I walked alongside the pitted road into the forest. Every now and then a green ZIS-5 rumbled past, bouncing loudly across the frost heaves. I kept my head down and hoped they would ignore me, a shapeless figure trudging through the morning fog.
I should have stayed closer to home, what with the Germans pushing east and that POW camp in nearby Kozelsk. But my mother and I ran out of meat yesterday and we needed our last two hens for eggs. So today I rose early, stuck my feet in my brother’s valenki, wrapped myself in my father’s old wool coat and my own shawl, and set out to hunt for mushrooms.
When the road started to curve up through the western part of the forest, I turned east into the early morning shadows. Pale, watery sunlight filtered down between bare birch limbs. I scanned the edge of the trail, searching for the distinct honeycombed caps of smorchki poking up through the dead leaves. I found two small ones, barely worth keeping except that we had no meat. I tucked them in my basket and kept walking.
Deeper in the forest there was a clearing, I knew, where an old elm had split and fallen years ago. It was my spot, a secret spot, the first place I went every spring even before we started rationing. I pictured my mother’s face when I came home with a full basket.
The hail came on without warning, pellets of ice the size of gooseberries. I bolted for the nearest shelter: a hunchbacked fir tree, green branches still bent from the weight of the winter’s heavy snow. Underneath the ground was bare and nearly dry. As I crawled into this makeshift den I kneeled on a sleeping man’s arm.
He unfolded quickly, like a cat, unfurling his arms and legs and rolling up onto his knees. The barrel of his rifle jabbed me in the ribs. I couldn’t even gather enough air in my lungs to scream.
At first I thought he was German. He had that look to him, all blond hair and blue eyes, but he wore a threadbare wool coat with the Red Army insignia on the collar. One of ours, then.
We stared at each other for a long time. Finally I looked down at my basket and the mushrooms that had spilled out onto the soft ground. Hailstones crackled against the bare trees like gunfire. He flinched and lowered his rifle.
“You shouldn’t be out here,” he said.
I found my voice. “Neither should you.”
He raised the rifle a few inches, grimaced, and let it drop again. His knuckles were chapped. There was dirt under his fingernails. “You shouldn’t be here,” he repeated. “It’s not safe.”
“The Germans? They’re this close?”
He shook his head. “Not the Germans.” His gaze slid away from mine and fell on the smorchki. Carefully righting the basket, he gathered them up and brought them to his nose, inhaling deeply, before placing them inside. “They smell like home.”
“You’re a deserter,” I accused.
He glanced at me. “I’m not a coward,” he said. “You don’t know. Every day they bring us more. Two hundred, two hundred fifty at a time. We shoot them in the back of the head and shove them into a pit. Their hands are bound, do you understand? Their hands are bound.”
He showed me, tucking his hands behind his back. The rifle dangled from his shoulder like a broken branch.
“Enemies,” I said firmly. “Fascists and murderers.”
He shrugged. “I shot a boy today. His name was Aleksy. I didn’t ask, but he told me, right before I killed him. They gave me–” He fumbled at his belt, came up empty-handed, let his shoulders slump. “The second day, they gave me a German gun. Less recoil.”
“Where are you going?”
He gestured east, toward Smolensk, toward Moscow. East, away from the war.
East, toward a clearing with a fallen elm and smorchki that smell like home.
I edged away from him, one hand on my basket, the other on the ground. It was raining now, a gentle shower. “They’ll find you.”
“Will you turn me in?” he asked.
“No,” I lied — not because I was afraid of him, but because of the mushrooms — and ducked out from under the tree.
As I ran back toward the road, I thought I heard the rattle of hail, but the sky overhead was clear.
Smorchki [сморчки]: morels