Snow Boots

By 20th March 2009No Comments

The German soldiers arrived with the sunset, marching into the yard in a wavering line. They stood waiting while their commander spoke to Svetlana’s father. She peeped around the door frame, watching them. How straight they stood, how proud in their ragged uniforms. Defeat had not bowed their heads. She crept closer to eavesdrop on the commander, conversing with her father in halting Russian. Her father was scowling.
“You can stay one night. One!” Ivan held up a finger, making sure he was understood. “Leave the guns outside. You can collect them in the morning.”
The commander issued a sharp order, and there was a clattering as the Germans dropped their heavy rifles. One of the strangers hunkered down to watch over them. The rest scattered, their discipline swept away. Ivan was still talking to the commander as Olga and Natalya emerged from two of the huts on the opposite side of the yard, curious, casting nervous glances at the pile of guns. Svetlana watched her father reassure them, knowing they would be forced to defer to his will. Ivan was the only man of working age in the collective, since the younger, fitter men had marched away to war and never come back.
Svetlana’s mother appeared at her elbow. “What’s going on, child?”
“Father says the Germans can stay.”
Marie sighed. “Your father would do anything to spit in Stalin’s eye, even helping our enemies. Have they brought any food?”
Svetlana shrugged. The soldiers were much more interesting than her mother’s domestic worries, and she was bored of hearing about Stalin. To her father, the collective was a prison, but to Svetlana it was home. She couldn’t remember living anywhere else.
The German commander issued another instruction. His men teamed into pairs or trios, and one pair headed purposefully towards the doorway where Svetlana lurked. She backed away, slowly, into the kitchen, watching in silence as the men took seats at the table. One was short and squat, with thick brows and a protuberant lower lip. He kept his eyes down, making no contact with anyone. The other, younger man reminded Svetlana of the forbidden bible stories her mother had told her since she was a babe in arms. She liked the ones about Saint Michael the Archangel best, slaying the dragon with his flaming sword. She had dreamed of him, tall and blond, gentle but powerful. The other German, tucking into her mother’s thin turnip stew as if it was the finest dessert, was the Archangel Michael come to earth. He was tall and fair, with blue eyes that gleamed over his sunken cheeks. He saw her looking, and smiled. His teeth were yellow, but his grin was broad and welcoming. Svetlana felt the heat rise in her face as he tapped himself on the chest.
“Wilhelm.” He pointed to her.
“Svetlana, don’t bother the man.” Marie fluttered between the table and the stove, picking up pots, laying them aside again, with many anxious glances at the strangers. “I think you should go upstairs now.”
“She doesn’t need to go upstairs,” Ivan said, just as quickly. “I want her down here, with us.” He called her over to him and hugged her awkwardly with his shortened arm, empty sleeve flapping. He ate with his right hand, watching the Germans constantly, and she wondered if he regretted his decision.
The meal over, the dark German rolled a thin cigarette. Wilhelm rose and began clearing the bowls from the table. “Thank you,” he said, in Russian, with a small bow towards Marie. She stood with her back against the stove, clutching a wooden spatula to her chest as if it was a weapon, and made no reply.
The table cleared, Wilhelm shuffled his chair closer to the fire, and stretched out his long, skinny legs, closing his eyes. With his lashes resting on his cheeks and the firelight giving a ruddy tone to his pale skin, he looked more angelic than ever. Svetlana crept closer, ignoring her father’s muttered warning.
She sat at Wilhelm’s feet and stared at his boots. The leather was cracked across the toes, and the sole was coming away on both heels. The laces, knotted tightly, were thin and stringy. Wilhelm, noticing her interest, leant forward to untie them, and the left lace snapped. He sighed, removed the remains from the boot, and held it out to her. “For your hair,” he said.
With a hesitant glance at her father, Svetlana took the lace. The brush of Wilhelm’s hand against hers sent a jolt like lightening up her arm. She blushed, but he didn’t seem to notice as he eased the broken boots from his swollen feet. His grey woollen socks had been ripped and darned so many times they were just a mass of tangled stitching, raw heels and toes poking through like fat white maggots. He pulled off his wet socks and let them fall, extending his feet towards the fire. Svetlana hardly noticed the smell. She was looking at the blisters, the calluses, the fine golden hair that sprouted from the tops of his toes.
“Daddy, how far is it to the border?”
“On foot?” Ivan considered. “About four days, in the snow. Come away from there now, and help your mother.”
Four days. Four days over snow, in boots that leaked and rubbed with every step. It most be agony for her poor Archangel. Who knew how far he had walked already? Maybe all the way from Moscow! The thought brought tears to her eyes as she imagined those poor soldiers, knowing they had lost, marching mile after mile through the bitter Russian winter in boots of rotten leather, with never a murmur of complaint. Not like Russian boys, always moaning about something. The Germans, in defeat, were true heroes.
Marie leaned over to her. “Don’t cry,” she whispered. “I know you’re scared, but they’ll be gone in the morning. Try to stay out of their way until then, though. It‘s not just guns that make a man dangerous.”
Svetlana forced a smile. “I think I’m just tired, mother. Do you mind if I go up to bed?”
Her mother regarded her anxiously. “You look a little flushed. Are you feeling all right?”
“I‘m fine, honestly.”
Marie hugged her impetuously. “We’ll keep you safe, my dear. You know that, don’t you?”
“I know!” Svetlana struggled free from her arms, hating to be treated like a child in front of Wilhelm. She climbed swiftly to the loft-bedroom she shared with her parents, had shared with her older brothers before they went away to war. She imagined Anatoly and Boris without their boots, trudging through the snow, and then the idea struck her. She could give Wilhelm her father’s valenki.
The high felt boots that kept Ivan’s feet dry and warm even in the cruellest winters were not in their usual place in the trunk at the foot of her parents bed. Twenty minutes of sweaty, frustrated searching led eventually to their discovery, beneath the false panel in the bottom of the wardrobe, where her mother kept the bible and a few precious items of jewellery that had belonged to Svetlana’s great-grandmother. Now she knew where they were, she would have to wait until her parents were asleep. She anticipated the row that would erupt if her father caught her giving his valuable snow boots to a German.
“To each according to his need,” she muttered as she replaced the panel. And who was more in need than poor Wilhelm?
Later that night, when the snores of her parents assured her they would not hear, Svetlana lifted the valenki from their hiding place, and climbed down the ladder with them tucked awkwardly under her arm. Wilhelm slept where she had left him, in front of the dying fire, head tipped back and his chest rising and falling gently. His dour companion was passed out with his head on the table, one arm stretching for the empty vodka bottle. Her father, she remembered, had been saving that lonely bottle for her brothers return.
She crept up to Wilhelm and tapped him daringly on the shoulder. He sat up with a grunt, groping at his hip for a weapon that wasn’t there, until his bleary eyes focussed on her. He relaxed, smiling that golden smile.
The way he said her name set off strange, uncomfortable feelings in the pit of her stomach. She tried not to imagine what it would feel like if he kissed her. When the men left the collective, she had been nine, and too young for kissing.
“I got you these.” She held up the valenki, a black shadow in the firelight. How much of what she said did he even understand? “For you.” She pointed. “They’re my father’s, so hush!”
“Hush!” He mimicked her gesture, pressing his finger to his lips. “For me?”
She nodded.
“Thank you, Svetlana.” He poked the fire into renewed life and tried on the valenki, twisting his legs to admire them under the blaze. They fitted well, just a shade too large. “Thank you.” He raised her hand to his lips and kissed it. She felt the rough brush of his stubble, the wetness of his mouth, and panic rushed through her, driving out the warm glow. She snatched her hand back and raced for the ladder, heart pounding, hearing Wilhelm’s low chuckle behind her. It was a long time before she slept again that night, and when she did her dreams were full of angels, with flaming swords and soft, red mouths.
“Wake up, sleepy! You’ve missed breakfast.” Marie’s cold hand on her bare toes jerked Svetlana roughly from her troubled sleep. She sat up in a hurry.
“Have the Germans gone, mother?”
“They’re just going. I saved some porridge for you. And stay out of your father’s way. He wanted to go hunting after they’ve gone, and he can’t find his valenki.” Her expression clouded for a second, then cleared. “I’m sure they’ll turn up,” she said brightly. Svetlana squirmed internally, but said nothing.
Ivan sat at the table, toying with the empty vodka bottle. His face was as black as a winter night. Ignoring her mother’s warning, eager to make amends, Svetlana slipped into the seat beside him and hugged his truncated arm.
“Don’t worry, father,” she said. “I’m sure Olga has some valenki you can borrow.”
His eyes, when they turned on her, were those of a man lying at the bottom of a deep pit. “You don’t understand,” he said, “and why should you? If they found them –”
“Don’t talk about it!” Marie squeaked, rattling the breakfast pans.
“Don’t talk about what?” But Svetlana’s question was cut off by the appearance in the doorway of the German commander. He saluted her father, bowed to her mother, and spoke, slow and halting, to them both. He was asking Ivan to come with his men, to show them the way back to the main road.
Ivan rose slowly. There was no colour in his face, and he reached for his galoshes like a man having trouble moving his limbs. Marie clutched the front of the stove, mouthing a silent prayer.
“Don’t look like that.” Svetlana could see how much effort was behind her father’s smile. “I’ll be back in an hour. You,” he kissed Svetlana lightly on the cheek, and she felt him trembling, “be good for your mother while I’m gone.”
The commander held the door open for him, and ushered him politely into the yard, letting the door click shut behind them. At that soft sound, whatever power was holding Marie upright collapsed and she sank to the table, head in hands. “Dear God in Heaven, what will we do?”
“What’s wrong?” This sudden collapse frightened Svetlana beyond all reason. “Father’s only taking them to the road. He’ll be back soon. Why are you crying?”
Marie wiped her eyes. “Your father thinks the Germans found his valenki.”
“What’s that got to do with anything?”
“When the Germans invaded, they confiscated all the valenki for their own men. They said the partisans were using them, and anyone caught with valenki must be a partisan. It’s as bad as being caught with a gun, and the punishment is the same.”
Oh dear god, the valenki! What had she done? Svetlana leapt up from the table with a cry of pain. “I didn’t know!”
“Svetlana! Where are you going?”
She rushed out into the yard, hardly feeling the chill on her bare feet. The Germans had already vanished, taking her father with them, but they had left a broad trail from her to follow. Out of the gate, and over the small ridge into the valley below.
She was halfway up the ridge when the rifle cracked, echoing in the winter stillness. Stumbling and crying, Svetlana crested the low rise. Her father lay face-down in the snow, his blood a startling bloom of red against the whiteness. She skidded down the rise towards him and flung herself next to his warm body, howling in grief. As she struggled to lift him, all she could see was the blood, and the footprints leading away from the scene, the heavy, ridged prints of the German army boots. Mixed in with them, sometimes overlaying them, sometimes side-by-side, were the lighter, flatter prints of her father’s valenki.

Joanne Hall

Author Joanne Hall

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