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."

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