The men are packed tight, shoved into the cattle car, standing in sloppy rows. It stinks of fear and the lingering scent of cow dung. He glances nervously at the other soldiers - boys actually, not men. Some are volunteers, and their mouths twitch with alternating nerves and excitement, and their eyes dart frantically and their heads turn this way and that. Others have been drafted, and they stand with a strained bent stiffness, every once in a while edging their feet in the direction of the locked doors. A lucky few sit on wayward crates and stare listlessly at nothing and everything.
His own mouth remains pulled into a thin frown, and his feet, on further inspection, tap impatiently in time to the bumps and rattles of the train. Absentmindedly, he guesses that means he's somewhere in between; not quite a volunteer, but then, not simply a drafted serf from the nether lands.
The ride passes in grim silence with only the occasional shuffling of feet, minds preoccupied with what will be and what can never be again. Sliding down to a more comfortable leaning position, he closes tired eyes and imagines that he is home, in the modest cramped house at the end of the dirt road. Comfortable silence and watery sunlight. But then…noise and the memories take a turn for the worse. Impatient pounding on the door, sending vibrations through the peaceful scene. Cold eyes, pressed uniform, loud voice: "Do it for your country, comrade." Your people need you. Will you let your poor Motherland be trampled under the bastards of the Third Reich?"
Seamlessly, the tracks guide the train into a sharp jerk, and the memory is jarred from his consciousness as he stumbles into the rotting plank walls. Where are they now? Tipping up on his toes, he looks out the window. The bars welded onto the tiny rectangle produce slants of frozen landscape and give him an impression of livestock taken to a slaughter rather than a soldier off to fight for his country. He doesn't know where he is. He hasn't for a few hours. What he does know is where they are going. To battle.
Back in the town square at the village, they spoke in hushed voices of the battle. The losses, what numbers! The enemy, what filth! The red army, what valiant men and women! And then, still quieter, till not even a mouse could overhear, what will happen to us if they lose? A pang of fear stabs him. He is very, very scared of losing…losing the peaceful life that they once had had, but also, of just losing himself, of not coming back.
The ride goes on through the night. They sleep slumped against the walls; their coats thick enough to brave the late autumn frost but not enough to make it comfortable. In half waking dreams, he imagines his family, his friends; those too weak to fight for their little village. They smile invitingly from the little house, and he smiles back. Suddenly the earth shakes, and the dream reveals itself to be a nightmare. He sees dark shapes looming on the horizon. In his minds ear, he hears the tromp of mechanical marching. Then, they come. Giants, and so dreadfully huge he is forced to crane his neck just to see a glimpse of a gray pants leg. He screams at the people he loves to run, away, far away. They stand smiling and waving. Heavy black boots descend upon them, and the shiny leather crushes the little house like a pile of matchsticks. He stands still and frozen, and the shadow of a towering terror falls on him...
A piercing shrill penetrates the smoky air, and the train shudders to a halt. The smell of gun smoke and distant rumbles seeps through the cracks of the cattle car, and one poor soul makes a strangled gurgling sound. Clinks and rattles and a rising sense of trepidation fill the car as the doors are finally swung back with a harsh whoosh. A beat of still silence, and then, chaos.
"The glorious Red Army has come to rid the Motherland of this repulsive infection," Drones a voice from a crackling loud speaker.
Those closest to the door are the first ones. They are dragged out of the cattle car by the thickset hands of the commissars, a red stripe of cloth exhibiting their rank.
"Move forward, never turn back," the loud speaker instructs. "Cowards will be shot."
Upon stumbling upright again, the fresh soldiers are left gazing at the sight before them, slack jawed in unconcealed horror.
The sluggish river was caught in a never ending explosion of sprayed water as puttering Nazi aircraft dropped bomb after earsplitting bomb into the once still water. Fishing boats tied haphazardly to the docks rocking up and down, and the vessels floating in the roiling waters bounce; bombarded with continuous shell fire. The great city across the river lay in a charred and crumbled heap, black scarred earth with blotches of red, and broken brick columns that once were tall buildings . Skeletal buildings and lonely telephone poles littering the landscape, cold iron blackened with ash. Smoke thick enough to be bottled in a jar billowed overhead, and within the city itself smoldering fires glowed.
"You are here." for once, the speaker seems to have summoned a solemn pride in his voice. "This is Stalingrad, the pride of the Motherland."
But, he thinks to himself, what was left for them to save?