The Soldier at the Door: A Short Story

 

Stalin’s city was always a wonderful place to live. It was large and modern; with many factories supporting the industry of our Soviet Union. There were squares where we children played, and many shops and institutes where the adults worked. It was a city for the people, and all of us who lived there felt very glad that we did.

By autumn 1942 though, our beloved city was no longer where any civilian wanted to be. I guess when the fascists failed to take the capital, they set their iron hearts on another prize. Stalingrad must have been an easy choice. At any rate, they reached our doorstep and encroached into the surrounding villages; and that soon turned into streetfighting in the heart of Stalingrad itself. It was a dreadful situation; but my mother was resolute. My father and brother were out fighting the Germans, and we were going to stay here for them. The Germans will never take Stalingrad, she said, and we must give those boys a good home to come back to.

So we stayed, and we got accustomed to the sight of soldiers in the streets, and of tanks on the square. We weren’t even bothered by the gunshots after awhile, because there were always gunshots coming from somewhere. I guess we got used to the war, but what bothered me was that I couldn’t do anything about it. I wanted to help, but I was too young to do anything great. When our friends’ apartment in the next street was bombed, we took them in, and I shared my room with all three of their children. But it felt like it didn’t matter; because although they were warm and sheltered, we could still smell the smoke as their home and belongings burned. Even though we did the best we could, the war was evil and it kept coming on and on despite our courage and our efforts.

Life got a lot harder when winter arrived. The Germans were everywhere but so were our troops; and there were so many men about and so much destruction that food became less and less. Sometimes supply shipments made it, but more often than not they didn’t, and the ration centres had nothing to give us. As a young woman with the hope of marriage and a household ahead of me, I put my efforts toward creating palatable meals out of whatever food was available. I got pretty good at it, but we were still always hungry.

It was tough, but life in a combat centre does make for some extraordinary stories. One day before the streetfighting got really bad in our neighbourhood, a sniper from the Caucasus and his spotter set up in our front room. They were there for the whole afternoon, watching the street and the square beyond; and every few hours my mother sent me to them with a mug of tea. Another time, a German bomber crash-landed into the square and its crew was captured. When the city was quiet, the local kids used it as a jungle gym until it was smashed by shelling a few weeks later.

I think about these stories a lot, because they were a break from the hopelessness. We were trapped in our own city as it was broken down around us, and nothing seemed to change from day to day. Just more bombs and more bodies in the street. Anything different to that is what I try to remember, but nothing bests the story of the soldier at the door. It was December I think, and mother was in bed with pneumonia. Since I was freshly eighteen at that time, she entrusted the household and all its duties to me. That meant  I undertook the weekly trek through the rubble to the ration centre; which wasn’t easy all the time, but which made me feel like I was accomplishing something every time I made it back.

On the day in question, I couldn’t leave the apartment until mid-morning because the neighbourhood was chattering with gunfire. But eventually I deemed it quiet enough that I gathered the kitchen-basket, wrapped a shawl around my head, and went downstairs. Stepping outside, I was taken aback to find a soldier lying on the doorstep. At first, I thought he was dead, because he was slumping awkwardly against the wall and was barely off the snowy street. But then he turned to see me, and attempted to make way for me. His eyes were kind and he looked tired, so I thought it alright to talk to him.

“Don’t trouble yourself,” I said, pausing opposite as I looked him over. “You seem tired.” The soldier was wearing a green greatcoat stained with old blood, and was cradling a submachine gun. At that time, I’d never had a boyfriend, but this soldier seemed like the type for me. He had kind eyes and a ready smile and I immediately wanted to help him. He was indeed handsome, but he didn’t seem very well. I judged that he was at most a half-dozen years older than me, but his face had a weathered look to it which was unexpected. Not only his face was haggard, but he had a bright red stain of blood on his far shoulder, too. I guess he was a frontovik.

The soldier sighed, but smiled. “Thanks. I’ve just stopped here to catch my breath.”

“I’m not sure you’ve picked the safest place,” I told him. “A shell came through a window downstairs yesterday. The old man who lives there says it knocked a jug of water right off the kitchen table.”

Laughing, the soldier tentatively pulled himself further onto the doorstep. “Where isn’t that happening? Don’t say that to my guys, though. We’ll stop the shelling soon enough.”

I hoped he was right and not just trying to seem brave. “You’re bleeding,” I observed. “How badly are you wounded?”

“It’s only shrapnel. I’ll be alright.”

“Why don’t you come inside? It’s cold out, and you’ll be safer there.”

The soldier shook his head but looked at me graciously. “I’d better stay out here. A medic will be by to pick me up soon, I’m sure of it.”

Surveying the empty, lifeless street, I disagreed. “Well, I’m not sure of it. There’s no one about. You might bleed to death!” And I tore the scarf from my head to use as a bandage for his wound, but he gently pushed it away.

“That’s too pretty a scarf to use for blood,” he said. “And weren’t you going on an errand?”

“Not if I can help you,” I replied resolutely.

He laughed quietly and gazed out at the street. “You shouldn’t worry. You go, and I’ll stay here. I bet your apartment’s never had an armed guard before.” I felt bad leaving him. I was sure his condition was worse than he let on, I’m sure he was trying to seem brave. I wanted to make some kind of difference, but he insisted. “Where are you going, anyway?”

“The rationing centre. It’s just at the other end of Bogunskaya.”

“Don’t take Bogunskaya,” the soldier turned grave. “There’s a sniper installed out there, and he shoots at anyone.”

“Well, thanks,” I said, still not wanting to leave. “You’ll be sure to look after yourself, won’t you?”

“I will, you have my word on it.” The soldier nodded. “I’m sure a medic will be by very soon.”

Begrudgingly, I took my leave of him and set off through the snowy city. The streets remained quiet but I had to wait for an hour at the rations centre. And despite the quiet, I knew the enemy was still there. And I wondered about the soldier at the door– was he still there, or had someone come for him? Why wouldn’t he let me help him? I guess, as a soldier, he had to remain on guard for our city, but I wish he could have gotten some treatment someplace.

As I came back within a few blocks of the apartment, I began to feel nervous about what I might find on the doorstep. Turning onto the street, I saw the soldier’s figure still slumped there. Was he dead? I felt a mixture of relief and concern when he gave me a jaunty wave.

“Where are the medics?” I asked him as soon as I approached.

“Someone will be along soon,” replied the soldier, but his voice was more weary now.

Unsatisfied, I looked down at the basket of food in my arms. “Are you hungry?”

The soldier laughed with a ready smile. “Are you?”

“I’ve only been hungry since winter started,” I said. “Will you have some bread?” The soldier stayed silent, but his eyes and his face were tired and hungry. “What’s your name?” I asked. “I’m Marina.” And I started to divide up my ration of bread.

“I’m Nikolai.” Nikolai was slow to accept any bread, but once he did he ate it ravenously.

“I guess you are hungry,” I remarked woefully.

“Of course I am. But it’ll all get better soon. We’re keeping the Volga open for new shipments of food and supplies, and the enemy will soon be starved and beaten.”

“And do you still think a medic will come for you?”

“It’s only a matter of time.” Nikolai smiled, although his face was weary.

It would have been nice to share his confidence, or his bravado. I sighed, looking out at the snowy rubble-strewn street and pondering the sounds of guns in the air. Unconvinced, I turned back to him. “But how much time have you got?”

Finally he had no response. He sighed too, and his smile turned sad as he adjusted his grip on his gun. He looked broken and tired, yes, but only in his face. The posture of his bloodied shoulders and the precise, ready grip he kept on that gun told me that he’d made his mind up. And yet I still wanted to help him– I’d been fruitlessly just existing for the past few months, and now the chance to do something was sitting on my doorstep.

“Please, Nikolai,” I said desperately. “At least come inside to get warm. You’re not doing any good out here in your state! Won’t you just come inside?” I already knew the answer of course; but I had to ask him.

His laugh was hollow as he shook his head. “I’m sorry, Marina. I can’t leave my post. I have to stay here.”

“That’s alright,” I said. “I know you’re a soldier.”

We were quiet for a moment, and the atmosphere was one of regret. Then he spoke up. “Those guns are getting closer. You should go inside before you get hit.”

I smiled and nodded, but I was unable to reply… since I was leaving him, he was probably going to die. It just didn’t sit well with me. I turned to go, but Nikolai caught the handle of the kitchen-basket and stopped me. Looking at me with earnest brown eyes, he announced, “You were good to me, Marina. Kindness can make a big difference.”

That heartened me, and I was able to reply. “You make sure the medics take good care of you. You know I would have.”

“And you get inside, and stay there until this skirmish passes! Do that, and we might even see each other again.”

I left Nikolai sitting half-slumped on the doorstep, exactly as I had found him. But I hoped that I had made a difference to him as he’d said.

The next morning, the gunfire had quietened down and I rushed downstairs to the doorstep. I felt sick with worry over Nikolai; I wanted him to be there, but I didn’t want him to be dead. But there was nothing on the doorstep; nothing except a pool of dried blood where Nikolai had been. There was no one in the street, and I asked all the neighbours and nearby soldiers if they’d seen anything, but nobody had. My mother said that somebody must have come for him after all, because if he’d died then his body would probably still be on the doorstep. I hoped she was right, but I could never know.

After meeting Nikolai, I decided to join the medical corps in the Red Army. It was there that I met my first boyfriend, who in time became my husband. There I tended by chance to my brother, who had been severely wounded by shrapnel near Voronezh. By a miracle, he, my parents, and my husband all survived the war. We did some good work in the medical corps, and I finally felt that what I was doing mattered.

As for Nikolai, I can’t be sure that he survived that night, let alone the whole war. But there is one funny little event which makes me wonder. It was July 1945, after Victory Day, and Stalingrad was rebuilding. There were soldiers out and about to help and oversee the efforts, and I had returned home to visit my family. Walking along Bogunskaya, I had my floral shawl over my head to protect me from the sun. There was a convoy of army trucks crossing the street about 75 yards ahead; each truck packed full of soldiers hanging on like barnacles.

Well, one of those soldiers shouted my name and gave me a jaunty wave. He was too far away to recognise, and then he was gone, but not before I managed to wave back… And I do believe it was Nikolai, I always have. He was right after all. They did come for him, and we did see each other again. I might not have had much of a war, or a life, if I hadn’t met him. It’s been an encouraging thought all these years that, whether he lived or died, I made a difference to that soldier at the door.

© Adair E. R. Jacobs 2017

A Soul Remembered: A Poem

I hope that this post will take you, the reader, on a journey. If you’re a regular reader of my blog, then you’ll know that I post many stories and poems that I’ve written over the years. However today, this poem is a little bit different because it’s accompanied by beautiful atmospheric photographs from Michael at Forties Photos! Michael and I “met” through Twitter, and share a love of World War II subjects and everything ’40s. He’s quite a photographer, and has been kind enough to help me out by supplying me with photos for my blog. I’m excited to share this collaboration with you, and I’m sure you’ll be as thrilled with it as I am.

A Soul Remembered

The atmosphere feels thick yet calm

In this place that I have known

The air sparkles brown and gray

With the dust of a weary day

sargeants-mess

And I hear voices; no, an echo

Memories are my only fellow

Each man, each friend, has gone home

In a place so busy I am alone

But still can feel what I used to feel

A joy electric, an accomplishment real.

camp-chaplins

Whether that lives here or just in mind

Has an answer undefined

Though I remember; remember well

The stories only these walls can tell

And a story much more unknown

More rare and precious, and not yet grown

blast-shelter-b

I remember you who know it too

Though you are gone, and barely in view

We had that chapter, over too fast

Now onwards, perhaps the story will last.

watertower

The doors are locked, the memory within

And I am their keeper, their guardian

The soul of this place chills me yet

As I look around I can never forget;

blast-shelter

Echoes of toil float through the air

The laughter, the hardship we had to bear;

Our footsteps, etched forever in dust

Remind me of your presence, and that I must

Live on in this place, for the soul still remains

Somedays a whisper, then louder refrains.

first-aid

But always in the quiet, I can near touch that soul

Voices fade, friends leave; but it won’t grow old

In a cheerless shell, it brings hope

Through monotonous days, it gives scope

And as the poisonous dust hangs ever low,

Through it I see you as you come and go

foundations-2

You still exist here, somewhere in my heart

And here this great story got its start

Here I have lived, and many times cried

Here my feelings of doubt have died;

security-hut

Even as the soul sleeps, I know it is there

I can feel its breath, its life in the air

In the depths of silence, in questioning why

I find peace, in this place still alive.

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All photographs are attributed to Michael from Forties Photos, taken at former RAF base Metheringham. Check out the Metheringham Airfield website here, and be sure to browse more of Michael’s work here on Forties Photos!

It’s Only a Page: A Poem

Everyone goes through phases in life. At the end of last year I left a tumultuous yet overall positive one; after leaving a job which caused me much stress yet taught me even more. It taught me to go through negativity with hope for the future, to enjoy the small things, and to take charge of not only my attitudes but my life as well. Even though we do face phases with definitive themes, every day is a new opportunity to create something great. That job overhauled my outlook; because through its adversity I realised that good things do still happen and changes are often not far off!

That job also brought me a number of really wonderful friends. These friends, along with the laughter, companionship, and support they give me, make all of life’s phases easier to deal with. Troubles seem a little bit lessened when you know you’re not alone. The following poem speaks to the different chapters of life, and the idea that even bad times don’t last forever and need not be faced alone. I hope it resonates with you, as it has come from a very honest place in my heart.

It’s Only a Page

If you are lonely

And do not feel whole,

Look not to your heart

Nor to your soul–

But look to the chapter

Which your footsteps now read

Some chapters are joyful,

While others spell need.

And do not despair

For it’s only a page

In the volumes of time,

Writ as you age;

Let your heart be glad

And your soul aware–

For one day, my friend

Your story I’ll share.

The Voguish Adventurer

When I was little, one of my dreams was to be an explorer like David Livingstone or Ernest Shackleton. The world seems very big and strange to a child, and I wanted the excitement of travelling and discovering new places and people. As a child, I thought that there were still islands and continents to discover; and that I could buy an old wooden ship and maybe a flying boat and find them all. Needless to say, that was a very antiquated, romanticised view! I’m much more informed nowadays, but I still love the intrigue of the days when the world was more unknown. Stories such as Howard Carter finding Tutankhamen’s tomb, Franklin’s doomed expedition in northern Canada, and even fictional ones like Indiana Jones captivate me.The Voguish Adventurer

 


I watched the 1999 film The Mummy last week, and although it hasn’t got the most realistic plot, I enjoyed it for what it was. Its theme of ancient Egypt and era of the 1920s inspired me to create this outfit; albeit a 1940s one! The Chanel shirt is smart yet relaxed, and combines well with the practical teal trousers and safari jacket. An alligator handbag and black pumps are ladylike but still sensible. The jewellery, with its pink gemstones, livens up the pastel tones of the Valentino scarf; and this is all topped off with a shot of red nail polish. I can easily imagine a well-heeled 1940s adventurer exploring the ruins of Egypt in this outfit!

The True Soviet: A Short Story

Let me begin this post by saying that I am not personally a Soviet, communist, or anything of the sort. That said, Soviet culture and particularly the culture and attitudes within the Red Army of World War II fascinate me. While I tend to look at Soviet socialism with a critical eye, and while this ideology had many sins and downfalls; it’s true that many people were very sincerely committed to it. There were citizens who believed that it was the best way forward, and who were committed to using it to its full potential. With that in mind, I wrote this short story; examining the actions of a loyal Soviet soldier throughout his unfortunate capture on the Eastern Front.

The True Soviet

The fascists captured me three days after they took Vyazma. I was still in the foxhole behind my machinegun when the panzers started rolling past. Ilya Soshnikov, my assistant gunner, had lain dead beside me for at least a day and a half; so I tried throwing grenades under the passing tanks instead of shooting. It didn’t have much effect, but I was determined to fight on. I felt sure that I would only leave the foxhole when the fascists dragged me out as a corpse.

Soon the tanks were gone, and the infantry appeared to liquidate the area. They quickly noticed that I was alive, and I quickly realised my stupidity. Idiot. It’s impossible to shoot yourself with a DP28, so I should have saved one grenade for myself. That would have been the Soviet thing to do. But I didn’t. I’d thrown them all fruitlessly under the tracks of the panzers. Thanks to my stupidity, the fascists caught one live and healthy Soviet that day.

I found myself being marched with others to a makeshift POW camp somewhere south of Vyazma. The journey was long and hard, and the fascists kept us going for hours at a time despite the speed of our pace. At the beginning of the march I was only angry at myself for allowing the fascists to capture me; but I became increasingly troubled and less angry as it progressed. I started thinking about what was to become of me. How would I, a true (if shamed) Soviet, cope in the hands of the fascist enemy?

The camp came into sight after many hours. It was set secluded in a valley, and though the sun was setting behind the surrounding hills it was easy to see that this camp offered no shelter. The fascists had tents to sleep in, but we prisoners had nothing. And there were hundreds of us, maybe a thousand. I despair that so many Red Army men have chosen the disgrace of capture. I did have the good fortune to meet another true Soviet who shared my shame– although he had less cause to feel shame than I do. Maksim Ilyich Belkin was captured a few miles from where I was, having been knocked unconscious by artillery. Poor soul, he woke up on the back of a German wagon.

A number of the other prisoners told me quite early on that I should consider throwing away my Party membership card. Needless to say, I balked at that. I will cling to my Party card like I should have clung to that last grenade! However, apparently the fascists have shot every comrade commissar to set foot in this camp, and my comrades told me they’re likely to shoot anyone with a Party card. That’s another reason for me to keep it. A true Soviet should be ready to die for socialism.

As the days passed, I became more and more tormented. There was some talk that we prisoners would be shipped to Germany to work in munitions factories there. I couldn’t tolerate such a fate, and confessed my fear to Maksim Ilyich.

“I won’t go to Germany,” I told him. “I will never help the fascists more than I already have.”

“Then what will you do? Will you escape and run away?”

I sighed. “I don’t know yet. I guess it would be possible to slip away from this camp at night.”

“You might never find Soviet units though, you’ve no way of knowing their positions,” he said. “And if you don’t rejoin the fight, that’s desertion.”

But it was worse than that. I know Soviet law inside and out, I’ve lived the Soviet life since I was fifteen years old; and I knew that I must find Soviet units again, but I could never rejoin the fight. If you’re captured by the fascists, you’re no longer worthy of being called a Soviet. The only thing left for you is death.

I pondered this for a few days, while also plotting my escape. Of course, I did think about ending it all at the camp; but the fascists had confiscated my knife, my razor, even my belt. I didn’t know how I was going to escape, but then Maksim Ilyich told me a plan which suited us both. We would wait until dark, and then he would attack one of the perimeter guards, allowing me to escape. We knew that such an attack would probably result in him being executed, but Maksim Ilyich was looking for a noble escape just as much as I was.

Last night was the night of our plan. I was sorry to leave Maksim Ilyich; as he had become a good friend and I saw in him a pure Soviet heart. If only I had kept one last grenade, I could have been an honourable citizen and soldier like he was!

“Good luck, my friend,” he whispered, shaking my hand. “I’m sorry the circumstances are what they are.”

I reciprocated his sentiment, and then he was off after the nearest fascist guard. As soon as the shouting began, I was off on my own way. Scrambling up the eastern hillside, I didn’t slow for anything– not even when I heard the single gunshot that was probably the end of my good comrade Maksim Ilyich. I stumbled on through the night, hungry and troubled and despairing that I’d let this situation come about. I traversed countless miles of ravaged terrain; and it pained me that the flesh of the Motherland had been cut so deep by the fascists I was sworn to fight. I have failed my Soviet duty, and must atone for it and be shamed forever. The only way to atonement is death.

Finally, a group of scouts found me. I felt both relieved and ashamed to see the Red Star worn so proudly on their uniforms. “Comrade!” They greeted me warmly. “Where are you coming from?”

“You won’t greet me so when you find out,” I replied, and explained to them my capture and my escape. When their expressions turned grave, I said, “I know. Just take me to the commissar.”

They did so, not speaking to me any further but giving me looks of both sympathy and disdain on the way. I was brought before the regimental commissar to face my fate– the regimental commissar, such is the severity of my sin. When I came before him, I expected to feel my spirit broken. But instead of shame and defeat, I felt mostly regret. What could have been… but there’s no sense in thinking about what I might have been when I can still control what I am.

The commissar began to speak, with all the harshness that I deserve. “You allowed yourself to be captured by the fascists. The Soviet soldier is worth more dead than in the hands of the enemy. You went through training, you had a commissar. You know this!”

I nodded. “I do.”

“Well, then. What’s your name? Sergei Yuryevich Petrokovsky, you have violated our solemn Red Army Oath, and are hereby sentenced to death.”

I nodded again, finding both relief and disgust at my sentence. How could I have done such a thing? As I was led to custody, I passed the commissar.

Scrutinising me with curious eyes, he said, “You escaped and made your way back here. You’re a Party member. You knew how we would receive you.”

I clenched my teeth until I could reply. “I might be a fool,” I said, “but I don’t desert.”

“Hmm,” the commissar shrugged, waving me away. “Well, that’s something.”

Today I faced the commissar, and tomorrow I face the firing squad. As I should. But I feel that the commissar was right, that is something. I was foolish in battle, and I must pay for it; in fact, I’m determined to pay for it. My life is useless now, but I won’t let even an unforgivable mistake separate me from my cause. I was too weak, but my comrades are strong; and I hope I’ve acted in the end like a true Soviet, even if I was never a good one. At the end, I stand by this oath of my beloved Soviet Motherland:

If, for some evil intentions, I violate this herein-solemn oath, let the Soviet Law, nationwide hatred and contempt of all the workers strictly punish me.

© Adair E. R. Jacobs, 2017

Dance of the Snowflakes: A Poem

Dance of the Snowflakes

The snowflakes dance to this new song of joy,

Like the angels did all those years ago

Their dance tells a story death will never destroy;

Describing a hope far brighter than snow.

The snowflakes are silver but they shine like gold

And glow like fireflies in the silent sky

Sparkling like precious gems in the night so cold,

Like the treasures brought by the faithful magi.

The snowflakes are like fair beacons of light,

Like the Star that shone over Bethlehem

Guiding the world through its long, dark night

Until the day when the Saviour returns to men.

The snowflakes are many, like the years of the earth

And like my blessings, too many to count

They demonstrate hope’s invaluable worth

And show us the peace that meek stable found.

The snowflakes still dance to this song of joy,

Like the angels did all those years ago

They speak of a love evil will never destroy;

A love which will set our cold hearts aglow.

© Adair Jacobs 2016

Glam for the Holidays

For me, Christmas fashion should be cosy, full of life and joy, and a little bit nostalgic– just like the holiday season itself. For years, dressing up for Christmas and my family’s annual Boxing Day celebration has been my fashion highlight of the year. I always try to wear something comfy and warm, with plenty of sparkling accessories as well!
Glam for the Holidays

 


This look encompasses everything I love about Christmas fashion. It has small reminders of years past, thanks to the ’40s style pleated skirt and peep-toe sandals. The jacquard purse and mink cape add a touch of richness and luxury, and the nude nail polish and red lipstick keep the look classic. However, Christmas is also about looking ahead and hope for the future; so I updated this outfit with a very modern white jumper. Finally, gold and ruby jewellery gives the holiday panache that is so important in Christmas dressing! Fashion at Christmastime should make one feel warm, contented, and hopeful, and I hope that this look does just that.