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Around the Campfire

When he saw the empty, baitless trap, Nikolai figured he must have poorly knotted his snare. Then he noticed the bootprints. He sighed, his breath billowing out in a foggy cloud that quickly dissipated into wispy, swirling tendrils.

Had someone from the village poached his rabbit? Maybe the partisans were helping themselves again. Either way, Mama and Suzan would be disappointed.

A branch snapped deep in the darkening woods. Nikolai’s hand went instinctively to the bolt-action rifle slung over his shoulder. He hadn’t fired it in years - not since he’d killed the stag - but his father had taught him the importance of keeping it clean, so he knew it as well as any tool on the family’s farm.

Its familiar weight was reassuring in the depths of the gloaming forest. Nikolai hadn’t always needed to travel so far out from their small farm to set traps, but the Germans’ advance had scared off everything except marmots and hares, and he still had to compete with the foxes for those.

A few weeks earlier, he’d found the gnarled remains of a fox’s paw in one of his snares.

“Now we don’t have to worry about our chickens,” his mother had proclaimed when he’d told her. Nikolai started to ask what would keep their chickens safe from the Nazis, but his mother held up a finger. “They’re much too quick for a three-legged fox,” she added, winking at Suzan.

Nikolai’s little sister squealed and clapped at the thought. She darted outside, chasing the squawking birds in a rough victory lap around the yard, and made such a racket that Mr. Rosenthal had peeked out from the cellar, crowbar clutched in his shaky hands.

Nikolai couldn’t help but smile at the memory. Suzan always made the war seem like some distant thing, not at all like the ravenous monster that had stormed into town, swallowed up the Minkowskis and Kronenbergs, and left his father hanging from a lamppost with the other suspected agitators.

The sound of a creaking rope reached Nikolai’s ears. He spun, glancing at the tops of the birch trees that clawed at the charcoal sky above, but he was alone in the forest. He wrestled his fear back into a far corner of his belly. There was one last trap to check: the one furthest from their farm. If he dawdled, he would face a treacherous journey home in the dark. He bounded through the pines, pretending he was a mighty buck carrying his mother and sister far away from the Germans.

The smell of smoke shattered his fantasy. Nikolai slid to a halt and followed the scent to the base of a small hill. Dropping to his belly in the wet snow, he crawled forward, pushing aside a frost-laden branch at the knoll’s apex. When he looked into the clearing below, his throat went dry.

Two men were huddled over an anemic campfire. Spit-roasting between them was the rabbit that should have been in Nikolai’s trap, but the boy's eyes were fixed on the twin lightning bolt emblems adorning their uniforms. They flashed blood red in the flickering flames.

Nikolai thought of how Mama wailed when the lightning-bolt men arrested Father, how spittle flew from his old man’s mouth as he screamed for Nikolai to take care of Mama and Suzan. When Nikolai started after the men, begging them to let his father go, a Nazi officer brought the butt of his sidearm down on the boy’s temple.

The man turning the spit said something to the other soldier, and both men started laughing. Nikolai’s hand went to the rifle slung across his back. His first thought was to kill the men for what they’d done to his father, but he knew it wouldn’t bring him back. If anything, it might make things worse: retribution would be swift and severe if another patrol found the bodies.

Then again, the Germans were handing out punishments for almost everything lately. Plus, if he covered the bodies with snow, they might not be found for days - weeks, if he was lucky. Maybe they wouldn’t even be missed. People spoke in harsh whispers of liberation at Bryansk and Smolensk, and it seemed as if more Germans deserted every day.

Another branch snapped somewhere out in the woods. Both men stopped laughing and reached for their weapons, the rabbit forgotten. As their gaze swept over the treeline, Nikolai saw fear in their hard little eyes. Fear and hunger, he knew, turned men into beasts.

The realization hit Nikolai like a rock to the skull. The Germans had already come across his traps: it would not be long before they remembered the little farm just outside town and came back around. This time, they’d find more than chickens - and that would be that.

Nikolai stiffened at the crunch of footsteps in the snow behind him. He glanced over his shoulder, expecting to find himself face-to-face with a rifle barrel, but no one was there. When he turned back to face the clearing, it was empty except for a stag nosing through the undergrowth.

“A fourteen-pointer,” came his father’s raspy whisper from beside him. “He is yours, my boy. Aim for the heart.”

Nikolai unslung the rifle, moving at a glacial pace. His heart was racing; the saliva was thick in his mouth.

“Deep breaths,” the old man whispered. “Take your time.”

Nikolai did as instructed, holding his breath for a moment before exhaling into the crease of his elbow. He could leave nothing to chance. The smallest detail, like a puff of fog leaving a birch thicket, might give his position away.

He worked the bolt, chambering a round, then raised the rifle and put the reticle right over the stag’s heart. The young boy pulled in another deep breath, then exhaled softly, blinking away the snowflakes gathering on his eyelashes.

He squeezed the trigger.

The round burst through the stag’s chest, spattering the snow behind it with blood. The buck stumbled from the force of the shot, then slumped over. Steam billowed from the gaping wound as heat escaped its dying body.

Nikolai worked the bolt again. The rifle’s well-oiled mechanism spat out the smoking cartridge, and a new one clicked into place. He blinked snowflakes from his eyes once more and saw the other lightning-bolt man, his eyes wild, waving his machine gun back and forth across the treeline, babbling something in German.

Nikolai placed the reticle over a medal on the man’s chest, right where the heart ought to be, and squeezed the trigger again.

Back at the farm, Suzan looked up from her chickens. The little girl could have sworn she heard two brittle birch branches snap deep in the woods, and wondered if the three-legged fox had gotten himself into another trap.



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