The Fig Tree
By Roger Armbruster
Emilio arrived exhausted at a grove of pine trees just before the sunset over the frozen Russian tundra, selecting a place to camp next to downed timber and scrub that provided some shelter from the relentless wind. Ignoring his fatigue and hunger, he went about the business of starting a fire. He dug hard through the snow and ice, exposed a patch of bare dark earth and filled it with dry twigs from the branches of a dead fir tree. His numbed fingers fumbled against the striker and he lost two precious matches. The third struck true and he lit the kindling, nursing it with the care of a mother for her newborn. When the tinder took, he added dry wood and watched as the flame yielded some warmth and light.
Emilio staked his pup tent a few feet from the fire, layered in pine branches and spread his bedroll and blanket over them. Then he ran his tongue across his lips and massaged his hands. The work was done. Now it was time to eat.
Emilio emptied a ration of spaghetti with dried meat into the water in his helmet and heated it over the fire. He ate the pasta with two biscuits. It was just enough. He stacked the fire with thick branches and a stump and prayed they would burn at least half the night.
Emilio crawled onto the warmed bedroll in the tent and wrapped the blanket around his body. In the distance, he heard wolves baying at a full pale moon. Before the Alpini Corps left for Russia they were told that wolf pack attacks had no factual basis, and bears preferred the northeast territory near the sea where they could feast on seals. Emilio was not convinced and kept the Carcano rifle within reach. He felt a measure of safety for the first time in weeks. The killing fields at the Don River were kilometers behind, and the big guns were silent. Sleep did not come easily. Emilio was haunted by images of broken and mutilated bodies strewn over a bloody battlefield, and he could not escape the chilling shrieks and pitiful moans of the mortally wounded echoing in his head. The stench of death hung in his nose.
“Fucking war, fucking Mussolini,” he railed. “I was not born to be a soldier. I am a simple man, made to work the land, eat my produce, drink wine, sleep with Aida and cuddle my infant son.” He reached into the pocket of his field jacket and fondled the worn photograph of Aida holding Giuseppe. It stirred tender moments and he felt a warm rush. Emilio fell asleep clutching the photograph to his chest.
He awoke the following morning to the sound of tree branches cracking under heavy snow and instinctively reached for his rifle. This is stupid, he thought. If I had been found I’d be dead by now.
Emilio left the tent and entered the steely cold of a false dawn, walked a few feet, and let go a stream of warm urine. He chuckled as the snow melted yellow under his feet.
The fire had quit, but there were a few live coals under the charred branches. He laid some twigs on and blew hard, igniting the kindling. He poured water into his helmet and warmed it over the fire, and splashed some on his face and neck before stirring in coffee grounds. It was weak, terrible coffee. "Mosquito piss!" he grumbled. Emilio broke a thick piece of chocolate into the tepid liquid, drinking and dunking a biscuit. Then he drank the remainder of the water in his canteen, melted more snow, and refilled it. Staying hydrated was very important.
The sun rose and the wind kicked up strong from the east. Emilio trained his binoculars on the western horizon. As far as he could see, the frozen land was barren except for a few struggling fir trees with petrified branches and patches of scrub. He crammed kindling and branches into the backpack he had taken from a dead soldier, knotted a rope through the straps, tied it to his waist, and dragged it like a sled over the hard snow.
The wind was at his back and Emilio made better time than he expected. The stinging snow was not driven into his face, but then luck quit. The wind shifted, and for the next two weeks, pellets of sleet strafed his face. His hunt for small game produced only a sickly squirrel and a frozen hare. Emilio skinned the animals and forced the fur into his boots. That night he split, cleaned, and skewered the rodents over the fire and ate everything, cheeks, ears, and organs, and sucked what little marrow he could from the small bones.
Trudging through ankle-deep snow the next day, feelings of despair deepened. He was a man alone in a vast, lifeless tundra. It was a terrible loneliness, and he yearned for human contact. Emilio imagined his wife, Aida, in a pale yellow dress billowed by a gentle breeze, picking figs and feeding them to a laughing Giuseppe, the sweet boy he held in his arms too briefly. Then a terrifying image of a body stiff in the snow in all that cold and all that dark. Everyone dies alone and cold in the dark. At least it would be a clean death: no blood and no stench.
By the last day of the second week, Emilio was fatigued. He had difficulty seeing. His eyes were swollen red and dry, and his lashes and beard were snow crusted. His chest tightened and breathing was labored. His feet were wet and stone cold, and his legs went soft in the deep snow under the weight of his body. Emilio raged and delivered a tirade of invectives, cursing God, a God he thought no longer existed, but a God he continued to fear.
Hoping to recover his strength with rest and hot food, Emilio made camp earlier than usual behind a patch of scrub. Moving like a tired old man he began to dig the pit for the fire when he realized the texture of the snow had softened, and the afternoon sun felt stronger. A warming current settled on his face like the first breath of an early spring. Emilio sat puzzled for a moment then came back to himself. He noticed peaks of green pine trees behind a hill nearby. He gathered his gear, made an Act of Contrition for his blasphemy, and struggled up the side of the hill. When he reached the top, he was surprised to see a clearing below with a small, listing, wooden hut blackened, split and scarred by years of exposure.
Emilio dropped to his stomach and lifted the binoculars to his eyes. He scanned the hut until he was satisfied that there was no sign of life.
He affixed the bayonet to his Carcano rifle and advanced down the hill, semi-crouched, with the weapon at his side. It was dead quiet except for the crunch of his boots on the snow, and the occasional protest of a bullfinch searching for berries from the bare Rowan trees. He saw boot and paw prints and sled runner tracks from the hut leading to the woods. He moved slowly toward the door of the hut and kicked it open.
"Jesus!" he cried, aghast at the sight and sound of dozens of squealing mice scurrying through the straw covering the dirt floor. The smell of men on the run hung in the smoky air. A few articles of abandoned clothing hung on pegs. A rusty cauldron with the residue of a soup or stew dangled in a stone fireplace.
Emilio could either walk out the door and camp deep in the cold night forest, or stay and gamble that the partisans would not return. If they did, he would tell them the truth about his plan to desert and return to Italy. If a German patrol came through, he would lie: "I am a loyal soldier of the Axis. I fought on the front at the Don River for nine days until I was forced to retreat along with many brave German soldiers to fight again for the Reich."
Emilio looked to the small window at the side of the door. It was snowing again, a hard blowing snow that settled on the cracked glass. He decided to take his chances with men rather than risk nature’s fury.
Emilio started a fire and melted snow in his helmet. He poured some of the heated water into the cauldron with the congealed residue and mixed in a packet of spaghetti. When it warmed, he spooned the blend into his mess kit and ate two portions with a biscuit. He dropped pine needles into the remaining water in his helmet and let them soak until they gave a woodsy scent. He stripped by the fire, washed the most important places, and wrapped himself in a blanket. Emilio scavenged through the discarded clothes smelling of mice. At least the clothes they were dry and he couldn’t continue wearing his uniform. He pulled sour-smelling sweaters over his body and forced his legs into urine-stained coveralls far too large for him. He tried to burn his woolen uniform but the room became choked with smoke. He went outside, buried the uniform, returned and put two more logs on the fire.
Sleep was checked by the incessant activity of the mice. Emilio rose earlier than usual and went to the window. A full moon broke the dark. Except for a few fresh prints of rabbits and squirrels, the snow was virgin. Dawn came showing nascent buds on the branches of the trees. He saw the remnant of a small orchard. One healthy stalwart with a thick trunk and gnarled surface roots stood tall.
“I’ll be damned, I’ll be damned, it’s a fig tree!” he shouted. Emilio took his rifle and both field packs and left the hut. He approached the fig tree with the reverence of a man about to receive Holy Communion, dropped to his knees, and dug small trenches. His effort yielded dozens of blackened and frozen figs which he scooped up and put in one of the field packs.
* * *
Emilio’s jaw dropped as he heard a faint, distant whirl. The whirl became a low drone, then a throaty roar. He saw a squadron of planes approaching low from the west.
“Stukas!” Emilio hit the dirt and watched, as one of the planes broke formation and veered down toward the hut. It dove, screeching, like a bird of prey, then ascended. Emilio was thrown several feet, onto his back. A wave of heat reached his face and the hut was consumed in a curtain of orange flames.
Emilio slowly raised himself to his hands and knees and stared at the fig tree. Then he sat back, pulled his knees to his chest, buried his face in his hands, and sobbed. He quickly recovered, gathered his gear and made for the forest. “The next thing I see might be a Nazi four-track,” he thought.
The tundra was slowly giving way to woodland, fir, chestnut, and birch trees, providing a safer passage for a man on the run. He advanced west, keeping the open land a few hundred yards to his right. The forest was winter spare and, unimpeded by summer brush and thicket, he was able to move quickly. In two days, Emilio made about thirty kilometers before dropping his gear and checking the margin of the forest for tire or boot tracks.
"Smooth as a baby's ass," he cracked.
Despite cutting his rations in half, by the end of the week, Emilio only had two boxes of spaghetti and a dozen blackened and oozing figs. He would be forced to hunt. A domestic cat posed on a tree stump and stared curiously, then fled into the woods. He was near a populated area and hunting was not an option.
Emilio followed the cat's paw prints to a clearing with a house at the far end. Grey smoke curled from the chimney. He stayed in the shadow of the trees and studied the house through his binoculars, and ate the last of the figs. Soon, an old woman, bent and bundled in a fur coat and hat emerged carrying a large basket. She went to a woodpile, filled the basket, and returned inside.
He waited another fifteen minutes before approaching the house from the side without windows. When he turned the corner, he was confronted by a barrel of a woman standing at the door, staring at him through dark eyes set in a creased face collapsing like a pumpkin past ripe.
Emilio lowered his rifle and pulled a chain with a crucifix from under his coat and held it up.
"Italiano, nyet Nazi," he said.
The woman looked at the crucifix, studied his bedraggled, figure, slowly opened the door, and pointed inside.
"Nadia," she identified herself.
"Emilio," he responded.
Using a few Russian words, sign language, and gestures, they tried to communicate. Emilio brought out his map and pointed to the Don River, running his finger down across the names of Russian villages and sites, kilometers of white space between them. When he pointed to, "Minsk," she nodded.
"Lontono?" He asked, throwing his hand forward. He did not know the Russian words for, 'near' or 'far'. They both struggled to clarify and answer the question.
Nadia took her lantern to the corner of the house that held her wooden bedstead, and returned tearfully with the photograph of a boy with severely parted straw hair, cradling a soccer ball. He looked innocent, with pure, smooth skin, and it made the viewer fear for him. Emilio suspected the owner of such a seraphic face could not have survived. In its right bottom corner, in golden script, the photograph read "Studio Minsk." Minsk could not be far.
Emilio reached into the pocket of his field jacket and produced the photograph of his wife and child.
"Aida," he said pointing. "E, Giuseppe."
Nadia nodded and smiled weakly. She then rose slowly and returned with a basin of warm water, coarse soap, and towel and set it on the table. Emilio washed his hands and face, while Nadia, her back to him, prepared a platter of rabbit stew. Emilio could smell the stew. His stomach churned and he salivated as Nadia put the plate on the table.
"Spaseeba," he said.
"Pazhalsta," Nadia answered.
Emilio devoured the stew and dragged a piece of black bread through the thick brown sauce and washed it down with a cup of vodka. The vodka made him very tired and his eyelids grew heavy. Nadia gestured to a place in front of the fire.
"Si, dormire," he agreed.
Emilio added wood to the fire, put his bedroll in front of it and settled in comfortably. Before falling asleep he heard faint weeping and wept himself.
He woke to a candle's light, intrusive in the early morning dark, and the sound of a vehicle in the distance.
"Nazis," Nadia whispered, entering the room. She quickly packed some cheese and bread and produced a cloth pouch and a note scribbled in Russian. She placed it in the pouch with five Reichmarks. Nadia then showed him a cane. She limped around the room, straightened up, nodded, and handed the cane to Emilio.
"Minsk,” she said, pointing to the cane.
Emilio understood her message. A cripple would be less likely to attract the attention of the police or the gestapo. He hesitated, extended his arms, and drew her close, kissing her gently on both cheeks.
"Molte grazie, Nadia, e andare con Dio."
"Na Zdrovya," Nadia responded. She stepped back and made an urgent 'shoo' gesture. Emilio picked up his gear and disappeared into the woods.
Late that afternoon Emilio made camp on the fringe of the forest alongside a narrow, slow-running stream where the ice had thinned. He nursed the kindling to flame and heated water in his helmet. Emilio was startled by the sound of branches cracking in the forest. He reached for his rifle then quickly let go as two figures in tattered brown coats and ear-flap caps emerged from the shadows with bolt-action rifles pointing at him. Emilio rose with his hands above his head. A warm trickle ran down his leg.
"Italiano," he said choking.
The older of the two, a stumpy, grizzled man, stared, then ordered his young cohort to search Emilio and his gear. The young man jumped at the order and began a rough body search. A sinister smile crossed his face revealing broken brown teeth. His breath was putrid, and his fiery dark eyes frightened Emilio. He pulled the cloth pouch from Emilio's pocket and started to open it.
"Nyet," the grizzled man said, motioning the young man toward him. He read the note, nodded and said, "Ah, da, Nadia Bavikovl." Emilio's pulse and breathing returned to normal. Still somewhat wary, the partisan was at least satisfied that Emilio was no longer a combatant. Far from satisfied, the young man was disappointed that he had been denied the opportunity to kill an enemy soldier.
The grizzled man thumbed his chest.
"Dhimetri," he said as he walked to the fire to warm his hands.
"Emilio," the Italian responded, offering the partisan and the young man some cheese and bread.
"Spaseeba" Dhimetri thanked him. He pulled his mess kit and cup marked 'Bundeswehr' from his knapsack, along with a bottle of vodka. He filled his kit with bread and cheese, poured vodka into his canteen cup and handed the bottle to Emilio. It was a harsh vodka and burned down his throat. Emilio limited himself to a meager serving and extended the bottle to the young man.
"Nyet! Nyet!," Dhimetri shouted, waving his arms side to side. The young man scowled and his lips tightened.
The three men sat quietly in the flickering light, eating pieces of bread and cheese. The young man finished quickly and helped himself to a second portion without asking, prompting a glower from Dhimetri.
Dhimetri looked at Emilio and guessed his destination. "Minsk?," he asked. Emilio nodded. Sweeping his hand upward toward the stream, Dhimetri drew an arrow in the snow, and wrote '100k'.
Emilio smiled and sighed. That was only about a week's journey.
Dhimetri took a crumpled pack of cigarettes from his pocket and lit one.
"English," he said, offering one to Emilio. The cigarette never reached Emilio's fingers, and Dhimetri's dropped from his lips. Two pins of light raced toward them.
"Nazis!" Dhimetri shouted.
The three men quickly rose and kicked snow on the fire. They grabbed their weapons and gear as the half-track moved closer, illuminating the campsite with a searchlight. Dhimetri and the young man bolted into the forest as machine gun fire raked the snow behind them. Emilio dropped to his stomach and crawled toward the stream rather than follow the partisans into the woods. He waited until the searchlight passed, removed his boots and socks, rolled his pants legs up and ran through cold, knee-deep water to the cover of the trees on the other side of the stream. He heard rifle shots returned by a volley of machine gun fire. Then, “Schnurgerade!” The Nazis celebrated their kill.
Emilio dried his legs and feet, replaced his socks, pulled his boots on, and waited for the Nazis to leave.
He followed the stream west for a week, snaring a chicken or rabbit along the way from a passing farm. The stream met the Svisloch River outside Minsk. Emilio could see the roofs of the buildings which had survived the Nazi bombings. About ten kilometers from the city he buried his weapon and helmet and burned the note Nadia had given him, keeping only his gear and the cane.
The furrowed roads leading to Minsk were clogged with retreating German troops and Russian families carrying their meager belongings, refugees who abandoned their villages and farms which had become battlefields. Emilio slipped in with the pitiful gray procession, keeping his face down and limping on his cane. He stopped short of entering the city. That night he found shelter in the remains of a shed on the outskirts of the city. The shed smelled of animal and vegetables gone bad. He awoke the next morning to a steady mixture of snow and freezing rain.
Good!, he thought, bad weather can be my ally. It will distract nosey refugees and police and the Gestapo.
Emilio rejoined the stream of refugees. His feet were wet and cold and he was very hungry. Up the road he saw a man and a young boy standing next to a small cart hawking a few provisions. He paid one Reichsmark for a raw egg and two slices of black bread smeared with lard. He punctured the shell, sucked the egg out and ate one slice of bread, stuffing the second into his pocket.
Entering the city, he saw wood-frame houses in smoking splinters. The railroad station was obliterated.
Emilio continued through the city to its western end. The train tracks leading from Minsk to Bialystok and south had not been bombed. A locomotive idled, belching smoke from its stack. A cloud of steam rose from underneath the engine. Emilio ducked behind the last car of the train as two German guards, smoking cigarettes and engaging in horseplay, moved toward him. He waited until they completed their round, then slid the door of the car open just enough to ease in. The damp car was cluttered with large empty wooden crates. A rank, unholy odor hung in the air. Emilio saw a few names and dates scratched on the wall of the car. He felt a chill and shuddered.
He heard voices and laughter outside and climbed into one of the crates, crouched and held his breath. The door opened then, "Ya, ya, alles gut."
Three blasts from the locomotive's whistle startled him and the train lurched forward, then abruptly stopped. Sweat poured from Emilio's armpits, his stomach tightened, and his heart pounded. The train then advanced and picked up speed. He fell back against the side of the crate and expelled a long breath.
Emilio took the second slice of bread with lard from his pocket and tore small pieces to nibble on. He pulled canvas from the top of the crate and covered himself. It smelled of smoke and grease. He longed for clean crisp sheets, a warm blanket and Aida’s touch.
The rhythmic clicking of the steel wheels on the rails was reassuring. The Italian frontier was 1300 kilometers south, about a two day’s journey. Emilio closed his eyes and promised his wife and son they would all be together again at Easter when the fig trees blossomed.
Roger Armbruster, a retired psychotherapist, is the father of two children and the grandfather of three. He has resided in Stony Brook for thirty-three years. Publication credits include a novel, “Three Marias: A Sicilian Story,” two essays in Newsday Expressway and seven articles in The Village Times Newspaper.