Chapter 4: Natalya (May 1942)
It takes me another day to reach the base, where I land the beaten up U-2 in a large field about a mile’s walk from a nearby village. As I feel it hit the ground, the engine whirrs to a stop on its own. I flick the switch, trying to start it back up, but after a heavy groan, it shuts down again.
Feeling oddly sad, I pat the wing, cleaning it off one last time.
“I’m going to miss you, old girl,” I whisper too it, then think that I must be going crazy, talking to a broken-down hunk of metal. Sighing, I pull my small, nearly empty bag out of the seat and start off for the town.
It’s a long walk, and I quickly realize that I must have miscalculated the distance. An hour or so later, I’m still walking and starting to wonder if I’m even going in the right direction, when the woods around me open into a small but lively village. Standing on a hill, I can see a market, with their colorful stalls and loud sellers, a neat line of houses some distance behind it. There are shops, a town hall, and even a train station, the tracks running a glittering line through the village as the mid-day sun reflects off of them. But the thing that catches my eye is a large airbase a little ways off. I can barely see it, but manage to make out a squat building at the end of a road leading from village.
I run down to the market, looking around to see if there was any way I could get transportation to the base when a young girl approaches me, tapping my shoulder. I spin around, jumping away from her.
“What do you want,” I say, trying to keep the fear and annoyance out of my voice. I can’t help remembering how, when I turned, it had been my father standing there, not a young girl. “I’m out of rubles, I can’t buy anything.” The girl shakes her head, smiling a little.
“I don’t want your rubles,” she says, holding up a small bag. “My commander sent me with enough. It’s just that you looked lost, and I was wondering if I could help you get to where you needed to be?” My heart is still thudding in my chest, but as I gaze down at this small, young girl, I wonder how I could mistake her for anything remotely scary. Her long brown hair flows down her back, pulled into a loose braid, and her pale blue eyes stare up at me with such a fierce intensity that I immediately know that this girl can hold her own against the world.
“I’m looking for a ride to the airbase over there,” I say, startled as the words come out of my mouth. I braced myself for the laughter, the ‘women can’t fly planes’ that everybody responded with. But the girl just smiles wider.
“That’s where I’m going too! My name is Ludmila, but people call me Lu, Luda, Lusya, Mila, or whatever else works for them.” She sticks her hand out and after a second, I shake it.
“I’m Natalya,” I say, Ludmila’s contagious joy starting to spread to me.
“Ooh, another Natalya! There are three other ones in my group, so I’m starting to get confused.”
“I’m a pilot in the 588th. You are going to the airbase to try and get in, right?” I nod, a slow smile spreading across my face. The 588th female pilots. I had finally found them.
Ludmila chatters the whole ride down to the base, telling me all about life there. I quickly learned that her father had left her and her mother when she was very young, and she had moved around quite a lot until her mother sent her to live at an academy where she would slip out every night and fly at a nearby base. A few years later, she ran away, heard about Marina Raskova putting together a regiment of women, and came here.
“I will admit, I did lie when she asked me about my flying time,” she tells me in a whisper. “But I think most everyone did that. At this point, you have to add on a few hundred hours just to keep up with everyone.”
“I’ll keep that in mind,” I say, feeling myself relax for the first time in a long time. I had a friend here, irregardless of the fact that Ludmila seemed like the type who was friends with the world, and I was going to make it in. Raskova had to accept me. She had to.
“So why are you here?” Ludmila’s question startles me, and I have to pause before answering.
“Same as everyone else, right? To try out for the new regiment that Raskova’s putting together.” She shakes her head.
“That’s not what I mean. Everybody in the group came from something - dead parents, running away from school, trying to escape racial stereotypes, stuff like that. So why did you come here?”
My throat closes up, refusing to let anything through. I can’t tell her. I can’t tell her that I let my father murder my mother, that I had left my best friend for dead, that I had run away with no thought to how it might affect everyone around me. I can’t tell her my horrible past, because if I did, I would loose the one friend that I had in this new, blank world. This was my chance to start over, to create a new life for myself, away from the old one. This was my chance to rise from the ashes of the burned out husk of a life that my parents gave me, and build a new one, brimming with color, and beauty, and, most of all, love.
“I just - I just really like flying,” I choke out, feeling heat rise to my face when I realize how pathetic it sounded.
“Hmph,” Ludmila agrees, and then, crossing her arms over her chest, she turns away from me and stares out the window, leaving me to drown in my thoughts for the rest of the ride.
We pull up in front of the building a few minutes later, and Ludmila walks along side me, our earlier disagreement already faded from her mind.
“I’m going around back,” she says as we walk along the cracked pavement leading up to the base. “You’re not allowed back there until Raskova accepts you, but I’ll try and get a spot cleared.”
“You don’t even know if I’ll get in,” I say, wincing at the thought that I may be leaving the same way I came in an hour.
“Well, not with that attitude, you won’t! Like my mom always said: without effort, you won’t even pull a fish out of a pond.” I frown, and she nudges me playfully. “Come on, believe in yourself and you’ll be just fine!”
“Yeah! Now this is where I turn. You go on ahead through those doors and talk to Yelena in the front. She’s Raskova’s personal assistant, so she’s the only one who can get your message through.” I feel her grab my hand and squeeze it, letting go before I have time to pull away. “Good luck,” she whispers. Turning to thank her, I see that she’s already skipping down a small shaded path and I smile softly to myself. To have her spirit would probably feel like floating, flying even.
Sighing, I continue forward and push through the large doors, passing underneath the large sign reading Engels School of Aviation. From now on, my life could be whatever I wanted it to.
“She is not seeing anyone right now.” Yelena’s voice is the same that I had heard for years at schools from the girls who thought themselves above me, and I immediately dislike her. Nevermind the fact that she had barely allowed me to finish my request before dismissing me.
“Is she here at the base?”
“Then just tell her that I’m here. I’ll wait.”
“She’s not to be bothered.” Groaning, I lean forward onto the desk.
“Just tell her, for God’s sake! I’ll wait for whenever she can see me, but just tell her that I’m here!” Yelena finllay looks up from the pamphlet that she’s been making marks on during our entire conversation.
“What’s your name, girl?”
“Natalya Smirnova.” She scribbles it down onto a paper that’s covered in names.
“Find a place to sit if you can. It might be a long wait.” And with that, she lowers her head again and returns to her work. I turn and walk towards a long row of chairs against the wall, trying to keep my confidence showing in every step. I wouldn’t let a no-good secretary think that she had gotten to me in any way.
Sitting down, I wince at the hardness of the wooden seat. Yelena still hadn’t moved from her desk. I settled back into the chair, feeling splinters stab at me from every angle, content to wait. I was going to be here a while.
“Is she ready yet?”
“Have you told her yet?”
“I’m not leaving until you tell her.”
“You’ll be waiting a while then. I’m busy.”
I turn and walk back to my small, hard chair in the corner of the room. I’m exhausted from sitting all day, every day, getting up and down to have the same conversation with the same boring person a million times over. I sigh inwardly, debating if joining the 588th regiment, as I had learned that they were being called, was worth one more night curled up on the hard, cold floor as I watched Yelena pack up and leave to her presumably comfortable bed.
The sun is setting over the horizon, and I notice that a beam of light is hitting Yelena, the “busiest” secretary ever, directly in the face. She shades her eyes with her hand, and suddenly I start grinning, remembering when my mother and I would use the fading sun to create shadow figures on our walls. I raised my hands, twisting them so that the shadow created what might have been a bird, if someone with quite an imagination had seen it. Moving my fingers around, I create a bevy of animals until Yelena finally looks up.
“What do you want,” she spits, and I have to keep from laughing as I see droplets fly through the air.
“For you to get off your fat ass and get me an appointment with Raskova,” I say as I rise from my chair and approach the desk again. I hear another lady at a desk behind me snicker, and I stand slightly straighter, the knowledge that someone here might be on my side comforting me.
“I can’t do that.”
“I already told you, she’s busy.” I have to clasp my hands behind my back to restrain myself from doing something that I would most likely regret in the future, although it would bring me great satisfaction right now.
“Ms. Yelena, I have been here for five days now. I have sat in that chair, waiting for you, my dear lady, to get up and run one simple message to your boss, but no. You arrive in the morning, and then sit all day, only to pack up and leave in the afternoon. I see people coming and going all day, delivering papers, taking uniforms, talking to each other. Heck, I’ve even helped do some of that. But that’s not why I came, is it? I came so that I can have a meeting with Marina Raskova and join the 588th regiment of female pilots. I came so that I can continue my life, so that I could work for our country. I did not come to be ordered around by a lady who doesn’t respect others enough to take two minutes and deliver a message. I did not come so that I could sit on a chair all day and watch people working, watch people make a difference. So, Ms. Yelena, I’m asking you, for that last time, to get off of your heavy behind and make me an appointment with Raskova.”
Yelena looks up at me, a glimmer of malice in her eyes.
“A lot of girls have come in here telling me the exact same thing, and almost none of them were accepted into the regiment, or even saw the lady they were here to see. So why do you think that you’ll be any different?”
“Because I have much more time and patience than they did.”
“I wouldn’t call what you have patience.” A sigh, and then - “However, I don’t think any of the girls who came have stayed nearly as long as you have.”
“So you’ll get me an appointment?” A well of hope fills up inside me, but drains just as fast.
“Oh trakhni tebya!”
“I would watch your language if I were you, young lady.” A new voice from the front of the room silences all of its occupants. Turning, I see a woman standing in the doorway, a helmet tucked underneath her arm. Her face is dirty and covered in oil, but I would recognize it no matter what. It’s the same face that had stared out at me from many magazines, newspapers, and photographs. It’s the same face that had floated among my dreams for years. I had finally reached Marina Raskova.
She starts walking towards me, stopping when we are shoulder-to-shoulder, and speaks to Yelena.
“Is this the girl that I’ve heard you yelling at for the past week?” Yelena ducks her head.“Yes ma’am.”
“Why is she here?”
“She wanted an appointment with you to join your troops.”
“And why did you not make one.”
“You were busy, ma’am. I didn’t want to disturb you.”
Raskova sighs, then turns to me. “Come to my office in five minutes. Yelena here,” she says, putting an emphasis on the secretary’s name, “can show you the way.” To Yelena, “don’t make me come looking for her.”
“Yes ma’am,” we say at the same time, and with a final nod to both of us, Marina Raskova turns and leaves.
“So you’ve been giving poor Yelena hell for the past week?”
“She was doing the same to me, so I felt no guilt returning the favor.”
Raskova leans back in her chair and laughs. “What is your name, girl?”
“Natalya Smirnova, ma’am.”
“Well, Natalya, Yelena says that you would like to join the 588th regiment?”
“And why should I accept you?”
“Because I am the best pilot out there.”
“And very humble, too,” she murmurs, then gently shakes her head. “We’ve had girls from all over the place, from Moscow to the farthest reaches of Russia. They’ve all said the same thing, but I’ve only accepted the ones who put up a fight, the ones who refused to let me say no. The girls outside right now have done things that I can only imagine, grown up in the worst conditions, done things to get here that no normal person would be able to get through. Those girls outside should not be alive right now, but yet here they are.” She pauses, then turns her gaze to meet mine and I have to keep myself from flinching away. “Are you that type of girl, Natalya Smirnova?”
“Yes, I am.”
She settles back in her chair, a disappointed look on her face. “Your headstrong personality will be your downfall someday, Natalya. I don’t want someone who will let me down.”
“I won’t, I promise.”
“And how can I trust you? You don’t seem to be able to follow orders, as was shown when Yelena told you to leave and you refused, you don’t seem to care what others think of you, which means that I couldn’t send you anywhere and trust you not to make a fool of yourself I had to, and, worst of all, you aren’t completely Russian, are you?”
“No, ma’am. My mother was German.”
“Exactly. I need women who can represent our great country, who the people will trust to fight for us. If they found out that I had someone who’s parent was from our enemy country, this entire project would be shut down! I can’t have that happening, and without any real reason to accept you, I can’t. I’m sorry, but a talented flier like you can most likely find good work somewhere else.”
I am stunned. It feels as though someone has ripped a me into a thousand parts, and then thrown me to float away with the wind. I had been ready for Raskova to kick me out, to tell me no, but I wasn’t prepared for her to slice me open, leaving all of my faults and problems out shining for the world to see.
“Good evening, Natalya.” And with that, she pushes herself out of the chair and walks out of the office.
After a minute of silence, I quickly get up and follow her out, running after her as she pushes through the front doors and moves into the cool night air.
“Ms. Raskova!” I call to her, intent on having my side heard. I wasn’t leaving until I had had a chance to tell her my part of the story.
“Our meeting is done, Natalya.”
“Fine!” She turns to me, and I can see anger and annoyance flaring in her eyes, but also curiosity and maybe even hope. “What do you want.”
“To tell my part of the story.”
“Then talk. But I am warning you, most likely nothing you do or say will change my mind.”
“A chance is all I need, ma’am.”
“Very well. I am listening.”
I take a breath, gathering my thoughts and pressing the past few days into a story. It wasn’t one that anyone would want to hear, not one that would be written out for others to read at their own leisure, but it was all I had, and it would have to work.
“Last Wednesday is when I ran away from home. It was just me and a friend who was willing to drop her entire life to get me away from mine. My father drank too much, and normally took it out on my mother. Except, one night, my mother wasn’t home. He decided that I would do, and beat me until I could barely breathe.
“That night, I watched him hit my mother with a broken vodka bottle. She was supposed to get away with me, but hell, I doubt she’s still alive. I barely made it out. On the flight here, the friend who had saved my life’s plane broke down in mid-air. The last I saw of her was when she jumped off the wing with a ripped parachute. My last promise to her was that I was going to kill some Germans for her, and the only way for me to do that is to join the 588th.
“I know you said that the girls in your squadron have been through many things, but I’ve been through worse than any of them. If I quit now, if I stop fighting, then I die. There’s no other paths, no other strings for me to pull so that I can start over. This is it. This is all I’ve got. And although I doubt that you would care much about a young girl with no future and no worth going off and you never hearing from her again, you told me you needed fighters, and if I’m not one, then I don’t know who is.”
I stop, pulling in quick breaths, praying that it was enough, hoping against all hopes that the universe will cut me some slack for this one thing, let me have this one thing if nothing else. Raskova opens her mouth to speak when a rustling in a nearby bush and a hiss of pain pulls both of our attention away from the discussion.
“Whoever you are, please stop hiding in the bushes,” she calls, and after a moment’s hesitation, Ludmila’s small figure rises out from behind the brush, a line of blood running down her arm. Another glance and I notice that she had been hiding behind a rose bush, and must have gotten a thorn stuck in her arm.
“Ludmila,” Raskova says, rolling her eyes. “Aren’t you supposed to be in training right now?”
“Yes ma’am,” she says hurriedly, “but I couldn’t let you kick Natalya out. You know that Yekaterina left last week and we have an opening and I need a pilot, because you need as many planes out as possible and no one is supposed to fly alone, and Natalya’s a really good pilot, even though I’ve never seen her, but I bet she could do it really well and -”
Raskova quickly cuts her off. “Ludmila, please. I have no idea why or how you know Natalya, and I’m not sure that I need to, but I have a job for you right now that requires you to calm down a bit.”
My new friend’s cheeks flush pink and she ducks her head quickly. I can almost see energy flickering on her skin, and she seems to vibrate with the need to move.
“I need you to find a place for your Natalya to stay.” Turning to me, she smiles. “Welcome to the 588th regiment, sestra.”