Ivan waited at the clearing’s edge while the old man carved at his fallen tree. Their breath misted in the clean, cold air, each after his fashion. Ivan, standing, breathed slowly, almost lulled by the sight of the adze splitting the bark from the white timber. The old man was puffing, not wheezing – a healthy old ox intent at his craft.
At length the old man kicked the scraps of gray off the naked trunk and buried the adze in its upper, unshorn branches. His red cheeks blazed as he looked up and smiled at Ivan. The smile always made the guards nervous.
Ivan signaled to the men to wait at the edge of the clearing and then crunched through the snow to the tree and the old man. The old man turned his smile to the thermos in his tanned bag and pulled off a glove with his teeth. He’d removed the other and poured a cup of coffee by the time Ivan stood beside him.
“Would you like some?” he asked the younger man. “I don’t care for coffee but it’s mostly booze.” He sipped from the steaming thermos top and screwed up his face. “The coffee’s more for taste.”
“You brew your own vodka?” asked Ivan.
“Vodka’s too good a word for it,” said the old man. He sipped again and waited for Ivan to say whatever he’d trekked so far north to say to him.
Ivan seemed more interested in the tree. “Are you building, old man? Adding to your cabin in the woods?”
The old man lolled his head from side to side, as if pondering this for the first time since he felled the tree. “I may,” he said. “I may carve it into the likeness of myself, or some other bear.” He looked to the men on the edge of the clearing. They were bundled up in black wool, rifles held in black leather gloves. There were more, waiting in the cold silence of the woods, all around. They were like big, black crows watching the two in the clearing, standing with the mute and perpetual hunger of crows, the same irritating ubiquity. “Would your crows like some tainted java?”
Ivan ignored the question. “The capital has been attacked twice in the last month,” he said. “And twice more in the last year.”
The old man nodded, pouring another dark cup. “Yes, that will happen. They’re not happy.”
“How could you know what they are?” said Ivan. “All you know are your exile snows, your fallen trees.”
“I know the people,” said the old man. “I know whom they dislike. Unless the papers have picked up a heretofore unknown radicalism, I know that attack is the people’s chief method of communication.”
“Are you behind the attacks?” said Ivan.
The old man was surprised at the frankness of the question. He swirled his coffee, his pink lips jutted out in mute contemplation.
“Which postman has carried your letters of rebellion?” Ivan demanded.
“I have written neither one tittle nor jot since coming here, to my snows and fallen trees. Does it occur to you, my prince, that your constituency is acting out on natural instinct?”
“I swear, old man-”
“I swear, an old man,” said the old man, “that if you stopped looking over your shoulder every waking hour you might see the writing on the wall. You can murder every scribe that rails against you, hang every rebel, and butcher the intelligentsia between here and somewhere warmer and it may end the violence, but it will never end your suffering.”
The old man smiled as he scratched frost off his cherry-tipped nose. “I didn’t know what a good night’s sleep was until you sent me here. Your crows wait on my doorstep to prohibit all visitors, they read my mail to intercept all disturbing news. This land is my cradle.”
“It is your tomb,” said Ivan.
“It is a peaceful tomb,” said the old man. He finished his coffee and screwed the cup back on the thermos.
“I can kill you now,” said Ivan. “All I have to do is give the order.”
“Yes,” said the old man, “and do away with the one man on Earth that doesn’t want your job.” He laughed and sat up from the stump. He returned to the tree and began snapping the branches. “Funny thing about killing dissenters,” he said. “They never thank you afterwards.”
“True leadership is always a thankless job,” said Ivan, passing the old man and stepping over the trunk on his way back to the clearing’s edge.
“Thank you,” said the old man amidst his branches. “Sometimes I forget how kind you are.”
They shot the old man when Ivan gave the word.