Timeless in Winter
by Jason Phillip Reeser
Part 1 appears|
in this issue.
Morning was still an hour away when Sokolov and Yermak entered the clearing. They slid out of the tree line, and walked slowly, careful to keep silent. The moon was not visible, the cloud cover negating its full phase. They could walk without fear of detection until they came right upon the house.
Yermak had a better hold on his Mosin-Nagant rifle now, keeping it down at his hip, ready for use. The bolt-action rifle was outdated, but it was all Yermak had been given. Sokolov had casually slung his own, newer Tokarev semi-automatic across his shoulders, as if he were heading back to his barracks after an early morning drill.
They reached the stone wall that bordered the house, and Sokolov stopped behind it. He had become serious now, though the smile still lingered. He gestured to Yermak, indicating he would cross the wall alone, and raised himself over it easily. He did not hesitate, but crouched low and scampered to the house, drawing himself up against it.
Yermak watched, his eyes open wide, trying desperately to see in the darkness. He could hear Sokolov’s steps sucking at the mud, but heard nothing beyond that.
Yermak was new to the group, and was sure he was more apt to fail than succeed at war. Left alone at the wall, he clutched tightly at his rifle, like a man hanging onto a rope over a cliff’s edge. Though he had been in some heavy fighting, this morning’s scouting filled him with dread.
A battle was fast-paced, frenzied, with no time to think. The dangers, though astronomical, were also obvious, and easy to keep an eye on. But silent work in the dark was much more ominous. Everything could be feared, and none of it seen. He raised his head until the rim of his helmet stood above the wall, allowing him a small gap from which he could see the house.
He could see Sokolov, flush with the stone wall of the building, holding still. Off to one side, charred bits of stone, and wood, and unrecognizable lumps lay piled and scattered as if the house had been a great candle that had melted under its own flame.
The heavy smell of a fire still hung about the place, but Yermak saw no smoke. Above and behind the house, the sun’s attempt to appear misfired, leaving only a light gray smudged across the horizon. It was enough to break the black ink of night, and Yermak focused his eyes on a black doorway beyond the rubble. His stomach knotted when he realized a man was in the doorway, looking in his direction.
Sokolov had not moved since reaching the house. He held still, listening carefully. He was pretty certain what Dezhnev had seen was not a man, but just a shadow, and he felt the house would be deserted. But while he often looked and acted crazy, he was not crazy enough just to walk into the place without a little more information.
If anyone were inside, they would soon be stirring with the dawn, and he knew people did not stir without making noise. He was willing to wait. He would not need to wait long.
Movement from Yermak’s position preceded the explosive, silence-breaking rifle shot. Another shot followed, again from Yermak’s gun, and by then Sokolov had raced back and leapt over the low wall, landing close to the young soldier. He yanked Yermak down, expecting a hail of bullets from the house. There was none.
“You saw something?”
Yermak nodded. “There was a man in the doorway.”
Neither of them spoke for several minutes. They waited, as the morning gray continued to seep around them. Yermak was breathing heavily, his fingers worked nervously over the stock of his rifle.
Sokolov crouched with his head down, considering what to do next. There had been no return fire, but if someone was in there, they may just be waiting for more light. And the lighter it became, the greater the chance that Sokolov and Yermak would die. There was nowhere to go. Dezhnev and the tree line were much too far away. He decided they could not wait any longer.
Sokolov chanced a look over the wall. He dropped back immediately.
“Is he gone?” asked Yermak.
Sokolov’s smile had disappeared for only a moment. “No, he is still there.”
“That cannot be, Sergeant. I know I hit him. If not my first shot, then for sure the second.” Yermak was clutching his rifle again. He appeared to find great solace in its presence.
Sokolov just shook his head, still smiling.
The rifle’s report shot anxiety through the men inside the tree line. Their new commander watched through his field glasses, waiting for the dawn to reveal what he could not see. It did not take long.
Through the gray mist, Dezhnev could see his two men pressed low on the stone wall. They looked to be uninjured and were at that moment beginning to crawl along the wall, skirting the house to the north. Dezhnev moved the glasses away from them for a moment to scan the house. He saw no one at the windows but cursed when he saw the form of the man still at the doorway. It had not yet grown light enough to make out any details on the man.
Dezhnev swung his binoculars around and locked back onto Sokolov and Yermak. They were nearing the wall’s edge which cut back up the south side of the house. The two boys were not long in getting to the corner, and just as quickly they bent around it and were soon lost to sight. Dezhnev again checked on the doorway man and waited.
Some ten minutes passed, and a few of Dezhnev’s men grew restless. He said nothing to them. He had more than a fair amount of trust in Sokolov, and was confident the Georgian would do what was right. He had seen the field-promoted sergeant perform splendidly, despite his cockeyed methods. And now that Khvostov was gone, he had to rely solely on Sokolov.
“That’s them,” someone said.
Dezhnev returned his gaze to the house, and saw both Sokolov and Yermak coming around the north end of the house. They were walking upright, showing no attempt to hide.
Sokolov crossed the wall, and walked out into the clearing, back toward the tree line. Yermak stayed at the wall. He sat on its crumbling ledge, his head low. Sokolov crossed the clearing at an easy pace.
Dezhnev stepped out to meet him. “Well?”
Sokolov stopped short of his lieutenant, and leaned on his rifle. He was smiling, as expected, but something about his mannerisms was different. He muttered a few words, mainly just clearing his throat, and did not offer more than that.
“Is someone there?”
Sokolov shook his head a few times, then shrugged his shoulders. One of his hands reached up and scratched his neck. “That is a good question. Is someone there? Hmm, yes. Come on. A drink would be very good right now,” he added.
He turned his back to Dezhnev, and walked back toward the house. Dezhnev watched him a moment, then followed. He caught up to his sergeant, and the two walked side by side.
As they came close to the wall, Dezhnev looked at Yermak and could see he was badly shaken. The boy was desperately trying to wipe his hands on his mud-spattered pants. He gave that up after some time and set to cleaning his glasses with intensity.
Dezhnev looked over to the doorway. As they drew closer, he could finally see that the man in the doorway was a German infantryman. His hand dropped to his holster, but before he could pull out the TT33, Sokolov reached out and grabbed his hand, preventing him from drawing the automatic.
“Do not do that,” Sokolov said softly. He shook his head, and pointed toward the north side of the house. “Come over here.”
Dezhnev followed his lead, crossing the wall to the back of the house. Sokolov approached an entrance and stopped. He turned back and looked at Dezhnev. “You need to see this.” He cleared his throat again, smiled unconvincingly, and ducked inside.
Yermak was now sitting on the stone wall, his mind already working to forget what he had seen. Sokolov was going back into the house for a second time, something he would have avoided if he thought Dezhnev would have let him. But he was back inside and a guide for Dezhnev, who had no idea what to expect.
Dezhnev walked through the entrance, followed Sokolov down a dim hallway and into a large open room. Sokolov held up a lantern that had been sitting on a small table by the door, and turned up the gas on it, illuminating the room.
The house was made of rough timber, maybe thirty or forty years old. It showed little of the fire damage that had ravaged the upper floor. The room was very dusty, however, as evidenced by the particles visible in the lantern’s rays.
Tables, chairs, and other heavy wooden furniture pieces were scattered about the wood floor. Mixed with those were an assortment of dishes, blankets, a few books, several steamer trunks and many odds and ends. In the midst of these were twelve Germans.
This time, Dezhnev did not reach for his sidearm. Instead, he walked into the room, and swept his eyes slowly about it. A German officer was sitting at a table by the door. He was dressed in a formal black uniform and was bent over a notepad, holding a pen.
A few feet away, a German infantryman was leaning against the wall, his hands sunk deep in his pockets. Various insignias denoted Afrika Korps, Gruppe Westfalen, and other widely varied organizations.
Some Germans were sitting at tables, eating. One lay in a corner, wrapped in a blanket, while another sat off by himself. This man was at a small table, was bent over it, his head lying on its side. Not one of them moved. None of them made a sound.
Dezhnev lifted a hand, pointing about the room. “Are they dead?”
Sokolov moved over to the German officer, reached out his hand, taking the German’s wrist.
“See for yourself, Afanasy Semyonovich,” he said.
Placing his fingers on the officer’s wrist, Dezhnev was struck immediately by the warmth of the body. Then he felt what he did not expect and dropped the wrist.
“You felt it?” asked Sokolov. Dezhnev nodded. Sokolov rubbed a hand over his stubbly face. “That’s good. I thought I was a little crazy, even for myself. But if you felt a pulse, well, that is something else. I don’t want to jump to conclusions, but it’s not hard to figure out. These men — including the one out front in the doorway — are alive. But... well, look at them.”
Dezhnev met his sergeant’s stare then turned back to the Germans. Except for the man bundled up in the blanket, all eyes were open. They simply did not move. Dezhnev pushed at the officer, who made no response.
The officer was in the middle of writing something in a notebook, his pen still touching the page. Dezhnev stepped to the man bent at the table and leaned over to take a closer look at his face. He called to Sokolov and told him to take a look. Sokolov did; the lingering smile finally vanished. The man with his head laid on the table was crying.
* * *
The platoon had formed a perimeter to the west of the house. Only the medic had been allowed to enter the house and see the Germans. Sokolov kept Yermak close to him, trying to calm his nerves. Dezhnev stayed in the house with Vasiliy Borisovich Golovin, a young medic who had seen enough of the war to make him old.
“Of course they are alive.” Golovin had bent down to observe an SS officer more closely. “Strong pulse, regular breathing. I have no idea how healthy they are beyond that. What surprises me is that Stopya said he shot the man at the door. There is no evidence of that on the body. No marks on the door frame or surrounding walls to suggest a bullet hit off the mark. If he had been anywhere near accurate, we would have seen something.
“I hate to say it, but I do not have any answers to this. They respond to nothing. Their pupils do not dilate; screaming in their ears does nothing. Even a knife prick does not arouse them.”
“Enough, Vasiliy.” Dezhnev waved at him to leave.
When Golovin exited the house, Dezhnev joined Sokolov, who stood staring out at the fields. The grey sky had begun to scatter snow across the Hungarian countryside.
“Do you know what my Grandmother used to say?” Sokolov asked.
Golovin was silent.
“Springtime is beautiful, but in foreign countries, even spring is not beautiful.” Sokolov turned to look at Golovin. “What would she have said about winter in a place like this?”
Golovin kept silent.
Both men spun to look at the house at the sound of pistol shots. Sokolov sprinted into the house first, holding his rifle to his shoulder. Golovin and Yermak followed close behind. They crashed into the main room and found Dezhnev standing with his pistol drawn. The smell of gunpowder filled the room.
“What happened?” asked the medic.
Dezhnev, his expression vacant, pointed with his pistol at one of the Germans.
“No evidence of the shot. See here? I just shot this man twice. No hole, no wound.”
The medic widened his eyes in surprise. “You shot one of them? What are you doing?”
“Testing them. You said a knife prick did nothing to them. I wanted to see what a 7mm would do.”
“Knife prick? 7mm? That’s a big difference,” spat Yermak. “You tried to kill these men? Unarmed and obviously unable to threaten us?”
“Not tried. I will kill them. I will not leave these Germans here. I cannot spare men to guard them. And I will not leave a house full of Germans behind us. If I can’t shoot them, I’ll burn them. I only look to save the Living here.”
“The Living? Who is living among us? Oh, certainly not these poor Huns. They cannot see, they cannot speak, they cannot feel. Not like us, what? What a great representation of life we are.”
Dezhnev looked indignantly upon the young private. “What are you saying, soldier?”
“I saw a man yesterday who could not even weep when his friend stepped on a land mine.”
“Lieutenant Khvostov? The Lieutenant lives no more and we can do nothing about it.”
“The Lieutenant lives no more? Now you call him ‘Lieutenant’? A close friend of yours — Sasha, you called him —dies and all you can say is he lives no more? You can’t even say it. Say it! Say he died! Sasha was ripped apart by a land mine!”
Dezhnev stared at Yermak in disbelief. He decided the private was cracking up, and feared the others would soon follow. He knew he had to end this absurdity.
Moving about the room, he began to stack blankets and boxes in a heap directly in the middle of the room. The others stood silently watching him. He grabbed a few bottles of liquor, generously pouring them over the pile.
Yermak pushed farther into the room. “You cannot do this!” he shouted.
Sokolov saw him coming and threw an arm around his waist, backing the young boy toward the door. The medic helped as Yermak began to struggle.
“These people cannot hurt you! They are alive! These are the Living!”
“Get him out of here!” raged Dezhnev. “He is forgetting his place.”
Sokolov had a solid hold on Yermak now and gently pushed him out the door. They made it down the hall and did not stop until they were outside the house. The snowfall had grown heavier. The wind increased, whipping the large flakes around them and stinging their faces. Yermak, limp in Sokolov’s arms, dropped to the frozen mud in tears.
Golovin stood next to them, staring back at the house. “What would your Grandmother have said about winter in a place like this? I do not think your Grandmother would have believed in such a place as this, Petya. I am sure I don’t.”
A long silence passed. Yermak hunched against the stone wall, his face pale and wet with snow. Golovin kept looking back toward the house, as did Sokolov. After what seemed to them forever, they reentered it without saying a word. Sokolov again led the way.
Inside, they found Dezhnev standing by the pile he had built, a lit match in one hand. He did not move. The flame continued to burn, though it never consumed the match. The sergeant and medic exchanged a glance, then left the house of the Living.
* * *
Several days later, when the 27th Army Group overwhelmed the clearing on its way to Czechoslovakia, no report was made of a house by the tree line. Sergeant Sokolov was promoted to Lieutenant and assumed command of the platoon. Later that year, Private Stepan Pavlovich Yermak and Medic Vasiliy Borisovich Golovin were killed in house-to-house fighting outside Berlin. When Lieutenant Pyotr Ivanovich Sokolov was informed, he wept.
Copyright © 2011 by Jason Phillip Reeser