Chapter 3: Essential to the War Effort
A makhra pointing a rifle was not to be disobeyed. Aelya and the other Komsomol members dutifully disembarked from their convoy of trucks. The Red Army soldier climbed onto the back and closed the tailgate, leaving himself plenty of room to stretch out his legs. Another makhra commandeered the driver’s seat from Andrei, Roman’s oversized puppy of a friend.
“You’re just taking these empty?” Fedor complained to the driver.
Aelya couldn’t muster any concern. One overcrowded, mud-caked village was the same as the next in the constant refrain of retreating to the next defensive line, just barely staying ahead of refugees and fleeing soldiers.
The driver shrugged. “My orders were to bring empty trucks to Mozhaisk, and that’s just what I’m doing.”
In the back, the soldier was standing now, warily brandishing his rifle and cursing at a swarm of refugees clawing to get on board.
“We’re headed to Mozhaisk too,” Fedor said. “Why don’t you take us most of the way and drop us off just before you get there?”
A nasty squelch sounded as an old man tried to scramble aboard and got a rifle butt to the head for his trouble.
“If I take you,” the driver said, “I’d have to let everyone on. Then we’d never get anywhere.”
Empty or full, there was little chance of anyone getting anywhere. The line of vehicles had been swallowed up by the mass of people and animals bumping slowly into each other in this village, caked with so much dust and grime it was hard to tell one from the other. Just two months ago, this might have been a quaint farming settlement built around the intersection of two dirt roads. Now it was an artery for the defensive line in front of Moscow and clogged with twenty times its former population.
The truck’s horn honked. But with no space for the other vehicles, horse wagons, soldiers, and overladen refugees to move out of the way, what was the point of honking? The driver put the truck into gear, honked once more, then lurched forward. Amazingly, the mass of creatures in front of it managed to scramble out of the way, but a horse wagon was overturned and two cars had their rear ends crumpled as the line of trucks forced its way through.
“So that’s how you do it,” said Andrei.
Fedor spent the rest of the day and half the night desperately negotiating with refugees and soldiers for alternate transport before making the inevitable decision to move out on foot the next morning.
Aelya had thought she’d be gone for a week. Near the forests west of Smolensk, her Komsomol group had made an outing of digging trenches and building defensive emplacements. The jovial atmosphere of a summer field trip continued even as the Germans crept closer and closer. Crept was the wrong word; the Germans raced. The news announcements Fedor received kept trumpeting heroic stands made by the Red Army. But anyone who’d taken a geography class noticed those stands moving eastward rapidly. By the time the air raids began, the unthinkable was reality: Smolensk was to be evacuated.
Not everyone had gone east, however—only workers and families essential to the war effort. Of course, Aviation Plant No. 35 was near the top of the list. The Komsomol group disintegrated, thinking only of themselves. Half of them scrabbled through their belongings, scooping up their bags, while others stepped aside, watching numbly. Roman and Andrei didn’t even bother looking at the list of factories, knowing their families weren’t important enough to evacuate. Fedor had no chance either and ruefully remarked, “No need for bakers in this war.”
Anguish had clutched Aelya’s chest while she watched Roman and Andrei struggle to collect the camping gear of departing Komsomol members, even as Vasya bullied her way into finding space for two on an evacuation truck. There weren’t enough spaces on the trucks for everyone. Over Vasya’s recriminations, Aelya let a fourteen-year-old boy take her place. She would take the next convoy out—only there would be no other evacuation convoy, as Fedor told her after the truck had departed. When new trucks did arrive, they took the Komsomol members to the next line of defence east of Smolensk. In the two months since, Aelya’s world had shrunk to one dirty patch of land after another.
Now dirt flew up with each step, crusting her fingernails and invading her nostrils. The ball of Aelya’s foot chafed against the hole wearing in the sole of her right boot, socks long ago replaced by footwraps. A sore spot on her thigh flared every time she pulled up the ill-fitting trousers Roman had given her. Her Komsomol skirts had long ago shredded into rags used for wiping off mud.
The journey was hard, made worse by the congestion on the road to Mozhaisk, but at least it saved them from hearing Fedor’s regular updates. The point of his litany of Nazi atrocities eluded Aelya. She was already torn up with worry over friends and family; she didn’t need the horror stories. Her reserve of outrage was exhausted, and now she simply felt numb. For those who’d suffered loss, hearing Fedor’s news picked away at their emotional sores.
She felt sorry for Fedor. Too young to be called up, he’d been burdened with responsibility for the youths in the group. Tall with cropped blond hair framing a square-jawed face that managed to be both boyish and rugged, he looked just like the young men in the posters TASS churned out extolling the virtues of the ideal Soviet worker. She suspected he’d been elected acting area organizer based on his looks.
Her pace slipped and she fell closer and closer to the back of their column. Roman and Andrei straggled behind, whispering conspiratorially. They were probably planning when to make a break and run away to the front. Roman had been obsessed with this since encountering a ragged group of retreating soldiers on the road outside the last village. They looked as though they’d been put through a wheat thresher. Not a single one had a clean spot anywhere on his body. Almost all of them wore bandages or splints. Bright red scabs and scars interrupted any exposed skin on these soldiers.
Roman had buzzed around them, peppering them with questions about the front. They weren’t infantry, though. They were support troops—cooks, supply clerks, and mail carriers who’d been shattered by German bombers. One of them caught on to Roman’s intentions. A bandage over his forehead covered only half the wound on the side of his head. What was left of his ear was lost amid a raw, lumpy mass that looked ready to bleed at any moment. Beneath the dirt on his face, his cheeks were smooth. He was barely older than Aelya was. This frontovik promised Roman a tip on how to join the front in exchange for the half-full packet of cigarettes Roman secreted in his boot. The advice was simply to head west and wander around, and eventually some frontline unit would pick him up and “volunteer” him for service. Roman was upset at spending all those cigarettes for such simple advice, but he’d been talking about going ever since.
Could she manage running away to the front? Not that she had an appetite for picking up a rifle. But pitching in for the Komsomol’s war effort had lost its lustre after the third set of trenches. They were the future of the Socialist state, so surely they were destined for something more. But to disobey the Komsomol committee?
She noticed Roman and Andrei stop talking as she fell in step next to them. She said, “I know you’re up to something. What is it?”
Roman looked around nervously. “Why, so you can tell your boyfriend?”
“What? Fedor’s not—never mind that. You’re planning to run away, aren’t you?”
Roman shushed her so loudly, he drew a few glances. He dropped into a whisper. “Fine, that’s what we’re doing. And now that you know, you’re part of this. You have to help us.”
“No, I don’t.” She sighed. “Look, I understand what you must be thinking.”
“How can you? You’re a girl. No one expects you to fight.”
“You’re sixteen. No one expects you to either.”
A distant rumbling caused the line of travellers to stop. Panic rose in their voices as they searched the skies in vain for the German bombers the deep sound signified. They were up there somewhere, hidden away by the streamer-like stratus and puffy cumulus clouds scattered across the blue.
Aelya heard Fedor’s voice in her head: a story from the day before about a woman pushing her baby daughter in a pram and being strafed by a Fascist fighter looking for sport. The effect of a 20 mm cannon shell on a baby’s body . . .
They cautiously took shelter in the long grasses next to the road, crouching down.
“Look!” A girl pointed behind Aelya, above a line of tall pines.
They saw them before they heard their high-pitched whines. A line of nine or ten Soviet I-16 fighters streaked over the horizon. Even from this distance, Aelya could recognize their distinct, snub-nosed shape. Pilots called the plane the Ishak because its clumsiness reminded them of a donkey, but in the hands of experts it was a nimble machine.
Aelya had always wanted to try her hand at an Ishak. It was said that if you could fly one, you could fly anything. She envied those pilots, the wind whipping their scarves like banners, the summer sun beaming down on them in their open cockpits. Aelya found herself joining in as the Komsomol members waved, even if the pilots couldn’t possibly see them.
“Go get ’em, boys!” shouted Andrei, red-faced. He was twice the size of Roman, and when he patted the smaller boy on the back it almost knocked him over. Andrei had already lost a grandmother to bombing and his grandfather passed away from grief soon after. He made a point of loudly exhorting to battle any troops he encountered.
Aelya spotted the danger a second before anyone else on the ground did, and certainly before the Soviet pilots did. Little black dots, fly specks against the glare of the sun. They appeared quickly and transformed into sleek, angular silhouettes as they dived at the Ishaks from a high angle. There were four of them—Messerschmitt Bf-109s, probably. Another second later, one, two, three, then four of the Ishaks dropped out of formation, trailing smoke and airplane parts as the German fighters hit them.
The remaining Ishaks broke up their line, scattering in every direction like pigeons fluttering away when a dog barked at them in the park. Two of them flew flat out in the general direction of the Komsomol members. No, Aelya thought. You’re a plane. Use the vertical space. The Messer pilot on their tail knew this. He arced smoothly into a climb until he was above the Ishaks and behind them. He must have been spotted by his prey, who banked hard to the left. The Messer streaked down at the trailing Ishak. It was close enough now that Aelya could make out the black cross on the Messer’s grey fuselage and the swastika on its tail.
Cannon and machine-gun fire popped quietly in the distance, reminding Aelya of oil sizzling in a pan. The trailing Ishak broke apart, its pieces falling from the sky. One of them might have been a pilot, but no parachute opened. Someone gasped and another screamed. In the time between firing his cannon and the scream, the German pilot did something amazing. It looked as though he’d overtake the lead plane and fall within its gunsights, but the Messer pulled up from its dive, snaking and rolling upward until it crested an imaginary hill, slowing its momentum by just the right amount so that it finished its roll with its nose pointed just ahead of its target. Tracer rounds, mixed in with regular ammunition, burned bluish-white, streaking from its wings. The Ishak flew into the stream of shells and bullets and exploded.
Everyone on the ground fell silent as the Messers climbed back into the clouds. Aelya had no idea what happened to the remaining Soviet planes, but none could be seen. Fedor began hustling everyone back into the tall grass, in case the Messers lingered to strafe careless gawkers on the ground. Big Andrei supported himself on Roman, shaking his head. One girl was sobbing. A queasiness gripped Aelya. It had been disheartening to see the Air Force beaten so easily, and horrifying to witness the doom of those brave pilots. But her horror mixed with guilt, for she knew she had seen, in the enemy pilot’s actions, something beautiful.
This preview of Sparrow Squadron concludes with Chapter 4.