Chapter 3: Nadya (October 1950)
Tili Tili Bom
Close your eyes quickly
Someone’s walking by the window
And knocking at the door.
Tili Tili Bom
Can you hear the birds through the night?
He’s already made his way into the house
For those who cannot sleep.
Tili Tili Bom
Can you hear someone next to you?
Huddled in a corner
With a penetrating gaze.
Tili Tili Bom
The night will muffle everything
He is sneaking up to you
Now he almost got you…
Hear his steps
As I walk through the strangely empty market, I hum the words to an old song that my mother sang to me when I was a child. The sun is setting over the horizon, sending out bright spears of light and making me shade my eyes so I could see.
Pausing by a small boutique, I watch a light green dress flutter on a breeze inside the store and chew on a small snack I had brought with me. I stand there wor a while, lost in my thoughts until a sudden sensation of someone watching me sends tingles up my spine. A quick look over my shoulder reveals nothing, so I stand up and begin walking, telling myself that I’m just being paranoid. The locals have never made an effort to conceal themselves, so why would they start now?
A glance at my nearly empty purse tells me that I won’t be able to purchase everything that I had originally come for. Sighing, I continue forwards, stopping at a fruit stand.
I reach for a few apples, grabbing the greenest ones and am handing over my money when the man running the stand looks up and a look of recognition crosses his face.
He throws down the handful of rubles that I had given him and spits at me, the spray landing on my cheek. I calmly wipe it off, used to it after spending nearly 2 years in this small town.
“You’re that Russian witch, aren’t you?”
“I am,” I say, keeping my temper in check. At this point, I’m surprised that the name still angers me, when it should make me proud. “Does my previous status prevent you from selling to me?” The man laughs, a grin sliding over his face the makes my stomach squirm.
“It’s my stand, witch,” he says, spittle flying from his lips. I’m suddenly much less inclined to buy the fruit if that’s what they’re covered in. “I can sell to whoever I want ta. And I don’t want ta sell ta you.”
Glancing back over my shoulder, I see a few shadows moving in the distance, other people coming out now that the sun is going down and the day’s heat is crawling away on weary legs. There is still that feeling of being watched, of being followed. Although I’ve never been physically attacked before, other than a few pieces of rotten fruit thrown at my head, I wouldn’t put it past a certain few of the locals.
“Please,” I hiss to the man, still grasping the apples in my hand. “Just sell me these, and then I’ll leave.”
“It’ll be double for Soviet puppets,” he growls back.
“Double?! I don’t have that much!”
“Well, that’s not my problem, is it?” I shut my eyes tight, trying to come back into control of myself. I don’t have double the amount, but I needed food. Sighing, I withdraw the last of the coins in my purse, setting them on the warm table. I am officially out of money.
The man counts out the rubles, then looks back up at me.
“Do you really think you can trick me, darling?” I recoil at the name, trying to push back the awful memories that come with it. “This ain’t nearly enough, and if you want the food, you’re gonna have to pay some other way.” He comes out from behind the booth and starts moving towards me. I’m shaking, but I stand my ground, refusing to give this man anything.
“I wouldn’t move any closer if I were you,” My breath is coming in short gasps. He’s about seven steps away now, and closing the distance fast.
“Whatcha gonna do?” Six steps. “You gonna fight me off?” Five, four, three.
“Just take the money and let me leave, please. I don’t want to cause trouble.” Two steps.
“Neither do I, darling. Just come with me and no one will know the difference.” Taking one last step, he closes the distance between us, and before I realize what’s happening, he grabs my wrist and starts pulling me around the back of his booth. I scream, begging, pleading for someone to come, to help me, meanwhile punching and elbowing his face, his nose, his ribs, anywhere I can reach, but he continues to drag me away while the other patrons of the market walk away, turning their heads so that they don’t have to watch.
“Cowards!” I scream. Still wrestling with the man, I shove backward, toppling a few crates of fruit. Suddenly, another hand grabs my waist, pulling me away. When that proves to be no use, the newcomer jumps in front of me, landing on my captor and punching him so hard that I heard the crack of bone.
My hand slips out of his grasp and I turn and run, leaving both men still tussling on the ground behind me. I run and run and run until I reach the edge of the market. Pausing for breath, I realize that I am back next to the shop with the green dress, though it is gone now. The window seems empty without it, the dusty glass reflecting my pale dirty face.
Still gasping for air, I quickly begin walking, heading for the small road leading away from town and to my small home. Continually glancing over my shoulder, I don’t notice anything wrong for a few minutes. Then I realize that a man is hurrying behind me, and has been since I left the shop. I hurry my pace, reaching for my purse, anything to help protect myself this time, but it’s not there. I must have dropped it in the market. That’s when I start running again. If I could only get to the road, then I could lose him in the trees and -
“Nechlexen!” I’m so surprised to hear the name here of all places that I slide to a stop, tripping over my skirts and tumbling forward onto my hands. Wincing in pain, I push myself to my feet and wipe the shredded skin off on my jacket, which hurts even more.
I look back at the man who had called to me, getting ready to fight again. But what he says next startles me, and I drop my stance.
“You are Nechlexen, ja?” His accent is from nowhere near here, German possibly, or maybe Austrian.
“It depends,” I say, still wary of him. “I want to know who’s asking.” He pauses, looking confused, and then nodding in understanding.
“Ja, ja,” he says, still nodding and taking a few steps closer. “I am Max.” He - Max - talks slowly, and it dawns on me that he must not know much Russian. I scramble, searching for any German that I might know, and a few words that my mother taught me slip to the top of my mind. Max continues to come closer, and I take a step back. Looking around, I realize that people have begun to stare at us.
“Follow me,” I hiss to him, and begin walking towards my home again.
He catches up to me, and we walk shoulder-to-shoulder for a while, the air silent except for the whirrs of the bugs around us.
“I - I don’t know…” Max pauses, clearly searching for the right word.
“Rosiyskiy?” He throws me a questioning glance and I quickly switch to German. “Russian?”
“Ah.” He nods, then looks up at me. “You know German?” I hesitate, wondering how much I want to tell this man. After all, I don’t even know what he wants.
“My mother was German,” I decide, only telling him the basics. “She taught it to me when I was young. I’m a bit, well, I’m a bit rusty. I didn’t listen well.” Max laughs at this, and I feel my face flush. We are quiet for a while longer, but then my companion speaks up again.
“So you are Nechlexen, the Nightwitch in Belarus?”
“There is only one of us here?”
“According to my research.” I pause, turning his words over in my mind.
“You are researching us?”
“The Nightwitches, yes. I - well, I am looking for one of you. Maybe you can help me find her?”
“Who is it that you are looking for?”
“Natalya?” I choke down a gasp and immediately bend over, consumed by a coughing fit. Max helps lead me over to lean against a tree, and once I can breathe normally again, we continue walking.
“Did you know her?”
“I knew many Natalyas. Sokolova, Federova, Morozova. Actually, one of our flight commanders was Natalya Meklin.”
“Smirnova?” Another pause.
“Maybe. The name does sound familiar. Why are you looking for her?” Max doesn’t answer, and after a second, I look over and see that he is trying to compose himself.
“She - she killed him.” A choked sound escapes his throat and it’s another second before he speaks again. “She killed my brother.”
“Natalya Smirnova,” I say, having to force the words past my tongue, “killed your brother?”
More silence, and as we arrive at the small cottage that I call home, he stays out on the porch while I go inside to make tea, a million thoughts racing a hundred times that speed through my head. Sure I knew Natalya, or Naty as she was sometimes called. I actually knew her quite well. She was fierce, competitive, loyal, and extremely protective of those she cared about. But kill someone? If she had, she’d never told anyone.
I went back outside, the warm cups burning my hands. I almost dropped them while setting them on the table, so hot were they.
“I would wait a bit before drinking that,” I warned Max. “Unless you would like to spend the next week nursing a burned tongue.” He chuckled, though I hadn’t intended for it to be funny. Despite my warnings, he picked the cup up and, blowing gently on it first, took a hesitant sip, then made a sound that sounded like the mix between a gargle and a yell of pain before leaping forward to spit the tea into the bushes in front of us. Chuckling, I take the cup away from him as he frantically tries to get the burning liquid out of his mouth.
“You don’t listen much, do you?” His face is red, and I notice a spray of freckles across his cheeks as he turns to sit back down.
“My Ma always told me that one day I would kill myself because I didn’t follow directions. I guess that that’s what she meant.”
“Yes,” I sigh. “Choking on boiling tea… What a pleasant way to go.”
“I’ve seen worse,” Max says, and though I can tell that he immediately regrets it, now I’m curious.
“What do you mean?” Wincing, Max turns away.
“I shouldn’t have said anything.” I know I shouldn’t, but I keep pressing anyway.
“Well, you already mentioned it, and I’m curious, so you might as well tell me.” Still no answer. “I won’t leave you alone until you do…”
“Fine!” I jump back at his outburst. “If you must know, then I’ll tell you.” He turns to face me again. “October 1942. My parents and sisters Krista and Annelise. They were in one of the towns that the Nechlexen bombed that night. Ruth, the oldest of the three, survived, but I could barely recognize her because she was so badly burned.” His gaze hits me with an accusatory glare. “Are you still glad you asked?”
My heart is beating a million miles a minute.
“Yes,” I manage to whisper, and though my answer surprises both of us, I know it to be true. I can’t imagine the pain that it causes this poor man to sit next to me, to share tea with me, to be friendly to me, all with the knowledge that it could have been me who dropped those bombs, me who flipped that switch that released them silently into the night air. But now I know every prejudice that he had against me, every hateful thought, everything that he might want to say and do that he won’t, all for the sake of finding revenge for his brother.
“What was his name?” Max looks up, startled, and seemingly confused by the question.
“What was your brother’s name?” A pause, and then -
“Klaus,” he whispers.
“Klaus Klein,” I mutter under my breath, but Max catches it.
“How did you know his - my - last name?” He says, immediately on the defensive once again. Stuttering, I grapple for a reply, one that will convince him and -
“Natalya told me.” It bursts out, and I immediately wonder how in hell I will explain this.
“You said that you didn’t know Nat-”
“Well, I lied.” Sighing, I settle back into my chair, setting the lukewarm tea onto the ground. “I knew her. She was in my regiment for a while. One day, her plane went down, taking her and her navigator, Ludmila, down with it. When they came back, they were spinning tales of a German boy-soldier who saved their lives named Klaus Klein. No one believed them, of course. A German, the enemy, saving two downed Russian pilots? If he had killed them, he would have gotten medals and been promoted, but instead, he decided to help and rescue them? It was clearly a lie, but…”
“But it wasn’t.” I look up, meeting Max’s gaze, then look away again. “Klaus was always kinder than necessary, and never one to hurt others so that he could come out on top.”
“But she killed him,” I whisper. “She killed him so that they could get away, and she never told anyone.”
“Maybe she didn’t know?”
“Maybe.” I sigh, leaning my head back against the side of the house. “So why did you come to me? Why do you think I would know where Natalya went after the war?” Max chuckles and I look up at him, confused.
“That, I’m afraid, is a more embarrassing answer. Most of the Nightwitches stayed in Moscow after the war, and as I’m sure you’ve noticed, my Russian isn’t the best.” I snorted at that, remembering our pitiful conversation back by the market.
“I believe that is an understatement.”
“And I believe that I didn’t ask you. Anyways,” he says, dragging the word out, “I read something in the papers about a town harboring a former Soviet pilot, which normally wouldn’t have caught my attention, except the article was very specific to that fact that you were female. So I thought that I wouldn’t be nearly as embarrassed if I went to a smaller city and tried to talk in Russian there than if I went to the capitol itself.”
“Well, you still embarrassed yourself,” I crow in delight, while Max rolls his eyes.
“Do you know of a place I can stay the night?”
“I suppose you could stay here? If you’re alright with that, of course. And you will be paying rent. That Mudak took the last of my money today.”
“Fine,” my new guest sighs. “Tell me where I’m going.”
“Go upstairs, two doors down on the right. Don’t break anything.”
“I’ll try,” he says, pushing the door open and heading inside. I stay out for a little while more, sipping my cold tea and trying to clear my mind of the day's events. But one thought I couldn’t get rid of, no matter how hard I tried.
Natalya Smirnova killed Klaus Klein.