Tired, Terribly Tired
I am tired, terribly tired. All in me hurts: my head, my arms, my legs. My eyes are burning intensely from the implacable reflection of the snow and the smoke of the oil lamps inside the shelter. Morale is at its lowest. How will it end... when will it end?
For the past half hour, I have been lying on a bed of leaves close to the stove that tries in vane to warm this shack. I try sleeping. I try regaining the hours of sleep lost in many nights of patrolling, inspections, raids and monitoring of random enemy planes that are much cause for desperation.
Yet, the brain refuses to rest. I think of the past and the future. I recall recent and long-forgotten events. I cannot sleep. Half an hour has gone by since returning from my patrolling duty. The partisans have attacked the gasoline depot in Kantermirowska and, as expected, caused much damage in the area we have to patrol.
Our superiors, however, are set up comfortably. Their orders arrive. Emotionless, they call in the subordinates, and in tragicomic fashion, they make us believe that they share our tribulations: "Boys, tonight again we shall not sleep. The partisans are in Kantermirowska. Each one of us will cover the specified zone in order to intercept them. Be careful with our men - most of all, set the right example!"
I leave with my twenty men. We exit into the cold darkness of night. An icy wind sweeps our faces and creases our skin, as we face the unknown, the emptiness, death. We take the road for Kantermirowska. My companions follow me. No one is talking.
There is something in the Russian night that takes your heart and puts it in a vice, squeezing it so hard that it paralyzes your will to think. At the same time, it touches what hides deepest within it, mixing emotions, memories, regrets, abandon, hope, courage and fear. It silences a man in his thoughts, putting a wedge between him and the present reality.
We, of platoon F1, have named the Russian Steppe "Land of the Dead." How else could we describe it? It is inhabited by an obsessive and deep silence. We can barely hear the sound of our steps muffled by the snow. At least, we are aware that we are not dead. An impressive thought.
Overlapping sentiments fuel the spasm of constant danger. Where are they? How many are they?
We arrive at the end of the packed snow where signs indicate the road for Kantermirowska-Marcowska. Suddenly, sustained and loud artillery fire is heard on our left. Tracer bullets come in our direction. We hit the ground. Over 30 centimetres of packed snow separate us from the ground. If waiting per se is tedious, it is unnerving during battle. Thousands of thoughts flicker in my mind. Will they cross the road? Will they straddle it? Will they go through the steppe? Will they defend themselves, while trying to escape? Or will they stop and fight?
My heart wants to explode. I see my home, my mother, the troops' train, the Italian sun... the warm Italian sun. I feel my feet tormented by the cold. My entire life is a swirl of overlapping visions until reality shoots back - cold, dark, partisans, death, solitude.
The road from where they may be coming takes a gentle curve at 300 metres from our position. I stare at that spot with a tension that hurts my eyes. It seems a century of waiting. I almost forget my comrades. I see them lying in the snow, silently staring at the road ahead. I can guess their emotions, their thoughts.
Some shadows appear on the road ahead. They are on horseback: there are many. They leave the road at the curve, heading straight into the open field, probably toward Garminushenka Forest. They pass in front of us, 300 hundred metres away. They are shadows galloping in the dark.
I could avoid the risk of battle and return to camp. But the torment of waiting must be rewarded, even at the price of one's life. It is the voice of a soldier that compels me to act. "Fire," I shout. The sound of the barrage of bullets overtakes my scream. Then, silence. Moments seem to last a lifetime. The shooting resumes - our 20 rifles crackle. The Russians respond with their Parabellums. They fire tracer bullets that fly over our heads in rapid succession. The whistling echos far behind us. They stand still after the first volley.
Guns flash again from the same spot. I look at my men. They are huddled together at the edge of the road. I think that if the enemy fighters are many, this time they may overpower us. We are low in ammunition. We have rifles and they have Parabellums. They are partisans and do not take prisoners... happy thoughts that fortunately do not materialize. Seconds later, the flashes have moved to the right. They keep moving. Some more shots, then silence.
I wait a moment, then I call out: "Boys, everyone all right? "
No," answers a voice, and I feel a shiver go through my body.
I know what it is like to carry a dead comrade in my arms, a companion, a friend... in that lugubrious scenery of the Russian Steppe, sealed by the cold. A few minutes suffice for the cold to make the body rigid. The face becomes bluish and the eyes, usually open, seem to fix straight into yours, as if asking for help, asking for pity, stirring your blood, bringing you to desperation.
As luck would have it, Astori, the youngest man in our platoon, is only superficially wounded in the arm. I bandage him up tight to stop the blood. I am about to give the order to return, when I hear a whisper. "Wait, there is someone there". I barely have time to assess the situation, when Tretti, my corporal, says, "I am going to see" and takes off decisively.
I can see some dark shapes on the snow far in the distance in the direction from where the partisans had shot at us, but nothing seems to be moving. Are they horses or men - partisans planning an ambush?
We wait for Tretti. I try following his movements in the dark. I can see his silhouette crouched as he walks for about one hundred metres. He stops to look at something. He continues and then throws himself to the ground. He stands up and waves.
He comes back running, shouting that they are gone. Only two wounded horses, one of which, still moving, frightened him for a moment. However, the horses were not the only ones to be wounded, as there was a trail of blood in the direction taken by the escapees.
Two hours have gone by, and our situation is dire. My feet are frozen, my nose wants to fall off. My entire body wants to fall apart. We are heading back, alert, eyes fixed on the darkness, always accompanied by that oppressive silence and Astori's laments and curses.
We are pawns subjected to the cold, death, ambushes, hunger, lack of sleep, bombs, rifles... A lump forms in my throat for the miserable life we are forced to endure.
Finally, I can see the silhouette of our shelter. The silence is broken. We have made it back alive. The guard calls out, "Who goes there?" As I answer, I feel my nerves collapsing as if I had received an injection of morphine. I think that, this time as well, we have survived. I feel a great need to laugh, to jump, to convince myself that I am not dead.
Instead, I am in this dark shack, half frozen, thinking of the past and the future, heavy with fatigue, yet unable to sleep. An avalanche of emotions floods my mind. I think of the peculiar beings this war has turned us into.
Translated from the Italian. Part 1 of "From Russia Without Love" was published in the Summer 2006 Issue of Accenti.