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A Morsel Off the Spit

by Catfish Russ

Yelena Malikova hunched down under her heavy winter coat, one that she had not taken off in months. She stepped as quietly as she could, not wanting to give away her position, watching her heavy Soviet winter boots she had found a week ago on a dead tanker from the 62nd Red Army.

The snow crunched under the weight of her load, a PPsh drum-fed machine gun and a Mosin-Nagant sniper rifle fitted with a German scope she had found in November. She had also taken the dead soldier’s vodka and his papirosy and matches.

Yelena worked her way through the rubble towards what was left of a smoking building that used to be a three-story printing press for Stalingrad’s daily. Most of the building was gone, but Yelena had found a lone room on the top floor with an intact ceiling and walls that protected her from the constant wind and yet allowed her to shoot down German scouts looking for new ways into Stalingrad, or just looking for food. She even shot a few deserters.

Yelena traded some carbine rounds for a couple of sturgeon filets from a fisherman hiding in a warehouse to the east. They were wrapped in wax paper and tucked inside her coat along with a handful of salt and a few coals she would stoke to cook.

Yelena entered the building through a hole blown out by munitions and worked her way up a rickety wrought-iron ladder that took her to her third floor perch. She pushed open the door and threw her stuff down, pulled off her guns and sat back to reach for a cigarette. Yelena placed the two coals in a makeshift fire pit in the floor, pulled a paint can filled with gasoline off a shelf, and doused the coals conservatively. In the distant north, artillery sounded again.

She pulled a cigarette out, broke it in half, and searched her coat pocket for the matches. The wind picked up and the light looked like a storm coming in, and it was getting dark now around 1730 hours. She lit her cigarette and drew in deeply, then exhaled and used the rest of the match to light the coals. After a few minutes, she placed a grill over the fire and threw on the filets. Yelena fished out the vodka bottle and uncorked it, took a sip of it and placed it back.

The fish would smell out here in this abandoned edge of the city where mostly one smelled cordite and rotted flesh. German patrols would know someone was here, and worse, they would know there was food around. Fortunately the wind was blowing to the east, not the west, where foot patrols from the German 6th Army appeared.

She cooked the fish anyway, all of it, both filets, carefully using only as much gasoline and coal as she needed. When the filets seemed done, she threw them onto a canteen mess kit and poured the salt on them. She took another sip of vodka and devoured the sturgeon, and wiped the bottom of the mess kit with a piece of bread.

That was it. She was down to a quarter of a loaf of bread. But the fish filled her and she would be OK for a few days.

Yelena was 19 years old and absolutely beautiful, though she would not even know that until the war was over. Yelena had trained as a sniper for the Red Army, and her unit had been decimated in the opening of the invasion of Stalingrad. She decided to stay here as she was, hidden in this building, picking off stragglers or scouts from nearby Wehrmacht units.

She threw some wood on the fire, legs of chairs she had found throughout the rubble of this building, and pulled out a huge quilt, also found in the ruins of the second story. She leaned back, covered herself, stared out through a hole in the upper wall and, as the light faded, she slept.

Yelena dreamt of Liova, a boy she fancied whose parents had migrated to Stalingrad to work as Communist Party organizers. He had that hard look of boys from the Ukraine: muscled, hard-worked, even somewhat tanned or olive-complexioned. She had kissed him once in a park not a kilometer from where she was now. Her school was taking a field trip to see the planetarium in Stalingrad when she followed him outside during the presentation and started up a conversation.

Later that summer he took her hand during a soccer match and they started dating. Yelena’s father had died of pneumonia when she was a child and her family was just her, her brother Lev and her mother, a sultry beauty who seemed most adept at getting men to pay for her rent and food.

There was no shortage of suitors either. But one blended into another as her mother wandered aimlessly looking to fill in the holes that no person ever really fills: anxiety, depression, even boredom. Try as she might, Yelena couldn’t remember the sound of her mother’s voice. She and her brother both disappeared. When Yelena came to visit after training, everyone on her block was gone.

Yelena heard voices and awoke with a start. It was 0400 hours and she heard the crunch of boots from at least two men who were walking and talking about 100 meters out. A minute later, she could tell they were rounding the corner of the building across the main boulevard she looked out on. Germans. Talking. Laughing.

Yelena crept up to the hole in the wall she shot out of and looked down. In the dark of night, snow still illuminates. The three soldiers stopped and sat on an overturned bench in the middle of the street directly below her. The wind had died down and in the dense cold air, every single creak was an alarm.

“Ich rieche Fische. Und Sie?”

“Nein. Ich rieche nichts.”

Now all three sat and caught their breath.

“Wir sollten umkehren.”

“Niemand ist hier.”

The middle one lit a cigarette and she could see all three of their faces. Yelena decided to shoot all three and opted for her machine gun. It was too dark to snipe, despite the good contrast from the snow. The Ppsh wasn’t accurate. But from here, she thought, a full drum of 7.62-mm should catch everyone.

“Das Regiment ist verloren.”

“Das Regiment ist tot.”

She slowly lifted the heavy gun straight up from its cradle, rested it on the ledge and pointed the barrel. Rehearsing, she took silent deep breaths and practiced the arced path the barrel would take from where she would start: firing at the soldier on the left to where she would sweep to the right and hit the other two.

On the street, all they could hear was the ping of the safety coming off.

A deafening burst of full automatic fire, the stifling smoke of gunfire and the cries of surprised men, shattered the silence. A full meter of fire lashed out of the barrel and Yelena pulled the trigger and swept back and forth across her targets until the drum was empty. Just as quickly as it had started, it was quiet.

All three lay back. The two on the end had stopped breathing, the one in the middle began twitching and sputtering. Yelena decided to let him die without spending any more ammo. “Shouldn’t have invaded my country,” she cursed under her breath.

In the morning, when she could be sure there were no other patrols out, she would go down and rob the bodies. Anything worth eating wouldn’t spoil in minus 20-degree weather.

Around 0600 Yelena awoke again, not sure why. She peered out to the street below and could see plainly that the three men she had killed were still right where she last saw them. And utterly silent.

Then off to the west, in the distance, something was shining. She hunkered down and watched, trying to make sense of it. Was it a single headlight? A flashlight? A signal lamp? She couldn’t tell, except that it was a small bright light about the height off the ground of a person and it was slowly headed her way.

Yelena picked up her sniper rifle, pulled the lens caps off and looked through her scope. It was small intensely bright light, floating above the ground, and lighting the ground below it as it moved.

A fossergrim, Yelena thought. A gnome that inhabits the forests of western Russia and can make itself invisible. “Or Rusalka,” she whispered, a demoness from Russian fables that wreaks havoc when she arrives. Yelena rubbed her eyes, then peered through the scope again. As it grew closer it became harder and harder to deny.

You often see things in combat that you don’t want to see or that make no sense. And it is sometimes a struggle to make sense of it even when you are looking right at it.

The first time you see a dead man, there is a sort of pall that comes over you. This is your fate, too: a lifeless body. The first time you smell death and see horrible cruelty, a piece of shrapnel that cuts a man’s legs off, a man screaming for his mother, all these things are intrusions, and all of them create psychic scars. But part of life is the will to fight to survive.

The first time she killed a man herself, something snapped inside her and she could never be carefree again. She didn’t know what this was. She hoped that, when it arrived, it would be plainly obvious what it is. The tension would break.

Yelena remembered hunting with her father in a distant forest where three squirrels on a floor of leaves could sound like a party of elk in heat. The mind will hear a noise and fill in a picture. You see things and try to integrate them into what you know is real. It doesn’t always work.

The floating light moved evenly and slowly across the field and the roads running north and south. Everywhere it floated, it gently lit the ground under it. It seemed headed directly her way, Yelena thought. She reached under her top and grabbed her cross. She sat on a bucket where she did most of her sniping and watched as the light crossed more rubble, gently rose above the bodies below and stopped.

For a moment the light changed, red, blue, gold. Then a cone of light illuminated the bodies and very slowly a man appeared. Like a deep sea diver in a deep sea diving suit. His boots were large, metallic, weighted, and a thick pressure suit deflated when he pulled up the face mask. He struggled to one knee between the soldier on the right and the one in the middle. The man pulled off his gloves and in the light provided by the floating beacon, he went through their pockets.

First he pulled a bottle of vodka out of a coat pocket, unscrewed it and smelled it. He screwed the cap back on and put the bottle in a bag. He then found a 9-mm Lüger and looked at it closely. The man had dark, short-cropped hair and seemed utterly unaware that a sniper watched his every move. He placed the Lüger back in the holster and moved to the MG44 laying across a soldier’s lap. He picked it up properly, pointed it as if he would fire it and put it in his bag.

The man scooted to the left and pulled open the coat of the German lying there. He pulled out a tin of fat and opened it, and smelled it, poked at it with a finger and tasted it. He put his finger back in for a second dip.

Yelena had been looking for fat for a long time. Sometimes it was butter, but it made cooking more palatable and it was of course flammable. She reached for her machine gun, slammed another clip in, and charged it. The man jerked around and looked up at her, startled, eyes wide open, his face thin; he dropped the tin, grabbed his bag and brought his visor back down.

She opened up on him and bullets beat snowy dust up behind him as they passed though him. In a second, he was gone.

The cone of light descending from the beacon winked out, leaving the cold bodies dark and motionless once again. The light floated back towards the west, slowly, evenly, across the main road, over spools of phone lines and cable car cables and out into the field. There it stopped and disappeared.

Rather than wait until sun-up, Yelena lit her lantern, threw her machine gun over her shoulder and decided to go take provisions from the three dead soldiers while there was still something left.

She found two more tins of hardtack, a rifle cleaning kit, shaving razor and blades, hard soap, and two Hindenburg candles and fuel tabs. And the tin of fat the visitor had dropped. She put them in her bag, dragged the bodies across the street and headed back up to her perch.

All through her life Yelena thought about the man from the light. She called him the “scavenger” in her own mind. But some years later, smoking a cigarette on her Moscow apartment balcony, something struck her, something that she had felt from the moment she saw him but couldn’t quite put a finger on.

She didn’t know who he was or what he was doing. She imagined he might have been a man from space. Or from the future, or from America. Whatever he was running from or looking for, he was hungry. Just like her in Stalingrad all those years ago. He was hungry.

Copyright © 2009 by Catfish Russ

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