| This is the 279th story of Our Life Logs |
I did not come into a perfectly happy world upon my birth in 1883. My mother had always blamed my father for disappearing into his dirty business as a horseman, leaving her with five (and eventually six) children all alone in a small village in southwestern Russia. And while that may have been true and just, I myself found happiness in those who would shape my heart.
My grandmother, a typical, Russian village lady, was very involved in my life. She was a religious old lady, so Sundays were special for her, and later for me as well. Once a week, Grandmother would dress me in a long, white linen shirt, and would make me polish my boots before the two of us paraded to our small Orthodox church, a small village church with blue domes.
As we kept walking, I asked questions—many of which my grandmother most likely never knew the answers. I asked why the priest was always mumbling. My grandmother would just raise her eyebrows and explain that the priest read the holy book in the heritage Slavic language and that I just couldn’t understand it. Then I would always ask her, “Who is God, really?” She could never clearly explain. While I was growing up, this question was stuck somewhere at the bottom of my being.
It wasn’t until years later that the answer presented itself.
I was 24 years old on that particular Easter morning. I got up earlier than usual. The house was peaceful and silent, yet I couldn’t sleep any longer. Indescribable excitement filled my body and heart. I was not as religious as my grandmother so I couldn’t blame my buzz on the Easter day events. Still, almost physically sensing within my flesh, I knew that something grand would happen that day.
Let me get this straight for you, my friend: I was a tall, handsome young man who hadn’t yet experienced life in its fullest, and at that point, church was the last thing on my mind. I was more prepared to be taught by life itself. Although, I was not ready to become like my dad, I was not against adding some spark of adventure into my daily routine.
The spark that I desired didn’t hesitate to arrive. Her name was Tatyana Dolgorukov.
I knew every girl in the village, and more from around the province, yet, when I saw her that Easter morning at church, I realized I never really knew a woman. She was standing in the crowd of people, holding a thin candle. Sunshine was sliding down her long blond hair and was getting lost in her eyes that were omitted in prayer. The girl looked keen, grave, and thin. She was dressed in a simple light grey cotton dress. Her hair was simply braided and covered for the church service. However, something in her appearance was unusual. Her whole look expressed nobleness and dignity.
As the service ended, I started looking for her in the crowd. I met her eyes once as she was standing and talking to people, but I was confident that she didn’t put any meaning into that cross of glances. Once she turned, I hid my eyes and realized that I would never dare to go and talk to a girl like her. And to underline this decision, I later found out that she was the niece of our governor, just visiting her uncle that morning.
• • •
Though we had both gone our separate ways home, the spark that pierced the lining of my skin didn’t calm down; on the contrary, it became my new coating. I thought about her when I went to sleep when I woke up, and each second in-between until the day we finally met.
One of my duties at work was to train and ride expensive breeds of horses for our governor. The job was something I was willing to do even for no pay. I understood those animals, and they easily obeyed me. My employer was stunned with how easy I deal with untrained stallions, and later on, started to trust me with purchasing and selling his horses. Perhaps because I was so close to one of my employer’s biggest interests, I had a chance to meet my newest adventure.
She had never ridden horses before, just scared of getting to know them up close. Until that spring day when her uncle strongly recommended to her to start learning to ride because it was such a shame for a girl from a decent family to not know how to ride in a saddle. She argued, yet obeyed. She was introduced to me and handed under my teaching. When I saw her coming closer to the stable one spring morning, my heart just squeezed and, I swear, stopped beating for just a moment. She was stunning, yet simple. It was painless to teach her to ride, as she trusted me.
While we spent afternoons in the company of each other, the spark in between us grew, until in 1908 we got married in the same small church with the blue domes. My bride was covered in white, her embroidered dress and soft, thin veil that stood between us. I, however, wore the only formal suit I had; yet, it didn’t matter. All that mattered at that moment was her, Tatyana, who had eyes filled with love and trust towards me.
That day, in addition to saying words of love and promises, I said another thing to her: “I will never break your trust. Once, you trusted me with teaching you how to ride horses; now, you trust me your life. It is the grandest thing I have ever held in my hands.” She nodded, and I saw that she believed me.
Then World War I came. Nicholas II gave an order to mobilize the Russian army, and on August 1, 1914, my countrymen were involved. I couldn’t believe that I, a simple guy from a village far from Saint-Petersburg, would have to go and fight for the entire country. By then, Tatyana and I were married for six years and already had two small children. As I was packing, saying farewells, and giving advice to my family, the years of happiness were blinking in front of my eyes. I comforted Tatyana who was scared and promised her I’d come back.
Of course, that was easier said than done.
War tried teaching me to fight without thought, insisting that the ones we were killing were just enemies, not just victims of political games. It was an experience of daily routines in trenches where we ate, slept, talked, and shared stories as we hid our fear. Each day, I’d say to the heavens, “Thank you that it wasn’t me who got killed today.”
All the dead bodies on fields, sounds of weapons and guns, dust on boots and faces would have no end if it weren’t for the day when I lost my troop in the forest and was captured by German soldiers.
As it was, I was thrown into a working camp with conditions that were inhumane. Each passing day, I thought of my family, of my beloved Tatyana, though her memory began to blur as the time between us grew. The urgency of escaping became stronger the longer we spent there.
One day, I overheard two Jewish men who were also held captive talking in broken Russian. They spoke of their home country, parents, and hopes to get back to studying as soon as the war is over. I told them about my wife, two children, and about my plan of escaping the camp, an idea I’d be forming since I’d been captured.
Even though they trusted me and wanted to be free as soon as possible, they were scared. I understood that. But what did we have to lose? We could either risk it all or die from hunger and hard work. In the end, we risked it.
We escaped at night before dawn and found ourselves in the middle of a deep forest without any sense of direction. We followed the stars as we walked through the forest, trying not to make a sound. I thought of my family, of Tatyana’s laugh, and in between the leading stars, I saw the smiling faces of my kids. Amazing trust, warmth, and confidence filled my heart. I had to get back to them. I had to keep my promise.
We experienced all the fear of danger and chasing by German officers that was possible, always on the run, night and day, hiding within the bushes. Days went by like this until we reached England. I came back home in September 1915, on a hot and dry, Indian summer day. Life seemed as crisp and as easy as the air that day, even though the war was still going, my part there was over.
I had mixed feelings about going home. I couldn’t wait to see my family, look into my wife’s eyes, and hug my children. But on the other hand, I was scared. I was scared that they would not accept the changes that happened in my life.
Tatyana didn’t recognize me first. I was as skinny and dirty as a stray dog, and I had a long beard that stood in between us. She looked into my eyes, dropped the clothing that she was folding and fell into my arms. I stroked her hair, kissed her sunken cheeks, and then after the joy of my presence calmed down a little, I told her and my children about the journey I made, people I met, and the new faith I was carrying in my heart. I skipped awfully tragic details about the war. I skipped parts about the cruelty that was ruled the camp. I didn’t want her to know. All I meant to say is that what I received at the end made it all worth it.
In Tatyana’s simple, yet noble posture, I began to learn the answer to the question I had asked many, many years ago. As my wife curled the corners of her lips and as her eyes wet, my heart pounded the words, “Who is God, really?” And for the first time, I realized who God was all along. For I was staring at hope.
My wife did not deny the new version of me. And just as well, she did not deny the old. I think the peace that came into my heart fulfilled hers, and the rest of our adventure together began.
This is the story of Alexander-Kirill Pavlov
Alexander-Kirill lived a long and fulfilled live after World War I ended until he passed of old age on May 12, 1970. As a young adult, Alexander fell in love with the niece of his village’s governor. Despite his social class, she returned the same love. After years of happy marriage, Alexander was drafted to serve in World War II, tearing him away from his family. Through it all, he had the steadfast love of his wife who supported him no matter the cost.
Alexander had four children who have shared the story of their dad with their own children, and then with Our Life Logs.
This story first touched our hearts on February 4, 2019.