Chapter 5: Max (August 1950)
I sit stiff, my back pressed up against the warm train seat. Next to me, my new traveling companion, Nadya Petrova, sits similarly, but with much more of a commanding aura. Our car is fairly empty, save for a very pregnant lady buried deep in her magazine, and an older gentleman who is fast asleep and snoring like a toad at midnight, a drop of drool making its way slowly down his chin. We are on a train headed for Ryazan, a small town midway between Moscow, where Nadya says most of the Nightwitches relocated after the war, and the old Nightwitch airbase, where she says we should be able to talk to someone who knows what may have happened to Smirnova. We spend the first few hours of the ride in silence, me flipping through a book I’d gotten at the station before we left, reading about what to expect in Moscow and brushing up on my Russian. My conversation with Nadya last night had proved to me that a little more studying was in order before I reach the motherland herself.
I’m mumbling the different words under my breath as I read, trying to relearn how to order food, something that is proving to be more and more difficult as the hours go by, when Nadya stops me.
“It’s PURE-eh, not PUR-eh. Like the clear water.” She pauses, frowning to herself. “Why do you need to know how to order potatoes anyways?”
“I don’t know.” I groan and shut it with a snap. “I’m just trying to make it through this stupid book. Has anything I’ve been saying lately been correct?”
“Not much. But I had to stop you before you completely destroyed my favorite dish.” Rolling my eyes, I smile, and, to my surprise and delight, she does too.
“So the great Russian pilot likes - how do you say it - cart-oh-full-noy pure-eh?” She grimaces and pulls the book away from me.
“How about just not saying anything unless it is completely necessary while we are in Moscow, yes?”
“Ouch,” I say, trying to pull the book back and failing. Her grip on the book is like steel, and after a few tugs, I give up and turn to a different topic.. “So, if I’m not allowed to study, then why don’t you tell me more about yourself. I’d like to know something about the mysterious Natalya Petrova?” At that, she flinches and turns away from me.
“Nadya. My name is Nadya. And why don’t you go first? After all, I am the one who paid for our train tickets.” I laugh, feeling myself relax slightly. Maybe Natalya had been the name of one of her friends, dead in the war, or maybe it was her mom’s. It wasn’t my buisness anyway.
I settle back in my seat, getting comfortable. I have a story to tell.
“Well,” I start, deciding what I want her to know. “I had two sisters and one brother, and I was the oldest in my family. I joined the Wehrmacht when I was about 18. I rose a bit through the ranks, well enough to stand out, but not fast enough that anyone knew me past my squadron. One day, well, one day we were ambushed. Most of the men didn’t make it out. I was driving a tank, so I had a bit of protection from the first round, which gave me just enough time to get out and barely escape with my life. I wandered for a bit, a a few of the other men from the battle joining me, until we finally found a German military base. They took us in, and I stayed there for about a month before I was given a 2 weeks leave to celebrate Erntedankfest with my family.”
“Erntedankfest?” Nadya cut in, startling me out of my memories.
“Yeah. It’s a type of celebration during the harvest. People go out and put on parades, music, and there’s a few church services. My family never really went to those, although whenever my Papa’s family was in town, we might go to one. It’s a pretty fun day, under normal circumstances.” I pause, clearing my throat.
“That first night that I got there, my brother was out signing up for the war. I suppose, in a way, it ended up saving his life.” I drop my head into my hands, trying to suppress memories of that God-forsaken night.
“What happened?” Nadya is leaning forward in her seat, staring at me intently.
“Already enraptured in my story, I see.” Forcing a slight smile onto my face, I sigh. “The Nechlexen attacked the town. My house was just inside the area of where the bombs hit. Two of my sisters and both my parents were all killed, along with some of our neighbors. Klaus and I only made it because we had been out walking around and one of the bakers took us down to his cellar to hide. He… he didn’t make it either.”
“Why not? Was he not hiding with you and - what was his name - Klaus?”
“No. He went back up to help others find the safe spot.” Tears well up in my throat, forcing me to stop again. “He saved seven people in total - five adults and two kids. One of the couples were my neighbors, and Klaus and I stayed with them for a week after… afterward. I went back to my squadron early and learned as much as I could about the Nightwitches. I was only allowed home on a dependency discharge because my sister became sick with tuberculosis and the family she was staying with was threatening to throw her out onto the streets.”
“That’s awful, Max,” Nadya says, her face horror-struck. “Did she recover?”
“No. She held on for about a year, but it was horrid. I probably got it as well at one point, but it hasn’t shown up again, so who knows? Right before she passed, about a month before, actually, I received a telegram from the Wehrmacht telling me about - about Klaus.” My voice hiccups, and I can no longer hold back the tears. I thought I had finished mourning for Klaus, for Ruth, for my entire family, but apparently I still had a little more left in me. Small streams of tears tickle my cheeks as they fall, and I don’t push them away, allowing them to drip gently onto my lap.
“I… Max, I’m really sorry. I didn’t know.”
“It’s fine,” I say, leaning back onto my seat. “It was a long time ago.”
We sit in silence for a while until Nadya finally asks the question that I’ve been trying my best to avoid.
“So how did you find out about Natalya?”
I look away, focusing my gaze on anything other than my traveling partner. The old man across the aisle snorts loudly in his sleep, and the drop of drool that has been clinging onto his chin slips and drops onto the arm rest. I wince and turn back to Nadya.
“It was in a letter from my brother.”
“A letter? But you said that he died before he would have had time to send a letter.”
“Yeah. It wasn’t exactly a letter. Klaus kept a diary, a journal of sorts. As the only surviving member of his family, it got sent to me when he…” I gulp, and then continue on. “The last few pages were filled with entries during his time in the military, and I read through them, just out of curiosity. The last entry had the bottom half of the paper ripped off, but the top of it talked about two women that he had been traveling with. He wrote about how one was kind but injured, and the other was strict and didn’t agree with him traveling with them. Natalya, he said her name was.”
Nadya cuts me off with a confused expression. “If Klaus only wrote Natalya’s first name, then how did you know her last name?”
“At the end of the entry were some letters in someone else’s handwriting, but in Russian. It took me a bit to translate it, but it was a signature, I think. The name that it spelled out was Natalya Smirnova.”
“Glupo, tak glupo,” Nadya mutters.
“I’m sorry?” I don’t understand her words, though I feel like maybe I don’t want to.
“Nothing,” she says quickly, but I notice her foot start tapping the floor at a quick pace. I’m about to say something when a man enters the room and starts collecting tickets. I look down, digging into my pockets, but I can’t find mine. Nadya taps me on the shoulder and I look up just in time to see her hand the man two slips of paper.
“It was on the floor,” she whispers to me and I sigh.
“Has anyone ever told you that if your head wasn’t attached to your neck -”
“I would loose it too? Yeah, that one’s not super original.”
Nadya laughs, and I can’t keep myself from letting out a small chuckle too.