The Winter Horses

By: Philip Kerr

MUCH OF THIS OLD story has been gathered together like the many fragments of a broken vase. The pieces do not always fit as best they might, and indeed it’s quite possible that several of them do not belong here at all. It cannot be denied that the story has many holes and could not withstand much scrutiny. Historians will object—as they always seem to do—and say there is no real evidence that the old man and the girl who are the story’s hero and heroine ever really existed. And yet if today you were in Ukraine and dared to put your ear into the wind or perhaps took a trip across the steppe and listened to the deep voices of the bison, the whoop of the cranes, or the laughter of the Przewalski’s horses, you might learn that about the truth, the animals are never wrong; and that even if there are some parts of this story that are not exactly true, they could be, and that is more important. The animals would surely say that if there is one truth greater than all of the others, it is that there are times when history must take second place to legend.

IT WAS DURING THE summer of 1941 that, to a man, the management of the State Steppe Nature Reserve of the Ukrainian Soviet Socialist Republic ran away. Before he drove from the reserve in his shiny black limousine, Borys Demyanovich Krajnik, who was the senior manager, ordered Maxim Borisovich Melnik—who looked after all the animals on the nature reserve—to run away, too.

“The Germans are coming,” he’d told Max. “Their armies have attacked and invaded the Soviet union   without warning. They’ve already taken the great city of Kiev and they will be here soon. Perhaps as early as next week.”

Krajnik was emptying his desk and packing his bags while he was speaking to Maxim Borisovich Melnik and seemed to be preparing to leave.

“But I thought the Germans were our allies,” said Max, for much had changed in Ukraine since 1919.

“They were, that’s true. But now they’re not, see? That’s just politics. Doubtless they’re after the oil fields of the Crimea. For their war machine. Look, Maxim Borisovich, all you need to know now is that the Germans are fascists and when they get here, they will kill you. Of course, in time our own Red Army will defeat them, but until this happens, you should definitely leave the reserve.”

“But where shall I go?” Max asked Krajnik.

“That’s your problem, Comrade. But my advice is to go east, toward our own forces. Go east as quickly as you can. However, before you can leave, there’s an important order I’m giving to you. Very important. It comes from the central committee.”

Max was astounded that the central committee of the Communist Party even knew he still existed, let alone that they had given him an important order. He couldn’t help smiling at the very idea of this.

“An order for me? What is it, Comrade?”

“The committee orders you to slaughter all of the animals on the reserve.”

“You’re joking, Borys Demyanovich. Or perhaps the committee is joking.”

“The central committee doesn’t make jokes, Maxim Borisovich.”

The smile disappeared from Max’s old bearded face as quickly as it had arrived. He rubbed his neck thoughtfully; it always seemed to hurt a little when the subject of killing an animal came up.

“Kill all our animals, you say?”

“All of them.”

“What—the zebras? The ostriches? The llamas?”

“Yes, Comrade.”

“Including the Przewalski’s horses?”

“Including the horses.”

“For goodness’ sake, why?”

“To stop them from falling into enemy hands, of course. There’s enough meat walking around this reserve to feed a small army. Deer, goats, bison, horses, chickens—they’re all to be shot. I’d help you myself but, er … I’ve some important orders of my own. I’m urgently required in Kharkov. So I have to leave today. Now. As soon as I’ve finished talking to you.”

“But I couldn’t kill our animals, Comrade,” said Max. “Some of them are very rare. So rare, their species might even become extinct. Not only that, but some of them are my friends.”

“Sentimental nonsense. We’re fighting a war, d’you understand? And our people are the ones who are facing extinction. The Germans mean to take our land and destroy all of us so that they can live on it. So, if I come back and find that you haven’t carried out my orders, I’ll call the secret police and have you shot. You’ve got a rifle. Now use it.”

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