there was excitement and shouts from the engineers who made this possible. Maggie, always the quiet one, stared wide-eyed at her screen, thinking to herself, “good job Pat!”
   Thin wispy carbon dioxide clouds seem to race by the windows of the shuttle as if they, and not the shuttle, were in motion. In some spots the clouds became thicker and obscured the camera’s eye. Webb, the pilot, carefully released jets of gas from the retro rockets slowing the descent and steadying Hylas as the surface came into view. He would search for the perfect area in proximity to the probe, remembering the story he heard about the piloting of the first Moon landing. With little fuel left in the lunar module, Neil Armstrong, the first man to step onto a foreign celestial body, searched for a landing site. He realized that the assigned area was filled with rocky debris. He was running low on fuel and would have to abort the landing if he did not find a suitable place to land. With just fifteen seconds left of fuel, Armstrong landed on the Moon and averted what could have been the most tragic event in the history of early space travel. As the Hylas' commander, Webb would be the first man on Haumea.
   The probe was now in sight. Webb maneuvered the shuttle within 100 meters of the Lander. This was his moment. He radioed to Heracles declaring his intention to land. Collins was tense. His hands gripped the arms of his seat while he prayed that his companion was as good a pilot as he claimed to be. The commander noticed a small bead of sweat rolling down the side of his forehead as Webb methodically and smoothly positioned the craft nose up. They were now vertical. The view had changed from the ground to the heavens. The shuttle moved slowly in reverse, the landing gear engaged, and descent was quiet, interrupted only intermittently by the bursts of gas from the retros. The camera captured the approach to the planet’s surface. There was a slight rattle and then, a soft, dull thud. They had landed. Both men turned towards each other. Webb masked his sense of relief with a smirk and said: “Welcome to Haumea Commander Collins.”
Part II: On Haumea
    Collins unbuckled himself from his seat. He noticed the ease in moving about which would be much more arduous after landing on the Earth. The gravity on that much larger body would be sixteen times greater than on this dwarf planet. He knew that his movements would have to be slower and more deliberate lest he propel himself against the sides of the spacecraft or perilously towards some sharp immobile object on the planet.
   Webb was given the honor of being the first human to step upon Haumea. Collins soon followed, and the two men shook their clumsy gloved hands in mute celebration. It would be some time before the news had reached the Earth where landings had become commonplace and the celebrations would be taking place at few locations other than Mission Control. "That's one small step..." came the voice from Heracles. It was Chris Hanon imitating Neil Armstrong's speech on the Lunar landing with a southern drawl. "Okay...knock it off", was Webb's response. "Give us a lookie up here..." said Hanon, "...all I can see is Webb's big ol' head." Both men laughed as they both turned their helmets in the direction of the disabled Lander. With each sway of their helmets, the cameras and sensors inside revealed a panoramic view of a desolate landscape covered by powdery white ice crystals, incredibly low temperature readings, and elements of a thin atmosphere. "It's colder than Hell down here", hooted Webb. "More than minus fifty Kelvin*, that is, minus 434 degrees Fahrenheit for the rest of you." "Well y'all won't be getting sunburn...too far from the Sun", said Hanon. "We're thirty five AUs (Astronomical Unit - Distance from the Sun to the Earth) away..." said   Collins, "...and were at Perihelion!" (Perihelion: Orbit is Closest to the Sun)
   The crunch of each step reminded Collins of walking through the frost on the early December grass at home. He had grown up on a farm in Pennsylvania and was accustomed to working in darkness aided only by the light of his lantern. The light given off by his helmet gave him a 180 degree daylight   view of his surroundings. Of course, each day lasted only 3.9 hours on Haumea. The only natural light that he would get on that small planet was like dusk and just as fleeting. Within 15 minutes the two had reached the disabled probe and were shocked at what they discovered.  The Haumea probe had not malfunctioned, rattled by a seismic event, nor had it been struck by a meteorite as they found no evidence of impact glass. It was virtually torn apart!
   Debris scattered in all directions indicated a violent attack on the probe. Collins had noticed something very strange. The debris seemed to follow a straight line in one direction toward a crater which lay beneath the level on which the astronauts were standing. He also noticed large indentations in the frosty terrain which appeared as some sort of tracks made by a very large organism.  As they crept toward the gaping hole on the ground below they discovered that is was not a crater, but rather a tunnel. "Webb!" he shouted. "Come here... I'm getting readings of higher temperatures around the edges of this hole!" Webb edged closer. His helmet lights revealed a glistening, gelatinous material clinging to the tunnel's walls. A fearful look was frozen on the faces of the astronauts. Webb's ever present smiled disappeared as he whispered: "Hey Pat, could there really be life on this place?" "Affirmative" he replied.
   This was transmitted to Heracles and then relayed to Mission Control: "Heracles, this is Hylas...We have found the has been destroyed, repeat destroyed, by what we believe to be an alien life form...We have determined that a broken organic appendage found among the debris to be an arthropodic mandible, but in a gigantic proportion measuring approximately a meter in length..." There was a moment of complete silence at the control center, followed by whispers and turning heads.  It was incredulous to believe that an organism could be found on this dead, desolate body so far away, and its size would be larger than any species of arthropod found on the Earth. Maggie's thoughts were not scientific. They were instinctual. Pat Collins, she sensed, was in danger.
   "Hylas, this is Heracles" said Hanon, "We're gonna shut this mission down pardners...get your hides back to the shuttle and lift off ASAP... plan on a rendezvous in 3 hours and 42 minutes...gotta take a trip around the won't be hearing from me for about an hour and a half. ..I'll be keeping an eye out for y'all".  Webb's response was immediate. "Roger that Heracles...ready to blow this pop a piece of a monster in my hand and don't want to be around when he comes looking for it". The laughter from the men lightened the moment, but the fear was still present.
   Collins and Webb started toward their craft. Each step was an effort to avoid slipping on the frozen ground or leaping from the ground due to the low gravity.  Their bulky suits, designed to provide ease of movement and with plenty of insulation would offer no protection from a tear resulting from a fall on a jagged rock.  It would be catastrophic. The journey seemed like an eternity, even though they were only within 150 meters of their destination. When they had arrived at the midpoint on their return, a slight, but noticeable tremor was felt beneath them.  The tremor subsided for a few seconds, but then they sighted an immense dark form unburrowing itself from below the surface. It rose to a great height towering above the men. Its head was tentacled like a hydra but with a body formed more like a centipede.   "Don't move", whispered the commander, taking hold of Webb's arm. To their great relief the two were not noticed by this gargantuan insect. Soon the relief turned to terror as they realized that the creature was moving towards their only means of escape - Hylas!
Part III: The Encounter
   They felt so small and defenseless against this massive armor plated monster, which moved effortlessly within its own environment. Armaments were never even considered by the space program, unlike those early explorers on Earth who knew well to protect themselves against any unwelcome advances by indigenous peoples or any wild animal that they may encounter. They planners arrogantly dismissed the possibility of contact with extraterrestrial life within our solar systems, except some primitive plants or minute unicellular animals.
   Suddenly, the creature reared on its multiple hind legs forming an  S-shape. Its tentacled head began to caress the sides of the shuttle much like a blind person using their hands to "see" an object. Every moment seemed to be in slow motion. The anguish grew as the men wondered if this nightmare would culminate in the destruction of their only means of escape.
   Just as they had begun to despair their fate, a strange looking craft appeared from the horizon. I couldn't be Hanon in the mother ship. He was too far away.  No, this craft grew larger as it came close into view. Its appearance was more bug-like than any space craft that they could imagine.  The craft came close to the creature emitting a humming or droning sound. The excited creature, turned its tentacled head to investigate the sound, slowly moved away from the shuttle, and then, like a rattle snake, lunged at the flying object with all its might. In an instant the space craft darted away from the attack. The dumb beast went flying into the air overcoming the low gravity and was sent crashing into a field of jagged rocks. It seemed to be fatally injured, its jointed legs undulated up and down, and its antennae moving furiously. They noticed the jaws. One of the mandibles had been broken in its destruction of the Haumean probe. The creature gave a heave and lay motionless. Was it dead they thought?
   Webb and Collins were happy to have survived this attack. Would their luck hold out?  During the drama which unfolded before their eyes, they completely forgot about the alien spacecraft. A strange buzz was heard and the men spotted two insect-like humanoid forms emerging from behind an outcrop. They were small and fragile looking and moved easily in this low gravity environment. They hopped and floated in the thin atmosphere towards the great motionless mountain that had tried to attack them. They gesticulated with nodding heads and movements of their jointed arms.  The buzzing method of their communication was actually felt by the men. The spacemen approached the tentacled head in a businesslike manner. They did not seem to fear the giant. Some sort of instrument was used to extricate a small machine that gave off a low "humming" sound from the creature's head. It had been implanted by this strange race of explorers who used the creature as a "probe" to collect information about the planet just as the scientists on earth had developed robots to do the perform the same tasks.
    As Collins crept up to observe the spacemen who were returning to their craft he lost his footing and miraculously fell on soft ground. This attracted the attention of the small aliens who must have been terrified by the appearance of Collins in his monstrous looking space suit. One of them quickly raised a rod like device in a defensive posture, but the other quickly, but gently pushed the weapon down. He seemed to realize the importance of not over-reacting to an encounter. He nodded his head, buzzed some sort of message, and then the two returned to their spacecraft which soon disappeared beyond the horizon.
   Collins and Webb were relieved and resumed the trip to Hylas. Webb was the first on the planet and the first to depart. His trip up the ladder to the hatch was followed by his Commander. They closed the hatch and were soon seated and ready for departure. A sigh of relief was quickly interrupted by the sight of the monster racing towards them on the ship's monitors. Its head swayed back and forth, the tentacles probed the ground, and sensed the air like antennae. The undulations of its numerous jointed legs marched as if they were parading soldiers. Webb clicked a couple of  switches igniting  the roar of  an engine and followed by a thrust forward that propelled them back into their seats. They were breaking free of Haumea's grip but a slight shaking of the craft made them realize that the creature had grabbed a hold of the landing gear. Its grip on the spacecraft was released as the burning heat from the rocket's thrust caused the monster to recoil.
   Within minutes Hylas was in orbit. Heracles, like its mythological namesake was searching for its companion, but unlike the Heracles of Argo, this search was successful. "Hey good buddy...this chick wants its momma!", said Webb. A slow southern drawl responded, "...You two seemed to be havin' a real helluva good time...ready to come home?" Pat Collins gave a quick "You Betcha!" The rendezvous was completed and soon three jubilant men were chattering about the strange chain of events which unfolded. They had found life in the most inhospitable place, encountered a race of intelligent beings and had been spared an untimely death. Collins reflected on his good fortune, but was decidedly brief in his reporting. It would not be well received by the engineers of the Argo Program.
"Mission Control...this is Commander Patrick Collins aboard Heracles...We are leaving Haumea's orbit and returning to Pluto's outpost...we have determined that Haumea is neither hospitable nor desirable for future exploration...a full report on our recent mission will be completed for further review."
      The transmission was not received well back at Mission Control. There were so many unanswered questions. What was found on Haumea? What about the mandible of a creature that they had reported? Who had authorized Collins to curtail and abandon the mission that they had spent years in development. All of the engineers had an opinion. Many were fuming. One person didn't care about the mission anymore. Other worlds would be discovered and colonized. Maggie's fears were over for the present now that the men were safe.


Monday, June 13, 2016

The Butcher's Wife - by T.R.Hart

The Butcher's Wife - by T.R.Hart

Main Characters:

Ilya (Elijah) - a Russian soldier returning to   from the war.
Ivan (John) Podgorny - The Butcher
Antonina Podgorny- The Butcher's Wife (Nina)
Aleksey Kozlov - drunken father of Nina.
Olga - the Cook
Masha (Maria) - the Housekeeper
Babushka - "Grandmother"                     

Russia: November 1905
   A light snow began to fall as the sun began its descent beyond the row of pine trees which lined the road ahead. The young soldier was returning from war. His hope of finding an Inn for the night waned with the sunset, and his thoughts turned to finding firewood and shelter for himself and his horse. 'Don't worry Misha my friend; he whispered into the horse's ear 'I will take care of you, as you have saved my life more than once.' He felt Misha's breath warming his hands as he gave him some of the grain that he had been given on his departure from his cavalry regiment for the return home. 'I need to look for some wood Misha. I will be back soon.'

   Ilya picked some dry pine branches and started a small fire. He warmed himself briefly before taking a small improvised torch to gather more branches. It was not long before he had found plenty of wood to feed his growing fire. A downed tree supplied large branches that would sustain him throughout the night. He huddled close to the flames and opened his greatcoat to warm himself. Soon hunger gnawed at his stomach adding to his melancholy.

   Then Ilya spied a rabbit nearby the fire. He raised his rifle slowly. The rabbit sniffed the air and turned its ears as if it had heard the click of the rifle's hammer being pulled back. 'Please forgive me little one,' he thought as he took aim.  A sudden "Crack!" filled the night sky, and then quiet. The 
deed had been done.

   'Who's out there?' came a shout from behind a cluster of fir trees. It was the voice of an old woman. She repeated 'who's out there?' The young man detected fear in the woman's voice. 'I am a soldier returning from the War!' he assured her, 'I mean you no harm.' 'Stay where you are. I'll come to you,' she replied. Ilya petted Misha and held the rabbit in his other hand. Within seconds he was presented by the comical sight of an old woman, a Babuska, holding an old rusty musket tightly in her gnarled hands.

   She wore a red kerchief on her head. Her white hair was pulled tightly back into a bun giving her round red face the appearance of a ripe apple. Ilya could not repress his laughter at the sight of her. 'Please Babuska,' the Russian word for "Grandmother", 'please join me for a humble meal.' She put down the musket, laughed, and said: 'I live close by. Bring the rabbit,'s too cold to be outside tonight!

    The two talked and laughed as they made their way to Babushka's tiny cottage. Misha was put into a small stable shared by a cow, a few chickens, and a pregnant cat. Ilya was overjoyed at the change in his fortune. He shook his greatcoat free of the accumulated snow and prepared the rabbit for the fire. Babushka brought a large bowl of potato and cabbage soup and two hard-boiled eggs served with a loaf of black bread baked that afternoon. Ilya controlled his desire to devour the meal as his hunger was so great that he feared he would sicken himself. The Rabbit was large enough for the both of them. The old woman said that she rarely had meat to eat, but her home was well stocked with fruits and vegetables which she had cooked and placed in jars in preparation for the long, cold Russian winter.

  'Where is your home boy?' asked the Babushka. "Velsk", he replied, 'Do you know the town Grandmother?'  She uttered a slight laugh while putting another ladleful of soup into his empty bowl. 'Yes, yes, I know it very well boy,' she replied. 'I will never forget Velsk nor what happened there so many years ago.' Ilya thought to himself:' It is such a small town...nothing ever happens in Velsk.' The Babushka gazed at the fire as if it were a portal to another time. 'What happened in Velsk?' he asked. 'There are things that go on in this world that cannot be explained...there are devils, demons and restless spirits in search of redemption and retribution.' Ilya smiled and said, 'Surely you don't believe these things Grandmother, we live in a modern world free of superstition.' The Babuska stared into the flames and replied, 'What I will tell you I have witnessed it with my own eyes. You can believe what I say or you can think me an old fool, but there were many now dead who witnessed the same thing. You will hear my story, Boy?' 'Yes, yes, go on Grandmother, I want to hear it,' he replied wiping his mouth.

Here begins Babuska's narrative:

   There was a Butcher's wife in Velsk who was accused of murdering her husband. Antonina Podgorny was the young wife of Ivan Podgorny, the town butcher. She was the eldest daughter of Aleksey Kozlov, a local dairy farmer in Velsk. Having been widowed some years ago, Kozlov was left with several young children. He had a reputation for laziness and drinking and though his children labored on the farm, his mismanagement of affairs and misuse of any small profit was wasted on drink. Seldom did he arise from his bed before noon as his nights were spent visiting the local tavern in search of an easy opportunity, or the generosity of those whose well intended donations were squandered on bottles of vodka well hidden by Aleksey in his ragged coat. It was on one of these nights that the fateful meeting occurred.

   As was his usual custom, Aleksey Kozlov was drunk and in need of  money. He bemoaned his circumstances, a pitiful widower deprived of a connubial companion, as his wife had died, some say she from exhaustion and exasperated at her husband's lack of industry. 'Oh', he wailed, 'As God has given me many children he has thought it prudent to take their mother from us...and with so many daughters, what man would consider marriage without a proper dowry? Is it a sin to be a poor man's daughter?' A voice was heard from one of the darkened corners: 'There is a good man in this world that would relieve you from your burden Aleksey Koslov...and in doing so, save himself from a lonely existence.' Kozlov, a clever fox that he was, struck a match and lit a candle on the table which illuminated the pitiful image of a large bearded man with a heavy face and deep set grey eyes. The man's hands resembled large hams, the result of many years of hard work. It was Ivan Podgorny, the town's only butcher.

   Ivan had seen Antonia Kozlov, known as "Nina", at the marketplace. He would buy animals for slaughter, or sold his services to butcher for the merchants, who would then sell varieties of cooked meat at their food stands. He noticed the industrious young woman selling milk and butter twice each week at the market. She was a young girl not quite nineteen, polite and well proportioned, with golden brown hair and a pleasant round face with a radiant smile and deep blue eyes that stirred something within Ivan that he had never felt before. It was the desire to love and to be loved. Ivan realized the opportunity had come before him in the guise of a worthless fool seeking personal gain for his daughter's hand in marriage. He thought to himself: 'It is this fox whom I will outfox!'

   It was well known that the children of Aleksey Kozlov were impoverished and suffered greatly from malnutrition. Their meals consisted of black bread, cheese, and potato soup with cabbage. Most of the milk and eggs were sold to keep a roof over their heads. Often the money was appropriated by their lecherous father who spent it on cheap liquor. 'You are a good man, Aleksey Kozlov, but poor' said Ivan Podgorny. 'I am a wealthy man but poor in spirit as I have no wife. Perhaps we two good men can help one another to find wealth and happiness?' Thinking that he had come upon a simpleton, Kozlov made a proposition. 'Ah, Mr. Podgorny, I wish that I could find a suitable husband for my Ninotchka, but she is like a mother to my poor children. I am unable to work as I have a condition that prohibits me from the physical labor that farming demands. My sons are too young and have not the strength as they have but little meat to eat.' Ivan played along with the Fox and said: 'For a suitable wife I would have plenty of meat for her family and for my dear father the medicine to help ease his suffering." Aleksey Kozlov and Ivan drank to each other's health. There would be a wedding between Antonina Kozlov and Ivan Podgorny. The banns of matrimony were read in the church on the following Sunday.

   The wedding was an elaborate affair. No expense was too great for Ivan Podgorny's wedding. The wine flowed like water and the abundance of food was so great that the children unaccustomed to consuming such a large quantity became sick. Nina's performance of a happy bride was greater than any actress who ever appeared on stage. Who was this man that she was marrying? Would she learn to love this man well past his youth whom she found physically repulsive? Her Father's thoughts were much simpler. He was to drink that day until he passed out. As it turned out, his bargain would soon cost him his life.

   Nina came to live at the home of her husband after the pretense of a brief honeymoon, which was in reality, a business trip. There were two servants: a housekeeper named Masha, and Olga, the cook. They were women of the lowest class and of questionable character. Both of them had treated her with deference but noticed it had turned to contempt when her husband paraded his young wife in all his newly bought finery to the town. She did not feel that he loved her. She was a mere possession of Ivan's no different from the thoroughbred horse that pulled their carriage. Her life had become a terrifying ordeal as she had begun to realize the sort of man whom she married. His kindness waned and his miserliness grew with every day that passed.

   Aleksey Kozlov had not prospered from his bargain. As was his way he begged Ivan for more money to squander on his wasteful ways. Irritated by this persistent annoyance and threat to his personal fortune, Ivan would buy bottles of liquor from dubious sources. The result was to be the death of Aleksey Kozlov . Nina's exhortations to resist the demands of her father were ignored by her husband. Knowing well that drinking would hasten his demise; he encouraged Kozlov to drink with him. One night, following a drunken episode, Aleksey staggered out of the house into the cold December weather. He was found frozen lying in the road leading to his home the next day, the empty bottle in his grasp.

   Nina's brothers and sisters fared no better. Ivan had given them meat that was not fit for the dogs he had kept to guard his house. If a man could thrive on fat and gristle then they would have eaten like royalty. His generosity toward his brothers and sisters-in-law was conspicuously absent. He had treated them with contempt, finding them employment as servants far from their sister's company. One brother had found himself so severely mistreated that he ran away to join the army. The others fared much worse... Nina's little sister had suffered from her cruel mistress' neglect, soon fell ill and died within a week. Nina was left alone in the world.

   The young bride's  sorrow turned to hatred for the man who promised to love her. His mere presence filled her with quiet rage. She had often thought to herself that she would either take her own life, or his, or both, to end this purgatory which she endured. She had hoped for a loving marriage to a boy she had known before the war with the Japanese. The War had been a disaster for the Russian people. The Russian fleet was virtually annihilated and along with it, the boy she had hoped to marry. Young women had difficulty  finding suitable husbands to marry in those awful  times. War had always placed more hardships on the peasantry already burdened with hunger and debt despite all their labors. Ivan sought out desperate women to spend his nights with and he began to drink excessively . A pattern of drunkenness, arguments, and abuse developed between the unhappy couple. The business which had been so successful started to fail. Nina was forced to sell her expensive clothes for a pittance in order to survive. She would cry herself to sleep each night, bolting the bedroom door, and hiding beneath the covers as Ivan would stumble into the house, bang on the door and scream until he fell into a drunken slumber. It was on a cold December night that the incident occurred in Ivan Podgorny's home that would change Nina's life forever.

   It was during the twelve days between Christmas and the Epiphany when our Lord Jesus Christ was visited by the Three Kings that Ivan was in his inebriated state. Whether it was to celebrate the prosperity of his business due to the holidays, or to forget his troubles at home one can only guess, but it was a  fact that he was murdered in his own kitchen that night and the Constable was confronted by a bloody Nina screaming hysterically holding a meat cleaver in her hand.
   Nina Podgorny was arrested that night and taken to the jail amidst an entire village of curious onlookers. The poor girl was placed in a stinking cell filled with low-born women of ill repute who mocked her and asked her why she "did it". She kept to herself and suffered in silence while she waited for a trial that she knew would end in her conviction. Nina quietly protested her innocence and did  not fear death, but on the contrary, she welcomed it. 'Perhaps,' she thought, 'it would be better to be hanged and bear the pain for a short time than to have spent a lifetime married to an evil man for many years.'

   The gossip among the villagers was at a fevered pitch between those who believed that Nina Podgorny planned her husband's murder, and of those who believed that Ivan had driven his wife to do it. Drunken wastrels who abused their wives began to fear for their lives. It seemed that the drinking and abusing seemed to ebb lest they suffer the same fate at the hands from their spouses while they slept. Then, there were those who believed that Nina had a young lover who conspired with her to kill Ivan Podgorny. It did not matter what side you were on. The truth was that no one in the town liked Ivan. There were few who lamented his demise.

   It would be in the middle of March sometimes called the "Ides of March" that the trial would begin for the murder of Ivan Podgorny. A magistrate was summoned to Yeslk to preside over the trial, the town being too small to have a permanent government official to conduct judicial "businesses." Disputes were usually handled by the town's Holy Fathers conducting the morality dictated by our almighty Lord,... but, murders were a different matter altogether. So, as I have said, ' a magistrate was to come to Yelsk.'

   I do not recall the name of the magistrate. It was too many years ago, but no one could ever forget his appearance. Although he was of middle height, he was a very fat man with a red face and a nose of the size and appearance of a small red fruit. In fact when he talked it almost looked like he was eating a red plum! His eyes were small like a pig (the Inn Keeper remarked that he ate like one too!) and dull looking pale blue eyes revealing his lack of intelligence. I am afraid that our first impressions of the magistrate were not favorable. As my story reveals, it would only get worse.
The narrative paused here as it was late into the night and sleep was beginning to overtake both Ilya, and the Babuska.

The Trial of Nina Podgorny for the murder of her husband Ivan Podgorny:

   A heavy snow fell as the Babuska and Ilya slept. The fire was beginning to burn out when the young man rose and put a log into the flames. "Grandmother" he said, ' I will bring in more wood for you as the snow has fallen too deep throughout the night for you to walk.' The Babuska smiled as she rolled out of bed, freshened up and began to form dough into loaves of bread ready for the oven. 'Cow needs milking Boy...if you know how' she clucked, 'and, the eggs to be gathered.' Ilya assured the woman that he was  raised on a farm and knew how to milk a cow and to take care of the hens". He made his way to the stable, patted his horse on the head and asked:    ' Misha, my brother, did you have a good night?' He threw some oats into the trough and began to milk the cow while Misha fed. The young man finished all of the Babuska's chores and was rewarded with a hearty breakfast of eggs, salted ham, and delicious black bread fresh from the oven.

   'Grandmother, tell me more about the trial of Nina Podgorny ,' he begged. 'Where did I leave off?' she asked. 'You were telling me about the Magistrate, and how things would get worse Grandmother.'  The Babuska let out a hearty laugh revealing the gaps in her teeth and clapped her hands together. 'The Turnip,' she said of the Magistrate, 'we all thought that he was as smart as a turnip... he probably bought his appointment.' She kept one eye on loaves in the fireplace and  said: "Now, I will get back to my story.."

   As the Babushka stated before, the trial began on the 15th of March. The snow was still high but the Sun became stronger with every lengthening day. Navigating the streets was still difficult due to the melting, the mud and the manure. The town's meeting house became an improvised  courtroom. Efforts were made by the local artisans to give the meeting room the appearance of a real courtroom. The Judge's bench was built so high that the "Turnip" had difficulty climbing the stairs. The witness stand stood just below and to the right of "his honor". The blacksmith was given the honor of constructing the accused's keep within the center of the room. Mrs. Podgorny was to be put into the wrought iron cubicle standing 2 meters in height (which towered over the defendant's head), and a padlock was fitted through the hasp and staple to prevent escape, or perhaps, rescue by the supposed lover of Mrs. Podgorny. With all of the excitement that went on that day, they neglected to  provide a chair for Nina to sit upon.

   The Magistrate entered the courtroom a half hour later than the witnesses, defendant, and bailiff, looking well-fed, with a bright red nose as an indication that he had partaken of strong spirits that very morning (according to all who in attendance). I mentioned his difficulty in climbing the stairs leading to the bench. After what seemed an eternity, the charges were read by the bailiff and the trial began with the testimony of the first witness, the town's constable:

   The Constable was led to the witness stand, swore to tell the truth, and sat facing the prosecutor; a tall thin man with a balding head, and a commanding deep voice that demanded attention when he spoke. 'Constable, can you describe to the court the events that took place the night Ivan Podgorny was murdered?' The Constable scratched his bearded chin, looked skyward and closed his eyes as he recollected the night in question. He began his testimony: ' I was performing my duties that night when I came upon the victim in a drunken state, not unusual, and as usual, he was cursing his decision to marry ... I escorted him to the front door and began to resume my night watch. Several minutes later I heard Mr. Podgorny hollering extremely loud and then the crash of the door at the rear of the house...I heard a woman shriek...and, when I entered, I came upon a hysterical Mrs. Podgorny standing over the body of her husband with a meat cleaver in her hand.' His elaboration of the scene began to irritate the prosecutor who then interrupted his testimony with a "Thank You" and a "That is all..."

   The next witness was a villager who had befriended Masha, the Podgorny's housekeeper. Masha had complained to her that Ivan Podgorny was a miserly employer who exacted more labor from his servants than the meager compensation that they received. Her testimony began to ramble on about Olga, the cook's suspicions "that the pretty young wife had a lover, and that they conspired to kill Ivan and take his money."  'Madam,' inquired the prosecutor now more irritable than ever, 'can you substantiate these claims for a motive to murder?' The silly woman didn't understand the words "substantiate" nor "motive" and stared at him with a stupid look. She replied angrily, 'No! I can't prove it, but God knows she killed 'im!'

   The third witness was hardly recognizable in the courtroom until one keen observer declared that the clean shaven man with slicked back grizzled hair was indeed "Old Yakmanov", the town drunk. He worked around the town doing odd jobs, but his time was mostly spent in search of a patron who would keep him in an inebriated state. He looked ridiculous outfitted in a  borrowed oversized suit. He alone lamented the loss of his benefactor, Ivan Podgorny.  The rewards for being a listening ear had become particularly advantageous for Yakmanov. His portrayal of  Ivan as generous and benevolent had caused considerable consternation from the crowd of curious spectators who actually knew the man.

   Masha, the housekeeper was questioned by the prosecutor. She was asked to recall the events of the day of the murder and stated: ' It was like any other day...I clean the house...Mr. Podgorny is away at his business!' When asked about the whereabouts of Mrs. Podgorny that day, Masha became visibly nervous and snapped back: " I am not her keeper ... I keep her house and mind my own business!" Masha had stepped down from the  witness stand before the prosecutor could excuse her. It was the next witness' testimony which would be the most damning.

   Olga was the Podgorny's cook. She was a tough, vile woman (some said she had a face like a monkey) who came to work for the Podgornys following the death of her husband. Some believed that he willed himself to death in order to escape her shrewish behavior. His death had left her in desperate finances. Masha and Nina were mouse-like in the presence of Ivan Podgorny's outbursts, but Olga would have none of it. As Ivan's life became more dissolute, he began to rely more on the advice of his strong willed cook than on his own wife's counsel. Olga ran the household with an iron hand causing her mistress to avoid an encounter with the woman. The kitchen became Olga's lair. Much of the information concerning the unhappy marital state of the Podgorny's had originated with Olga. There were few unwilling listeners to the latest gossip emanating from Olga's mouth, which included the story of the alleged young lover of Nina. Under oath she had stated: 'Things started to disappear around the house...I told my master about the thefts and that I suspected a young man had come to visit the Mistress...well, he flew into a rage!.., but... I managed to calm him down you see...'

   A parade of witnesses gave testimony in regards to the deceased which was usually defamatory, while that of the defendant was either sympathetic or spurious. The sole witness who testified in favor of Nina Podgorny was the Baker's servant girl who spent much time with the defendant at the market before her marriage to the butcher. She depicted Nina as a "good and kindly woman, gentle, and incapable of any treachery."

   The defendant was interrogated by the prosecution. She denied killing her husband and recalled the night of the murder. " I was reading in my bed when I heard yelling and screams from downstairs... I hurried down the stairs to the kitchen where I found my husband lying on the floor in a pool of blood...I was frantic and pulled a meat cleaver from his head..I screamed for help and that is when I was confronted by the Constable who entered through the back door which was left open and blown by the wind." Realizing that her pleas and protestations were falling on deaf ears, Nina Podgorny sighed, lowered her head, and once again resigned herself to her fate.

   The Magistrate, or "the Turnip" as we called him, breathed deeply, gave a bored look, and pronounced sentence on the poor wretched woman: 'The court finds the defendant Nina Podgorny guilty of the murder of her husband Ivan Podgorny, for which she will suffer the penalty of death by hanging' He adjourned the court while checking his pocket watch as the dinner hour was rapidly approaching.

   Babushka enjoyed the company of the young soldier, so, in order to extend his visit, she said: 'I am an old woman and tire easily... I will rest now and finish my story after our supper.'

The Butcher's Corpse Appears

   Strong winds blew throughout the day compelling Ilya to clear mounting snowdrifts that began to deposit in front of the door and windows of the cottage. Several times he went out into the biting wind while the Babushka rested. She rose from her bed to find the young soldier huddled close to the fire sipping a steaming cup of tea. "I will reward you boy, for your labors with a hot, hearty meal", she said wiping the icy remnants off of his greatcoat. "Thank you Grandmother", he responded, "but...please do not forget your promise to finish your story."

   They sat down to a leisurely meal while Ilya recounted news of the outside world, the war, and his hope for a new Russia. There was a childlike excitement in his voice as he spoke of the wonderful new discoveries in Science and Technology. The Babuska listened attentively with a broad smile that wrinkled her appled cheeks. Soon the sun began to set requiring the need to illuminate the room. She lit the lamp and raised the wick so that the room brightened and cast long shadows of the two on the wall. Outside the wind howled and wailed. 'It was about this time of the day,' she said in a loud whisper, 'that an icy wind began to blow outside the courthouse on the day  Nina Podgorny was sentenced to hang. Those peering through the windows of the crowded room were forced to return home by the  violent gales blowing them about in the streets.' She turned her face toward the fire, paused for a moment and said: ' all that happened next was unbelievable...but true!'

   The Babushka resumed her narrative telling the young soldier that all the villagers in the courtroom waited impatiently for a lull in the storm in order to make their escape home. Suddenly, they were all startled by a pounding at the door. It became so loud that the Magistrate, already in a foul mood as his dinner was being delayed, shouted ' What fool is making such a racket?...Open the door and bring him to me!' The bailiff jumped to attention and made his way toward the back of the room pushing through the occupants with one hand and unlocking it with the other. His patience was tested to the limit as the pounding continued. He shouted 'How dare you act like a madman!' The door burst open knocking him to the ground. A blast of air blew out the lamps leaving the villagers fumbling about in the dark. Someone scurried about relighting the lamps. It was then that a horrifying specter was revealed by the  illumination..."It", the corpse of Ivan Podgorny!'

   Those persons in close proximity recoiled at the terrifying sight in their midst. The powerful frame of the deceased seemed to lurch forward as it made its way toward the front of the room. The malignant expression on its face was made more horrible to behold by eyeless sockets and a gaping wound extending from the forehead to the crown of the head. The stench of filth and decomposition filled the air. Panicked onlookers rushed towards the door only to hear it slam shut as if it had been ordered to do so. The bailiff, having regained his senses, thrust the key into the lock but was unable to open it.

   The courtroom was silent except for the sound of footsteps as "It" walked heavily on the wooden floor towards the witness stand and bench. The Magistrate, or "the turnip" forgot his hunger pangs as the onset of fear caused him to seek refuge beneath his honor's bench. "It" paused, looked around the room and spoke in a voice, as from within a vault, proclaimed from the open but immobile mouth: " I seek justice for my murder..the murder of Ivan Podgorny!"

   The corpse slowly turned toward the accusers. The putrefied face terrified the Constable whose bravado had changed from pride to cowardice  as he attempted to escape as the Magistrate had done. He attempted to slink away unnoticed into the throng of spectators but was stopped by the iron grasp of a slimy greenish black hand on the shoulder of his greatcoat. 'How long did it take for you to investigate the scene of my murder?...and the back door of the kitchen was open?' demanded the corpse of Ivan Podgorny. ' was open!'  The face of the specter contorted with pain as it screamed '..and did you not escort me to my front door?'  The Constable could not speak as he was frozen with fear. 'My wife was found with meat cleaver in hand, pulled from my split skull, straddling my dead body with the back door open to the wind and cold!..You never sought the real murderer! Your time was spent shooting stray dogs and selling their meat to me, you miserable wretch!'  "It" picked the Constable up above its head and flung him hurtling against the wall creating a loud thud.

   Masha the housekeeper and Olga, the cook, who had given the most damaging testimony during the trial were huddled together in anticipation of the wrath of the murdered man. A malodorous smell rose with each step the corpse took as it moved closer to the women. 'You coveted my stole from me, and bore false witness against my wife!..It was you alone Olga who was entrusted the key to the back entry!' As the words came spewing forth, a vile mucus emanated from the mouth. A pool of filth landed on Masha's dress. She was overcome by the odor and began to vomit violently, convulsed  and then fainted on the floor. Olga, unlike her meek accomplice, showed no fear of her former Master, and started to taunt the deceased. 'You... you were a beast, not a connived, you cheated and treated us like the animals you slaughtered...yes, we stole from you, and your cheating young wife.' The corpse of Ivan Podgorny reached for Olga but, she was quick and lashed out once again: 'Yes it was I who split your miserable skull and I would do it again if I had the chance!' Seeking their opportunity to avoid further remonstrations from "It". The Constable and Bailiff seized Olga and led her away. Someone rushed over to Masha, who was lying still on the floor and shouted: 'She's dead!'

   The horror abated as the corpse of Ivan Podgorny turned toward the small figure enclosed in the cage. The expression on its face was now one of sadness and remorse. 'Nina Podgorny, in life you were my spouse...I showed you cruelty instead of  kindness...I, a manifestation of my own evil ways, abused you and now  beg your forgiveness.' Nina responded with a nod of the head as affirmation. Ivan Podgorny had come to seek absolution as well as retribution. His soul had sought redemption from the purgatory earned from an  avaricious life. Nina bade him farewell as the corpse made its return to his grave. The corpse sighed as it shuffled  towards the door. It opened as if summoned to do so and Ivan Podgorny's corpse disappeared into the  darkness never to be seen from again.

   'Well boy,' said the Babuska, 'Olga never stopped laughing. She was sent to the mental asylum near Yeslk where she died.'  Ilya begged her to tell him about Nina's fate. 'Well,' she said, 'Nina was acquitted,. and, the young lover... was her brother who had deserted the army in order to rescue his sister...It was said that she sold everything and left for America...that is all I know.'

   The rays of the sun melted enough of the snow so that Ilya could make his way back home. He bade the Babuska goodbye with the promise of visiting her again someday. Just outside of the town of Yelsk he passed a cemetery overgrown from neglect.  There he saw an empty vault with the lid broken on the ground beside it. The name engraved upon it was "Ivan Podgorny". 

The End