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THE SEVENTH MAN
A war story.
One man wants death.
Another feigns death to cheat death.
A group of partisans help a man named Osip Yevseevich Gershanovich across the the front to some Red Army troops. He is nearly dead; he has almost no flesh left on his body, his skin has patches of dark blue all over it, and he carries an eternally sorrowful expression.
The partisans helped Gershanovich across with great danger to themselves, because even to them he is such a strange character. For days, he mutters nonsense in a dream-like state. He says he was the seventh man, and that the pin of the grenade was too stiff to pull out.
Gradually, he begins to speak more naturally, He tells the soldiers about his family, his wife and five children. They are all dead now, killed along with five hundred others at the Borisov concentration camp. He begins to speak about joining them under the ground, where they are probably warm. He wants to join them, but he needs to kill more fascists first.
Not much later, four partisans arrive who know Gershanovich. They say that he was one of the most skilled and intelligent partisans they've ever known. They even claim that he had had a bullet to the head at close range, but he stopped the bullet with his mind. The soldiers think this is ridiculous, but when they touch the back of Gershanovich's head, they do in fact feel a dent in the back of his skull.
After some time, Gershanovich recovers physically and seemingly becomes more mentally coherent. He goes off to fight the fascists again with the four partisans. Wearing a Belorussian coat and bast shoes, he heads to the camp where his children lay buried. Near the entrance to the camp, he spots two Gestapo officers smoking pipes. They are joined by two well-fed Russian prisoners, obviously collaborators.
The robust Russian prisoners are methodically picking up two frail, emaciated prisoners and throwing them down again and again onto the frozen ground. The Fascists egg them on, and the Russians continued brutalizing their countrymen, saving ammunition and providing entertainment for the Germans.
After beating the life out of the two frail prisoners, the well-fed Russians ask the Fascists for the extra rations that they were promised. The Fascists reply that there will be no more extra rations--their supply convoy was attacked by partisans.
Gershanovich approaches. He pulls the pin of a grenade and throws it into the middle of the four men. The last time Gershanovich was here he tried the very same thing, but the grenade did not explode; he only managed to smash the skull of one of the enemy with the hunk of metal. This time, however, the grenade explodes, killing the two Fascists and the two Russian traitors. Gershaovich tries to flee, but five guards appear and apprehend him.
Gershanovich is taken to the District Commander's office, a place he had been before. On Gershanovich's first visit here, in order to economize on ammunition, the Germans lined up six prisoners and shot them all through the head with a single bullet. Some prisoners had to stand on books to even out the height differences--their heads had to all be on the exact same level.
This time, when questioned by the Germans, Gershanovich says that he wants to die, and that there's no use keeping him alive just to use up food.
Gershanovich tells the officer about his idea: execute seven people with one bullet, thereby saving 14% on ammunition. The officer replies that they tried it once before, and a seventh man survived and escaped from an unfilled grave with a wound in the back of his head. The officer decides to try Gershanovich's idea anyway, because they have a new rifle that might be powerful enough. To really test it out, the commendant decides to make Gershanovich the seventh man and throw in an eighth one as well.
In the cell, the prisoners mill about, awaiting their execution. Gershanovich worries about the eighth man, hoping that he isn't a coward. If he is, he might be killed from fright.
The Germans lead the men into a cellar. Gershanovich doesn't recognize anyone there, and guesses from their speech that the other future dead men are Polish.
The German officer counts off eight men, and while he is doing so, Gershanovich reflects that even though the Germans are always economizing on ammunition, the Russians mustn't. If it took two bullets to kill one German, it would be worth it.
Gershanovich readies himself for death, knowing that he will see his children in the afterlife. Or, if there's no afterlife, at least he'll be in the same situation as his family, so it will be fair.
The officer asks the prisoners if they were ready to sleep the sweet sleep of a child. Gershanovich tries to stay awake to hear the shot, but his mind makes him faint to prevent him from feeling despair.
When he wakes up, Gershanovich touches his forehead and sees that it is intact. "It must be in my brain." he thinks; but the back of his head has only the old dent from before. "This new gun is worthless. The enemy is growing weak!" Gershanovich decides.
He puts his hand on the eighth man, a bald old man. He has gone cold and died even though the bullet never touched him. Gershanovich realizes that fear can end the whole world. "We must not be afraid." he thinks.
A German officers bends towards him, and taunts him. Gershanovich replies that he is still alive.
"Not anymore, you're not!" asserts the officer, and he pulls out his small revolver.
Gershanovich looks straight into the officer's eyes, and says it doesn't matter if he goes into the other world. His children are all there, and he'll be all right wherever he goes. Here, in this world, the people are merely people, human beings; but there, in the other world, they'll be something even greater--part of eternal nature, giving birth to new people.
The bullet enters Gershanovich's eye. He dies slowly and peacefully.
Much later, a partisan comes across the front and tells the story of Gershanovich's demise to the Russian soldiers. The partisan was the eighth man in that execution lineup. He was so focused on his attempt to play dead that he fooled even Gershanovich. The ground was frozen, so the Germans, conserving their energy, didn't dig graves. The eighth man escaped from the trench were the dead were dumped, and he came back alive to his people.
Summary by: David Parker
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