“You look like a belyy medved1.”
“And so? It is so cold, Olezhek, how did I let you talk me into this?”
Light snow had started falling. The pair stood by the side of the empty, narrow road, an expanse of white spread out before them in every direction. Two wood-framed packs sat nearby in the snow.
Oleg turned to his wife and smiled. Even with nothing but her eyes peeking out from behind her fur hat and scarf, her playfulness sparked in them.
“We vowed to beat the cold back through the passion of our love, my sweet.”
“Bah!” Tatiana scoffed, picking up her pack and shrugging it onto her shoulders. “If you expose your passion in this weather you’ll end up with an ice sculpture.”
Oleg smiled again. He was sixty-two years old, his wife a year older, and he still loved her as passionate and completely as when they had met—through the tumult of the revolution, somehow surviving even as the crossroad detachments came and took their chickens, then milk cow, and finally the food in the root cellar.
They had starved but starved together, and survived; been imprisoned and found each other again once beyond the gates of their gulags; starved again in the great war for freedom; and now, so fortunate, retired and comfortable, with three wonderful children and, so far, five grandchildren.
His mind raced through all these thoughts so quickly Tatiana did not notice his pause. He picked up his pack and settled it on his shoulders.
“We shall see when we settle in for the night!” he boasted. They laughed together.
Oleg consulted the compass on the lanyard hanging from his neck, then pointed. “This is north.”
They set off in that direction.
In the evening they camped in the lee of a small rise that sheltered them, though only somewhat, from the biting wind blasting endlessly across the snow.
“When will we reach the sea?”
Oleg turned from gazing into their small fire, regarded the last of the light fading from the western horizon, then downed the dregs of his now-cold coffee.
“By lunch tomorrow, I expect,” he replied, melting a bit of snow in his mug to clean it out. “But it is hard to tell in the winter when everything is ice.”
The snow had not let up. In fact, it had become much heavier, and, combined with the howling wind, threatened to put out the fire.
“Let’s get in the tent,” said Oleg. He tried to stand, but the ice had him slip back down.
Tatiana, laughing, helped him to his feet. “My big, strong hero!”
Oleg looked into her eyes, barely visible in the dying campfire light. His heart skipped a beat.
In the tent they found neither an ice sculpture nor the passionate throes of love-making. The cold had sapped their strength. So, instead, they lay face to face, holding one another other, looking into each other’s eyes.
“How we would embarrass the children if they could see us, snuggling like teenagers!”
“Oh, but they are no longer children… Tania, won’t they be frightened?”
“Perhaps, but only for a time. Sometimes one must focus on the self, not always on others.”
Oleg furrowed his brow. Was she correct? But Tatiana always thought of others. Even on that day, by the highway, she’d been thinking of others…
“Do you hear that?” he asked.
“That sound… like a horn. Don’t you hear it?”
“I hear nothing but the wind,” Tatiana said, putting down her knitting and crawling into bed. “The wind and the flapping of this old tent.”
“Remember when we were young? We would go dancing all night.”
“You stepped on, more than swept me off, my feet.”
“But you loved me?”
“Of course.” She paused. “But there was so little time for love. Our story, like so many Russian stories, is long and sad, and ends in nothing.”
Oleg cocked his head, thinking he’d heard the shouting of a distant voice, the terrible cracking of ice, children screaming. “But our story has not been told.”
“All stories end, my dear. This is the promise. By their beginning the story is already over, the teller put down the pen, donned a grey hat, the family in mourning,”
“You are in a mood, Tania, I know you too well. The morning will dispense with this mourning.”
“You are right.” She put down the sock she had been repairing and crawled into bed. “Why is it so cold? Did you forget to stoke the fire?”
Oleg looked to the front of the tent, its closed flaps whipping in the wind.
“I thought the wind put it out…”
“My forgetful old man. Then you’ll have to see to getting the fireplace going again in the morning. The cold will be a lesson to you.”
“Yes,” Oleg agreed, not certain to what he’d ceded.
In the morning he slipped out of the tent early and attempted to light a fire for breakfast. But the wind proved too strong, so he soaked his rolled oats in water, cradled inside his coat, until they were soft enough to eat. He made cold coffee the same way, then put his pack in the tent, zipped it closed, and began walking north.
He caught up to Tatiana in a few minutes. They walked together. It was far too cold to hold hands; they had to settle instead for walking close and bumping shoulders, like secret lovers sneaking irregular kisses.
“How did I let you convince me on this trip?” Tatiana asked, sweeping her hand across the barren, whitened sameness of their horizon.
Oleg stopped, suddenly. He knelt and put a gloved hand on the ice.
“We are on the sea,” he said.
They continued walking in silence, and soon they came to a jumble in the ice.
Oleg stared. He had seen this before, or something very much like this. In the dark. On patrol. The re-frozen ice over the sea, blown apart that day as a shell reduced it to a mass tomb for some approaching Bolshevik soldiers. He could remember their screams as they slipped beneath their frozen fate, could remember the splashes of blood that evening, on the ice. The blood looked black in the dark, like the sea.
“Olezhek? What are you staring at?”
He came back to himself, the last image from his mind that of wiping the snow off the ice within the crater, and seeing a face, a frozen rictus of fear, crying out to him from beneath.
“There could be men trapped. Even a Bolshevik does not deserve such a fate!” Oleg stepped into the jumbled ice.
“No! What are you doing?”
Oleg slipped with his second step, catching his other foot on a ridge in the ice, rolling onto his back, and sliding to the bottom. There was a terrible crack.
Tatiana was there, instantly, holding his head, tears freezing on her cheeks when she saw his foot twisted nearly backwards.
“I’ll go for help.”
“I will freeze before you get back.”
“Then I’ll build you a fire.”
“Here the ice is weak. It might give way beneath a fire and drop me into the ocean. Besides, look.” He swept his hand over the horizon. “There is no wood on the sea.”
“Then our packs! Why did we leave them in the tent? I’ll retrieve them, and the tent as well!”
The snow was falling again, heavily, adding to the fifteen centimetres already on the ice.
“Please go quickly. The ice is freezing me where I lay.”
She turned to go, then stopped, slowly turning back to him. “I’m not coming back, am I?”
He looked at her and shook his head. She nodded, her face a sadness, before jogging off into the snow. Her boots left no impression where they landed.
The cold and pain kept him exhausted, but awake. In the jumble of his mind he saw a bus sitting on the ice after crashing through the shoulder barrier of the highway—heard the children crying out, saw the front wheel slipping into the ice with a terrific crack, saw Tatiana running for the bus, unafraid.
They were together again as the summer approached and the ice melted enough for her to float.
“It is not too late to head back,” Tatiana said, putting her pack on the ground and sitting on it.
“It is not too late to stay away from the bus,” he replied.
“True,” she agreed. “It is always too late.”
She came over to him and lay beside him. The cold had taken the agony from his leg and he thought he could sleep.
“Will you hold me?”
“Forever,” she said. “I will hold you forever.”
On watch, the sailor lifted his binoculars and surveyed the frozen sea. Above him black smoke billowed from her smokestacks, as the Yermak drove her bow onto the ice in front of her, crashing through it as the ship’s bulk forced the ice to split.
At first the polar bear caught his attention. He had seen many this spring, but this one was a monstrous size. The beast rose up on its hind legs, stumbling backwards as if afraid. Then it roared, its giant maw a cave of teeth. But still it retreated, walking backwards, like someone afraid to turn their back to a ghost. Finally, it jumped into the sea through an opening behind it in the ice.
The sailor, now invested in the spectacle, strained to see, now using the ship’s fixed binoculars, whatever could have frightened a three-plus meter polar bear.
Then the ship’s bow broke through the ice once again, and the image he thought he saw was lost. He retrained on the spot, but saw nothing, save the surface of frozen ocean, its monotony only broken by cracks from the warming sea.
What he thought he saw, and what he failed to put into the watch log at the end of his duty shift, was a large slab of ice rising on one side and flipping over, with what looked like a man lying down and rolling into the sea as the ice overturned. Even more curious, the sailor imagined a dark shape, a woman’s shape, with long, black hair, a shadow of a woman, clinging to him as they tumbled together into the icy deep.
1. Polar Bear
*featured image photo credit: DALL⋅E 2