There were millions of casualties from World War I. Many had lost their beloved—fathers, brothers and husbands who had left their families for duty and never came back.
Tatiana was an exquisite young lady who lived in a wooden house in the middle of a forest in the far north of Kalinin, Russia. Her beauty was hard not to mention — a gleamy pale skin would either blind or bewitch the beholder; her short hair shining blond the more we stare like the sun, as though it can melt the thickest snow of Russia, and her beautiful, deep green eyes, still reflecting the beauty of spring in winter. She lived with her mother, who taught her to tailor clothes for their living.
Tatiana had never seen her father; the war had taken him from his family before she was born. Her mother had recounted many stories about him and how he had been sad to not see his unborn child.
“All he ever wanted was to hold you in his arms,” her mother had told her. “We would sit before the fireplace and talk about the war. I had never wanted him to go, but it was his duty. Because of brave men like him, the war ended in our favor. You and I could have been slaves to the Germans.”
Sitting on a chair, outside, next to their house, Tatiana recalled the words of her mother and released a sigh in that cold weather.
You were wrong, mother, she said to herself, the war isn’t over. The world will never know peace.
It was January 1941. The Second World War had begun two years before, and Tatiana was twenty-two. The Soviet Union was being neutral, invading the Baltic countries and launching attacks on Finland.
It’s snowing, thought Tatiana, like angels’ feathers falling from heaven from the heartless humans’ deeds.
She would sit outside every day, blessing those fortunate snowflakes to fall upon her soft pale skin; and would go inside only to cook or tailor clothes to sell. Her mother was fragile; she was often ill. Tatiana had to walk miles in the forest to the nearest village to fetch wood, food and sell the clothes she sewed, obliged to leave her ill mother at home for hours before coming back.
The weather was getting colder, as Tatiana treaded miles to that usual village. The wind blew hard, while nothing covered her skin but a pair of boots, black trousers and a green pullover that she made with wool. Her short blond hair waved as the wind was passing through it, and her face gleamed brighter.
Mother has been very sick lately, she thought, how can I bring a doctor home?
Tatiana, deeply concerned about her mother’s health, began to hear the sound of a car. The sound was getting closer until she spotted a car transporting soldiers behind her right shoulder. The car was high and of a juniper color. Three soldiers were inside. It was known to be used by Russian soldiers to transport in the snow.
The soldiers stopped right beside her. “Hey, beauty!” shouted one of them. “Want to have a drive!”
Tatiana did not stop walking. Despite what her mother had been chanting to her about the bravery of soldiers and how they’d brought them victory and that so-called peace, she hated them. Every time she had seen a soldier, she thought of her father whom she’d never met.
“Hey. Such nice manners!” the soldier shouted again. He was rather annoying, she noted.
The car followed her, and another soldier spoke. “My lady, the nearest village is three hours walk from here. We are heading there. Let us take you.”
“I don’t need help.” She glared at once, not stopping for a second.
“We are not offering help.” He shook his head. “As I said, it is our destination. We’ll be there in less than thirty minutes by vehicle.”
“Come on, Ivan. Just leave her. She thinks we’re evil, though this weather is much more brutal,” said the first soldier.
Ivan, the soldier who’d been kind to her dismounted the vehicle and walked beside her. “I promise no one will harm you.” He leaped and stopped right before her. “Please have mercy on your body.”
She scowled at the soldier standing before her—he seemed rather sincere and genuine. “All right, but just because I’m late.”
A grin flashed his teeth as he walked toward the vehicle and opened the door for her. They both mounted and drove toward that village.
“So, what’s your name?” the annoying soldier asked after five minutes of silence.
“I agreed to get in the car, not to talk,” she said dryly.
“Fine. It’s not like I care,” he said.
Ivan chuckled, and his comrade glared at him. His other comrade had been driving without uttering a word.
“I am Ivan,” he started. “This is Yegor, and the shy gentleman is Peter. We are stopping by that village; then we’ll go to a checkpoint and head to Finland.”
“Fighting in such a nonsensical war. Brave, brave soldiers.” She glared at him.
“We are soldiers, not leaders. Pawns are meant to obey, or else…” He reached for a cover and put it around her. The fatigue was obvious on her face and the way she’d been moving with difficulties.
“Thank you.” She finally showed gratitude.
“Oh, yeah, I thought you didn’t agree to talk,” snapped Yegor in an amusing way. Tatiana and Ivan glanced at each other, smiling.
“My name is Tatiana. Happy now?”
“Meh, I could have guessed.”
Ivan stared at Tatiana as she was failing not to smile. Her beauty was hard not to notice. “Do you live outside the village?” he asked.
“Yes. I usually walk five hours to get there.”
“Impressive! And what business do you have there?”
“Sell clothing, buy supplies, and I may take a doctor to my mother.”
“Your mother?” he asked. “Is it serious?”
“She’s been weak for days and barely eats.”
Ivan thought for a few seconds then spoke loudly. “When we arrive at the village, you do your things, fetch a doctor, then we’ll drive you back home.”
Yegor coughed heavily. He’d been listening attentively to their conversation and lost it when Ivan was going extra gentle. “What about the camp? We might arrive late because of this!”
“What can possibly happen if we do?” Ivan asked.
“I don’t know,” answered Yegor. “Stalin will feed our toes to the huskies and throw us in a gulag maybe.”
“That won’t happen, Yegor.” laughed Ivan. He put his right hand outside his window; a snowflake fell on the palm of his hand.
Tatiana was staring at the two of them, hesitant to trust those random soldiers, but had no choice but to do so. Ivan’s genuine smile had been quite motivating her to trust him. And she agreed.
After a day at the village, the soldiers drove Tatiana back home with a doctor with them. She had spent time on the road chatting with Ivan. His smile was the most delightful thing she had ever seen. He was tall, blond, and rather slim. Not often had she ever chatted with someone but her mother, and Ivan was someone she liked enough.
They arrived at Tatiana’s home. Her mother was surprised at what she had seen—four men in her house and three of them were soldiers!
Ivan and Tatiana sat before the fireplace while the doctor examined her mother, and Yegor and Peter waited outside in the cold. She told him about her father and how much she hated war, and he told her about his life—as both a soldier and someone who lived orphan.
The doctor gave good news, as her mother’s health condition wasn’t grave, and Tatiana sighed from relief. She hugged Ivan, thanking him for everything he had done in one day. They walked towards the vehicle; the doctor mounted, and the two of them stood outside. None of them spoke. It was a snowy eve. Snowflakes flew between them; Tatiana caught one with both hands and blew it gently as she got closer to Ivan’s face, and he felt it like a very delicate kiss.
“I hope we meet again. Thank you.”
“When the war is over, I’ll come and see you. I promise.”
“I will be waiting for that.” She gave a half-smile and walked inside.
It had been five months since Tatiana had last seen Ivan. His kindness had marked her profoundly. She’d been waiting for the war to be over so that she could finally meet him again, but then, things got rather complicated.
It was late June of the same year, and Germany launched Operation Barbarossa, which was the invasion of the Soviet Union. Hitler pushed his troops and began to win battles against unprepared Soviet troops. It was the total chaos in the country, but Tatiana could only think of the only soldier she cared about. She’d spent restless nights thinking about where he could be, if he was alive or not. She had received no letter from him, since her whereabouts were quite unknown in the chart and no mailman would tread all those miles.
The Nazis advanced during summer and autumn, winning most of their battles, taking Minsk, Smolensk, Kiev, Vyazma, and Leningrad under siege. They had almost reached Moscow, but luckily, the early winter came in October. The snow fought the Nazi vehicles and crippled them as the soil was turning to mud, slowing down Hitler’s strategy.
“Hoy, Ivan, Berlin is almost the capital of Russia and you’re here daydreaming?”
“What do you want me to do, Yegor? Make a strategy? It’s not my job.”
The soldiers were on a large vehicle transporting them to Moscow. They were on their way to defend their capital. If Moscow fell, all Russia would follow.
“Think of how to use the snow in our favor.”
“Think on my behalf.”
“We’ll throw snowballs to confuse them. Then we turn to rifles.”
“Smart man, Yegor.”
“I knew it. You’ve been thinking about that rude woman.”
“She wasn’t rude to me. And everyone is rude to you.”
“Is my face the problem?”
Ivan glanced at him. “What else could it be?”
“I knew it,” snapped Yegor. “Even ladies are jealous of me.”
“I am sure they are.” But Ivan knew that no woman ever lived could compete with Tatiana’s beauty. Her seed would bring the most beautiful women in Russia, like a flower amid the snow.
“The Germans have almost reached Moscow. The next battles will be very decisive,” said Yegor
“We will see,” said Ivan. “We need prayers more than rifles.” He felt a beautiful woman at her window praying for him.
The soldiers arrived in Moscow. What had once been their beautiful capital was soon to be chaotic. Teenagers had dug trenches to fortify the capital, but these trenches had some dead Russian soldiers and the rest were fighting brutally.
“Soldiers,” said the captain. “We are the reinforcement. We must hold the defensive line here in Moscow. The defense in Kalilin is falling, so prepare for the worse, soldiers! Be brave! Fight for your country and for your families!”
Ivan froze but not because of the cold. He froze the moment he heard that Kalilin was falling. Tatiana lived in the forest in north Kalinin.
“Fight for your families,” the captain had said, and Ivan was willing to do so. The moment they were dismissed to join the line, Ivan sneaked to take a vehicle, forgetting that he was Yegor’s only friend among the soldiers. He heard his name being called; he spotted Yegor with a glance behind his shoulder.
“Are you out of your mind?” Yegor roared. “You’re planning to desert the battle without firing a bullet!”
“Yegor, I’m not deserting. I must go to Kalilin.”
“Kalilin? What business do you have in Kalilin? The city is falling!”
“Tatiana…” whispered Ivan. “She’s not safe.”
“Tatia…” Yegor sighed, clenching his fist. His nostrils flared in that cold. “All Russia is not safe, and you’re thinking about a girl you met once?”
“I am still going, Yegor. You can report me if you want.”
Yegor watched Ivan mounting the vehicle. He cursed with a groan and followed. “How dare you, you ungrateful idiot? Let me drive. And if I see you daydreaming, I’ll kill both of you, love birds.”
The two drove to Kalilin, Ivan clenching his rifle tightly. They arrived at a place where they could see the front of the battle; the Soviet soldiers were being pushed back. Joining the battle would be an attempt to save both Russia and Tatiana, and he would be better than a deserter.
They joined the battle in an undefended spot. It was snowing heavily. And the blowing gale was unheard because of the continuous sound of rifles. The bombs deafened both sides and the blood of comrades shed everywhere, reddening the snow on the floor. The battle cries of the soldiers echoed the battlefield. Hustle and bravery combined in a way that forces admiration, regardless of the nonsensical reasons for war, and then, the worst happened. Ivan was shot.
He fell to his knees, his eyes hollowed and stared at his comrade and brother, Yegor, who threw his rifle and kneeled before him at once. Yegor hadn’t cried for years; seeing his friend drying was the last thing he had imagined.
“Ivan? Please, stay with me, brother. You will be fine. I’ll take you away from here.”
The blood was pouring out of Ivan’s chest. He opened his mouth, but could not utter a word. Groaning, he took a piece of paper out of his pocket, and handled it to Yegor who clasped his hand and sobbed as he read the letter.
A single snowflake, cold, yet warm, fell on Ivan’s cheek. His eyes closed, and his lips stretched to a seraphic smile.
“You stupid lover…” whispered Yegor as he left the hand of his friend falling to the gravity. He rose to his feet and continued shooting, his tears blurring his sight. But he had to desert the battlefield, for the sake of his dead friend. If he died, too, the letter his friend had written wouldn’t reach its destination.
Yegor ran to the north of Kalilin, forced to leave the body of his friend behind. His legs were aching and the cold air was suffocating him, but he dared not stop. The snow was falling thickly—Ivan’s feathers.
He spotted Tatiana at her window. His pace increased, and he fell to his knees the moment he reached her. His arm stretched forward with a smothered letter in his hand. She opened her hand, a snowflake flew from it, and her heart fell as she read that piece of paper.
“I am a soldier. You are my country, my family, and my pride. I have fought for you. I have fought for us.” —Ivan.
Author: Mahieddine Ouafi.