He looked over his shoulder, then bent to whisper in her ear. ‘They say the trip wire is electrified.’ She jerked head away. ‘Think the squirrels are bugged too, Yuri?’ He shrugged and sat back. They resumed their watch over the silent trees.
Yuri settled into the smooth plastic of the seat, almost comfortable in the faint sunshine. Only a month ago the snow had been ankle-deep; the trees moth-balled in a white shroud. They’d almost missed their way, until they saw their pine with the barbed wire snagged in its branches, after that it was easy to find the clearing. That had been his persistent fear; that as the forest changed year after year they would lose the place of the burial.
At first the forest had been closed off altogether. If it hadn’t been for that jagged roll of metal they might never have found the right place. The day they left, as the stinking army truck jolted down the forest road, that was the one thing about the route he’d remembered; the little pine crushed by the giant nest of barbed wire. If he’d been alone he’d have jumped off that tailboard to release the tree from its vicious burden.
He and Sasa first came back to search after… his fingers twitched as he counted… fourteen, maybe fifteen, years. They’d met a wall of green, no roads, not even a cut piece of timber to show men had ever lived here. Four hours they spent, beating back rank, chest-high undergrowth, before they found their marker – the barbed-wire pine. In fifteen years the little tree had hoisted its steel load as many feet into the air. That first year back he’d tried to pull it down thinking it might be useful, but the tree obstinately refused to be free. Yuri smiled. His hands had grown too soft for that sort of task now that he worked indoors.
He glanced at Sasa wondering, as always, what she remembered of that night. They had buried Katya in the chaos after the explosion. They had tried to do it right, but no one wanted to know. The soldiers knocking on doors, saying everyone had to go away for a few days, the doctor busy delivering a baby. Sasa asking the younger soldier what to do about Katya; taking the lad into the back room to see her laid out on the bed. Our suitcase beside her; not much bigger. The boy crossing himself, saying he’d tell someone, but no one came.
Wrapping up Katya and taking the wheelbarrow to the wolf clearing, where she used to play. And digging. With a coal shovel and a broken mattock. Yuri shook his head as he remembered. The light waning and Sasa crying because of the roots twisting through the hole, and worrying about a wolf digging her up. Lucky it was spring and the clearing round the dead tree had a soft bottom, or they’d never have done it in time.
Then the silence when they got back home… home? Yuri smiled again, remembering that he once had a home… Home was over there, just beyond that thin dark stripe – the trip wire. Home was the clearing where Katya used to play and they once saw a wolf.