Tanner's Twelve Swingers (Evan Tanner #3)

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05.03.2019

“More or less.”

“I will take you there.”

“Can you get me across the border?”

“The border?” He began to laugh. “The border?” He made fists of his hands and pounded them against his meaty thighs. “The border? Because Greeks and Serbs draw an imaginary line across the heartland of Macedonia, does this mean that there is a border? Because despots and oppressors string barbed wire and post sentries, does this constitute a border?” He shook with laughter. “This border,” he roared, “should not concern you.”

The border obviously did not concern the goatherd. His first impulse was to round up a crew of comrades and raid a border post, killing a few sentries and opening up a hole in the border wide enough to march an army through. It was such acts of provocation, he explained, that kept nationalist spirit keen. I managed to talk him out of it, arguing that such a stir would make it more difficult for me once inside Yugoslavia. He agreed reluctantly.

“So we will find a place where the crossing may be managed with ease,” he said. “We will be no more than a pair of stupid goatherds with our flock. Does a goat know of borders and barbed wire? A goat knows only that he must graze where he may. And once across the border, we shall turn the goats over to a friend, and I shall lead you to where Annalya lives.” His broad face split in a smile.

“By nightfall,” he said, “you will be holding your son upon your knee.”

Chapter 2

By nightfall I was holding my son upon my knee.

And what a grand son he was! The sketch, however accurate in details and dimensions, had not done him justice at all. Charcoal could not capture the sweet animation of him, the sparkle of his dark eyes, the glow of his pink skin, the way his little hand curled around my finger with such strength and determination. The way he kicked and cried, the way he yawned in slow motion, the way he sucked methodically upon his thumb. The way he giggled foolishly when I, like a fool, made idiot faces at him.

“He is a healthy baby,” Annalya said. “And very strong.”

“How old is he?”

“Almost six months.”

“He looks big.”

“He is big for his age. And so fat.”

Little Todor giggled at me again. His dark eyes focused upon a spot a few feet in back of my head, then gradually zoomed in until he was staring intently at my nose.

“He likes me,” I said.

“Of course. You are surprised?”

“I think he recognizes me.”

“But of course he knows you. You are his father.”

“He’s a wise child,” I said.

We sat cross-legged on the earthen floor of a little one-room hut a few miles outside of Kavadar. Annalya and Todor shared the hut with a childless peasant couple. The old woman had cooked supper for us, and then she and her husband had slipped out of the house to spend a few days with relatives a mile or two down the road. A few thick logs smoked on the hearth. The fire cast a shallow glow over my son and his mother.

Motherhood seemed to agree with Annalya. Her long blond hair shone in the firelight. She leaned forward suddenly to wipe the corners of little Todor’s mouth, and my eyes took in the rich curves of her full body, the full breasts bobbing braless beneath her heavy sweater, the lines of hip and thigh. I remembered the feel of that fine body beneath me on the night of young Todor’s conception.

“Todor Tanirov,” I said solemnly.

“You approve of his name?”

“Completely. He is named for a hero.”

“He is named for two heroes,” she said, and touched my arm. “But I will have to keep his patronym a secret when the boy goes to school. If the authorities knew his parentage, there would be trouble.” She sighed. “But when he is of age and when he rallies the people of Macedonia to his side, then he shall call himself Todor Tanirov.”

The subject of all this speculation began fussing. I picked him up, held him over my shoulder, patted him dutifully upon the back. Instead of burping, he cried all the louder.

“A conspirator,” I said, “should cry in whispers.”

“He is hungry. Let me have him.”

I handed over the crying infant, and she opened her sweater and presented him with a breast. It was immediately evident that this was precisely what the lad had in mind. His little mouth fastened upon the nipple, his hands positioned themselves on either side, and he nursed greedily.

“A hungry baby, Evan.”

“He’s his father’s son. He knows what good is.”

“Ah.”

“Have you received the money I sent?”

“Yes. It was too much. I gave the excess to the IMRO.”

“You should have kept it. For the boy.”

“I kept enough for him.” Todor lost the breast, and she guided his head back to it. “I was so happy that you remembered him, that you cared for him. I did not dare to dream that you would be able to come to Macedonia to see him with your eyes.”

“I wish I could have come sooner.”

“It is good that you waited. He was so red and shriveled when he was first born! You would not have liked him.”

“I’d have loved him anyway.”

I went to the fire and used a branch to push the smoking logs closer together. I sat down again at Annalya’s side. She switched Todor from one breast to the other. He fussed at first, but then his hungry little mouth found what it wanted, and he devoted himself wholeheartedly to the business of feeding. I watched his eyes. They would fall slowly shut, then snap open, then drift shut again, but through it all he kept on eating ravenously.

When he had finally finished, she carried him to the little straw mattress at the left-hand side of the hearth. She set him down gently and covered him with a pair of knitted blankets. He did not open his eyes. She returned to my side and sat close to me.

“He is a good baby,” she said. “He will sleep for hours.”

“He sleeps well?”

“Like a young lamb.”

“I’m glad to hear that,” I said. Of course it could hardly have been otherwise; Lamarckian genetics and the inheritance of acquired characteristics have been rather thoroughly discredited, and even Lamarck would have hesitated to suggest that my shrapnel-induced insomnia would be passed on to my children. Still, it was reassuring to know that chance had not visited this particular malady upon little Todor. That sort of idiosyncrasy could be more readily coped with by a Manhattan-based ghost-writer than by a Macedonian peasant and revolutionary leader.

“Evan? Will you be here long?”

“A few days and nights.”

“And then you return to America?”

I shook my head. “Not at once. I have business to the north.”

“In Belgrade?”

“Farther than that.”

“I wish you could stay longer, Evan.”

I stretched out on the dirt floor. She lay down beside me. Her sweater buttoned down the front. The buttons were made of dark brown leather. I opened them one by one and put my hands on her breasts.

“See what the little one has done to them? They are empty now.”

“They are magnificent, my love. My little bird.”

“Ahh…”

We lay side by side on the floor with our arms around one another. Her mouth tasted sweet and warm. My hands played merrily upon her lush breasts, and she giggled and told me that she knew now why Todor was such a fine nursing baby. “He takes after his father.”

“I told you as much.”

“Ah, Evan…”

Lazily, pausing for kisses and caresses, we removed our clothes in the flickering firelight. Childbirth had not harmed her body in the least. I touched the shallow bowl of her belly, the rich, sloping thighs.

“You have other women?”

“Some.”

“And other children?”

“No.”

“Todor is the only one?”

“Yes.”

She sighed, contented. We kissed and clung to each other. We parted, and she drew me over to her own straw mattress on the other side of the hearth from Todor’s.

“Todor will need brothers,” she said.

“That is true.”

“And it has been half a year since his birth. It is time.”

“Yes. But what if we produce a girl?”

“A daughter?” She considered this while I handled her fine body. “But it is good for a boy to have sisters. And you will return again, Evan, so that there will be time for more sons.”

“For Macedonia.”

“For Macedonia,” she agreed. “And for me.”

And I touched her some more, and we kissed, and she ran out of words as I ran out of thoughts. Her thighs parted in welcome, and her arms and legs gripped me fiercely, and the rude straw mattress groaned beneath our passion. I forgot about the Letts and the Colombians and the pudgy man from Washington. I even forgot my sleeping son, for once I cried out in passion, and Annalya gripped me tight.

“Hush,” she whispered. “You will wake Todor.”

But the little angel went right on sleeping.

Later, a long while later, I put a few more logs on the fire. Annalya rounded up a jug of honey wine, and we sat in front of the fire sipping it. It was too sweet to drink very much of, but in small sips it went down nicely and helped the fire warm us.

“In a few days you must leave,” she said.

“Yes.”

“It would please me if you could stay longer. But you have your work to do, do you not?”

“I do.”

“Tell me where you are going.”

I took up a twig from the woodpile and scratched a rough map on the floor of the hut. She watched with interest as the map took form.

“Here is Macedonia,” I said. “And here is Kavadar, and Skoplje, and Tetovo. And here” – a line to the south – “is the border between Greece and Yugoslavia. And the other parts of Yugoslavia – Croatia and Serbia and Bosnia-Herzegovina and Slovenia and Montenegro. You see, here is Belgrade, the capital.”

“I see.”

“And here to the east is Bulgaria, and above it Rumania. And west of Rumania is Hungary, and above it Czechoslovakia, and then Poland. You see?”

“Yes. You must go to Poland?”

“Farther than that. Here, above Poland and to the east, are three small countries. First Lithuania, then Latvia, then Estonia. They are all a part of Russia.”

“So you go to Russia.” She drew in her breath. “Is it not very dangerous to go to Russia?”

“They are a part of Russia in the same way that Macedonia is a part of Yugoslavia.”

This she understood. “They too would fight for freedom,” she said. “And you go to make a revolution there?”

“I hope not.”

“Then, why else would you go there?”

“To get someone out of Latvia.”

“It is difficult to leave Latvia?”

“It is nearly impossible.”

“It will be dangerous?”

I told her that it would not be particularly dangerous. Evidently my voice lacked conviction, because she shot me a glance that told me she did not much believe me. But we dropped that subject and drank more of the fermented honey and talked of the struggles of Macedonia and the beauty of our son and the warmth of love.