MakhorkaThe brandy was a gift from heaven. He'd spent most of his nights in the mountains as close to a fire as he could get, but it was the first time in many weeks that both sides of him were warm at the same moment. It was private at Gilbert's house. There was only the light of the fire --- a big one, Gilbert was liberal with his wood --- reflected in the frost flowers that covered the small windowpanes. As Khristo sipped at the aristocrat's brandy and relished the warmth that crept through his body, the Frenchman took a pouch of tobacco from his pocket and rolled two cigarettes. The smell reached Khristo all the way from the man's lap. Makhorka. Dark tobacco, strong, and there was no mistaking the aroma. Silently, the man handed him a cigarette, then extended a gold lighter."Do you like it?" the man said."Oh yes.""Just like home, eh?"Khristo sat for a time and stared into the fire. There'd been no doubt in his mind that this would happen eventually, that he would be challenged to explain who he was. He would never be considered French --- perhaps by the villagers but never by someone who knew the world. And you had to be somebody, you had to belong somewhere, you had to have a nationality of some sort. Even in heaven, he thought, where Saint Peter is the border guard. He discovered that he was angry, not so much at the Frenchman as at the circumstances of his own existence. He looked into the aristocrat's eyes for a moment and realized suddenly that the man was in Cambras not to gentle the Bonet clan, but to find out about him. Very well, he thought, you shall find out. "I am not Russian," he said, holding the makhorka cigarette in the air between them to show the man that his tactics were well understood.
"No. I am from Bulgaria. A possession of Turkey for centuries, now an ally of the Germans, soon to belong to someone else. It is the bulwark of southeastern Europe --- Christian Europe against Islam. It is a neighbor and, often, an enemy of Greece, your conquered ally. It has always been greatly desired by Russia. your unconquered ally. Romania, its northern neighbor and sometime enemy, was most recently the domain of British interests, even though the Romanian ruling class looks to France for their culture and has sided with Germany in this war. It is also part of the Balkans, and the southwestern area of the country has tended to be sympathetic to the interests of Macedonia --- divided between Greece and Yugoslavia, a country presently occupied by Germany, with willing assistance from the Croatian minority, except for those Croats who are communist and fight with Tito, whose father was a Serb and mother a Croat. And yes, I like the tobacco quite well."
The aristocrat nodded to himself for a moment, something or other had been confirmed. "You are, sir, something of a politician."
"I am, sir, a lot of things, but that, thank God, is not one of them."
The man across from him laughed appreciatively, then leaned forward. "I am not here to interrogate you, and I am not accusing you. I am only concerned with the politics at hand, not the politics of the Balkans. You must understand that in France there are several résistance movements, Catholic, communist, Gaullist, even those who would restore the Bourbon monarchy. We make common cause against the Germans, but the day is coming when the future of this country will be decided --- and it will be decided by those who come out of the conflict with the greatest strength. The Cambras maquis [resistance organization] is something of a Gaullist unit, as much as it's anything, and if you would be happier in a different political setting, well, that can be arranged for you, and no hard feelings. Well, what about it?"
"My war is right here," Khristo said. A connoisseur of traps, he felt that this was surely the softest one ever laid for him.
"Good. You'll be of assistance --- no question about it. On that basis, another brandy?"
"Thank you, yes."
"Some day, you must tell me your story."
"I think you would find it interesting," Khristo said.
They busied themselves with the brandy for a moment. For Khristo, the room grew deliciously warm.
"This war," the aristocrat said, "in some sense it makes you happy."
"That's true," Khristo said.
"The world turned me upside down a long time ago. Now the world itself is turned upside down. For the moment, we --- the world and I --- are congenial."
"But it must end."
"I don't know. I don't think about it. For now, a man with a gun can be whoever he likes. With any luck, I'll be dead before the world turns right side up again."
The aristocrat looked into his eyes for a moment, calculating. "I don't think you really mean that."
Khristo sighed. "No, you're right. I don't mean it."
"Don't give up hope," the aristocrat said.
"Everything may be put right in the long run." He handed Khristo the remaining tobacco, then rose from the chair and tossed a small log onto the fire. Khristo accepted that as a signal, chatted for a few moments more, and left soon after.
He walked across the tiny mud square of Cambras, back to the house where he slept and ate. The night was clear, the ground frozen rock hard. He looked up at the stars, sharp as diamonds in the black sky, and wondered what the Frenchman had meant by saying "everything may be put right in the long run," because he had meant something by it.