The Beast in the Red Forest(2)
Author:Sam Eastland


    That was when Hudzik realised that it was time to pay a visit to the graves of Misovichi.

    On a cold, clear morning in February of 1944, Hudzik’s column halted twenty kilometres east of Rovno, only an hour’s walk from Misovichi.

    Knowing that it would be several hours before his absence was noticed, Hudzik slipped away, carrying his rifle and a shovel.

    The mass grave was not difficult to find. It stood nestled in a grove of willow trees, only a stone’s throw from the road.

    After locating the site, Hudzik propped the gun against a tree, hung his coat upon a broken branch, took up the shovel and began to dig. Under the snow was a layer of hard frozen ground about a hand’s length deep. He almost broke his shovel blade getting through it, but beneath that layer of ice-clogged dirt the ground was only crystallised with frost and cleaved away with much less effort.

    The bodies lay close to the surface. No coffins had been used. Some of the skeletons wore clothing, but most were only wrapped in bed sheets. The dead had been stacked so deeply that even when the hole Hudzik had dug came up to his chest, there still seemed to be more layers below.

    His first hour’s digging earned him more than twenty golden teeth, which he wiggled loose from the jaws and placed in a small leather bag around his neck normally reserved for loose tobacco. He marvelled at how much precious metal had been hammered into the mouths of those same people whose claims of poverty, when it came time to pay their bills, he had silently learned to despise.

    As he stared into the dirt-filled eye sockets, twisting them from side to side while he searched for the glint of metal, the faces of those men and women he had known in Misovichi passed before his eyes with the flickering uncertainty of an old film tripping off its spool.

    Steam rose from the sweat on Hudzik’s back as he cast aside ribs and shoulder blades and pelvises still scabbed with cartilage. The musty smell of the bones hung in the air around him.

    Once, he stopped his digging and listened, in case anyone might be coming. But there was only the harmless droning of a plane high above the clouds. Hudzik had spent most of his life in these forests and he had always been able to sense, more than hear, when something wasn’t right. Nobody could catch him by surprise. Not in this place.

    Hudzik went back to work, widening the hole in which he stood. All around him, the white sticks of bones jutted from the dirt and he chipped them away with the blade of his shovel.

    Suddenly he stopped and raised his head.

    Somebody was out there.

    Cautiously, Hudzik set aside the shovel and glanced towards his rifle, still leaning against a tree at the edge of the grave site. He looked around, but saw no one. Neither could he hear anything out of the ordinary; just the wind in the tops of the trees and the breath rustling from his lungs. Just when Hudzik had almost convinced himself that his mind was playing tricks on him, he saw a figure coming down the middle of the road from the direction of Misovichi.

    Hudzik was baffled. No one lived in Misovichi. No one even used this road any more. It crossed his mind that maybe he was looking at a ghost.

    The stranger was a civilian, a short-brimmed soft cap tilted back on his head, revealing a clean-shaven face. He was dressed in a short brown canvas coat with two large patch pockets at the hip and a double row of buttons down the chest. The coat was undone and, underneath, he wore a leather belt and a holster. Slung over one shoulder was a canvas bag with leather straps whose contents, judging from the way the man carried it, appeared to be quite heavy.

    Although the man was clearly young, all youth had been purged from his eyes, replaced by a long-staring blankness in which Hudzik recognised the lurking nightmares of all that this man had endured.

    Probably a partisan, thought Hudzik. There were many of them in this region and it wasn’t always easy to tell which side they were fighting for.

    Hudzik ducked down, anticipating that this man must be at the lead of a patrol. To his surprise, however, nobody else appeared. The man was entirely on his own and seemingly oblivious to everything around him.

    What is he doing here, wondered Hudzik. People from the forest never walk in the middle of the road like that, as if afraid of the wilderness which surrounds them. They keep to the shadows at the side, knowing that the wilderness protects them. How can a man so alone be so confident? It made him nervous that he couldn’t find the answer.

    Standing absolutely still as the man walked by no more than twenty paces away, Hudzik felt a surge of confidence that he might indeed go unnoticed.

    Then, just as the stranger drew level with Hudzik, he suddenly stopped and turned.

    In that moment, Hudzik realised that the man had known about him all along. Standing up to his chest in the hole, with skulls and rib bones and the crooked dice of vertebrae strewn all around him, Hudzik knew that there could be no words to talk his way out of the trap he had made for himself. The blood seemed to drain from his heart. Once more, he glanced at his rifle, leaning against the tree.

    The stranger followed his gaze.

    Hudzik waited, knowing that he would never get to his weapon before the man drew his gun. All he could do was wait there helplessly, while the man decided what to do.

    Slowly, without a word, the stranger turned away and continued on down the road. He soon passed out of sight.

    Only when the sound of footsteps had faded from his ears did Hudzik begin to feel safe again. His shoulders slumped as he breathed out, leaning heavily upon his shovel, as if the strength had been sapped from his veins. Hudzik wondered if he should go back. Will this be enough, he asked himself, as he clenched the leather bag around his neck? Maybe just a little while longer. A little more gold. What good is it doing them now? And then I will leave them in peace and never come back. Never. Almost certainly never.

    Hudzik returned to his digging and was pleased to find that the next skull he turfed up had been fitted with two golden teeth. With a grunt of satisfaction he twisted them out, the sound like a stalk of celery being snapped in half, and slipped them into the leather bag.

    It was then that he heard, directly behind him, the faint rustle of somebody drawing in breath. Terrified, he froze. ‘Who’s there?’ he whispered, too afraid to look.

    There was no reply, but Hudzik could still hear the breathing.

    Slowly Hudzik turned, shielding his face with the blade of the shovel, and found himself looking at the stranger.

    The man stood at the edge of the hole, a pistol in his hand, its barrel pointed squarely at Hudzik’s face.

    ‘Did you find what you were looking for?’ asked the stranger.

    Slowly, Hudzik peered from behind the shovel. ‘Yes!’ he answered hoarsely, seizing on the shred of hope that he might be able to buy his way out of this predicament. ‘There’s plenty for both of us.’ In spite of his terror, he managed to bare his teeth in a smile. ‘Plenty,’ he said again.

    With a dull clang, a bullet punctured the rusty metal, passed through Hudzik’s right eye and smashed through the back of his head.

    For a moment, the man stared at Hudzik, lying at the bottom of the hole. Then he hauled out the body, stripped off Hudzik’s uniform and put it on himself. He rolled the paunchy white corpse back into the hole, tossed in the rifle, his own clothes and the shovel, before kicking the dirt back into the hole until no trace of the farrier remained.

    Carefully, he brushed the dirt from his sleeves, retraced his footsteps out of the graveyard and kept on walking down the middle of the road.





    Moscow

    The Kremlin




    Major Kirov stood at attention, his gaze fixed upon the blood-red wall behind the desk of Joseph Stalin.

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