Blood in the Soil

I arrived with a pair of rubber boots, a notebook, and a willingness to listen. Not many knew of the lands of the dead, and fewer still made the journey. That great, open steppe, where nothing grew. I arrived at dawn when the death singers which polluted these grounds wouldn’t notice me, or so I hoped.

A young man greeted me at the village guarding the entrance to the dead lands. He was kind, asked me why I had come. I told him I was here to see the village my grandparents had lived in before the war.

“The place you seek no longer exists,” he said. “Winds have scattered the villages of old.”

“I understand,” I said. “I am here to stand where they stood, where they all stood.”

Our conversation drew the attention of others, and soon an old man approached us. His blue eyes were buried under the wrinkles and folds of a man who’d seen too many horrors. His mouth was partially agape, waiting for the right moment to speak. We shook hands.

“Not many venture out this far. What is it you need, friend?”

I marveled at the strength in which he clasped my hand. He spoke as if we had known each other for years. “I’ve come to listen.”

“You wish to see the steppe.” He seemed perplexed by his own words.

Beyond the hay bales and huts stood the haunted lands. An unending flat expanse of black soil, pockmarked from an age since passed. This was the closest I had ever come to it, and already it felt like the steppe consumed me. Me, one soul, gazing into a vast sea of them.

“What advice do you have?” I asked.

The man slapped the boots under my arm. “You did good bringing these. My advice is this: if you wish to see the most while here, save your first visit for when the moons have risen.”

I tightened my grip on my notebook. Was he trying to get me killed by those ghastly things? “What do you do to stay safe?”

He smiled, but shook his head. “They won’t hurt you.”

It had taken a ship’s voyage and a week of travel on a beast to reach these little talked about lands. A few more hours wouldn’t kill me, at least according to him.

I told him very well. Like an old friend, he invited me back to his hut, and I obliged.

We sat in his kitchen between a pot of herbal tea in an unadorned clay pot. The steam rose from his cup and parted at his chin. He held his cup with the same intensity with which he’d shaken my hand. I touched mine and recoiled at the searing heat.

The scorch lingered on my fingers. “You have a strong connection to these lands, don’t you?”

For a moment the light in his eyes glassed over, and it was like I wasn’t there. “I do.” He pointed to my notebook resting on the table next to my tea. “Are you a writer?”

“I was hoping to speak to people like you once I arrived.”

His body tensed ever so slightly.

I continued. “I know you don’t get many visitors, and the last person to ask you about what happened was probably the secret police. But I’m not here to put you away. And if you don’t want to talk-”

He waved a hand. “It’s not that. We just don’t talk about it. No one’s asked about what happened in sixty years. There’s not much of us left.”

I proceeded with care. “And that’s why I’m here. If you want to talk about it, to get it out, I can make sure what happened doesn’t become lost in time.”

A long silence sat between us. The hut itself seemed to hover over us, waiting with bated breath. He began with a single sentence. “I was only a boy.”

The man closed his eyes, like he was trying to grab hold of the fleeting thoughts locked deep within. “I see outlines of my mother and father, though fog surrounds their faces now. Short, disconnected memories at the edge of oblivion. I remember they harvested grain and sugar beets, back when the steppe was rich beyond imagination.”

Slowly, his attention drifted away from me, settling on the table next to my notebook. An unfocused, blank stare took hold. “I never saw what befell them. The invaders arrived at dawn, when my mother and father were in the field. For many years, I wished it was me they killed. But they saw use in me.”

I wrote his account as best I could. He was a member of a group forgotten to time. These were the requisitioned. The unlucky souls who weren’t killed when the invaders stormed through these fields sixty years ago.

“I didn’t know why they chose some and left others,” the man continued. “They had me cook for them. I served them sausages while their comrades killed my neighbors, my friends, just a few feet away.”

These sites, some of which were likely only two hundred feet from where we sat, remained unmarked. All waited for someone to discover them. Men and women like the man I was speaking to had been waiting, too, living out their lives alone in isolated pockets for decades. Only now, at the end, did someone arrive asking questions about what had happened.

“All the killing sites are invisible now. Every village once on the steppe has one just outside its borders. Soon after the invaders pressed on, the crops failed. Farms had to move outside the steppe’s boundaries. The only villages left hug the dead lands’ borders. Our home. It suffered too much to bear.”

My curiosity chipped away at my resolve. “And what of the death singers?”

A single nod. “You fear them. Why?”

In that instant I was reduced to a child. “They pollute these hallowed grounds, do they not? They prevent the past from resting.”

He settled in his chair, his hands scraping against the clay mug. “I told you they’re nothing to fear. I’ll show you the truth.”

When it was sufficiently dark out, the old man slowly rose from his chair and I closed my half-filled notebook and put on my boots.

“I ask you do not speak when we enter the dead lands. For respect of the fallen.”

I nodded and followed the old man outside and through the town. When we at last stood before the vast steppe, my legs locked up. I had heard only a few things before coming out here, but one was not to enter the lands after dark. People had gone missing. But he lived here. He would know.

The village was dark behind us. I took a step forward. My boot hit the ground and sank into the earth like it had just freshly rained. My eyes widened as dark blood pooled around my foot. Another step brought more blood while the footprints behind me drained of the fluid.

Memories which weren’t my own flooded my thoughts. Villages burning down. People forced to dig trenches which would house them and their friends and family for eternity. Acts too horrific to put into words, occurring on an industrial, yet personal, scale. Sixty years was a blip, nothing more than a pinprick. But it was almost enough to silence those who were there, the last tether to the dead.

It was only then that I saw the first death singer. It moved silently over the dead grass half a mile away, its black, tattered cloak gliding through the air. Its hood rested on its back. Its head, a bare human skull, looked towards the naked sky. A thick mist escaped its mouth and was eaten by the winds.

Once I saw the first, the rest soon revealed themselves. Two, twelve, twenty, sixty, all dotting the infinite steppe. I’d anticipated their presence inspiring a primal fear within me, but once I saw them for what they were I was left with a sense of peace. No one knew where the death singers came from. The first one was spotted soon after the war had ended, and they hadn’t left since. I wanted to ask the man what he thought about them, but it’d have to wait.

The death singers paid us no attention. They kept on their paths, singing their silent songs into the eroding connection between the living and dead. Tears welled in my eyes. Maybe it was something as simple as existing where something terrible had happened, but I could feel a bridge between my soul and those left behind. That there was something I couldn’t ever accurately explain, but there was something nonetheless which linked us all together.

We watched in total silence. Not an insect, nor an animal made a sound in that never-ending sea of dead grass. My fear, my disdain toward something I didn’t understand was unforgiveable in that moment. I took a step forward, disturbing more blood from the bottomless reservoir below. This action shifted the direction of the first death singer I’d spotted, and it drifted our way.

Fear of the unknown, of death, seized my physical body, though I trusted the old man in his promise we were safe. The death singer appeared to stay perfectly still as it approached, though its frame grew steadily larger. Mist poured out of its mouth, its skull bent backward toward the sky, and in brief flashes I spotted gold fillings on its molars. I respected the man’s wish for silence, but I prayed for his guidance.

The death singer floated two paces from me. How large they were up close. It wrenched its head up, bones cracking, to look at me, mouth closed. Mist jettisoned out from the spaces between its teeth. As I stared into its voided eyes, the fear drained from my body, and I was again whole.

I’d judged these beings too harshly. They were guardians of this place, silent mourners of lives they had no part in. I took a step back to where I’d originally stood, never breaking my gaze from the guardian of the steppe. My step seemed to change the current of the steppe once more, and the death singer drifted back into the steppe, its beautiful head once more facing the sky.

My feet sank further into the pools of blood. I placed a hand on the man’s shoulder and nodded. I felt lighter, but heavier somehow. We entered back into the village and into his house. I took off my boots but found no blood on them. I went to tell the man, and found him already facing me, smiling. I could see his face clearly now. I could see his eyes, could see how beautifully blue they were.

“Thank you for coming to this place,” he said. “I haven’t stood out there in a long, long time.”

My strength failed me. “May I give you a hug?”

He approached me and we embraced, our tears staining each other’s clothes.


Trevor Gay has a BA in history where he studied the events which inspired this story.