Age: 17, Grade: 12
School Name: Hunter College High School, New York, NY
Educator: Lori D’Amico
Category: Short Story
The wind blew through the treetops, a low howl that echoed throughout the forest, rocking the flurry of tiny light crystals dancing through the canopy. The snow had settled heavy and deep, covering everything as far as the eye could see. The flowers and the leaves that swirled in the fall and the sweet rivers that gurgled gently were all gone, replaced with an eerie silence. The tiny white rabbit with speckled fur sat, blinked inquisitively at tiny clouds of snow blowing up, gently prodded its way through bare fronds, and disappeared into the dark warmth of its burrow, a tangle beneath gnarled roots. The whole forest seemed to be holding its breath, waiting.
The row of men marched quietly, their boots crunching softly in the powdery snow, feet sinking deeper and deeper. Each step was a battle of its own, the fight to lift one foot in front of the other, bent over to keep the snow from their cold, red faces, locate the previous man’s footsteps, and slide gently into fresh tracks. Rimsky rubbed his gloves as Petrov stuffed his raw hands further into his fur-lined coat. Grisha adjusted his scarf, whispering to the man behind him, Malinin, some sort of inside joke, laughter momentarily jolting the forest out of its sleep-like trance.
Each man carried with him a backpack, adjusting the straps as they slid off. In each man’s hand was a rifle, worn and wooden but it did the job. Their army fatigues were camouflage, their guns brown dots in a sea of white. The sun was dipping below the mountains, its fiery glow spreading over the fields, setting them ablaze in sparks of golden light. The men shielded their eyes, and the man at their helm, Lieutenant Smirnov, turned, sighed, and began to bark orders. They were to set up camp in the quiet of the forest. He had been secretive, entrusted with a special mission assigned to a small group of men. While the rest of the troops had moved on to defend Moscow or some such other grand endeavour, he was the leader of a mission that had been cryptically assigned to him by Polkovnik Vasiliev over a half-filled shot glass of old vodka and stale bread. The man had leaned over to him, close enough for him to smell the alcohol and the potatoes the man had eaten for breakfast, close enough for him to feel the man’s wet breath send goosebumps up his neck.
“I’m going to give you this letter. You and four other men are going to deliver it to General Ruslanov. You understand? This letter is more important than your life, you hear me?” Vasiliev held out the envelope.
Smirnov nodded. He tucked the letter carefully into his breast pocket, right by his heart.
All he could think about was potatoes. Fresh, baked potatoes. It felt like years since he’d had one, the way his mother used to make them, wrapped in shining foil with a large cut of butter and a sprinkle of salt. The crinkle of peeling back the aluminum, the glistening of melted butter mixed with steam, glazing your eyes over. The warmth burning the roof of your mouth, the tip of your tongue, spreading through you. Now all they had was rations of stale bread and gloopy borscht and as much cold, white snow as you could see. An all you can eat buffet, the soldiers would joke.
Vasiliev’s voice brought him out of his quiet reverie, a gleam in his blue eyes.
“Ah, but if you do well, you will be duly rewarded. Now, then. I expect great things from you.”
And with a lopsided grin and a pat on the back, the man had left him sitting in his tent. The bastard had even taken his last bottle of vodka with him. And a whole slice of stale bread. The higher ups sure were living it up.
The voice echoed through the canopy of trees, gently rustling the pine stalks.
The voice repeated itself, and Smirnov blinked the snowflakes out of his eyes.
Junior Lieutenant Petrov tilted his head as he reported: “The camp is set up, sir.”
Petrov watched curiously as Smirnov’s clouded eyes danced over snow and focused on him.
“Ah, yes. Good.”
Smirnov nodded, waving his hand, dismissing the men. His lips were still pursed, his tongue tracing the roof of his mouth in a last, hopeless attempt to retain the warmth of his memories as his teeth clattered.
Each man had helped set up the tent, which leaned lopsided as it sank into the snow, under the cover of low brush and pinecones glimmering like ornaments.
The men fell asleep quickly below the open sky, which suddenly seemed like a black cavern, a darkening mouth that promised to swallow them whole and spit them out as tiny, shimmering stars studding the night sky. As if to spite them, the evening brought colder winds, and the tent shuddered and creaked. Malinin turned to his side and snored obnoxiously. Rimsky curled up in a tight ball, as though punched in the gut, gripping the tiny silvery cross his mother had given him as she saw him off to war. Grisha lay with his hands splayed open, feet thrown out carelessly, silently laughing at some sort of gentle memory, perhaps his grandmother ladling hot stew into an empty bowl, listening to the gentle hiss of broth on metal.
Only Smirnov lay awake, his eyes gliding over the frame of the rickety tent as the wind whispered in his ears. He rolled from side to side, twisting in his sleeping bag, but his eyes wouldn’t close. His fingers were numb, and Malinin kept snoring and Rimsky was muttering some sort of prayer under his breath and Grisha kept laughing and Petrov, as usual, was too damn quiet, so quiet you could barely hear the sound of his breath escaping his mouth as his chest rose and fell, rose and fell, rose and fell. Smirnov’s mouth was cracked and cold and dry, and rubbing his hands together, he mourned the chill that spread through his bones. Laying on his back, he watched the wisps of his breath form tiny clouds.
She liked watching the clouds.
She smelled of ginger and ramashka tea and freshly baked bread.
Her kisses tasted of butter.
They tasted of warmth and life and the wonder of being the daughter of a general.
Each one of her dresses were freshly bought and washed, ironed and washed again. The general insisted on it. His daughter’s pale, gentle skin must only touch the finest of linens. Even in the midst of war, even in the midst of the tumult that had drawn the western part of the country into a frenzy of starvation, men praying to Gods they claimed not to believe in to bless them with food and clothes to wear this winter, his daughter must have the best and only the best. Smirnov had heard the rumors, they traveled quickly. The famine, the burning of crops, the massacres of villages. Life was insignificant. The Russians were as much men as the Jews, and so they could starve for all the Germans cared. Made their job simpler. After all, land is easier to take from men weakened by hunger.
Smirnov felt a familiar pang in his stomach and he turned over to his side, squirming under his covers. He repeated the Polkovnik’s promise: “If you do well, you will be duly rewarded.” He repeated it in his head like a mantra, until it became a static background noise, like the sound of his father’s record player scratching, so he’d have to bang it with his hands, as though that would fix something, and yet it always started to work again.
Malinin grunted and Rimsky wept. Grisha scratched his back. Petrov lay silent. The wind continued to howl, whipping the tent as snow rustled and shifted. Smirnov rubbed his numb fingers together.
She had smooth, gentle fingers. She made crowns of flowers, wove them together of thin stalks. Flowers with golden heads, nodding sleepily, pink and blue and red flowers wound together for the general’s princess. He made her one once, knowing it was probably the best thing he could afford to give her. A soldier didn’t earn much, at least not the kind he was. The Polkovnik, he hoped, was a man who kept his word. He would complete the job, deliver the letter–which in itself was a much easier task than protecting Moscow– and he would be rewarded. He wondered what the reward would be. He hoped it was money. Neat little stacks of it. He would buy her a ring and a tort for himself, and he would ask for her hand in marriage. He wondered if she was still waiting for him. He wondered if she was lonely, sitting by the window watching the snowflakes on the windowsill. He wondered if she was sitting in the general’s grand house, with a fire by her side and a blanket on her feet and a cup of warm tea in her hands, the window separating her from the howling of the wind that filled his head so incessantly. He wondered if she’d say yes.
He hoped she would.
He planned it out perfectly. They would use his reward to get married in a quaint village. She would wear her favorite yellow dress, the one with the blue flowers dotting the collar. He would give her a venok and a ring and they would kiss on the altar. The kisses that tasted of butter and sugar and heavy cream and egg yolks. Her lips smelling faintly of blini and vareniki and zefir. Then they would go home and eat baked potatoes, warm and fresh out of the oven, so hot they would sting their fingers and redden their cheeks and burn their mouths.
Slowly Smirnov drifted to sleep, his hand placed over his breast pocket to make sure the letter didn’t suddenly grow legs and walk off on its own, as the winds shifted the powdery white outside and Petrov finally began to snore.
Five men stood quietly at the outskirts of the village, the wind billowing their fatigues and streaming their scarves like banners. They looked up at the giant mansion with its old money feel, the sturdy wooden exterior and the small swing on the porch steps. The men were dwarfed, shrunken in front of greatness much in the same way they had felt the first time they had seen a tank, moving slowly over mounds of dirt, crushing sticks and plowing down bushes–and men–that got in its way. Lieutenant Smirnov rubbed his hands together. They had trooped through the snow, feet sinking into the smothering white, for a little over a week, yet it had seemed like decades in the freezing cold. Their noses were perpetually red, their eyes squinting against tiny snowflakes that pelted them like needles of ice. The winter was just as cruel as the war. Every night, Smirnov tossed and turned and sank into sleep only by the crack of dawn, thoughts of baked potatoes and sala keeping him awake, torturing him. His stomach rumbled, and sometimes as they marched he would smell tort. He would look around, wild eyed, the pangs of hunger in his stomach tearing his sides apart. He would cross himself, repeat to himself ad nauseum it was hallucinations, he was imagining it. But he could almost swear he could taste the pierogi in his mouth. He could smell her curled blonde hair and feel the touch of her silken fingers on his cheek. One night he cried himself to sleep.
The creaking of the door brought him out of his meditation. The servant welcomed them into the house. Inside it seemed to glow, radiating with warmth. The fire burned and the logs crackled and there were mirrors and paintings hanging on the walls and thick red curtains covering delicate windows. They stamped their feet, freeing their boots of heavy clumps of snow, shivering. The smell of cinnamon and freshly baked bread mingled with the dust motes floating in streaks of sunlight on the floor. Malinin began to whistle, and Rimsky elbowed him.
“Quit it. You’ll whistle all your money away.” He grimaced.
“Don’t worry. I got nothing to lose.” Malinin grinned back, and continued his tune.
“You sure are a superstitious little bastard.” Grisha laughed.
Petrov shushed them, and the men followed in silence, single file, into a room carpeted with a thick, gorgeous rug that spread out on the floor. On it sat a wooden table with an old typewriter and spectacles and an empty glass and a half eaten buterbrod. The men exchanged glances, each one wondering how harsh the punishment would be if they simply walked up to the table and grabbed it, stuffed it into their mouths, licked their fingers, and ran. They decided against it. Men had been killed for less.
The thick, heavy-set man in the seat smiled at them.
“I believe you have something for me?” Ruslanov asked, placing his spectacles on the tip of his nose.
“Ah, yes, General Ruslanov… sir. Um.” Smirnov fumbled with his breast pocket, slid the letter out and handed it over.
“You didn’t read it, did you?” Ruslanov’s eyes gleamed, the corner of his mouth twitching.
“No, sir. Never,” Smirnov replied. The other men nodded their agreement.
“You must have wondered what was written in it. Take a guess.” Ruslanov offered.
“It must be some sort of classified… military documents? Perhaps a plan to defeat the Germans?” Smirnov volunteered. The men muttered amongst one another, each proposing their own addendum to the theory.
“A secret attack,” Malinin suggested with a glint in his eye.
“Negotiations?” Rimsky asked cautiously.
Even Petrov seemed to smile at the thought of an attack on the Germans. An end to the war. Maybe a hot shower. The prospect of a good drink and a good zakuska.
“And there, men, you are…” Ruslanov stopped for dramatic effect, enjoying himself. He was in a good mood, with a ruddy red flush in his cheeks of a man who had drunk more than he should have. “Sorely mistaken.” He laughed, so loudly that the men flinched, as though prepared to be shot for a terrible offense.
“A shame,” Petrov murmured, so quietly it was almost like a breath.
Smirnov watched the general’s fat fingers unfold the note inside the envelope and smile.
“It is congratulations from Polkovnik Vasiliev. My son got married recently, don’t you know?
Married this pretty doll of a girl. Lovely blonde hair. Marina Bronina or some such name. Daughter of General Vladimir, you know?” Rimsky said proudly, his words slurring a bit.
The men muttered their congratulations. All the men but one. Smirnov stood frozen like a stone, all the blood draining from his face. He couldn’t feel his hands. His tongue was numb, freezing, as though he’d just stuck a handful of snow into his mouth. His eyes widened, and he swore he could smell his mother’s baked potatoes and then the stench of rotten meat and something rancid. The taste of stale bread crept up his tongue. Marina Bronina. She hadn’t waited.
He’d run out of time. Of course. Why would the daughter of a general wait for a nobody like him? What did he have to offer? Why would she, who had promised, who had sworn to wait, who had laughed with flowers in her hair and the smell of cinnamon all around her, why would she wait for the man she’d said she loved? He put his hands up to his face, as though to force the tears welling up in his eyes back up his wet cheeks, back to where they came from.
“You’re so happy for me you’re crying? I’ve never heard of a soldier like that.” Ruslanov laughed drunkenly. “Off with you.” He waved his hand, dismissing them.
“The reward?” Smirnov barely made out.
“The reward?” Ruslanov roared. “You’re still alive. Consider that your reward. There are many unluckier than you.” And with that the servant guided them out into the hall and shut the door behind them.
He was an idiot. He had delivered his own death sentence.
They sat in a tiny bar in the middle of nowhere on the opposite side of town, the mansion with its paintings and ginger smell and velvety curtains a distant memory. Around them, the snow fell harder. At least they would be sleeping in warm beds tonight.
They drank cheap vodka.
“A shame there’s no zakuska.” Petrov said solemnly. The other men simply nodded. A thick air of mourning hung around their Lieutenant, and the men knew not to pry. They simply listened, as men listen to their preacher in church. They listened and drank.
Five men drunkenly ambling through the quaint town, their voices mixing together in some old folk song about Katusha or some such silly trifle, as though celebrating some sort of victory in war, as though grieving the loss of some unknown comrade.
Somewhere in the distance it smelled of fresh rain and moss and dirt and flowers.
Spring was coming.
Tort — Cake
Venok — Flower crown
Blini — Russian pancakes
Vareniki — Russian dessert, typically pastries resembling dumplings filled with cherries or apricots
Zefir — Dessert similar to marshmallows
Sala — Cured slabs of fatback
Pierogi — Polish meat and potato dumplings
Buterbrod — Sandwich
Zakuska — Appetizers typically eaten when drinking, such as pickles or mushrooms
Polkovnik — A ranking higher than a lieutenant but lower than a general
Fitzgerald , Scott F. The Great Gatsby. NY. Scribner, 2004.
“TOP 20 MOST COMMON RUSSIAN FAMILY NAMES AND THEIR MEANING.” Russian Names,
TO DISCOVER RUSSIA, 2013,
Wikipedia. “Military Ranks of the Soviet Union.” Soviet Armed Forces, Wikimedia Foundation, Inc., 2 Feb.
2019, 19:57 (UTC), en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Military_ranks_of_the_Soviet_Union.