Chapter 2: Natalya (May 1941)
My father used to tell me that a bird is known by its flight. He said that it was an old proverb that his father had told him, but he had never been sure what it meant. I think it means that you can tell the worth of the bird by how well it flies. I also think that if humans were birds, most of us wouldn’t be very good fliers. Some would refuse to open their wings to leave the ground, and there are some would fight the wind so they could get to where they wanted to faster. But there are always a special few who would open their wings, close their eyes, and glide on the currents, going who knows where. I like to think of myself in the last section, able to just spread my wings and let the wind take me where it takes me.
The only time I ever truly relax is when I’m in the air, surrounded by the roaring engine of my old U-2 and the howling of the wind. Every time I reach the boundaries of the radio’s communication reach and know that if I just kept going, just me and the plane, then they would never catch me. I could just fly and fly and only come down for fuel and food. But every time I turn the plane around and land a few minutes later, an eagle with its wings chained, forced to walk among humans.
I’m startled out of my thoughts when the small radio in front of me crackles to life. “Naty, you still with us?” Lydia, the flight club leader’s voice, statics in and out, and I smile before pressing the respond button.
“Unfortunately.” A laugh erupts from the device.
“Well, the club’s about to close, so I’m gonna need you to land.” Groaning, I pulled the plane back around into a steep dive.
“Alright, if you insist.”
As I land, letting the plane set down gently onto the ground and roaring the last few yards to the parking zone, I sigh. The air feels too heavy around me, the wind too silent.
“Naty! Your head out of the clouds yet?” I look up to see Lydia walking briskly towards me across the lot, grinning her head off.
“Barely,” I say, and she laughs.
“I don’t believe that for a second. Give it a few more hours, maybe?”
“Oh shut your mouth. You’re just jealous because I’m a much better flier than you.” She snorts at this, grabbing my hand and pulling me inside.
“We have to hurry. There’s something I want to show you and the boss said that he’d demote me if I closed late again.” I follow her through the dark building, having to run to keep up with her. We arrive in her office where she goes to her desk and pulls out a flyer with a familiar face on the front.
“Isn’t that Marina Raskova?”
“Yes! She’s putting together an all-female flying group to fight Germany and its allies! Any female between the ages of 17 and 26 can try out!”
“The Marina Raskova?”
“Yes!” Lydia is almost squealing with joy, and her grin as spread so wide that I’m worried she’ll start ripping her skin. I had read about Raskova in the papers a while ago, and at this point any decent flier knew who she was. Even Comrade Stalin himself had gone to congratulate her after she set the distance record from Moscow to Komsomolsk-on-Amur in 1938.
“Do you think we could get in?”
“I don’t know. Lev, my brother, gave me this poster and all he said was that every female pilot in the Soviet Union will be there and she’s only taking a select few. This could be our chance Naty!” I’m smiling as well, but it fades as I take a step back.
“I can’t, Lydia. You know my parents, they’d never let me.”
“Natalya, you’re 19! Your parents can’t tell you what to do.” Her voice has turned serious, and as I turn to leave, she reaches forward and grabs my shoulder. I hiss in pain, a large cut hidden under my sleeve seeming to light on fire. She quickly withdraws her hand, and when I turn, she looks shocked.
“Lydia, I -”
“Who did that?” She glances down at my arm, and as I follow her gaze, I see a thin line of blood staining my shirt.
“He did that, didn’t he?” I pause, startled by the anger in her voice.
“Yes,” I whisper. “Yes, he did.”
“You told me that he never went after you.”
“Well, I was wrong. I guess my mother just wasn’t doing it for him.” I can’t stop the sarcasm dripping from my voice, and although I know that it’s not Lydia’s fault, I can’t help but feel mad at her for prying.
“Naty, this needs to stop, you need to get away!”
“I’m fine, Lydia! Why can’t you just leave me alone?” We both stand there, staring at each other, a crease forming in my friend’s forehead.
“Meet me here tonight, 11. Bring your mother if you can.”
“Lydia, you know I don’t have a clock.”
“Then estimate! Just be there. And pack a bag.”
“What are you planning?” Thinking back on Lydia’s history of spontaneously making crazy decisions, I’m wary of following her.
“We’re meeting Marina Raskova,” she says simply, then turns and walks out the door.
I leave the building a few minutes later, walking down the street back home. I take my time, pausing to look into shop windows, and stop by the bakery to buy a slice of Pastila. I savor the flavor as I pass by small jewelry shops, a shoe store, and a few clothing stores until I finally arrive at the place I’ve been dreading.
My house sits on the corner of two busy little streets, a small cottage with flower pots out front and a swing in the backyard, leftover from my childhood years that my father never got around to taking out. I quickly finish off the rest of my treat, wiping the crumbs off on my skirt, before quietly stepping through the door. I dart to the kitchen where I can hear my mother humming to herself softly, making sure to keep my footsteps silent. My mother is alone, stirring something over the stove and singing what I now recognize to be an old lullaby under her breath.
“No Papa tonight?” She jumps as I come into the room, dropping the spoon and moving her hands up to her face.
“Oh,” she laughs, quickly picking up the spoon and wiping it off, before continuing to stir the soup. “Natalya, milaya, you startled me!” She pauses, looking at me in my dirty skirt and mussed-up hair. “He is out with his friends. It will be just the two of us tonight.” I sigh, then turn to go to my room and clean up for dinner.
During dinner, I sit and sip the still-hot soup, thinking.
“Why did you marry him Mama? Why would you want to spend the rest of your life with someone who spends dinners out getting drunk instead of with his family?”
My mother pauses, considering, then looks at me and sighs.
“I loved him. When I married him, I mean. And I still loved him when we had your brother, and then you. Even now, I think that I still love him a little. But love fades over time, and your Papa’s love for me has just faded much more than mine has for him.” She reaches across the table and puts her hand over mine. “That’s just how life works, milaya. We are here to take care of our men and to give them children for them to be proud of. We’re not here to control their lives, and they can do as they please, even if it means, like in your father’s case, that we don’t see them often. But maybe, in certain circumstances, it’s alright if they’re not around all the time.” I look down, taking her hand in mine, and notice an angry red mark reaching out from under her sleeve.
“Mama -” She pulls her hand away, covering the mark again.
“I burned it. I’m fine.”
“Why don’t you go to your room. You look tired. I’ll clean up in here.” She’s already pushing away from the table, collecting my half-finished bowl and turning away from me. I feel tears forming behind my eyes and getting up, I try to think of something to say, but no words makes it past my lips.
That night, I can’t sleep. I keep waiting for the tell-tale signs that my father has returned home, but all I hear is the soft whistling of the wind outside, and the gentle murmuring of thunder in the far distance. I finnaly give up on rest and slip out from my bed, creeping around the room as quietly as I can and packing a small traveling bag. I pack clothes, a hairbrush, an extra pair of shoes, and a handful of rubles. I’m just reaching for a small framed photo of my brother that sits on my nightstand when a lough bang echoes through the house.
“I’m home!” My father’s loud voice bellows from the kitchen, and I hear the crash of a vase falling to the floor. I quickly move to the door, opening it a crack and peeking out through it. His bulky frame covers most of the doorway, but I can just see past it to my mother who is frantically preparing a bowl of what is now probably cold soup.
“Where is Natalya?” I almost come out of my room when my father’s question rumbles into my ears, but I keep still, curious and worried at what would happen next.
“She’s asleep, I would assume.” I always wondered how my mother managed to keep her voice so calm while talking to him. I sure as hell couldn’t. Most conversations between us ended in screams, tears, and blood.
“Is she not eating dinner?”
“She’s already eaten. As have I.” My father pauses, and I can almost hear the sloshing of his thoughts as they tramped through the flood of drink in his brain. I know I should leave now, use this chance to escape while he’s distracted, but I can’t help stopping and watching the events unfold in front of me.
“You… You’ve already eaten?”
“Yes, I -”“You ate without me?” He cuts her off, his voice sharp
“Yes, I assumed you would eat while at the pub and -”
I gasp as my father raises the hand with the bottle still in it, and smashes it into the side of my mother’s head. She reels backwards in shock, clutching her face and screaming. Gasping, I turn back into my room and stuff the photo into the pack. Pulling it closed, I hear the bellows of my father join in with my mother’s screams. Bellows calling my name.
Tears pouring down my face, I grab my small bag of belongings and, pulling my window open, I jump into the pouring rain. I hear my door slam open behind me and look back to see my father standing in the doorway, the bloody shards of a bottle still clasped in his hand.
I run and run and run, not paying attention to where I’m going, until I reach a familiar building and realize that I’ve come to the air club. I rattle the doors, hoping for a short second that maybe, just maybe, it will be open, and I can steal a plane and run away like I’ve always wanted to. But no luck.
I’m just about to kick in one of the windows, when I feel a tap on my shoulder. I swing around and almost whack Lydia in the face, but she ducks away just in time.
“Natalya?” My friend looks startled, and her eyes flick every direction, as if watching for something. “Is that you?”
“Yes, it’s me,” I hiss back, tears mixing with the rain streaking down my cheeks.
“Where’s your mother?”
“Probably dead.” I turn and spit into the bushes, trying to rid my mouth of the foul taste that the words leave behind. “Now will you please explain what the hell I’m doing in the pouring rain in the middle of the night?
“I told you,” Lydia says simply. “We’re meeting Marina Raskova and joining her super-special pilot group.”
“And if we don’t get in? What then”
“We will. Have some faith, Naty. After all, you are flying with the best pilot in Russia!” I snort, shaking my head.
“I thought we were going to meet the best pilot in Russia.” Rolling her eyes, Lydia pushes ahead of me and unlocks the doors.
“Alright, come on you Mudak, go get a plane.”
We flew for hours on end, only landing once to re-stock on water. We ate the food that I had packed, saving the more expensive food that Lydia had bought as possible trading options.
I’m gazing out of the plane, thinking about what would happen if I didn’t make it into Raskova’s group. Maybe I could become a baker, or possibly a seamstress. My mother had taught me a few things, and I wasn’t completely awful at them. Or maybe someone would even hire me as a flight instructor. That would be the best option, though not high paying. I would make it work. Maybe I could even -
“Natalya! Watch it!” I jump out of my thoughts and look up just in time to realize that my plane is gliding towards Lydia’s. I jerk the stick back and the plane turns away, righting itself in the air. “You alright?” Through the radio, my friend’s voice is full of static and hard to understand, but I can hear the worry and exhaustion layering it.
“Yeah. Just really hoping this works out.”
“So are we all.” We both pause, the silence wrapping around me like a thick blanket, comforting at first, but after a while, hot and uncomfortable. I’m about to say something, anything, just so I can get rid of the choking quiet when I hear Lydia yell. I spin in the seat and catch sight of the other plane behind me. The front is engulfed in a black smoke pouring from the engine.
“What did you do?” I’m also yelling now, the radio shaking in my hands.
“I don’t know! The engine just started smoking!”
“Well, whatever it is, you need to get out of there!” There’s no response from Lydia, but in my panic, I don’t notice. “I have the extra seat behind me. I’ll pull up underneath your plane and you should drop in.”
“We are in two metal aeroplanes, flying at 200 miles per hour, and you think that it would be a good idea for me to jump out of mine and fall into yours, hopefully landing in the small metal seat behind you? Without killing myself?”
“I saw someone do it once.”
“Where, the circus?”
“No, on one of those movies they show in the cinema!”
“Well screw movies! Those are fake anyways”
“Do you have any better ideas?” I’m screaming by now, desperation filling my voice. When she doesn’t respond, I almost throw the radio out of the plane in frustration. “Lydia!”
“No!” Her voice is high and hysterical, but strangely calm as well, as if she had accepted her fate. But I hadn’t.
“Lydia, you must get out of there! I can’t finish this flight without you, I’ll go crazy!”
“Naty, you must get to Raskova. You must make it into the flying group.” She pauses, seeming to collect herself. Her voice cracks and I can tell that she’s holding back her tears much better than I am. I swipe my hand across my wet cheek, only to have more drops fall.
“Lydia, there’s got to be a way to get you out of there!” Her voice is soothing as it comes over, but it hitches in the middle.
“Kill some nasty Germans for me, promise?”
I turn and see that she’s slipped out onto the wing of her plane and is sliding on her parachute. She jumps and is almost clear of the smoking black machine when a stray string is caught in the propellers, flinging her into the air, the parachute ripped from her back. She falls, and I scream her name, although I know that there’s no hope.
Sitting back in the seat, tears streaming down my dirt-encrusted face, I fly into the sunset alone. It’s a clear day, not a cloud in sight, but it’s not right. It should be raining, with dark clouds and lightning in the distance. Maybe it would even strike my plane, sending me falling down, down, down, until I joined my friend. Maybe someone would find us, what was left of us, and tell stories. Or maybe we would be forgotten, just another name, lost in the wind.
So I fly on, thinking of Lydia’s last words.
“I’ll kill some Germans for you,” I whisper to the empty air around me. “I promise.”