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Beyond the Western
The Davidof Dilemma
Tom Sheehan

Beyond the Western

Yuri Stanilaf Davidof, a personable teacher of the old language, enamored of pirates and the seas they sailed on as was his father before him, heard the sounds of the sea calling to him on dark nights, alert or in dreams. Passages in his mind knew a sail cutting the wind in half, the creaking of a yardarm, or the metronomic rattling of an anchor chain as the sea lent music to its swing. Those vibrations as well as battles that imaginative pirates waged set loose in his blood a rhythm as serious as a heartbeat.

On slow days in the quiet mountain village of Kmiekev, he counted on that heartbeat. Yet as deep as any desire may go, Davidof knew he was destined to save his own village rather than realize any dream he might have harbored.

The young teacher, whose father had taught the same course for young students headed toward higher learning, leaned against the chalkboard of the small schoolroom. The village looked west where, with the swells and the moon at midnight, a pirate’s prize might sway like a silver buoy in the tide change. Pictures rushed through his mind. Sails furled on spars, bones of masts and yardarms shone with mist, and a hull snug with gold and perfumes from the east made for perfect ballast. Salt and pepper and wild spices waiting particular tastes, and honeys rich as the gold itself, carried the air with a separate imagination. Booty would include cured furs waiting shoulders to adorn, leathers waiting unshod feet, and silks set aside for women of his other dreams.

From high in the Ural foothills, his intense gaze nightly directed itself out the single window, and across the distance holding the Ob, Yenisey and Lena rivers, to the sea. There the pirates he dreamed of raided and exploited the Khabaronsky Krai and the Kamchatka Peninsula from their

hide-out ports in the Kuril Islands. With strikes as if from nowhere they battled richly-laden ships to a standstill and took their plunder. Ships’ captains, first mates, and penny ante tycoon passengers were set adrift. Beautiful women, at a whim, were kidnapped and forced into ships’ ranks or were used to decorate pirate strongholds. On occasion flags were transferred to hardier ships. The sea was their oyster, their rich pearl.

The Kuril prates were rough and ready for all encounters, boasted of tight commands and tended to brag about their deeds in noisy ports of call. On days given to lively entertainment of his dreams, Davidof read to his students, in the old language of course, stories about the pirates that reached him through various sources. Every stranger passing through the village underwent Davidof’s subtle search for books and pamphlets about piracy. Students, at length, enjoying the diversion, applauded the break in lessons and told their parents of Davidof’s gift of making pirates come alive right in the classroom, as if those riotous souls had passed through the room during the previous night. They swore their senses had been touched by such realities.

The truth was that everybody in Kmiekev knew one day they would lose the young teacher. To a person they knew his imagination and all the dreams it could muster departed him continually in a reach for new adventures.

Personable as he was, with green eyes a cat had let go of, or a mountain creature few hunters had seen as yet, and a stoutly-based youthful black beard, which maidens watched with joy as he twirled its small pastures of delight, Davidof nevertheless managed to portray the character of an older man.

“He has matured markedly,” said one old veteran of wars, “as if he has been in significant battles upon which history turns and is measured. He moves like a veteran at civil tasks.”

To the entire village, Davidof was the answer to many quandaries, as though he was a creature of split generations, the explosive young and the sedentary old.

“Balance is what he offers,” said another old timer, as they discussed the young teacher on another occasion. “We may be locked into one mind set because of what we have experienced in the past, but he melds the old and new like the pinochle dealer shuffling two decks of cards.”

The old man, a shopkeeper, had the floor, and had his say. “Davidof has the other attraction drawing on him, those phantom pirates of his. Perhaps they will be an unendurable weight and need resolution. We have to be prepared for the day he might leave. Hunger comes in many forms, as we all know.”

Davidof held his ground on dreams lest he be known as a vacillator. In the village given over to a hard life of toil, nature’s gifts were few and man had to wage the best battle to gain an edge. They hunted long hours, farmed small garden plots, and dragged trees to ax and fireside with their horses. To be called a vacillator in such an environment would settle its name on a man as if a large black cape had been thrown over his shoulders. The truth of the village structure said the number of men able to do such labor had lessened in a short time; departure, accident, and mortality making hard claims.

Gradually, with the melding of disparate existences, two persons in the one, Davidof taught, dreamed, and aged along with his students.

And one day, spring crawling out of hiding in the mountains after a rugged winter, but the lower meadows beginning to bloom in myriad colors by fantastic leaps to the horizon, a strange group of travelers came into Kmiekev. The dozen of them did not come from the sumptuous valley below, but from higher in the rugged Urals. None of the visitors showed the wear and tear that

such a trip might have induced or a winter stay in such a place would have earmarked. They were jovial and outgoing in nature, promised work in trade for food and temporary quarters, and conducted themselves in a gratuitous fashion.

The leader, one Gustav Dmitricof Tarpenko, twice as tall as he was wide, legs that braced his upright frame steadily against the mountain winds, arms long as half his size, wearing a thick animal coat, a fur hat a rabbit could nestle in, greeted Davidof at the edge of the village. The voice he let loose belonged in the mountains, one could tell, as if he called from hilltop to hilltop in his communications, frightened off big black bears.

“Ho, friend, I am Tarpenko pushing this team of friends towards the seas beyond all of this. To the man, we are tired of toil on land that shows little promise. We are bound to sail on broad waters of the seas, to gain an edge in life, and have decided to sail with the pirates we have heard so much about. Have you, sir, heard about the pirates out there laying waste to all they encounter, and getting rich off the riches of those who have too much for so few? Such a song and such a dream haunt us.”

Tarpenko, in his fuzzy, tight hat of black fur, had no idea of the response he would get from the young man who had exited from what appeared to be a schoolhouse, though as small as any building in the village.

“Why, sir,” Davidof said, “I am privy to many tales from the sea.” Oh, he thought, what a chance to do a good deed for the village. He sat comfortably on a village bench. “Let me tell you of my grandfather’s participation with those sailors of adventure, with noted captains of pirates, the one and only Gromikov, The Sea Turtle, and The Black Buggar, curse of all seas. Their slow ships kept many prize ships in their harbors. Though they could not often bring them to quarters on the

open sea, they owned them when they went to port, sometimes trailing them for weeks at sea, following their scurvy waste. It was their specialty of holding them under their guns until they surrendered their ship, their prize. Often it was done without firing a shot.”

“How did they do that?”

“They trailed some long boats behind them, and they were quite efficient in keeping the crews of such ships from getting to shore, picking up supplies, or fixing other needs, with guns pointed at the prize ship and the port itself. This was especially tactical in those ports that did not have deep water where ships tied up at a pier. Often, others made the secession of rights, like the starosta or viit of besieged ports or the collection of the local communities or villages making up the port.”

“Tactics like that worked, from the open sea?” Tarpenko said.

Davidof smiled with his reply, “With cannon pointed down your throats, cannons that are invariably accurate, decisions are often made on the spot.”

His sense of timing at storytelling came into play. “That’s not the end of my tales. The plank is the best part, or the worst, depending on where you’re standing when it is utilized.” His eyebrows raised a silent exclamation.

Tarpenko appeared as alert as the others of his crew, so Davidof continued. “They get a questionable character slightly tipsy, blindfold him, and tell him it’s a sobriety test. They tell him that he must walk on a plank raised above the level of the deck without falling off. They do not say how high, or where on the ship the plank is placed, but swear it is strong enough to hold the subject. But it is put over the side of the ship, and always in a rolling sea. A small breeze, an unruly wave, a quick roll of the ship, and blindfold and all and you’re food for sharks and turtles of the deep. Poof! Like that!” He snapped his fingers under the nose of the leader. “The sea has a

law all its own. And that’s the captain of the ship. Every captain. Every ship. Without exception. They own the soul of every sailor aboard the ship, and that’s without question.”

From the group came a voice, not quite timid, but close. “Tarpenko, have you told this man that none of us are capable of swimming, that we have never learned how to do so?” The speaker was buried in his coat and hat and heavy boots, afraid of the weather that hung around the mountains, looking as if he would be so dressed the year long.

“Not one of us can swim,” the speaker continued, “though you have suggested it is not needed by sailors who cannot possibly swim the open sea to the nearest shore. It would be useless, you say, a dreamer’s plot at stupidity. What would such a state do for us? We who are basically workers of the land, of the earth.”

Davidof spoke again. “I have a story to tell you that might change your minds or frighten you out of your boots. It happened off the Kuril Islands when the Czar sent a raiding ship to catch and punish all pirates on that section of the sea.”

“Is it a true tale or is it made whole in your mind?” Tarpenko leaned in close to Davidof, trying to settle his curiosity in one vein or another.

“Oh, no fabrication here,” Davidof said. “But none of the involved personalities in the escapade are hereabouts anymore because they all went at the end of the tale.”

“It seems that another group wanted to be pirates, share in the sudden riches, come back, buy some land, and live like the mini-Tsars they wanted to be. They were found out what they wanted to do, get rich and run, so the captain, one Bluebeard or such, stabbed a small pig and tossed it over in the midst of a school of sharks. They went wild, tearing the thing apart, the sea red with blood, and then he made the quasi-pirates, at the point of a sword, jump from a plank

into the same water. If they made it to shore they would be free. It is said none of them got any further than 20 meters.”

“Do you think that’s enough to deter anybody who really wants to be a pirate?”

“I do. Don’t you in all honesty?”

“Yes. Perhaps we could become hunting guides to rich people.”

“That is wisdom in action.”

Davidof said, “One other story I heard is this, which seems typical of pirate lore: The despicable pirate captain, Black Buggar, knew of traitors on board, mutineers plotting to kill him and take control of his ship. In truth he trusted very few of his men, maybe the first mate, at least in a sea fight, and the cook who was an old friend whose family lived on property that his brother owned. That association locked up his loyalty. There was no way he might extend his full trust otherwise.

“From one of the crew he learned of a possible ringleader, Tizur the Red, and Black Buggar plotted to get him in a compromising position, like a spot of his own on the plank. The sharks, if baited properly, if set afire in their hunger, would take care of him in a hurry. Black Buggar held a knife up his sleeve as he walked the deck, accosted a crewman at random near mid-ship and managed to drop the knife in a scuffle the crewman had not expected.

“He tried to stick me with that blade. Foul mutineer is he!” Black Buggar yelled out with great alarm. “Over the side with him. Feed him to the sharks. Now, lads. Now.”

And three crewmen threw the frightened sailor over the side. The sharks, following the ship for a few days as Black Buggar had often dropped baited food from the aft end of the ship, made quick work of the poor sacrificial lamb.

Then the plotting captain said to Tizur the Red, in a huddle on the deck, “The leader of this escapade is that little scurvy pirate who calls himself Sigmund of Salzer. We’ll have to get him close to the side to drop him over. Any suggestions?”

“Why, captain,” Tizur the Red said, feeling he had successfully maintained his identity as the real leader of mutineers, “let’s rig the plank and make him walk it. The sooner the better.” He bristled with impatience to get the deed done.

“Noble idea, my dear man. Noble idea. Set it up.” And Black Buggar made a ringing announcement to his crew. “We have found a traitor in our midst, a foul traitor to the cause, a danger to the wealth we have accumulated, to all of us once we hit shore. We must take care of him now and spread his share amongst those loyal to our cause.”

He made sure Tizur the Red was close enough to Sigmund of Salzer to grab him, and then said in that fearsome voice of his, “Have at him, Tizur, have at him. Make him walk the plank. Force him out there. We will split his share. Make him walk the plank. Bind his arms and make him walk the plank. Treat well the traitor, the mutineer.”

Perhaps the sharks sensed more food coming their way, for the sea became frothy with their intent as Tizur and two other men situated Sigmund up on the plank.

“Here,” Black Buggar said, and handed Tizur a long rod with a V formed at one the end. “Force him out along the plank with this. Death to the traitor. Death to the mutineer. Death to the infidel. He longer flies our flag.” He pointed overhead to a Skull and Crossbones flying in the breeze, and yelled out, “ура для нас.” A cheer went up from the crew as they heard Black Buggar saying, “Hurrah for us.”

Tizur the Red nudged Sigmund along the plank, pushing, urging him outward, getting him nearer to the end and a fall to the frenzied sharks, with the ship all the while rolling in the waves. Tizur, just about to shove the screaming Sigmund off the end of the plank and who was almost out of his mind, felt the pressure of another rod on his back side. Turning he saw Black Buggar holding a second rod squarely on his back side. A shipmate was helping the captain.

“Foul traitor, Tizur. Foul traitor,” Black Buggar yelled out. “You go with your henchman to your death,” and shoved him so that he too fell to his immediate death. Some of the crew believed both men were dead before they hit the water, such fear rode about the ship.

And there in the mountains, in the village of Kmiekev nestled in sharp crags and steep walls, was abounding silence when Davidof completed his tale of the pirates. The rugged mountain men, the men who could not swim, who were fearless when facing bear and bore and wolf, were fully engaged in measuring the reality of their dreams upon the seas. Soon realizing the folly of their quest, they decided to stay in Davidof’s village to become guides for rich urban people who on a lark would climb here to hunt their prey of the mountains.


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