He had opened a canvas in his mind many miles back, sheer luck he’d been pushed against the side of the railcar where the gaps between its wooden planks gave him a narrow view outside, albeit a freezing one. How many hours now? Six? Eight? Maybe not that long? Maybe even longer? Men packed standing up like frozen fish in a box, shoved in tight until only half of them could inhale at any one time, then the door slammed closed. And locked.
No escape but to ride the train along the Volga to wherever it was going.
He was just a timid 15-year-old taken from his father’s farm near Ural’sk, given a uniform (but no rifle) (or heavy coat) and drilled with thousands of other young men to run at something; essentially, to charge. Their training lasted no more than a week before the train came for them. He was not athletic. He was not strong. He enjoyed drawing, was often in trouble with his father for doing just that instead of his farm chores. His father chided his mother for “coddling” him. The train would go for a time, then stop for a bit. Then go a while more, then stop for a bit. He knew other young men were being loaded into other railcars. His own car stank from sweat and flatulence and piss and he could guess what else.
He drew, in his mind, as the train jerked along, profiles of the men around him. When that got boring he drew landscapes or the occasional dilapidated buildings he could see between the planks. He was glad for the fresh air, but shivered from the cold, cold bite of it. One side of him was frozen as the other sweated against the men next to him. He would close his eyes and let his mental palette create his newest art. When it was finished, he’d file it and peer again between the planks for his next subject. Over and over and over.
And he saw her when the train stopped again. No older than he, the loveliest bronze hair leaking out from under her scarf. Huge blue eyes and red lips. She was there with an older woman and a younger boy; who knew why. She looked hungry, and yet peaceful, contented even. Like an angel. She looked over his railcar and he wondered if she could see him gaping at her. It lasted no more than thirty, maybe forty-five seconds before the train shook forward again, gradually gaining speed.
He closed his eyes and this time, this time he created a different art. This time, he created a life. He saw himself emerge from the railcar and walk towards her. She smiled, so glad to see him. They took each other’s hands and gazed so warmly at each other. Page after page rolled off in his mind. He saw them walk together towards a neat and tidy cottage surrounded by wildflowers on a summer day. He worked land and tended goats and she mended his clothes and caressed him each night. They never argued. They had no worries. They grew more deeply enamored with each other with every passing moment, and more affectionate. He could feel her warm face on his and felt them surround each other like blankets tangled together. They lived, oh goodness they lived in a most glorious world with the sun always shining warmly and bountiful harvests and no winter and undying love for each other. Page after page after page of the most wonderful colors drew themselves in his mind. An entire portfolio of life.
Then he heard thunder, not far in the distance, and the train lurched several times before stopping, and the door of the railcar was thrown open, and the freezing air was like ice water dousing his creation. And he emerged in Stalingrad.
All my life I have had to learn to do things differently. To see the world differently.