Charity Sunday--May 29th
Night Witch--When Russians were Heroes/Heroines.
United Help Ukraine is, tragically, my charity of choice this time again. The Russian invasion of Ukraine goes on. I’ll donate one dollar for every view of this blog post, and two dollars for every comment.
“United Help Ukraine” provides direct assistance to those impacted by war in Ukraine, including providing medical supplies, food, and other humanitarian aid. https://unitedhelpukraine.org/ -
I’ve read that Russians still feel that they fought the most in WWII, and should have the most credit. In some ways they may be right, It could be argued that they lost the most yet survived. The story I’m sharing here is set back then, when a woman pilot crashes and is saved by a wounded sniper. It features one of my few heterosexual pairings.
For links to the other bloggers on this Charity Sunday, go to https://lisabetsarai.blogspot.com/2022/05/charity-sunday-for-love-of-reading.html
So here goes. This was published in Duty and Desire, edited by Kristina Wright for Cleis Press, Nov. 13, 2012. Since I had another story as well in the book, I used my real name for this one and kept the pen name for the other.
By Connie Wilkins
Far away someone played the balaika.
Darkness, slashed by searchlights and bursts of antiaircraft fire, gripped Yelena. Over and over she glided silently, engine cut, the only warning for the German defenses the whistling of the wind through the biplane’s wing-struts—until Yevgeniya in the navigator’s cockpit released the bombs. Over and over in her mind, the silent approach, the bombs dropping, exploding, then the side-slipping her plane out of the searchlight beams and restarting the engine—but never the flight back to their base. Never escape.
Yet now there was balalaika music. A simple tune, simply played, achingly sweet. The notes tugged at her heart, her mind, and led her at last out of darkness.
At first all she saw was the fire in the hearth. Then the subtle movement of fingers plucking the balalaika’s strings caught her eye. Her gaze moved up along a muscular forearm to the shirtsleeve rolled tightly across the bicep, and onward to the dark head bowed over the instrument. He sat near the hearth on a low stool, and the firelight glinted on streaks of silver in his hair; but that hand, that arm, were not those of an old man.
A dream, of course, but much pleasanter than the dark one. Often at an encampment when they could snatch some sleep she had dreamed of a small farm cottage, a hearth, and perhaps even a man in the background, though visions of a simple piece of rye bread and a bowl of hot barley soup had ranked higher. Some of the girls in the all-women’s regiment talked on and on about men, while others, like Yevgeniya…
“Yevgeniya!” Yelena struggled to sit in spite of a throbbing pain in her head. The balalaika music ceased abruptly. But the room, the fire, the man calmly rolling his shirtsleeves back down and lighting a lamp with a brand from the fire, were still there. Not a dream, then.
Now she rememberd Yevgeniya calling, “Lena! Lenotchka! Can you get free?” while her hands tugged so frantically that Yelena had blacked out from the pain.
“Yevgeniya?” She fought back panic. More memories came; the blasted wing, the plane plunging and shuddering as she struggled to keep in the air long enough to safely cross into Russian-held territory.
“Your navigator survived the crash with only a few cuts and bruises.” He took up a walking stick that had leaned against the chimney and made his way slowly toward her. An old man after all? The lamp showed a long scar across his cheek beside his left ear, disappearing under his collar. A good face, with strong bones, lined by pain and stress rather than age. Not old, but wounded, which explained why he could be here instead of in the army with every Russian male fit to fight.
He set the lamp on a wooden table and pulled a chair up beside the couch where she lay. “She saw my light on the hillside and came to me for help, with her handgun ready in case I should need persuading. Such a forceful girl! The Germans are wrong to call your bomber crews ‘Night Witches.’ That one is more like an avenging Valkyrie.”
Yelena smiled at that, but asked, “Where is she now?” She felt for the handgun that should be in her flight suit pocket, and realized suddenly that she lay all but naked under a soft woolen blanket.
“Your weapon is beside your pillow.”
The hint of amusement in his voice dispelled her sudden fear. She restrained herself from groping for the gun.
“Once convinced that I would not eat you, she went to find the nearest Russian troops and then to make her way to your airfield. She will send help for you if she can. She assured me, though, that you would understand her first duty is to get back into the air and drop more bombs on the invaders.”
“So it is,” Yelena said. “And mine as well.”
“Then mine must be to make sure you’re fit to travel and to fly. No bones broken, but your leg was badly bruised by the fuel tank that trapped you in the cockpit, and yesterday your head had a lump as big as a goose egg.” He reached out and gently lifted the russet hair away from her temple. “Tonight I think we have only a common hen’s egg to deal with.”
Yelena’s hand went to her wound. She flinched at the soreness. There was indeed a lump, and a short gash already scabbing over. She must have bled a great deal. But…“Yesterday? How long have I been here? And how long has Yevgeniya been gone?”
“She was off within a quarter of an hour after we brought you here.” He said it very casually, but Yelena knew he understood what she was thinking. This man had not only rescued her, even wounded as he was, but had cared for her unconscious body for at least a day and a night.
The thought of his strong hands cleaning away the blood, removing her clothing, doing for her whatever else had been necessary, did not trouble her as much as it should have. She felt a traitorous flush rise from her chest to her cheeks, but kept her voice steady. “Then I thank you for your care of me.”
“You would do the same for any fellow soldier of the Rodina.”
It was true, though something in his eyes made Yelena hope that she was not just any fellow soldier to him. It could hardly matter, since she must indeed return to flying, and her chances of survival were less even than for foot soldiers in the Russian Army.
The army. She struggled again to sit up, and managed it with his right arm around her shoulders. “Are we still behind our own lines?”
“The German guns have been coming closer. One more day, perhaps.”
There was no need to explain the danger. If the Germans found the remains of her mangled Po-2 biplane, their search for survivors would be unrelenting. No “Night Witch” had yet been captured; they had each been given handguns to assure that none ever would. Better to die that way.
She clutched at his hand. His fingers tightened around hers. “I must get back on my feet. What should I call you?” It felt strange that she did not already know.
“Arkady is my name. But…wait while I find something for you to wear.” He rose and turned away so quickly that she guessed he was trying to spare her embarrassment. Or, she found herself hoping, trying to keep from staring as intently as he wished.
How had she forgotten her undressed state? Her fur-lined flight suit and wool uniform and ill-fitting army-issue undergarments were gone completely, and all that covered her was a man’s cotton undershirt that might have reached to the hips if her movements hadn’t bunched it higher. Just the thought of his gaze on her body made her tightened nipples show clearly through thin fabric. “What has become of my own clothing?” she called after him, more to distract herself than out of curiosity.
“Burned. And then buried. The fuel tank had leaked onto you, and there was so much blood…to keep them here was too dangerous.”
Of course. Yelena pulled the blanket back over her lap. This was no time for… Or perhaps it was. War topples all conventions. She was no virgin, after all. How could one deny a childhood friend going off to fight and likely never to come back? All the girls in her village had done their part. It was not until a year later that she had discovered how much more she could do for her country, when the famous aviator Marina Raskova persuaded Comrade Stalin to let her form female air regiments, with women trained in the aeroclubs so popular across the country in the last decade. Surely by now, after more than 800 bombing missions, she deserved some pleasures of her own choosing.
Arkady could be seen through an open door rummaging through a chest at the foot of a wide bed. When he returned he brought a nightrobe of fine embroidered wool. “I don’t suppose my grandmother ever actually wore this after her wedding night, only saved it with her bridal clothes and other treasures.”
“Lovely,” Yelena said sincerely. “I hope she wouldn’t mind letting me use it.”
“She would call you a heroine of the Motherland, and be honored,” he said gravely, and after that she couldn’t refuse.
When she sat decently clothed at the edge of the couch, he helped her stand erect. The bruised leg felt as though it might give way, and her head began to pound. Her first steps were unsteady, but motion strengthened her, and she walked on her own to the haven of a chair on the far side of the table.
“Good! That deserves a reward.” Arkady took two bowls from a shelf and limped without his stick toward the iron cookstove beside the chimney. Only then did Yelena realize that the aroma of barley soup had been teasing at her subconscious mind. In dreams it had always come first, but now the man—and the danger—had distracted her. Even his movements, stooping to add wood to the fire, preoccupied her, and she wondered how far down past his shirt and into his loose farmer’s trousers his scar extended.
They shared the soup, thick with carrots and onion and bits of chicken, and slices of rye bread far enough past fresh to be ideal for dipping into the broth. Yelena was suddenly so hungry that she ate much too fast and let a bite of soup-sodden bread slide down her chin. Arkady laughed, and she grinned widely, until she saw him wince and touch the scar on his face.
“Does it hurt?” She wished she dared reach out to soothe him.
“No, just…pulls a bit if I laugh. I can’t remember the last time I did that. Does anyone laugh in these times?”
“One must laugh, to prove to fate that you are alive!” This time Yelena did reach across the table to touch his face, and, after a tiny flinch, Arkady did not pull away. “You should do it as exercise, to stretch the scar tissue. And rub it with the ointment my grandmother used to make with goose grease and herbs.” She ran a finger very lightly down his wounded cheek, and felt a tremor he could not suppress. She did not think pain was its cause. When her hand reached his throat he pulled it gently away, but did not let it go.
“My grandmother never kept geese,” he said, “but she had her own home remedies.” His tone was light, though the darkened eyes fixed on hers were saying something else entirely. “Her chickens and sheep are still here, in my care, while she has gone to live in a safer area with my cousins.”
“I expect chicken fat would do. Or lanolin from the sheep’s wool.” Yelena too was matter-of-fact, while in her imagination she rubbed ointment all along his wounds however far beneath his clothing they extended. “Proper massaging can work wonders for stiffened scars.”
Arkady dropped her hand and stood abruptly. “You had better watch out, Lenotchka, or I will decide you make an even better nurse than pilot, and keep you here.”
“I am a very good pilot, Arkasha,” Yelena said teasingly. Did he even realize that he had used the intimate form of her name, and she had responded in kind?
“I’m sure you could also be a very good nurse.” He retreated with his walking stick to the stool by the hearth and picked up the balalaika, idly stroking its polished surface. “And if you cured me, I could go back to… to do my part for the Rodina.” All the lightness left his voice. “In truth, I should go back now. I knew, when I managed to pry that fuel tank away, and carried you with the Valkyrie’s aid all the long way back here, that I was well enough now to do whatever must be done.”
“And what…” Yelena hesitated. “How did…”
“A building fell around me.” Arkady stared into the fire.
She didn’t press him, and instead asked, “Is the balalaika your own, or your grandmother’s?”
“My mother’s. The music is all I remember of her.”
So much for finding a more pleasant topic for conversation. But then he said, so quietly she could scarcely hear, “I have not played for years, but tonight I had the strangest thought that she was telling me to play the music to wake you.”
“I’m very glad she did.” Yelena struggled to find words to tell him how truly she meant that, but nothing came.
After a time he rose and walked to the bedroom door, body taut with the effort not to lean on his stick. “You sleep in my grandmother’s bed tonight. I will keep watch out here and tend the fire.”
Yelena made her way around the table. While Arkady stood at the bedroom door, she deliberately slipped out of the lovely robe, folded it neatly, and set it on the couch. Then, her back toward him, she wriggled out of the clinging undershirt. If words could not tell him of her feelings, she would find a different means.
“We will both sleep in your grandmother’s bed tonight.” She turned back and picked up the lamp. “She would call you a hero of the Rodina as well, and approve of some good nursing.”
As she brushed past him he gripped the doorframe so tightly that his knuckles showed white, and not, she thought, because of his injured leg.
The lamp went on a bedside table, and Yelena sat on the bed’s feather-stuffed coverlet. “Surely,” she said, “after so much death, we can have a brief taste of life. And of comfort.” The quaver in her voice was both genuine and deliberate.
“Your injuries…” But he moved closer with no trace of a limp and stood looking down at her.
Yelena shrugged, knowing his gaze followed the lifting of her breasts. “And yours. Don’t worry, I will be gentle.”
“I will try,” Arkady said, with a gleam of amusement, “but I cannot promise such a difficult thing.”
“Begin with something easier.” She grasped his arms and pulled herself up along his body. “Let me help you take off your clothes. Fair’s fair. And I’m your nurse.”
He glanced toward the lamp; this was not so easy, and she knew it. His hidden scars, those of the body at least, must be severe enough that he feared to reveal them. The flesh, however, had already revealed by its urgent thrust against hers what she needed most to know; that part of him was intact, and so eager that her own desire intensified. She pressed in even closer.
“Please, Arkasha,” she murmured. Under her hands the buttons of his shirt gave way, one of them even flying off into the shadows. “Let me feel you. I have seen many wounds, even unto death. Yours are precious to me.”
Arkady groaned at the stroke of her fingers on his bare chest. She touched her lips to the raised, livid streak all along his left side, then kissed all along it down to the point where it descended beneath his trousers, and further yet when she had managed to unfasten those and pull his underdrawers lower. “Ointment would be best,” she said, “but we must make do with what we have,” and she applied her tongue to the task.
Arkady, his breathing rapid and harsh, could not have found words to stop her if he’d wished to. When Yelena sat back down on the bed, pulled his garments all the way down to his boots, and licked gently along the cruel scar that tapered off just where the tender skin of his inner thigh met even more tender flesh, he thrust his fingers into her thick russet hair and tried to pull her head to where he clearly needed it most intensely.
Yelena stopped just short of his goal and pulled back, the bruise on her head aching from the pressure. “Come into the bed, Arkasha, between the covers. I’ve seen now where I must be gentlest, and where I may play at will.” Her fingers traced a promise along his quite startling length before she folded down the bed’s coverlet and lay back.
“Gentleness be damned!” he growled, but threw himself down beside her and pulled the covering over them both.
Yelena was on him at once, straddling his body while his hands moved over hers in a storm of stroking and pressing and tormenting. Their mouths clung and moved against each other, each pressure speaking more than any words, until the need for even sharper sensation made her pull free. Her aching breasts and nipples claimed the attentions of his lips and tongue and teeth, and her mouth was now free to let out sighs and moans and inarticulate pleas. Meanwhile he explored her tender folds and swellings until she could bear the protracted pleasure no longer, and settled herself firmly onto his searching cock. By stages she raised up and slid down as he thrust from beneath until she had taken him in completely. Their movements became a dance of lust, a give and take with no room for thought, only for need, and more need, and at last a pulsing demand that burst into a blaze of fulfillment.
When their cries diminished, Yelena thought she heard the throb of a Po-2 engine, familiar as her own heartbeat, pass by overhead on a bombing mission. While sleep claimed her, held close in Arkady’s arms, she wondered muzzily which of her friends had been piloting the plane, and whether even there in the sky they had heard her cry out.
The sun was high when Yelena woke. The bed beside her was empty, and a skirt and blouse in an old-fashioned style were laid out on a chair, along with a wool shawl and shabby boots such as a farmwoman would wear. More things Arkady’s grandmother had left behind. Her handgun lay on top of the pile. She dressed quickly in spite of stiffness, some of which was really quite pleasurable, and went out into the main room, her gun in the skirt’s capacious pocket.
Arkady stood by the window that looked out over the valley. Beside him was no walking stick, but a long rifle of antique design.
Yelena went to him and leaned as naturally into the quick pressure of his arm around her waist as if they had always been together. “You have a gun,” she commented unnecessarily.
“An old one. No wolf has come down from the mountains after our sheep for many years, but one never knows.” He manipulated the rifle, checking its parts, making adjustments, then raised and sighted along it. Merely an exercise, but even to Yelena it was clear that his skill with guns went far beyond that of an ordinary farmer, or even footsoldier.
He saw her expression. “I was on the shooting team at the Academy of Agriculture when I studied there.”
She was not deceived into taking that as the whole story. “And where were you when the building fell around you?”
There could be no more secrets between them. “In Kiev,” he said. “And now there is need of me in Stalingrad. I cannot run, but I can still shoot.”
A sharpshooter, sniper, picking off selected targets on city streets, through windows, in blasted buildings as shells landed around them, and a target himself. If only they could run away together!
But her own duty called as firmly as his. “I too have a gun,” she said. “And now they are coming.” She could see through the window where a German motorcar had emerged from a wooded area a mile away and was making its slow bumpy way along the lane.
“Shooting a man face to face is a different thing from dropping bombs. Especially in your dreams.”
“I can do it.” Yelena hoped she spoke the truth.
“You may need to, but not here. Leave right now. Our troops are directly to the east, judging by the planes overhead last night. I will persuade these invaders that you were never here.”
They both knew that there was no time for her to travel across the open fields and out of sight behind the next ridge. His plan was to kill every German in the car, sacrificing his own life if necessary, to give her a chance to get away.
“You will never persuade anyone with a nose that there was no woman in your bed last night. And why should your new bride not be with you? Can you play the simple sheepherder? If after all it comes to killing, two guns are better than one.”
By now there could be no other choice. Arkady smoothed her hair over the bruise on her temple, scarcely swollen now, kissed her deeply, then went outside. When the motorcar lurched to a stop, Arkady waited, leaning heavily on his walking stick. “You have frightened my sheep!” he called in a querulous voice as soon as the interpreter opened his door, and indeed five sheep could be seen running off on the grassy hillside.
Four uniformed Germans emerged, barking questions faster then the interpreter, an ethnic German born in Russia, could handle. At last Arkady shrugged and let them file past into the house. Yelena stood stirring a pot on the stove and looking very young and frightened.
“They search for the crew of the plane that crashed down below.” He came to stand beside her, moving with an exaggerated limp.
“Was it their plane?” she asked the interpreter timidly. “I only returned yesterday, and he told me of it.”
“You should have obeyed me and stayed in the north with your mother,” Arkady growled at her. “I told you it was too dangerous here!”
Yelena dared to show a flash of spirit. “You were glad enough that I was not with my mother last night!” She mustered a convincing blush as she looked around at the others. One of the younger Germans laughed and muttered to his comrade, who snickered and shook his head. Yelena knew little of the German language, but was quite sure she heard the word “Nachthexen.” Night Witches. From the way the soldiers looked her over, she was very nearly sure that that they had judged her too pretty to be a witch. Their officer watched her keenly with a different sort of assessment.
“And if I am not here,” she went on, “who will sew on your buttons? See what a state you get into without me!” Arkady wore the shirt from the night before, when she had sent a button flying in her haste to strip him. “Who will make cheese from the sheep’s milk? And rub ointment on your scars?”
It was Arkady’s turn to duck his head and look embarrassed. “Tell them to look around as they please,” he muttered to the interpreter. “Women pilots, did you say? If you find any, take them away! One woman is trouble enough.”
More laughter, followed by a thorough search of the house and outbuildings. One young soldier emerged from the bedroom carrying the embroidered wedding nightrobe, and whispered a sly comment to his friend, but at last the group went on to search elsewhere. Yelena knew by the officer’s backward glance that they would still be watched from time to time.
“Hold me,” she begged Arkady, who pulled her so close that her voice was muffled against his shoulder. “They will spy on us, I’m sure.”
“And what should they see but a man whose wife cannot bear to stay away from him?”
She swatted at his firm buttocks, then pulled away. “A virtuous farmer’s wife is what they should see at this time of day.” So she checked the henhouse for eggs, scrubbed such accumulated laundry as there was and hung it out to dry, and even took the bit of worn carpet from beside the bed outdoors to beat the dust from it. By dusk, when they had eaten soup of her making and the last of the rye bread toasted with cheese, they were so ready for the best part of this game-that-was-no-game that Arkady lost two more buttons from his shirt, and the gathered yoke of Yelena’s blouse would need considerable repair.
“Surely a new bride would be submissive to her lord and master,” Arkady teased as they fell together onto the bed.
“Of course.” Yelena rolled onto her back. “And besides, it’s your turn to be on top. So I can use my hands.” Which she did, running her fingers over every delicious part of him she could reach, probing between their bodies to find the most rewarding bits, and discovering which sorts of touch, and where, could drive his gasps and moans to the highest pitch. When finally he pounded into her with fierce intensity and she arched her hips upward to meet his thrusts, there was no up or down, top or bottom, only shared need mounting higher and higher until it soared past all thought into release.
The drone of planes overhead seemed at first an extension of their heavy breathing. When the pounding of Yelena’s heart subsided, she realized suddenly what she was hearing. “Listen!” she said against Arkady’s sweaty neck, and raised her head. “They are flying in force to raid the German lines. So many close together! Usually we go in, two or three at a time, at five minute intervals.”
He listened, and after a while rose, went into the main room, and opened the window. Yelena joined him with a blanket to wrap around them as they listened to the distant thunder of bombs.
“So many! And look, such fire, and smoke!”
“You wish you were with them,” Arkady said.
“Of course! Yet I am infinitely grateful that the choice is not mine to make.”
They clung together watching until they could stand no longer, then lay entwined in the bed, unable to sleep, though the sound of motorcycles outside the door near dawn startled Yelena so sharply that she knew she must have been dozing. Arkady was out of bed with his rifle ready before she had tossed aside the blankets.
“Yelena!” Someone pounded at the door. “Yelena, come quickly!” It was Yevgeniya, with a young Russian soldier at her back.
Arkady lowered his gun. Yelena reached him swiftly, again with a blanket to cover their nakedness, and Yevgeniya flashed a broad grin.
“The Germans are falling back!” She could scarcely get the words out fast enough. “We hit the fuel depot at Armavir, and some aircraft as well. Our troops are advancing, only twenty miles away now, and we will meet them half way.”
“Arkady comes too.” Yelena disregarded the soldier’s amazed gawking and rushed naked into the bedroom to find her clothing.
“Just as well I brought two motorbikes, then,” Yevgeniya said cheerfully.
Arkady, as soon as he was dressed, scrawled a note to leave on the table. “My neighbor down the hill brings fresh bread every week, and this is the day. She will see to the care of the sheep and hens.”
In seconds, it seemed, they were off, two to a motorcycle. Off to more bombing raids, to the ruined buildings of Stalingrad, to three more years of war; to letters written and sent, and many more days without, and weeks of no news culminating in rushed visits in hospitals. But the day did come at last when Yelena and Arkady climbed the lane to the hillside farm, crossed the threshold, and stood together at last where they belonged; and, though no one else was there, still both heard far away the achingly sweet music of a balalaika.