His crutches leave dents in the snow
as he sways leaving pairs of circles
either side of trailing boot prints,
two boots on two wooden feet
replacing two lost in retreat
from ravenous Russian frost.
He turns up years late, but his news
is as raw and fresh as today’s.
I was with him, he says.
We walked side by side.
No food left, no bullets for guns.
Carved up and ate our horses
in the relentless snow blizzard,
I harassed him. You are lagging behind.
The tanks are at our heels. Must move on.
Don’t slow down. Think of home.
Gave him half the crust I found in my pocket.
He said nothing. Sank into the snow,
closed his eyes above his frozen nose.
His fingers blackened, swollen.
I swear there was nothing else I could do.
I shook him. Turned up his stiff collar
and saw what could be called a smile.
I knew he was about to die.
Take my boots, he said.
Yours are torn. Take them.
A moment later he said your name, Ilona.
Ilona! Then his head fell back.
I changed boots and kept going.
That smile. And your name.
Seen it countless times. Calling Mother!
Calling the names of wives and lovers.
Delirium. And that smile.
They say the pain stops. They feel warm
in the lap of mothers and lovers.
They are at rest.
Coming home crippled is harder.
Ilona feeds him, makes him a warm bed.
He stays for a week telling and retelling
stories of guns and mud and blood.
Bathes what is left of his legs
and the last day, he hands her a ring
he says he got from her husband.
“He ripped it off his finger for you,
it was so swollen towards the end.”
Ilona thanks him for telling
and bringing the news and the ring
through miles of snow storms,
enemy lines, camps, hospitals, protheses,
for finding the house of his dead friend,
although she knows at first glance
that the ring is the wrong ring,
that it came off