Half-way between the time bomb and the gentle wrist watch stands the alarm clock, with the next day coiled inside it, in the guise of a steel spring, like a snake ready for a strike. (It's mostly batteries and electronics nowadays, and when the grandchildren grow up they might want to keep this one as a collectible.) And then you put your wristwatch on, handcuffing yourself to time like a criminal to a policeman.
My wife, warm in the bed next to me, slowly begins to wake up, stretching, turning over, pulling the blanket over her head, moaning, purring, and whining. I wonder whether she will remember. Finally she half opens her eyes, wrinkles her nose as if having some difficulty recognizing me or liking what she recognizes, smiles, and says "Your anniversary, darling."
She does not make it sound too cheerful because so and so many years ago to a day, I joined the great war and shot down my first Messerschmitt, and wars are sad things. But not too sad either because after all I survived, with a long string of victories and decorations, and even the title of Hero of the Soviet Union. I also seem to detect a tiny little note of boredom in her voice. Understandable; this anniversary has been going on for years, with the war long since in history books. Or perhaps it's not boredom but a shade of annoyance and jealousy; the anniversary is all my own, and she does not share in it; I was still a teenager, and she, an even younger girl somewhere else. She does not even know the full story of that unusually concentrated day all those years ago. She knows that my first girlfriend's name was Nadya and that she was a nurse at that airfield, but she believes that the affair started somewhat later, and I am leaving it at that.
My wife has crows' feet in the corners of her eyes, and her body, still quite sexy, is not as lithe as on that night she danced away with the newly-met dashing and much decorated young fighter pilot with blond hair and black eyebrows; but her eyes are still as blue and young as they were then. My blond hair, thinning a bit, is mostly gray now, but my eyebrows are still black. It was because of this difference that Nadya, to whom I was introduced still wearing my flying helmet, did not at first recognize me in the pilots' canteen an hour later. With the brown leather helmet on, my dark eyebrows and slightly aquiline nose make a dark, predatory impression. Bareheaded, with light hair over a high, what they call intellectual, forehead, it's something else.
The day had started at dawn, at a transit airfield a couple of hundred kilometers back, where our bunch of young pilots fresh from the fighter school met with some older veterans who were to guide us to the front. We were to go in threes, two new ones to one veteran, and Fyedya's and mine was called Beryozov. We took a liking to him at once. He was elderly, somewhere in his thirties, and wore several decorations of which two were for bravery in combat while a couple of others merely testified that he has survived so far; no mean achievement because most of the original Red airforce had been wiped out in the first weeks of the war. We were a sort of second generation going in.
Fyedya and I had breakfast with Beryozov while our brand-new Yaks were being fueled and armed outside. He treated us as equals and we were enormously flattered.
"Your fighting experience is still to come," he said, "but on the other hand, at your age, the brain is quicker and the reflexes faster than those of old pricks like myself. You just have to shoot down your first German, then you're a real fighter pilot. It's just like laying your first girl."
Here Beryozov committed a serious blunder, because neither Fyedya nor I had ever had a girl yet. We had worked very hard at the flying school, and flying, studies, and adequate sleep came first. The older or bolder boys used to poke fun at the likes of us. "You'll get shot down without having ever tried it," they would say, and we were determined to correct the situation at the first opportunity.
Beryozov gave us maps, with the route and our base marked out, and briefed us on the forthcoming flight.
"A standard formation, with me in the middle. You, Sasha, are number two, you, Fyedya, number three. There will be others near us, but we might not always see them because of the clouds. We go west like this, then turn north and straight to the base. This last leg is in the range of the Germans. We're unlikely to run into them because they're busy elsewhere these days, but keep your eyes skinned all the same."
We took off into a clear sunny sky. The clouds were well apart and one could follow the ground below, mottled by the clouds' shadow. Except for the nearness of the front, it could have been another training flight. My heart beat a little faster at the thought that very soon now, perhaps within the next few days, I might find myself in my first air combat. The excitement was not unmixed with fear and, to cheer myself up, I also thought that there must be some girls at the new base, nurses, secretaries, and the like, with one of whom my first love affair would finally get under way.
There was Beryozov's voice in the earphones, matter-of-fact and level:
"Thirty degrees left, spreading out to two hundred meters between the machines."
We carried the maneuver out.
"Shallow dive," he went on, "same angle as mine, full throttle. Germans ahead and below. Straight through the clouds, you'll see them as we come out. Good luck."
I had not noticed anything and was half hoping that this was some trick to test us. The cloud was now streaming past me, blotting everything out, and I was keeping the direction by instruments. Then the cloud ended and I could see the ground, and, half-way between me and the ground, about a kilometer ahead and going in the same direction, unmistakably a Messerschmitt fighter. I was diving at him from behind, the ideal attacking position, and the distance between us was melting fast. The ground below, the weather, and the shallow dive were so unremarkable that I found it hard to believe that I was really making contact with an enemy plane, but I centered him in my sights and, when the distance was right, opened fire. I could see my tracer bullets going into the fuselage, the pilot's cockpit, and the engine, and nothing was happening. For a few seconds which dragged on like ages I kept on a straight course putting a continuous burst of fire into the German plane and nothing was happening. Then the Messerschmitt exploded, and I flew right though the airborne debris, with some small piece lightly hitting my wing. Pulling out of the dive, I felt an enormous surprise that that was all there was to it, and then forced myself to concentrate on what was happening around me. Some distance away there was another Messerschmitt trailing smoke. I began to close in and then saw the pilot fall away from the plane and open his parachute. There was Beryozov higher up, and no more Germans.
"All right," I heard Beryozov's voice in the earphones. "Old course, on to the base. And congratulations, Sasha; your first. Don't forget the roll over the field."
"Where's number three?" I asked. I could not see Fyedya anywhere.
"He's got his map with him, and the base is not far away. Let's go."
Technically, Beryozov did not lie to me. The base was not far away, and Fyedya's map in its celluloid holder must still have been strapped to his thigh when they got his body, or what was left of it, out of the wreckage. Beryozov had seen him overshoot the German plane, most probably without even noticing it, and the Messerschmitt destroyed him from behind, very much like I did his comrade. The whole dogfight was over in something like two minutes, from the start of our dive to the opening of the German's parachute. The one who shot Fyedya down got away. Thus Fyedya died on his first morning at the front, without having ever had a girl, without having ever seen a German plane, and without even knowing what hit him.
After I landed and taxied aside, a lorry came along and a few people got off, one of them a pretty blond young nurse with her first-aid haversack over her shoulder. I saluted and reported to the highest in rank my reporting for duty, mentioning, in the same level voice in which I gave my name, rank, and number, the two Messerschmitts we had shot down on the way, and the two other Yaks due to arrive. Beryozov was already on his landing approach, and, after joining us, introduced us more informally. The blond nurse's name was Nadya and she held my hand in hers a little longer than was needed at an introduction, and smiled at me warmly. The ground crew chief asked me about the plane, and I told him about some small piece hitting the wing. They found a dent there and set about repairing it at once.
On our way towards the barracks, with Beryozov, Nadya, and me walking a little apart from the others, Beryozov told me about Fyedya.
"That's war for you, Sasha," he added, with a compassionate tap on the shoulder. "By the way, you're free this afternoon, after the debriefing, as soon as you have settled into your barrack. Nadya, do you think you could show him around the base after lunch?"
"Yes, I think I might be able to get away for a while. I'd be glad to."
"Is there any possibility of my attending Fyedya's funeral?"
"No," Beryozov said. "It's far from here, and it's supposed to be bad for new pilots' morale."
Walking with them across the sunlit grass of the airfield, I was numbed and disoriented rather than grieved or shocked by what Beryozov just told me. Fyedya's disappearance was a kind of sudden transfer to another unit. I had not witnessed his death, and was being fast sucked into another world of which he had never been a part: this airfield; Nadya; and the planes lined along the perimeter, with their noses pointing slightly upwards as if sniffing the wind. For the ground troops, the front was a line of trenches, barbed wire, and mines, to be broken through only by an awful expenditure of effort and blood. But for us here, the front was wide open. The airfield bristled with anti-aircraft guns, manned around the clock. Somewhere within the range of our planes there was a similar airfield with similar planes, except that the markings were different and the pilots spoke a different language. Someone over there was now reporting the loss of two of their planes against one of ours. This sky belonged to Yaks and Messerschmitts alike.
When the lunch was almost over and Beryozov and I were lighting cigarettes, Nadya passed by as if looking for someone. Then she came back to ask Beryozov something, gave me a blank look, and then suddenly smiled and sat down at our table.
"I didn't recognize you at first," she said. "How different you look without your flying helmet."
She took me for a stroll around the airfield. She was easy to talk to and I found myself liking her more and more, with her, as far as I was able to judge, reciprocating the feeling.
"What was this friend of yours, Fyedya Kurnosov, like?"
"He was nice," I said, "and a good pilot, too. What happened today must have been bad luck more than anything else. Had he come out of the cloud a little behind the German, like I did, instead of in front, he would have been with us now. He was my best friend at the flying school, and we often talked about how we were going to fly against the Germans together."
There was a short silence, and I was thinking about what to say next. Nadya had not met Fyedya, and, being a nurse, must have seen a number of deaths.
"He never had a girl in his life," I said.
"And you, Sasha?"
I may have gone a little red in the face. This was the second time that day that someone was bringing up the subject, but I was not the same Sasha I was in the morning. Anyone who is not downright repulsive or a complete idiot can get on top of a woman sooner or later, but not everyone can graduate from a fighter pilot school and shoot down a Messerschmitt on his first day at the front. On the other hand, there was nothing mocking in the way Nadya asked the question, and no smile on her face, only kindness and friendship.
"I haven't either," I confessed. "You see, flying was very important to us at the flying school, and it's a full-time job; whenever we were not in the air, we had to study hard, or simply get enough sleep. One of the boys started something with a girl outside, and he was scrubbed from the course because he was always reporting sleepy and bleary-eyed for duty. And another thing - you will understand it as a nurse - we were dead scared of syphilis. I don't suppose you get much of it in the army, but out there, in town, you run into a lot of those tertiary cases with fallen-in noses and red-rimmed eyes, and stories of children born blind and people going mad and even young people committing suicide when they found out they've caught it. And if you start something with a decent girl and get her pregnant, God help the doctor caught performing an illegal abortion. They say it was easy before the war, but now the government must have decided that too many people were killed in this war and that replacements are needed, and the doctor is likely to spend the next few years laying railway tracks across the tundra. Condoms have also disappeared from pharmacies, although I have managed to get a few and carry them with me at all times, like a parachute on a flight; the difference, of course, being that you always hope you won't have to use the parachute, but you do hope you will find use for these."
Nadya laughed. She had been watching me out of her gray eyes, and somehow I felt that I had not lost face because of my confession.
"And you, Nadya?"
There was a brief silence.
"How old are you, Sasha?"
"Almost nineteen," she said without mockery. "I am almost twenty-one. At our age, it's a big difference. And then girls are supposed to grow up faster than boys. And then I've been a nurse for over a year."
She took my hand and led me to a tree-sheltered spot on the bank of the stream. We sat down and lit cigarettes. The Nadya lay down on her back. I put my head on her shoulder and she drew me closer.
"When I was a little girl," she said softly, "we used to come to just such a stream on Sundays. Father would fish, and mother would be knitting something for the winter, and I would pick berries or flowers and sing. Then we would have lunch out of a basket... and..."
Something was happening to Nadya's voice, and when I looked up I saw that she was crying.
"What happened to them, Nadya? Something when the war started?"
"No... before then... in 1938... both of them... I was with my aunt afterwards... I am sorry, Sasha. Let's not talk about it."
Here, again, was a story of the purges.
I found myself kissing the tears off her eyes, and then her shirt was open and I was kissing her bare breasts, and then we undid each other's belts with the heavy Nagant revolvers. She guided me into her body and it was easier and simpler than I had expected. Later, after we did it for the second time and lay there smoking cigarettes again, the "is this all there is to it" feeling of that morning returned, in a different context this time. I was a little afraid that Nadya would say something to spoil things, but she only reached out and stroked the grass as if it were the fur of some large friendly animal slumbering next to us.
* * *
In the days that followed, Nadya and I could not be together as often as we wished to. But even a smile or a wave of the hand went a long way to soften the harsh impact of war. Because it was only that first Messerschmitt that had been that easy; an exception to the rule, beginner's luck. There were sorties from which I returned with holes in my wings and fuselage, and sometimes, when we were badly outnumbered or low on fuel and ammunition, we had to break away and run for it. I was even shot down once but managed to bail out, and landed unhurt in our own territory.
My best friend at the base was Zhenka Sokovtsov. He was a few months older than me, both in age and combat experience. He was a village boy, and the flying school had been harder on him than many others at first because of the mathematics and physics, but he worked hard and overcame that. He had a grandmother in the village who was a repository of folk tales, legends, proverbs, and beliefs; and Zhenka was her favorite grandson, soaking it all up from tender age. He also had one trait which he tried to hide as much as possible, because it was a far from commendable one in a Soviet officer: he was enormously superstitious. If you mentioned some misfortune or disease in his presence, you could observe him making a discrete spitting movement with his lips thrice. He also knocked on wood and spat over his shoulder. What particularly bothered him was that Fridays and the thirteenth of the month were routine flying days with both the Soviet and German airforces. Whenever one of those days came along, Zhenka, who at no other time would think of shirking his duty, would go into mental aerobatics trying to get some ground assignment for that particular day, offering swops and bargains unbelievable to those who didn't know about his superstition. Once, when Nadya, him, and me were walking across the airfield and Nadya was teasing him about it, he said:
"Look, could Pushkin have written the prologue to "Ruslan and Ludmila" without believing at least some of it?"
We walked on the sunlit grass, reciting it in unison: the green oak on the seashore, the learned cat on a golden chain walking around it night and day, striking up a song as it goes to the right, and telling a story as it goes to the left; the woods full of sprites, witches, and sorcerers; a windowless hut on hen's legs; young knights emerging from the surf at dawn, and what not. When we finished, I hugged Nadya and went on alone with the first two lines of the dedication: "For you, tsaritsas of my soul, beautiful ladies, for you alone..." and we all laughed.
A few weeks after my arrival, the Germans tried for an offensive along our section of the front. For four days, a stubborn battle ranged, with our forces managing to hold their ground, while we and the Luftwaffe fought overhead. Both ground forces had been bled white, with the difference that in the meantime we had managed to bring up reinforcements while the Germans did not seem to have any. The counterattack was scheduled for the next day, with the survivors and the reinforcements and everything with a red star on it - tanks and planes - going in, and keeping at it until the front was broken. The next day was Friday the thirteenth.
I have never seen Zhenka so miserable. There was no wriggling out of this one, and he asked me to "keep for him during tomorrow" his camera, a Russian copy of Leica, and a handsome Finnish hunting knife, because, he said, Germans might take it into their head to bomb the airfield tomorrow, and his barrack was more exposed than mine. I understood that Zhenka was making his last will, doubtful of surviving such a day.
When we took off at dawn, the front was already shrouded in smoke, with shells exploding, tanks burning, and a lot of dead bodies on the ground. By midday all the excitement was gone from what we were doing; we were too tired to feel strongly about anything, and the day dragged on in endless grueling physical work.
By nightfall, the German front was broken. After our last take-off, we were ordered to land at another airfield, some fifty kilometers away. Zhenka struggled out of his cockpit, half-dead like the rest of us, but unhurt. Dusk was falling and we were not to fly again that day.
"Two Messerschmitts and a Focke-Wulf, no parachutes," he told me. "They gave me another Yak around noon; said they didn't want me to catch cold, the old one was so full of holes."
I saw a chance to cure him of some of his superstition.
"Well," I said, "do you still believe Friday the thirteenth is an unlucky day?"
He looked at me, surprised.
"Of course, " he said. "The three of them flew on Friday the thirteenth, didn't they?"
Later that evening, we found out why we had been switched to another airfield. Ours had been bombed and put out of action. The infirmary was also hit, and Nadya and one of the doctors were among the dead. As we kept up continuous sorties in the days that followed, and later moved on to yet another airfield, I was unable to attend Nadya's funeral or visit her grave later on.
* * *
So many things happened on that first day - my first dogfight, my first Messerschmitt, my first dead friend, and my first girl - that I remember the anniversary no less than my birthday, and prepare for it days in advance. But when it finally comes - what can I do? Light a memorial candle for Fyedya Kurnosov? He was only the first of the too many friends who followed. Talk about it with my present friends? They are outsiders, and might be bored, and I don't want to do this to my anniversary. So when the day finally comes I raise a glass of vodka in a silent toast, and undust my collection of those little plastic model planes: the Yak I flew, and the Messerschmitt 109, a Focke-Wulf fighter, a Stuka, a Junkers transport, and a Fieseler Storch observation plane, all of which I had shot down. And, as I undust them, alone and with no one to overhear, I recite quietly, not a prayer for the dead or thanksgiving for my survival, but the opening of Pushkin's "Ruslan and Ludmila":
"There is a green oak on the bay shore,
And, on that oak, a golden chain..."
©1997 Zygmunt Frankel - All Rights Reserved.
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