A story for Veterans’/Remembrance/Armistice Day.
Valentina pressed her back against the trench wall and waited. Eight hundred feet away, the Germans waited in another set of trenches. Earlier, she’d peered over the top, watched men move up and down the front line.
She wondered if any of them peered back, detected something different in the Russian soldiers along this part of the line. Could they tell? Would they know? Would their lips curl in disgust at her shorn hair? An equal number of cheers and jeers still rang in her ears—from the parade through Petrograd, at the train station when they disembarked.
But now, as she waited, chest tight with anticipation, Valentina never thought the world could be so quiet, that a war could be so quiet. She waited for the whistle, lips pursed as if she were the one who would give the command.
Up and over the top. Across churned up earth and muck and barbed wire to the other side, to the Germans.
Her mother had taken a German lover once, years ago. He’d been not a beer-soaked lout, but prim, proper, face defined by round spectacles and a neat beard. Every time he encountered Valentina, he’d inclined his head like she were already a person worthy of respect, not a small child, not the illegitimate spawn of an opera singer.
Were there men like that waiting for her on the other side? She clutched her rifle and hoped not.
At dawn, the signal came. It rippled up and down the line. The first rays of sun touched the trench, and Valentina crawled to its top, pulled herself up and over.
No man’s land. Certainly. No woman’s land. That too. The sun warmed the back of her neck. Odd that, out of everything, she noticed its touch. Whizzing filled the air, the sound reverberating in her ears. Her vision tunneled, so if there was anything to her left or her right, she couldn’t see it.
Maybe it was better that way.
A few yards from the trench, something grabbed her foot, threatened to pull the boot clean off. She pitched forward, her body smacking the mud. A moment later, something crumpled on top of her.
Something warm and heavy that forced the air from her lungs. Hot liquid soaked through the back of her uniform. Earth filled her mouth, metallic and rank. If war had a taste, then perhaps it was this. Valentina struggled to suck in a full breath, arms straining against her own weight and that of someone else.
With a heave, she pushed her comrade up and off and into the dirt.
Masha. A neat bullet wound through the center of her chest. The girl—her friend—stared blankly at the sky, unblinking. Valentina crawled forward, yanking her foot from the barbed wire that had caught it. She placed her hand on Masha’s chest. She prayed, although, in truth, she hadn’t been to Mass in years.
She wanted to shut her eyes; she wanted to cross herself. Instead, she inched forward through the dirt and eased Masha’s eyes closed.
Ahead of her, members of her unit were already clearing the way, nearing that first trench. She scrambled to her feet and, crouching low, ran to catch up.
A cry went up when they took the first trench. And then the second. They were doing it! They were soldiers, true soldiers, not props, not propaganda, not objects to shame men into fighting. Who needed men when the women of Russia could fight?
Valentina plowed forward, intent on that third trench. They had the Germans on the run! She leaped. She jumped. When that third line of trenches came into view, she thought nothing of plunging into one.
The trench held two men. With the shooting and the shouting, the occasional rounds of artillery, neither noticed the rattled and crash of her entrance. They were locked in their own dance. An officer, tall, lithe, Russian. A German soldier, rifle pointed at the officer’s chest.
Valentina didn’t think. She plunged again, bayonet at the ready. For a moment, she hovered, her entire weight balancing on the tip of her blade. Only then did the German notice her, his eyes wide with shock. She saw the moment her gender registered. Surprise. Shame.
Then she fell forward, the sharp edge of her bayonet sinking all the way through.
Her head buzzed. He mouthed a few words, a prayer, perhaps, and she watched the German die. She owed him that.
A hand on her shoulder jerked her from what felt like a trance. She spun, faced the man she’d saved.
“Are you all right?” he asked. “I think for now we’re—” He broke off, his eyes widening almost as much as the German’s had. “God in heaven, you’re a woman! Not even. A mere girl.”
Valentina brought her heels together and raised her chin. “I’m a sergeant in the 1st Russian Women’s Battalion of Death.”
The officer sank against the trench wall. His features were indistinct, but she’d viewed enough men from up on stage, from behind a curtain that she could discern their type, no matter how dimly lit they were.
This one? Part of the aristocracy, the sort that secured box seats, the sort that could pass through the throng backstage, knock on a dressing room door, be granted entrance.
What the hell was he doing in this trench?
“We are doomed.” He directed these words not to her but toward the sky above. “Clearly, we’re doomed if they mean for us to fight the Germans with schoolgirls at our side.”
And although the words weren’t meant for her and weren’t even in Russian, Valentina responded.
“Je parle français.”
“Of course you do,” he said. “German as well? That might prove useful.”
“And Italian.” They’d spent a glorious year in Italy—well, glorious up until the end. Her mother’s voice had never rung so clear than it did in Milan.
“English?” the officer ventured.
She shook her head. Her mother had never taken a British lover, although she always told Valentina that the best way to learn another language was across the expanse of a pillow and between soft bed linens.
Or sequestered in a cocoon of blankets at the foot of the bed, which was where Valentina had spent so many of her nights.
The officer’s gaze shifted. He scanned the sky above them again, placed a hand on the trench wall as if he could intuit the battle from the vibrations that shook the earth.
When his gaze returned to her, something had shifted. “First, thank you,” he said. “And again, are you all right?”
“Have you … I mean, I’m not certain how to…” He gestured toward the German crumpled at their feet. “Have you killed in battle before?”
“Not in battle.”
Her answer widened his eyes again. “I see,” he said, although there was no way he possibly could.
“My mother,” she began.
He held up a hand. “Speak no more. I understand.”
She doubted that but remained silent. Oh, the blood. So much blood. They had to flee Italy, of course, and Paris held only temporary safety. On their return to Russia, her mother adopted a new stage name, sang once again.
But her voice never rang as clear as it had before.
“He would’ve killed her,” Valentina added, although whether she was speaking to him—or herself—she couldn’t say.
“Of course.” The officer raised his rifle. “It’s what men do. And now the women are here, trying to clean up our mess. I’m afraid you’re too late. This war is already lost.”
She shook her head. “I don’t believe that.”
“I wish with all my heart I didn’t either.”
“Are you going to fight?” Would he flee? He didn’t seem the type, but then she imagined that, once upon a time, the men who now wandered Petrograd in tattered uniforms hadn’t been the type either.
But this man could run anywhere. The world was open to him. He’d be safe in Paris, Italy too.
“The war may be lost,” he said, “but I’m still fool enough to fight in it.”
He surveyed her, from the top of her head down to her boots, his gaze critical. On its own accord, her spine stiffened. The trench wall shielded her completely even though she was standing at attention.
“Fight at my side, Sergeant?”
She nodded, once.
For the third time that day, Valentina crawled up and over a line of trenches. This time, she was not alone.
They moved forward quickly, coming up behind lines that Russian soldiers had already secured, past groups of captured Germans, past some of her own comrades. They ran hard into the setting sun. Her eyes watered beneath its glare. Her limbs ached from a day spent clawing up and down trench walls, sprinting and jumping, throwing herself onto the earth.
Where had the hours gone? Certainly, she’d only just speared that German through with her bayonet. And yet, here they stood, on the edge of a forest, the sun dipping below the horizon.
He’d held up his hand to stop her advance, but her own feet had halted along with his.
Her ear caught not the sounds of battle, but clinking glass, raucous cries. Something sharp stung her nose. Panic flooded her, and she reached for her gas mask.
The officer stayed her hand.
“That won’t be necessary.”
“I don’t understand.”
“I think I do.” He nodded toward the copse of birches. “Come with me.”
At the sound of shattering glass, they sped up. At the bunker, they froze again.
Women, armed and uniformed much as she was, used the stocks of their rifles to smash bottle after bottle. Men roared. Some shoved, grabbed at the rifles, only to be pushed back. Some men gave up the fight, fell to their knees, and rescued what vodka they could before it soaked into the earth.
The officer swore. “It won’t be the communists, or the anarchists, or even the Provisional Government that will lose the war for us. It will be this.” He pointed at the men desperately slurping at the ground. “And the Germans know that.”
“They left it here then, for the men to find?” she ventured.
“Indeed they did.”
The sound of a gunshot silenced everyone. A keening rose into the air, followed by shouts.
“She shot them! She shot them!”
Again, they ran, found the crowd gathered around a bunker.
At the entrance, Valentina’s commander stood, tall and proud. She was fierce, had fought with the Cossacks before the government put her in charge of the Women’s Battalion.
“Yes, I shot them both! Dereliction of duty. Does anyone here question that?”
There, on the ground, in a soup of blood and vodka, were a man and woman, both partially dressed, a bare leg here, an expanse of belly there, the embrace mangled but clear.
“Did you know her?” the officer whispered.
Valentina nodded. “Sophia. Her name is … was Sophia.”
“I believe our association may put you in harm’s way.” He stepped away from her and approached the commander from the opposite side of where they’d been standing.
He didn’t outrank her commander, although Valentina wondered if that mattered. He was a man, an officer, and he’d been fighting in this war much longer than they had. But he offered up a salute and merely inclined his head when listening to the commander’s response.
It was such a simple thing. Something told her that he’d see to it no one else was shot for any reason. Certainly, Sophia and this soldier were only making love. It looked … mutual, at least. With all that blood, it was hard to tell.
So much blood.
No one expected the counterattack. No, that wasn’t true, Valentina realized when the officer appeared at her side once again, grabbed her hand, and pulled her from the main thrust of the assault.
They ran deep into the forest, dodging tree limbs and branches. Pine needles raked her face, and their scent was thick in her mouth. They raced until the sounds of the battle faded, and the earth no longer shook beneath their feet. They ran until he stumbled, and they came to rest beneath a tree.
There they sat, his ragged breathing filling the night. In the quiet, Valentina heard the scampering of tiny feet, the rustle of leaves. She peered through the canopy above and spied the stars.
“Dmitri Sergeevich,” he said. “My name,” he added when she didn’t respond. “I never introduced myself.”
It was such a simple thing, this offering up of his name.
“Hm.” Something in his tone suggested he approved—of what, she wasn’t sure.
“What do we do now?” she asked.
“What all lost children do. We head into the forest.”
“Will you fight again?”
“Will you?” He lumbered to his feet, bracing a hand against the trunk. “Ah, that’s the question, isn’t it, Valentina Andreovna.”
He offered his hand, the one not clutching the bark. After a moment’s hesitation, she took it. He craned his neck skyward and studied the stars.
“North, I think.” He released her hand and pulled a flask from the inside of his uniform tunic. He took a long draw before passing it to her. “To fortify yourself for the walk.”
She brought the flask to her mouth, the metal cold against her lips. The sharpness returned, vodka flooding her tongue, washing away the grit, the trace of pine, the residue of gunpowder. When she finished, nothing remained except for the taste of blood.
They walked north, their steps unhurried, unhindered as if they truly had left the war behind. Valentina tested her voice. The vodka had cleared the cobwebs from her throat. After a few bars, when Dmitri Sergeevich didn’t shush her, she launched into song.
It was a lullaby her mother used to sing, one meant to soothe both her current lover and illegitimate child. And if Valentina didn’t possess half the voice her mother did, she knew this.
That night, under the Russian sky, it had never rung so clear.
Valentina was inspired by the events surrounding the 1st Russian Women’s Battalion of Death’s participation in the Kerensky Offensive of July 1917.