The night closed in on him. The sound of artillery had at some point became a background drone like the white noise machine he used to fall asleep to. But every so often, a bullet whizzed by in a close call, and it still jarred him. He was amazed something still had the power to jar him—he’d become so desensitized by the last few months.
Couldn’t remember the last time he showered; his feet were a mess of bloody blisters, there somehow was never quite enough food or time to eat. And sleep… he still slept but it was so far from restful that it seemed it ought to have a different word to describe it altogether.
These people—they spoke his language. He was shooting at people who spoke his mother’s tongue and it felt profoundly wrong. None of it seemed real. From the day it began.
This wasn’t a war his grandfather told him stories about. This was… something else entirely.
And he was here because he was told to be here. There’d never been a choice, not really. A third-generation military man; it was in his blood, in his bones. He’d never even entertained the idea of doing anything else with his life.
It was hot, too hot, and humid too. Sweat pouring down his face occasionally made it through the long thick lashes he used to get teased about and into his eyes—it stung. He wiped his dirty forehead with the dusty sleeve of his uniform. Took a moment to orient himself.
Where were they? Oh, yes. He remembered now. A place so small it barely made it onto most maps, but strategically significant enough to attack.
They didn’t want an all-out battle, but the locals seemed ready for them. Armed with anything from handguns to pitchforks—pitchforks; steel glint of determination in their eyes. These people would fight to the death to protect what was theirs.
From what he saw earlier during the day, there wasn’t much to protect here. The village (selo) appeared to have been stuck in time as if the pervasive modern world seldom dared to find its way in. The place was positively medieval in a way. You could easily imagine these ancient-looking houses as dvoryshche homesteads, self-sufficient and family-owned and -operated.
He loved history, studied it extensively, still read heavy nonfiction tomes on it whenever he got a chance. Maybe he should have been a historian instead.
The village must have been hit by the collectivization efforts once. The old machine-tractor stations stood abandoned on the outskirts—modernization attempts summarily rejected by the locals, who went back to agriculture in their own way, tried-and-true methods that had withstood the test of time.
He didn’t want to fight these people, didn’t want to kill these people. He hoped they could be persuaded to lay down their weapons and disperse. But it was all too far gone by now; the diplomacy attempts over before they even began.
It no longer mattered who shot first. The second the bullet struck a ten-year-old girl—he could still remember the doll she had in her hand, not the girl herself, but the doll. The motanka doll—a peculiar local toy, made of fabric and left faceless as if open to the imagination’s own projections. The one the girl held was clad in a colorful dress, white and red, with black and green accents. More red added as the girl’s blood splattered on it and then all dust as it hit the ground.
He thought the image of that doll would haunt him for the rest of his days.
The girl’s death marked the moment the conflict turned into a battle and then, all too soon, a slaughter. The soldiers saw their own blood; saw red and went mad. There was no stopping them. The brutality they visited upon that village felt medieval too. Primal in the worst way—the giving-in to one’s basest instincts. It reeked of blood; he could taste it like the copper of old coins. The smell of death was everywhere. Too terrible to describe, it permeated his skin, his bones; he didn’t think he’d ever get rid of it. Perhaps it would follow him everywhere, this olfactory representation of his sins. And he would never be free.
In the end, there was fire. To obliterate the very memory of the place—and their actions in it—from existence.