Note: This is a sequel to Retribution. If you haven't read that story I suggest you do so first.
In the dim light filtering through the heavy clouds, the far side of the river was a line of shadows pricked out with trees, and the water a flow of darkness between the grey mud that made up the banks.
Alyosha hated the mud. He hated it with an intensity that he could hardly believe himself capable of, the mud that got into everything, that clogged the tracks, that spattered up through the driver’s hatch into his face, so that he could taste it in his mouth when he ran his tongue around his teeth. The track leading down to the river was so thick with mud that as the tank headed down it, the hull front seemed to ride on a tide of the glutinous material, and it crept up the glacis and into the tank itself.
“Napoleon called this mud a fifth element,” Tereshchenko had said earlier in the week. “You’re in good company.”
Akhmetov, the Kazakh loader, had stated in clear terms what Napoleon could go and do with himself.
“I can’t even keep the shells clean,” he’d grumbled, wiping the cases with an oily rag. “At this rate, we’ll have the gun rifling fouled.”
It wasn’t just the mud, of course, it was the cold. Everything was damp and freezing, and when Alyosha touched the glacis plate next to the driver’s hatch, it was crawling with condensed moisture from their bodies.
At least earlier they’d been with the rest of the battalion, among others who had shared their misery. But at dawn the Kombat had summoned Tereshchenko with new orders.
“We’re to go out in front as reconnaissance,” the senior sergeant had said when he returned. His face had been grim, the lines etched with mud and stubble. “Get ready and we’ll head out.”
Everyone had paused a moment to take that in. “How far?” Alyosha had asked at last.
Tereshchenko had shrugged. “Up to the river, if we haven’t encountered anything till then.”
The river was a blue squiggle on the page torn out of an old Polish atlas which was the only map they had. It had an unpronounceable name, the unfamiliar Latin characters further complicated by diacritical marks which meant nothing to any of them. Now, looking at it, Alyosha thought it should be called Chyornaya Reka, Black River. It was as good a name as any.
There was a straggle of buildings on both sides of the track, and Sasha turned the turret to cover them as the tank slowly churned by. But they seemed to be deserted, the windows broken, doors open to the rain and wind, and nobody to be seen.
“What I wouldn’t do for some vodka,” Fyodor said.
“Wouldn’t we all,” Sasha, the gunner, said. “But none for you, fishling. We don’t need a drunk driver. You’d get us in the river.”
“We don’t need a drunk gunner either,” Alyosha snapped. “You couldn’t shoot straight.”
With a sudden roar of engines, a flight of planes flew by overhead and towards the river.
“Are they ours?” Alyosha asked.
“Better hope they aren’t,” Tereshchenko said. “This far ahead of the main advance, if they’re our planes, they’ll bomb first and ask questions after.” But the planes turned away and disappeared, like a line of migrating birds.
“What do we do now, tovarish Starshina?” Akhmetov asked. “We’re at the river, so do we go back, or – ”
The next moment something smashed into the rim of the driver’s hatch and ricocheted away. Before Alyosha’s brain had consciously formulated the word “sniper”, his hand had already yanked on the lever that brought the hatch cover clanging down into place. His vision narrowed to two tiny slots of light. It was like becoming half-blind in an instant.
“Driver,” Tereshchenko snapped. “Reverse up the slope.”
Alyosha’s cold, muddy grip slipped on the gearshift, so that he had to use both hands to yank back on the clumsy transmission. He barely noticed the hammering as Fyodor fired the bow machine gun at some invisible target.
“Faster,” Tereshchenko said.
From across the river a heavy machine gun lashed at them, bullets spanging on the armour like hail, so loudly that they could hear them over the racing engine. Through the vision blocks in the hatch cover it was impossible to see where the fire was coming from. The far shore lay thick with murk.
“Stop,” Tereshchenko ordered over the intercom. A few seconds later the entire tank recoiled as Sasha fired the main gun, the muzzle flash briefly lighting the scene with orange. The fighting compartment filled with smoke as Akhmetov reloaded.
“Gunner, traverse left, thirty degrees,” Alyosha heard Tereshchenko say. “Range, four hundred.” The gun roared again.
As always when in combat, Alyosha felt peculiarly useless. Sitting behind the steering tillers, he could only smell the smoke filling the tank, feel the heat of the spent casings rolling on the floor, and wait for orders. He felt the sweat trickle down his spine, cold as the mud itself, and clenched his teeth tight, willing the wave of nausea that filled him to go away.
The machine gun across the river fell silent, whether destroyed or lying low it was impossible to tell. A couple of shots from the sniper, wherever he was, and the skirmish was over. But Alyosha kept his hatch cover down just the same.
Tereshchenko had been on the radio to the battalion. “The Kombat says we should stay here and keep watch,” he said. “The battalion won’t be here till tomorrow morning though.”
“I’m not surprised, with this mud,” Sasha said. “The trucks can’t keep up. We can’t stay inside the tank all the while, Starshina.”
“No, we can’t.” Tereshchenko paused. “We’d better set up an observation post in one of the buildings,” he said finally. “Driver, reverse a hundred metres, then left. We’ll park the tank between the two houses there. We’d still have a good field of fire if we need it.”
“We’ll need it all right,” Fyodor said, fitting a fresh magazine on the bow machine gun. “It never rains but it pours, rebyata.”
Rotating his neck and shoulders to get rid of the dull ache the tension of combat had brought to them, Alyosha reached for the gearshift again.
The building Tereshchenko chose had once been a small school. Peeling charts still hung askew from the walls, and some of the furniture was still in place, dark benches looking far too gloomy for anyone sitting on them to want to learn anything. Most of the blackboards were gone, though, and the windows were open moths set with jagged teeth of glass.
While Tereshchenko took the first watch, sitting at a window with the submachine gun and grenades from the turret bin, the other four broke up a few of the benches, piled the pieces in a corridor, and tried to make a fire. But the heavy old wood would not catch, until Alyosha fetched a bottle of diesel from the tank. Even then, it burned slowly and reluctantly, as if in sympathy with the cold.
“Just as well,” Akhmetov said. “Or it might have set the whole place on fire.”
“We could toast some of the bread in this.” Fyodor poked at the fire with another piece of wood, sending a shower of sparks floating towards the ceiling. “That’s about all we have to eat.”
The bread was hard and almost black, and it burned rather than toasted. But it was still food, and Alyosha’s stomach grumbled as he watched Sasha gingerly turn a loaf over and over in the fire.
“What’s that?” Fyodor snapped suddenly.
“Something moved – in that doorway.” Fyodor had turned away from the fire, tense, listening. “I saw it from the corner of my eye.”
“You’re imagining things,” Akhmetov said. “We searched the building when we came in.”
“We even looked in that room,” Alyosha agreed. “Nobody there.”
“I saw something, I tell you.” Fyodor bent forward, looking intently into the darkness. “Someone is in there.”
“Can’t be the sniper,” Sasha said. “He’d have shot us by now.”
Fyodor wasn’t listening. “Come out,” he called. “We know you’re there. Come out with your hands up or we’ll throw a grenade in. Come on.”
Nothing happened, but Alyosha fancied he could see movement, a shifting of shadows. “Come out,” Fyodor shouted again.
Both Akhmetov and Sasha had now realised he was serious, and they, too were listening intently. Quietly, the loader slipped a grenade out of his belt and hefted it.
“Get ready to duck,” he said calmly.
“Wait!” Fyodor looked back at him. “There’s no danger.”
“You just said...”
Fyodor didn’t reply. He was looking back into the room, and said something Alyosha didn’t understand. It sounded as though he was saying “Nadezhda”. But that was ridiculous. He couldn’t possibly have said that.
“Who’s Nad –“
Fyodor wasn’t listening. Slowly, he stepped forward, two steps, three, and then darted into the room. There was a brief scuffle, a shrill cry, and he emerged, pulling along someone by the arm.
“Look what I found,” he said.
It was a child, a little girl. She was appallingly thin, her hair hanging in bedraggled strings round her face. All she wore was a muddy cotton dress and a pair of tattered shoes without socks. Her bare arms and legs were blue with cold. And she was still struggling, hard, trying to pull away from the big machine-gunner.
“Where on earth did she come from?” Alyosha asked blankly.
“She was hiding under the benches,” Fyodor replied. “That’s why we couldn’t see her before.”
“She must have come out because of the fire,” Sasha said. “And maybe she smelt the bread.”
The girl gabbled something, squirming in Fyodor’s grip.
“I’m not going to hurt you,” he told her. “I...am...not...going...to...hurt...you. Stop fighting. Do you understand Russian?”
The girl twisted desperately, trying to tear herself loose. Her dress ripped suddenly, she ducked under Alyosha’s grabbing hand and rushed off down the corridor.
“Get her!” Fyodor shouted. “If she gets out in the mud we’ll never find her again.”
“What’s going on?” Tereshchenko shouted from upstairs. Alyosha was already running after the girl, whom he could just make out in the darkness. Her short thin legs carried her along amazingly fast, so that she managed to evade him long enough to throw herself out of the building’s back door. But she wasn’t quite fast enough for him not to see her duck into a house to the right.
“Where’s the kid?” Fyodor came up behind him, panting. “Don’t tell me you lost her.”
“She’s in there,” Alyosha pointed. “We’d better cover all sides, though, so she can’t run again.”
So that was what they did, Tereshchenko joining them as Sasha explained what had happened. Only Fyodor entered the house, carrying a torch from the tank. In a few minutes, he came out again, white-faced.
“I think you need to come in here,” he said.
“What’s in there?” Tereshchenko asked.
Fyodor shook his head. “You need to see it for yourself, Starshina. No wonder she was so desperate to get back in there. She was taking care of her mother, you see.”
The woman’s name was Malga. That much they could get out of her, and that she and her daughter had been hiding there for many days. How many, she could not say – she was in any case too weak to sit up, let alone talk coherently, her body burning with fever. Finally, they wrapped her in blankets and carried her across to the school. The girl ran beside them, staring anxiously up at her mother.
After she’d warmed up and eaten some of the bread and drunk a little water, she spoke a little more, her voice a rough whisper. She spoke in a mixture of Polish and very bad Russian, and in her fever she stumbled over words, so they had to guess at a lot of the things she said. And when she’d finished they looked at each other.
“I’ve heard of what the Poles and Germans did to the Jews,” Tereshchenko said softly. “But not that it was like this.”
“Threatened to turn the kid into soap,” Akhmetov responded blankly. “They threatened to turn her kid into soap. What?”
“But she isn’t even a Jew,” Alyosha objected. “She only married one.”
“That’s even worse,” Sasha told them. “That means she’s a race traitor, you see.”
“And she got away,” Tereshchenko added. “Both of them escaped. Think of what happened to those who didn’t. Her husband, for instance.”
They looked at the woman. She had fallen asleep, her breathing harsh in the silence. Fever spots burned bright on her high cheekbones. The girl sat by her mother, fiercely possessive. Her torn dress flapped from her shoulder.
“I’ll be getting back on watch,” Tereshchenko said. “Keep them warm. Get the girl a sheet from the tank so she doesn’t freeze.”
“What do we do with them?” Akhmetov asked.
“When the battalion comes in the morning we’ll hand them over to the medics.” Sasha shook his head. “I’ll tell you straight, I don’t like Jews all that much, myself, but nobody deserves to be treated like that.”
Alyosha looked at Fyodor curiously. “You know, I’ve known you for a while now,” he said. “But I’ve never seen you so worked up about anyone as you were about that kid when you chased after her. Why? She was obviously not a spy, was she?”
Fyodor glowered into the fire and put on another piece of broken desk. “I knew she wasn’t,” he said. “She just reminded me of another kid.”
“A kid? What kid?”
“Nadezhda.” Fyodor looked round at them. “Her name was Nadezhda.”
All three of them looked at him. “Who’s Nadezhda?” Akhmetov asked. “A niece? I didn’t know you had any family.”
Fyodor shook his head. “I don’t. Forget it.”
“No,” Alyosha said. “We’re not going to forget it. Tell us.”
Fyodor looked up at him, nodded to himself, and began.
This all happened over three years ago (Fyodor said). It was just after the invasion. Yes, I’ve been in this war right from the start.
Back then I was a loader on a Betushka. I don’t know if any of you have even seen one, but three years ago we were still using them, though they were no good, really. They would almost catch fire by themselves, and we’d say that even a sharp stone could poke a hole in the armour. And, of course, the unit commanders were under the direct control of the commissars, the politrooks.
These days you don’t know what it is like to be commanded by a politrook. They used to love to throw their weight around, just to show that they knew as much or more than the commanders, and they screwed up everything. Some were worse than others, and ours was one of the worst in the army. His name was Kazakov.
Those were bad days, when the war started. Our planes had pretty much all been wiped out on the ground, and the Nazis ruled the skies. We couldn’t even move without being bombed and shelled to pieces. But our politrooks always knew better than anyone else, and Kazakov decided that we ought to attack the Germans.
We knew it was going to be a disaster, but it was even worse than we’d expected. We never even got anywhere near the Germans before being blasted to pieces by their artillery. The few tanks which survived – mine among them – managed to withdraw. And then Kazakov decided he would lead us through a forest to safety.
Can you guess what happened? He led us straight into a swamp. Every single tank we had was stuck. We had to abandon them all.
By that time the Nazis were on all sides, and we were surrounded. Those of us who were left split up, and tried to get through the enemy lines back to our own side. I started off with a small group – the two others from my tank, and a few more – but as we went we got separated, and sometime during that first evening I found myself alone.
I can’t tell you now how I spent the next couple of days. I ate leaves of plants and things I dug out of the ground – roots and tubers – with the only tool I had, a knife. I drank out of puddles. I slept only when I had to, dozing off leaning against a tree trunk until I forced myself to my feet and carried on again. And all this time the Germans were flying over the forest, and lobbing shells at random into it, because they knew we were there.
I think it was the third day when I walked, mostly in a daze, into a village whose name I don’t remember now – if I ever knew it. And, because I was half-starved and totally exhausted, I stumbled into the place hardly looking to see where I was going.
It was early morning, I remember, and the sun was a swollen red ball hanging in the east, colouring everything the tint of blood. It wasn’t a large village, basically a line of houses on either side of an unpaved street, with kitchen gardens and cow sheds round the back. If you’ve seen one you’ve seen them all.
The street was narrow, unpaved and deeply rutted by cart wheels – generations of carts, all of the same axle size, had worn ruts like twin drainage channels – in the earth; but it was quite wide enough for the German half tracks. I saw the first one just in time, parked in the centre of the village, the crew still in the act of disembarking. If I’d arrived only a minute later, or if I’d come along the track instead of through the forest, they couldn’t have failed to see me.
I was between two houses, standing beside a sagging fence with a creeper growing on it, afraid that the least movement would give me away. In fact, it was probably my blue uniform merging with the blue morning shadows which concealed me for the moment. Still, I couldn’t remain undiscovered forever, and I was beginning to edge slowly back when I felt a tug on my tunic. I was almost too petrified to turn around and look, but finally I forced myself.
It was a girl, a small girl, just about the same age and size as that one over there. She pulled on my sleeve again.
“What?” I whispered, but she shook her head and put a finger to her lips. Then she beckoned me to follow her.
I thought – well, I can’t really say at this distance of time what I did think, but I might have imagined she was playing a game. But I had no alternative but to follow her, because as we came out from between the houses I saw more German soldiers walking along the border of the forest, between me and safety.
She led me through a back garden, past another house and into a third. It was the usual peasant home, nothing fancy, the kind where you stepped right into the kitchen because that was the most important room in the house. A woman was standing at the window, looking out at the street. She turned eagerly when the girl entered. And then she saw me.
“Oh,” she said. Just that. “Oh.”
“Mama,” the girl said. “I saw him hiding from the soldiers, so I brought him.”
The woman’s eyes were filled with fear – whether of me, or of what would happen if the Germans found me, I don’t know. But the fear made me uneasy.
“It’s all right,” I said. “I’ll go away.”
The girl spoke even before I saw the flash of relief in the woman’s eyes. “No, you can’t go away like that. Papa told me to help anyone who needs help, and the Germans will hurt you if they catch you.”
“But I can’t stay,” I tried to explain. “If they find me here, they’ll punish your Mama and you.”
“He’s right,” the woman said. “He has to...”
“Mama,” the girl said, and even though she was such a little girl she had real steel in her voice. “Remember what Papa said before he went off to the war.”
The woman sighed, her shoulders slumping. “All right,” she muttered. “But I can’t keep you here, whatever your name is. I’ll give you a suit of my husband’s, and then you’ll have to go.”
So that was what she did. Her husband and I were about a height, luckily, and though he must have been quite a bit fatter the clothes didn’t fit too badly. When I was done changing, I went back into the kitchen carrying the uniform and my tank helmet.
“I’d better be going,” I said. “Thank you very much for the clothes. I’ll be on my way.”
“Wait,” the girl said, and took the uniform and helmet from my hands. “I’ll hide these for you in a haystack somewhere.” Before I could say anything more she disappeared through the door.
The woman gave me an embarrassed smile. “You’d better sit down and have some breakfast before you go,” she said. Without giving me a chance to protest she poured out a bowl of borscht and a cup of tea. “My daughter will be right back, and you can leave then.”
I’ll tell you, that even after these years I still haven’t ever tasted anything better than that bowl of soup. It was the first real food I’d had in days, and the warmth flooded through me as I spooned it into my mouth. The woman sat opposite me, watching, sipping at her tea and not saying a word.
I’d almost finished the soup when she looked up over my shoulder at the door, and there was an expression on her face that told me it was bad news even before I turned.
Two German soldiers stood at the door, and there was a collaborator along with them. Back then, we hadn’t become familiar with those turncoats, since there weren’t that many of them, and they were mostly émigrés who had joined the Nazis before the invasion. This particular one was a short, stocky individual in a German helmet and a brown uniform. We were lucky that he wasn’t from the village, or I wouldn’t have had a chance. And we were also lucky that the Nazis didn’t summon the whole village to gather together before examining us, like they began doing later. Someone would certainly have given me away.
“So,” the collaborator said. “Who have we here?”
“I’m Maria Safonova,” the woman said. “And this is my husband, Viktor.”
“Your husband, is it?” The traitor peered at me. “Why aren’t you speaking for yourself? Lost your tongue?”
“I’m eating,” I said, swallowing the borscht in my mouth. “I don’t speak with my mouth full.”
That gave him a laugh. He looked over his shoulder at the Germans and said something in their language, and both of them grinned. “A civilised Russian villager, yet,” he said to me. “Why aren’t you in the army?”
I shrugged. “My call up papers didn’t come.”
“I see. Well, we’ll have a look in the house. Stay right where you are.”
One of the Germans stayed in the kitchen, watching us, while the traitor and the other one went through the place. I could hear things being thrown on the floor in the bedroom where I’d changed. If my uniform had still been there I’d have been toast.
Finally they came back. The traitor had a disappointed look on his face. “You,” he said to me. “We’ll ask you some questions.”
“To make sure you are who you say you are, and not another of the Ivans trying to get away. We’ve caught a good number of those. Now, what’s your –“
Before he could finish what he was saying, the German at the door was pushed aside. The girl ran in. “What’s going on?” she asked. “Who are these people?”
The traitor pointed a thick finger at her. “Who are you?”
“Nadezhda,” the girl said. Not Nadya, like any other kid, but the full name, Nadezhda. “Who are you?”
“Nadezhda,” the woman told her, “come here and be quiet.”
Instead she ran to me and threw her arms around my neck, which she could since I was still sitting down. “Papa. Who are these people? I’m scared.”
One of the Germans said something to the other. They looked together at the traitor.
“Is this your father?” he asked.
“Of course he’s my Papa,” she replied, putting her head on my shoulder. “And this is my Mama.”
The traitor made a disgusted sound. “Right then,” he said. “We don’t have any more time to waste, so we’ll be going. But we’ll be back if you put so much as a toe wrong.”
For many minutes after they’d gone nobody said anything. Then the girl smiled at me. “I think it’s safe now,” she said.
“You’re a remarkable young lady.” I listened to the sound of the half-tracks’ engines revving as they readied to move out. “Quite the actress.”
The mother’s eyes held an expression I couldn’t name. “You’ll be leaving now, soldier?”
“Yes, ma’am,” I said. Somehow I couldn’t call her citizeness. There was some kind of barrier between us, like a glass wall. “Thank you for everything.”
“I’ll go with you till the next village,” the girl said. “I know these woods well, I can take you by the quickest path.”
I looked at the mother. She nodded.
“Nadezhda will go with you,” she said.
“Nadezhda stayed with me till that afternoon,” Fyodor continued. “She took me past the next village, and the one beyond that. We saw it from inside the forest. It was a smoking ruin, every house destroyed. The Germans had been less kind to it than they had been to us.
“ ‘You go back to the army,’ Nadezhda said when we parted in the forest, after she’d shown me which way to go. She’d wanted to come further, to stay with me all the way, but I’d insisted she return to her mother. ‘And you beat the enemy, these Germans. Throw them away.’
“She said it with such earnestness that if the situation had been different I might have wanted to laugh. ‘Your papa is there too,’ I said. ‘He’s fighting the Germans too.’
“She looked at me and after a pause shook her head. ‘He’s dead. One of his friends wrote. We got the letter yesterday.’ She touched my arm. ‘He was a tanker just like you. I recognised your uniform at once, you see.’
“And I remembered the strange expression on the woman’s face. Even today, I can’t imagine the control she must have forced on herself. ‘Your Papa must have been a very good man,’ I said inadequately.
“She smiled. After all she’d gone through, the girl smiled. ‘You’ll have to do his bit as well as your own,’ she said. And then she rose on tiptoe, kissed me on the cheek, and was gone.”
Everyone watched in silence as Fyodor poked the fire and added some more broken wood. “I walked for another day before I found one of our patrols. I got back to our side with them, and luckily nobody asked questions about why I’d come back in civilian clothes. They might have, but they needed tank crew so badly that all they wanted to know was how fast it was possible to put me back in a tank.
“I don’t know what happened afterwards to the village. The Germans destroyed a great number of them later, and deported many people, women and girls, back home as slave labour. But each time I see a small girl, all I see is Nadezhda. After the war is over, I’m going to go back there, and I’m going to see if I can find her again.”
“What will you do if you do find her?” Alyosha asked.
“Tell her I did as she told me,” Fyodor said. He rose from beside the fire. “Is there a toilet in this dump? I need to pee.” Turning, he stalked away. They all watched him go in silence.
As he went, in the flickering light of the fire, Alyosha could have sworn he could see Fyodor’s shoulders shaking.
But that was really too ridiculous for words, he thought, and turned back to the fire.
“Who takes the next watch?” Tereshchenko asked, coming down the stairs.
Nobody said anything.
Copyright B Purkayastha 2015
Part Three: A Rotten Bloody War