“Shit,” Olenin muttered to himself, dropping his gun and wiping his slick forehead on the sleeve of his circissan coat. He slumped against a tree for a second, mentally slapping himself for getting into the same problem that he had the previous day: he was lost. Lyam sat at his feet, wagging his tail and looking up at him, sticking his tongue out and panting. To Olenin, it seemed like the dog was smiling mockingly at him for his stupidity. The dog had been no use in getting back to the village prior, so they would be on their own until they stumbled back to the group of huts out of blind luck, or someone found them.
Glancing up at the sun, which was partially blocked out by the treetops, the young soldier decided to sit and gather his bearings for a few minutes. With a defeated sigh, he sunk down to sit on the grassy path. Lyam laid down next to him, just as tired as his master was. Olenin did not have the energy to swat away the mosquitos pestering himself and his dog, so he just sat and subjected himself to their agony.
“Whatever god may be out there, please help us get back before nightfall.” It was unusual for him to turn to divine intervention, but Olenin was desperate and slightly fearful of being in the lively forest at night, though he would never admit the latter aloud. A young Cossack known by the name Lukashka had escorted him back to the safety of civilization yesterday. His witty banter made the Russian note why the people in the village spoke highly of the fellow. Olenin secretly wished it would be Lukashka who would find him again; he wanted the opportunity to talk to him once more without it seeming like he was wanting attention.
While he and Lyam took a break, he couldn’t help but think more of his hopeful savior. In the hour he had gotten to know him, he had taken a great liking to him. Like himself, the Cossack felt closely drawn to the outdoors and to comraderie among men. The man had told tales of adventures with fellow Cossacks and teased Olenin about the friends the Russian had left behind in Moscow. In a way, Lukashka reminded him of Maryanka: unashamed, direct, and captivatingly beautiful.
Olenin did not understand what the villagers had said when they described him as not particularly attractive. Those assuring eyes and entrancing smirk had held his attention for the whole time they were waltzing back to the Cossack village. He was fit and healthy looking, and Olenin had inferred that years of roughhousing and physical labour had molded him as such. It would be entirely dishonest for him to insist that he wasn’t attracted to Lukashka the same way he was Maryanka; The young man and woman both had taken a part of his heart.
Previously, Olenin had never felt love for anyone, asides for maybe his late mother. Growing up, he had only seen men and women married together, but barely tolerating each other, making him question the existence of any such adoration. Until now, he thought that perhaps love was a philosophical idea that everyone claimed to subscribe to for the sake of appearing normal yet did not exist because it was impossible, and love and romance were only words woven by poets and philosophers. These two new figures in his life broke that idea entirely. He felt a warm feeling in his stomach whenever he caught the attention of either, and lust-filled thoughts occasionally crept into his mind at the most inconvenient times.
Lyam let out a sharp yap at the sight of a pheasant shooting through the trees, flying out of danger from the dog who had tried to nip it mid-flight. Olenin was pulled from his deep conscious and reached for his gun, but the bird was out of sight by the time his hand clutched the weapon. He jumped to his feet anyways and slung the gun back over his shoulder.
“Come, Lyam!” he called to the husky. It was slightly darker and cooler now, the sun letting its last life-giving rays pour over the steppes in a golden flood. With his mind as clear as it could be in the pressing scenario, Olenin marched in the direction he hoped would lead him to the village and back to the hut he was staying in. Every step he took stole away at the little energy he had remaining; and every step left him even more lost than the one before. Just as he was ready to sink to his knees and weep out of desperation, the sound of hoof beats coming towards the lost party peaked his attention. A horse was galloping their direction, carrying a man donning a white felt cap. The dog barked, but stayed at his owners side. With a cry of joy, Olenin kissed Lyam on the head and ruffled the dog’s scruffy neck.
The horse slid to a stop, tossing her head at the tight grip the man held on the cracked reins. Just as it was yesterday, it was Lukashka, and Olenin felt the same warm feeling he had experienced earlier. He could tell that the Cossack had been heavily drinking previously, by the way he sat slightly off balance on the mares back, and the slight slur of his words.
“So, ‘mitri Andreich Olenin, you got yourself stuck out here again?” Lukashka laughed, his shoulders rising and falling lightly.
“Yes, it seems it is still unwise for me to go hunting alone. How did you know I was out and lost?”
“Eroshka came to me and told me, ‘that lovely Russian boy went out again, go search for him if he’s not back by sunset,’’ he motioned to the dying light on the horizon,” clearly you’ve run out time, my dear.”
Olenin awkwardly bit his lip and lowered his gaze, feeling embarrassed that Eroshka thought him incompetent, and even more so that the old man had been right. “I suppose I should be thanking you. The thought of staying alone in the woods was not appealing,” he remarked in a reserved whisper.
Lukashka said nothing, and settled for giving him an enchanting grin as he helped Olenin onto the back of the horse. The Cossack lightly slapped his friends arm in jest.
“What about Lyam?” Olenin pondered. The dog stood by the horse’s side, gazing up at him as if he were waiting for instruction.
Luka gave him a slightly odd look. “He’s a dog, he can run beside the mare.”</p>
And with that, he tapped the mares side with his whip, and she settled into a steady, quick canter. The sunlight was barely clinging to the skies of the steppes, but it was just enough for them to safely ride back in time. Lyam sprinted alongside, yipping with joy at running freely over the rolling mounds of land.
Olenin shoved his heels down and clung to Lukashka to keep his balance, closing his eyes and hearing his friend sing a holiday song as the mare flew over the earth. The former embarrassment he felt subsided, a more content feeling taking over him. He was impressed by the sure-footedness of the horse. Never once did she falter or misjudge her striding. At one point a rough brush of hedge lay in front of them. To Olenin’s surprise, she did not duck to the side of it, but instead threw herself over it with dedication. The mare perfectly tucked her knees under her as she leapt, and continued with ease to gallop towards the gate of the village which appeared on the horizon line.
“Ho, steed!” The Cossack called, pulling the horse to a sliding stop. He leapt off her back, and helped Olenin off. Lyam came trotting up beside them where they stood outside the side gate of the village. The husky sat down and looked up at them with his obedient eyes.
“So, Andreich, are you going to wander into the same woods again and have me come to your aid tomorrow?” Lukashka asked in a mischievous tone. He grinned at his Russian friend, taking the horse’s reigns over her head and letting her eat the grass on the side of the road.
Olenin could not stop his cheeks from flushing crimson with chagrin. “No, I will find someone to come with me.”
He felt a hand clap his back. “I’d come with you if I weren’t due back at the outpost later,” joked Luke. His smiling eyes made Olenin clueless about what to say. He noticed that the man’s white cap had fallen off on the way back; perhaps he would find it on his hunting tomorrow.
Lukashka met the stare Olenin didn’t even realize he had been holding. “Does my face look strange to you?” He asked.
“No, I was just admiring it. If you came to Moscow, you would fit right in. The handsome men are well liked there, just as you are here,” Olenin waxed poetically. His words were meant to convey the way he felt about the Cossack, but not so much as to raise questions. Unfortunately, subtlety was not his strong point.
The same lively grin was thrown his way as Lukashka slung his arm over Olenin’s shoulders, leading him and the mare into the sleeping village. It was mostly dark, save for a few candles in the windows of huts.
“You find me handsome? Perhaps I should be affianced to you, the girls here just beg me to buy them sweets, with no real love for me. No nice words for this young fellow,” Lukashka said in a sly whisper. Shaking her head, the mare trotted into a paddock after her bridle was removed and her hindquarters slapped lightly. Lyam laid down on the cobblestone.
Olenin had some scintillating remark, but he did not say anything, for the Cossack grasped his cheek suddenly and kissed his lips, laughing affectionately afterwards. His whole body went hot for that brief second; someone he had come to love kissed him for the first time in his life. It was his beautiful Lukashka too, the man he inwardly admired and wanted to love. Confusion, excitement, and a desire to kiss him back had filled Olenin’s body and soul in that moment. Surely it felt longer than it had actually happened; it couldn’t have been any longer than three seconds, although it felt like three years to Olenin.
“Oh, you sweet creature! If you were given a dress I’d ask you to be my housewife!” Luke said joyously. His smiling eyes never dimmed as he beamed at Olenin. “Come now, I will take you back to your hut and we can drink together. The sun may have retired for the night, but my spirit has not, and I should hope yours has not either! Come with me, you kindly thing.”
At a loss for words entirely, Olenin let himself be led down the street until they came to the hut he was stationed in. His worn out legs barely got him up the stairs and across the porch, and he felt himself release a long, held in breath when the two of them finally sat down in the kitchen room. Looking down, he saw Vanyusha asleep beneath the window, with his coat and a quilt pulled over his small body.
For the next hours, the men drank together, telling stories and cracking wise shots at each other, trying their best not to wake the sleeping servant. Olenin vividly remembered Lukashka kissing him many more times; on the lips, cheek, neck, and palms of his hands. Exactly why he did those things he couldn’t always remember, but the feeling of warm lips on his skin was new and unfamiliar to him, but certainly welcomed and appreciated. Alcohol affected his memory, as it did to almost every man, so, consequently, bits and pieces of their drinking faded away and others stayed. One thing that stuck clearly with Olenin was himself stumbling onto his cott with Lukashka, whose hands were all over him, and his fine Circassian coat falling to the dusty wooden floorboards.
In the morning, Olenin was awakened by the soft sunlight skipping through the window and caressing his face. His breeches, white shirt, and boots were draped across the floor with his coat, as were items from Lukashka’s uniform. The aforementioned Cossack lay flush against him, still sleeping, presumably without garments on too. Taking a deep breath to combat the rising color on the apples of his cheeks, Olenin glances at the peaceful, resting face of Luke.
Vanyusha was cooking downstairs, but he did not want to get up quite yet. What exactly their relationship would become was unsure to him, but to know that his affections were returned felt like a blessing from heaven. Love for Lukashka overfilled his formerly neglected heart. It made him look at the world with a new, fresh perspective. What he had previously thought about the notion that people could ever really love each other was changed entirely. Perhaps subtlety had not been his most advanced skill. Yet in the most unexpected way, it was his inability to be subtle that had brought upon this new mindset to him. Or, he possibly could just have been overthinking it, and things just happened as they were meant to. Regardless of how fate played out, be it inevitable or malleable, Olenin’s life felt complete for the first time.