Dusk descended. The purple mist of nightfall enshrouding every definable shape on the horizon. It was cold, the evening freeze ensconcing each clay particle in a frosted mist.
The untimely flash of Kagi's match couldn't dispel this mystical trance. His deft movements reduced now to a silent lumbering. Pain thrived on such existence. Physical pain, mental pain. Pain was inescapable; death was inescapable.
Mikeal trembled. His hand shook. His fingers knocked; his cigarette dropped, and the tobacco dripped from the stem. His face failed to conjure an expression.
Egor watched. His eye muscles weary transfixed on a spot beyond the horizon. He strained, then squinted. The image of the blackened valley floor, the cascading hillocks, the peach tinted horizon. He stared out again. Out there was night, dark, black, encloaking. Egor's vision had dimmed immune now to such blackness. He routinely sniffled and wiped his eyes clear of impending dreariness.
Time and silence were the enemies. The hours of waiting challenged ones sanity the absence of conversation aided that challenged, yet through each individual perspective, the were unified. They were one man and yet ever man. They were Russia and Russia was bleeding.
Distant rumblings became audible. Egor swallowed, strange how one can never become immune to such abnormality. He looked at Kagi; his eyes were sad, but unflinching. Mikeal maintained his resolute expression, yet his defiance appeared superficious. He too was afraid. He spat and gulped continuously.
The bombardment ensued. The air was clammy, rife with the smell of sulphur. Closer and closer, nearer and nearer. The impact rattled the rickety tripod. The hardened expression of Mikeal had traded its durability for fear. Inescapable fear, condescending fear. To evil fear must be the essence of war.
"Barrage, Barrage" Kagi's screams were frenzied. The bright purple flash. Plumes of faintly fire, intermingled with tassels of enshrouding steam. Ivanov was hit. His blood guttered. Egor wiped the bloody sweat clear from his eyes. He swiftly turned away.
Yet the untimely death of Ivanov had frenzied imprecations. He grabbed at his rifle and fired with rapid automation, continuously into the night, into adversary. His reaction was spontaneous and now uncontrollable.
Kagi's knuckles cracked continually. They hopped relentlessly on the metal trigger. He ignored the recoil. His eyes transfixed; his expression motionless. Slavo's appearance was, Ironic in its tranquillity. His comrade Petrov lay headless propped against a sheet of tapering sandstone.
They had come within range of enemy snipers. Bullets cascaded and rebounded. Egor turned instantaneously. Slavo was grounded, arteries punctured; his blood spumed forth, dressing the whitened sandstone in mottled scarlet.
Egor now sensed fear. It was tangible, palpable, bloody. He smelt the smell of blood. Inflated his nostrils, so the hairs stiffened and accumulated. Then coughed out rapidly in muted disgust and chronic horror.
Though defiant in defence, the pitiful troop sensed the futility of the stand. Their position was inescapable. They were isolated on the slope of a hill. They couldn't climb upwards; they would be mere targets for German snipers. The enemy continued its frontal advance. Egor gaped daringly over the barricade. There was a forest just below their platform, to the right a little, but primarily just below. Where would it lead?
Egor gestured to the others to follow. Mikeal had since been shot and limped badly. Amid the smokey feathers he, clutched to the crumpled ledge, to ease himself to the granite flats below. The vulnerable troop staggered downslope. The forest commenced at the edge of the slope. It somehow, had maintained a stillness, a silence. The cascading needle roof, the gentility of the bluebells. They felt secure.
Mirrored beads of moisture clinged to every needle. Crystallised bayonets hung from every cone. There was no sound save the continual trudging of boots in falling snow. No shrill singing from the forest birds to fill the void of silence. The sun sent its inquisitive rays through the needle roof; the light scattered, then sparkled on the glistening floor.
The snow covering was riveted with enemy boot-tracks. Darkness fell. They found shelter in an old, neglected church. Its wooden roof warped under the pressure of persistent snowfalls. Yet the limestone walls stifled the spume of wind, protected them from sub-zero temperatures, and was thus inviting to the troop.
Mikeal lay stretched against the marble altar. Kagi probed his leg in an effort to ease his pain. Egor cleaned his rifle, then cleaned it again. Work and repetition often soothed inner-unrest. They found matches, though somewhat wet. They lit what candles they could salvage, to ease the pain of contemplation.
"Here's to the folks back home in Stalingrad," said Mikeal with a laugh. "Hope they save some cake for me at Christmas." His eyes twinkled, then sparkled. A solitary teardrop seeped from his left eye, then another. He quickly turned "just the dust" he said.
The night was filled with vacuums of silence. Periodically interrupted by spontaneous laughter. Meaningless, superficial laughter that lingered. Concluding in frequent outbursts of tears. Kagi, recognising Egor as the natural leader, leaned over, pushing a soiled piece of paper into his trembling hands. Egor curiously unfolded it. It was a map; its sordid creases rendered it difficult to read. Egor squinted. It was a map of mainland Turkey. Kagi clearly consumed with eagerness, pointed to a spot on the map.
"We must go there" he whispered as if in reverence of the map. "I have friends there." It was the town of Samsun in northern Turkey. Unquestioning Egor agreed.
Egor woke early next morning. He hadn't slept. He stretched, then gaped outside. The forest landscape was encloaked in fresh snow. It glistened. German positions remained unclear; it would be best to leave early. They trudged forth with renewed vigour. Blisters had surfaced on the face and hands of Egor. Mikeal's leg had developed ulcers. Kagi's sallow complexion and suppleness of skin had hardened.
Kagi stopped. Something had arrested his attention.
"Train" shouted Kagi "Train, quick follow" Kagi ran stumbling to the nearby clearing. With apt bemusement Egor and Mikeal pursued. A single set of rusted truck lines, reinforced with saturated wooden lattes, lay adjacent to the clearing.
"Quick follow" he said. Kagi was already secured in a covet of bushes, they followed, the persistent churning drew closer the line vibrated, then shuddered.
It was a locomotive. Weathered and rusted. Its black paint reduced to mere arid chips on a mass of decomposition. Helmets came into view. Bronze green, the SS. They were manning the trucks. Long, poorly built structures, composing of horizontal planks reinforced by vertical steel. What protruded from them was inconceivable, hundreds, no thousands of outstretched limps. Their faces barley visible. Gaunt, sickly starved. Were these possibly human beings? Their skin hung loose from their bones, their eyeballs sunken, their lips had swollen, their hands wrinkled and creased their complexion a pale yellow.
"Jews" explained Mikeal "probably taken from their homeland in Kharkov." The train stopped. The troops descended.
Egor eyed the undercarriage of the rear truck. He had heard of people travelling many hundreds of miles, and surviving, through clinging onto the wheel supports or reinforcing bars. Pain was inevitable, death a likely outcome, yet he had to try. Voicing his plans to the rest; he crawled cautiously to the rear truck. Kagi followed, aiding a limping Mikeal.
Awkwardly they positioned themselves under the truck. Each clasping a rusted support bar, with feet resting on the central girder. The train started up again. The relentless wind spumed forth with renewed vigour, plummeted throughout the truckline and circulated through each individual corpse. Mikeal sensed his weight slumping. Gripping the support bar, he regained position, yet his chronic discomfort persisted. The abrading undercarriage structure rattled with admiral consistency. Crystallised layers of ice accumulated on the strut bars. It was getting colder.
Yet they had to hold on. They had travelled for over fifty kilometres, and already Mikeals expression had sacrificed its determination for despair. His complexion had become definably pale, a mystical white-tinted blue. His eyes drifted. The beads of moisture on his fair hair had frozen. He shook continuously.
Egors fingernails had splintered. The numbing freeze solidified his pain. His face invaded with interchanging expression. Kagi's eyes were closing, momentarily flickered.
"Mikeal" Egor whispered. Mikeal merely sighed. His eyes were closed. His bullet wound had become septic; his body temperature decreasing. He was a motionless corpse, clinging onto a rail. A sculpted warrior, frozen in time.
Creaking, the abraded joint of Mikeals support bar began to split. The weld cracked. Mikeal in his frozen state; dropped from his position.
"Mikeal" screamed Kagi. His body fell in line with a truck wheel and was severed. His corpse mutilated; his blood on their faces. The body of Mikeal was gone.
Egor almost slipped with horror. He couldn't speak. He felt violently ill; his stomach erupted. The disgusting fluid seeped from his mouth. Trembling, Kagi quickly pivoted Egor's head with his elbow. The vomit poured, then dripped. Egor had been saved from certain drowning.
Through the city of Rostov. The train reclined to stop. The relationship between Kagi and Egor to this point had been muted. They reclined to talk. They primarily conversed through facial gestures. Yet a fire of unity and fraternity had been ignited between them. They were subconsciously drawn to one another. They wore the same uniform, the same encrested scarlet star on the right breast pocket. They had initiated this escape. They had watched their comrade die. They would escape together.
It was noon when the train arrived in Krasnodar on the Black Sea. Egor's pain was now epitomised in his discomfort. Though had discovered more maintainable positions to the right of the support girder, their joints had seized. Their necks critted. To hold on now, required more mental concentration than physical durability. Boots were seen descending the train. The SS troops were deserting and returning to join the main army, while further reinforcements were waiting in Krasnodar.
Both Egor and Kagi were now vulnerable to the opportunist SS sniper. Their inept physical pain and extremity of discomfort had rendered their muscles unflexed. Egor struggled to let his grip ease. He attempted to ease himself to the ground. He failed. His crumpled, exhausted body fell violently on the hardened soil. With a single deft tug he pulled Kagi from position. He bruised badly.
Clutching at his shoulder, Egor proceeded to drag his comrade to cover amid some old kegs that smelt resoundingly of strong spirits. They heard voices. Two SS officers proceeded towards the kegs. Their whitened boots compressing the gentility of the snow. They strode towards the kegs.
Egor gulped. He reclined to shudder. The officers stood chatting at the kegs. One lit a cigarette; the bright flash of his swastika adorned lighter glinted in the sun. He was lean, aloof, and Nordic; he spoke in hellish tones.
"Mein Gott, Ivans, Ivans." The Nazi's shouts were hysterical. They were discovered. The officer skipped with glorified madness. Egor felt compelled to stare, fear had momentarily drowned his ability to fight. Then in a sudden act of frenzied vengeance; Egor grabbed at a rock, and hurled it at the officer. It smashed into his face, shattering both teeth and cartilage. He crumpled and fell to the ground; his unarmed comrade scampered off for reinforcements.
Circumstance had presented an opportunity for Egor, and Kagi. Grabbing Kagi, Egor hauled him to his feet; they stumbled through the breach of settlement. The harbour was in view. Maybe they could get to Samsun by merchant ship. Maybe Kagi would know someone, maybe. Kagi screamed. Egor turned. Kagi was grounded. Blood spumed from his abdomen. He coughed violently, blood spluttered from his mouth. His sprawling epitomising his relentless pain. SS troops cantered towards Egor. He ran towards Kagi.
"Go" said Kagi chokingly "Go." Egor momentarily hesitated. Would he stay? Egor scampered clear from the scene. Kagi was dead.
Tears streamed from his eyes as he ran. He sniffled in the cold. The SS continued their pursuit. He had left his comrade to perish; he would be labelled a coward. He continued to run. He tripped, No, on what. He glanced upwards in suspended terror. Crates wooden crates. Meltwater dripped. He was encased in a depot of panelled crates. It was secluded, hidden from sight.
The troops, surprised at his sudden disappearance momentarily probed the depot before returning to the station house. They were off duty.
The saturated crates were being hoisted onto some vessel. The crates weren't large, merely 4ft by 3ft. With cracked fingernails, he clawed the scantly fastened lid, free from the crate in front of him; removed its contents: abraded fasteners and bolts, and climbed in.
Egor heard a roar. He had heard Kagi speak this way. It was Turkish, the boat was Turkish.
He maintained his silence. An hour passed; he compelled himself from thinking. He stared out into the night, seeking reassurance. It wasn't there, Egor wondered if it even existed. Soon he was sleeping.
Disorderly voices woke Egor. The morning light filtered through the cracks on the lid. The boat was still, apparently docked. Where was he?
Egor forced open the lid. The boat was docked and deserted. He slipped out along the gangway unnoticed.
It was Samsun the sign on the pier head clearly stated Samsun. The seemingly unattainable had been secured, yet Egor felt only sadness, and heard only the cry's of Kagi.
Reminisces of conflict surrounded Egor. Wailing widows, Orphans, and the maimed wandered. Egor looked across the street, a sallow-skinned Turk stood shouting from a street stall. His thoughts reverted to Kagi. He had betrayed his trust, left his comrade to die, coward. The hideous title remained on his conscious.
There was a church directly across from where Egor stood. He walked slowly to the entrance. Through the iron studded wooden door. Up through the main aisle. The church was empty, save for a lone Turkish woman, dressed solely in black. Candles flickered to the right of the altar. The Inscription read
"Light a candle for the dead." Egor took three: one for Mikeal, one for Kagi, the third he placed in his pocket. He lit both candles they flickered then, brightened. Soft, pale yellow light.
Egor reached into his pocket for the third candle; he placed it carefully below the others, lighting it from their light. It flared quickly.
Egor turned and walked silently away.
back to the Short Story Page.Escape to Samsun, 30 December 1999