Thursday, 18 June 2009
RED SNOW OF VLEDOVKA - by AJ Humpage
RED SNOW OF VLEDOVKA
Snowflakes descended onto a silent, white landscape.
Beams of light filtered through the broken church windows, highlighting whirling particles dancing across the wooden pews, intermittently spliced by shadows. The church looked so different now, all that was left of the small town of Vledovka. The Germans had destroyed every building and killed all but a handful of people.
Xavier looked down at his teenage son squatting next to him. The boy tightly clutched a rifle to his chest. Silver-blue eyes peered out from a grimy, expressionless face; unwilling to share the horrors he had witnessed in the last few weeks.
Misted breath fogged the air around them, reluctant to fade.
One lone German soldier stood between them and a muted sense of freedom; an entity lurking in the ruins of the town, picking off the survivors with a gleeful snipe of a bullet. Broken bodies littered the landscape, frozen between lumps of concrete and twisted metal - mothers and fathers and children.
Xavier knew he had to kill the German. Whatever happened, he had to try.
He swept a hand over his dark beard, looked to the boy. ‘Stay here; keep your back against this wall. You watch these windows. If you see that soldier, you kill him, but don’t waste your shots.’
Dmitry lifted a Nagant revolver from his jacket pocket, although the 7 bullets in the cylinder would not last much longer. They were both running out of ammo.
‘Father, let me come with you. I can do it. You know I’m a better shot.’ Not only was Dmitry a better shot, but he was quicker on his feet, too. He wanted to show his father he was no longer a child. He could kill the enemy. ‘Please?’
Xavier placed a heavy hand on Dmitry’s shoulder. Two weeks earlier, the German had shot and killed his eldest son, Anatoly, whose body was still out there, resting beneath several feet of snow. He couldn’t risk the same happening to Dmitry.
‘Who do you think will protect your mother if we’re both dead, huh?’ He pulled his cap down tight across his brow and got to his feet. ‘Time to finish this.’ He hunched down and hurried to the gaping hole in the church wall where the first reign of bombs had blown most of the transept away.
He stepped out into the brightness of snowfall, looked up at a grey sky full and swollen with flakes. He shivered against the chill and ducked between the gravestones; heading east towards what would have been the main square of his decimated town. Fresh snow covered the dirty tracks left by the panzers, which had swept through three weeks ago, but it also covered the remains of those who were trying to flee Vledovka. Whole families lay together where they’d been rounded up and shot.
Xavier knew the sniper could be anywhere among the ruins, constantly moving around, hunting. He gazed across the lifeless ruins, searching the broken windows, watching colourless curtains billowing in the cold breeze. He eyed the open doorways, and the angular pinnacles of brick and concrete hewn from violent explosions. Finally, his attention stopped at the skeletal remains of his home.
Everything was gone.
Something glinted through the flurry in the distance, distracted him. Just a momentary flash, then it was gone. He crawled forward on his elbows towards a line of branch-less, scorched trees.
* * *
Dmitry rose to his feet and wandered over to the wrecked window on the left. He hoisted himself up and clambered through it. Snow flocked around his face, stung his skin, and he pulled his thick green scarf – knitted by his mother - up over his nose and mouth. He plodded forward through the knee-deep snowdrift. He knew his father was heading through the main square; but Dmitry knew that if the German was in the ruins, then perhaps they could corner him. Two guns were better than one.
The sound of the wind through empty buildings made him shudder; the primeval hum resonated through every cell in his body, flooding every pore, and it made him hurry to the corner of what used to be a bakery. He stood in the doorway, away from the icy torrent.
He looked down.
A woman’s face stared back at him from the floor where she had fallen; eyes clouded like a dead fish. Her mouth was slightly open, skin tight around a miserable scream of terror. The sniper had taken the left side of her head, and the floor was stained red where her blood had frozen in a wide spatter. He looked further down her body, saw exposed strings of darkened meat on her legs and forearms. The rats had been eating her.
He ignored the sight and moved from the doorway. He paused, cocked his ear. Footsteps over rubble; purposeful and fast. The squeak of a door drifted through the slate coloured mist. The unseen footsteps moved across a tiled floor, then stopped.
The German was close by.
A heartbeat echoed loudly in Dmitry’s head as he stepped out and slunk towards the next building. Muscles tensed and gnawed inwardly against the cold as he peered around a broken doorframe. His eyes shuttered against the chill as he focused on a figure hunched over something on the floor.
The German sniper was rifling through the pockets of the dead.
The breath in Dmitry’s throat froze; he almost dropped the rifle and it clunked against the doorframe.
The German snapped his head up; saw Dmitry in the doorway, silhouetted by the haze, and he reached for his Luger.
Dmitry lifted the rifle.
* * *
The gunshot startled Xavier, quickly followed by another two shots. He let out a short breath. Spliced nerves twitched as the hush slowly returned. He looked back at the church, but saw no movement. He wanted to call out to Dmitry, knew that he couldn’t; it would give Dmitry’s position away to the German. He had to follow the gunshots.
Breathing hard against the icy tendrils licking against his exposed skin, Xavier clambered to his feet and ran the short distance to the side of a nearby building, slipping into a short passageway for respite.
The gunshots had come from the other side of the main square so Xavier moved cautiously through the passageway and momentarily peered out. A desolate silence greeted him. The street was full with rubble, strewn with shoes and torn clothes. And scattered bodies.
He concentrated on the building opposite, thought he saw a passing shadow. He blinked against the brightness; couldn’t be sure it was movement. But then he heard a short burst of laughter, and he knew it was the German.
Xavier stepped out of the passageway. Fresh layers of snow crunched softly underfoot as he slowly made his way across the street, but then he stopped suddenly, his mind wrested by something that made his stomach plunge to his feet.
The chill gripped Xavier’s throat as he gazed down at the tiny, grey body of a newborn baby boy still attached to the umbilical, slowly disappearing beneath the snowfall.
He choked back his anger, gripped his rifle and entered the building. He searched the dark corners, expecting the German to jump out at him, but there was no enemy lurking, just his frightened imagination.
A noise to the right made him flinch. He lifted his rifle, aimed it at the shadows. Nothing. He moved further inside. An odd smell leavened the air, despite the chill. The stench of rotting corpses – though frozen with the onset of winter – still clung to the building, unwilling to fade. He closed his eyes, concentrated hard to stop the swill in his stomach moving up his throat.
Another sound brought him to; his muscles tightened in response. He stepped forward slowly, his eyes never leaving the doorway ahead of him. Indistinguishable sounds drifted through the blizzard; guarded, muffled.
He thought then about Dmitry, alone in the church, what would happen to him. The idea of certain death didn’t frighten Xavier, but the fear of leaving Dmitry to look after the family, to be the one to try to stop the sniper, did frighten him. If he didn’t kill the German, now, they were all doomed.
The sound of someone coughing almost made the liquid in Xavier’s bladder spill out into his trousers, and he ducked instinctively, unsure which direction the sound came from. His heart fluttered, drowning in adrenaline. He crawled sideways, crab-like, and leaned against the door.
He composed himself before edging around the doorframe.
A dark grey trench coat was visible through the rash of thick snowflakes. The German stood with his back towards Xavier. Cerulean ribbons of smoke from a cigarette coiled into the air. A satchel lay at the soldier’s feet.
Xavier sat against the doorway, carefully set his foot against the frame to keep his body from shaking. He tucked the rifle butt tightly beneath his right arm, peered through the gun sight and lined it up with the German’s head.
He licked his badly chapped lips, took in a breath and placed his forefinger against the trigger.
* * *
The nicotine from the cigarette flooded his lungs, calmed the torrent racing through his veins. The long trench coat kept out the chill, felt good. The French brandy in the hip flask helped to melt his frosted body, and despite it stinging his lips, he gulped it down. Christ, he couldn’t remember anything tasting this good. He’d found chocolate in the satchel, too.
He stared at the body lying in the doorway, peppered with bullet holes. Large crimson patches soiled the clothes. Blood slowly spilled out onto the virgin snow. His skin still tingled; the thrill of the kill.
He smiled; but it was almost a reflexive jerk, and at first he couldn’t understand why the body lying nearby became so vividly red, nor could he understand the sound of the implosion whistling through his head. He remembered glancing down, seeing the cigarette fall from his fingers; he remembered watching it fall as though in slow motion before it finally came to rest against the snow.
And then everything he knew, every moment, every memory, was catapulted out through the front of his skull in a kaleidoscopic burst, far out into the brightness, until everything quickly faded to darkness.
* * *
Xavier whooped as he watched the German’s head explode with startling force, easily ripped apart by the close range shot. The man dropped to the ground.
Xavier got to his feet and ran over to the body.
Small fragments skull and brain, and lumps of dark hair, littered the snow around the dead German.
He wiped snowflakes from his eyes, stared. His brows dropped. Two German soldiers?
He gazed at the other body sprawled in the doorway, three bullet holes in the chest. The corpse was wearing a German uniform and clutching a Luger pistol.
Xavier cupped a foot underneath the shoulder of the body at his feet and flipped it over.
He recognised the green scarf around the sinewy remains of the boy’s neck. A slivery-blue eye peered from the remains of the eye socket.
The rifle slipped from Xavier’s cold fingers.
A deep scarlet halo surrounded Dmitry’s shattered skull.
A silver hip flask glinted from the boy’s tightened fingers, and slowly it leaked golden liquid into the bloodied snow of Vledovka.
AJ works full time for a local authority, but in her spare time she write articles for local business magazines, short stories and poetry, and has just completed her first novel.