By Hazel Kevlihan
Sasha Patrova is perfectly invisible to the naked eye as she makes her way up the hill in front of her. The landscape is a desert, a frozen wasteland which stretches on for miles. Underneath acres of hard packed snow lies a scorched and traumatized earth. It’s a battered remnant of farm lands and villages. Overhead, a crow glides beneath the cloud line. The winter sun reflects across the snow, giving his underbelly a dull sheen. Crows are the only birds who don’t migrate to escape the cold, instead embracing the wreckage of an ecosystem, taking the best of what meat remains without competition. Now the crows rarely starve, and great flocks of them soar over spent battlefields. They come down in a black rain of beaks, the odor of gunpowder clinging to their feathers, guzzling down their pound of flesh while it’s still warm.
Not on this day though. On this day there is just one solitary crow with a solitary soldier to match. She reaches the top of the hill and hunkers down, rifle thumping lightly against her back, fatigues crinkling softly in the breeze. Across the plain, Sasha can see the dark forms of marching soldiers. Estimating that she has about ten minutes, she pushes her arms through the snow until her elbows are submerged and her fingertips press lightly against the frozen earth. She then kicks both legs out behind her in one swift motion, and sinks to the ground. Wiping the snow off her face with the back of a gloved hand, she pats around in her pockets until she finds the binoculars, and raises them to her eyes. Snow begins to fall on her back, masking her slight frame further. All around her the land is a gleaming white reflective surface, crunching methodically beneath German boots.
Hans Schmidt has always hated the cold. Upon his acceptance into the 6th Army he was practically rejoicing, the invasion of Russia was advertised as an easy task. Those communist barbarians of the North were surely no match for the cultured perfection of German war. The USSR was isolated, backward, and would give the Third Reich the much-needed living space they deserved. It would be a lovely stroll through the warm Russian summer – shoot a few soldiers, secure the oil fields, and march back to Berlin in triumph. He dreamt of finding old Russian treasure. He would accumulate a small fortune, and finally be able to live in the heart of the capital, where he belonged.
But now look at him. Hans is cold, miserable, and these ‘communist barbarians’ are proving far more difficult to deal with. His daydreams are haunted by the images he has witnessed, but far worse are the nightmares. Well, not nightmares. There is only one, singular. The same sequence repeating over and over every time he closes his eyes. The visions are so real that he wakes each night soaked in what he fears is blood, only to discover it’s just his own sweat.
It all started when a group of soldiers joined them from another division. They started telling stories, mostly to scare them he knew, of a sniper in the Red Army.
“They call her The Wraith.” An older man, with multiple scars on his face, said that.
“A woman?” One of his comrades asked with a scoff, “The Russians truly are barbaric if they let their women fight, and this is the best they’ve got? It’s a wonder she hasn’t shot herself in the foot yet.” The young men laughed softly, Hans louder and longer than most, he was covering the stroke of panic which had just raced through him. The older soldier scowled, frown lines deepening on his face.
“Just you wait,” he said, “You will see what the Russians are capable of.” And that was it. One ominous warning and he walked away. The young men continued with their raunchy jokes and laughter, but Hans could still hear the way a hollowness of fear crept into their every syllable.
Now, with winter upon them, everyone alive acts like a seasoned veteran, and everyone fears The Wraith. Hans prays every night that he will never encounter her. He wishes desperately for her to fight other battles, kill other men. He doesn’t want to die.
Sasha stops, a few feet away from a large boulder peeking out of the snow. She doubled back and checked her tail multiple times to make sure she wasn’t being followed, but giving away the position of her infantry would certainly be fatal, so she scans the area one more time. Satisfied that she is truly alone, Sasha walks forward, leaning one arm casually on the protruding boulder. Pushing her scarf away from her mouth, she painfully purses her cracked lips and whistles three notes. Slightly off-key, the sound curls away into the afternoon for several seconds until another three answers them. Her spotter stands to attention, leveling his figure slowly out of the snow, and then shaking himself like a dog. “The commissar will want to see you now.” He says, sounding slightly miffed. She knew that he’s unhappy to have been left behind at the army base while she went to scout on German troops. Sasha is sorry to disappoint him, but doesn’t regret going out on her own. Despite her prowess as a sniper, and fame even within her enemies’ camps, she hardly ever gets to accomplish anything alone. Instead, her spotter is always tagging along, like a nanny or a babysitter. As if she even needs a spotter, she can see an enemy uniform as well as any man, it isn’t that difficult.
“I know.” She says, and the words come out tired and soft. None of them has had much sleep since the offensive against Germany started. The press calls this The Great Patriotic War. A very big title, to be sure. Sasha doesn’t know much about what the rest of the ‘patriots’ are going through, and she doesn’t care. The entire world exists for her through the eye of a scope. Even the landscape of her dreams is not exempt from this. What little sleep she gets is consumed with warped memories, binding all the nightmarish traits of reality with the heightened awareness of the subconscious, and always down the sight a rifle. Her mind flinches at the sound of a gunshot ringing in her ears, the images eclipsing reality. Her husband, the letter came from the war office, then the dreams had started. The leaders didn’t sugarcoat anything, they said he was a deserter, killed by firing squad. She didn’t want to believe it, she didn’t believe it, but there it was on the page. Killed by firing squad, the blocking detachment, the section of the army who dealt with traitors.
Traitor. The word hangs in her mind, the meaning not fully comprehensible. The blocking detachment deals with traitors, this is all they do, a group of soldiers assembled by The Commissar himself for that singular purpose.
Her husband, off in the distance, detached from her now, had been fighting other battles, killing other men, and was killed by other Russians. Sasha shivers, the motion bringing her back to reality. Her spotter has sunk back into the snow to keep warm. She has to report to The Commissar.
Hans stomps his feet, trying to get some feeling back into them. The worn, soggy souls of his boots do little to protect him, but they’re better than nothing. He’s seen too many nine-toed men to risk taking off his shoes in this weather. Evening sets in slowly, each day passing by at such length, so as to prolong their suffering. The wind is beginning to pick up, flurries of snow dance between the soldiers as they make camp for the night. It is his turn to take watch, and so it seems as if his day is getting longer still. As he stands there, damp and freezing, Hans longs for the big, open fireplaces of his house back in Germany. His childhood home. As a young boy his parents would light huge open flames, almost bonfires, in the wintertime to keep the house warm. It’s old, and creaky, and out in the middle of the countryside. Passed down to his parents as a wedding gift, Hans loved living there. Running through its big empty halls, hiding in all the tiny places, sliding down the banisters. It was absolute heaven for a young boy. That was until his mother died. Then he started seeing things, frightening things, around the house. Images, forms of her, only warped and twisted. Like memories gone bad, or a soul which had soured. He hated the house, hated how every room or noise would conjure a memory of her, a memory which would scare him, chase him, hunt him until his throat went raw from screaming her name, screaming for somebody to please help him. He told this to a friend once, a person who he now can’t put a name or face to, but Hans still remembers exactly what he said. The friend said that he was being haunted – haunted by a wraith.
Sasha thought she was cured. She thought that being on the frontlines fighting had cured her, or would cure her, of this fear. This overwhelming panic that had begun to consume her, eat away at her center. In fairness it worked for a while. The cold, the adrenaline, and the pain came to the forefront of her mind, pushing all other thoughts promptly aside. But the fear is back, pounding at her rib cage with every heartbeat, and for obvious reasons. The commissar was happy with her report. Well, about as happy as he could be considering he doesn’t like her very much (the traditionalists never do), but the problem is with what came after, this is what made the fear once again most prominent. It’s bad enough that, despite her having more than proven herself on her own, Sasha is once again assigned to a mission with her spotter, but she is also assigned to the blocking detachment, effective immediately and until further notice. They appear to be short-staffed, and this is a fairly simple mission anyway. This situation not usual, or anything she would ever do by choice, but orders are orders are orders. She gets orders, she follows them, that’s the way it works. Apparently a sergeant in their infantry has deserted, he was last seen heading to join the German encampment. Sasha, along with her spotter, is now supposed to hunt this man down, and kill him.
Hans stares into the darkness. He’s not sure, but he thinks he sees movement in the distance up ahead. Night has fallen, the cold increasing exponentially. The snow still dances in the wind, and he blinks slightly into the dark before looking away – it would do him no good staring at shadows. But then no, he’s sure he heard something there. Yes, definitely somebody shouting into the wind. What were they saying?
“Don’t shoot. Please don’t shoot.” The sergeant forgoes his panicked sprinting for sobbing. They almost gave up hope of finding him in the dark, before stumbling upon his fleeing form. Only a few feet from the German camp, Sasha worries the soldiers will hear him. Her spotter stands off to one side being useless, and she is there, in perfect sight of the sergeant, swinging her rifle over her shoulder and into the ready position. She looks down the sight. The sergeant’s final pleas die down as he closes his eyes “Please…please…”
Hans jogs forwards quickly, as he gets within sight of the sobbing man he flattens himself to the ground and crawls forward, a rifle in his hands. He stays motionless just behind the man, as he sees two figures a couple of meters away. One is standing off to one side, looking away. The other – Hans stifles a gasp. The other is holding a rifle, but that’s not all. Despite the multiple layers of heavy winter gear, it is fairly clear. This is The Wraith.
Time slows to a sickening crawl as Sasha looks down the sight of her rifle. This is all too similar to her dream, to her nightmare. Maybe this is a nightmare, she thinks idly. Her mind’s wandering, scattered. She should pull the trigger, has she taken too long already? How much time has passed? The man still hasn’t moved from her sight, tears are streaming down his face out of closed eyelids, she can see them crystallizing, freezing as frost on his face. “Right between the eyes.” Who said that? It’s a memory. Her father, from when she first took up shooting, “Right between the eyes, that’s where you want to aim for,” It was a warm summers day outside of their house, she was holding the rifle awkwardly in her arms, she could feel the sweat accumulating on the tips of her fingers, making the trigger slip slightly. The straw face of a dummy stared accusingly back at her “Just pull the trigger Sasha.”
Hans crawls slightly closer on his stomach. The man in front of him has seized up now, waiting for his executioner to shoot. Hans is close enough to touch him, but he only has attention for one person, the object of his fear for so long, The Wraith. He lifts his head slightly, propping his chin up with the butt of his gun as he stares.
“Just pull the trigger,” Sasha thinks desperately to her fingers, but they won’t act. Paralyzed in inertia she stands there, as her thoughts flow to their inevitable destination, her dream, her nightmare. The sergeant’s face becomes another, much more familiar face, who also pleads for his life. Killed by a sniper, branded a deserter, her husband stands before her in fear. She can see every line of his face through the sight of her rifle.
“Just pull the trigger Sasha,” Her father says in one corner of her mind “Right between the eyes, that’s where you want to aim for.” But she can’t, she can’t. And then suddenly, inexplicably, as if a weight has been lifted, she can. She puts the pressure on her index finger, but not before swinging the barrel just slightly. The sergeant, reacting on instinct alone, turns and runs the last remaining yards into the enemy camp, as her spotter curses behind her.
“What was that?” He asks furiously, the shot went wide, slicing into the darkness just behind the sergeant. Sasha doesn’t respond, she just stands there, staring through the sight of her rifle. She takes a few long steps forward, hardly knowing whether what she sees is real or just another messed up daydream.
There’s a German soldier lying limply in the snow in front of her, with a bullet between his eyes.
Hazel Kevlihan is an Irish-American writer with a strong interest in World War 2. She enjoys exploring different perspectives throughout history and researching for her next project.