In the Russian Taiga, the forests west of Moscow, there are places where compasses do not work. Where there is so much lead in the trees, so many bullets hidden by wood and moss and mulch, that compasses cannot see their way and will swing and swither, fooled by mementoes of a war that has become its own synonym for horror, hardship, death.
I lived in those forests, for a time, and it was a wrenching thing to stand surrounded by trees and the hum of flies, bird calls above me and above them, sunshine. To stand there, watching a needle move restlessly, and know that men died where I now stood. That boys died. That they died painfully and frozen, full of fear and far from home. Even the Russian boys were far from home, there.
I did not see their ghosts, or even, in mid-summer, the ghost of the forest they had died in. But I trailed my fingers across tree bark feeling for healed bullet wounds, I kept my footsteps as light as I could manage so that those boys were not bruised by my passing, and I watched my compass. I watched the needle swing and knew that the forest was remembering them. The trees were their memorial, those dead thousands, beneath my feet and invisible.
They were not its only dead, those soldiers. This forest that spans a continent and the centuries has seen murder. It has been murder.
I had commented on the biting flies. Mosquitoes, midges, a dozen types of horsefly from the size of blue-bottles to a hornet-like beast whose bite left bruises an inch across. They are a relentless torture in mid-summer, and I think I used that word. Torture. I’d be ashamed of that, later. Our boss taught us how to wrap bindings up our legs that buffered our skin from the worst of it, to cover our faces coyly with netting so that only the midges could crawl into our eyes. And when I said what I did, one evening, with the sky slipping towards indigo above us and an eagle owl calling somewhere in the darkness, Dmitry, I’ll call him that although it was not his name, agreed. Yes, he said. That is what they are.
The death of a thousand bites, he said. It was how they executed Gulag prisoners, under Stalin, although somehow I doubt he was the first to think of it, or even the last to do it. I cannot remember if we said anything then, but Dmitry carried on anyway. Tied to a tree and left there to let the insects mete out judgement. They died when the bites in their throat suffocated them.
I was warier of the flies after that, and also more humble. Less prone to complain, even to myself. I wondered if the forest knew how it was being used, I wondered if it cared or whether these minor, quiet deaths did not even register in all the vastness, all the other deaths of mice and deer and unfledged birds. I felt haunted by them anyway, the ghosts of men and women whose voices made the powerful afraid, who did not deserve to die, but did anyway.
Poland’s forest, unlike Russia’s, chose to show me its ghosts. Or one of them, at least. A different history, and a very different sort of battle had been fought in Białowieza. Resistance fighters. Brave, hungry, angry men who hid in that old forest and from there fought the Nazis, trying to make their oppressor bleed, trying to drain it by slow cuts so that something of their country, their people, would survive. It was not a fair fight or a pretty one, the Nazis were more cruel than seems fathomable but I’ll not go into that. I am wholly unqualified to speak of it.
But forward sixty years and there was I, not far into the forest on a slim track. I cycled along it on many evenings, returning to the eagle-scattered farmland and home, and this evening was the same. The sunlight had slipped eastwards, lines of light lengthening and then scattering through undergrowth, and now as I began to cycle, falling away completely so that colours softened, greyed into shadows that deepened into patterns of deeper darkness. I turned onto that stretch of track, stretching nearly straight ahead of me for some way, and I saw him.
He was tall, dark with shadows and standing at the very edge of the path, almost half way along. Another scientist, I assumed, on his way home just like myself. But there had been no-one else in this area of the forest, not for days. I never encountered anyone in the forest, ever.
I looked away, concentrating on tree roots and stones, the handling of a bike that was heavy with metal and did not have brakes. He was still there when I looked up again. I was closer now, less than seventy metres, close to fifty. His face was hidden from me, perhaps by the turn of his head, but his shoulders were broad and ever so slightly bent, as if he were tired, or had been waiting for some time. I could not make out his clothes, all the darkness of them creating uncertainty so that they could have been a cloak, or a heavy coat.
Less than fifty metres and he did not move; I could still not see his face.
Not a scientist, I realised then, belatedly, and I found myself slowing. The blood in my hands prickling sharply. I alone in the forest and a strange man where he should not be, it made me cold. Thirty metres. Even with the shifting, falling light, even with the shadows pooling at his feet, I should have been able to see his face by then. Twenty metres.
He turned towards me. His face still hidden and held erect, alert. I came to a halt, feet scraping at the dirt, but he had already turned further. Walking away from me, away from the only path for miles and into the darkening trees. There was no sound. I only realised it after he had gone, that there had been no sound.
I cycled away. Faster and without stopping. The urgency beneath my skin like a different set of muscles, driving me home, out into the first of the night’s stars and away from shadows.
I was too frightened then; inexplicably, helplessly so. But the next morning, bolstered by sunlight and birdsong, I was braver. At the point where he had stood, waiting for me, I stopped my bike and left it, wheel slowly spinning against the smoothed earth. The daylit forest gave up her secret easily, she gave it up like a gift, wrapping herself around me sun-spangled and whispering. Perhaps ten metres back from the path was my silent man. The wood of his cross worn and a little slanted, and laid around it, a wreath of barbed wire, rusted now as if stained by blood or all the autumns in between us.
I knelt at his feet, there in the morning forest, brambles and last year’s leaves beneath my knees, and my hands empty. Here was my silent man, then. Guarding his forest and its secrets still, even though his enemy was gone. I wanted to speak to him, to thank him for letting me by, or apologise for the fact that we waited so long, back then, that he was dead and I was not, that I had no way to understand. But the words did not come, so I simply knelt there and heard a woodpecker call above me, its wings loud and the scratching of its feet finding purchase briefly audible. Then I rose, and left him to sleep.
I saw him again, two nights later, but he slipped away before I got close. I think that he recognised me. I doubt he remembers me now, but I remember him, and the place where he lies sleeping. I remember the barbed wire his harsh epitaph and the bird screaming.
© Lorraine Wilson
[This piece was selected by Jacky Taylor. Read Lorraine’s interview]