The dark, navy sky blankets the huge, thick forest. Silence fills the air. Blackness engulfs the forest: all is eerily still and quiet, as if there is no one alive left in the world. Snow falls heavily now; thick, white snowflakes balance precariously in the fir trees’ branches, creating a perfect Christmas card background. The Russian winter of 1941 has come early.
As the virgin snow drifts in the light wind, untouched by human footfall, the war feels many miles away. A sound breaks the silence. A howl slices through the thick air like ice. A wolf’s howl. The forest hides hundreds of them, waiting, prowling. Another howl, this time more desperate and deafening than the last, echoes into the haunting night sky and seems to rattle the window pane of our wooden cabin nestling in the forest.
I suddenly open my eyes and they are drawn to the rattling window. Another howl echoes through the everlasting night sky, pleading and desperate. In one swift action, my jacket, shoes and hat are on and I’m flinging open the door and stumbling into the darkness. The waiting snow scorns my sensitivity as I yelp in pain at its frozen grip. My legs are immediately immersed in an icy bath up to the knee. Again, a howl engulfs the night. It speaks to me and anticipation ripples through my frigid body like an electric current, warming my bones.
Through the darkness, green, hollow orbs stare me down. Yet, I feel no fear. Instantly, a kaleidoscope of different coloured eyes appear in the darkness, unblinking and unwavering. A smile dances on the edge of my lips. The green-eyed wolf howls as if only to me, slowly and thinly, like a whisper from tree to tree, a sound travelling on the scarce wind. Now, the smile bursts across my face.
Father is back home.
“Tatiana, why are you sleeping here at the front door? Get up!” My eyes open, my vision blurry as a yawn escapes from me. I see my mother standing there. A middle-aged women, hands on hips, wearing a bizarre combination of patterns on her trousers and thick knitted jumper, her face drawn and careworn. She is annoyed that I have fallen asleep on the door step again. “Mother you have to believe me, the wolves were calling me again last night!” I exclaim, scrambling to my feet shaking life back into my numb legs and feet.
Her eye roll is her signature action when I mention the wolves. She opens the dusty curtains, letting the yellow streaks of sunlight dance on the table. “Tatiana, what would your father say? Wolves are vicious animals, you have to stay safe.” The mention of father creates a knot in my stomach. If I close my eyes I can still see him waving goodbye to us, proud to go and fight for Mother Russia and Comrade Stalin. That was over a year ago. Six months later, a pack of wolves arrived, often visiting the cabin at night. “But he’s got father’s eyes,” I say quietly, almost to myself.
Recently, Mother has overheard whispered rumours in the village that the Germans are advancing and the war is not going well for us. The empty shelves in the shops speak of food shortages. The next night the nightmares came. I wake up, lonely and trembling with sweat dripping down my forehead, hands curled into fists with anxiety. The Germans are coming. At least that’s what I heard mother say. They will do terrible things to us, they want to destroy us. Why is your father not here to protect us? She is increasingly anxious for our safety, saying we may need to find another place to live.
As usual my minds racing and my head’s thumping making me unable to sleep. I walk downstairs to find mother sitting at the kitchen table. She looks like she couldn’t sleep either, with a cup of tea nestling between her hands. Suddenly the sound of a window smashing echoes into the living room, I jump in fright, mother’s eyes as wide as saucers. “Tatiana. Don’t. Move,” she hisses at me, her body frozen in terror. I steady my breathing. Have the Germans arrived, is this the end?
The door of my room falls off its hinges and what seems like a hundred wolves stare at us, with teeth bared and mouths dripping with salvia. The green eyed wolf leads the pack. Mother screams, “RUN!”
We sprint through the front door into the knee deep snow and the darkness of the forest beyond. The wolves are chasing, or are they shepherding us to a place within the forest? On and on we go. Mother and I are now far from our cabin, surrounded by snowy fur trees that seem to form a protective blanket around us. I can see a glimpse of our house, in the distance through the trees. “Mother, let’s go back, please!” I’m crying now. About the wolves who I thought were my friends. About father who is not with us. About the Germans destroying our lives. About everything.
Mother is shaking her head, staring into the distance at our cabin. “Tatiana, our house…the Germans have it.” I see in the distance the fire devouring our cabin, the house I’ve lived in all my life. “Mama!” I exclaim. “The wolves saved us! Don’t you see they got us out of the house before we were killed in the fire too! Mama!” The green eyed wolf emerges from the now quiet pack and in the darkness, lit only by the distant flames from the cabin, bows his head slowly.
My mother is silent for a moment. Everything has changed. “We need to go,” she says, a steely edge in her voice. I know it will be a struggle, but I have my mother and the spirit of my father with me. We have survived, we are together and alive.
In Russia, in the terrible winter of 1941, that is enough.