Her name was Yelena Podrova and she lived alone. The first snows had come early that year. She knew this would mean suffering. The villagers were unprepared for such an early onset of winter. The late crop of beets was ruined by frost and animal fodder was in short supply. It was going to be a 'seven-coat winter'. Of course the war made things worse. Many of the men had gone to the army. Some came back, blind or crippled. It was said in the village that the French had entered Moscow. How could such a thing be possible? It must be a lie and besides, there were more pressing problems, like to how to eat this coming winter.
Her husband had gone for a soldier. She knew he was dead, had felt it the day of the great battle at Borodino. They had been married less than a year. She was already dressed in black when one of the 'lucky' ones had confirmed Fyodr's death. He had meant it kindly, she knew, when he said Fyodr had died instantly, shot through the heart, but she was a true Russian and demanded the truth. She had listened impassively as the man wept and begged her not to make him tell. She knew there as something more and understood he was trying to protect her. In the end she let it lie and went away unsatisfied. Since that day she had lived the life of a Russian widow, kept herself to herself and seldom went into the village. She tended her garden, saw to her few pigs and chickens and went to Church on all the feast days.
She was still young. One man had come courting after a decent interval but she had refused him gently. Now she waited. What she was waiting for she truly did not know. There was only this feeling. It was said in the village that she had the 'gift'. Sometimes she knew what was going to happen. It was never clear. She couldn't tell fortunes; there were just some things she knew, intensely, viscerally. Her life was marked by a series of such signposts. She had known she would marry Fyodr; had known, too, that she would never see him again the day he left for the war. She had mourned him in her heart from that moment. There had been a letter, written by one of the professional letter-writers. She had taken it into the village and paid to hear it read. It was just like Fyodr, full of hearty cheer and optimism. She smiled at that.
Now it was nearly Christmas and the winter had set in hard. Her hut at the edge of the wood was sheltered from the worst of the weather but still there was a foot and more of snow on the roof and she had to dig her path clear every day. She made her way down to the river each morning and broke the ice to draw water. She was worried about her pigs and thought she might have to slaughter most of them. Perhaps she could trade some of the meat for salt to preserve the rest. She might even get some flour. Death would come to the village this winter, she knew. Sometimes she thought she could see his dark shadow hovering but it was never there when she looked directly. It was something glimpsed obliquely, from the corner of the eye: a feeling, perhaps, more than a presence, but she knew it was there nonetheless.
It was late afternoon and almost dark when she saw the body on the track. Even though she was some distance away she knew it wasn't yet dead. She broke into a run, her feet slipping on the icy compacted snow of the pathway. It was a young man but he looked old as the prophets. His face was grey except for the tip of his nose, which was white with the telltale sign of frostbite. He was very thin and his blue cyanosed lips were drawn back to reveal strong white teeth though his gums were raw and bleeding. She stooped and pulled his wasted frame upright. She was strong, used to hard work, and the man's emaciated state made it easy for her to lift him onto her back and carry him back to her hut.
Once inside she stripped off the tattered uniform he wore and wrapped him in three of her best blankets. They had been a wedding gift. She banked the fire and lay him down beside the hearth. Several of his toes were blackened by frostbite and she knew enough to know that she must amputate them if he was not to rot away with gangrene. She took her sharpest knife and performed the crude surgery quickly, efficiently. She cauterised the wounds with a heated steel and bandaged him with strips of clean linen torn from an old shirt of Fyodr's. She poured herself some tea from the simmering samovar and sat down to wait. A sense of peace came over her. Now she knew what she had been waiting for.
The man was murmuring in his sleep. She didn't recognise the language but she knew quite clearly that he was calling for his mother. She nodded to herself. That was as it should be. In extremity a man would always turn back to the one who bore him. It was as if they sought the safety of the womb. She understood this, she, whose womb was barren.
Time passed. She grew drowsy in the warmth of the hut and forced herself to stir. She heated some soup and trickled some of the warm, thick liquid into the man's mouth, his head cushioned on her ample bosom. He coughed and spluttered and his eyes flew open in alarm as consciousness suddenly invaded the deep cocoon he had woven for himself when he lay down to die. His voice was harsh and guttural as though rusty from lack of use. She didn't understand the words but she knew he asked a question and could guess its meaning. "Hush, hush now, you're safe here. Everything's all right, everything's all right." She crooned to him and made soothing noises. He seemed to understand for she felt his tension seep away and he gave her a weak smile before his eyes closed once more in sleep.