Late December 1942, I sat in an empty warehouse about a mile from the Volga River. The warehouse was a manufacturing plant before the war started, but the military stripped all the materials away, desperate for anything it could turn into ammunition. Mortars and bombs had blown a few holes in the warehouse, but it gave my new comrades and me some shelter from the snow, which was a significant point in its favor.
I hadn’t seen combat for a few days, but I still harbored a fear of battle emerging out of nowhere, the landscape suddenly red and black. I kept my rifle at my right side and my pack at my left. The pack only had moldy bread left in it; there’d been a time when I would’ve gagged at the sight of the stale food, but now it looked like a feast.
Sitting opposite me was Iosif, a man about ten years older than me, probably around thirty or thirty-five. He was a lieutenant, which technically meant I had to follow his orders, but he never gave any and I didn’t feel up to following any so that worked out well for both of us. He hadn’t said what happened to his men, but it was easy enough to guess they’d fallen at some point during the onslaught. On occasion, he would sit with his knees up to his chest and let his head hang between them. I knew he was remembering the events that brought him here. I considered asking him, but I was too tired to hear about his problems.
Natalya, the lone woman in our makeshift group, was lying on the floor near Iosif, cradling her sniper rifle. When she first stumbled into the warehouse a day ago she boasted she’d killed twenty-six Germans but had no ammunition left and was waiting to catch up with a new squad. Her hair was cropped short and her face was hard and sharp thanks to hunger. I normally would have cast doubt on anyone bragging about their kills, yet not for a second did I doubt Natalya’s statistics. I hadn’t seen women in combat until Stalingrad, but now they were present everywhere, from mortar operators to anti-aircraft gunners to snipers like Natalya, and as deadly as anyone else.
Sitting beside Natalya were the warehouse’s two difficult tenants: Daniil and his German prisoner. Daniil twirled his pistol in his hand whenever he wasn’t sleeping. He spoke very little, often answering questions with a quick “yes” or “no.” His prisoner, a young blond haired, blue eyed German, just as Hitler liked them, remained silent, his hands bound behind his back.
Iosif once asked Daniil why he bothered with the prisoner and Daniil replied, “I’m bringing him to a prisoner of war camp for interrogation.” I considered pointing out the futility of this, but kept my mouth shut. Natalya once suggested, only half-jokingly, that we use the German as a shield should we come under fire.
“He’s my prisoner!” Daniil had snapped back, his green eyes huge behind his dark bangs, wide with anger and fear. “I make get to decide what we do with him! The rest of you have no say in it.”
None of us learned where Daniil and his prisoner came from.
I mostly slept through the first couple days of my stay. Sometimes I’d dream about my former squad mates and I’d wake wondering what happened to them after we dispersed thanks to a bombing by the Luftwaffe. Maybe some lived, but most likely they died shortly after, their bodies now rotting in the snow.
The snow. No discussion of what goes on in Stalingrad is complete without mentioning the snow. Our enemy and our ally. In the early weeks of the battle, our superiors told us the snow would be a benefit. German weaponry wasn’t made for the cold like ours was, they told us. The Germans would freeze faster and die quicker, we were informed. It’s just too bad there were so many of them. Who knew so small a country could birth so large an army?
I talked a little with the others during my initial days in the warehouse. Iosif engaged with me the most. In the middle of my third night he came to me when I was sleeping. I jolted when I sensed his presence, my hand going to my rifle, and my mind telling me I was about to die. It wasn’t as disturbing a thought as it would’ve been before the siege began.
“Sorry, Nikolai,” he said softly. “Thought you were awake.”
I squinted, seeing the others curled up, even the German. “What’s wrong?” I asked.
“Nothing, nothing. Just couldn’t sleep.”
I shrugged. “Use it as a chance to be on watch or something.”
“I don’t want to know if someone is coming,” he said. “What’s the point in knowing when you’re going to die? I’d rather get it all over with in an instant.”
“Not the worst fate you can imagine here,” I said. “But if that’s how you want to die then go back and close your eyes.”
Iosif patted me on the shoulder, a gesture I wasn’t comfortable with. “You’re right,” he said. “It’s just that not even death is an escape here. What happens afterwards can be just as troubling. Have you heard about the cannibals?”
“I’ve heard some people have taken to unusual measures in order to eat. Haven’t seen it, thankfully.”
“I did. I was with a friend, dead now, and we were hiding in a storefront a few miles from here after our battalion was slaughtered. It was from there that we saw them. They weren’t civilized anymore; maybe they never were and in the fog of battle they could finally become what they always were below the surface. I saw them hover over a dead body in the street. I think it was a young boy’s body, maybe eleven or twelve. He was missing a leg. They didn’t mind, though. They stared for a while and then as one they descended onto the body, ripping it apart with their hands, stuffing parts of the body into their mouths. They didn’t stop until the body was gone. They just kept chewing and chewing, until there was only bone. Once they were finished, they stepped back, looked around, and moved on, like a pack of wolves, hunting together. To see people like that…”
“Why would you bring this up?” I said. “I’ve seen enough horrors. Keep yours to yourself.”
“I really am,” he said. “It’s just that image… it’s been in my head for a while. It won’t leave.”
I watched him as he spoke, his face cracking a little in the moonlight. It’d been a while since I’d seen stark emotion.
“Just forget what you saw,” I said. “That’s what I do. It works. Put it in a little box in your mind and put the box in a corner where you never go.”
Iosif nodded. “Yeah, yeah.” He ambled away, head down.
The next morning was as quiet as any could be in Stalingrad. The soft explosions still sounded in the distance, but nothing was going on in the near vicinity. Natalya went for a short walk, but the cold brought her back within a couple of minutes. The building wasn’t particularly warmer than outside, but just being surrounded by four walls, as crumbling as they might be, gave us the feeling of sitting in a warmer locale.
I reached into my pack and took out a slice of bacteria-coated bread. I opened my canister and forced out a few drops of water from the ice. I recalled trying to barter the ice only a few days before. I was still a couple of blocks from finding this building when I came across a storefront that was intact. The sun, weak but present, illuminated a little of the inside. A man, older, maybe even a comdiv, stood, leaning against the wall. He waved at me and I waved back.
I stepped into the store and said, “I have water I can trade if you have any food.”
The man picked up a piece of wood, the top of a small nightstand, I believe. “Right here. Doesn’t look like much but it does the trick.”
Another lost one, I surmised. “No, thanks.”
“No, it’s good,” he said, taking a couple steps towards me. He bit into the wood, shards of it splintering into his lips, drawing blood. He smiled through it all. “Keeps the hunger down. Doesn’t even hurt my stomach that badly. There’s tons to share!”
As I ate my last slice of bread, I wondered if I could ever fall so far as to become that man. If I was traveling with someone I trusted we could’ve set up some sort of suicide pact. Although Iosif’s words still haunted my mind: “It’s just that not even death is an escape here. What happens afterwards can be just as troubling.” Had he been talking about our bodies or our spirits? Were his words only ramblings from a man who’d seen too much or did he have a glimpse of what happened to our souls?
“Looks moldy,” Natalya said, giving me a respite from my ruminations.
I swallowed the last bite. “It is,” I said. “Do you have a better option? Are you hiding some chicken?”
She patted her pack. “I have some bread of my own. But it stays in here. Can’t share, sorry. Have to keep my strength up.” She gestured towards her sniper rifle. “Once I find some bullets I’ll be out there again. Maybe then I can beat Vasily Zaystev’s record. I hear he’s had around two hundred kills in the last month alone. A Soviet hero, but I think I have it in me to match him.” She nodded at me. “How many k are dead thanks to you?” There was a trace of sarcasm in her voice, like she doubted me. Understandable. By this point, I probably looked like a skinny little boy.
“Two,” I said. “One in battle. One just on the street when I was wandering.”
“What’d he do to catch your attention?”
“He was wearing a German uniform. What else did he have to do?”
“Wish the other countries had that attitude. Churchill is too busy sucking off Roosevelt in London to get anything done.”
“You seen how tall Churchill is?” Iosif said. “He wouldn’t even have to kneel.”
Natalya walked over to the German. Daniil looked up.
“Speaking of killing Germans,” said Natalya, “don’t you think it’s time we put this guy out of his misery?”
The German glanced back and forth between Natalya and Daniil. I don’t know if he could understand what was being said, but I think he understood Natalya’s intentions.
“He’s my prisoner,” said Daniil. “I decide what happens, do you understand? I’m going to bring him to my superiors and he’ll be interrogated. How many times do I need to tell you this?”
“I don’t know. At this point, it seems to be your only conversation piece.”
“Back away. He’s mine.”
“He’s a fucking kid,” said Natalya. “He barely knows how to wipe himself and you think he has the codes to let us know where Hitler plans to strike next or something?”
“Let him fantasize about being some sort of war hero,” said Iosif. “Whatever gets him through the day.”
“Getting through the day, huh?” Natalya snorted, her eyes slits, her hands digging into each other. “Before I saw action, I used to get a lot of letters from my mother on how I could get through the day. She told me all about how I need to pray. ‘Turn to prayer, Natalya, and all your worries will evaporate.’ I eventually wrote back that prayer is a luxury for the innocent, for those who haven’t seen the world for what it is and what it will always be. She didn’t bring it up again. We get through the day by breathing, Iosif.” She jabbed her forefinger at the prisoner. “And by making sure our enemies are dead.”
I opened my canister to find most of the water had frozen. I managed to urge out a few drops and licked them up.
“You look like a dog,” said Natalya.
“I’d rather be one, at this point,” I said.
“How ridiculous. You’re Russian. You should want to be a wolf.”
I didn’t sleep so much as drift. The cold would slither under me, wrapping me up in its arms, assuring that I never grew too comfortable. It was a kindness, really.
I kept my eyes closed, pretending that a state like this counted as sleep, but all my mind gave me were images of the past. I saw my home, my parents, all the usual memories, the ones that would’ve once given me solace. Those memories were eaten by images of Stalingrad, though. I saw the dead bodies, the blood dried up on the skin like tattoos. There were those cannibals Iosif talked about, too. They roamed the streets of my mind, digging through graves, dividing up bodies to feast on, their fingers, black and red, coming at me.
My eyes were still shut when Daniil shot himself in the head. My vision, previously dark, became bright, and for a moment I thought death had come for me. But then came the roar, like a train driving into my eardrums, followed by a brief ringing, and then nothing, my ears dead.
I grabbed my rifle, unsure what to aim at, but ready to kill nonetheless.
Iosif sat up, staring at Daniil’s body.
Natalya had her hands over her ears.
The German was shaking. He knew his fate had just taken an unfortunate turn.
Daniil only had two pieces of bread in his pack. I took one and Natalya the other. Iosif didn’t want any. “I’m past hunger,” he told us. I wasn’t sure what he meant, but Natalya laughed.
After she and I ate the dead man’s breakfast, the obvious question came up.
“What do we do with him?” Natalya asked.
The German knew what we were talking about. His eyes had tears. His shaking resumed. Maybe he’d never killed anyone. Maybe he wanted out of this as much as we did. Perhaps even more. This wasn’t his home; he was in a foreign place, one that was unearthly.
My pity for him didn’t matter, though.
“Perhaps he actually has information,” said Iosif.
“No,” said Natalya. “That was only a fantasy of Daniil’s.”
I picked up my rifle. “I’ll take care of it. One of you untie him.”
Iosif crossed his arms. Natalya nodded and untied the German.
The German had to try to stand a few times before managing it. He kept putting out his hands to keep balance. His legs were no doubt cramped from the cold. I walked up behind him and he kept turning, sweat marinating his face. I shoved him in the back with my rifle and he walked forward, towards the entrance, with a whimper that made me hate him.
It was snowing again, although the temperature had risen since the night. The buildings around us were more rubble than structure; their stones, once so carefully planted, were cracked and burnt. The Luftwaffe had been through a number of times at some point during the battle. I’ll give the Germans this: they knew how to destroy.
Smoke rose in the distance along with a few flashes of yellow and orange, the results of some firefight between whatever lost souls remained. I wondered how many still believed in the fiction that they could fight their way out of this place.
The German looked at me and I waved him forward. He took my meaning and walked ahead, eventually breaking into a run when he realized I wasn’t following him. I watched him run, his legs not always cooperating, like a child still uncomfortable with his body. When he was about forty feet from the building I raised my rifle and shot him in the back, my ears deadening again. I thought it was a kill shot, but if it wasn’t then the cold, snow, and ice would finish him off. Either way, I was now a killer thrice over.
I walked back into the building and said, “Couldn’t have the body too close to here. Might give us away.”
No one said a word. I think they were grateful.
When I looked down at Daniil’s dead body I briefly flashed back to what Iosif had said about the cannibals and questioned if I could ever get to that point. I didn’t think so. Not out of morality, but more out of exhaustion. Digesting human meat would be a task and a half, I imagined, and probably not worth it in the end. My stomach had become so used to meager meals that any meat would make me vomit, let alone human meat.
We decided to drag Daniil to where the German was. With luck, if anyone spotted the bodies they’d assume the two had killed each other and not investigate further. The blood around Daniil’s wound had dried so a trail of red was not a concern, but a chunk of brain matter dropped into the snow at one point. No one wanted to pick it up so Iosif pushed some snow over it.
Once we dropped the body, Natalya headed back to our building, but Iosif stopped me, putting a hand on my shoulder.
“What do you want?” I asked. “It’s too cold to stick around outside.”
“I just wanted to say that you shouldn’t have had to kill the German. It should’ve been me.”
“I have a higher rank. I should’ve been the one to do something like that.”
“Don’t worry about it,” I said. “The rank thing- does it even matter anymore?”
“To me it does.”
“We’re passed all that now.”
Iosif shrugged. “You’re probably right. It’s a charade.” He leaned in. “Do you want to know the scariest thing about men like me, Nikolai?”
“We don’t know what we’re doing when we give orders. We’re as clueless as everyone else.”
I shook my head. “That’s not the scariest thing. The scariest thing is that we know that and follow the orders anyway.”
“I am sorry, though.”
I began to walk back, but noticed the German was face up in the snow. He must’ve flipped himself around at some point. I guess he didn’t die right away, after all.
A burst of cold wind sliced into my cheek. I started to run back, my feet sinking deep into the snow, my joints crying out at the effort, but I ran despite the pain. I could hear the voices of ghosts coming through the cracks in the city, crying out, asking why they were still here in the battle, but the wind soon shushed them and they were gone.
I slept during the afternoon. The temperature had risen a few degrees and I wanted to take advantage of the relative comfort. I managed to sleep deeply and when I woke a rush of energy hit me, despite the groan of hunger in my stomach.
Natalya sat against the wall farthest from me, her eyes open, staring down at the ground. Iosif paced back and forth, his hands clenching and unclenching.
“That walking is making me nervous,” said Natalya. “Calm down.”
Iosif waved the comment away. “I, uh, I don’t know.”
“You don’t know what?” said Natalya. “What are you talking about?”
“I’m not sure. I don’t feel well. Sick inside all of a sudden.” He scratched at his facial wounds, scabs falling to the floor.
“It’s probably because you haven’t eat-”
Iosif vomited. The bile flew out of his mouth, landing a few feet in front of him, a black mush. He staggered, reached out into the air, and fell down.
I rushed to him on all fours. He gagged a couple times and then stopped breathing. His eyes were still open, but he didn’t blink. There was nothing there anymore.
“What the hell was that?” said Natalya. She hadn’t gotten up.
“He’s dead,” I said.
“I don’t know. Hunger? A heart attack? Both? Why the fuck do you expect me to know?” I put my hand over his eyes, trying to force his eyelids shut, but to no avail.
“Great,” she muttered. “Well, it was fast. So there’s that.”
Natalya grabbed her hair and tugged down on it. “Fuck!” she screamed. “Fuck him!”
“He’s free,” I said. “Think of it that way.”
She let out a snarl, like one of those dogs in the streets. “Do you really think that?”
I shrugged and squeezed Iosif’s shoulder. “Goodbye, comrade. Be at peace. I hope you don’t ever have to see this place again; you weren’t made for it.”
Iosif’s corpse did not project any sense of freedom or peace as the day continued. I wasn’t ready to admit it yet, but somewhere, deep in me, I knew he still lingered in Stalingrad. No one escaped this purgatory.
I wanted to move Iosif’s corpse outside, but I didn’t have the energy and Natalya hadn’t moved from the wall. I considered asking her if she was alright, but what a stupid question that would be. Besides, I’m not sure I really cared what the answer was.
I slept lightly during the night, my head hurting, my stomach growling, threatening to consume itself, and my bowels beginning to loosen. There’d have been a time when I would’ve felt shame for the state I was in, but no longer. I’d seen people in much worse shape than this; I, at least, still had my mind, if no longer complete control of my body.
It’s amazing, though, how fast energy can come back.
The first explosion was probably a block away. I sat up and snatched my rifle.
“They’re here,” Natalya said.
I considered staying in the building, but if a mortar hit nearby the whole place could come down. Running, even without a destination, was the best option.
“Let’s go,” I said. A second explosion sounded, this one closer.
She nodded. “Yeah.” She hurried past me and stopped at the entrance. “You’re sick.”
“I’m fine,” I said. I managed to get on my feet, but only by relying on my rifle for support.
“You’re covered in shit.”
“I’m sorry,” she said, “but I think it’s everyone for themselves now. Maybe I’ll see you in the next go around.” She vanished into the snowy streets.
I used the rifle as a crutch, my stomach tightening and releasing, tightening and releasing. I don’t know how long it took me to get to the entrance, but by the time I was there Natalya was long gone.
A few more inches had come down since I’d last been outside and the wind had picked up, causing the snow to almost blind me, but I could see the outline of a Panzer down the street. It took up the whole block, its cannon protruding like a snout. As it came closer, I saw a soldier sat atop the tank, firing its machine gun. Whether it was at me or just a blanket assault I don’t know. I do know that one of the bullets cut right through my left side, just below my rib cage. A sharp sting came and did not leave, but it didn’t hurt as much as I’d have thought. I’d seen men and women screaming in agony, but no yells came from me. Perhaps my body was already resigned to its fate and didn’t bother registering the pain.
Another bullet lodged itself just below my first wound. I dropped my rifle and fell to my knees. A trickle of blood came from my mouth and I wondered how it’d gotten in there. I allowed myself to slide into the snow.
I felt better than ever despite my injuries. My vision was fading but the hunger pains were gone. I would’ve gotten shot sooner had I known.
I could hear the Panzer moving down the block. I wasn’t of interest to it anymore. I guess I can at least thank the Germans for letting me die in peace.
I rolled over and the snow mixed with my blood.
I’d been through this before.
I couldn’t remember the specifics in that moment, but the ache, the dulling of the senses, the relief, it was all familiar. Maybe the last time I’d been blown up. Before that I might’ve been stabbed. And before that- who knows? But, as I lay dying, I realized I’d lived and died in Stalingrad many times. It was what Natalya’s parting words must’ve meant. She’d always known more than the rest of us; I was just too tired to realize.
Time doesn’t work the same here. It wraps around, trapping us in this city, giving us life after life in this battle, assuring that there’d always be more grind for the mill.
That’s why I’m sitting in another building, this time far from the Volga River, listening to my commander outline what is sure to be a pointless offensive against the German forces. I’ll die again and end up somewhere else in this forsaken city, living the existence of yet another soldier who is fortuned to suffer. The only problem is, now I remember. I no longer have the ability to be ignorant about the nature of life in Stalingrad. I died before I was shot by the man on the tank, I’m sure, but that’s the first death I can clearly remember. Going forward, I’ll be cursed with never forgetting.
I wonder how it is to live like you, where you move forward, and the world moves at the same pace. I lived like that once, but it’s not something I like to think about anymore; it’s too depressing. I’m here in Stalingrad now, an infinite city in a timeless world. There will be nothing else.