Misha was desperately attempting to normalise his breathing in order to decelerate his heartbeat but to no avail. Upon sensing the warmness of the red liquid, which was slowly forming a pool around him, the beating only increased. It seemed to him that the desolate room was echoing from the wretched thumping. Now they would undoubtedly find him. It was impossible not to hear this annoying melody from the street, and he knew they were hunting him. All that was left was his inane optimism that they had miraculously forgotten about him. But how could they? They were nothing but blood-thirsty hounds, and he was their helpless prey, soaked in his own blood. Still, the city had been reeking of blood for months, so it would probably take them some time to find him.
He wondered how he even managed to run so far with a bullet deeply ensnared in his guts. Of course, he managed to run. Anyone would if they had seen the horrors that Misha had to behold: his comrades falling, one by one, in a heartbeat. He could still feel Kostya in his arms, slowly perishing while muttering his final prayer. A silent, vacuous laugh escaped his lips.
Why would someone fight for a country that denies God, yet pray when death arrives?
It never made sense to him. He had not really cared about the whole concept of religion or anything preternatural even before the reign of the hammer and the sickle. Nevertheless, he was there, seeking refuge in the house of God. He could not quite understand whether he was an utter fool or a genius. Ultimately, one would certainly not look for a communist in a church. He did not have the slightest idea of how he ended up there, all he knew was that he was trying to reach the nearby Volga, hoping that he would somehow be safe if he crossed it, or, at least, meet his quietus in peace. However, the bullet in his stomach and the dripping blood alerted him to the impossibility of this feat. There was nothing he could do but expect his last breath. Stalingrad had given him life, Stalingrad had raised him, Stalingrad had taken his father and his friends. His beloved city had taken everything from him, and now it was going to take his guts. It would have been easier if he had brought his gun, as a single bullet could end this agony. In a split second, he could be free again. He wondered if he would indeed be capable of pulling the trigger. After all, he did run for his life, that is why he was here, alone in a derelict church, anticipating his eternal rest, or worse, to be found by the enemy. All that was left was to wait for something to happen.
He looked around the altar that was sheltering him. Although the church was abandoned, it was filled with numerous unfamiliar faces, plastered on each of the walls. The holy assembly appeared to be staring at him, but from the frail sunlight, which was desperately trying to find its way through the dirty windows, and from all the particles of dust slowly dancing in the air, it was quite unfeasible to distinguish their pity from judgment. Thus, Misha decided to avert his gaze towards the golden crucifix hovering over his head. He remembered how his younger sister proudly presented him with a miniature version of this object after one of her frequent excavations of the mother’s closet, followed by the mother’s anger and her attempts to explain the little girl the rationale behind burying the crucifix beneath the endless layers of clothes, as if the child could understand. There was something more in mother’s eyes that Misha could not help but notice. Fear. The mother was terrified. She had the same look in her eyes two weeks later, when the letter addressed to Misha and his father arrived. He recalled the mother’s tears at the station, and how happy his little sister was because of the sudden field trip. Sorrow filled his heart upon realising that he would not embrace them again and he earnestly hoped they were safe, away from this mayhem and were not digging trenches or dead, as the other dwellers of the embattled city.
The unbearable shrillness of the mortar, which was reverberating from the other part of the city, alerted him to the harsh reality he was in. Minutes later, the diabolical apparatus went off again. And again. It gave an impression of a dramatic interlude to an extremely wicked symphony. Indeed, this war of wars was nothing but a symphony of death. And who was Misha Patrushev? Just one of the instruments, an insignificant violin, playing the music of death. Oh, how he loved the sound of the violin and hearing that beautiful neighbour practicing every evening. Right now, he was disgusted. It reminded him of his unimportance and of the sad truth that he was just a mere man, a meager piece of flesh, partaking in a wretched symphony along with his comrades, enemies, and the abominable life-taking machinery. Under no circumstances would the grand war and Stalingrad be forsaken. Misha, together with the pawns like him, would certainly be consigned to oblivion and lost in blood and snow. It was now undoubtedly clear that Stalingrad would be his sepulcher.
Why? Why? Why? To hell with this inequity. Cursed be the day he received that odious letter! All he wanted was to experience life. Why could not it wait? But no. In just a month, he was holding a rifle in his hands in lieu of his diploma. Instead of living his life, it was “kill or be killed”. Why could not THEY wait? Why would not they let him write something? How could he write anything now, after all the monstrosity he had witnessed? WHY COULD NOT THEY WAIT?!
Having been thrown into a paroxysm of rage, Misha wanted to scream from the nethermost depths of his lungs, or at least, punch something. These tormenting thoughts were ravaging his mind. However, he was too frightened to do anything that would alert the enemy of his location. Therefore, he decided to rest his head against the hard wood of the altar. He shut his eyes firmly and took a deep breath. The church was unendurably cold, even for him, which, luckily, made it well-nigh impossible to concentrate on the pain emitting from his stomach. During his short life, he had never gotten accustomed to freezing temperatures. The motherland was merciless in winter, both to her poor children and the enemy. Misha was surprised by the endurance of the enemy soldiers under the full impact of the harsh Russian winter. He wondered how so many survived.
Why was he thinking about them? To hell with these aggressors. It was their fault. They had invaded his motherland. They had dared to demolish his city. They had separated him from his mother and sister. Because of them, he had witnessed the execution of his father and friends. Because of them, he was going to die. Because of them…
He shut his eyes again. Suddenly, the room became warmer. He could not discern whether the temperature increased, or it was his blood that was keeping him warm. He opened his eyes again and a realisation hit him. He was not in the church anymore, but a barren field, either red from blood, as its scent was heavily imprinted in his brain or the abnormal colour of the sun. In the middle, approximately fifty meters from him, there was a sullen, leafless tree. It was obvious that the poor tree was dying. After pitying it for a couple of moments, his attention was diverted towards the sound behind him which he recognised as sobbing. He turned his head and beheld a woman, hovering over a stone. As he was approaching, her sobs intensified. Misha observed her. In contrast to him, who was covered in dirt and blood, her luridly red dress and her long hair were pristine. However, there was one aspect of her prepossessing appearance which gave him slight shivers. Namely, the right half of her face was completely red, beyond the shadow of a doubt, burned. She seemed unaware of his presence, still fixated on the stone. Misha could not quite comprehend the significance of the stone. He looked around, trying to detect the presence of anyone else. It was in vain. They were entirely alone. He turned his head back towards the woman and jumped in shock. She was in front of him, her cerulean orbs piercing his soul. She slowly raised her hand and pointed her finger in the direction of the stone. The engraving was perfectly legible:
MISHA ALEKSEEVICH PATRUSHEV
It was completely apparent now, the woman was mourning him. Misha tried to understand the reasoning behind her actions since he had no idea who she was. Nonetheless, her face seemed so familiar and the obvious fear in her eyes reminded him of his mother. He was attempting to remember if he had seen her somewhere when an idea crossed his mind.
Could this be her? The Motherland?
The stream of thoughts was soon interrupted by what he perceived as a horse, galloping behind him. Misha looked at the woman. She was completely petrified and her gaze was fixed on the figure behind him. Intimidation prevented him from turning his head, but he did catch a glimpse of a black scythe, which made his blood run cold and he started panicking.
Mother? Mother? HELP!
There was no reaction. She just stood there, ready for death to take him away.
Hypocrite! Bloody hypocrite! When she called, he was forced to fight for her. When he cried for help, there was no answer. Hypocrite! She was mourning him, but she was the one who stood motionless when death arrived.
Several pairs of soldier boots and clamour woke him up and alerted him that the enemy was aware of his whereabouts. It was at the moment beyond doubt that they would kill him. All hope faded away.
Should he, like Kostya, start praying? Why would he even do that? Would it make things better? Certainly not…
Then, out of nowhere, mortars were heard again, and again, followed by gunshots. One of the men, who had an abnormally strident voice, shouted a command in German and they all ran away. Something was happening on the streets.
Could it be? The help from the capital? Finally? It still did not matter. The wound was too severe. He was going to meet his end, but not here, not in this church.
Misha mustered the last bit of his strength, stood up, proudly fixed his blood-stained uniform, and ploddingly exited the building. Albeit immensely perilous, this was going to be his final walk in the city. He glanced at the strangely bleak and saturnine streets, at the remains of what used to be his home, his Stalingrad. The once lively city was nothing but a gruesome pall of smoke and dust that churned up from the buildings which had been obliterated long ago. It was unrecognisable, utterly plagued by war. There was no sign of life, only death, lurking at every corner. He stopped at the entrance of his old school, or what was left of it. The same windows through which he had frequently glanced due to his profound interest in the lectures were gone, and the paintings which had embellished the walls in every classroom had been replaced with bullet holes months ago. They stretched across the walls as stars across the sky in bygone summers, for the sky was now ornamented with Katyusha rockets. The image was torturous, he could not stand the sight of that building.
Where to now? Volga? Yes, yes. He should go there. The sunrise was near. Perfect.
To his great surprise, he managed to reach the river. Once on the shore, he collapsed, as his legs had finally betrayed him. There was no chance of reaching the other side of the mighty frigid river. He was hoping to see the sunrise for the last time. While expecting the beams of sunlight, he found a small opening in the icy cloak, took some water in his palms and washed his face and dishevelled dark hair which gave prominence to the deathlike pallour of his countenance. At least, he was able to afford a decent death. Moments later, the sun finally showed its dreary face, and Misha shut his eyes, cherishing his dying breath.
Farewell, world. Farewell, Stalingrad.
To Misha’s demise, fate had other plans. The woman manifested before his eyes again. However, this time, she was different. Her dress was now white, the redness of her face had vanished, and her hand was gripping a large sword.
“I am here, my child. Everything is going to be all right. Look!”
Having said this, she pointed her finger towards the stone once again, and immediate bewilderment ensued. Misha’s lips curved into a faint smile, as he read:
MISHA ALEKSEEVICH PATRUSHEV
A powerful spark of hope appeared, igniting his will to live. He heard some indistinct murmuring in Russian and a strong pair of hands gripping his body and lifting it up.