HER RIFLE bucked in her hands. She waited, counting silently to herself, only her eyes moving, searching for any sign she had been spotted. Then she began to withdraw with exquisite slow movements, following a path that would keep her shielded from view. When she reached Alexei, she tapped his shoulder and continued, with him crawling just behind her, his hand occasionally brushing the sole of her boot.
They reached the cellar entrance and slipped inside once more.
“I didn’t see it,” he said. “I didn’t have the vantage point.”
She was making a notation in a small book. “It doesn’t matter.”
“How many?” he asked, indicating the book in her hands.
She finished and slipped it back into a pocket. “I don’t count them. I only shoot them. And record them because that’s what they told us to do.”
He was silent for a moment. “What now?”
“We’ll wait until just before sunset. They sometimes get more complacent then.”
He nodded and sat down, tucking his legs loosely around one another, and rested his hands on his knees.
“You’re in no hurry,” she noted. “That hasn’t been my experience with others.”
“You can’t rush fate.” His smile held a wistful note. “It arrives on its own terms, and never with an invitation.”
“You didn’t join?”
“I didn’t have a choice,” he said simply. “I left just ahead of the Germans, until fate found me once more.” His eyes searched around the small space, as though this represented only the sum of his world according to someone else’s dream, one in which he had been given to participate for only a while. He looked back at her. “What about you?”
She felt something stir inside, beneath his direct gaze, but she met it without changing expression. “I’m just a soldier in a war, like you.”
“You’re like me, Dasha. But you’re no soldier.” His smile transformed his face, warming it in the dim light like a stray sunbeam captured and held as it passes over the water on its journey toward night. “You have something more inside you, but you choose to hide it.”
She smiled shyly at his use of this familiar name, and glanced away for a moment.
“You aren’t like what they say,” he said, still watching her with a gaze that seemed to see past enclosed spaces, into whatever awaited free in the beyond.
“What do they say about me?”
“That your discipline is your strength. I think it’s only your shield, and your passion is your real strength.”
A flicker of uncertainty crossed her features. She sought to distract herself by busying herself with her rifle.
“How old are you Dasha?” he asked, curious.
She hesitated, and answered without turning. “I’ll be twenty-five at the end of the year. If it ever comes.”
“They say twenty-five is the beginning of a long springtime in our lives.”
“I’m a child of winter.” She set the rifle aside. “Spring seems too far away for me.”
She turned and looked at him once more.
He undid the top button of his tunic with careful fingers, and then raised up a chain from which a small pendant swayed, reflecting back the candle’s flame with a polished luster all its own. As it settled against the palm of his hand, she saw a turquoise cross inlaid against a background of copper filigree, suspended from twisted strands of small brass and antique glass beads, freshwater pearls, and turquoise.
“My mother left me this.” His fingers traced the pendant with a familiar reverence. “It’s all I have that I can touch. Everything else is gone.”
She stared at the pendant, then up to his face. “Do you miss her?”
His expression turned thoughtful. “I know she’s still with me.” He pressed his hand to his heart. “Here.”
“I never knew my mother.”
“Do you love her, nonetheless?”
Her brow furrowed. “How can I love someone I don’t remember, Alyosha?”
“Because memories are the one thing we will always carry,” he said with a sincerity born from conviction. “Even if we don’t know where to look, they will endure.”
She was silent for a long while, staring away, contemplating his words. “Love is only sorrow,” she said in a soft voice, as if to herself.
“Why do you feel that way, Dasha?”
She was still looking away. “Because it’s only ever meant loss for me.”
Copyright © 2011 Matthew Lee Adams
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