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Ice

Tags: ice, war, love, death

Stalingrad, December 25, 1942.

Winter blankets everything, turning the landscape bizarrely beautiful. If you look carefully, you can make out shapes under the hoarfrost and snow. Burned out tanks and piles of brick and steel that were once buildings litter the frozen battlefield that was once home to over 400,000 Russian men, women, and children. Now the corpses outnumber the living. You can see them as well, frozen limbs reaching out from under the serenity of freshly fallen snowflakes. Ice clings to them, turning them into a landscape of crystalline beauty that is all the more horrible for it.

All this I see through the scope of my rifle as I scan the wreckage for signs of life so that I may snuff it out as well, adding to the body count. To date I have recorded twenty-one confirmed and unaided kills. Today I hope for my twenty-second. It must be soon. I can feel the cold seeping into my uniform and gloves, a sure sign that my rifle is also beginning to feel the effects. Soon it will become unreliable and I will be forced to retire for the day.

I spot movement. Finally. My eye to the rifle’s scope, I zero in upon what used to be a bakery, patiently waiting to see if it was more than a stray flap of cloth flirting with the wind. Again. I smile coldly, my instincts telling me that there is a beating heart hidden somewhere in the scatter of rubble that marks the building.

Sure enough, I make out a shape, well camouflaged in white and grey. A Russian soldier. With a practiced eye, I center the cross hair on where I discern his head to be, my finger tightening almost imperceptibly on the trigger as I force myself to take a deep breath and hold perfectly still…

In that heartbeat, the shape turns, and I can make out a face. A woman. From where I lie, hidden in the shadows of a shattered factory, I stop to reflect. The Russian army had swelled its ranks with anyone who could hold a gun. Every man, women, and even children fought and died in defense of this already dead city, holding us here through the summer and fall months until finally winter had reached out and joined them as well, felling as many of my comrades as their bullets and shells.

Although I had long ago lost the capacity for sympathy for the hated enemy of the Fatherland, still, to kill a woman struck against the man I had been before we have invaded this country of endless misery and frozen steppes.

Carefully, I watch, unable to tell from this distance if she were young or old, fair of face or as ugly as the landscape. It had been a long time since I’d lain with my wife, Elsa. Two years, to be exact, upon a Christmas day as well, a fire warming our cozy little home, our young daughters still sleeping under the goose down Mattress that they shared.

We’d made love desperately, knowing that it would be the last time. I’d already received my marching orders. Oh, God, how I long to hold her in my arms once more and feel her kiss. I let my face relax into a smile, my cracked and chapped lips reminding me that it had been a long time since I’d let any emotion play upon them. To make love to her under a summer’s sun, the sky cloudless and blue above us. The image of a meadow comes into my head. Plucking daisies and placing them in her blond braid as she giggles like the young woman I had fallen in love with. She had been a farmer’s daughter while I had been a butcher. Once a butcher, always a butcher, only now I am a butcher of men. A cold hearted killer.

My smile fades. With the image of my dearest Elsa fading, I return my concentration once more upon my target. She, or rather it, is no longer human. It is simply another obstacle separating me from my beloved. One that I intend to remove. Until we empty this city of vermin, I will be trapped here. It already feels like eternity.

Once again I feel my finger tighten on the trigger and yet, something stills me. I observe my target carefully, watching as she reaches into the breast pocket of her grey-white coat and removes what I can only guess is a photograph. From this distance it is hard to tell. Once again I am going on instinct. I watch as she presses her lips to it, thankful that I can’t see her eyes, only guessing at the emotion within them. A longing as great as mine, perhaps, or a sorrow even greater for a husband or a lover slain. I think of Elsa once more, recalling the photograph of me in uniform she had placed upon the fireplace mantle. I wonder if she might even now be looking upon it, cradling it in her hands, tears in her eyes as she kisses it, wondering if I am still alive on this Christmas day, an eternity away.

Pressing my lips together, I relax my finger and let the muzzle of my rifle dip. Looking heavenward, I notice for the first time that icicles cling to the shattered eaves above my hiding place like glittering ornaments. It was Christmas after all. Let this be my gift to the woman who had reminded me of my Elsa. For the first time in months I feel warmth seeping into my flesh and bones. 
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