Nadja doesn’t make it. I turn at the steps of the bunker and watch as the artillery shell lands on the shattered street between us. I hold our daughter and watch my wife smolder in the crater, deaf to the thudding concussions around us. Someone grabs Inna from my arms, thrusts cold gloved fingers in the neck of my jacket, and pulls me back into the black throat of the small shelter. I see my last glimpse of Leningrad’s cracked and wounded skyline, and then it goes black. The door slams shut, screeching steel and spinning locks clattering in rhythm with gun fire. I finally find the voice to scream Nadja’s name.
Inna is crying in the dark, cradled by the last of Svetlana’s daughters in the small entry way. I suddenly find I have no knees and I am on the floor with a hot choking hand around my throat. Boris and Grigory slide away from me in the darkness, I can hear them averting their gaze, necks scratching against thick coats as they twist away from me. I thrust my tears into my gullet and gag, retching and heaving up the thin watery remains of my last meal. Inna needs me, and I need strength.
The rosy cheeked boy that led our last charge, all ill fitting uniform and tilting helmet, doesn’t have the grace to leave me be, and puts one soft hand on my back. I shrug him off, and stumble to my feet. In the slowly seeping light of his oil lantern, I see his face and his fear, and I look away. He backs away from us, turning down the long dark featureless tunnel ahead. Turning back, he surveys the dozen survivors before him, shivering and broken. The short run from the grand ballroom has taken its toll on our weakened bodies. The last of the ratty birds in the hotel’s eaves had been caught a week ago; a chorus of hollow sunken eyes now stare back at the trembling child clutching a rifle.
There are two distant impacts that shake the concrete walls, dry showers of dust drift in the hazy light. The soldier looks to the roof in the ensuing silence, and then he looks at us with a determined, frightened, grin, like he might speak. There will be power, he will say. There will be food. There will be guns. Inna and I will live.
The third impact is a hammer in my chest and blinding light flares down the tunnel. The expanding sphere of light and fire sends a blast of rocks and bent iron rods down the tunnel. The lantern is smashed by a fist sized lump of concrete, plunging us into darkness, but not before we all watch the young man break apart under the streaking rain of stones.
There is a long ringing silence, the blackness around me throbs in time with my pain as I drag myself across the small room towards Inna, whose desperate screams slowly penetrate the fog. Svetlana’s girl, her name forgotten now, is dead, but Inna is unblemished, only filthy and terrified. I swoop her into my arms.
I can hear Grigory now, screaming Svetlana’s name. Boris is sobbing, a thin wailing sound that seems to come from every side, from the walls. Inna is limp and still in my arms, shallow breaths coming quickly. I tune out her little gasps and pick out the voices and breath around me.
Svetlana and her daughter are gone. The soldier is dead. Boris is dying. I can hear a trio of other voices in the dark. Anya, still dressed in sodden nurse’s whites, Grigory whispering goodbye in Svetlana’s cold ear, and little Mikhail, his breath even and still.
The other refugees are dead, I know. Some, my neighbors for years, some having only just joined our convoy on it’s half kilometer flight from the approaching German line. All are bleeding in silence on the floor, their breath stilled
Inna tucked beneath one arm, I feel out my way across the wet floor towards Boris’s fading cry. I feel across his chest, hand feeling the warmth of the wound, a great gaping indentation. I grip his hand. He is twitching now, limbs spasming and stretching away from the dying body.
“Borya,” I whisper in the darkness. “Borya, be still.”
Boris gasps once, and for once, my brother takes my advice. I hear the last sigh of his breath a moment later.
Grigory will not leave Svetlana and his girl. While the butcher weeps over his family, Anya and I grope blindly down the tunnel in search of light, food, help. Inna and her cousin, Mikhail, hold hands and whisper in the gloom, and I keep the sound of their little voices in range as Anya and I chart the surroundings by touch.
A long, thin hallway, a low roof. Bare bulbs in metal cages. No light switches, no doors. There is a gaping crumbled hole in one wall a dozen meters down, the shattered rock still warm. The buildings above have collapsed, filling the shell’s entry hole and blotting out the light. There is a cold, damp breeze drifting from the hole, but no floor can be felt on the other side, no sense of size or scale, just emptiness and a quiet breeze. We continue, tripping over the rubble for another 50 meters. Nothing. There is no telling how far the hallway goes. We turn and retrace our steps in silence.
We cannot go back the way we came, of course, even if the metal door were not bent and jammed against the hinges. The echo of artillery and gunfire continue. Once for a brief moment, we hear the footsteps and barking orders of the Hun. When they pass, the concussions die away, and we are alone in the silent dark, with our dead friends.
Grigory and I carefully take each body and stack them in one corner in a neat pile. This is familiar work. At last, we lay flat against the floor, drained by the day and surrendering to the night. Inna is curled tight against my side, and Mikhail on the other. We sleep heavily, sinking into thick fog.
I wake to strange sounds, a ripping sound, like wet sheets being torn. I drift to wakefulness, panicking momentarily at the forgotten darkness. As I rise to stand, something moves, its passage through the air swift and nearly silent. I can hear soft padded feet galloping down the hall. My heart is frozen and I stay perfectly still.
After long hanging moments of silence, I cross the room on all fours. The neat stack of bodies is toppled, and there are new and ragged tears across the thighs and chests of the first of them.
I wait for the others to awake, and decide to tell them nothing. I dreamt the thing in the dark, the bodies scattered. That’s the only solution. A vivid dream born of trauma and exhaustion. I could check the bodies to prove it, but I don’t need to, I tell myself.
When they are at last awake, we start down the hallway in a chain, one hand on the shoulder of the person in front. I lead us past the gaping hole, still breathing cool and wet. Anya and I drag a hand across each wall. We make a torturous slow pace on Grigory’s badly wounded leg; he has hidden it from us until now, like the fool that he is.
As the hallway stretches on, we encounter only locked doors. Hundreds of locked doors, evenly spaced and inscrutable. When we reach the end, it comes as an undignified and simple wall. Anya starts to weep a little, and Grigory curses before sliding roughly to the floor. Mikhail and Inna are silent; I imagine their little eyes hollow and glazed now, no longer able to accept the unending madness.
“Well?” I inquire. “Where now?”
Grigory laughs, a familiar and joyous sound. We have no food, no water, no weapons. We were already dying, starving, before we made our desperate flee from the advance of the Hun, and we quicken the process it with every breath. We are trapped in the dark, alone, entombed. And still he finds it in himself to laugh. I love him like my brother at that moment.
There is little to do, the effort to speak seems so pointless. I squeeze Inna’s hand and she presses against me.
Sleep comes quickly in the stretching dark, and none of us are awake to hear it take Anya and Mikhail.
I come awake to their groggy shouts of confusion and the heavy sliding fabric of bodies on the concrete floor. Behind these sounds, a familiar soft padding footstep turns my blood to ice. By the time I am on my feet, only the high waver of Anya’s voice can be heard. I shake Grigory awake, taking handfuls of his filthy coat collar.
“Grigory,” I bark. “Take Inna’s hand…”
He is nodding, I can feel the coat tugging against my grip with his assent. I lay my daughter’s soft pudgy hand into his, and move away from them, tracking only the fading echoes of Anya’s screams.
I move, hand over hand, down the wall, counting cold metal doors as I go. By the time I lose count, I have reached the gaping artillery hole. The cool draft brings the hair on my neck to attention, and curdles my blood. I hear nothing but the echoing swirl of the wind from below. I feel my way around the edge, arm dangling in the yawning emptiness. The edge is slick, and wet, and even as I smell the blood, I think how dry and parched I am. The thought is pursued by a shiver of revulsion. It takes me a very short while to admit to myself that I have no intention of going in the hole, and I find my breath again.
At the entrance, the stack of bodies is scattered into a field of broken and marrowless bones that crack dryly underfoot. The door remains useless, mangled and twisted. I think of Inna, waking in the dark without me, and I turn back.
But it’s in the hallway ahead of me.
I hear the padding feet and a tiny drum roll of clicking nails as it emerges, slinking in near silence from the sighing hole.
It’s moving away from me. This comes to me in a wave, and hits me like a physical blow.
It’s moving towards Inna.
I have cleared the field of bones before I have time to be afraid. I trust my memory and leap over the debris from the explosion, toes cracking painfully into loose slabs of rock, spilling forward and tumbling. I am running now, sprinting in pursuit with my lungs burning and my wasting muscles screaming. It moves effortlessly ahead and away from me in the darkness, and I carom off the walls, scraping flesh from my forearms and hands.
Inna is screaming in the distance, Grigory is barking broken and ragged curses. Their cries make points on the map in my mind, and I surge forward in one last push of my crumbling body.
When I am close, when I hear the thing biting deep from Grigory’s neck, hot lifeblood coursing to the black floor, I turn my shoulder and tense for the impact. I throw myself forward, colliding with the hunter in the dark just as it stands to meet me.
It is cold and naked, its skin like marble, bones and angles sharp as knives. It squeals and hisses with the impact and I struggle to throw my arms tightly around it. Thin, powerful limbs thrash like snakes beneath me, but I burn my body to squeeze tighter, and drag it to floor.
It kicks and squeals, a sound like a rabid animal. I reach my hand up up to it’s hairless throat and squeeze. It jerks and seizes, whip thin muscled limbs battering my body and crushing ribs, and it snaps it’s jaws at my hand, but I hold fast.
The throat makes a cracking noise, like a cascade of little pops, and I dig in my fingernails and tear.
It spasms now, blindly flailing for me in the darkness as its ruined throat leaks onto the floor. I collapse as one knobby limb strikes me and I crash to the floor. My body is slowly winding to a stop, and I can do nothing but listen to the thing make pitiful noises as it shudders and dies.
Inna is at my side now, little hands digging into my shirt and shaking in the dark. I hold her tight to me, feeling her protruding ribs and spine. I slide my sore and bruised body across the floor to the thing, ignoring the burning protestations in my limbs and back.
I trace my hands across the corpse, slowly sketching the picture of a what could only be a man. Small, compact and powerful, his cold and hairless skin cover tightly coiled muscles. His joints are hard and bony, his limbs seem just a little too long. His face is a pinched mask of rage, but unmistakably, human. In his mouth, his teeth are filed sharp.
Beside me, Inna has joined me, and she traces her small hands across the thing’s face. I don’t have the strength or the will to stop her. She pulls her hand back in shock at the sharp little teeth. I can hear her opening and closing her mouth, working out the words.
“Papa,” she asks at last, her voice a thin dry reed. “Is this a German?”
I grab her to me, and laugh bitterly until I realize that I’m simply crying.
We sob together, in the gloom, and I try to blot out the approaching sound of soft padding feet, and gentle little clicks.