Andriy watched his father move an anti-tank mine out of the roadway using his bare hands, all the while smoking a Chinese cigarette, the tobacco loose and pungent.
“Your name, Andriy, means manly and strong,” his father explained through clenched teeth, delicately carrying the explosive. “I named you for days like these. You will be a soldier. A warrior.”
“How can I be a warrior? I’m twelve,” Andriy replied, standing a ways off, hands at the ready to cover his ears.
“Twelve is old enough to be the greatest of warriors. You stand by me. Well, not exactly now,” his father laughed. “Stand by me later. Then you will see.”
His father took a few steps off of the paved asphalt and gingerly laid the ordnance down on the frozen ground, genuinely surprised when nothing terrible happened. He shrugged, pleased with himself and fate, broadly smiling at his only son.
Embarrassed at his own fearfulness, Andriy looked down at his feet, clad in army boots two sizes too big. His mother demanded he wear two pairs of thick woolen socks and several pairs of underwear. The bulk didn’t help much against the cold; it just made his limbs feel stiff and unresponsive.
It was time to move on. There was still far to go, but it was hard to gauge the exact distance as most of the road signs were down, removed to confuse those who did not belong to this land.
The morning had been bright, crisp, surreal. Frost decorated the scrubby grasslands and broken car windshields and muddy tank tracks. The icy patterns made Andriy yearn for his grandmother’s Sunday night dinners, served on pristine white tablecloths embroidered with lace. On her table were large ceramic bowls brimming with rich food, cloth napkins, and heirloom silver candlesticks, lit whenever she said her prayers to a God he hoped still existed.
His stomach growled at the thought of her warm rye bread served with horseradish and thin slices of salo. If he tried hard enough, he could taste the cabbage rolls, hot and steaming, served with creamy dollops of sour cream. He kicked a rock with his big boot, swallowing hard to choke back his self-pity, more bitter than the cigarette smoke.
He was cold and he was hungry.
“Andriy, come,” his father said. “It’s a long walk. Eat this.” Andriy took a small tin of canned veal and ate it with some hard biscuits. Both were awful, but they stopped his stomach from complaining.
After a few hours, a trickle of passersby grew into a steady stream of refugees, plodding by a father and son who advanced towards the city, black smoke snaking into the low sky. A constant pounding and rat-a-tat-tat’s echoed from far enough away not to overly concern Andriy. He’d worry about those things when he had to.
They walked on the far left of the road, right behind a thin line of men heading into the city while a cacophony of civilians flooded out. Women with red swollen eyes jostled babies who screamed in the cold, diapers full of waste with no relief on hand. A heavily pregnant lady with a mane of thick black hair walked splay-footed, holding her lower back, ignoring the early signs of labor. A grandmother appeared, helping the mother-to-be into a pushcart, yelling orders to boys about Andriy’s age. She was obeyed without question.
Other retreating young men cast sideways glances towards Andriy, as if they were ashamed for being with the women. Old grandfathers with wispy beards looked wistfully at the determined men heading into the fray, men whose foreheads were creased with brokenhearted rage. But the old men had seen the same troubles in their own day, disheartened that no lessons had been learned.
For a moment Andriy felt the urge to join the exodus of people, heading away from death, to a place where food could be easily heated on a stove and electronic games were available to wile away the hours.
His father turned, caught his eye, and Andriy’s face grew red and hot. He trudged faster in the ridiculous boots, matching his father stride for stride on the walk to the capital city.
A small stray dog found Andriy as he walked with his father through an underpass.
“He’s hungry,” Andriy remarked, the dog licking his fingers, lapping up traces of grease from the canned veal. Andriy knelt down to scratch the dog behind its ears. The animal’s ribs were pronounced, his gray fur matted with mud.
“We are all hungry,” his father groused. “And the dog is hurt. It would be a blessing for it to be put down.” Andriy’s eyes widened as his father clicked the safety off his army-issued pistol.
“No!” the boy yelled, covering the animal’s body with his own. Andriy looked up in time to see a flicker of confusion in his father’s eyes. His mother was right. He was too young to be here.
“Andriy,” his father muttered. “The dog cannot walk.”
“Then I will carry him,” Andriy said, taking the small dog into his coat, the animal nestling into the warmth of his chest. He zipped the coat tightly around the dog just as the growls of low-flying aircraft roared overhead, strafing bullets all about them.
He watched his father.
His father didn’t flinch, so neither did Andriy.
And the dog had fallen asleep.
At night, Andriy heard his father’s voice among the group of soldiers they’d joined, telling stories of untrained teenagers driving tanks and foreign vehicles running out of gas in farmers’ fields. The men passed around a bottle and traded good natured insults and rare curses on their enemies.
“We should strike tonight,” his father suggested. “No one would expect a counterattack this late.”
“Surely there will be help from other countries—”
This comment kicked off hopeful speculation and angry recrimination.
“God helps those who help themselves—and sometimes not even then!”
The men laughed, but their conversation made Andriy feel colder, even as the dog shallowly breathed next to his heart.
He tried to listen as the men plotted, but waves of fatigue eventually drowned him in a dark dreamless sleep.
“Boy,” a stoned-faced man shook him awake. “Boy!”
“You are Andriy?”
“He is dead,” the man said somberly.
Andriy had known for hours, as the dog’s body no longer warmed his own.
“Will you help me bury him?” Andriy asked quietly.
The other man looked crestfallen. There wasn’t enough of his father left to bury.
Andriy took the dog from his coat, and the man’s face softened.
“Yes, I will help you,” he replied, wincing at the sound of incoming shells. “But for now, come stand by me.”