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
“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
“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
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
“Starshina,” Fyodor said. The old man with
the moustaches was stepping warily towards the tank. “Looks like we have
“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
“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
The second soldier held up a pistol. It was
a German model, with a narrow barrel sticking out of the end like an admonitory
“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
“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
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
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
“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
“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
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
“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?’
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