NORTHERN CHINA, AUGUST 1945
The boy in the alley outside the office could not have been more than sixteen, tall and gangly with a mop of dark hair and a self-satisfied smile, and he talked like he owned the world. Leonid growled and reached up to close the window, but the boy’s next words, lifted by a breeze, stopped him.
“Our herd of horses is the best anywhere. Once we bring in the harvest, my father and I will pick out some to sell. We’ve had buyers from as far away as Peking.”
Horses were not only a good trading commodity, but they offered considerable status. Senior-Major Leonid Dubrowsky of the Soviet NKGB had possessed a few fine ones in his day. To discover a source here in northern China would be fortunate indeed.
“Who is that boy?” asked Leonid.
“What’s that, sir?”
Leonid slammed the window closed and turned to bellow at a young soldier working on the far side of the room. “Are you deaf as well as stupid? Find out who that boy is and where he lives.”
“Yes sir.” The soldier scrambled out the door, leaving it open to swing in the breeze.
Leonid swivelled back to the window. Perhaps this foray into Chinese territory would prove profitable for him personally, as well as being politically beneficial for the Soviet Union. He had thought of Lungjiang as a dead-end placement, but if he could nab a few horses, it might make his tenure here more bearable.
The under-officer returned. “His friends call him Danny Martens, sir. He lives…”
The name struck Leonid like an electric shock. Could this boy — this young man — belong to Daniel and Luise Martens? He stopped to calculate. The group from Shumanovka had fled across the Amur River into China in 1930. It was now 1945. His age was correct. But surely the Martens family would have left for the Americas long ago with all the other Mennonites that had gathered in Harbin.
As he stared out at Danny Martens, Dubrowsky saw a combination of his old nemesis and his little Mennonite sparrow. Might this be an unforeseen opportunity for revenge against the arrogant, wealthy Mennonites? This situation could be rewarding indeed. If he had believed in God, he would have called it providential.
“Where did you say he lives?”
“About an hour from here by horse, sir. Just across the creek from the Immigrantville settlement.”
“Find out everything there is to know about him and his family and bring me the information as soon as you get it.”
Leonid heaved himself to his feet. “Get on with it, you idiot. You won’t learn anything by standing there.”
The soldier turned and ran from the room, his “Yes, sir” flung over his shoulder. Leonid rubbed his hands together and limped to his desk, an old door laid across two empty pickle barrels in the front room of what used to be Liu’s General Store. He pulled a crate from beneath the desk, rifled through the papers inside, and then with a grunt of satisfaction, he extracted a tattered dossier.
“You won’t get away from me this time, Daniel Martens,” he murmured, fingering the thin purple scar that circled his neck.
Insistent knocking woke Danny from a sound sleep. Beneath his second-storey bedroom, he heard his parents stirring, whispering urgently. Then he heard the front door open and his father’s voice.
“What has roused you from sleep so early, Helmuth?”
Danny held his breath and listened. It was just his neighbor from the other side of the elms. But why would he come in the pitch dark of the early morning?
Danny slid from his bed to place his ear on the heating grate above the kitchen.
“They’ve called a meeting,” said Helmuth Giesinger, sounding breathless. “In Lungjiang. They — ”
“Come in, come in,” Papa interrupted. “Who called a meeting?”
“The Russians. The soldiers coming down from the Soviet Union. We’re supposed to go in three days.”
“Why should we go to Lungjiang? Do they want horses? I’m not delivering them. Probably wouldn’t ever see money from them anyway.”
“It’s not about horses, Martens. They want — they demand — all men who were over twenty when they fled from Russia to show up at the meeting.”
“But why?” Mama’s voice shrilled through the grate.
Giesinger’s response was so quiet Danny almost missed it. “Why do you think?”
Danny’s mind churned with questions as he lay huddled on the floor of his bedroom. What now? This wasn’t Russian territory was it, even though they’d apparently had their eye on it for years? He’d heard Papa talk about the civil war between the Chinese Nationalists and Mao Zedong’s Red Chinese army. So far it hadn’t affected them up here in Manchuria. But now, with the world war over and the Japanese sent back to their islands, there was no government to speak of in Manchuria. Papa called it a vacuum of power.
Chairs scraped the kitchen floor. Danny had missed the rest of the conversation. He pulled on his clothes and hurried down the steep stairs into the kitchen just as his father closed the door behind Mr. Giesinger. His parents turned to him in surprise.
“What are you doing up, son?” asked Papa. “Too early for chores. Wait until the sun comes up.”
Danny stood with his hands on his hips and demanded, “I want to know what’s going on.”
Mama laid a hand on his shoulder. “Lower your voice. I don’t want Ben or the girls up yet.”
Papa sighed. “I didn’t even think of calling you downstairs.”
“I’m here now. What’s it about, this meeting?”
Mama ladled a cup of water for him from the pail on the counter. She looked to her husband but he hesitated, holding out his cup to be refilled.
“How much did you hear?”
“Just that some Russians are calling a meeting in Lungjiang and you are supposed to go. Do you have to? What if you ignore them? What can they do about it?” His voice had risen again and he tried to lower it.
Papa set down his cup with enough force to spill its contents onto the tablecloth. “What can they do? They can come get us, since they know exactly where we live. They can take us to the meeting by force. Or maybe they will just shoot us here. Save themselves the trouble.”
“Daniel!” Mama’s face was white.
Papa stared out the window, as if it were too difficult to meet their eyes. “I’m sorry. I know these Russians.” He spoke in almost a whisper, dread coloring the words. “They have found us. The meeting is merely a formality. We have no choice but to go find out what they have in mind for us.”
He stood and moved toward Mama. “We have to face the truth, Luise. How many times have I been through this, how many times tried to reason with Russian officials? They don’t operate out of reason. I have to go to the meeting. However, we will pray that God will intervene on our behalf.”
She moved toward him, put her hands on his shoulders and looked directly into his eyes. “Oh, Daniel.”
He wrapped his arms around her and spoke as if Danny were not in the room. “We must be strong, my dear. This is not beyond God’s knowledge or ability to preserve us. Remember His promise to give us strength for every situation. Let us pray together and put ourselves in His hands.”
Danny did not hear the words of Papa’s prayer over his own pounding pulse and the words whirling in his mind: “maybe they will just shoot us here.”
In the north pasture the next day, Danny watched a colt cavort around its mother, tossing its dark mane in the west wind that blew in from Mongolia. He felt at home with these hardy and handsome Altai horses, just as his father did.
He could hear his Papa’s words in his mind: a horse can smell a coming storm, just as it can sense fear in its handler or a wolf pack lurking in the trees. He looked around him, seeing nothing but endless prairie with the odd sprinkling of trees and shrubs, but he felt tension in the very air he breathed.
He leaped aboard old Caesar to better view the herd. A fine lot to be sure. It made his blood warm to watch them. He wished Rachel had come with him today instead of staying back to help her mother with the laundry. He and Rachel Giesinger agreed on many things, but they differed on many more, and discussions were always lively.
He grinned in spite of his apprehension of the future. Nothing seemed to faze or frighten Rachel. All their lives, he and Rachel had lived here on the plains of the Songhua River basin, learned the ways of the wild wind, the wide water, the rustling grasses and the whispering wings of geese. He couldn’t imagine life anywhere else, didn’t even care much what happened in the rest of the world.
He urged Caesar into the midst of the mares grazing the wild rye grass. They looked content. The stallion, however, stood on a slight rise, ears pointed sharply forward, front right hoof stamping. Must be a shift in the weather.
Maybe life wouldn’t change that much here in northern China. Most of the world probably didn’t even think about the people who lived here on their farms, the Chinese in their longhouses, the Russian expatriates in their izbas in Immigrantville, the Japanese military men and their families in cities like Lungjiang and Qiqihar and Shenyang. And, of course, the Mennonite Martens and Lutheran Giesinger families who lived a stone’s throw from each other just across the stream from Immigrantville.
It was time to bring in the harvest, time to get to work and forget the troubles of the rest of the world.
Danny was so lost in thought that by the time he noticed the cloud of dust in the distance, the riders had advanced close enough for him to see they were unfamiliar. Danny’s brow furrowed. The mares whinnied and ran to stand warily around the stallion. Something in the posture of the riders bothered him, a roughness, an arrogance. Not willing to leave the horses with these strangers, Danny nudged Caesar and rode to meet them.
The riders were foreign, Russian. Danny could tell by their clothing and hats before he heard their voices.
“Nice herd of horses,” said a bearded man at the front of the group. “You selling?”
Not to the likes of you, thought Danny, studying the man and his five companions. “I’d have to consult my father,” he said instead. “We make the decisions together.”
The man snorted. “Of course. We will come back tomorrow and by then you will have decided? You and your father?”
A snicker passed through the group. They turned their mounts sharply and thundered away.
Danny pulled Caesar back into a trot as he turned into his yard. The old horse was lathered around the saddle and where the reins rubbed his neck.
He slid off Caesar’s back and left him quivering beside the tie rail as he ran toward the house and burst through the door. Papa rose from his chair, his tall, solid frame and confident stance reassuring. Mama stood beside him like a willow in the shade of an oak, her dark eyes questioning.
“They’re after our horses.”
His father looked at him blankly. “Who’s after our horses?”
Papa’s brows lowered and Mama gasped. Danny’s impatience rose at his father’s slowness to reply. “The soldiers who are coming down from Russia. Some of them are interested in our horses.”
“We raise horses to sell, don’t we?” asked Manya, jangling the colorful bracelets her father had brought her from Harbin after his last visit there.
Danny ignored his sister and focused on Papa. “I didn’t like the look of the men.”
“So quickly it happens.” Papa murmured the words. He cleared his throat and asked, “Did you talk to them?”
Danny took a deep breath to calm his racing heart. “They came in a rush, running their horses even though they were already lathered, wanting to know if our horses were for sale.”
Glancing out the kitchen window, Papa said, “Seems they’re not the only ones running lathered horses. Caesar isn’t young anymore, son.”
“I know. I’m sorry.”
“Did they take them? Did the Russians take any horses?”
“Of course not. I said I’d have to talk to you first, and they said they’d come back tomorrow.”
Mama collapsed into the parlor chair and grasped its arms. “I knew it,” she said.
“Don’t worry, Mama, we’ll protect the horses.” Danny hated to see her upset. He should have waited to speak with Papa alone.
“That’s not what I … ” Her gaze shifted to Papa’s face.
Danny’s eyes snapped back and forth from one parent to the other. They were talking without words again.
“What? What are you thinking?”
They looked at him, then at each other.
“Your mother will make supper now while the rest of you go out and finish the chores.”
Danny fumed inside, but he resisted the urge to argue. Past experience had taught him he would gain nothing.
Little Ben clung to his father’s leg.
“Come on, Benny,” Manya encouraged, taking her brother’s hand. “You can help me feed the kittens. Your sister’s coming too, see?” She pointed out the window to where Sara had climbed nimbly aboard Caesar and headed him toward the barn, her hands stroking his neck. Danny felt bad for running the old horse, but he had been in a hurry to get away from the soldiers.
As Danny left the house, he heard Mama’s hoarse whisper. “The Russians?” He remembered the story of his parents’ desperate escape from Russia when he was just a baby.
“I was there too,” he muttered to himself. “I deserve to know what’s going on.” But he knew he’d have to wait until they were ready to tell him. Unless …
He herded his siblings toward the barn and told them he’d meet them there shortly. Then he turned back to crouch beneath the open kitchen window in the shelter of a lilac bush.
“Daniel, what are we going to do?” Danny heard the fear in Mama’s voice and the strength of it surprised him. “I thought we’d left Russia far behind.”
Papa’s response came in short bits, as if he were pacing the length of the kitchen. “We’re not that far from Russia, Luise. There’s no one to stop them.”
“But the Amur River is the border. Do borders mean nothing?”
“Not now.” Papa’s voice was close; he must be standing directly at the window where Danny crouched. “Now that the war’s over, everything is in turmoil until the Allies reset the borders. Right now it’s a free-for-all.”
“We should have gone to America with Phillip and Jasch.” Mama’s voice quaked. “Do you think we’re in danger?”
Papa’s answer took a while to come, and when it did, Danny sensed false confidence in his tone.
“I doubt it. They probably just want horses. Maybe that’s what the meeting is about. We’ll sell them some, keep them happy and otherwise ignore them.”
Danny heard his mother begin banging around at the stove. “Of course, you’re right. We’re not a threat. They don’t care about us anymore.”
Danny started to sneak away to the barn, but Mama’s voice stopped him with its sheer terror.
“Daniel! Do you think it could be … him?”
“No!” The reply was sharp, followed almost immediately by softer tones. “Don’t worry, Luise. He couldn’t have survived.”
Danny’s mind whirled with questions. Who were Papa and Mama so afraid of, and why? And if this person had survived whatever they referred to, what interest did he have in the Martens family after fifteen years? His father preached at the neighborhood gatherings almost every Sunday, for heaven’s sake. What kind of threat was that?
Danny continued to mull it over as he trudged to the barn to help with chores. When he entered the barn, Sara was wiping the saddle and bridle with an old rag while Manya and Ben milked the cow. Danny grabbed the pitchfork but stood thinking. What was so important that it had his normally calm parents worried? He was old enough to know the truth and he intended to have it.
That evening after supper, while Mama put the children to bed, Danny seated himself on the corner of the parlor sofa closest to his father’s easy chair and tried to look as grown up as possible.
“Papa, what news did you and Mr. Giesinger hear when you were last in Harbin?” He felt a bit awkward since he usually had little interest in politics, but it seemed to be at the heart of the matter. Papa spoke without meeting his eyes.
“Change is coming, son. I hope we can weather it.”
“Of course we will, Papa. What kind of change?”
His father regarded him for a long moment and Danny sat straighter. Papa sighed and rested his forearms on his knees, eyes on the floor.
“Now that the war is over, I think the Russians are just flexing their territorial muscles, but we’ll have to be watchful.”
“Why? What do you think they will do?”
His father glanced up at him, eyes dark with unspoken possibilities, but his face cleared instantly as he looked past Danny toward the kitchen.
Danny turned to see Mama in the doorway.
“Come sit, my dear. We will soon be busy with harvest and will have little enough time to relax.”
Mama sat on the sofa next to Danny, and he thought her smile seemed forced. Her eyes were wide as she looked at her husband, but she spoke of daily things as if nothing bothered her.
And then Danny knew that Papa was not only protecting the children, he was also protecting Mama from the whole truth. And Mama protected her children by pretending there was no threat. What could be frightening enough that his parents would hide these things from him and from each other? Maybe Mr. Giesinger had spoken more freely with his family. If so, Rachel would tell him. He’d slip out and talk to her yet tonight.
Rachel noted how he stood straighter and smiled when she said his name, his dark eyes on her face, on her hair as it blew freely in the breeze.
“How’d you sneak away from your mother? Doesn’t she have endless work for you this time of year?”
She felt her smile fade. “She’s all in a tizzy. I needed to get away for a bit.” She turned to look out across the fields at the brilliant sunset. “What do you think it’s all about?”
He shrugged. “Yesterday when I was out with the herd, a group of Russians came to ask about the horses.”
“Yes, Carl told me. He was outside climbing trees instead of doing what Father had asked him to do, and he saw the men ride by. Scruffy bunch, according to him.”
Danny pulled a dead branch off one of the poplar trees and snapped it into smaller lengths, dropping them as they broke. “They were arrogant and demanding. I wouldn’t trust them as far as I could see them.”
“Do you think they’d steal horses?” Rachel watched him break off another branch.
“Wouldn’t put it past them.”
She laid a hand on Danny’s sleeve. “Do you think there’s reason to be afraid?”
At that moment Danny’s face cleared and she knew he would try to ease her concern. “No, I don’t expect they are really dangerous. Just showing their teeth a bit, you know?”
“Don’t play these games with me, Danny.” She moved to stand in front of him and met his eyes directly. “Is it the horses they want or is it us?”
He frowned. “Why would they want us?”
“Danny, I’ve heard some things Father has said to Mother. He tries to protect her from the truth, like you’re trying to do for me now, but he’s worried.”
He ran a hand through his shaggy hair. “From what I can figure, the Russians are not good at forgiving and forgetting.”
“What does that mean?”
“It means our parents don’t trust the Russians one bit, not even after fifteen years. But I’m sure there’s something they’re not telling us. They’re awful worried.”
“I think you’re right. Mother and I were at the market in Lungjiang last week and we heard some of our Russian neighbors from Immigrantville talking. They think it’s only a matter of time until more Russian forces show up around here. Some of the army divisions that passed through Harbin are headed to the main military headquarters in Shenyang.
“Some of them are also moving through here. Mother acted as if she hadn’t heard the gossip, but as soon as we got home, she and Father had a long talk about it. Both sounded agitated, but they wouldn’t tell us anything.”
Danny shook his head. “But why would the Soviets care that we’re here? Surely they don’t remember Papa or your father, or even the Russians settled in Immigrantville.”
She snorted. “Or the two-hundred thousand White Russians who fled to Harbin after the revolution, many of whom were sent back to Russia? Or the Russian settlement of Immigrantville that we can see from here, or the city of Shenyang which the Russians call Mukden, where they have set up an army base? You’re not the only one who eavesdropped, Danny.”
She tucked a strand of hair behind her ear and looked out at the fields again. “We’d best be listening if we want to find out anything. And praying that we’ll be protected.”
They walked back to the dirt path that connected their homes. “See you later,” said Danny. “Let me know if you learn anything.”
“Yes, you too.”
She walked back to her yard through the dusky autumn evening, worry pulling at her mind like the wind pulled at her skirts and her hair.