12 January, 1940
Ilya sat against the bank, his chest heaving against the scratchy wool tunic tugging at his neck; a thin barrier against the frigid air. His trouser seat was sticking to the snow and the cold began to rise up through his body by degrees. He shifted every few moments and curled his fingers in their mittens, tapped his boots together to knock life back into his toes. It wasn’t working. Every minute he lingered a little warmth would flee him. His nose ran but it froze just below his nostril. He was like a scrappy child with a dirty face. He wondered if his constant shaking was from the creeping hypothermia or the violence.
The still and peaceful silence of the waning evening belied what had recently occurred. Ilya had been sitting here for nearly an hour and soon the sun would set and he would be alone among the dead. And if he remained here when night fell he would soon join them in sleep.
Ilya huddled against a low, frozen snow drift which had been pushed against the forest road. It provided shallow protection from the wind, which wailed through the hollow wood. The trees beyond were pocked with holes ripped by machine gun and rifle fire. Branches lay about; split from the trunks by shards of twisted shrapnel. Bits of bark and pine needles strewn about the snow like confetti. Only this was no celebration. The forty-five bodies of Ilya’s comrades lay across the road and the surrounding woods. They stretched out in the snow like so many sleeping and fatigued figures, at the wheels of blown out truck; their forms grotesquely frozen in place where they breathed their last. The blood of the violence lay in dark, frozen pools by the side of every body, droplets scattered across the snow. The purity of white was blighted by the murderous crimson of spilt blood. An hour before, Ilya and his comrades were trooping through the frozen forest, heads bowed against the wind and hands thrust into deep pockets. They had forgotten that their worst enemy was not the cold.
The initial moments crippled the fighting effectiveness of the whole column and shocked them against delivering a fighting response. None heard the distinct pop of the mortars in the distance. Nor had they noticed the concealed enemy on their flanks. They had walked into a simple trap. Then the shells rained on the road, eviscerating trucks and shattering men in bursts of high explosive.
Hoping to escape the killing on the road, the men scattered into the wood on both sides, straight into the white death. Machine guns swept the road clear and cut them down, soldier and commissar alike. Hidden marksmen shot the ones lucky enough to escape to the ditches and trees. Ilya’s rifle company fired into the forest in desperation–hoping to somehow make the killing stop. It was over in a little under twenty minutes. The men died cold and alone, their cries and screams drowned by the dense snow, which began to settle over the still bodies like a shallow grave. No one cared that for the screams of pain, or the weeping in the despair of aloneness, it only reminded them of their own impending death. And here was Ilya, having survived the slaughter, left to die in the cold. Two men lay not a meter from his boots. Face down in the snow and arms outstretched in desperate plea, they died trying to reach the same refuge of Ilya, but were felled by rifle fire before his own eyes. They died as he watched helpless and powerless.
Ilya forced his mind awake at the prospect of being regailed as a hero of the Motherland. His name could be plastered on posters and paraded as an example of statesmanship and good Soviet masculinity. Would his younger brother Shashenka believe the lie and do likewise? The idea of dying in this desperate wilderness wasn’t at all frightening to Ilya. It was almost a blessed escape from the last hour of torment. Now he could simply close his eyes and let the cold usher him into eternity. But the thought of his young brother looking upon his fate and demise as something desirable aroused Ilya’s will to flee and prove differently.
Yet the possibility of escaping the battlefield was far too distant. It could not be done. There was no point in that. Ilya gritted his teeth in angry stubbornness. He thought and traced the steps and choices that brought him here. From the vibrancy of youth and idealism to the pressure of the State and glorification of service, he started to chafe at his choices. He hated them. Ilya shook his head in disbelief and regret. How inutterably foolish and wasteful.
He could never go back. This was the end one way or another. Instead, he would wreak as much death and revenge before he expired. Renewed with a fleeting sense of purpose, Ilya reached forward and pulled his discarded rifle from the snow. He slid the bolt back and inspected the magazine.
“Four shells” he murmured, “nearly an hour of battle and I fired only four shells.” He had let his friends and comrades down. While they bravely fought and died he had forgotten to even fire. He locked a shell in the rifle’s chamber and pulled himself to the top of the snowy ditch. The wind drew across his exposed face and he felt like clay. Animated clay.
From his vantage on the road, shielded by the burnt out tires of the Gaz, Ilya saw for the first time the cause of his rifle company’s annihilation. They were ghostly, he thought, wrapped in house-sheets and off-white camouflage. They were nearly invisible in the nearing twilight. First he saw two, then five, then nearly a dozen as they emerged from the wood. Finally Ilya saw them as men, making human movements, and he finally saw them as his fighting equal, not a deadly myth to be feared–White Death.
Ilya’s murderous plan formed in his weary mind. As the victors inspected their handiwork, unaware that a member of the dead company was well and alive, he would crawl into a position behind them to cause as much death of his own before they extinguished him. Two, five men? How much revenge could he exact? Ilya rolled down the embankment to pilfer a dead man’s equipment. The corpse was that of a recent corporal. He’d died of shock after sustaining only a minor wound. He lay face up, arms drawn across his chest–a vain attempt to maintain fleeting warmth and life. His head looked straight ahead, mouth locked tight in focus. The moisture of his eyes were frozen and bore no life. What had he seen, eyes locked heavenward?
Ilya swung his PPD submachine gun across his back and unslung the corporal’s grenade pouch and wrapped it across his own waist. He painfully crawled along the ditch, moving his muscles and warming his blood. At a safe distance beyond the battlefield he crawled across the road into the opposite ditch. Wearing the obvious dark brown uniform of the Red Army, Ilya knew he stood out like spilt borscht on a new carpet. But it wouldn’t matter. It would be over soon. Now the snowfall gave way to the setting sun at Ilya’s back. The rays pierced through the strands of pine and he could see the Finn’s frozen breath in the air not fifty meters away. It was an unexpected odd in the Russian’s favor.
This was his chance, Ilya knew. They were busy picking weapons off the dead and stacking them. One lit a cigarette. The smoke drew upwards, giving him away. Another man was pulling the frozen bodies off the road for burial.
Pulling into prone, Ilya brought his Mosin to his shoulder. The cold wood pressed and practically froze against his cheek, and he regulated his fearful, excitable breathing. The sights lined against a man’s head fifty meters away. Ilya poked his trigger finger of his mitten through the guard. Stiff and numb, he had no idea how much pressure he’d need to squeeze a shot away. The Finn drew on his cigarette, raised his head and exhaled into the sky. Ilya closed his eye, smoothly exhaled; index finger straining against the frozen trigger.
The Finn exhaled for a last time. He then casually observed the smoldering butt and discarded it into the snow, walking off to help his friends. Ilya released the tension, but still aimed at the Finn’s head. Finally he let go the trigger altogether, racked the bolt back, sending the shell flying into the snow. He pulled the rifle away from his cheek, together with a couple of layers of skin off his jaw. he didn’t even feel it he was so cold. It was over. He tossed the rifle to his side, unslung the PPD and unfastened his grenades. Ilya rose to his numb feet and stepped onto the road leading to the Finns, his arms high above in surrender.