From the Vermont High School Writing Contest
Sharp gusts of wind burst through the leafless, barren forest, and pierced Aatami Korhonen’s eyes. He lowered his head. The wind then ceased, suddenly, and the trees stood stoically still. He trudged further through the forest until the sound of water lapping up against the frozen shore quietly sounded ahead.
His legs burned as he reached the overlook on Lake Ladoga. It was still early in the morning, and the sun was just beginning to peak over the barren Finnish landscape in the distance. Rays of cream-colored light glimmered upon the calm, frigid waters, and glistened upon the newly-fallen snow. Aatami gazed at this landscape for some time. He savoured the image, letting it seep into the crevices of his mind. He then shouldered his knapsack and started back towards the camp.
He, along with many other Finnish soldiers, was located along the Karelian Isthmus, a stretch of land situated between the Gulf of Finland and Lake Ladoga, to the north of the River Neva. On November 30th, after a series of ultimatums and failed negotiations, the Soviet Red Army launched an invasion of Finland, due to Joseph Stalin’s desire to expand his influence over Eastern Europe. The Finns were significantly outnumbered, which was no doubt among the soldiers. Over half a million Soviet troops were said to be deployed to secure the Karelian Isthmus. However, the Finns knew this land well, and the morale among the troops was relatively high, considering the dire situation.
Aatami, as he was trudging through the forest in the direction of the camp, stopped suddenly. Several meters in front of him was a set of fresh boot tracks. Cautiously, he followed them, keeping his distance, until he was overlooking a small gully.
He sharply inhaled as it was then that he spotted the man: a Soviet, trudging down the gulley. Aatami suspected he was a scouter, looking for traces of Finnish soldiers. Holding his breath, Aatami quietly swung the rifle that was around his shoulder into his hands. He was shaking violently, making it quite difficult to take aim. As Aatami took several steps forward, his foot landed on a twig. The Soviet soldier spun around, his hand on his pistol, but Aatami’s finger was already on the trigger. His rifle jolted as the bullet found its target. Trembling, Aatami peered down the gulley. The soldier was dead, his blood seeping into the snow. Aatami closed his eyes and slowly exhaled as he swung the rifle around his shoulder.
As Aatami approached the camp, the faint sounds of fire crackling and low talking filled the cold morning air. He was home to a ski battalion, consisting of 150 men, all of whom were preparing for yet another day of patrolling the Karelian Isthmus, scanning for Soviet encampments. As Aatami trudged through the camp, he spotted a close friend of his—Mikael Hämäläinen was his name—who was waxing his skis. When he looked up, he beckoned for Aatami.
“You hear, a Soviet camp was spotted about 10 miles east.” He continued waxing his skis, his hand gliding along the wooden surface.
“Yes, I’ve heard rumors,” Aatami responded promptly.
“They say a group of 30 men or so is to be sent out to survey it today. Both you and I are assigned to this group.”
Aatami sighed. He had expected this; it was certainly an inevitability. A faint feeling of dread arose in his stomach. He had never been in an actual combat situation before, with the exception of the encounter that took place just hours ago. His small life as a Finnish farmer certainly didn’t warrant any background in battle or conflict, nor did it prepare him for the harsh reality that he now had to face: death was now a real possibility. Gone were the years of sowing wheat and barely on the vast, stretching lands of western Finland. He now, like so many other Finnish men, had to embrace this new reality.
“You should gather your necessities. We are to depart soon, in about an hour,” Mikael stated. He raised his eyes, studying Aatami’s face. “You’re fearful,” he remarked. It was not a judgemental statement, but instead a matter-of-fact, sober statement. He opened his mouth to continue.
“I should get to packing,” Aatami interrupted. Mikael’s sage insight made him quite uncomfortable at times.
One hour later, Aatami was gliding across the tundra. He, along with the rest of the men, was silent; only the whisper of wood on snow sung in Aatami’s ears. Small gusts of wind softly rustled his hair as they reached the entrance to a barren forest, the trees dancing in the wind. They continued, their skis gliding upon the newly fallen snow. Several hours later, as the sun was beginning to fall towards the distant barren horizon, they reached the Soviet encampment.
On a high ground overlooking a small valley, the group of 30 men observed the encampment. It was relatively small; Aatami guessed it housed about 50 Soviet soldiers. Time passed and the sun sank further towards the mountains as the leaders surveyed and discussed. Sometime later, the leaders came to a conclusion. It was apparent that the Finns were outnumbered, and, therefore, they were to keep their distance, using the long, heavy rifles they had strapped to their shoulders. Aatami sighed in slight relief. He felt much safer at a distance, with the ability to survey the entirety of the camp, rather than the alternative.
During the next half hour, the Finns took their firing positions along the ridges surrounding the encampment. Aatami’s heart raced; he could make out the faces of the Soviet soldiers that he looked down upon from his position. He observed their movements, knowing that they would be dead soon enough.
He then slowly and methodically removed the rifle from his back. His heart racing, he put his eye to the eyepiece. He felt the cold, biting metal of the mechanism upon his skin as he found his target: a tall, young man, talking with others as they cleaned their rifles. Then, his leader gave the command.
Shots rang across the valley as gunfire rained down upon the encampment. Holding his breath, Aatami pulled the trigger. He felt the mechanism jolt as the bullet discharged and found its unsuspecting target.
The conflict lasted for several minutes, but the Finnish victory was swift. Most of the Soviets fell dead after the first several seconds after the command, their blood staining the snow and soil.
After the gunfire ceased, Aatami shakily swung his rifle around his shoulder and stood up, his breathing scattered and unsteady. He looked around. From what he could tell, there were no Finnish casualties. He spotted Mikael, who eyed Aatami but remained silent. He, along with the other soldiers, left the valley, gliding through the forest on their skis. The whisper of wood on snow muffled the gunshots that still reverberated in Aatami’s head.
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