They slung their rifles over their shoulders, stuffed their wool glove-covered hands into their pockets, and tightly gripped their fists in a futile effort to keep the extremities warm. There was the distant thundering of artillery, the sporadic clattering of machine gun fire, and the distant rumbling of wave after wave of large mechanized monsters tearing across the country side. Thousands of fires were raging in the hollow remains of the industrial center, making the city burn like a candle in the dark horizon.
Their chattering teeth mashed together making their skulls vibrant, and the same ripping cold that made them tear was also freezing the moisture in their eyes. The last drops of adrenaline that their brains could muster were coursing through the veins of the exhausted men, just enough to keep their tired eyes darting around the shadows. The wind resumed its relentless attack on the troopers, working itself into a howl and stinging the flesh like a million needles. It worked itself into a fever pitch and slowly tapered out.
Anton reached inside the deep pockets of his wool jacket. His trembling hand pulled out a thin and tattered hand rolled cigarette. He tried to steady himself enough to put it between his lips, but Erich quickly grabbed his arm and shook his head. “What if a sniper sees the flame or the smoke?” He hissed. The dejected looking trooper lowered his hand and looked down at the snow. After a moment, Erich’s scowl melted away, “Go ahead, it’s okay.” He said with a nod. “They can probably see our breath anyway.” He chuckled. Anton grinned and lit the cigarette. He took a quick puff before quietly offering it to the other two. Peter uttered a thank you and put the cigarette between his lips, stopping mid drag to pull the burning cigarette out of his mouth and offering it to Peter who didn’t acknowledge him. Anton shrugged and finished his drag.
Silence had once again settled over the jittery trio of soldiers. Anton’s shaking hand reached into his pocket and pulled out two glistening round objects. He slowly began to nibble on one.
“What are those?” Erich asked.
Anton hesitated. “They’re eyes from one of the horses.” He murmured and resumed chewing on the icy orb. He stopped again. “Would you like one?” He asked. Erich shook his head. Anton shrugged and silently offered it to Peter. Peter smiled and happily took the eye out of Anton’s hand.
“Thank you.” Peter said.
Anton weakly smiled. “I hope the planes come soon. A potato has never sounded so good. I think I could even eat a raw onion right now.” Anton said, suddenly breaking the silence.
“What? Already tired of horse eyes?” Erich asked with a smile. They laughed. “Someone cover the match, I’ll light us another cigarette”. Erich said warmly. Excited for the hunger-suppressing effects of the tobacco, the men pulled in closer. Erich put the cigarette between his lips, and Peter struck the match. Almost on cue, the wind picked up and extinguished the flame.
“Damn.” said Peter.
“Let’s try again.” mumbled Erich. Three matches later, the cigarette was finally lit, and the soldiers were quickly passing it amongst themselves. The cigarette came back to Erich. He took a long drag as the other two men fixed their gaze on the amber light eating away at the paper. “I’m ready to go home. The Ivans can keep this god forsaken place.” Erich said handing the cigarette over to Peter.
“The whole place smells like shit.” Anton replied.
“I’ve noticed that too.” Peter said, before taking a puff.
“Well, there has to be at least 200,000 bodies in this city, and if each person is letting loose, say a kilogram, that’s 200,000 kilograms of shit.” Erich replied. “It’s almost a good thing it’s so cold, or the smell would be a thousand times worse.” He continued.
“They should change the name to Shitgrad.” Anton smirked.
The three men burst out laughing again. The droning of planes in the distance brought their laughter to a sudden stop, and the men craned their necks to the sky. A thunderous choir of flack could be heard in the distance. The troopers ran to one of the demolished walls and excitedly looked out at the sky. The AA flashes illuminated the outlines of the great steel birds, and the men held their breath, praying they wouldn’t be shot down. After a few agonizing moments that wore at their nerves, they could see the white parachutes opening up in the vast dark sky as the parcels of salvation began their slow decent to earth like angles from Heaven. The soldiers’ eyes followed the packages as they fell into the darkness. Erich gave Anton a hard slap on the shoulder. “Get on the radio, tell command where the supplies fell, and Peter and I will start to gather what we can!”
“Yes sir!” Anton Replied gleefully.
Before they could head for the supplies, the euphoria was suddenly shattered by the sound of snow crunching under the weight of dozens of boots, and the sound of engines coming to life. Erich pulled Anton back down, and they listened. After a moment, the wind began to carry over the faint sound of chattering Russians. Erich’s heart sank, and he fell back into the snow.
“They have our supplies.” He whispered hoarsely.
The Russians were close, but the young Germans couldn’t see them. They could see the headlights of their trucks crawling across the snow and could hear their guttural laughter as they loaded up the crates.
Anton stood up. “Let’s get what’s ours.” He said fiercely.
Erich quickly pulled him back and held him down. “Hunger is making you mad!” Erich barked.
“A bullet is quicker than starvation!” Anton retorted angrily.
Erich slapped him across the face. “Stay calm and live. If you bolt out there, we all die”. Erich said grimacing. Anton calmed, and Erich eased up.
There was the crackling sound of a loud speaker, and a high pitched Russian voice screeched broken German across the landscape. “Come out Fritz!” He called. “We have your food, come out, and we might share!”
“Stay put!” Erich hissed. The seemingly omnipotent voice continued its taunts. “Maybe we’ll save a little bit for when we get to Berlin. How are your wives going to fuck if they’re dead?”
“Sick Russian bastards!” Anton exclaimed. He shoved Erich off, quickly stood up, and fired a round in the darkness. He ran forward stumbling through the snow. As he pulled back the bolt, a row of muzzle flashes lit up in the dark like fireflies and tore through the young soldier spraying a cloud of crimson into the air and across the snow. When the salvo was finished, Anton was little more than a bloody pile of torn rags and flesh. His helpless comrades could do nothing more than turn away from the gruesome sight. There were several loud bangs and spotlights suddenly appeared in the snow, barely ten meters away from Erich and Peter. The lights began crisscrossing through the snow as they hunted for the other soldiers. Erich and Peter withdrew into the building’s shell and wrapped themselves in the darkness as best they could and waited. The lights continued to creep closer and closer. Every muscle in Erich’s body stiffened, and after a moment, he realized he had forgotten to breathe.
Peter was cowered in the fetal position, his body quivering as he struggled to hold his breath so the Russians wouldn’t see it rising from their little cavern in the ruins. The hollow thumping of mortar firing from their tubes could be heard, and seconds later, the ground began to explode around Erich and Peter. The shells fell through where the ceiling used to be and hit the ground randomly, sending up plumbs of debris and snow wherever they hit. The Russians were toying with them. Erich could see time was short, but he knew they wouldn’t chase them through mortars. He turned to Peter. “When I say go, just start running.” He whispered. Peter, still cowering, nodded in acknowledgement.
There was a deafening bang and a flash. Erich felt his body fly back. He hit a hard surface with a thud, and his nerves began broadcasting the electrical signals of pain through his body. His eyes opened, and he was on his back looking up. The ringing in his ears was vibrating his brain like a tuning fork. He rolled over onto his stomach and tried to push his trembling body back to its feet but fell face first in the snow. The high-pitched reverberation in his ears began to subside, and he could hear Peter screaming. Erich looked up and could see him lying in the snow about 5 meters away. A growing pool of blood was melting through the snow around him. Erich crawled along the ground over to Peter. When Erich got to him, he could see Peter’s right eye was hanging from his head, attached by just a few wiry strands of nerves. Shards of metal had proliferated through the flesh of his face, and his left forearm was gone leaving a jagged bloody stump where his elbow used to be. Erich sat in the snow next to Peter and cradled his head in his hands. Peter’s blood ran through his fingers and made his gloves warm and sticky. The mortar fire had stopped, and Erich could hear the Russians moving through the snow.
“Shhh.” Erich hissed, trying to silence Peter, but Peter seemed to be unaware of Erich’s presence and continued to scream and claw at the wounds in his face. “They’re coming for us! You have to shut up!” Erich snarled. Peter ignored him and continued to convulse and squeal. The string of nerves holding his eye finally snapped, and it fell on the ground. Erich could hear the crunching snow under the Russian boots growing louder and louder as they inched closer and closer. Peter’s screams seemed to be growing louder too. He gargled for a second, and blood began to pool in his mouth and drip down his chin. “Quiet! Now!” Erich barked, but to no avail. He could hear the Russians yelling to each other now. “Shut! Up!” He hissed as he forced Peter face first into the snow muffling his cries. He held Peter’s thrashing body down as he choked on the snow. The Russians were only meters away, but Erich couldn’t let him up. After a few moments, Peter stopped moving and his body went limp. Erich turned him over. His remaining eye had glassed over, and the blood had frozen on his blue face. Tears welled up in Erich’s eyes. “I’m sorry,” he whispered.
There was no time to mourn the dead though. The sound of the snarling Russians sent his brain immediately into survival mood. They were coming, and he would have to run. He lowered Peter’s body and hoarsely whispered goodbye before bolting for an exit. He ran as quickly as he could. The darkness closed around him, and his world turned into a narrow tunnel as he plunged through the nightmare of waiting to either wake up or to die. His back tingled as he anticipated being pierced by bullets, but they never came. Erich disappeared into the darkness, just escaping the Russian’s grasp. As Erich stumbled through the snow, a pulsating darkness consumed the world around him. Everything blurred and with each beat, everything grew dimmer and dimmer. He could see two silhouettes in the distance. “Halt!”
They were Germans. Erich had made it. His legs were wobbling, and they would carry him no further. He fell to the knees that were too numb to feel the biting cold of the snow. His body waivered and fell forward, then there was only black. When his eyes finally fluttered open, he was in a dimly lit room surrounded by the looming figures of several German soldiers. “Thank god.” He whispered.
“What happened to the food?” One of the soldiers asked as he stepped forward, his heavy boots thundering as they hit the ground. Erich looked up as the tall grim figure loomed over him starting directly down into his cloudy eyes.
“I….I…” Erich stuttered.
“You’ve killed us all!” Another voice called out from the crowd.
“No!” Erich protested. “I just…” He began again before he was stopped by the sight of the butt of a rifle racing towards his face. He didn’t feel the blow, but he could feel the warm crimson fluid running down his face. He could see his hands reaching out to block their blows, but he couldn’t feel his body. He could hear his clothes tearing, his flesh ripping, and his bones shattering. This time, the blackness didn’t settle, but the nothingness returned in an instant, and Erich could feel no more.
That night, the hungry officers of the 6th army shared pieces of Erich’s corpse. One of them made sure to tuck away his eyes for another day.