You don’t expect to find anyone out there; but then again, you don’t expect anything these days. It’s pure coincidence that you stumble upon the man, barely more than a half-frozen stray, as you go to bring the clothes back in, for there’s not a single sound that betrays his presence; not through the thick wooden logs of your house, not in the silent blanket of snow.
He freezes when he sees you, a wild animal caught in the cross sights, movements stilled by shock, by being caught off guard; and you freeze too, because it’s not something you’ve expected. He’s all but naked out here in the cold; face haggard and pale with strain, red-flushed with fever windchill; he’s shivering and stiff-limbed, an injured man at the end of his rope. One dark eye in yours, watching you, bleary and careful. He’s in a thin gown, his limbs and skin bare, and it’s a miracle he’s not already a cooling corpse somewhere.
You regard the bandage over his face; dirty and soaked with old blood, and you wonder how he even made it here, so far from any villages. Even farther from any hospitals. Sometimes village kids would play pranks, steal clothes on a dare, but it’s not what he reminds you at all; he reminds you of one of those hunger-crazed foxes that you’d see sometimes as a child. Coming into the village in broad daylight, despite men, despite the dogs always around, hoping for some scraps; desperate and nothing to lose.
You lift your hands, old sinew and bone. “It’s fine. I’m not gonna hurt you,” you hear yourself say, and that seems to break the stillness that’s suspending you both. He flinches, pressing the bundle of clothes closer to his chest, but doesn’t make another move, and doesn’t laugh at you either: even if he could at the mere suggestion that you could do him any harm, being on the wrong side of your seventies, old and worn. You wonder if he even understands you, for he is not Russian: his smaller frame, barely taller than you, his dark, slanted eye tells you that he’s one of the Asian folks; Ainu, Nivkh, or maybe Japanese (but you don’t really want to consider that option), so you ask him if he understands; and he gives a stiff, jerky nod.
That’s a relief; it’ll make things easier.
You don’t try to walk up to him, for you know strays; and that the only way to get close to them is to let them approach you out of their free will. No one’s ever caught a cat by chasing it around: you have to lure them in with a saucer of milk if you want them to come in.
“You can have those. But there is soup, if you want some,” you simply say, turning your back and walking back into your home, leaving the door wide, despite the cold.
You deliberately make a lot of noise inside; you let the wooden spoon clang against the table, you let the chair's legs carelessly slide against the floor; you let the sounds of domesticity speak for you. Your back is turned to the door, as if you don’t care, so you don’t even see him carefully walk up to it; you only feel the way his body catches the cold wind sweeping into the room. You glance over your shoulder and yes, he’s indeed standing there, hesitant and numb, a small bundle of possessions and the clothes in his hands. Skin on his hands broken up and red; somehow not yet frostbitten. You nod towards one of the chairs. “You can sit there,” you kindly say before going back to stirring soup again.
Then you just wait. You wonder if he'll come in. A few minutes later, when you turn around with a steaming bowl in your hand, there he is, cautiously sitting at the table, hood off his head, and his bundle placed at his feet, just within arm reach: he made no sound stepping inside, quiet as an apparition, a ghost. As if you’d chase him away if he’d make a noise. As if breaking the silence would shatter his chance for survival.
You see the exact moment he smells the bowl; he looks like he’s about to pass out with hunger. When you put the soup on the table before him, he regards you with quiet gratitude. “Eat,” you say, and you go and close the door; he left it open, as if wanting to leave himself a means to escape, as if unsure if he's allowed in, after all. But you have no intention of letting both of you freeze. You know men, old, young, and everything in-between; you’ve seen it all. He won’t run now, you know, not until after he eats, anyway.
It’s simple food, potato and fish boiled with dill, but he eats like he hasn’t had anything in days; and he probably hasn’t, going by his sunken cheeks and the dark bruises hanging under his eye. From up close he looks even worse than at first glance: skin ashen, pearls of sweat beading on his forehead despite the cold, and there’s a slackness to his face, to his whole frame, that suggests he barely even has the power to sit upright anymore; body too ridden with fever and exhaustion.
Even as he eats, he keeps an eye on you as you move around in the house; as you light candles and get herbs to make tea. His bandages look worse too, crusted and old, so you put on some water to boil them out. You don’t think he’ll let you take a look at the wound that’s obviously bothering him just yet, but it never hurts to prepare.
He eats quickly but carefully; he knows, probably, how much damage it can cause to eat too much after you had nothing. When you offer him seconds, he shakes his head. “I--” he croaks, voice hoarse, unused. Putting the old, wooden spoon down, it all but falling from stiff fingers. “Thank you,” he mutters. Hands twined over that mug of tea you gave him, as if that’d be enough to warm him up through his palms; as if that small contact could fully thaw him out. He clings to it like a lame to his crouch, to this small sense of safety, and you wonder how long he's been on the run, wearing himself down to the bone. How he got the wound to his eye, the old-faded ones framing his face.
He looks like he’s about to nod off right there, finally warm and safe, sitting at your table. You don’t doubt he would, given the time.
You stand, a decision made, and his spine immediately straightens as if snapping to attention; and he makes a half-willed gesture to move, to go and leave for the freezing night even if that means killing that small spark of warmth he's finally managed to light in his body; even if that means killing himself, probably. He's so young, not even in the third decade of his life; why are young men always so eager to kill themselves? You can tell he does not want to go; that he’s this close to saying, can I stay? please let me stay, but he does not dare to. You wish he’d just ask you; how must simpler the world would be, then. If people just asked.
Yet he stills when you gesture him to stay down. “It’s too late for you to leave now.” It’s no later than five, but it's already pitch-dark, and it's not a lie; you too will turn in soon, so as not to waste the candlelight. “Sleep here.”
You herd him over to the furnace bench, to warm him up; it’s not as warm as the little gallery on the top of the stove, but he doesn't look like he’d be able to climb the short ladder to the top; he doesn’t even look like he’d be able to even make it to the bench at all. But he manages, shaky and unsteady, curling under the blankets you give him, sitting with his back pressed to the furnace; to the fire-baked stone, pleasant and warm.
You leave him like this, still sitting upright but with eyes closed, as if still trying to pay attention while you clean up and get some needlework done; but are not the least surprised when later you find him tilted to his side, in the deep-dead sleep of the truly exhausted.
He rarely wakes from his fevered, heavy sleep; a disoriented wakefulness, just a few hours a day, just enough for you to make him eat. It’s as if his body finally knows he can let himself go, that he can, that he should rest and recover now, while he is able to, now that he has the energy to spare; now that he doesn’t have to worry about freezing or being hunted down.
He doesn’t shy away from your touch either, not anymore; sometimes you press the palm of your hand to his forehead, hot with fever and pearled with sweat, he only opens a tired, dark eye before his shoulders relax and he goes back under.
Your other guess was right, too; he doesn’t let you see his wound on the first day, only the second, almost shy, almost self-conscious; as if you’ve never seen blood, as if you’d never seen gore before.
(the torn flesh of your husband’s calf after he came back from the march to Adrianople, such a long time, decades ago; when you’d both been young, and how it’d shocked you then, that half-healed trace of an Ottoman bullet, an almost-death written in bone)
(you’ve never seen Dima, poor Dima. how you wish there’d been enough left of him to send back for a proper burial)
(the letter only informed you of his death; it was his old comrade that told you the how, how he’d been blown apart by the Japanese, how the shell only left shreads of meat in the cold mud; and as much as you’d wished for a piece of him to bury, it’d been a consolation that at least his death must have been swift, free of suffering)
But it’s a surprisingly neat wound where the man’s eye once had been; swollen and too fresh not to itch and hurt, but it’s stitched up in tidy rows. You were not wrong when you guessed he’s been to a hospital with it.
(and you don’t ask his name or where he is from, but when you warm enough water for a hot bath, to let the hurt and dirt soak out of his bones, you catch a glimpse of an old scar on his arm; and you don’t think a not-soldier would bear a trace of a bullet, combined with so many other scars. you don’t think he’s Ainu at all.)
He watches as you pick up your needlework, drifting in and out of sleep in the warm corner of the room, and you think that your son or his wife wouldn’t understand. You don’t blame them for it.
But you’ve lived long enough to know every soldier is just another mother’s son, another woman’s grandson; that in the end, it doesn’t matter which one you feed, which one you give a warm place to stay.
You just do what you can, and then you hope. It's all the same in the end.
He doesn’t say goodbye, or a word about leaving, but on the fifth night, when you think he’s already asleep (he’s been better today; his eye lost the sick haze, looked at you with real lucidity the first time today, and when you touched his forehead it didn’t feel like holding your hands above a pit of embers anymore) you hear quiet mutter. His now-familiar, accented Russian. “Thank you. I won’t forget this.”
You don’t answer, for you know you were not meant to hear it.
(All these days, he hasn’t said anything about himself, only answered you: yes, no, thank you, it’s enough, only a bit more. There’s only one thing he’s ever asked, half-asleep, drifting off, the only real conversation the two of you had; what’s the point of hanging clothes out in the winter? they would just freeze hard, not dry, and you smiled to yourself because someone living this North’d know. He didn’t ask why they’d been men's clothes when you live alone. You don’t hang them out to dry, you said, you hang them to clean them. Old clothes you don’t wear anymore, if it’s cold enough, to kill the fleas and bugs that feast upon fabric. He laughed, a half-snort, lucky me, then.)
The next day, he’s gone the way he came; traceless and without a sound. Gone, as if he’d never even been there at all.
Maybe not quite; the small bundle, the clothes and the lapti you gave him are gone too, the blankets carefully folded up in a square. But there’s something on your table, hard to make out in the pale morning light, not till you get down and walk closer, knees aching in the dawn cold. It’s some dried cod, something you haven’t had in years, something you now realise is what he must have had in that small bundle, the only thing he had on him when you found him, wounded and half-dead. And now he’s left it here. He didn’t have much, but he shared it with you, anyway.
No, your son and his wife probably wouldn’t understand. But they don’t have to.