Still Life With Sniper
by Moonslash

There is one more button still undone on Sgt. Vassili Zaitsev's coat, and Commissar Danilov quickly thumbs it in its place, pushing with some difficulty through the barely used buttonhole. The stitching that briefly rubs around his finger feels sharp and crisp with newness. There is immaculate precision in the tightly woven thread that outlines the slit in the cloth, and Danilov has a flash of incoherent regret that the perfect definition of the buttonhole must remain invisible behind the button, before he pushes all such thoughts off the edge of his consciousness and returns his full attention to the young man trying not to fidget before him.

Sgt. Zaitsev is impeccably clad in the new uniform, provided especially for the occasion; and although he is attempting to look calm, he is painfully aware of the commotion that awaits him behind the curtain. His nervousness is instinctive and physical, like that of a circus animal about to make its first appearance in front of a full house. But Commissar Danilov knows that there is nothing to worry about. The evening's events will unfold without surprises, the publicity stint is carefully arranged, and the group behind the curtain is fully prepared to fit this nervous hero smoothly into the frame of his own fame and show the public exactly what they need to see.

And Commissar Danilov will be there as well, keeping a sharp eye on his sharp shooter.

But there are clouds in Vassili's eyes, and Danilov can see that the storm is a dangerous one because it is not the brewing kind, like with the fury of other people. Vassili's storm is frozen deep inside his pupils, and it is icy and relentless and terminal. There is something equally scary and intoxicating about it, which makes Danilov remember.

He remembers the unforgettable, and the memory washes over him like a sheet of water, rippling over thought and belief and not caring one bit.


He was still sick, even though he'd just vomited with painful violence. It hurt all the more because he was trying to be quiet about it. Around him, lining the ground of his hideout - a fountain in the middle of the battlefield -- was a scattered mass of bloodied corpses, whose smell was threatening to overpower him again. He'd seen death before, but never this clearly.

This was war. And he couldn't think. Dear god, he couldn't think in all that death.

Danilov fought back the stream of acid that threatened to surge up his raw throat, and tried to focus -- a formidable ambition, what with his entire body shaking uncontrollably. The chaos that surrounded him had left him pathetically bereft of all the slogans he'd ever uttered to rile up soldiers, and the political commissar felt a cold, numbing wave of panic overwhelming him again.

Stop this, he thought. Stop this, and get a weapon. A weapon is purpose, and purpose will make you think. And do it quickly, before you lose courage.

His hands shook. He knew, without thinking, that he was going to die.

Then a young soldier crawled out from underneath the corpses, nearly scaring Danilov out of his wits. He slithered across the bodies of the dead with disconcerting dexterity, asked politely for his rifle, assumed a shooting stance with rather horrific composure, and then took down half a dozen German officers within half a minute, while Danilov watched.

The young man's form froze into otherworldly calmness as he took aim, his flesh solidifying into an extension of the rifle. Danilov caught a glimpse of his eyes and felt a lump forming in his throat. As the first shot echoed faintly through the surrounding explosions and blew away the first officer, the commissar swallowed with difficulty and tried not to blink.

Before his eyes, reality was rearranging itself.

Over the plains of Danilov's awareness, the panic and turmoil of the battlefield suddenly subsided as if disarrayed threads of time and place were strung out of the war zone chaos, wrung out from fear, wreckage and confusion, and stretched into straight, tight lines - like the one connecting the dark narrow mouth of the rifle with its successive targets. The flight of bullets, quick and precise, reorganized the world into a meaningful pattern, gave it order and purpose, and made the commissar shiver once again, this time in awe.

Danilov could not blink, even if he wanted to.

The young soldier's eyes were preternaturally still. The storm of precisely imparted destruction inside them was frozen with the sheer power of his focus. Danilov stared. The boy's flesh and gaze were inhuman, eternal, motionless, marked with unearthly elegance as he took aim, shot, recharged, took aim again. His motions were scarce and flawless; imperceptible alignment of the rifle's eye with the body of the enemy, the natural, swift pull of the trigger, and the jerk as the impact of the shot reverberated through his body quickly before the soldier's frame immediately subsided into that same chilling stillness.

If the way he moved was art, the way he didn't move was divine harmony: effortless, intuitive, overwhelming, too powerful for words.

A cool weight suddenly sank to the depths of the commissar's stomach, and then he knew: that the soldier's stillness rather than his shooting was the force reshaping space and time, that his concentration held reality suspended on his trigger, that how he did it rather than what he did was making the world clear and sharp- edged and defined.

The youth in front of him was the master of war.

No; he was the master of death.

This was the kind of greatness that Danilov had always heard about, even knew how to write about, but had never seen before. Its very existence hurt him in some deep place, the place of hope and ambition beyond possibility. The inconspicuous soldier embodied everything the warrior dream was about, and the commissar swallowed back the bitterness of envy at the thought.

He looked at the young man was he handed him back the rifle, shyly looking up at him, and appearing totally and perfectly oblivious of his gift.

And all of a sudden, Danilov knew what he needed to do.


Now is much later, and there is no time for memories. In the last moments before the beginning of the reception, the commissar showers his friend with half-whispered encouragement, tangled into their usual banter that is jovial and manly and light.

But the storm frozen in Vassili's eyes does not disappear, and so Danilov quickly repeats the key phrases from the tale of the Hero to the hero, smiles, and then they are both on the other side of the curtain. The show begins. Vassili is immediately taken away by the stream of people that create a whirlpool of hungry attention around his tall, lanky figure. And Danilov can now stand at a distance and observe the consummation of the legend he'd created, the fruits of his labor.

Instead, he realizes that he can't stop watching Vassili.

The preternatural stillness, the frozen storm never visible outside his friend's sniper stance, is now present in his very being; others don't notice, but Danilov knows because he can recognize it. The weight of the world has fallen on his hero's shoulders today, in the newly woven circumstances of his life. Vassili's eyes have been clouded ever since the death of his two comrades in the trap at the department store; and they began to storm, quietly and dangerously, when he was told that Major König was sent out to Stalingrad to hunt him down.

Danilov is aware that inspirational words are worthless, but he's said them anyway. It's how they function as friends. He will say things, and Vassili will accept them, and more often than not he will smile.

But tonight, Danilov knows that Vassili can't be calmed with his own legend, because the man himself is greater than the words with which Danilov keeps his existence superb and inspiring to others, and manageable and bearable to himself. The commissar turned the reality of Vassili into words of glory, but words are detached and unchallenging in comparison with that glimpse at Vassili's inner power, that icy touch of death that freezes his eyes and molds his entire being into something indescribable and eternal. Something that knows death intimately and authoritatively.

Danilov is afraid of Vassili's intuitive knowledge of death. He is also envious of it, of the power it provides. It is more than a skill, more than a talent. Vassili sure as hell doesn't understand it himself. Danilov can understand it, he can recognize it, but he can't have it, can't build it up inside himself. All he can do is tell its tale, translate unthinkable greatness into familiar patterns of folk worship, and make this naïve youth as famous as possible.

And this evening is all about reaffirming the legend Danilov had brought into being. He watches as Krushchev guides Vassili around the room, poses with him in front of the flashing cameras, and makes sure that the young soldier does not say anything outside the script.

Danilov knows all about the script that gives people hope and inspires the troops; such is Danilov's domain in the hierarchy of military politics. He helps determine what the nation will dream about.

At the same time, he knows that he is turning the supernatural elegance, the heartbreaking grace of Vassili's gift, into a cheap narrative of ideology.

Not that Danilov doesn't believe in his own tales; he does, but Vassili's very existence makes them sound empty -- polished and crisp, impeccable frames of the message they carry, but empty nevertheless when they are on their own. Because Vassili's greatness, that essence of graceful destruction, lies far beyond reach of front-page articles and spirited communist prose that Danilov's printing press can weave around it.

But they are friends now, the simple highlander amazed by the commissar's ability to spin the yarn of fame out of ink on paper, and they share laughter and excitement and passion of the army life, high on their enthusiasm and youth and energy. It is a friendship that can be competitive because in some ways they are equals, and it can be chummy because in other ways they are different yet remain complementary.

Their friendship should always be this carefully balanced. That's why it works so well.

Sometimes Danilov suspects that Vassili is aware of the coiled weight of deep, hurtful envy mixed with adoration in his chest when they grasp each other in a quick embrace of camaraderie, and he wishes Vassili would see that Danilov is special too -- because he can recognize the intuitive grace with which the sharp shooter handles death, and be touched by it in a way more profound than any propaganda could ever inspire.

But those moments pass, and Danilov smiles slightly to himself. He still feels empowered, because he knows Vassili the way nobody else knows him. And he can admire him the way the young man should be admired.

Balance is good. Complementary.

Some day soon, Danilov may taste the power that Vassili masters every day on the battlefield. He looks around the room for Tania, who is standing at the edge of the crowd and looking at the spectacle like everyone else, admiring and smiling.

Some day soon, she will recognize Danilov's power -- his role in the making of the myth -- and when he freezes inside her, his passion will suspend time and meaning in their shared pleasure. And she will admire him the way he admires Vassili, and she will love him, because she will understand his greatness.

Danilov smiles to himself, remembering the stolen scent of her hair and the half-glimpsed curve of her neck. Some day soon, he will touch her. But first, he has to be sure that she knows what she needs to know about him. She has to learn to recognize his greatness.

And rejection would be unbearable.

Danilov turns to look at Vassili. The deadly frost is still in the young man's eyes, as he stands before the tremendous face of their leader that's covering the entire wall. Sgt. Zaitsev is the true hero of this battle, the true embodiment of the national spirit, the perfect warrior, the genuine (if oblivious) master of death. He can be admired by many, but loved only by those who know him fully and truly; and the commissar knows him that way. And at that moment, he possesses the kind of greatness that eclipses even the legendary status of Comrade Stalin.

Danilov smiles at the heresy of his thoughts, and realizes -- with a startling, surprising certainty -- that he would die for Vassili.

He waves off the morbid thought and checks the time. Later, he will inquire whether it would be possible for Vassili to keep the uniform, which fits so beautifully his tall, skinny form; but he doubts it.

And, with an odd tremor in his heart that could be love or sadness, he suspects that it doesn't really matter.


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