Here in the south, in afternoon in late summer the air is drenched in sunshine, and looks as heavy as though it is full of honey. And when a vehicle passes, the dust from its wheels hangs in the air as though suspended in the liquid and reluctant to come down to the ground again.
It was an afternoon in late summer when Alyosha’s tank came over the bulge of the little hill and clanked down the trail through the birch forest. Tanks and soldiers had already passed this way, and the air was still so hazy with dust that Alyosha had to squint through the driver’s hatch to see to steer.
“Keep your mouth closed, fishling,” the bow machine gunner, Fyodor, said from his right. His large face was creased with dirt mixed in with his beard stubble, and he rubbed his jaw with a finger and held it up to demonstrate. “You don’t want that in your mouth. All the pretty girls will laugh at your teeth.”
Alyosha flushed. They all kept making fun of him, because he was the new one, straight out of tank driver training, and they called him fishling. It wasn’t his fault that he was young and green and they were all veterans, or that he was the replacement for the former driver, who had been killed by a sniper bullet right through the front hatch.
That memory made him nervous, as though someone was drawing a bead through a sniper scope at the top of his chest, but there was nothing to be done about it. Besides, he told himself, the enemy had gone from this sector and there was no fighting left to do.
Yes, but suppose they had left behind a few men to delay the advance and fight to the last?
His thoughts were interrupted by the commander’s voice in the helmet headphones. “Driver, slow down. We turn off in fifty metres.”
“Da, tovarish Starshina.” Alyosha stamped on the clutch and yanked back on the gearshift as hard as he could. It amazed him as always how much strength it took to change gears on the T 34/85, and once again he wondered just why he’d been chosen for tank driver training when he was so small and thin. Once he’d asked and been told, leavened with plenty of profanity, that it was because he was so small and thin.
“It’s little fishes like you who can jump in easily through the driver’s hatch,” Fyodor had said, rotating his shoulders, hefty with muscle. As though, Alyosha had thought sourly, he didn’t have to crawl in through the same hatch. And Sasha the gunner had added from behind and above, “Besides, you’re so small that if some sniper shoots at you through the hatch he’ll probably miss.” And everyone had laughed except Alyosha himself and Tereshchenko, the senior sergeant tank commander.
“Turn off to the left,” Tereshchenko called now, over the intercom. “Ten metres.”
Alyosha pulled in the left steering tiller and jerked the tank into the turn. Through the open hatch he could see the village, a jumble of houses across a stretch of fields. Some people were watching them from outside the houses.
“Back before the war,” Fyodor said conversationally, “you could have a good time in these villages. They knew how to live, no complexes on their backs like city people. And the girls after harvest time, they...”
Alyosha tuned him out, concentrating on driving the tank up the rutted trail to the village. The ruts were so deep that each time a track would hit one the entire tank tilted slightly, and the squad of soldiers riding on the rear deck swore and shouted abuse. Here, off the main track, the dust was less thick but still enough to make his eyes smart. He wished he had a pair of goggles.
They passed a line of ditches dug into the fields perpendicular to the track, and arrived at the village. Alyosha brought the vehicle to a juddering halt without waiting for the commander’s order. Leaning back in his narrow seat, he switched off the engine. The sudden silence was sweet.
A small knot of people was coming up the village lane towards the tank. They looked apprehensive, and were led by an old man with long grey moustaches.
“You’d think they’d be happy to see us,” Fyodor grunted. “Instead just look at them!”
The loader, Akhmetov, laughed harshly. “All these days and you still expect gratitude?” He knelt on the ammunition crates on the floor to peer over Alyosha’s shoulder. “Wonder if they were all in bed with the Nazis.”
Alyosha watched the corporal in charge of the squad of soldiers walk over and talk to the old man with the moustaches. He nodded and came back to the tank.
“He says the Nazis weren’t here,” he called up to Tereshchenko in the turret. “He says nothing happened here, no one came.”
“Yes?” The senior sergeant’s voice was heavy with sarcasm. “Ask him about those trenches we drove past in the field.”
“I already asked him, Starshina. He says they dug them to stop German armour coming, in case they turned up.” He spat eloquently on the ground. “A likely story, seeing they left the track untouched and the trenches are all pointing east.”
“Take your men and search the village,” Tereshchenko said. “Stay ready to move fast if anything happens. Akhmetov, load anti-personnel. Everyone on alert.”
Alyosha watched the villagers through the front hatch. They stood where they were, looking uncertainly at the tank and at the soldiers who were now beginning to move through the village. A chicken began clucking and quickly fell silent.
“How long,” Sasha the gunner muttered, "are we planning to stay here, Starshina?”
“As long as it takes,” Tereshchenko said irritably. He sounded on edge, and this worried Alyosha because Tereshchenko was normally as emotional as a block of wood. “I want to find out what’s going on here.”
“Starshina,” Fyodor said. The old man with the moustaches was stepping warily towards the tank. “Looks like we have complaints.”
“The soldiers,” the old man said to Alyosha through the hatch, since he was the most easily visible. “The soldiers are stealing the chickens.”
“What’s it to you, dedushka?” Fyodor leaned over to glare up at the old man. “We’ve come to liberate you, and all you can talk about is chickens? The soldiers need food. We need food.”
“Enough, Fyodor,” Tereshchenko called from the turret. “Listen, Dyadya,” he said to the old man. “We haven’t had a proper meal or sleep in days now, and we still have a long way to go. I think a few chickens are the least of your worries.”
“If you want food,” the old man said eagerly, squinting myopically up at the turret, “we have bread and even a few eggs. You’re welcome to them.” His watery blue eyes blinked earnestly. “But please don’t disturb the chickens, and the women –“
As though on clue, someone screamed in the village, a woman yelling. Alyosha glanced uneasily at Fyodor, but he was fumbling with the lock of his machine gun.
“Listen to them!” the old man said.
“What do you expect in a war?”’ Akhmetov leaned across Alyosha’s shoulder. He squinted at the afternoon sunshine, his narrow Kazakh eyes almost disappearing. “Soldiers are men, old man, and they need their fun.”
“Fun?” The old man was outraged, his jaw quivering. “You call that fun?”
“Oh yes.” Fyodor didn’t look at anyone, and he might have been talking to his machine gun. “After days and weeks of facing death constantly, not knowing if you’ll ever even see a woman again, I’d call it fun. All right.”
“That’s enough,” Tereschchenko said. “We aren’t the Nazis. Get them back here.”
At that moment, there was a shot, ringing out sharp and loud, from the other side of the village. Everyone in the tank stiffened. Alyosha grabbed at the steering tillers. Fyodor swivelled his machine gun, the stubby barrel traversing the street.
“Zhopa,” Sasha swore softly. “What the hell is going on?”
Nothing happened for a long moment. Alyosha, watching the old man, suddenly had a feeling that he’d been expecting the shot, that this was what he’d been trying to head off with his complaint about the chickens. He hadn’t made the slightest attempt to crouch in the dust like the others. He’d just turned round and was looking back at the village.
Then the corporal and two of the soldiers emerged from between two houses, pushing a girl between them.
“Starshina,” the corporal called. “Look what we found.”
“She was hiding behind a barn,” one of the other soldiers said. “Dug herself into the hay. When we found her she took a shot at us and tried to run.”
The girl was now close enough for Alyosha to get a better look at her. Straw was sticking in her hair and clinging to her brown dress. She was still struggling, her oval face red with effort and her deep-set eyes snapping with fury.
“Shot at you?” Tereshchenko asked. “What with?”
The second soldier held up a pistol. It was a German model, with a narrow barrel sticking out of the end like an admonitory finger.
“A Walther,” Tereshchenko said without surprise. “So, Dyadya,” he called to the old man, “nobody was here, wasn’t that what you said? And here we have people taking potshots at us with German guns.”
“She’s not from here,” the old man said, not looking back. “I’ve never seen her before.”
“He lies!” One of the men who had come along behind the old man strode forward. His face was working with fury and some other emotion. “This hell-bitch was the German commandant’s whore. And she acted like the queen of the whole district. Had people shot for looking at her crossways.”
“That’s a lie!” The girl glared at the man. The muscles in her arms were tense with effort, and she looked magnificent in her anger. One of her shoes had come off, and in order not to have to look at her face, Alyosha stared at her bare toes clenching in the dust. “I had nothing to do with the German commandant.”
“He just left her behind when they pulled out yesterday,” the man said. Alyosha could identify the other emotion in his voice now, along with the fury. It was triumph. “She was running behind them, with the other collaborators, begging them to take her along. But the German pretended he couldn’t hear her.”
“He’s right,” one of the other men said. “This bitch, she isn’t from this village, but she came here just after the war started. Mother dead and papa in the army, she said, and said she’d come where she knew she could find shelter.” He spat. “Nice daughter of a soldier she turned out to be. The moment the Germans came she rushed into their arms.” His upper lip lifted in a sneer. “Probably her dad’s one of the traitors who went over to the Germans, too.”
“Ask her what her name was, the one the Germans gave her.” The first man glared up at the turret. “Go on, ask her if it’s not true that they called her Snow White.”
There was a sudden silence.
“Snow White,” the corporal said. “Are you sure?”
The man nodded, saying nothing. For an endless moment nobody spoke.
“Snow White,” Alyosha mouthed silently. Even he had heard of Snow White, word of whose cruelty had filtered back through the partisans to the troops. He couldn’t believe it. Snow White should be a tall, jackbooted Nordic ice queen with flinty blue eyes and a cigarette in a holder. She shouldn’t be an oval-faced village girl with straw in her hair and dirty toes.
“All right, corporal,” Tereshchenko said from the turret. “Hold her. Fyodor, call battalion and report that we’ve got Snow White.”
Alyosha stared at the young woman. Now that she was no longer struggling, there was something almost familiar about her face. From being someone who should have been a Nordic ice queen, Snow White had become someone whom he seemed to have known for a long time.
“Starshina,” Fyodor said, “the Kombat says to take her back to battalion. She’s to be sent on from there.”
There was a brief pause. “Very well,” Tereshchenko said. “Tell the Kombat we’ll be bringing her back. Corporal,” he added, “get the people to go back to the village and stay here with your squad. Keep an eye on everything.”
“But, the woman, sergeant,” the corporal said. “How do you plan to take her back? Someone like that, inside the tank, she might get hold of a submachine gun or a grenade and –“
“I’ll talk to her,” Tereshchenko said. He swung himself out of the turret and dropped to the ground. Alyosha could see him out of the corner of the hatch, in his brown uniform and black helmet for all the world like someone from another world in the honey-drenched summer light. “I’ll talk to her and convince her to behave. Get the people indoors and keep watch.”
“Starshina –“ the corporal protested.
“I said I’ll talk to her, damn it.” Tereshchenko plucked the Walther out of the third soldier’s grasp and grabbed the girl’s shoulder. “Let’s take a little walk,” he told her, his fingers digging so hard into her that she winced. They passed out of sight to the side of the tank.
Nobody said anything for a moment.
“Snow White,” Akhmetov said finally. “That wasn’t what I thought Snow White would look like.”
“None of us did,” Fyodor said. “Well, live and learn, as they say, right?”
“What happens to her when they get her back to Moscow?” Alyosha wanted to know.
“What do you think, fishling?" Akhmetov laughed shortly. "Some good hard interrogation and a firing squad, what else?”
“What’s the Starshina doing with her?” Fyodor asked.
“I can’t quite see,” Sasha said from the turret. “They’re over by the trenches. They –“
“What?” Alyosha asked.
There was a shot, the clear crack of the Walther. A heavy tread came closer to the tank and Tereshchenko climbed in through the turret. “Let’s go.”
“Forget the girl. Let’s go.”
“Starshina,” Akhmetov said. “The Kombat said –“
“Let’s go, I said.”
Alyosha switched on the engine and turned the tank round. They clattered unevenly up the track and passed the trenches. From the nearest of them, a bare foot protruded, smeared with blood.
The tank drove on towards the setting sun.
“I only found out about the rest of it later,” Alyosha said.
His granddaughter sat back against his chair and hugged her knees. “What happened to the sergeant?”
“To him? Nothing. I don’t know what Tereshchenko told the Kombat. Probably that the girl had tried to escape and he’d been forced to shoot her. We never heard anything more about it anyway, and he was killed in Berlin.”
“So what did you find out, Dedushka?”
“It was right at the end of summer. We’d halted one night in a little town right on the Polish frontier. It was a cold night for that time of year, and since the Germans were nowhere near we’d built a fire. We even had some food and vodka, so we were feeling pretty content. You’ve never been in that situation, so you don’t know how it feels to be content with only a little meat and alcohol, when you have a fire and nobody’s shooting at you.
“Then somehow or other we got to talking about the girl, Snow White, and what had happened in the village. Then Akhmetov asked casually, ‘Aren’t you from some village in those parts, Starshina?’
“Tereshchenko’s face froze right up. ‘Yes,’ he said shortly, and looked into the fire.
“I was sitting right opposite him and I saw that look on his face, and it was suddenly as though I’d seen that look – that exact same look – somewhere before, somewhere framed by honey-coloured air.
“ ‘A traitor who went over to the Germans,’ he quoted, and his voice was proud and defiant and filled with regret.”
Copyright B Purkayastha 2014
Part 2: Nadezhda