Chapter 4: The Last Ditch
Rain pelted the tent, droplets seeping along every seam and through every gap. The moisture spread from the ground, soaking in and turning the dirt beneath their sleeping rolls into a spongy brown carpet. In this weather, there was no use digging. The group was given a break to read their mail. Given their constant movement and the fractious state of the postal service, letters arrived in clumps, the delivery today the first since Vyazma, two retreats ago.
A heavy envelope awaited Aelya. A hardbound grey book with a familiar illustration of the red planet Mars on its cover fell out. A note written by her mother was tucked inside, simply saying, “For you.” Nothing else was needed.
She clutched the novel close to her for a while. Her mother had read Aelita to her when she was child, only in her telling, Aelita was not just a Queen of Mars but also a fearless explorer, like the heroes she’d just heard brought to life. One day, she was destined to reach the stars. As time went on, Mama’s drive manifested itself in pressing Aelya for academic achievements, and in working long hours herself researching new technologies at the aircraft plant. Aelya would fly to the stars in a craft her mother helped build. or that was what Aelya assumed; Mama had never found the time to articulate this. She would have welcomed a scolding from Mama right about now, just to hear her voice.
The envelope also contained a long letter. She recognized the flowery writing. The missive from Vasya was a change from the terse note she’d received weeks ago, written by her mother. It had simply told Aelya that everyone came out of the journey to Kuybyshev fine and they hoped she would stay safe.
Now Vasya’s pen gave life to a long elaboration on everything they were up to. The whole community around the aviation plant was banding together to build anew in the Central Asian city, known in ancient times as Samara. But Kuybyshev was far from being romantic or exotic; Vasya described vast open spaces that were rapidly being transformed into industrial complexes. Everyone was expected to pitch in, even her. There were terrible shortages of everything, as the front was given priority for supplies. As she read that part, Aelya could almost see the pout on Vasya’s face. Mama and Papa were holding up fine, waiting for the day Aelya would come back to them. But they were all happy to do their part for the war effort, Vasya took pains to note.
I know you’re only digging ditches, she read on the letter’s last page, but I hope you nonetheless stay safe.
Aelya almost laughed at that.
I can barely bring myself to write this, but you should know we’ve started to have our fair share of sorrows. Do you remember Lyuba, who lived downstairs? Her husband has been killed. And Yuri Antonovich Khmelnikov’s dead too. His mother told us. She passed on this letter he wrote to you. I’ve put it in with the envelope. I couldn’t bear to open it.
With love, Papa, Mama, Vasya, and Babushka
Sitting on her bedroll, Aelya felt profoundly queasy. She stood and a little letter fell from within the envelope. Her hand paused above it. What kind of hurt would the words bring? Poor Yura. She never liked him that much. In truth, his overconfident demeanour and passive bemusement with Vasya’s needling of her were infuriating. But they were part of her life, things she thought would still be around when the war was over. Now they had been taken away. That life was never coming back.
She tried to remember Yura’s face. Tried to picture the way he ate sandwiches during a break at the aeroclub. What was his favourite movie? She had to try to remember these things, or else he would be gone forever, too. Although her heart pounded against her rib cage, she forced her shaking hand to retrieve the letter.
Aelya, forgive my familiarity, but I’m over the moon. I’ve made it. I’m now on active duty! I can’t say much, but it looks like I’ll be a flying messenger—using the same old crop-dusters you taught me to fly. I thought I’d get a chance with something newer, but I guess we all have to work our way up.
I wish I could be out there hurting the fascists, but I’m happy to be contributing in my own way. For that, I am eternally grateful to you. I would never have had this chance without you guiding me. I’ll make you proud of me.
P.S. I still remember: checklist, checklist, checklist!
Aelya slogged her way through the mud to find Fedor in the mess tent conferring with the cooks. They were learning to be creative with what few ingredients were still getting through in the dwindling supply deliveries.
She caught his attention. “Some rain cloaks have arrived at the main depot, Comrade Organizer. Do I have your permission to grab them before some other group snatches them up?”
“Good thinking, Aelya.”
“I’ll take Roman and Andrei,” she said, cutting him off before he could suggest anyone else. “They’re a little down. No one’s writing them letters. They could do with something to distract them.”
She’d been too eager with the suggestion, she realized, because he didn’t respond right away and his eyes narrowed at her. “How did you hear about the rain gear?”
“Oh, Vera told me.” She’d had to think quickly. Vera had been sent off to pick up paperwork from the regional committee and wouldn’t be back for a while.
“I just saw Vera before she left and she didn’t say anything about it.”
Stupid, Aelya thought, trying to keep her face straight. Don’t say anything yet—think of something.
“Listen,” Fedor said, looking serious. “Don’t let those two boys rope you into some crazy scheme.”
“I don’t know what you’re saying.” He’d mistaken her guilty hesitation for uncertainty. That made her indignant. “If they are up to something, I wouldn’t be getting roped into it.” This was her idea, stupid as it was.
“I know they’ve been planning to run away to the front for a while, ever since we arrived here. You’re not going with them, are you?” He laughed. “What will you do there? Pretend to be a boy? Hide in the trenches with the makhras? You’d just be a distraction. I’d give you three months before you get pregnant.”
“What about the women driving trucks? The medics? The partisans fighting behind enemy lines? Are they distractions?” she said, seething. She might be implicating herself, but he’d sniffed out her intentions already. “You of all people should know the vital contribution men and women both make to our society. Isn’t that what we’re fighting for, comrade?”
“I’m sorry. I didn’t really mean all I said. I’m just trying to point out how crazy you’re being. I’ve seen this sort of thing already. Organizer Struganskaya just had three boys returned to her group. Lucky it was regular infantry that caught them, not the NKVD blue caps, or they might have been shot as deserters.”
“How can it be deserting if they’re heading to the front?”
“The Germans are moving so fast, every direction is the front. To the blue caps, every direction is also a retreat.”
This punctured all the stiff-backed official bluster of his daily talks. Was he hearing the same rumours, or was his pessimism coming from some more official channels?
“Is it that bad?” she asked.
“Who knows?” He leaned over a mess table and ran a hand through his grimy hair. His face was lined with an extra decade’s worth of worries. “Did you think there’d be more than this? I mean, when you gave up your spot on the truck back in Smolensk, is this what you’d thought you’d be doing?”
“I’m not sure I thought anything. I just . . . I needed to do something.”
“You didn’t hope this might be more of an adventure than digging trenches, retreating, then digging some more?” She didn’t answer because whatever she might say would sound stupid. So he answered for himself. “That’s how I feel. I should know better. My brother Sergei doesn’t have much good to say about the army. He’s stuck somewhere out east, watching the Japanese. It’s sort of the same thing, but without the retreating. I’m still jealous of him. I feel embarrassed having to wait until next year to put on the Red Army uniform.”
The idea of the war lasting another year was appalling but looked increasingly like the most optimistic outcome.
“Somehow this all feels lesser,” Fedor continued. “I know what we’re doing is important, but I guess I always wanted to be personally tested. I’m not getting that here. I want to know if I’d be like my father, during the Civil War. Do you feel like you’re destined for something greater?”
“Not really.” Of course she did. “But I think I know what you mean. It doesn’t really feel like I’m contributing. I mean, the State has given me skills. I can do more than just dig trenches.”
Fedor grew animated. “That’s right. You were a flight instructor before the war, weren’t you?”
“If you’re going to desert us, you might as well make the most of it.”
She immediately wanted to deny deserting. Or not use that word anyway. But she flashed Fedor a quizzical look. What was that last part?
“You could teach flying. A lot of aeroclubs reopened after evacuation. We need more pilots than you could possibly imagine.”
Would they really allow her to do it? Maybe she could make it back to Kuybyshev. She’d be back with her family, but it wouldn’t be like it was before. She’d be an important contributor to the war effort. How much more valuable would training a new Air Force pilot be compared to all the digging she could do in a year? She felt a pang in her gut. She’d need to do a better job than she’d done with Yura. But they’d rushed him into battle. She owed it to the next man to be more thorough, to give him everything he needed to survive before the Air Force took him. If she could do that much, it would go some small way toward making up for her guilt—she hoped.
“You’d just let me leave?”
“The evacuation order still stands, so I could get the committee to approve it. You don’t even need to get to Kuybyshev. We’re close to Moscow now. There are tons of aeroclubs here. Maybe you can sign on with one?”
Elation took hold at the thought of leaving this muck behind, but she hesitated. “What about Roman and Andrei?”
“I’ll keep them out of trouble. Don’t feel like you’re abandoning them. You’re doing them a favour. I don’t think they can pull off anything without you to help them. Now they won’t get themselves killed trying something stupid.”
She looked at this young boy, so condescending to her comrades. Who was he to say she was doing them a favour? It still felt as if she was letting Roman and Andrei down. That was hardly the way to embark on her destined course. But she also thought about watching the Messerschmitt as it gracefully manoeuvred, destroying two fighters in mere seconds. That was the way their own pilots needed to fly. And she would teach them.
This ends the four chapter preview of Sparrow Squadron. If you like what you see and would be interested in obtaining and reviewing an Advance Reading Copy, please contact the author.