That first night the snow-maiden looked like a pillar of salt, like a statue half-toppled from a blast, like a stranger; as much as I loved her, that much I never forgot.
In December 1942 the army was holding the line on Novgorod, and they rounded up forced volunteers. The posters assured us glory, but at sixteen I only wanted the glory of a concert hall. The day they knocked on our door I knew I’d never see one.
I was afraid when they assigned us that I would spend my last moments in the shadow of Saint Sophia’s. Instead they drove us to the rear, and that was worse, because it meant we were there to shoot deserters.
Mikhailov had worked furniture with his father, but I knew he hadn’t told them as much when they conscripted him. Someone with hands like that would be defusing bombs in Leningrad. He must have played the fool for them as well as he played it for us.
The first night, after we’d taken shelter, he pulled off a strip of birch bark and made a little boat. Its sails billowed, and the last little curl was a pennant flying. Nothing wasted.
In the morning the third man under our tree stepped on it as he scrambled to piss, and Mikhailov cursed and tore up the flat remains.
“It’s only a boat,” I said. “Come on, before the branches dump snow on us.”
Mikhailov followed, hard-faced, but he didn’t forgive; the snow maiden came because Kirov trod on Mikhailov’s little boat.
Kirov was older than Mikhailov and me, and he’d been cast out of his factory for grabbing at the women. For him it was prison or the war.
“At least here there’s fresh air,” he said, smiling.
We chalked him up as a fool, the lot of us, over that first pot of bitter coffee, and far in the distance came the sound of gunfire on the road to Novgorod.
We were allowed to dig holes in the spindly shadows of the pines or behind cover of the shrubs. We crammed in three at a time to keep from freezing.
“God,” Kirov muttered, “too bad none of you’s a woman.”
“Check Piotr,” Mikhailov said, and Kirov laughed even harder when he saw I wasn’t smiling.
In the evenings we were allowed a pot of coffee over a small fire (apparently no one deserted at four o’clock), and we told stories to keep our throats warm.
When it was my turn I told fairy tales and added voices, swinging my hands like Baba Yaga, casting shadows over their faces.
They were old stories, but the men still laughed; it was a relief to know the outcome of something, anything.
Any day, the officers told us for weeks, we’d be called to do our duty for the Army and the country. They never told us more than that, because shooting a fleeing man required little strategy, and the less you thought about it the more likely you would be to do the thing.
The only real danger came when your gun froze; if you shot when it was frozen you could blow up the chamber and take off your own face. Your chances of a warm gun were better if you put it between your legs as you slept and peeled it away from the frost on your clothes after the sun was up.
Mikhailov was afraid to have the barrel of the gun pointing at his chin. He kept his gun tucked against his right shoulder, and twice within in a week I had to lay my hands to his temple to warm the barrel enough that the frost fell away from his face.
“Stop,” he said the third time, sharply, his eyes still closed.
I shoved my hands back into my coat and watched him pull the gun away cold, a layer of skin on it.
Before we’d been there a month he had a mark on his face from doing that, a scar the color of a sickly frost, of a white stone.
“You have hands like a woman,” Mikhailov said sometimes, and I didn’t answer, because if he knew I played piano he would laugh. He always thought it was funny when someone had skilled hands. Ivan four foxholes down was a scholar, and Mikhailov never let him forget it.
His laugh was cold as the mark on his face, and went through me like a night wind.
One night when Mikhailov was griping about my white hands Kirov said, “Come and use your hands to warm me, little Piotr, there’s a part of me that’s cold,” and he laughed until Mikhailov shouldered his gun like he was going to raise it and shoot.
“Did you ever see Potemkin?” I asked after a little silence, reaching over and easing Mikhailov’s gun barrel further into the dirt.
Kirov grinned, oblivious. “I saw it with my brothers,” he said, and then he was talking about his brothers, and about that wonderful film, and how he’d taken a girl to see it and spent the whole time groping her in the back row, and Kirov wanted a ship assignment too, and he’d have picked it over this pit any day if they’d offered him a choice, and that girl really had been lovely.
Eventually he got tired of talking about the girl and the open sea and went to sleep.
Mikhailov and I sat unmoving in the cramped hole, our knees against our chins. I listened for gunfire. I think he listened for the sound of running feet, so he’d have something to shoot.
“There, Kirov,” said Mikhailov one night as he slid into the hole long after the rest of us, “you can stop your moaning. I’ve found you a girl.”
Kirov nearly broke his neck scrambling out of the hole. I reached to pull him back, but Mikhailov put his hand on my shoulder to stop me.
The ice-cold of his palm went through my jacket, chilled me to the bone. Mikhailov’s hands were bare, and had gone past the red of frostbite to the stark white of a corpse. I knocked his hand away like the frostbite was catching.
Mikhailov looked at me like I had shot him.
When Kirov started cursing with glee I looked away, peered over the edge of the hole.
Mikhailov had made Kirov a girl out of snow.
Her shape was simple, the solid sexless oblong of a nesting doll. But Mikhailov had given her such a face that I almost smiled at her, despite myself.
“You should have made her out of wood, she’d last longer,” someone called from the next foxhole, under the pine.
“She’d give Kirov splinters on his dick,” Mikhailov said, and they howled, and passed it on until all down the horizon the trees were laughing.
That night I had the watch, sitting flush against the trunk of the tree praying no deserters made a break for it. She stood placidly in the moonlight, the shadows playing tricks over her face, and I knew she was more than anyone guessed.
Mikhailov had slid the blade of his knife between her lips and twisted a little up and down, so it looked like she was always on the verge of smiling, of speaking.
It was nice to have a little company, something pretty in a snowy waste. Her eyes were a little downcast, her face turned away like she was embarrassed by my staring; as if she was waiting for me to kiss her cheek.
She frightened me, too, that steady gaze like she knew exactly what stories we all told, like she knew she was a doomed creature. Foreign she seemed then, and ruined, a bombed-out building in a city I’d never seen.
The first deserter came in the afternoon, in a snowstorm. Kirov was passing the coffeepot to me so I could pour my cold cup when we saw him running as though a wolf was chasing him.
I heard guns, which I thought were the men from the other foxholes, but must have been the gunfire from the battle on the road.
Later I thought how the deserter must have hoped not to be seen in the snow, and I wondered how long he had waited for a snowfall heavy enough to hide him.
The snow must have been a surprise even to him; he had dropped his gun in his hurry to flee.
I closed my hand over the side of the burning pot without thinking. By the time I had drawn back my hand Mikhailov had his gun against his shoulder, and by the time the pot hit the snow the man was dead.
We stripped him of his uniform and his ammunition, and the officers had to break up a fight over half a chocolate bar someone found in his knapsack.
The officers let us cast lots for grave duty. Mikhailov got to sit it out. He had already done his work.
For the length of the blizzard we all worried there would be another one, and the night watches were given extra bullets and warm stones from the fire pit to keep our hands warm in case we had to shoot.
Nothing ever came, though; it was just me under the branches and the snow-maiden a few paces away. Someone had set up a jacket on two sticks as a little canopy for her. I wondered who had done it. Kirov certainly wasn’t smart enough.
Someone put a photo of a boy into a little trough at her feet as at the crèche of a saint.
One night she had a dent in her shoulder where someone had embraced her as a joke and left the imprint of his shoulder grenade, and it made me unspeakably sad. I thought about smoothing some more snow over her shoulder to fix her, but the idea of touching her made me blush down to my boots, and I closed my eyes, left her alone.
At the fire I told the tale of Snegurotchka, the girl made of snow who melted as she cried over her beloved.
“Dismal stuff,” said one of the men who’d come from another foxhole, and Mikhailov said, “Agreed.”
Someone else grinned. “You want a story about a cold woman, let me tell you about this piece I had when I was on the rails, ass like a pushcart, reads a book the whole time!” He stood up and demonstrated in a rain of laughter.
I sat down beside Mikhailov, looked over at his sharp face lit up against the fire. “Thanks a lot.”
“She’s only snow, you know,” he said, and I glanced at him sideways. Of course I knew. I had eyes, didn’t I?
“Tell me,” said Mikhailov, “what did you do with those hands?”
Kirov was taking the morning watch, but it took me a moment to register that Mikhailov and I were alone, as if I had brought someone into the hole with us.
Finally I heard him. “Piano,” I said.
Mikhailov shifted to give me enough room to sit. “They’ll take anyone these days, won’t they?”
“They took you.”
I couldn’t read his expression; his mouth twisted up like he was smiling, but it was stark and cold.
“Let me guess,” he said when I was almost asleep. “Rimsky-Korsakov?”
I managed, “Rachmaninov.”
“Of course,” Mikhailov said, and I felt a thin blanket being folded over me. “Very patriotic of you not to name Beethoven.”
I was too tired to fight him, and couldn’t bring myself to tell him I really did love Rachmaninov. He drilled to the heart of the matter, always, to the hard dark center of grief, as directly as he could. No extra phrase, no stray note; nothing wasted.
The New Year came, and we starved out at half-rations.
Mikhailov tweaked curls of bark from the birch whenever Kirov was out taking a piss; he passed them to me without speaking, and we sucked on them like candies.
Kirov shot rabbits when they were stupid enough to come near, and we cast lots for the meat.
We ate pine needles to fill ourselves. The thorn-bushes alone were safe; we were starving, but not that much. Only the little shrikes went there, flying so low over the snow that you couldn’t shoot them without shooting a fellow soldier. Clever birds.
The only one of us who didn’t get thinner was my little snow-girl, who sat placidly away from the fire at night. I tried not to look too much at her; I didn’t want anyone to guess how I felt. Kirov would laugh. Mikhailov — well.
One of the officers took a picture of Kirov standing beside the snow-girl with his hat in his hand like a wedding portrait. In the picture her face was turned away, the unwilling bride.
She hated Kirov. I could see it.
The other men could see it in her too, I realized; someone had left a girl’s hair ribbon draped around her neck, someone else a prayer card, like amulets.
I tried not to be jealous. I knew she couldn’t care for them like she did me. My own fault for not bringing anything pretty for a pretty girl. When we were alone at night I promised to play her a song on my piano after we reached home.
Once on night watch I almost shot someone who had walked half a mile in the dark to pray to “the Saint Sophia” he’d heard about from someone far down the line, someone at the next fire over.
“Well, say your prayers,” I said, and I meant to sound friendly, but after he had muttered a quick Our Father and bolted, I realized I still had the gun in my hands, like I was guarding her and not the foxholes. I felt sorry for the man, but I could tell she felt safer with me looking out for her that way.
One night, when it was snowing and no one would see, I left my post and crept over to her, kneeling at her feet. The little boy’s photo was flaking off in the cold, and I rested it against her carefully before I looked up.
Her face was no saint’s face but something more, something safer and more beautiful, a face suffused with love. Through the falling snow her eyes shone for me, the mouth Mikhailov made parted to invite me.
I kissed her so gently it hardly left a mark; with such girls as my Snegurotchka, I knew, a man had to be very careful. If you loved them too much they melted away to nothing.
Kirov hopped into the foxhole last, always, but it was later than usual; I was due on watch already, but I couldn’t leave Mikhailov alone, and by the time Kirov slid inside I was late and Mikhailov was furious.
“What do you DO up there?” snapped Mikhailov, who’d had to yank his feet out of the way to avoid being trampled.
Kirov grinned. “Well, when you’re not one of you spindly idiots, there’s some liquor to be had even out here, and a card game if you have the stomach for it, and then a quick fuck with the ice-maid and then back home!”
Kirov was laughing now, but the words made me sick, and even as Mikhailov said, “Then go sleep in the drunkard’s hole,” I was punching Kirov, twice to the gut, and when he bent over and I couldn’t get a good enough windup in the small space I bit his neck.
He cried out and twisted away from me, pressing against the wall, trying to blink his way out of his vodka stupor. Finally he managed, “Fuck off and get drink of your own, you jealous bastard.”
“Don’t speak about her that way,” I said.
There was a little silence, then a long one, where Kirov gaped at me like he didn’t know how he had insulted her, and Milhailov looked as though he wished for a little wooden boat to fly him away.
“You’re mad,” Kirov spat at last, his eyes gleaming madly. “It’s just SNOW, don’t you see that?”
In the distance there was the rattle of a machine gun, the ragged bang of a grenade.
He was looking at me now, his face filling my vision in the cramped hole. “She’s—it’s just SNOW! Jesus Christ! You’re drunker than I am!”
I didn’t say anything—my rage was beyond words—but I felt the gun slide up into my hands, felt Mikhailov beside me suck in his breath, but I wasn’t afraid. He would fight for my sake.
Kirov blanched, choked out a sound, and then he was scrambling out of the hole, running headlong into the dark. As I stood I saw he was running for the snow-girl.
“No,” I whispered, like that would stop him, but he had snatched a stick off the ground so that his first blow would lop her head off her shoulders.
Another grenade in the distance, a volley of shots.
I couldn’t breathe, but my hands were steady, and in my hands the gun lifted, settled, fired.
The shot seemed to shake the dark, but around us the music of war covered the sound, and after a moment I could breathe. I sucked icy air into my lungs, ignored the copper smell.
“Come on,” I said, and we crept over the ground to the tune of distant machine guns and the hum of the far-off tanks.
We crept from the trees and stripped Kirov of his bullets, of his socks and his gloves. We left his uniform (Mikhailov must have known what we were going to do), but we took what we could. Mikhailov pulled the bullet from the wound. Nothing wasted.
I dug under the thorn-bush just deep enough for the body, and Mikhailov brought armfuls of the bloody snow to pack into the ground out of sight. Around us the shrikes flapped their wings, waiting patiently for their turn.
When we were back in the hole I shifted so I could look out; without Kirov in the way I could watch her all I liked, my little snow-girl. Her eyes had turned towards me, I could see, and in the murky dawn her mouth shifted, Mikhailov’s own twisted half-smile.
Her look warmed me until I flushed under my scarf.
“She thanks us,” I said, turning to Mikhailov.
He was sitting as far from me as he could get in the little foxhole, hands wrapped around his knees, gaze fixed on me. I couldn’t read his expression; his face was pale as the new snow, and as far away. The smooth scar on his face where he wouldn’t let me touch him gleamed in the moonlight.
“I’m cold,” he said, after a long time.
I told the officers Kirov had gone for a piss and hadn’t come back. They decided he had deserted.
Mikhailov and I should have been punished for letting him go, but there was already so little food they were afraid we would die if they held back rations, so they did what they could and forbade us the fire.
“Never liked their stories anyway,” Mikhailov said that night, shivering.
I lowered myself into the hole (after checking on the snow-girl, she needed me now more than ever), sat shoulder-to-shoulder and offered him half my blanket.
“I could tell you one of mine.”
“I hate yours too,” he said without looking at me, and I laughed.
“If there was a piano I could play you music,” I said. “You should carve me one.”
He looked over, his face a blank white stone. “I don’t know what a piano looks like.”
The air under the blanket was warm, but he never stopped shivering.
Someone took pity on us and passed a cigarette down the foxholes until Ivan slithered to the edge of ours and dropped it onto my blanket.
I lit it with one of the three dry matches I had left.
“Should wait for an occasion,” said Mikhailov.
“I’m in love. That’s an occasion. Here,” I said, and held it out, “you deserve it. You made her.”
He looked at the cigarette until it had burned down half an inch, and I finally gave up and took it back.
“Waste of a cigarette,” I said, inhaling.
After a moment Milhailov slid the cigarette out from between my fingers, took a heavy drag off it.
“Congratulations,” he said as he handed it back to me, and the smoke unfurled from between his lips.
It was almost February, and they told us we’d be moving out soon.
“Lots of volunteers deserting,” they told us, stared each of us in the eye like we were planning to run. They stared longest at me.
I wasn’t planning to run. As soon as they told us I knew I wasn’t going anywhere at all; I couldn’t leave Snegurotchka alone in this wasteland.
“There’s nothing we can do,” said Mikhailov when I told him. “We have to go.”
“Then what sort of husband am I?”
“The kind who has to go off to war,” he said.
I sat and gnawed on a twist of birch-bark, thinking.
At last he said, “I can make you another,” but when he saw my face he stopped.
“I’ll run away,” I said.
He pressed his gun against his shoulder. “Don’t.”
That night I sat beside her, resting against the hard column of her body, looking up into that perfect face. In the moonlight her expression was beyond understanding; she knew already, clever thing, that we were going away, and she was afraid I would leave her. It was a stranger’s face, my beloved’s face, a pillar of white stone.
My poor bride, I thought, and embraced her.
The wind was bitter cold. Already I couldn’t feel my hands or my legs, but where I was pressed to my Snegurotchka I felt the warm comfort of her beating heart.
After a little while, when I was tired beyond reason and drifting to sleep, I felt the trickle of water against my face as she cried for me.
I held her closer to protect her from the wind, her body softer and softer under my hands, and I kissed her cheek, her lips, as my promise never to leave her.
By morning I would be frozen beside my little snow-girl. I was not afraid; my fingers played a song in the snow at her feet, the shrikes singing in harmony as we waited for sleep.
I knew Mikhailov would come to gather up what was left of mine. He was an efficient man; nothing wasted.