Katya Belova sat in her small apartment in Makarovka, Russia. Her twenty-two year old son, Timofey, was in the adjoining room watching television. He was ignorant to the fear that gripped his mother’s heart. With shaking hands, she looked down at the letter she had written and prayed it would find its’ recipient.
She placed the letter in an envelope, signed it, and sealed it. Then, she affixed an old sticker of Leonid Brezhnev on the back. That was the bait for the recipient to notice it. She knew if he read her words, he would save her son from the horrors of war. She kissed the envelope and sent it away.
From the first moment she laid eyes upon him, she loved Ivan Stanislav. She had known him for so long and he never failed to show her how good of a man he was, both inside and out. She found him dashingly handsome and the ideal man for any woman. She was so fortunate to have him in her life.
She had been a dancer at the Bolshoi Theater, and had turned many heads with her long legs, lithe frame, and striking exotic looks. She was taller than most girls, and it helped to accent the long dark hair that, at one time, cascaded down her back. The dark tresses matched her equally dark eyes, which were capable of chilling the soul or warming the heart, depending on what mood she was in.
Yet time, as it was wont to do, had begun to catch up to her. She was no longer the limber, supple ballet dancer she once was and the wrinkles had crept onto her face. Most of them were laugh lines, thankfully, as she had lived a life that brought more joy than sorrow. Her hair was shorter, but long enough to be in a tight bun atop her head. It was more gray than black now. Years of wowing crowds on stage had rendered her hip bad, which left her relegated to her comfortable rocking chair. But she could be spry when she wanted. Nowadays, she stayed in her apartment and dreamed of Ivan Stanislav, the only man in her life. It made her warm inside to think about him, and it invariably brought a smile to her lips.
Ivan’s work kept him from her. He traveled a lot. She even remembered a time when a spritely purple haired female stole his heart from her. She was incredibly happy for him during those times, and she wished him the best. Afterwards, her heart broke for him when she saw the unimaginable sadness he felt when he lost Tempest. She could never begrudge him wanting to find love elsewhere. After all, what was love if it was not unconditional?
She sat quietly in her living room and listened to her records. They had magical properties and were able to whisk her away to nights when she tripped the light fantastic. A grandfather clock ticked deeply in the corner and her hands were sewing an afghan blanket.
Her heart lodged itself in her throat as she felt the steady cadence of a rumble outside. She stared, expectantly, and clutched part of the blanket to her chest. Her eyes were glued to the door as she hoped upon hope that it would open. She held her breath.
The door opened and the large, grizzled head of Ivan Stanislav peered in and looked directly across the room at the beautiful woman with the blanket. He knew precisely where she would be.
Fanya Dimitrovich Stanislav rose slowly and placed the blanket to the side, “My Ivashechka…” She had tears in her eyes and her wrinkled hands clutched her flower print gown.
Stanislav shut the door behind him and a large, toothy smile emerged. It was so wide that it pierced his beard, lifted his cheekbones, and his eyebrows. “Mama…” He said softly.
Fanya “Fanny” Stanislav walked slowly from the chair towards her kitchen to meet her oldest son. Ivan moved with agility despite the cramped, small quarters of the kitchen, and intercepted her. The Bear was so familiar with the space, and moved with such alacrity, that nothing in the house was disturbed despite his size. “No no no, you do not have to get up, Mama… sit!” His voice was gentle and, dare we say, caring.
It was easy to see where he got his stubbornness. Fanya waved her hand dismissively, “Psh, I will not have my son walk to me if I can help it, I meet him halfway.” She reached out with both hands and took his own. She squeezed and blinked her wet eyes, “I missed you, my baby boy.” Ivan pulled her in for a gentle hug and his mother buried her face in his solid stomach, “My son…”
The Russian Bear kissed the top of her head and held her gingerly, “I missed you too, Mama. I am sorry I have not come more often.”
Fanya pulled her head away and she patted his bicep. Age had rendered her bent, and yet one could see where Ivan got his height, “You are busy, my Ivashechka, I understand.”
Ivan’s smile lessened as she said that. She always made excuses for him. She never allowed him to once topple from his pedestal as a perfect son. He knew he could see her more and the guilt tugged at his chest. With a renewed smile, he reached behind his back and pulled a record from between his body and suspenders. “I have brought you a surprise, Mama.”
She smiled, “My son comes and brings Mama a surprise?” She clapped her hands. She took the record as he offered it, “La Bayadère? Oh my Ivashechka…” She strained up on her toes and he bent down so she could kiss his huge cheek. She began to produce tears again.
“It is the Kirov Ballet’s production, Mama, 1941. A good year, eh?” Ivan left her to inspect the record and walked into the living room, where he pushed the coffee table to the side. Then, he playfully snatched the record from her hands and prepped it. His voice was louder as he offered his hand, “Come, we dance, Fanya Dimitrovich!”
Yet she protested, “Ivan Sergeiovich, I cannot do such a thing, come now.”
“No, no, no, I will not miss opportunity to dance with beautiful Fanya Stanislav! Swan of the Bolshoi!” He waggled his finger and grinned as the record turned, and it began to play a sweeping introduction. He took her hands, brought her close, and let his mother lead as they swayed gently together. He cradled her as if she was the most fragile doll in all of the Motherland.
Close like this, it was clear where Ivan got his looks. He had her nose and eyes and his face was long like hers. The fact that she was still partially dark haired explained why the Bear did not surrender his own hair color so easily.
They shared this tender moment together, until the first song slowed and transitioned to another. They did not break the embrace, but stood in the room as she peered up into her son’s eyes, “So, what brings my son here, hm? I cannot believe you traveled all this way just to bring a gift.”
She allowed Ivan to lead her to the chair, and she slowly settled down into it once more. She was out of breath and her hip ached. Ivan’s hand lingered around her own and decided to dodge the question, “Who is to receive this beautiful blanket, hm?”
Fanya watched Ivan effortlessly put the furniture back in place. She smirked at her son, “I make it for the little ones at kindergarten. These winters grow so cold and sometimes they have nothing to keep them warm.” She added with a more level tone, “What brings you here, Ivan?” Far be it for a Stanislav to let anyone off the hook.
She rarely called him “Ivan” unless she was growing irritated. “Ivan Sergeiovich” may have been more proper, but for Fanny Stanislav, calling him “Ivan” was infinitely worse.
That wasn’t to say Ivan didn’t try. He looked across the room at her and they met each other with dark intensity. It was a game they played, and he challenged her. Then, she lifted both of her eyebrows, at once. This was serious. The Russian Bear relented immediately and lowered his gaze. He swallowed, “I was thinking about Kliment, mother.”
Her face sank as Ivan invoked the name, “Oh…” she said softly, “You do not talk of him much, Ivashechka.”
“I know Mama.” Ivan turned and faced the nearby mantle. It was laden with the collected dust of years gone by. Air puffed from his nostrils and created a small cloud, and as it settled his eyes lingered upon one of the several monochrome pictures.
Two handsome young men stood side by side in front of a mountainous backdrop. They were in their mid twenties, and their eyes were alight with the unending excitement of a long future. One man was tremendously tall and filled out his army uniform with a physique that matched his stature. He was clean shaven and sported a dark military flat top. To his left stood a smaller man in an aviator’s jumpsuit. He had a rounder, softer face and his fair hair was combed over on one side. The two men had the same smile and each had an arm around the other.
A smaller picture was wedged into the corner of the frame. It was taken before or after the first. The big man was bent forward, stuck his tongue out, and crossed his eyes. The smaller man reached over and gave the big man bunny ears. They were laughing. Ivan picked up a dusty, small, oval disc that rested in front of the picture.
Ivan knew his face was red and he feared turning and looking at his mother. When he did finally turn to face her, his concerns were confirmed: profound sadness infected her eyes. In the secure confines of his mother’s apartment, Ivan Stanislav allowed himself to speak the most honest feeling in his heart: “I miss him, Mama.”
He gazed down at the dog tag, which sported his brother’s alphanumeric number. Kliment Stanislav would never have been the biggest Stanislav. But to Ivan, he was the smartest. His little brother had become a pilot and expertly flew the Soviet Mi-24 “Hind” helicopter. It was a masterful weapon of war which was unmatched in Afghanistan. It was near impenetrable to conventional arms.
Mothers know their sons better than most, and she saw his intense pain, “Oh my Ivashechka…” The pain from dancing dissipated as she moved quickly to comfort her son and she wrapped her long fingers around his massive forearm. “You never talk much of Klim. What made you think of him now?” Ivan allowed his indomitable shoulders to sag.
Ivan would never, and could never, blame his parents for the difficult decisions they made. But he had received a letter from a fearful mother, and it brought questions to light, “Could you not have asked that both sons not go to that damned place? Papa was manager in the factory. The youngest could have stayed home, yes?”
Fanya still held his forearm and her eyes searched his face, “We were trying to bring equality and peace to those people. The women were treated terribly. The culture was so steeped in religion, it robbed people of basic rights. You recall, how free it was there? The women did not have to wear those scarves, they could go to school, the men could be open minded.”
Her face began to betray her relatively calm assessment as she stared at the disc in her son’s hand. It glinted in the light, and she choked back a sob, “Then the Americans killed him.” When the Americans gave the enemy Stinger Missiles, they turned the choppers into death traps. Just one missile sent Kliment Stanislav home to his mother in pieces.
She lifted the picture of her boys from the mantle and blew the dust from it. She spoke to herself, “Every waking moment I wish he was here with us. I wish I could hear you laugh with him once more.” She blinked and let the tears slide down her cheeks, “I wish I could see him grow into a prosperous, proud man.”
Ivan followed her and somehow managed not to loom. He opened his arms and embraced her with the gentlest bear hug he had ever given. She rested in his warmth and strength. But she spoke with honesty and purpose, “We always taught you duty to your people first. We would be hypocrites not to answer the call. Like what is happening now, our boys must help our brothers and sisters in Ukraine. President Putin is not wrong.” She said, and looked back at a picture of Putin, which hung on the kitchen wall next to Lenin, “A mother who does not risk sacrifice insults all the mothers who have, from the Great Patriotic War until now.”
Those words echoed in Ivan’s mind, but the sadness of brotherly loss still threatened to break him. He reached into his pocket while gazing at the grandfather clock and discovered his escape. “The clock is slow again Mama, you need to keep up on this!”
Fanya’s brows pushed together and she gave him a sad smile, “Of course Ivashechka.” With that, Ivan worked on the clock and hid his face. He took his time.
Eventually, like most mothers do, Ivan Stanislav was seated at her small kitchen table in his own large chair, and she was doting on him. He already had a large cup of tea and some soup. The mood was quiet and close between them and she sat in the chair next to him, “Alexei Gregorovich sends me videos of your matches. Sometimes he visits. He has always been such a good friend.”
Ivan was still distracted and quiet, so she spoke more, “I worry for you, Ivashechka. This wrestling. What if you get hurt?” She ran a protective hand through his hair and trailed a finger along the outside of his ear.
Ivan was nonplussed, “Hurt? Mama, they cannot hurt me. You know that!”
“I am your mother, Ivashechka, my job is to worry.” She patted his huge hand, “Who is he?”
Ivan leaned back in his chair and crossed his arms over his chest, “Coral Avalon.”
“Avalon?” she asked as she tilted her head slightly, “That is a mythical name, yes? Does he have friends who could try to rob victory from you?”
“I believe Avalon is from legend, Mama, but he is human, do not worry.” He smirked, “And Alexei is with me, he watches my back. I am fit as a fiddle, but… it has taken time to adjust.” He thought back to Hayes Hanlon and that fluke victory. It made his blood boil, but he was pleased she did not hear he had been defeated. It would break her heart. “This Avalon was bested by a Frenchman already, so he will be wanting retribution.”
Pride filled Fanya’s eyes, “He will not defeat my Russian Bear. Not my Ivashechka.” Her smile suddenly faltered as something crossed her mind.
“What is it, Mother?”
She thought back to Klim and twisted her expression into one of greater concern, “This boy is American?” Ivan nodded. The thoughts of an American hurting her oldest son, after what happened to Klim, struck her suddenly. She always feared the Americans hurting her sons. She lacked the fortitude to maintain the intense anger, and as she bit her lower lip and quelled her tears, she channeled it into Stanislavian resolve. Her jaw set and she stared into her son’s eyes, “You destroy him, my Ivashechka. You promise me you will destroy him?”
Ivan was grim and he nodded, “I will, Mama.” He tightened his jaw, just as she had, “I will dismantle him. For you.” She squeezed his paw.
She insisted he leave with a loaf of bread, two bags of chocolates, a sack of potatoes, leftover soup, and one of his old jackets because it was cold outside. With his big arms full, he leaned down and kissed her softly on the cheek.
“I love you, beautiful mother.”
“I love you too, Ivashechka. You are a good man,” she then pushed Kliment’s tag into his hand, “Take him with you.” Ivan lost his voice as he stared at the glinting metal in his hand. He exited quickly but leaned against the wall outside for some time.
Ivan returned to his apartment and put away Fanya’s goodies. He sat at his desk and stared at Kliment’s tag. Then, he fished out the letter and stared at the broken seal of Leonid Brezhnev. He digested his mother’s words:
“A mother who does not risk sacrifice insults all the mothers who have…”
He stared at what was left of his brother, grabbed his phone, and dialed three numbers. His voice was angry.
“This is Praporshchik Stanislav. I want to report a potential shirker.” His face was contemptuous as he gave the information. When he was finished, he tore the letter in half and tossed Katya Belova’s dreams in his garbage.
Ivan Stanislav framed most things in three ways: history, data, and personal experience. His thoughts went to Coral Avalon. The reports on Avalon proved he was woefully undersized against Ivan. But he was a fighter, and quite intelligent in the ring. Avalon was going to want to redeem himself, and Ivan was growing to learn that being a “Legend” meant he was a target. It meant that he was a would-be springboard for other competitors. The buzzards would try to pick away at the aging Bear. Personal experience told him not to underestimate the mental ferocity of a stubborn opponent. When every opponent was smaller than you, you learned to respect their minds since their bodies were weak.
A stinger missile demolished one Stanislav boy, but Avalon was anything but that. Hanlon, for all Ivan hated to admit, had taught him something: not to be complacent. He wasn’t the same man from twenty years ago and he hated it. He was slower and he had to work harder to keep his wind. Yet Ivan Stanislav’s years of life experience still gave him enough fuel for a power plant.
He thought of his mother, her sadness, and the genuine fear she had of Americans. He hoped Avalon’s own family was intact. Not because he had empathy for the boy. On the contrary, as he stewed at his desk, he hoped his mother or father would watch him crash against The Russian Bear and pay for it. He hoped they would cry buckets of tears after Ivan was done with him.
He would do it for his mother, for his people, for himself, and he whispered as he looked down at the glittering disc on his desk.
“…and for you, Kliment Sergeiovich…’
The door to the small apartment flew open as light cascaded in and blinded Katya Belova. Something solid hit her face and knocked her across the room into a table. She felt her knee pop and molten pain burned through her leg.
A man with a bright light and a mask over his head yelled down to her, “Where is he, bitch!?”
The mother had to protect her son and she wailed, “Timofey, RUN!!” Her scream was broken by sudden pain across her face and she slumped against the wall and sobbed, “…runnnnn…”
Timofey Belova got as far as the window before the stock of the gun rendered him unconscious. Katya tasted the iron of her blood and peered through swollen eyes as they dragged her son away. She knew at that moment that her letter was too late, and it must have never made it to Ivan Stanislav. She knew that, had he received it, he would have intervened. This was her fault.
She would never imagine that Ivan Stanislav could so easily tear her letter and her life in half, and then toss it haphazardly into a dustbin.
Many more would write letters to Ivan Stanislav. Surely, a veteran who had lost a brother would have the heart to intervene on their behalf. Surely, he would understand the gravity of loss and how damaging it would be to lose a loved one. Each and every one of those fearful parents, uncles, aunts, and grandparents would make excuses for him and allow him, like his mother did, to remain on that pedestal upon which he stood.
If letters could bleed, his dustbin would be soaked.
Timofey Belova would be a casualty of Putin’s irresponsible war.
Coral Avalon would be the casualty of a war Ivan Stanislav had waged since his brother died.