Timeless in Winter
by Jason Phillip Reeser
part 1 of 2
The dead man felt heavy in Dezhnev’s hands. He was down on one knee, his arms wrapped around the muddy and lifeless soldier. Dezhnev stared thoughtlessly at the dead man’s face. Eighteen months ago, with his family in the Amur River valley , Afanasy Semyonovitch Dezhnev would have lost all composure, all control, and wept. But not now, not here on the Ukrainian front. He did not weep. He only held the man, thinking of nothing in particular.
He did not tell himself his platoon leader was dead. He did not bother to mourn for this man, who had been, only moments before, his closest friend. Life had left Senior Lieutenant Khvostov’s body and Lieutenant Dezhnev seemed not to notice.
Cold, biting rain had fallen for most of the morning, seeping into every bit of clothing the men had wrapped around them. No one complained, it had been like this for several days, and dry was a memory too distant to miss. After dragging through miles of mud and the soaked floor of this Hungarian forest, their feet didn’t feel much of anything anyway. Their only goal: to keep moving forward.
* * *
The Platoon had spread out, moving through thick woodlands. The 27th Army Group had turned its mass of infantry to the northwest, hoping to battle with the German infantry before the III Panzer Corps arrived to reinforce.
Khvostov’s platoon clung to the extreme flank, meeting no resistance. They had been ordered to spread thin, cover more ground, and watch for any surprises from the south. The area was to be swept clean of all German positions.
Dezhnev had been walking in the rear of his squad, watching their progress, and trying not to get himself stuck in the mud that sucked at his boots. He could see a dozen men, separated by the many trees. He stepped over fallen branches, slipping as much as he was stepping.
He kept his balance, however, a skill he had developed from walking across battlefields. The heavier the fighting, the less you wanted to fall amongst the dead and dying. His mind developed a certain magical balance after one too many falls in the carnage. Such skill had been useful in the most recent battle.
The 27th Army had nearly been cut off by a German flanking movement near Karcag. It had led to some of the heaviest fighting since Leningrad. Dezhnev’s platoon had been in the middle of it all. They had suffered heavily, and after Debrecon had fallen, Khvostov had been ordered to remove the platoon to their present location north of Uzhgorod. That had been two days ago.
Dezhnev had just turned his head to judge the distance between himself and Khvostov, who had a squad on his immediate left. The sharp smack of an explosion had startled the men around him, but Dezhnev had only stared without flinching at the cloud of smoke that hung over Khvostov’s position. His own men had dropped to cover, pressing down deep into the wet ferns.
Several of Khvostov’s men slid through the foliage to check on the Lieutenant. Dezhnev had watched them, and begun to walk towards them. He signaled to one of his men. “Get up, Kolya; it could only have been a land mine. There have been no shots fired.” This had been said in a manner one might use to report the weather. His voice had trailed off as he made his way to the smoke that lingered over Khvostov.
“I have never seen this, Lieutenant.”
Dezhnev looked briefly at the broken mess that had been Khvostov, and glanced at the young Private.
“Never seen what?” He knelt down, laid his Tokarev sub-machine gun against a tree, and slid an arm under the officer’s shoulders. He pressed two fingers against the neck, and closed his eyes for a moment.
Dezhnev never really heard the young man reply. Lowering Khvostov back onto the grass, now slick with blood, he fished around in Khvostov’s pockets, took some folded pieces of paper, Khvostov’s 7mm TT33, and a few other items. Then he stood up.
A man wearing a red cross on his helmet crept up to Dezhnev, his eyes asking what he did not want to put in words. He slowly dropped next to Khvostov.
“Come on,” Dezhnev said, without feeling.
The Medic blinked, first at Dezhnev, then back at Khvostov. He wiped a muddy sleeve across his face, a useless gesture, and scrambled to his feet.
Although the rain had stopped, a persistent wind began to find its way through the trees. It carried a chill that passed easily through their wet coats, twisting through to their bodies with its grim fingers. The forest was thinning out. Cold blasts of wind crashed into the last of the trees.
Dezhnev saw right away they weren’t going to get very far. The forest line stopped at the edge of a clearing that stretched some three or four kilometers. A burned-out farm house sat several hundred meters into the clearing. It was surrounded by a low stone wall and stark fields. It had been a two-story house at one time, but now a large portion of the upper floor had collapsed, its burned rubble lying in a heap against the side of the house facing them.
A tall, skinny twenty-year old stood with his back against a tree, facing the clearing. His insignia proclaimed him a sergeant. He cupped battered binoculars to his face, whistled some sort of patriotic chorus, and brandished a lunatic’s smile.
“What do you see, Pyotr Ivanovich?” Dezhnev asked, stepping up next to his young sergeant and taking the binoculars for himself.
“Nice, quiet little place. Needs a carpenter.” Pyotr Ivanovich Sokolov worked his jaw up and down, as if he were chewing gum.
Dezhnev ignored the comment, and focused the field glasses on the house. The low wall around the house was made of stone, most of which was cracked and unkempt. Dezhnev could not make out many details beyond that. The site was quiet. Nothing moved.
Although the rain had stopped, the sky was still heavy with smoke-like clouds, and the late afternoon sun was losing its frail hold on the day, leaving a grainy shadow over the farm. The cold wind rushed at them in bursts.
There were no leaves in the trees to be rattled by the wind, and any leaves on the ground were soaked with mud. Nothing made a sound save the wind itself as it growled in each man’s ears. Dezhnev’s men were silent as well, sitting or standing by a tree, watching the farm as if frozen by its appearance.
“Well, you’d better go take a look.” Dezhnev spoke to the smiling Sokolov while continuing to stare through the glasses. “Take someone with you.”
Sokolov chuckled softly, and turned around. He whistled at a soldier several trees away. “Stopya.”
A laconic, mud-soaked private with glasses moved forward; he held his rifle by the barrel and left the stock to drag in the foliage. Stepan Pavlovich Yermak looked much younger than his eighteen years of age. “Shall we see if anybody is home?”
“Wait.” Dezhnev said sharply. He was passing the glasses over the house again, and stopped at a small doorway just a few feet from where the second story lay piled against the house. The image was dark and blurred under the grey light, but Dezhnev thought he saw the form of a man.
“Take a look at this.” He gave Sokolov the glasses and guided him to the doorway.
“The door is open. Someone in the doorway?”
“I am not sure. If there is, he is not moving. Wait for now.”
Sokolov and Yermak dropped down, resting against the tree, while Dezhnev continued to watch the shadow. Others around them were sitting, a few talked in low tones, making feeble attempts to dry themselves, or conjecture about the farm or the war in general.
No one remarked, however, on the loss of Khvostov. Time slowed past discernment. Twilight fell on the clearing, closing the curtain on the day and assuring Dezhnev they would not move into the clearing before morning. He was also sure the shadow was a man, and he was sure it had not moved.
* * *
Copyright © 2011 by Jason Phillip Reeser