Dead Silence

Alkaev rested the rifle's barrel on the window ledge and centered the scope's crosshairs on the crown of the man's head. Through the lens, each blond hair radiating from the back of the Nazi's skull looked like the curly tail of a pig. Fool! Walking out of doors in Stalingrad in November without a helmet, or at least a hat. Alkaev's chin wagged from side to side.
            The rising sun glinted off the gold bars on the captain's lapel, just at the edge of the scope's field of view. How did such a stupid oaf warrant a commission? You should have stayed in Germany. This is not your home! Only a fool covets another's home. The Nazi officer lifted the cigarette to his lips, sucking in the smoke. The ash at the tip glowed yellow as the cold air disappeared into his lungs. Breathe pig—enjoy the air this one last time. Breathe.
            An icy wind cut through the broken glass of the factory's third floor window, littering the air with acrid graphite dust from the foundry. The smell of smoldering oil from the furnace hung in the crisp air. A ray of sunlight kissed off the edge of the broken windowpane and cast a tiny rainbow onto the drab plaster wall. The moment Alkaev succumbed to the pleasure of observing its beauty the rainbow faded and then disappeared, as if this simple act of adoration had extinguished it.
            This had not always been such a desolate place. Alkaev's uncle had worked here until 1936, for 27 winters—a laborer shoveling coal, stoking the furnace, keeping the cold at bay. The iron works had lain dormant now for months. The vacant factory marked out a no man's land between the advancing German squads and the desperate Russian resistance. This place a no man's land... such an irony thought Alkaev.
            The sun again peaked from behind the pink morning clouds. This time the rainbow glared off the jagged glass and onto the sniper's scope. The colors were blinding. A reminder Alkaev thought, backing away, and then reaching over to the window to pocket the little glass prism.
            Alkaev sang softly to the man who appeared in the scope...

Sleep - sleep - sleep

            The rifle pulsed off aim with each heartbeat as it rested against the sniper's taut right shoulder. The hunter waited for stillness, lest the wind alter the bullet's trajectory like the hand of an invisible demon. Patient resolve overcame fear. Any apprehension born of guilt had disappeared months ago. The man in the scope had stolen everything Alkaev loved about Stalingrad—the laughter of the children, the bustle of the vendors, the music... the singing. The Nazis left in their wake a silence like a hole in the atmosphere.

Sleep - sleep - sleep

            The breeze subsided. Alkaev flicked the safety off, adjusted down slightly for the angle, then realigned on the man's flaxen head.

Don't lie close to the bed side
Otherwise, a gray wolf will come...

When the crosshairs bisected the target again the sniper squeezed off the shot.

...and bite you!

            The great crack of the rifle bucked the scope up and away. When it settled back steady against Alkaev's shoulder the officer was still in view. It took more than a second, but the bullet found its mark. The right side of the officer's head just above his ear exploded in a cloud of red and yellow muck. The cigarette flew out of the man's right hand, and he crumpled like a dummy and fell to the ground. Through the scope the events played out like a scene in a silent film.
            Alkaev pulled the tip of the rifle from the window inching slowly backward until the barrel could not be seen from below. The assassin shouldered the weapon and headed quickly for the stairwell. It would not take long for the Nazi squad leaders to identify this position given the trajectory of the shot.
            Alkaev hit the first floor running, exited the back of the factory and headed east toward the Russian lines—east toward the Volga. Each slapping boot step echoed against the stone walls of the abandoned buildings like mallets on a snare drum. After a block the street forked, one path leading north, the other, a wider avenue, veering around a corner leading southeast. The sniper fled up the avenue toward the river finally coming to a stop huddled against a wall near a blocked crossroad. Meters of barbed wire and steel stretched across the path to safe haven. Empty shops and forgotten businesses stood watch over the dead intersection.
            The wall Alkaev peered around used to be the north side of a sweet shop—Petrovin's Bakery and Confectionary. The children would wait in line outside the door on Saturday mornings when the big fat merchant would mix the chocolate fudge. He would let them all taste, and then shoo them away to their mothers, always a wide smile on his face. Alkaev loved that Petrovin was such a man.
            The first night of bombing was the doom of the entire Petrovin family. Their block was leveled, along with the bomb shelter, which took a direct hit. But the sweet shop still haunted the end of the street, its unbroken windows a silent memorial to life before the German advance.
            Alkaev edged one eye around the corner, then dashed from behind the wall and into an alleyway between the confectionary and the dry goods store. At the end of the narrow passage Russian comrades had left a sewer grate perched on its side. The hole beneath the grate led down into a rank darkness. The sniper knelt beside the opening searching with one foot for the first rung of the ladder, then sidled down rung by rung into the black. With each cautious step the fear of discovery faded, along with the memory of killing.
            The grate fit back neatly into place. The Nazi squads would never be able to trace the Russian routes of penetration. Alkaev passed into the quiet darkness of the Stalingrad sewers and disappeared into absolution feeling empty and dark, like a part of the silence. There would again be sanity. Patience, and faith, and this rifle—that's how they would defeat the invaders.
            Slow even breaths, and now the terror was gone. Time to start for home.
            Traipsing through the slime of the sewers, Alkaev tried to remember reasonable times—tried to think of the hot summer sun, the bloody red of the leaves in fall, the soaring motives of Stravinsky, the giddy abandon in the children's voices as they chased through the streets, anything to assuage the boredom of the agonizingly slow journey, anything to keep from thinking thoughts darker than the sewers—thoughts quieter than death. Alkaev plodded along, wishing to be anywhere but here in the depths lurking about like Beelzebub, contemplating the collection of more Nazi souls.
            Finally, after groping through the dark for hours, a ladder. Alkaev climbed to the top, pushed the iron grate up and out of the way, then peeked around in every direction before emerging from the putrid purgatory, and wiping away the filth as if it was afterbirth.
            This alleyway fed onto a street which led to the central square, then to the desolation that was once the fish market, and finally on to the steep banks of the Volga. Alkaev would have to find a transport across the river after nightfall—after reporting back. The field officer would be pleased.

* * *

            "An officer?"
            "Yes, comrade Litiken. A captain... perhaps a Panzer commander. There were tank units on the side street not more than fifty meters from the city iron works. I was about 200 meters away at the time."
            Their voices reverberated off the ancient stone. The army had converted the sacristy of the Orthodox Church into resistance headquarters after the Russian regulars had once again failed to hold back the German advance. The deacon's office was a jumble of maps, dispatches and radio messages. The Russian commander, Major Litiken stared across a broad desk at Alkaev. Litiken's bushy eyebrows rocked up and down, a crooked smile blossoming on his hardened face.
            "So you're the pig farmer?"
            "Yes, comrade Litiken."
            "I've heard about you. The sergeant tells me you can hit the eye of sparrow from 100 meters."
            "That is an exaggeration..."
            "Nonsense! He told me he saw you do it."
            "It was only about 80 meters, comrade Major."
            The Major broke out laughing, and then removing his cap he turned to his aide who stood at the doorway, rifle at his side. "You see? This will undermine their resolve, yes? How demoralizing!"
            "Yes, comrade major!" said the aide.
            Litiken turned back to face Alkaev. "How did you learn to shoot, comrade?"
            Pride welled from within. "My father taught me to hunt when I was very young."
            "The pig farmer... and now you hunt the Nazi pigs invading our country, eh?" The Major smiled. "So what is your secret?"
            "I don't understand, comrade Major."
            "The sergeant says this makes 12. How is it you are so deadly accurate killing these pigs?"
            Alkaev thought about the question, thought about the children's lullaby and the silence. "I sing to them, comrade Major."
            "Sing... I sing to them, a lullaby. It calms my nerves."
            "Ahh!" The Major bellowed. "The singing pig farmer! And you sing these pigs to sleep, do you?" He turned once again to his aide. "Have you ever heard such a thing before? Ahh!" The officer went on laughing until his cheeks were red and his eyes watery. It was good to hear laughter again, regardless of the reason.
            "Comrade?" asked Alkaev, thinking about the children at home, and Olga. "I must find a transport across the Volga tonight. Is Mishkin headed across for supplies?"
            "Yes, yes. This was promised." The major sobered his disposition. "You have done fine work, Alkaev... fine work. Let us hope we will not be overrun before you return." The major turned to his aide. "Make sure comrade Alkaev finds Mishkin. His unit will be crossing up river at three tonight."
            "Yes, comrade major," said the young aide. He could not have been more than nineteen.

* * *

            The black river flowed beneath the boat in uneasy furrows. The two men seated in front dipped their oars into the cold water, pulling with their backs until the end of the stroke when each plucked out their paddle, swung it forward and placed it back into the river as silent as a knife into fog. The shore emerged from the mist twenty meters ahead.
            As the boat made berth next to a small wooden dock the two oarsmen crossed themselves, shipped the oars and tied off the craft.
            "Many thanks. I will see you back here at the end of the week." The first step onto the wooden slats made more noise than Alkaev expected.
            "Yes!" said Mishkin, in a hushed tone. "You must bring that pickled pork again. And some wine."
            "And bread. Ahh! Such a wonder is fresh bread, comrade Alkaev!" added the rifleman stationed at the rear of the boat.
            "I will do what I can."
            "That is always enough," said Mishkin looking at the barrel of Alkaev's rifle.

* * *

            The eastern sky had brightened to a dull purple. Alkaev crossed the dirt road and headed up the rutted path leading to the farmhouse. There were already lights in the window. A trail of dark smoke rose from the chimney. The morning hymns of crickets and warblers filled the air, displacing the dark silence Stalingrad had emptied into Alkaev's heart.
            The door opened easily, and the children sang out as the soldier entered.
            "Mama! You're back!"
            "We missed you, Mama!"
            Alkaev hung her rifle on a hook near the door. After she had hugged all of them and sent them back to the table to finish their breakfast she remembered. "I brought you a present—another crystal from the city!" Alkaev pulled from her fatigues the little glass sickle she'd taken from the window of the iron works. She retrieved some black thread from the cupboard, and after carefully wrapping the beveled glass she suspended the prism from a mobile dangling near the front window. The rays of the rising sun caught the 12 swaying shards—the tinkling glass firing an arpeggio of rainbows onto the stone mantel.
            The children's mouths hung wide as their eyes. Only the oldest one scowled as she continued to serve the little ones their breakfast.
            "Olga Alexandra Alkaev! Why such a face? Why do you not welcome me home?"
            The thirteen-year-old brightened a bit and putting down the serving dish, walked over next to Alkaev. "You left me to take care of them for far too long. I am not their mother!"
            "You are luckier than you know. Before he left to fight in the war, your father should have taught you to hunt, and to fire a rifle like your grandfather taught me."
            Olga tugged Alkaev into a corner of the main room behind the ladder to the loft.
            "Mama," she whispered. "The children want to know what's happening. They hear the bombs, and they are afraid. I tell them it is only the thunder from a distant storm, but they don't believe me. I cannot get them to sleep at night anymore."
            Alkaev looked at the rifle hanging near the door and took a single deep and patient breath. "After breakfast I will take you into the woods and teach you a lullaby."

The Ice House

At ten yesterday morning, as the mercury reemerged from hell and gone, my Dad's neighbor Sig Svendsen called.

"Matthew, I think you better come up here as soon as you can. Your father's... well, your father's passed away. Me and Merle, lives up Scandia Valley, we found him in his icehouse. Damnest thing I've ever seen. Had to tow that big shed 'a his off the Fish Trap with him still in it."

"What'd he die of? Do they know?"

"Uh... I don't think the docs can tell just yet." There was a long pause. "Maybe you better just come on up and see him for yourself."

I grew up in Apple Valley, south of the Twin Cities, but my parents own a cabin off Azure Road west of Brainerd, on the shore of Fish Trap Lake. Before he retired, my father was a psychologist—a man paid to empathize, a man paid to listen to people's problems and render an opinion. My mother, my sisters and I weren't paying customers. To me, my father was a disinterested bystander with a key to our home.

It takes me an hour and 45 minutes to drive up to the county hospital in Little Falls. The whole trip, I can't stop myself from wondering what happened to my father. It's not like Sig not to want to tell a story. Last time I saw that old cuss he went on for twenty minutes about earthworms. I peel off the highway, pass two bars and a high-steepled church, then turn into the hospital parking lot. There's snow piled six feet high in front of the entrance. I head for the lobby and duck inside quick, glad to be out of the crispy air.

The nurse at the front desk directs me to a stairwell at the end of a long corridor just past the emergency room. I walk down the stairs, around a corner, then down a narrow passage until I reach a heavy white door with the words "Dr. Felix J. Tanner, Pathology" written on the glass. As I enter the office, I notice the temperature dip a few degrees. The white-tiled space is a clutter of old wooden shelving, stuffed inboxes, and smells of ammonia. A dark man seated at an ancient oak desk rises immediately.

"You Dr. Tanner?"

"That's right..."

"I'm here about Mr. Lucas Skinner."

"And you're his son?" Dr. Tanner reaches across his desk to greet me.

"I'm Matt Skinner." I shake his slender hand. "Can you tell me what happened?"

The tall pathologist with thick brown hair and handlebar moustache motions for me to sit as he descends into his own chair. "Well, the simple answer is that your father froze, but I haven't made a definitive determination about cause of death just yet."
"I don't understand." I pull the knit cap from my head and sit down, blank—ready for some answers after the anxiety-filled drive.

"His body... uh, when they found your father, he was frozen. Tissues, fluids, joints, everything... like a rock. We've taken every precaution to preserve him until we can thaw the body in a controlled manner. He's only just arrived this morning. I was going to begin the process in about an hour or so."

"So, he's... " I turn and motion outside of Dr. Tanner's door to the industrial looking freezer I passed on my way in.

"That's right; his body is in the freezer for now."

"I guess I'm wondering how a guy could just sit in a fish house until he freezes. Wouldn't his clothes and the structure in general have kept him insulated?"

The doctor wrings his hands, looking hard-pressed. I want to find something to pry the words loose from his mouth. Finally, he exhales, then answers, "When they found your father he wasn't wearing any clothes. The door to his icehouse had been propped wide open. Folks that found him are wondering... whether your father committed suicide."

My jaw tightens so hard my teeth are like tiny air pockets waiting to burst under the pressure. I close my eyes while the shock abates.

In my entire lifetime, my father had not given one signal, not the tiniest inkling, that he was capable of harboring feelings of remorse or guilt. He was the most stoic man I ever knew—not the suicidal type. He spent his life running from opportunities to show his emotions.

I open my eyes. "If he were going to kill himself, why would he strip naked first?"

"In cases of hypothermia, victims have been known to do some pretty weird things before death." The doctor's tone is deliberately emotionless. "Most common is stripping bare just before dying. The mind is in a severely compromised state by the time extreme hypothermia sets in. There's an illusion of great warmth just before the brain and central nervous system shuts down."

The illusion of great warmth... that makes more sense.

Ten years ago, after my father retired, he and my mother started spending most of the year up at the cabin near Fish Trap Lake. About a week after my mother's 66th birthday, she was diagnosed with breast cancer, and died after a short, difficult battle with the disease. My father spent every waking minute with her, right up until her death. My sisters and I thought there might be some change in his demeanor after that, but he simply pulled back deeper into himself—the mercury in his veins falling even further.

It was about then, two winters ago, that my father bought the icehouse. After my mother died, he sat up at the cabin for two months solid waiting for the ice atop the Fish Trap to thicken. After it did, he towed the icehouse out onto the lake and spent the rest of that winter weighting his line and watching his bobber for signs of activity beneath the ice. Same thing last year.

My recollections become an extended silence. Something is just wrong about this whole incident. The doctor's patient stare is unnerving. "But, you don't really know that he committed suicide, do you?" I ask.

"That's true. No note was found."

"So, why would he simply sit out there and wait to freeze?"

"Now that, I'm afraid, is a question that medical science simply can't answer."

I drift into dreams of my father, alone—staring down into the depths, trapped on the other side of the ice, my sisters and me waiting for the thaw, waiting for my father to auger down to us. I sit across from Dr. Tanner, as if waiting to be plucked from the depths of my dark thoughts like a little pan fish. I realize that there has been an over-long expanse of silence. I think of something else to ask.

"Don't people who kill themselves leave suicide notes?"

"Sometimes yes, sometimes no. There's no rigid conclusion one can make in cases where no note is found."

"How long was he out there?" I am trying to imagine the pain of slowly freezing to death.

"Must have been more than a week." Then he adds, "You and your dad mustn't talk much anymore."

"No... we talk about as much as we ever did."

The doctor shifts around in his chair, eyeing me as if testing a hypothesis. "Well, it might be 24 hours before I can do the autopsy, would you like to spend some time alone with your father before I thaw him?"


"It's customary for family members to want some time alone with the deceased. Would you like me to open the freezer so you could see your father? You're certainly dressed for it."

"Sure... I mean, I guess that'd be all right."

Dr. Tanner rises from his seat. "C'mon."

I stand and follow him back through the doorway into the hallway and down to the freezer. A little circular window, like the kind you'd find on a submarine is cut into the locked door at eye level. While Dr. Tanner's fishing through his pockets for the keys, I nudge over next to him and peer through the porthole. There's a draped figure seated on a bench in the back of the freezer. The white sheet's ghostly outline makes the interior look like a museum after closing.

"That him in the back corner there?"

"That's him."

Folks who aren't from Minnesota don't realize that here, it's often warmer in a freezer than it is on most winter days. Outside the hospital, the temperature's just risen above the zero mark. This freezer is probably set somewhere in the twenties—a perfectly hospitable environment. Dr. Tanner releases the deadbolt and hefts back on the door handle, but before we duck inside, he turns to me.

"Don't worry... he looks normal, like a guy who's ice fishing."

There's a thin fluorescent bulb on the ceiling filling the freezer with a weak blue glow. Wispy streamers of fog curl around it as the door opens. The left side of the space is a black wall with about a dozen two-foot-by-two-foot doors. My father's seated on a narrow bench that hugs the far corner on the right. The doctor walks over to him and gently removes the sheet from his head and shoulders, and leaves it draped in his lap. He's right. My dad seems alive, eyes wide open, a funny sort of patient smirk on his tight lips, just as if he's sitting in his icehouse waiting for a bite.

Tanner tells me, "You can stay in here and visit with your dad as long as you like. When you're done, just come back to the office. I've got a pot of coffee going... you can help yourself. It'll warm you back up."


The doctor edges by me, then stands at the door. "Freezer's unlocked... when you're finished I'll begin thawing him." The door latch clacks shut. I'm alone with my father. I can see my breath when I exhale. I fit the cap I'm holding back onto my head, then edge back to the cold bench and take a seat next to the iceman.

"What in the world happened to you, Pop?"

My question echoes thinly off the drawers on the opposite wall then dies.

"There were so many things I always wanted to ask you."

He sits silently. This is hardly much different than our last conversation.

"Were you grieving, or just lonely?"

Finally, I can hear his muffled voice, as if my memory of its tone has emerged from beneath a thick icy wall.

"I never had much as a child."

I knew that about my father. He grew up in the depression. He had a mother that sent him out to work as soon as he was old enough to chop wood or shovel snow in the winter, or carry grocery bags or golf bags in the summer.

"Never knew what it was like to have a father," he says.

His father left his mother to take a bartending job out on the east coast, back on Long Island with his brothers. Work was hard to find. I guess he had to do what he had to do. We never knew anyone on my father's side of the family, him included.

"You had it easy," he tells me.

He's told me that a million times, and he's right. I was never at a want for what he called "the essentials." Food, shelter and clothing all provided for me because my father could listen to people, figure out why they were hurting and provide answers.

He sits bent forward slightly, hands on his thighs, as if he is craning to hear what I'm thinking.

"You never loved me," I say. My voice is faint, as if it's buried beneath snow.

"I gave you everything you needed," he says.

"Not everything." I remember lying perched atop my dad's chest when I was very small, rising and falling slowly with each of his powerful breaths. I remember my ear pressed to his chest, the blood surging though him, the warmth of him below me, his flesh and bones the only things preventing me from falling straight down into his heart.

I feel the freezer air creeping into me. I can't help myself. I feel the urge to touch him. I feel as though my father might spring back to life as I sit there next to him—like he might turn to me and utter my name.

"I know you're in there somewhere, Pop."

"No. Now I am in you."

I reach out and run my palm up his aged white cheek. It feels more like rock than skin. His ears are frozen solid. I sift my fingers back through his wiry white hair. Not the dark black mane I recall from my childhood. His eyes are like the Fish Trap, frozen and still, a blue haze shrouded by a cloudy white surface.

The cold of the freezer is beginning to penetrate my coat and my cap.

"I've got to go now."

"Yes... you go now."

"I never knew you, and now I never will."

"You never had to."

"But that's what I wanted."

"You don't always get everything you want. That's how life is."

"Don't you know what it means to love someone?"

An icy silence fills the freezer. There's no answer to my question, only a realization seeping into me like the cold. I'll never know the answer to that question. Last week, last month, last year I could've asked, but now it's too late, and there's nothing inside me that is enough him to let me know what he would have said. There is a stark difference between not knowing and never knowing, and that difference is infinite. I stand, take the sheet from my father's lap and drape it back over his frozen remains.

I leave the freezer, and head back to Dr. Tanner's office for a cup of coffee. Later on I drive back home with the heater on full blast, haunted by the silence.

It takes another 24 hours before the pathologist calls to tell me there is no clear cause of death. Lucas Skinner was a healthy man, right up until the time ice crystals formed in every cell of his body. My father used to say that there was no single moment when a lake froze. The Fish Trap had so many alcoves and inlets you never knew when the whole thing finally iced over. Him dying in that icehouse, frozen milky white, like fog—it was like the last teardrop of the Fish Trap, turned bone dry and solid, too cold to thaw. Tomorrow it will be warmer; they'll bury my father six feet down, deep below the frost line.