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He came out of the hole and looked around. It was early morning and the darkness had just started to recede. He tried to see as far as he could, slowly turning a full 360 degree. But he couldn’t see beyond a few metres. All he could see were bare frozen trees everywhere. The air was frozen still. The snow under his foot was dry. The mud on his clothes had frozen solid. He took off his gloves and looked at his blue fingers. He tried to coerce some feeling into them by rubbing them together and blowing into them but even the air inside his lungs was cold.
He reached in his pocket for a cigarette and put it in his mouth. He took out his lighter and then stopped, once again trying to see as far as he could in every direction. He knew he was lost. He hoped before it got any brighter he would be able to judge the direction from where he had come and hence the direction in which he was supposed to go. He struck at the wheel of the lighter and a flame whizzed into life. The flame was so loud that he realised that even sound had frozen in the cold. He lit his cigarette, fumbling all the while with half frozen hands and then tried desperately to warm his hands in the lighter’s flame. Even the flame felt cold. The smoke of the cigarette provided a little warmth, first in his mouth then in his lungs and then even in his stomach. He had never enjoyed a cigarette so much in all his life. He jumped back into the hole in the ground and sat with his back against the cold wall of the hole, slowly enjoying his last cigarette. He didn’t know when he would get the chance to smoke again. But he had more serious matters to think about.
It had been three days now since he had gotten lost. His unit had been sent to patrol the fence when they had come under enemy fire. They were caught off guard and didn’t have much cover. They instinctively dropped to the ground and fired back. The action had been full of adrenalin and he didn’t really remember what had happened. He had gone into a sort of a blackout. Army psychologists had told them about something called post traumatic stress syndrome. They said the human mind can choose to not remember the most traumatic of memories. He had never had such an experience before through out the war but this time he only remembered dropping to the ground and the next thing he knew he was in the forest all alone, running. He didn’t have his weapons or backpack. He didn’t know where he was or how he got there. Since then he had been trying to find his way back to the base. The sky had been full of clouds all the time and it was hard to make sense of the directions. He just realised the best bet for him was to pick a direction and keep walking in a straight line and he would reach either his base or the enemy’s base. Either was better than starving to death in the frozen forest. This wasn’t a big forest and from the maps that he had been told to memorise he knew that there were army lines on both sides of the forest. But he had been walking for three days now and he hadn’t reached the edge of the forest. He hadn’t eaten anything at all. He had eaten a little bit of ice to make up for dehydration but that had only made him a little sick inside. He only had half a pack of cigarettes and that had run out as well. Still he was optimistic. He was hoping to reach the end of the forest today in any case. He knew almost as a certainty that he had lost his toes by now to frostbite. He hadn’t taken off his boots as he was scared to see the condition of his feet. His fingers weren’t looking good either. He was hoping to reach some help before it got worse.
The silence and the train of his thoughts were broken suddenly by a noise. He sat quietly for a while and waited to hear the noise again. It came again and it was louder this time. It was the noise of something moving on the snow. He was still thinking about what he should do when the noise came again even more loudly followed by a slow growl. He looked up and there was a wolf looking down at him, growling slightly with all its teeth showing. Its eyes were bloodshot red and its ears stood erect. He had never seen such a terrifying creature before. The wolf slowly circled the hole all the while staring straight into his eyes and deep into his soul. There was something hypnotic about that gaze and he couldn’t look away. The wolf circled 7 times around him in what seemed like an eternity and then turned around and left. He suddenly realised that he had been holding his breath all this time.
He slowly came out of the hole. The light had increased now and he could see a long way now. He looked in each direction but couldn’t see the wolf. It was as if it had vanished into thin air. He tried to forget about the incident and tried to remember the way he had come from last evening when he had found the hole and decided to sleep inside it, but every direction looked the same. There were no signs on the snow. He tried to locate the wolf’s tracks but he couldn’t. Finally he gave up and just started walking in a random direction. The earlier optimism had started to leak away slowly now. The light was the only indication of a sun shining somewhere as the clouds didn’t let a drop of heat to come in. He had been walking along for a few hours when he heard the wolf howling and saw a glimpse of it in the direction. He decided to follow the wolf and walked in its direction.
The wolf kept appearing in the distance and then disappearing again. He followed it and it led him out of the forest into a clearing. He found himself on a slope where the forest had ended and it was all plain snow covered mountain side going down into the valley. He remembered that he had been fighting high up in the mountains and the valley was very far from where they were when they were attacked. He thought that somehow he had missed all the army flanks and walked all the way down to the valley. That thought gave him hope as he understood why he had not found anybody after walking for three days. But what he didn’t understand was how it was still so cold down here. These valleys were not supposed to have so much snow this time of the year.
The wolf appeared again in the distance near what seemed like a small hut. He let all the questions go for the moment and filled his mind with relief and hope again at seeing that hut. Even if there was no one inside or no food inside, at least he would be able to get away from the freezing cold for a while. The wolf walked behind the hut and he ran down to it with all the energy he had left. He ran, stumbled, fell, got up and ran and reached the hut. He could suddenly feel the warmth coming from inside. He felt elated at finding some people at last that would be able to help him.
He opened the door and almost ran inside, but he caught the door in time because inside the hut was no floor. Instead there was a crack that went straight down. He could see the glow of the lava that was flowing deep inside. He could hear it move slowly. He felt the intense heat coming up through the crack. If he hadn’t caught the door he would have fallen straight into it. Before his brain could even try to begin to make some sense of what was happening, he turned around instinctively and saw the wolf crouching behind him ready to pounce. He tried to scream a “no” but the wolf had already pounced and they were both falling in to the crevice. He was falling with his back to the lava and the wolf was sitting on top of his chest. The wolf started grinning which turned into laughter.