©MJ Krause-Chivers 2021
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Published by Sanctified Hearts Publishing
© Copyright 2021
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Chapter 1: SILENT SENTINELS
A SHORT STORY
By MJ Krause-Chivers
A thick gray blanket hung over the dense mixed forest, its promise of winter mingling with the hazy plumes of smoke drifting between the trees. With each blast, another acidic cloud formed, the choking fumes burning our lungs and reddening our eyes. Russia was destroying itself from the inside. Stupid, bloody war. When would it end?
I couldn’t remember the last time I’d seen the stars.
With no map to guide us, and no agenda other than survival, the past ten days and nights blurred into one confusing, ugly nightmare. At least I thought it was ten. I wasn’t sure anymore. I’d lost track of time. Plagued by hunger, thirst, and fatigue, we pooled our wits and practical fragments of know-how from our childhood farm-life to scrounge for food and water in the most austere circumstances. Now, in the bleak wilderness, away from the burning villages and primary battle zone, we sensed a faint promise of safety.
Anna pushed through the decaying undergrowth, lifting her long skirts in a lady-like fashion with her right hand, favoring her left. After being hit by a stray bullet during the first day of our flight, the injured limb mostly hung by her side, disengaged.
Tiptoeing over the protruding rocks and fallen branches, she paused every few minutes to rub her shoulder and look up at the foreboding clouds. During these breaks, she drew her lips tight, holding them between her teeth.
I wasn’t sure if she stopped because she was truly interested in the weather and the woodsy surroundings, or if she was resting, trying to fight pain and exhaustion. I was afraid to ask. Prodding might make things worse.
“Kat, I’m freezing,” Anna rubbed her hands up and down both arms. Her ragged fine wool dress hung on her thin frame like an oversized coat on a small child, the muddy bottom dragging along the brown forest floor.
I stumbled on a root, but quickly regained my balance, the small collection of scavenged survival tools jangling inside the metal pail I carried in a make-shift gunny sack on my back. Trailing a half-step behind her, I reached forward and squeezed her shoulder. She stopped, turned to me, her face drawn into a tight grimace, tears welling in her eyes. Her long, blonde hair—stringy and matted—framed her dirty, gaunt, ashen face with an impoverished waif-like appearance. She looked half-dead. I wondered if I looked as bad, but I didn’t dare ask.
Anna’s sudden reaction caused me to flinch. “Oops. I’m so sorry, Sis; I keep forgetting about the bullet.”
Normally, I’d add a sarcastic comment to make light of my temporary amnesia, but this time guilt and pity held me back. Instead, I offered my sincerest apology by shrugging my shoulders, raising my eyebrows, and giving a tight grin. It was the best I could do.
She returned a half-smile through narrowed eyes as if to forgive me for aggravating her pain. Without saying a word, she pivoted back, resuming the lead through the foggy mist.
Her skinny form and tangled hair added another worry to my anxiety-filled brain. Sleeping in abandoned diseased buildings had resulted in a lice infestation. The constant scratching from the horrible itch caused bleeding and pus-filled scabs to form. I prayed we hadn’t contracted the deadly typhus.
The depressing situation made for awkward conversations, but I still needed to talk. I shifted my thoughts to a lighter topic.
“It looks like it’s gonna snow.” As I glanced up at the gray sky, a slippery rock sent me skidding into a prickly hornbeam. “Be careful, Anna, it’s rugged here.”
The threat of imminent winter tightened the knots in my gut. We needed to find safety soon.
“Yes, it’s cold. But there’s nothing prettier than snow in the wilderness, especially at Christmas. I’m imagining a cup of hot tea around a warm fire.” Her voice chimed with positivity.
“Maybe tomorrow,” I replied with zero enthusiasm.
My big sister was not one to complain about a little suffering. Forever hopeful and happy, she looked for the silver lining in every crisis. I, on the other hand, saw clouds and feared their impact. Anna labeled me as negative. I declared her unrealistic. We just saw life from different angles. Our differences strengthened and balanced our relationship, endearing us to each other.
Although I admired her persistence and stamina, the frequent breaks and her frail appearance troubled me. Anna’s cheery demeanor made it difficult to tell how badly she was hurting. For all I knew, she could be dying. Her bony cheeks, frame, and ill-fitting dress told me she had lost weight. I doubted there was an ounce of fat on her anywhere.
I worried about the blood loss from the gunshot wound. It festered, splitting open and bleeding at the slightest stress. I did my best to nurse it using the roots and herbs from the forest floor, but my knowledge was limited. I regretted not paying more attention when the field hands got hurt. Gramma had tried to educate me on medical remedies, but my teenage naivety told me I was invincible. The horrors of war unimaginable, I never dreamed I might need this vital information to save my sister. My stupidity was embarrassing. I needed to make it up to her somehow.
“Kat, do you have any idea where we are?” Anna’s weak voice interrupted my thoughts. The strained tremor indicated she needed to quit for the night.
“I can’t see well enough to know for sure,” I answered, scanning the locale.
I didn’t dare admit I hadn’t a clue. The smelly gray haze from the exploding bombs muddied the air, making accurate navigation impossible. Black shadows flickered through the trees, casting scary silhouettes. The high, expansive canopy draped interlacing fingers through the gloomy, darkening canvas. An evergreen tree beckoned, its long broad arms drooping to the ground.
“Anna, there’s a large spruce here. The ground is probably soft underneath.”
She nodded. “Do you think there’s water nearby?”
“Most likely. Stay here and rest. I’ll go scout.” I said in a matter-of-fact tone, gritting my teeth and hoping she didn’t notice the false bravado in my voice. Becoming an adult meant handling some things on my own.
Anna crawled under the long coniferous branches while I grabbed the metal pail and a tin cup from our gunny sack. Our sparse possessions, scavenged during our days of flight included a glass jar, a tin cup, a bottle of wine, two paring knives, a large spoon, one plate, two forks, a small metal pail, and a torn sheet—which I rigged into a carry bag.
On our first night after escaping from our burning village, we took refuge in an abandoned shack across the river. There, underneath a mixed pile of straw and debris, we discovered two full bottles of wine. Although we grew up with rules around young women imbibing alcohol, I convinced Anna desperate times called for desperate measures. It was war, after all.
The first flagon contained the epitome of liquid courage. I caressed the remaining second bottle, pretending to check the seal. This sacred blessing was now reserved for the first sight of freedom or life-threatening thirst—whichever came first. We were getting close to the latter.
“Stay awake until I get back,” I ordered. “Otherwise, I’ll get lost.”
“Uh-huh,” non-compliance registered in her groggy voice.
I filled my lungs with a deep breath and exhaled through my mouth with one long sigh, while standing and surveying the site for hazards, and determining a potential pathway toward a watercourse. Kneeling, I lifted the hem of my skirt and tore off a strip of cloth. With this, I roped the spoons and fork together to create a wind chime and then hung my invention on the tree branch above my head. If Anna fell asleep, the tinny jangling noise would help me find my way back.
I gathered several large branches and leaned them up against our natural shelter to help mark the tree. Satisfied with my safety, I pushed into the gloaming darkness, listening for the sound of a trickling stream, but heard only distant explosions. The ground trembled with each blast.
“Can’t you murderers quit killing each other and let me think?” I shouted to the air.
Another loud crack threw me off balance. I dropped to my knees and covered my ears. Escape from the imploding world seemed impossible.
“War is hell, and I’m living in it,” I muttered.
I rose to my feet, picked up my pail and cup, and set my face like flint. I would find water if it killed me to get it.
My eyes strained for light as I wandered further away from my base. Every few minutes I looked back, checking to verify my position.
Dusk created weird light reflections and bizarre aberrations between the trees, making it difficult to track my distance from the massive spruce. Everything was becoming monochromatic and hazy. Upon turning around after a spot check, a branch swatted my head. As I punched back, a rock kicked up. I tripped, sailing forward, landing with a soft thud on the spongy ground. My ankle caught the sharp edge of the rock while my elbow made a dint in the tree trunk.
“Oh, for crying out loud.”
I sat, rubbing my bleeding leg and sore arm for the next five minutes, uttering a string of vile curses that could get me kicked out of church. No one could hear me. I was free to say whatever I wanted. God could be trusted to forgive me.
Freedom. I savored the word, letting it float over my tongue, tasting its meaning. The church and political parties each differed on the definitions of liberty and justice. So, what was the truth? In this moment, I had no idea, nor did I care.
It dawned on me I was sitting in a blackening forest in the middle of a war zone feeling blissfully unrestrained. A flash of giddy insanity gripped me. I sat with my back against a tree trunk, laughing. I wanted to take off my clothes and run naked through the woods. But it was too cold. If only I had a blanket.
I felt myself nodding into a dreamy state. I jerked and slapped my face with both hands. “No, Kat. You can’t go to sleep here. You must get water. You can’t help your sister if you don’t save yourself first.”
My ankle irritated from the fall, I tested my weight on the injured limb, bracing myself against a hairy larch. I stood, gazing up at the stark yellow branches with the needles and cones still hanging on, refusing to acknowledge the impending winter. Did this silent guardian see all?
“Can you direct me to the water, please?” I patted the giant trunk while I listened between the bomb bursts. A faint gurgling sound greeted me on my right. I limped through the thick underbrush, now damp and slippery from the heavy dew.
The bubbling stream glistened in the clouded murky moonlight, floating diamonds dancing along the misty surface. I knelt at the water’s edge and dipped the cup, filled it, then held it to my lips and guzzled. The chilly liquid traced an icy finger down my dry throat and pooled like an ice-cube in my empty stomach. I rubbed my gut to warm it. It was better to be cold than thirsty.
I leaned forward and filled the pail to the brim, then set it on the rock beside me while I plunged my cup for a second drink. One more would keep me going for the night. I said a quick prayer of thanks. God hadn’t forgotten us.
A low growl raised the hair on the back of my neck. I looked up and scanned the foggy blackness across the narrow stream. A pair of ugly, yellow eyes met mine. I froze, holding my breath, my stomach tight, my heart racing. Wolves were common in the steppes, their howling packs razing many a farmer’s livestock.
I peered into the trees beyond the glaring eyes, searching for signs of a group. A flicker of movement confirmed my suspicion. I scratched my panicked memory bank. Grampa said wolves are like big unfriendly dogs. If you run, they will chase and tear you into pieces.
With great trepidation, I picked up the containers and rose, keeping my eyes on the dreaded animal. He snarled, his massive shape and strong jaw outlined in the moonlight. I sensed his bared teeth, his desire for easy prey. It would not be me.
Inching back, I pushed each trembling foot deep into the soft soil before taking another step. Any sudden movement could be my last.
My heel hit a tree trunk. I slinked up tight to the tall, thick larch, then slipped behind it. The predators might still smell me, but I hoped my lack of visibility would deter them. I peeked around the wood.
The night marauders lined up along the edge, their noses buried in the water as they lapped, while the leader remained poised in a guard position.
I breathed a sigh of relief. The fierce show had been a bluff to thwart me from the creek. Had they arrived beside me on my border, I could have been ripped apart in a turf war. It was a close call. Someone or something guarded me.
I crept from tree to tree, stopping and listening behind each one for any signs of my pursuers. No longer cold, a blanket of fear provided the warmth to propel me deep into the inky soup. Once reasonably confident of my safety, I paused, collecting my bearings.
The now pitch-black forest was a blur of tall sticks in varying widths and colors. Retracing my steps seemed impossible. Where was I? I dreaded calling out. The ferocious canines could still hunt me down.
I strained my ears for the sound of the wind-chime in the windless night. I wracked my brain. As I approached the stream, did I turn right or left? What direction should I go now? The racket of war echoed around me, adding to my despair. With neither sight nor sound to guide me, I needed to depend on my instincts.
My heart pounded in my chest. My body trembled, my frozen hands slipping on the cold, wet bucket. I hugged it tighter against my stomach, the empty tin cup now clinking against the pail. Panic urged me to drop everything and run. I fought the feeling, forcing my numb feet to slog one step at a time along the uneven ground.
“Keep your head straight, Girl,” I whispered. “Just walk forward.”
I worried the wolves might stalk. As I focused on that thought, my apprehension grew, creating worst-case scenarios in my mind. It seemed like forever since I left Anna. What if the monsters found her first? What if she was already dead? The possible sight of confronting a maze of half-eaten bloody limbs sickened me.
The bucket jiggled, splashing the frigid water over my numb hands. I stopped, sucked in my breath, and shook the panic from my head. “Don’t lose the water,” I whispered. “You can’t go back there.” Then I added a quick prayer. “God, please keep Anna safe.”
The blackness enveloped me now, the tall sentinels watching my movements. I crept around their perimeters, using my feet to monitor for hidden rocks, low branches, and dense underbrush. One fall and the pail would be empty. I stopped again, studying my surroundings. Everything looked familiar, but at the same time, nothing did. The night sky distorted the woods.
“God, please help me.”
I contemplated my fate, imagining my remnants torn apart by wolves and scattered throughout the forest.
Something rustled in a branch overhead. A soft meow floated down. What was a cat doing in the middle of the bush? I peered up and circled the larch, trying to get a glimpse. Then I saw it.
A ball of brilliant white fluff moved along a branch to its tip. It jumped and landed on the black spruce next to the larch, then scampered up the limb to the trunk, climbed through the canopy and around the other side, continuing its trek along the further branch. With my fear now replaced by distraction and being puzzled by the cat’s appearance, I followed as he jumped to another tree. He stopped, looked at me, then let out a short mew as if to tell me something important.
My curiosity awakened, I escorted the hunt. Under normal circumstances, a cat wouldn’t stray too far from its human owner. But during wartime, anything was possible. My logical brain said tracking a cat through the woods was a dumb decision. I could get seriously lost. Scratch that thought.
The cat looked vaguely familiar. He acted as if he knew me, too. Each time he looked back and waited until I moved beneath him before tackling the succeeding tree. I trailed, moving and stopping when he did, accepting his lead.
After a few minutes of this toying, I braked to check my whereabouts. The silent sentinels encircling me were becoming indistinct. The dense clouds now shrouded the moon. It was scary dark.
“Anna,” I croaked in a hoarse whisper. I received no response. I cleared my throat and tried again, a little louder this time. Still nothing. I swallowed hard. My heart raced. I chastised myself for following the cat. I was definitely lost.
The cute bundle of fur scampered two trees to my right, then sat on the upper branch and made a persistent chattering sound until I followed. My amusement shifted to shock as a faint sliver of moonlight peeked through the clouds and lit up a massive evergreen with long, low-lying branches and a pile of sticks at its base. The wind-chime jangled a tinny ring confirming my position. The cat stopped short of our chosen nest, turned and looked at me, then sounded a short mew before disappearing into the black night.
I scurried to the tree and bent down to lift the blue branches. Anna lay on the soft carpet of evergreen needles and leaves, snoring. Jealous of her peacefulness, I flicked a finger of water on her face. She didn’t respond. I kneeled beside her and stroked her cheek. She turned and opened her eyes.
“Water?” She seemed to gasp for breath as she spoke, her voice a raspy whisper.
“Yes. Here, drink,” I dipped the cup into the pail and held it to her mouth. She shifted to sit up, then grabbed the cup with both hands.
“Any problems?” she asked between gulps.
“Oh no, it went fine,” I lied.
She handed me the cup and lay back down. I hung the half-full pail on a short branch above our heads. We would drink the rest in the morning.
“Hey, do you remember Grampa’s white cat?” I asked.
“The one-eyed, deaf one?”
“What about it?”
“Do you remember when he died, the cat jumped on the coffin and refused to move?”
Anna chucked. “Yeah.”
“And do you remember how it parked on the grave for weeks after?” I asked.
“And then one day he was just gone.” Anna propped herself up on her elbow and looked at me with a puzzled expression.
“He never came back.”
“Do you think he’s still alive?”
“Impossible. That was years ago. What made you think of Whitey?” She wrinkled her brow.
“Oh, I don’t know. I swear I saw a white cat tonight.”
“Don’t be silly. You’re imagining things again.”
I lay back and wiggled into the soft carpet, staring up at the branches. The wind blew a few flakes of snow through a small gap.
“It’s snowing. Christmas is almost here.” Memories of Christmases past left a sharp ache in my heart. Life would never be the same again. I replaced the pain with a page from Anna’s playbook, imagining the warm, delicious comfort of sitting by a roaring fire with our family. Together we would break the seal of the sacred bottle and celebrate our survival.
An owl hooted above me. It’s been so long since I’ve heard an owl, I thought. “Anna.”
“What do you hear?”
“Umm. An owl.”
“Anna, there’s nothing.”
She sucked in her breath and sat up. “You’re right. There’s nothing.” She looked at me with her mouth agape. “Do you think the war is over?”
“Maybe.” Hope danced in my throat. “I guess we’ll know by morning. If the bombs and guns stop, we can quit running and go home.”
“Home,” she breathed the word in a long slow purr before laying back down. “That would be nice. Maybe then I’ll find a doctor to take out this bullet.”
“Hey, don’t be insulting my nursing now,” I stretched out my arms and interlinked my hands under my head. “I kept you alive, you know. But...I hate to brag.”
Pushing her buttons was easy. I didn’t need light to see her roll her eyes.
“Go to sleep, Kat.”
“Good night, Anna.”
MJ Chivers is a Canadian writer of Russian and Ukrainian Mennonite heritage. Her grandparents escaped from southern Ukraine during the Russian Civil War following WW1. She grew up hearing the frightening stories of survival, daring escapes, and courageous adventures. In 2014, she visited the homelands of Poland and Ukraine where the residue of the impacts of war and communism left a lasting imprint.
The author also writes Christian non-fiction as Miranda J. Chivers
This story is a sample of her fiction writing and follows the storyline from her new series: Russian Mennonite Chronicles. The first two books — Katarina’s Dark Shadow and Katarina’s Dark Journey are now available on Amazon. Follow the author:https://www.amazon.com/Miranda-J.-Chivers/e/B0791MGZP7