The snow crunches under my glove as I compress it across the lip of the ridge. I’ve been sitting here for hours in a snowy ditch, waiting for something, something that I’ve just seen — movement.
Scarcely taking my eyes off my prey, I pick my Mosin-Nagant rifle up from beside me and brush snow off the trigger. I pull up my balaclava, no higher than necessary, and use my teeth to free my fingers from the protective embrace of the thick glove, easing them out through a slit along the palm, before rolling the white mask back over my mouth. I take care to only make small, discreet movements.
Hovering my finger inside the trigger guard, I raise my rifle and aim over the newly-firm ridge. There was a fresh fall last night, meaning the snow is especially soft and light; compacting the area below the barrel of my rifle lessened the amount of powder that was brought up by the muzzle blast. Remaining unseen is vital.
I follow my target’s path down the iron sight of my weapon, smoothly tracking his progress and slowing my breathing as he stops. I prefer to use the iron sight rather than a scope. The temperature can reach minus forty here — glass frosts over yet iron remains clear. A scope forces you to raise your head higher to aim and the lens catches the glare of the sun. I’d rather remain hidden.
He is over two-hundred yards away. I’ll need to compensate for gravity and the gentle crosswind. My prey pauses to inspect tracks in the snow. He’s like a lost fawn, desperately trying to find his mother, or — in this case — his squadron. I aim down the rifle, slightly high and left of the blood-red star in his rabbit-fur ushanka — the hammer and sickle — it makes a good target, sitting directly in the centre of his forehead.
As I squeeze the trigger the Russian soldier’s expression does not change. He has no suspicion that he is being watched, he has no idea what is about to happen and he will not have time to register it. The last thing to pass through his head will be contemplation of what animal made those tracks. Well, second-to-last thing.
Part of me knows I should feel guilty about my actions, but there will be time for that later. Right now, all that matters is the protection of my homeland. As for the Soviets, they have invaded my country, they have killed my people, and I am all that stands between their war and my village. To my friends I am Simo — a quiet man, a kind man. To the Red Army, I am the White Death.
I squeeze the trigger firmly until the spring mechanism gives. The roar of my rifle cuts through the silence of the forest.
The echo pales into the distance and subsides. I remain still, moving my fingers just a fraction to distance exposed skin from any metal on the rifle. Ten minutes pass. I allow myself to ease my hand away from the trigger guard and bury my numb fingers back inside the glove. My body remains motionless.
I consider the last three months of warfare as my muscles begin to seize up; three months of fighting, three months of pushing my body to its limits in the blistering cold.
An hour passes before I deem it safe to move. I check my surroundings and shoulder my rifle, approaching the prone Russian like a hunter collecting his quarry. The forest is silent.
I reach the body and cut free a thick metal button from his winter coat. I have taken to gathering buttons from victims — it is important not to forget. On one particular day I had twenty-one buttons about my person. They jingled as I walked, like a pocket full of loose coins.
The blood has already frozen on his face. His youthful, beardless features spark an icy shiver in my stomach. I suppress it.
Rolling the stingingly cold souvenir between my fingers, I slip it into my jacket pocket and begin the walk home. I’ve spent enough time in the frost today and there is no sign of another patrol. The forest is silent.
The forest is silent; the realisation of this strikes too late. The forest is never silent — silence is forced by the hunter. I turn and survey the horizon. A glint of sharp light catches my eye, the spear of sunlight off a scope. In one fluid motion I drop to a knee and swing my rifle into place, pressing the wooden stock into my shoulder and levelling my gaze down the frosty iron sight. The distant lens glares back. I whip my hand to my side, grinding the glove against my trousers in an effort to free my fingers. The roar of a rifle cuts through the silence of the forest.
Jack Grocott is a part-time writer and full-time battler of procrastination. He lives in Staffordshire, UK.