The White Letter

The guns had grown silent and the smoke was lifting; the heavy smell of death hung above the bloodied ground, and like vultures, soldiers from the victorious party emerged amidst the haze to loot the bodies of the fallen. They moved quickly, darting from one still corpse to the other, rifles slung over their shoulders, hands probing tattered uniforms clumsily, ears pricked for the clink of a gold watch or a jeweled chain. One brutish looter stumbled over an outstretched leg. Swearing, the soldier roughly prodded the unmoving form beneath him. A Soviet uniform under the ragged trench coat, with deep pockets that looked promising. The soldier smiled; an uneven yellow-toothed smile that clashed sharply against his grimy countenance. His dirty hands found something moments later: a letter, stiff and folded and still spotless.

"Dear Natalya,

I ache to hold you again. It has been undescribably bad. Conscripts fell by the hundreds as American warplanes strafed our transports. I have always thought of the sea as pure and incorruptible, but today its waters ran red, then darkened to scarlet, and finally ran black with Russian blood. As I ran onto the beach, I saw only the clean beaches at Slavyanka, with the seagulls flocking at my feet as I tossed them bread, and the waves cresting gently against the shore, and the cold winter wind whipping about my face.

American gunfire was weak at first; only a handful of pillboxes along the beachhead, but soon it grew into a storm of death, and men began to fall around me. It is morbidly fascinating to watch, and that was all I could do, watch: I saw a bullet strike my friend Krabavka in the forehead, my friend Krabavka who was laughing and telling me jokes hours before as we stood on the deck of the transport; my friend Krabavka who loaned my father money when the KGB confiscated our fishing boat; my friend Krabavka who was with me when I first met you; my friend Krabavka who admired pretty girls with me at school. His head snapped back and a spray of blood erupted from his temple and for an instant I saw a look of shock on his face as his eyes went wide and his arms tightened around his useless rifle. He fell a moment later, and a moment after that, his body was trampled beneath the boots of our rushing infantry.

I did not even aim when I fired my rifle. The enemy was invisible behind groves of palm trees and bushes and the enemy was invincible behind camouflaged pillboxes; I could think about only two things. First, that war was pointless, that I had no quarrel with the Americans I was trying to kill, that the American soldier who had shot Krabavka would probably have liked him if they had met on some street in Vladvistok. Second, I thought about you, my darling Natalya. I saw your brown hair falling softly about your face, your eyes that are so green, your face that is so beautiful. I saw your heart-shaped mouth, the mouth that had said 'no' to the rich officers that courted you but 'yes' to me, the poor little son of a poor little fisherman. I saw your slender legs when you modeled skirts for me in the fancy Moscow stores, skirts I could never afford. I saw you twirling your brown hair in your long, elegant fingers. Over the smell of burning flesh and discharged gunpowder I smelled your perfume, the homemade perfume I made from flowers and your father's shaving cream. Over the screams of dying men and the roar of exploding bombshells, I heard your voice, singing to me as we held each other, looking up at the night sky on your balcony. You are everything to me, Natalya. You are the only reason I did not hide from the KGB recruiters. I am not fighting for the politburo that stole my family's livelihood, or the 'Mother Russia' Romanov's propagandists have invented. I am fighting for you, so that someday, I will become a rich officer who can buy you the things that a girl as beautiful and kind as you deserve. I hope that this letter will reach you someday, carried from this place and put into your soft hands by someone who has the kindness and understanding any human being should have, by someone, anyone, who finds this letter and is - "

The dirty soldier's head came up abruptly as he heard the sound of motors in the distance. The military police had arrived, and the looting would soon be stopped by force. Mumbling an oath about his bad luck, the dirty soldier tore the white letter in half and tossed it on the dead man's bloodied stomach, crouching as he disappeared swiftly into the enveloping dust. As the sound of car motors droned closer, rain began to fall over the battlefield. Raindrops ran down the young lover's face, down his sightless eyes like tears; down the torn paper of the white letter, turning the strong strokes of ink to incoherent streaks of darkness.