They have been walking into the woods for days, and it feels like heaven when they run into an abandoned shack.
Well, they don't know if it is abandoned, but it looks neglected, like nobody has inhabited it for a lot of time. They could have the chance to sleep with a roof upon their heads after weeks.
So Vassili holds tight his rifle and Danilov gets out his hand gun. They move fast and silent: Danilov goes first, Vassili covering him.
They are becoming very good at this, at working in pair. The first time they did it, they were crawling in the mud under the unforgiving sky of Stalingrad and they came out alive. Beaten, shaken, but alive. So they are sticking to the habit.
They don't talk much about what happened down there. They don't talk about the bullets piercing the air, the frost-crusted mud, the strong and ungrateful smell of burnt flesh. Why would they? They do not need many reminders of what they left behind.
They don't talk about Tania neither. Again, why would they?
Vassili watches while Danilov takes careful steps through the threes, hiding wherever he can, eyes on the shack. When he sees him reach the entrance, Vassili catches up with him and they rest for some istants before going in.
He glances at Danilov. He is tired, he can tell.
Well, Vassili is dead tired too, even if he was born and raised into the woods and all of this isn't new to him. Except for the incursions they have to do sometimes.
He is still looking at Danilov and his eyes fall upon his wounded left hand, wrapped in some cloth. Vassili helps him change the bandages whenever they can find something useful and clean enough. It keeps bleeding just like that day, the day they fled. Vassili remembers it well.
Vassili remembers the look on Danilov's face when he had decided to die for him and for himself. He remembers he had jumped and grabbed him, pulling him to the ground before he could stand on his feet. When König's bullet had met the solid concrete behind them, a faint mist of white dust had covered them. Vassili had kept holding him into place, but Danilov had not protested or struggled to stand, nor had he moved, nor spoken.
Danilov had died that day. Danilov the political officer, the idealist, had died that day under the heavy sky of Stalingrad.
Vassili had gone away, and then he had returned holding the enemy's rifle in his hands. He had thrown it to the ground like an unwanted child and he had reached out to Danilov. They had walked away. Then there had been a grim hiss through the air and the next second the world had ended, everything had collapsed and faded away.
The bomb had not killed them.
It had left them ragged, broken, but it had not killed them.
Danilov had heard Vassili calling his name through the unsettled dust. It was a desperate cry, his last hope. Danilov had answered. They had found each other through the ruins, their hands had held tight.
They had rested, Vassili had helped Danilov wrap his wounded hand. They had looked at each other in the eyes and a sudden, unpredictable thought had crossed both their minds.
They had took what they could, unnoticed in the general chaos, and then they had gotten away. They had not looked back.
Danilov knew the safest ways, Vassili knew how to survive into the woods. They made a good pair.
Now Vassili is watching the blood blooming grim and dark against his companion's faded bandage. It's been a month or two, and Danilov's hand keeps bleeding, especially when he is nervous.
Vassili nods to the blood and Danilov wordlessly assures him that he is okay.
Most of the time they understand each other without even talking. If they don't talk about the past it is mainly because most of the time they don't talk at all.
Not that they need it. Especially at the moment.
When they are ready, all they do is a little nod to each other.
It is Vassili that goes first this time. They enter the shack without making a sound and a minute later they have checked all of the corners and searched for hidden doors and trap-doors.
They are more and more convinced that the place is abandoned.
"Well," Danilov is already studying the space around them. "It is too good to be true," he mutters.
The lack of irony in his words makes Vassili want to smile.
The shack has almost nothing in it but they walked for what it feels like miles that day alone, their bones are tired and cold and their feet are heavy with the distance they thread. The shack is a good place to rest.
It's not huge. There's some forniture in it: it is old and forlorn, very much like the building itself. There's a table and two chairs, one of which broken. Against the wall there are a chest and a cabinet. They find rope and some matches in the first and nothing in the second. Danilov reaches out and takes the matches from Vassili.
"My uncle used these back when I was a child." Danilov says. "They stopped producing these in 1930."
This time, Vassili allows himself to smile. "How come that you remember this?" he asks, because he is curious. Because he cares. Because he likes to think about a little Danilov running around, coughing when his uncle smokes but keeping to stick around with the man.
"It's because of the package. I liked it." He points at the tiny drawing of a child surrounded by flowers that bloomed into red stars.The child also wears a red star, bright against his black shirt.
Danilov puts the matches and the rope in the pocket of Vassili's backpack, because it's Vassili who carries this kind of stuff.
They keep looking for whatever may come useful, but they find nothing else.
There is a fireplace in the shack, and next to it there is an old ruined bed. The mattress is in similar conditions and there are light stains of humidity blooming on its surface. The pillow is missing.
They don't care. It is a bed. It is enough to make them feel human. The roof upon their heads is the first thing in weeks that reminds them they are not animals. It is a decent roof, even if a little wrecked.
"Let's move the table to the other wall" suggests Vassili. Danilov looks up.
Right above the piece of forniture there is a crack in the roof that allows them to look up to the sky. They lift the table and they are about to move it when there is a quiet thud from below.
"Wait." Danilov gets on his knees and examines the ground. When he stands up, he has a something in his hands and a frown upon his brow.
Vassili goes to him. "What did you find?"
Danilov shows him a brown, ruined little tome with faded letters on its cover. It's not russian. It's some other language, Vassili can tell. He has already seen it. "Is this German?"
"It is." Danilov nods, while a little smile appears on his face. It is weak, but it stays. Vassili likes it. " 'Goethe's most famous compositions: a collection'." He translates, struggling a little.
It's been a lifetime since he practiced his German. Literally. "It's poems. Poems by a German writer." He adds immediatly, because he knows Vassili will ask. Vassili always asks when he doesn't know: that’s why Danilov thinks him intelligent and curious. "He was famous. He died long, long ago."
"It looks old." Vassili comments.
Danilov checks the first page, looking for some clue about the origin of the book. "I can't find anything about the date this was published in. It must have been hardcovered later." Once he has turned one page, he keeps browsing through the book like he always owned that worn-out tome. Sometimes he stops at some page that draws his attention.
Vassili sees just endless lines of words. It is a pity. "You can read this?"
"I studied German when I was in University. It's been a lifetime, though."
But he keeps turning the pages anyway, studying the words, chasing the passages he remembers most vividly. "They were using this to stabilise the table." He barks out a laugh. "This is the last thing I expected to find in here."
"Isn't this banned?"
Danilov looks up at Vassili and nods. They both know what the other is thinking right now. There was only another person in their lives who kept German books despite the strict order of the Union. Danilov looks down, because he doesn't want to see Tania again in Vassili's eyes.
Vassili moves away from him. He decides to let him be and to go hunting by himself. It is way past midday and he doesn't know the surroundings that well, so he will have to improvise. He unpacks his things. Checks their supplies in Danilov's bag. Then he takes his rifle. "We are running out of bullets. We'll have to trade them when we find the nearest village," he informs his companion, glancing at him.
Danilov unpacks one of the detailed maps he took from the army.
They both thanked God for this, because without them they would be utterly lost with no clue where to head to and they would have to go south and hope to find something on their way.
Vassili is also grateful that Danilov got away with it. Vassili is certain that he risked strict punishment. Degradement, or worse.
"Tomorrow we should cross this village. It is rather small, but I think we could find some kind of trade point."
"There are many paths leading to it," observes Vassili. "This means many people coming and going."
"Do you think we could pass through it unnoticed?"
"We could." Vassili nods, charging his rifle. "And if we don't, it doesn't matter. You need help." He doesn't need to point out his companion's hand. His concern is genuine. "Wish me luck." He says then.
Danilov holds Vassili's arm. It's a warm grip. "Are you shure you don't need help?"
"I don't. Now be at peace."
Danilov almost smiles at him but then he looks away, settles on the wooden chipped floor and begins to unwrap his hand from the bandages to change them. He watches Vassili go.
Once more, Vassili leaves him stepping off into the unknown carrying a rifle on his back. To Danilov's eyes his companion is very much like a silent martyr carrying a heavy cross.
Danilov plans to tell him, one day.
When Vassili comes back, the sun is setting and he has killed and flaied four hares. It's not bad at all. It's still a long way to spring and the meat he got will surely provide them enough bullets to survive some more days, enough to reach another village or another trade point.
Vassili approaches the shack with caution. There's a dim orange light coming from within the little building. He doesn't know what could have happened in the time he was off hunting. He trusts Danilov to survive a few hours alone but he doesn't trust these woods. So he opens the door with his rifle armed and he isn’t ashamed of doing it.
A fire has been started and water has been gathered melting and boiling the snow. Hazel eyes with glasses meet Vassili's.
Danilov is on the bed with his back against the wall. He's holding on his lap the book they found, reading. It's such a simple thing to see, yet so strange to Vassili.
There, sitting on that bed, Danilov looks unarmed and unprepared. Vassili knows better. He doesn't need to check, he knows that behind the book Danilov is holding his gun tight, ready to shoot at istant. Vassili nods to him and puts his rifle away thinking about how lucky they are to have each other. Strong nerves and a cold mind are good things to have in a place like this, at a time like that.
"I see you have already claimed the bed as yours."
Danilov stands, reavealing the gun he was holding. Vassili is not surprised. Danilov leaves the book on the bed and puts the weapon on the table. "I am merciful and I will let you use it to rest now. Leave these to me, I'll make dinner."
Vassili has nothing against it.
He unbottons his jacket and settles on the bed, using his backpack as a pillow. The bed is a little better than he thought and the fire is warm and nice.
Danilov hands him a cup of hot water. He thanks him and he sips it slowly. He dozes off a little watching Danilov work. His movements are swift despite the wounded hand, almost like he followed some inner rythm. It relaxes Vassili's body and soul.
He takes his time to observe his companion from a different point of view.
Danilov is tall. Not taller than Vassili, but he is tall. He has wide shoulders and big hands. His shirt and his pants fit loosely lately because he got thinner since they fled and they had no time to replace their clothing. His dark hair has grew a little in the time that passed and it is ruffled on his temples and on his scruff. Vassili trails with his eyes the line of Danilov’s neck and watches it disappear into the collar of his shirt, down to his spine. Then he goes back to his neck and jaw, where some stubble grows untended. His profile is nice and he has long dark lashes. His glasses are rickety and one of their lenses is lightly cracked, spider-web like. They look thin and weak. Nobody would say those glasses survived Stalingrad.
Vassili sees dark ruins against a dazzling sky. He knows something is about to happen. He feels it deep in his bones and in his marrow. He has not to wait much. The sky is soon soiled by black clouds of smoke. It snows ashes. They are cold as winter against his skin and filthy as the Volga. Vassili looks up to the sky again. Only then come the horrifiyingly regular and deafening storms of noise. He doesn't scream, run, or hide. There's no one else. There's only him. Him, and the end of the world. He feels the blood in his veins boiling with cold fright at every turn of violent clamour.
Vassili opens his eyes.
He hadn't dreamt of Stalingrad in days.
Danilov is beside him, gently rubbing his arm. He tells Vassili that the food is ready. He doesn't leave his side right away.
They eat in silence, except for the exchange of opinions about how many supplies the remaining meat will provide them with.
When they are done, Danilov clears up the stuff and rearranges their belongings while Vassili exits the shack. It is night and it is cold but he needs fresh air.
He takes the last cigarette he owns from his pocket. His hands are shaking.
It's been a month or two. It's still too soon, he tells himself, it is normal. Tons of people lost it, down there. Tons of them went insane. You haven't, you are just shaken. It is normal.
But then he cringes. He refuses to feel grateful that it isn't worse - it's been a month or two, and he has these dreams sometimes.
He doesn't dream of the hundreds he has killed; he keeps dreaming of the bombs and the noise, just them. And God dammit, it's been a month or two and Danilov's hand keeps bleeding.
Vassili sighs, producing a thick white fog. He finds himself thinking about Danilov very often. His companion is mostly silent but speaks in a hundred silent ways and Vassili is worried about him because he looks faded. Rueful.
It's the look on his face that is the worst, because sometimes when Vassili meets his eyes he can't help not to see the battlefield.
He thinks about the fact that, were it not for his sight, Danilov could have also made a good man of action during the Siege. It's not because of his phisycal skills. It's because of his mind.
Sure, he was the perfect political officer. He was convinced and he was passionate and he was diligent. He had ideas. He was clever, and cunning.
But he was also born with a strong sense of survival. Most of the time he was able to see through the mere facts, because he was skilled and smart and because he knows so many things.
He and Vassili saw the world in different ways before Stalingrad, simply because they had lived and approached it differently. Now they both feel like their visions have converged without them even noticing at first.
Now that they have lived through and witnessed hell they both are damn sure that they didn't deserve it. They are escaping everything they have found on the left side of the river Volga. They had decided to walk together, and Vassili feels strangely good about this. Even if there are moments during the day in which Danilov can't look at him in the eye, because they went through a place that makes horrible things out of people.
Vassili feels like he has seen the lowest of Danilov and Danilov knows it. And God, Vassili doesn't feel guilty that Danilov hasn't seen his.
Frost bites derail his thoughts and make him shiver. He realises he hasn't lit his cigarette. He puts it away and re-enters the little building, the wall of warmth built inside of it falling upon him at istant.
Danilov is sitting on the bed again, with the book in his hands. He looks up at Vassili. There's no battlefield in his eyes this time.
In that moment he doesn't look like he has walked miles that day. He doesn't look like himself, or like anybody Vassili has met in this lifetime.
Vassili doesn't feel that istant belongs there with them. He feels like he has already lived this moment a hundred times, and that he will live it a hundred more. It's hard to explain it because it's something that he gets on the back of his skull, in his bones, on his fingertips, like a shiver. It goes like it came.
Danilov shifts a little on the mattress and places one hand on it.
"Come." He invites.
Vassili drags up his backpack and the stuff he uses as bedding so there's something comfortable for Danilov to sit up against and sits with his back to Danilov's chest. He takes the book and turns the pages absently.
"Which one do you want us to read?" Danilov asks, his voice low, throbbing quiet against Vassili's back.
Vassili keeps turning the pages looking for a bunch of words that might inspire him. He finds nothing. Every page it's identical to the other. Danilov waits patiently behind him.
"You choose." He says then.
Danilov leans forward to turn the pages of the book and his cheek rubs on Vassili's temple.
"What about this one?" He asks. His voice sounds like there's a faint smile on his face.
Vassili stares at the page in front of him. It's words. Lots and lots of words. He trusts Danilov to lead him through it.
"Yes. I think it will do," he accords.
"Before we start I must warn you. Poetry is not my thing."
"Neither is mine. It's not your fault."
Danilov nods. "If you have some questions, whatever kind of question, just tell me. I will answer if I can."
Danilov reads out loud one stanza at time and then manages to translate it to Vassili. He tries to give his rendering the original cadence keeping it simple so that his companion will understand better. He goes slow, peaceful.
"Es schlug mein Herz; geschwind zu Pferde!
Und fort! wild, wie ein Held zur Schlacht.
Der Abend wiegte schon die Erde,
Und an den Bergen hing die Nacht;
Schon stund im Nebelkleid die Eiche
Wie ein getürmter Riese da,
Wo Finsternis aus dem Gesträuche
Mit hundert schwarzen Augen sah.
"To horse! My pounding heart kept crying.
Onward! Wild, like a hero to battle.
The evening lulled the Earth already,
and on the mountains lay the night.
The oak was dressed in mist
like a vigilant giant, there
where darkness through the shrubs
glared with hundred dreadful eyes."
He is slow in his translation, and maybe not every word is on point. The untended language cracking in his head like unoiled gears.
Not a sound comes from Vassili.
"Der Mond von einem Wolkenhügel
Sah schläfrig aus dem Duft hervor;
Die Winde schwangen leise Flügel,
Umsausten schauerlich mein Ohr;
Die Nacht schuf tausend Ungeheuer;
Doch tausendfacher war mein Mut;
Mein Geist war ein verzehrend Feuer,
Mein ganzes Herz zerfloß in Glut.
"From a clouded hill, the moon
appeared sleepy through the mist.
The wind was steered by quiet wings
and roared horrors to my ear.
The night created a thousand monsters
but a thousand times stronger was my courage.
My spirit a burning fire,
My whole heart a fiery ember. "
Danilov, truth to be told, would be happy to answer Vassili's questions. And if he couldn't, he would be happy to hear them and nothing more.
But his companion is silent, waiting to know more, rapt by the rhytm of the words that are slowly revealing themselves to him like some friendly stranger.
Danilov resumes reading the poem.
"Dich sah ich, und die milde Freude
Floss von dem süssen Blick auf mich;
Ganz war mein Herz an deiner Seite,
Und jeder Atemzug für dich.
Ein rosenfarbnes Frühlingswetter
Umgab das liebliche Gesicht,
Und Zärtlichkeit für mich - ihr Götter.
Ich hofft’ es, ich verdient’ es nicht."
Vassili feels Danilov's heartbeat grow faster.
His companion stops for some instants as he does every now and then to put together the words in his mind and then explain them to Vassili. His pause is longer this time. Vassili doesn't know why. Does Danilov think that he fell asleep during his reading? Maybe he is struggling to understand some word. Maybe there's something else. Vassili doesn't know.
He puts his hand on Danilov's to let him know that he is still there, to encourage him, and tries not to be too obvious. He wants to know how the poem goes on, he wants to know what makes Danilov's heart pound like that and Danilov is the only one in a hundred miles that can fulfill his wants in that moment.
Danilov rubs his cheek on Vassili's temple. Vassili leans in the touch. He too is still there. He won't leave Vassili without accomplishing his mission. God, he feels so warm and nice against Vassili's back.
"You I saw. And your gaze
poured mild joy on me.
All my heart was at your side.
I breathed for you, for you alone.
On your fair features were playing
The roseate hues of spring
and tenderness towards me. Oh, Gods.
I hoped it, and I deserved it not."
There's silence during Danilov's pause. Vassili feels like his companion is holding his breath. Waiting for something.
"Why does he say this? That he does not deserve it?"
"I think" Danilov tries, "that he considers his loved one much more noble and pure than himself. He doesn't feel worthy."
Vassili takes in the words Danilov gives him. Holds them for a while, thinks about them."If such a pure heart loves him, isn't he already worthy?"
"Maybe. Maybe he doesn't feel like it."
Vassili falls silent.
Danilov reads the last stanza.
"Der Abschied, wie bedrängt, wie trübe!
Aus deinen Blicken sprach dein Herz.
In deinen Küssen welche Liebe,
O welche Wonne, welcher Schmerz!
Du gingst, ich stund und sah zur Erden,
Und sah dir nach mit nassem Blick;
Und doch, welch Glück! geliebt zu werden,
Und lieben, Götter, welch ein Glück!"
"So afflicted, so painful was our farewell,
your heart spoke through your eyes.
What love in your kisses.
Oh what rapture, what sorrow.
You left, I stood and looked down,
and watched you go, tears in my eyes.
And yet, what bliss to be so loved-
And love, oh Gods, what joy."
Vassili closes the book on his lap. He does it like he needs to put a full stop after a long sentence, but his head is still full of images Danilov's voice has summoned and his chest is warm with sensations.
"It's sad." He says. "But good."
"So you like it?"
"Yes," nods Vassili. "It's one of those things that make you ache here" Vassili puts a hand on his chest. "But it's a good thing. I don't know how to explain this."
Danilov hums in agreement. "I understand."
There's silence after that.
Vassili puts the book away. They lie down for the night and Vassili shifts to make himself comfortable against his companion's chest, like he often does. He dozes off with Danilov against him and Vassili drowns in memories and thoughts he can't quite control or put together.
When it's too cold and they find no decent shelter they have to sleep as close as possible so they won't freeze during the night. Vassili remembers what it feels like to have Danilov in his arms, his hands remember Danilov's skin.
They have a fire that night. There's no danger of freezing to death and they don't need to sleep like this but Vassili won't remark on this. Why would he?
"Vassili," calls Danilov from behind him.
There's something in his voice that makes Vassili uneasy, but he stays still and quiet. He closes his eyes and welcomes the boiling fear in his veins waiting for the bomb to land.
His companion's words sink into the air, tortouring and slow.
"I'm so sorry", repeats Danilov.
There's fire in his lungs and smoke in his throat. His words come out ragged. They are heavier than any bomb and they could wreck a building to the ground.
Vassili aches. It's a mild pain that runs through his chest and he doesn't want it.
He knows what he will see if he turns and looks at Danilov. He has no reason in the world to do it.
But the next moment he's facing the man who shares his bed and he is looking into his eyes. Vassili doesn't want this. He doesn't.
Danilov knows that Vassili forgave him long ago. This man is made of guilt and regret and he just feels so much shame for just standing there and being himself. This is what makes the pain in Vassili's chest burst into anger.
Vassili’s heart and throat ache because Danilov's features do not change and his invisible wound stays open.
This, this is what drives Vassili mad.
Sasha died because of him, good God.
He doesn't want this and doesn't know quite what to do. He cups his companion's face with his hands and kisses him.
Don't, he prays. Don't be this sad.
It's not the first time they kiss and it's not the first time they are this close but Vassili's heart skips a beat anyway when Danilov responds, mild and soft.
His kisses are so different from his words. They are soothing and calm, and they make Vassili's chest ache with good pain he didn't know he wanted.
God, prays Vassili, even though he doesn't know what to ask. He kisses the sad out of Danilov again because he can, because Danilov is sharing his bed and he has read for him that night and he adored it.
Vassili likes Danilov’s long lashes that brush on his skin when they kiss and he likes the way Danilov trusts Vassili with his own life and when he just lies there breathing and being Danilov.
Vassili takes Danilov's face in his hands and just looks at him leaning into his touch and watching him with hazel eyes. He would never say it out loud, but right now he is grateful that Danilov's path of life guided him to Stalingrad.
Down there, they used to talk a lot when they met in the evening. Vassili remembers they often discussed about getting out alive, and going on with their lives.
They laughed at this at the time, because it felt just so damn absurd. Their plans sounded dreamy and unfounded even to their own ears but they kept telling them nonetheless.
Vassili listened to Danilov talk about his family and his birthplace and felt relieved at the thought that, should he survive the war, he would have somewhere nice to finally head back to.
Danilov had frowned at Vassili's wish to own a factory, but then he had listened carefully to his explaination and had smiled and told him that those were plans worth focusing on, plans that would lead him through.
It seems like an entire lifetime has passed since. Now they are out.
They still haven't completely grasped this concept yet, the idea that they are alive and out of hell. There's still a heavy rain falling upon them but they are doing their best waiting for the weather to change.
They just need to keep going and put all the miles they need between them and Stalingrad and get out from the USSR and then head anywhere, while the Soviet World still mourns the most talented sniper they ever got.
Vassili thinks about it very often and he feels some strange pleasure in planning a future with Danilov in it. He wonders if Danilov does this too.
The man who shares the night with him has a softer stare on his face now and he looks like he's dead tired. He nestles on Vassili's body, their limbs tessellate coinciding in a hot embrace. They fall asleep short after. It's a long, dreamless,night.
Vassili wakes up to in the dark early morning.
Danilov is beside him and he's completely still. The fire is dying down.
Vassili rests a hand on Danilov's shoulder and gently shakes him awake. His companion needs just a little more time than Vassili to get ready and functioning.
At dawn they go. Vassili has checked the place to make sure they left nothing behind and now he's joining Danilov at the threshold. He's gazing outside like someone who’s waiting for the unavoidable to come and take him, ready to rush to it. Vassili likes it.
"When we are safe and sound I want to learn how to read and write properly," says Vassili.
Danilov smiles. "I will teach you."
"Be patient with me."
"I don't know."
"What do you mean with 'I don't know'? "
"It depends on you. I can't promise you anything."
Vassili grabs Danilov's chin and pushes his face away. They haven't laughed in weeks. It feels good.
"I will teach you," says Danilov "If you teach me how to ride a horse."
Vassili's eyebrows knit together. "Ride a horse?"
"I don't know how to do it. It could be useful at some point."
Vassili frowns more.
"Plus, I’ve always wanted to."
"I don't think we are going to find a horse on the way," laughs Vassili. "But if we do, I will teach you."
"Or you could help me improve my skills in flaying animals."
"This is easier. I can do it."