Written by Matt McGraw
The snow began to fall again. Light and wistful at first, a few tiny snowflakes slowly circled their way down to collect on top of the already white earth below. As the storm blew in, a gentle gust of bitter-cold wind calmly rustled the pines above the wolf, blowing small wisps of snow off of the branches that silently fell to the earth around the creature as it stared at the hunk of meat nailed to the lone stump in the field. The wolf didn’t feel the cold; its heavy white coat had protected it since it was just a pup, so it wasn’t a concern. It knew that what could get it killed, however, would be making a move for the food before it was sure it was safe. It crouched silently at the edge of the clearing, unmoving, other than its ears which deftly rotated towards any minute sounds they picked up; its nose, which twitched as it sniffed the air for any scent that seemed off; and its eyes, which scanned the area for even the slightest hint of a threat.
Constantly, all of the wolf’s senses would dart back to the meat however, just sitting there for the taking. It hadn’t eaten in about two weeks, and all it had managed to catch the last time it had, was a measly hare that had been nothing but a few stringy muscles stretched between skin and bone. It was over a month since it had crippled its back leg when it had become tangled in some barbed wire while the wolf and its pack was fleeing from a pasture where they had killed a goat. The farmer and his sons had come out and shot two of the pack, leaving the wolf and its companions to scatter. When the wolf was injured in the escape, it couldn’t keep up with the others, and was eventually left behind to fend for itself. Now, with it being so difficult to catch its own food, the wolf stared hungrily out at the easy meal sitting in the meadow, and waited.
Out in the field, nestled between two scraggly shrubs in the tall grass and buried under a heavy white blanket for camouflage and warmth, another set of eyes stared at the tree line through the scope of a Mosin-Nagant M91, and waited too.
Like the wolf, Anatoly had been scanning his surroundings with all of his senses, and had noticed small clouds of breath coming from the trees at the eastern edge of the forest nearly a half hour ago. He had quickly adjusted his sights to the distance and had been sitting there since, watching the ethereal puffs of breath blow away in the freezing wind as the storm slowly worsened. Judging on the height of the breaths and the amount of time they had been staying in the same spot, he was sure that a wolf was hiding just beyond the line of trees, waiting to make sure the coast was clear before grabbing the bait. When he had chosen this spot hours earlier, Anatoly had almost subconsciously taken note of all of the factors that would affect his shot. Wind direction and speed, estimated distances of points from his location, topography, elevation, and of course, his own camouflage, were all considerations he had made that came second nature to him.
He had been hunting in the Siberian wilderness since he was a young boy, learning first from his father, and then from his two older brothers Ivan and Isaac when his father took ill and couldn’t go out with them anymore. He had learned everything there was to know about the miles of wilderness surrounding his family’s farm, the strategies and traps used in the hunt, the habits of the animals he stalked, how to survive out in the elements, and most importantly, the skills of maintaining and shooting a rifle. “Shooting is nothing more than being one with the world around you,” Ivan would always tell him, “You must see all. You have to know your prey better than it knows itself and visualize the shot long before you pull the trigger.”
Once Anatoly was older, the war broke out in Europe and the Nazis began to invade the Motherland, so he and his brothers put their skills to another use when they were called upon by Stalin to defend their country and help to crush the German war machine. On the front lines, he quickly found that the skills he had learned to hunt animals in Siberia were not so different from the skills it took to hunt enemy soldiers. Stalking your prey took stealth, patience, and knowledge of their habits. You needed to see all, without being seen yourself. Knowing your surroundings and making key atmospheric observations that would disturb the shot were the difference between completing the mission and, often, death. These fundamentals that Anatoly and his brothers had learned made them standout marksmen in their unit, and soon all three were given specialist training and their own sniper rifles. For the next year, they were known as the silent killers of the Red Army to the men in their company and honed their skills and reputation in the brutal campaign.
In 1942, with almost no end to the advance of the Nazis, he and his brothers were sent along with their unit to Stalingrad to stop the Germans in their tracks or die trying. The city was in shambles after constant artillery shelling and bombardments from the German Luftwaffe, but was still a major site strategically due to the fact that key oil refineries were only miles away from the city itself, along with its positioning on the Volga river—their unit’s point of entry into the city. The Soviet troops were packed onto any boat that floated as they were forced forward across the freezing water. Lost or wounded troops, screaming commanders with pistols pointed at their backs and displaced civilians ran every which-way at the eastern shore. Isaac was separated from Anatoly and Ivan in the confusion, and ended up on another boat. As they crossed the Volga, they spotted him a couple hundred meters away. He had jumped up on the railing of the slow moving barge he had boarded and was screaming something to his brothers, who chuckled at his goofy expressions. Then it happened, in the blink of an eye.
Perhaps because he had just been thinking about the past, or perhaps because that was almost all he thought about anymore, Anatoly remembered the German soldier, the one with the limp.
A mortar round directly hit Isaac’s barge as Anatoly and Ivan looked on. The explosion killed him instantly, along with nearly every other man on board, as it ripped the barge into twisted chunks of scrap. The remaining brothers, helpless to do anything, turned to each other, stunned. On the west bank, despite the barks of the officers and the bullets whizzing past, Ivan hugged Anatoly as they wept and sang him their mother’s favorite lullaby as they sat in a foxhole and the snow swirled around them.
He was ripped from the dark memories and came to attention as he saw a white snout appear out of the shadows of the trees. It seemed the wolf had finally made its decision that it was safe to proceed to the meat. His senses at the ready, Anatoly’s rifle barrel silently followed the wolf’s stealthy trek towards the meat. Without taking his eyes off the target, Anatoly slowly reached down and grabbed a handful of snow, placing it in his mouth so that the wolf wouldn’t be able to see his breath. He would wait until the animal reached the meat, and then he would take his shot. As he watched the wolf advance however, he realized that its back leg had been crippled, and it walked with a heavy limp. Perhaps because he had just been thinking about the past, or perhaps because that was almost all he thought about anymore, Anatoly remembered the German soldier, the one with the limp.
He quickly tried to blink the thought away, but as with any idea that one wants to escape, once it had entered his mind, it wouldn’t leave, haunting his thoughts like a specter. As he watched the wolf, he couldn’t help but notice the similarities: strong muscular frame, white coat, that fucking limp. “Stop it you crazy old bastard,” he whispered to himself. But the thought remained, and like it or not the memories came flowing back.
A few months into the Battle of Stalingrad, Anatoly and Ivan had been separated by command and put into different units on opposite ends of the city, as it was deemed unnecessary to have more than one sniper per detachment. He had heard tell that a month after they had been separated, Ivan’s unit had been captured by the Germans, but nothing was definite and he still believed his eldest brother to be fine. He didn’t let soldier’s talk distract him on his daily patrols, which had now become nothing more than ambushes as the vicious urban warfare intensified in the long winter.
On one particular day, he was sitting in a bombed-out apartment complex watching the dead body of a German medic he had killed hours before. After the kill, he had changed positions, jumping over rooftops and stalking through buildings so that any enemy snipers in the area couldn’t get a bead on him. He had been waiting ever since, using the body, and particularly the medic’s bag and weapons, as bait. He knew that the German forces were as hungry and desperately in need of provisions as his own troops were, and that the supplies would be too tempting to pass up. Just as he was ready to call it quits and go grab the bag himself, Anatoly saw a German soldier making his way towards the medic’s body. He silently congratulated himself on his own patience, and locked onto the limping and obviously delirious man below. Just as the soldier reached the bag and knelt to grab it, Anatoly took his shot. As usual, his aim was perfect.
As he got to the ground floor of the building on his way to retrieve the supplies and the dead Germans’ dog tags, he ran into a small Russian patrol that happened to be wandering by. One of the men he recognized as being a part of Ivan’s unit and he ran up to him, asking if there was any news of his brother and if he had been captured. The man told Anatoly that himself and five others including Ivan had indeed been forced to surrender to the Germans during a skirmish and had been made to dig trenches for the last two weeks with almost no food or water. Ivan had escaped however by killing one of the guards and disguising himself in the uniform as he released the others. Two of their friends had been killed in the escape once the Germans found the body and realized what was going on, but the rest had made it out, scattering in different directions. When asked where Ivan had gone, the man said that he had seen him catch a bullet in his leg as he was running away, still dressed in the soldier’s uniform. He hadn’t seen the Germans recapture him however, and assured Anatoly that Ivan had definitely made it back to the Red Army by now, no need to worry.
He thanked the man for the news and congratulated him on their escape, then went back to grab the bag and tags. The wind picked up as he walked into the square, swirling snow, ash and debris around Anatoly. As he approached the bodies, he began to sweat despite the cold and felt a slight sensation of nausea grip his stomach. It was a coincidence, nothing more. His brother was safe and sound somewhere, eating up a week’s worth of rations to fuel his muscular frame, and flirting with a pretty field medic as she patched up his leg. He believed these things fully. Then why couldn’t he shake this sinking feeling in the pit of his guts? His mind was simply making connections where there were none, that’s all. He assured himself of this as he reached down and flipped over the body of the German soldier.
The wolf had just reached the meat as the memory came flashing back and hit him like a bullet. Anatoly fired his rifle and then released a scream of pain as the memory rushed over him. He bolted up and in a fit of rage smashed the rifle to pieces on the rock-hard, frozen ground. He barely remembered running down the slight hill and across the snowy field, but silent tears rolled down his face as he slumped to his knees and held the body of the wolf to him. “Oh God… oh God, what have I done! I’m sorry! I’m so sorry…”
Around them, the snow swirled as the blizzard intensified. The pines creaked as the wind blew through them, carrying the sound of Anatoly’s crying deep into the forest, and between the sobs, the melody of a Russian lullaby.