The two German soldiers huddled together, trying to deny their shivering by discussing the bitter cold and the strange blue tint of the moon. They spoke in soft, sad voices that the stillness of the night carried far and wide over the freshly fallen snow. They wondered how much longer it would be before the sun once again emerged from the horizon. Of all the unusual things in this country, they agreed, that was the one that took the most getting used to – the shortest days and longest nights they’d ever known.
The moon was suddenly gone again – swallowed whole by another of the enormous dark clouds that floated through the black winter sky. One of the soldiers took out a flask, cursed the city of Leningrad, and then took a long sip. A small hole in the cloud allowed the moon to shine through, and for a few seconds, the entire area glowed pale blue. Tall, somber evergreens cast black shadows a hundred feet long, and a solitary tree stump in the middle of a white field stood out like a tiger on an iceberg.
When the stump appeared to move, the strangeness of the night threatened to become surreal.
"Dietrich, did you see that?"
"That dark spot out there," he said, motioning toward the open field in front of them. "I think it moved."
No sooner had they begun to examine the spot when the light was again lost, and everything settled uncomfortably back into the dark.
"There’s nothing there. I knew you couldn’t handle your liquor."
"To hell with you! I’m telling you I saw something move."
"All right, let’s go to the nest. The moon should be back out in a minute. You’d better be right this time. I’m getting tired of your false alarms."
What had been vague, borderless figures only an hour before could now be seen clearly by the Russian soldier. Felix Varilensky had excellent nighttime vision and even without the help of the moon could make out the two Germans as they trudged through the snow over to the machine gun nest and then disappeared inside. Under his breath, he cursed whoever it was that had been spotted. For most of the men, there had been no training in how to crawl in thick snow across an open field in the middle of the night. For most of the men, there had been no training at all.
He studied the night sky and calculated how much time he had in between the clouds – in between the dark and the light. In the dark, he was invisible, immeasurable. In the light, he was just another man.
It wasn’t long before the moon began showing its ashen face again. It crept along the edge of the monstrous black cloud – its frail light spilling over the rim and down to the frozen ground below. The light moved faintly from the top of the field where the Germans were, toward the middle of the field where he was. He dug a few more inches into the snow and stopped all movement as the light treaded up to, then around, and finally over him.
The machine gun nest was off to his right on a slight hill, no more than 90 feet away. As he lay motionless in the moonlight, he tried to wiggle his toes, but they were too numb from the cold for him to tell if he’d moved them or not. He needed the dark to return. That was where he lived now – where he walked, where he ate, where he prayed, and most of all, where he unleashed his anger.
And when the darkness did return, he slowly positioned his rifle at the machine gun nest. The ghostly light returned a few seconds later, just as he had calculated it would, and he found his target – a dim figure with binoculars looking out from behind the sandbags. Felix gripped his rifle tighter and slowly clenched his jaw until the gums around his loose upper tooth once again flooded his mouth with that thick, salty sensation he craved. He closed his eyes for a short second to concentrate on the sourness of his own blood. Then he opened his eyes and pulled the trigger. The bullet went straight through the German’s hand to his cheek, and one after the other, the binoculars, and then the man, fell from sight.
The other German soldier quickly engaged the machine gun and bullets flew frantically in every direction. They struck all around Felix, but he remained still. Even when one of the bullets burned a hole straight through his left arm, he did not move.
After several minutes, the tat-tat-tat of the machine gun ceased and additional German soldiers could be heard arriving – barking out orders and demanding answers.
The snow underneath him turning red and the cold so intense that it was difficult to breathe, Felix waited. In his mind, he disappeared from the cold, and reappeared in that warm, familiar place where the sun refused to set, where the lazy afternoons went on forever, and where the shade of a tree was proof of God’s unconditional love. In that peaceful place, he lay on the soft grass, Katya beside him – her outstretched forearm resting lightly on his bare chest. When he kissed the small of her wrist, the tender scent of lilacs and honey stayed on his lips. He listened as she recited in his ear a poem she had written for him, the final words of it repeating themselves in his mind: Love is the beginning, and Love is the end, and here in the middle is where we must mend.
It was all so real – that bright yellow sun, that clear blue sky, that cool green grass. But that warm day was long past. That warm day was before it all began . . .