Beyond Vodka and Horses
There was a knock at the door and suddenly the Christmas lights went out, for Papa was quick with the snuffer. Anna hurried to close the armoire, shielding the illicit tannenbaum from casual view and Foster doused the candles that ringed the table wreath by capping the whole thing with Grandmother’s antique porcelain cake cover. At the same time, little Mellie hopped up on Papa’s chair to take the hay-filled clogs from the mantle and stow them in the fireplace coal bin before Mama brought out the gruel and barley water in lieu of the feast still roasting in the potbelly. Then, Papa opened the door to the soldiers.
Generalissimo Hamentashen, the Head of the State Policia, had a reputation for being both stoic and strict- often finding fault where others might have turned a blind eye (especially if the sin against the people did, in fact, cost The People’s treasury). Thieves who took from the public coffers, confidence troupes who fooled local mayors out of coin or resource, and well-heeled fraudulents who did not pay their share or used the people’s trust in them as burghers or clerks to take more than their share… they all suffered under the Generalissimo’s watch. And so, the peasant farmers shivered under the possibility that his attention- should it fall on them- would weigh even more heavily than on the well connected.
Until that Christmas Eve, Generalissimo Hamentashen had never been seen within a hundred leagues of the small village of Kemplerstein, and her small, sheltered farms, but that night- that Christmas Eve- there he stood, his imposing frame filling the doorway of the poor farming family’s home. The family knew in a twinkling that this was the infamous Head of the State Policia for he bore a great crooked scar across his left cheek in the shape of the letter ‘V’. Some people thought it was a wound taken during the bloody battle of Kelivine, when the Generalissimo led a small band of assassins into the enemy castle and slew their royal family. Others said he cut it into his own flesh as a reminder to seek vengeance for the people with unwavering vigilance. Still others whispered that he got the scar from the devil himself— when Hamentashen took the old liar to task over the matter of a trifling sum. In truth, it was a souvenir of a day in Hamentashen’s youth when he had dueled against a gypsy over his father’s honor, and lost.
“Please do come in from the cold, sir,” Papa offered, showing him in with an inviting flourish of his hand.
Mama curtsied. “Welkommen to our home, Generalissimo. May I get you a hot steinkrug of chicory and barley water?”
Hamentashen marched into the small house, his heavy boots clicking on the floor’s wood planking. He surveyed the drab and dreary room and the meek and mild children. Then he ducked his head to answer Mama’s offer, “Da, I will take with a little vodka to warm the winter from the bones.” His voice was as dry as the last crust of bread that could only be eaten if sopped in milk or gravy to soften it.
Foster brought out the small bottle of spirits as Anna stood on the step to pull a few roots of dried chicory from their place in the rafters and Mama took the well heated steinkrug from the top of the potbelly and poured the barley water over the chicory and vodka. The drink steamed, the homey chicory smell filling the room.
“Please take my chair here by the fire,” Papa put forward and again the Generalissimo ducked his head in assent. Then, Hamentashen sat, taking his drink while his second in command stood beneath the lintel and told the family of the soldier’s intent there:
“The Generalissimo’s entourage is on way from the summer palace in Minka in far north to the winter palace in Barto upon Kefalt far to south. This winter has been strong and stern as we have traversed this last fortnight and many of our animals have grown weary, frail, or taken ill. We will take fresh horses here. You will open barn so we may choose best steeds.”
“For love of the Fatherland, I would do this, of course,” Papa began, “but we have naught a horse in our barn- just an old ox we have no stomach to put down and one stubborn mule who will heed for neither stick nor carrot.”
“But, for the love of the Motherland,” Mama interrupted, “you may have both of them.”
“No horses!” the second exclaimed, moving to take a hand to Mama for the insult of the family being too poor to give what the Generalissimo’s entourage needed, but Foster stepped in front of her to take the blow, Papa a step behind him.
Hamentashen clicked his tongue and his second’s hand was stayed, sparing both mother and son. “Because you cannot get blood from stone, is no purpose to spill blood from good farm wife.” He paused to take another sip of his toddy. “We will sleep night in barn with ox and ass. Our own feet will carry us to Mustoville for new horse on the morrow.”
“Da, sir,” the second agreed with a frown. “And the horses?”
“Leave them to this family for season. Any good horse we take back up when we return with spring thaw.”
The second nodded and left. Anna closed and barred the door behind him against the wind. Then the family stood, waiting on the Generalissimo, not sure what a man of such high name would demand of them beyond vodka and horses.
“A bit of torte, by your leave,” Hamentashen said, waggling a finger at Grandmother’s cake cover that lay over the incriminating Christmas wreath.
“Oy sir, you do not want that cake,” Mama cried out. “It is bitter and flat…”
“Our little Amelliana’s first glouchen cake,” Papa added quickly.
“I mistook salt for sugar,” Mellie admitted embarrassedly.
Anna chirped up nodding, “It is a heavy, leaded stone.”
“A salt cake,” Foster continued mirthfully, “a poisoned pudding…”
“Son,” Papa scolded, “mind her little heart.”
“Here,” Anna pulled a small rum cake from the cupboard. “Better to try the one Papa made.” She held the pastry, dish and all, out to Hamentashen.
He cracked a wide grin at Anna’s fearful face. “Papa’s work?” he asked.
“Da, sir,” Anna nodded hopefully. The Generalissimo broke off a piece of the cake with his calloused fingers and popped it into his mouth.
“Plum and cinnamon,” the old man counted with a knowing look, “for the feasting day.”
Papa’s panicked voice tried to belie Hamentashen’s words, “Oh no, we do not celebrate- for the love of the Fatherland, it is verboten- we would not betray our Virtuous Leader in such a way.”
Hamentashen rose from his seat chuckling to himself. “There is much to love of the Motherland, is true. Virtuous Leader is not to be questioned,” he vowed. Then he stooped down to put an arm around little Mellie, pointing a gnarled finger at the center of her child’s chest. “Still, rum cake and roasted feasts have place in the heart of the people.” He pulled the little girl up with him as he stood again, resting her weight on his hip. He walked to the front of the house. “There are those who claim I can be bribed with neither gold nor silver.” He glanced up at the small sprig of mistletoe on the lintel that betrayed the family. “Yet, I do have a price.” He smiled gently at the child in his arms. “Pay me once on each cheek to warm the heart, little one, and my men will pain you no more this Christmas.”
And, Mellie kissed his wrinkled countenance twice before she was handed very kindly to her mother and the old Generalissimo unbarred the door to cast himself back out into the snow.