The dogs had gone feral. They roamed the countryside in packs, their claws grown long, their fur thick and unbrushed and tangled with thistles. When the soldiers began marching at dawn, Leksi counted each dog he spotted, a game to help the time pass. He quit after forty. They were everywhere: crouched and watchful in the snow; racing through the shadows of the towering pines; following the soldiers, sniffing their boot prints, hoping for scraps.
The dogs unnerved Leksi. From time to time he would turn, point at the closest ones, and whisper, “Stay.” They would stare up at him, unblinking. There was something strangely undomestic about their eyes. These dogs lacked the wheedling complicity of their tamed brothers; they were free of the household commandments: Do not shit in the kitchen. Do not bite people. A silver-haired bitch still wore a purple collar, and Leksi imagined that the other dogs mocked her for this badge of servility.
Of the three soldiers, Leksi, at eighteen, was the youngest. They marched in single file with ten-meter intervals between men, Leksi in the rear, Nikolai in the middle, Surkhov in front. They wore their gray-and-white winter fatigues, parkas draped over their bulky packs to keep everything dry in case of snowfall. We look like old hunchbacks, thought Leksi. His rifle strap kept slipping off his shoulder, so he ended up holding the gun in his gloved hands. He still wasn’t used to the rifle. It never seemed heavy when he picked it up in the morning, but by noon, when he was sweating through his undershirt despite the cold, his arms ached from the burden.
Leksi, along with all of his school friends, had eagerly anticipated enlistment. From the age of fourteen on, every girl in his class had been mad for the soldiers. Soldiers carried guns, wore uniforms, drove military vehicles. Their high black boots gleamed when they crossed their legs in the outdoor cafés. If you were eighteen and you weren’t a soldier, you were a woman; if you were neither soldier nor woman, you were a cripple. Leksi had not been back to his hometown since enlisting. He wondered when he’d get to cross his legs at an outdoor café and raise his glass to the giggling girls.
Instead he had this: snow, snow, more snow, snow. It all looked the same to Leksi, and it was endless. He never paid attention to where they were going; he just followed the older soldiers. If he were ever to look up and find them gone, Leksi would be lost in the wilderness, without any hope of finding his way out. He could not understand why anyone would want to live here, let alone fight for the place.
He had first seen the Chechen highlands a month before, when the convoy carrying his infantry division across the central Caucasus stopped at the peak of the Darial Pass so that the men could relieve themselves. The soldiers stood in a long line by the side of the road, jumping up and down like madmen, pissing into the wind, hollering threats and curses at their hidden enemies in the vast snowy distance.
He had been cold that afternoon, he had been cold every morning and night since then, he was cold now. He was so cold his teeth were cold. If he breathed through his mouth, his throat hurt; if he breathed through his nose, his head hurt. But he was the youngest, and he was a soldier, so he never complained.
Surkhov and Nikolai, on the other hand, never stopped complaining. They shouted to each other throughout the morning, back and forth. Leksi knew that armed guerrillas lurked in these hills; he heard they were paid a bounty for each enemy they brought to their chief, the vor v zakone, the “thief-in-power.” The bodies of Russian soldiers were sometimes found crucified on telephone poles, their genitalia stuffed into their mouths. Their severed heads were left on the doorsteps of ethnic Russians in Grozny and Vladikavkaz. Leksi couldn’t understand why Surkhov and Nikolai were so recklessly loud, but they had been soldiers for years. Both had seen extensive combat. Leksi didn’t question them.
“Put Khlebnikov in charge,” Surkhov was saying now, “and he’d clean this place up in two weeks. There’s twelve pigfuckers here that tell all the other pigfuckers what to do. You put Khlebnikov in charge, he’d get the twelve, ping ping ping.” Surkhov made a gun with his thumb and forefinger and fired at the invisible twelve. He wasn’t wearing gloves. Neither was Nikolai. Leksi got colder just looking at their bare red hands.
Surkhov was skinny but tireless. He could tramp through deep snow for hours without break, bitching and singing the whole way. His face seemed asymmetrical, one eye slightly higher than the other. It made him look perpetually skeptical. His shaggy brown hair spilled out from below his white watch cap. The caps were reversible- black on the inside for nighttime maneuvers. Leksi, whose head was still shaved to regulation specifications, felt vulnerable without his helmet, which he had left behind after Surkhov and Nikolai kept throwing pebbles at it. None of the older soldiers wore helmets. Helmets were considered unmanly, like seatbelts, fit only for UN observers and French journalists.
Nikolai’s hair was even longer than Surkhov’s. Nikolai looked like an American movie star, strong-boned and blue-eyed, until he opened his mouth, which was jumbled with crooked teeth. If the teeth bothered him, it didn’t show—he was constantly flashing his snaggle-toothed smile, as if daring people to point out the gaps. Nobody ever did.
“They’ll never bring Khlebnikov here,” said Nikolai. “You’re always talking Khlebnikov this, Khlebnikov that, so what? Never. Khlebnikov is a tank. They don’t want tanks here. This...” and here Nikolai gestured at himself and Surkhov, their march, ignoring Leksi, “this is not relevant. This is a game. You want to know the truth? Moscow is happier if we die. If we die, all the newspapers rant about it, the politicians get on TV and rant about it, and then, maybe, they begin to fight for real.”
Whenever Nikolai or Surkhov said the word Moscow it sounded profane. Actual curses rolled from their tongues, free and easy, but to Moscow they added the venom of a true malediction. Most of the older soldiers spoke the same way, and the intensity of their emotion surprised Leksi. Nikolai and Surkhov took almost nothing seriously. Surkhov would read aloud the letters he got from his girlfriend, affecting a high-pitched, quavering voice—“I long for you, darling, I wake in the morning and already long for you”—and then he and Nikolai would burst into laughter. One night Nikolai described his father’s long, excruciating death from bone cancer, and then shrugged, sipping from a mug of coffee spiked with vodka. “Well, he outlived his welcome.”
A week ago they had been marching down an unpaved road. They walked in the tracks of an armored personnel carrier because the grooved and flattened snow gave better traction. Coming across a skinny dead dog, Surkhov dragged it by its front paws into the center of the road. Blackbirds had pecked out the eyes and testes. Surkhov, one hand on the back of its neck, lifted the dog’s frozen corpse onto its hind legs and used it as a ventriloquist’s dummy to sing the Rolling Stones: “I can’t get no sa-tis-fac-tion, I can’t get no sa-tis-fac-tion, I have tried, I have tried, I have tried, I have tried, I can’t get me no...”
Nikolai had laughed, bent over at the waist, hands on his knees, laughing until the blackbirds circling overhead winged away. Leksi had smiled, because it would be rude not to smile, but he could not look away from the dog’s eyeless face. Someone had shot it in the forehead; the bullet hole was round as a coin. One of the soldiers from the APC, taking target practice.
Leksi was deeply superstitious. His grandmother had taught him that the world was full of animals and that the animals all knew each other. There were secret conferences in the wild where the affairs of each beast were discussed and argued. A boy in his school had pegged a pigeon with a slingshot, killing it instantly. A year later the boy’s older sister died in a car accident. Leksi did not believe it was an accident; he was sure the other birds had conspired and gained their revenge.
Leksi looked up from the snow and realized that he had fallen far behind Nikolai. He rushed forward, nearly tripping. Carrying the rifle disrupted his balance. When he was again ten meters behind the older soldier, he stopped and nodded, but Nikolai summoned him forward with curling fingers. Surkhov squatted down and observed them from his position, grinning.
“Who’s watching my back?” asked Nikolai, when Leksi approached him.
“Me. I’m sorry.”
“No, again, who’s watching my back?”
Nikolai shook his head and looked at Surkhov for a moment, who shrugged. “Nobody’s watching my back,” said Nikolai. “You’re watching the snow, you’re watching the dogs, you’re watching the sky. So, OK, you are an artist, I think. You are composing a painting, maybe, in your head. I appreciate this. But then tell me, if you are making this painting, who is watching my back?”
“Ah. This is a problem. You see, I am watching Surkhov’s back. Nobody can attack Surkhov from behind, because I would protect him. But who protects me? While you paint this masterpiece, who protects me?”
“I will not die in this shit land, Aleksandr. You understand? I refuse to die here. You guard me, I guard Surkhov, we all live another day. You see?”
“Watch my back.”
Only after they began marching again, after Surkhov and Nikolai began singing Beatles songs, replacing the original lyrics with obscene variations, did Leksi wonder who was watching his own back.
The three soldiers stopped less than a kilometer downhill of the mansion, at the edge of a dense copse of pines. A high wall of mortared stones surrounded the property; only the shingled roof and chimneys were visible from the soldiers’ vantage point. A long field of snow lay between them and the house. The shadows of the tall trees stretched up the field in the last minutes of sunlight.
Surkhov took the binoculars back from Leksi and stared through them. “They can watch the entire valley from there. No smoke from the chimneys. But they know we’d be looking for smoke.”
Nikolai had pulled a plastic bag of tobacco and papers from Surkhov’s pack; he leaned against a tree trunk now and rolled a cigarette. Leksi could roll a decent number if he were warm and indoors, sitting down, the paper flat on a tabletop. He was always amazed that Nikolai could roll them anywhere, in less than a minute, never dropping a flake of tobacco, no matter the wind or the darkness. Nikolai could roll a cigarette while driving a car over a dirt road and singing along with the radio.
He gripped the finished product between his lips while returning the plastic bag to Surkhov’s pack. Leksi lit it for him and Nikolai inhaled hungrily, his stubbled cheeks caving in. He released the smoke and passed the cigarette to Leksi.
“Intelligence said no lights in the house the last three nights,” said Nikolai.
Surkhov spat. “Intelligence couldn’t find my cock if it was halfway up their ass. Fuck them and their patron saints. Aleshkovsky told me some of them flew a copter to Pitsunda last weekend, for the whores. We’re down here freezing our balls off and they go whoring.”
“So,” said Nikolai, “they send three men. The way they see it, (a) the place is empty, we take it, fine, we have a good observation post for the valley; (b) half the terrorist army is in there, we’re dead, fine. All at once, we are relevant. We are martyrs. The real fighting begins.”
“I don’t want to be relevant,” said Leksi, handing the cigarette to Surkhov. The older soldiers looked at him quizzically for a moment and then laughed. It took Leksi a second to realize they were laughing with him, not at him.
“No,” said Nikolai, clapping him on the back. “Neither do I.”
After nightfall they unrolled their sleeping bags and slept in turns, one man always keeping watch. Leksi pulled the first shift but could not sleep after Nikolai relieved him. Every few minutes, a dog would howl and then his brothers would answer, until the hills echoed with lonely dogs calling for each other. An owl screeched from a perch nearby. Leksi lay in his bag and stared up through the pine branches. A half-moon lit the sky and he watched the silhouetted clouds drift in and out of sight. He lay with his knees pressed against his chest for warmth and flinched every time the wind blew a stray pine needle against his cheek. He listened to Nikolai puffing on another hand-rolled cigarette and to Surkhov grinding his teeth in his sleep.
In a few hours he might be fighting for a house he had never seen before tonight, against men he had never met. He hadn’t insulted anyone or fucked anyone’s girlfriend, he hadn’t stolen any money or crashed into anyone’s car, and yet these men, if they were here, would try to kill him. It seemed very bizarre to Leksi. Strangers wanted to kill him. They didn’t even know him, but they wanted to kill him. As if everything he had done was completely immaterial, everything he held in his mind: the girls he had kissed; the hunting trips with his father; the cow he had drawn for his mother when he was seven, still hanging in a frame on her bedroom wall; or the time he got caught sneaking glances over Katya Zubritskaya’s shoulder during a geometry test and old Lukonin had made him stand up right there and repeat, louder and louder, while the students laughed and pounded their desks: I am Aleksandr Strelchenko and I am a cheat, and not even a good cheat. These memories were Aleksandr Strelchenko, and so what? None of it mattered. None of it was real except here, now, the snow, the soldiers beside him, the house on the hilltop. Why did they need the house? To observe the valley. What was there to observe? Trees and snow and wild dogs, the Caucasus Mountains looming in the distance. Leksi curled up inside his sleeping bag and pictured his severed head resting on a Grozny doorstep, his eyes the eyes of a dead fish on its bed of ice.
At 3 a.m. they climbed the hill. They left their packs behind, wrapped tightly in waterproof tarps and buried below the snow, marked with broken twigs and pinecones. The moon was bright enough to make flashlights unnecessary. Surkhov and Nikolai seemed like different people now; since waking they had barely spoken. They had blackened each other’s faces and then Leksi’s, pocketed their watches, reversed their caps.
They reached the stone wall and circled around to the back gate. If there were any guard dogs, they would have already begun barking. That was a good sign. They found the gate unlocked, swinging back and forth in the wind, creaking. That was another good sign. They crept onto the property. The grounds were sprawling and unkempt. A white gazebo stood by an old well; the gazebo’s roof sagged from the weight of the snow.
The house’s large windows were trimmed in copper. No lights were on. The soldiers took positions by hand signal: Surkhov approached the back door while Nikolai and Leksi lay on their stomachs and aimed their rifles past him. Surkhov looked at them for a moment, shrugged, and turned the knob. The door opened.
Nobody was home. They attached their flashlights to their rifle barrels and split up to check both floors and the cellar, slowly, slowly, looking for the silver gleam of a trip wire, the matte gray of a pancake mine. They searched under the beds, in the closets, the shower stalls, the wine racks in the cellar, the modern toilet’s water tank. When Leksi opened the refrigerator he gasped. The light came on.
“Electricity,” he whispered. He couldn’t believe it. He walked over to the light switch and flicked it up. The kitchen shined, the yellow tiled floor, the wood counters, the big black stove. Surkhov hurried in, his boots thundering on the tiles. He turned off the light and slapped Leksi in the face.
“Idiot,” he said.
When the search was completed, Nikolai radioed their base. He listened to instructions for a moment, nodded impatiently, signed off, and looked up at the other two, who were gathered around him in the library. “So now we sit here and wait.”
The walls were bookshelves, crowded with more books than they were meant to hold, vertical stacks of books on top of horizontal rows of books. Books were piled in corners, books lay scattered on the leather sofa, books leaned precariously on the marble fireplace mantle.
Leksi’s face was still flushed from embarrassment. He knew that he had deserved the slap, that he had acted stupidly, but he was furious anyway. He imagined that Surkhov slapped his girlfriends that way if he caught them stealing money, and it burned Leksi to be treated with such disrespect, as if he were unworthy of a punch.
Nikolai watched him. “Look,” he said, “you understand why Surkhov was angry?”
“Did you check the refrigerator before you opened it?” asked Nikolai. “Did you check to see if it was wired? And then you turn on the lights! Now everyone in the valley knows we are here. You need to pay attention. You never pay attention and it’s going to get you killed, which is fine, but it’s going to get us killed also, which is not fine.”
Surkhov smiled. “Tell me you’re sorry, Leksi, and I’ll apologize too. Come on. Give me your hand.”
Leksi was unable to hold grudges. He extended his hand and said, “I’m sorry.”
“Fool,” said Surkhov, ignoring Leksi’s hand. He and Nikolai laughed and walked out of the library.
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