Science Fiction & Fantasy

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Fiction

Blood, Ash, Braids

1943

It didn’t take them long to find a name for us; almost as soon as they knew it was women inside the rickety biplanes they couldn’t catch, the Germans called us witches.

It was because of the sounds our idling planes made from the ground, the story went, as if the German soldiers had spent a lot of time with brooms and knew what they sounded like, engineless and gliding fifty feet above them in the dark.

(The wires holding the wings in place made the whistle. The canvas pulled taut around the plywood made the hush. I still suspect the thing that sounded supernatural was the whirr of our engines starting up again, as they realized we had already struck them, and it was too late to escape the blasts.)

The officer who told us had half a smile on his face; he’d thought of the job as a demotion—most of them did, at first, to be in a camp full of girls—but if the Germans were already bleating back and forth about bounties for the heads of the Night Witches, then maybe he had real fighters on his hands.

Popova cracked a laugh when she heard, turned to me with grin that was all teeth. “I like that,” she said. “Should we start screeching when we sail through, do you think?”

“I think not,” I said. “The best witches know not to give away their position.” And she laughed a little louder than she had to, as if she thought it was actually funny.

A couple of the girls glanced over from across the runway. They never took Popova’s cue in being kind to me, but they were never cruel, and that might have been all Popova could hope for.

She’d love being called a witch by the enemy; she might already be one,” Popova said after a second, sounding circumspect, sounding a little reverent.

(She was Commander Raskova; at some point, she hadn’t needed a name any more.)

But Raskova was elsewhere now, with only her shadow cast over us. Bershanskaya was the commander who lined us up and sent us out. She was as steady as they came, and her humor was thin and dry as air.

The first time Bershanskaya heard the name, she raised an eyebrow, and glanced quickly at me before she turned to Popova. Then she nodded, hands behind her, and said, “Let them call us what they like, if it suits them.”

“Suits me, too,” said Popova.

It suited all of them, I think, even if I was the only witch the 588th ever had.

• • • •

One of the important things about the 588th was how little it cared where you came from. If you could take the recruiter’s withering stare and the doctors’ lingering hands and the open loathing of the men who ran you through your paces, and you managed to crawl under the stalled train cars to reach the station from the farthest set of tracks they could find to park your train, by the time you got to Morozovsk they had no doubts about your nerves, and that was all they needed to know about you before they put you in a plane.

I’d come to the 588th out of necessity; my village had reached the end of their patience for someone who seemed always to know when it was going to rain and yet couldn’t call it down for you even if you paid her. Easier to go find an open fight than to wait for the one that was brewing back home.

There was no way I could have accommodated village needs. It’s too hard to do small magic.

From a one-room farmhouse or a palace in Moscow, anyone you ask will talk to you until their tongues turn blue about all the magic they’ve seen or heard of, even if they say they don’t believe in it. They’ll all know how it’s being used against them even as they speak, and the hundreds of whispers shared in the depth of the forest by the witches, who gather there for market days and trade in secret spells in a currency of dirty looks.

It’s all very well to keep people out of the woods at night, but it’s foolish.

There are only three kinds of magic: water, ash, and air. For ash to work, you give blood. For water, you spill tears. For air, you give your breath. They all run out; our gifts are designed to be spent.

The woods will never be a gathering of witches. We don’t live long enough.

• • • •

Our planes were crop dusters, wood frames covered in canvas, held together with metal cords. They were the leftovers of aviation, planes given to people for whom no one had much hope.

But they were so flimsy, and so slow, that they made a kind of magic—gold out of hay. The German planes couldn’t drop down to our speed or they’d stall out and plummet, so when they aimed for us we turned and they hit nothing but air; their anti-aircraft bombs would pop right through our canvas wings and keep going, bursting a hundred feet above us as we banked a turn and the explosion illuminated our path back home.

Raskova courted us with those planes, showed us how to make them spin and make lazy loops in the air like the plaits of a braid, leapt down from the cockpit with her dark eyes glittering behind her goggles, and you could hear her heart pounding even from where you were standing.

It was easy to want to go to war, to make Raskova proud.

And once you learned them, those planes were kinder to us than horses, and to sit inside one was to feel strangely invisible, a thrill crawling up the back of your neck like a ghost every time you settled in.

You settled in four, five, eight times a night: the plane couldn’t carry more than two bombs at once, and you had work to do.

• • • •

“You go out at sundown,” says Bershanskaya.

Her lips are drawn thin, her hands folded behind her, her buttons marching a straight line to her chin.

(She didn’t want to lead, when Raskova appointed her. She hated sending us out to die.)

It’s a bridge; we all know why it has to disappear—the Germans can’t be allowed to move anything else into place.

But they’ve stopped underestimating us, witches or not. They’re prepared to throw us a flak circus now, every time they see us coming.

It’s rows of guns blooming outward from the ground like flowers made from teeth, and searchlights by the dozens that flood the sky for fifty miles in each direction, and you can’t get free of it no matter how you try; when you twist long enough this way and that way like a rabbit, you start to panic for your life.

We lost a team that way, not long back. Their cots are still folded up on the barracks, two thin mattresses for girls who won’t be needing any more rest.

“You’ll go in three planes at once,” says Bershanskaya.

Next to me, the muscles in Popova’s jaw shift as she realizes what Bershanskaya means.

Decoys. We’ll be drawing fire in our little ghost planes.

We lost our hair to be here.

They made us cut it when we were first preparing for combat; for practicality, the commander said, though I had seen one or two of the training men glare at a line of girls walking off the field those first days, their long glossy braids swinging at their waists, and I always wondered.

I didn’t mind, for myself—my hair was the watery brown of old deerhide, and there was no husband or want of a husband to stay my hand from the knife. For me to cut it just meant fewer pins I’d have to scramble for every time the sirens went up. But you can’t tell girls for a hundred years that her hair is her crowning glory and then one day tell her to hack it off and not have her pause before the scissors.

We all did it, in the end, every last one of us submitting to the shears, slicing one another’s braids off to the jaw.

Recklessly, I offered to burn the hair for any girl that wanted. It was forbidden to leave the base alone—it wasn’t safe—but some things go deeper than regulations, and some superstitions aren’t worth testing.

You never leave so much hair where anyone can take it from you; petty magic has uses for that, and none of them are good.

I was an odd fit in the barracks, just strange enough that we all knew I was strange, but this superstition was so well-known that not even Petrova looked twice at me as they each thanked me and handed me their braids of brown and black and gold.

As I headed for the woods with three dozen braids draped like pelts across my arms, Bershanskaya saw me.

She was standing outside, near the engineers who were patching the planes. Her hands were behind her, and she had the narrow-eyed look of someone who had been watching the sunset longer than was wise.

I held my breath and kept going. If she called out to stop me, I’d keep walking until she shot. Some orders are holy; I had a duty deeper than hers.

She didn’t say a word, but she watched me carry the plaits like a sacrifice into the cover of the trees.

In the woods, I built a fire and burned them—one at a time, until there was nothing left. I didn’t start a new fire for each plait (we were tied close enough to withstand a little ash), but it was powerful enough that I was careful. I breathed steadily in and out; I thought carefully about nothing at all.

When I came back after dark, stinking of singe, Bershanskaya was standing outside the barracks and scanning the edge of the woods, waiting.

“Commander,” I greeted when I was close enough, and waited for whatever she would do to me.

For a long time she looked me in the eye until it felt like I was canvas stretched across a wooden frame, and I could feel the question building on her tongue in the space just behind her front teeth, where people’s worst suspicions lived.

If she asks me, I thought, she’ll have her answer.

(I could cut myself deep enough to bleed. Blood and tears would summon something, I could hope I had enough willpower to make her forget what I’d done.)

She stepped aside, eyes still on me, and as I passed she said my name low, like she’d checked my name off a very short list; like a spell.

Raskova would have asked me.

I don’t know if that’s better or worse.

• • • •

In 1938, when I was still in school, Raskova had flown across the country for glory with Polina Osipenko and Valentina Grizodubova. When they were recovered after their landing, the news was everywhere: that she and her copilots had broken flight records in the Rodina, that it was a marvelous feat of flying, that they were heroes of the nation.

I didn’t find out what had really happened until Raskova told me herself.

They had overshot in the mist, and when it parted they were suddenly over the Sea of Okhotsk, where the water in winter is the milky flat of a corpse’s eye, and they didn’t have enough gasoline left for the crossing—they’d flown too high to avoid being shrouded by the fog for a day and a night. They had to turn around and pray for landfall before they dropped out of the sky.

The navigator’s seat—a glass bauble at the front of the plane—would be torn to shreds in a crash, and they were hurting for altitude and out of fuel and gathering too much ice to carry.

Raskova marked a map and jumped for it.

Her copilots crashed into the taiga, the bottom of the plane in shreds from the landing, and waited for her. Even after the rescue crew got to them, they refused to budge. They took watch by the plane for two more days, until Raskova staggered out of the woods.

It had been ten days. She’d had no food or water with her, and no compass when she jumped.

(There was no magic in her—not the sort that I had—but you wonder about witch blood in some people, when they manage things that no one should have managed.)

But more amazing to me even than her ten-day journey was the ten-day vigil the other two had kept, sheltering with the plane that had tried to kill them, without enough supplies, without knowing if she would ever come.

Doubt gnawed at me whenever I thought about it, more doubts than I ever had about being shot at, more doubts than I had about my chances of loosing a bomb just where it needed to go.

How long would they have waited beyond ten days?

How long would I wait when it was my turn?

Would I walk ten days in the wilderness rather than lie down and die?

Osipenko was dead. (Wasn’t even a strafing run; she’d just been going from one place to another, and her plane had turned on her.)

Grizodubova had been sent elsewhere for the war effort. None of us had ever seen her. She was leading a defense and relief outfit near Leningrad, with real bombers and not crop dusters. She was commanding men.

I wondered if she and Raskova ever saw each other, or if they wrote—if it was safe to write. It would be easy to forgive if they had parted ways; it was wartime, and their duty to the nation lay before them.

But sometimes the nights are long and dark, and you feel so alone that you think everyone else must have someone closer than you do, and you think: if they don’t still speak, it’s because they’re both waiting for death, and can’t bear to come close and then be parted.

Then you stare up at the leaking roof and wonder if all each of them carried now was a phantom. When something wonderful or terrible happened, did one of them sometimes glance over her shoulder to look at the other before she remembered she was alone?

• • • •

Sebrova volunteers to be one of the three planes against the flak, and Popova volunteers second, and before I can do more than glance at Petrova for her agreement (she’s already nodding at me) I’m volunteering, too, because I have few enough friends here. Where Popova is going, I want to go.

It’s a foolish thing to do, volunteering to die on a German gun, but I volunteered for that a long time ago. I’m a quick draw on the controls, so I’ll be of some use, and anything’s better than sitting around waiting, wondering if Popova made it out.

Outside, I smoke a cigarette I won off Meklin at cards and watch the sun going down. I wish I had time to do everything that needs doing.

Popova sits next to me on the fence, lets out a breath at the streaks of gold and pink suspended just above the grass. When she taps me on the shoulder I hand her my cigarette.

She’s a marvelous pilot—light and nimble—but you’d never know it from the way she smokes a cigarette, single loud pulls that leave a cylinder of ash that drops wholesale to the ground.

After a little while she hands me a piece of chocolate from inside her pocket, grainy and already melting across my fingertips. I pop it into my mouth and lick my fingers clean, flushing a little at the bad manners, but Popova only winks. I wonder how long she’s held on to it, doling out to herself one piece at a time on nights she thinks she’s going to die.

“You’ll be all right,” she says.

“Oh, I’m sure I will,” I say. “It’s you I worry over.”

She casts me a look and half smiles.

My lungs are acrid, suddenly. I pinch off the end of my cigarette to preserve the rest.

She shrugs. “We never let them get any sleep,” she says, jamming a pin into her cropped hair and wrenching her cap on over it.

(Petrova sometimes reaches behind her to smooth a braid that isn’t there. I’ve never seen Popova do it.

I wonder what became of Raskova’s dark brown braids, gleaming and pinned to her head as she spoke to us and made us into soldiers.)

Golden hair sticks out just at the edges, half curls below her ears. “I’d hate to see us coming, too. Let’s hope they’re too tired to aim.”

I want to smile or laugh, but I’m staring at my plane and feeling ice down my spine. Why this should be so different I don’t know—slightly more impossible than impossible isn’t a measurement that has much meaning—but I look at the trees instead, after a moment.

“How did you decide to do this?”

I don’t know why I ask. We’re all meant to be without a past, and equal. They were carpenters and secretaries and farm girls, but they’re pilots now, and it shouldn’t matter how they got here.

Popova raises her eyebrows at the setting sun like it’s the one who’d asked the rude question. There are only a few minutes left until it’s dark enough to load up and set off. I should be going back to barracks and getting my gear.

She says without looking at me, “A plane landed near our house, when I was young.”

Young—she’s nineteen now, I think, but I don’t say anything. Rude to interrupt. Not that it matters; she doesn’t elaborate. It’s the biography of a masterful pilot who knows better than to waste a gesture.

She glances over. “And you?”

“Oh, I’m a witch,” I say. “Flying comes naturally.” And she grins as she drops from the fence, snaps her goggles into place.

“Good thing it can be taught,” she says and takes off for her plane.

It can’t, not really. You can teach the mechanics of a plane, but either you have the flight inside you or you don’t.

Her strides kick up puffs of dust in her wake that cover her footsteps; at nightfall she casts no shadow, and for a moment she looks like I’d imagined witches to be, before I knew better.

When she’s gone, I unroll the cigarette and scoop up her ashes from the ground with the blade of my knife.

It’s a sharp blade; I never even feel the cut I make. When the paper gets wet enough, I use the tip of the knife to mix it and drag a line of blood and ash under the nose of Sebrova’s and Popova’s planes.

I do it quickly, my eyes stinging, my heart pounding.

Then they’re coming from the barracks, and I’m out of ashes and out of time and have to step away and get my gear. We’ll need to make sure the altitude gauge is fixed before we’re off the ground.

Petrova, my navigator, is already there, frowning underneath the propeller and tapping our windshields. As I haul myself onto the wing, I press one bloody thumbprint into the canvas just behind her seat, where she’ll never see.

Blood magic doesn’t work as well when you’re asking for yourself, but I’ll protect who I can, however it comes.

• • • •

Each of us carries two bombs. It’s decided in the last seconds before leaping into our planes that Sebrova will be first, I’ll be second, and Popova will make the final drop, after they’re already on to us.

I don’t like it, but I keep my hands on the controls as we enter the flak zone.

The engines sound impossibly loud—three of them, and we don’t dare cut them with what we have to do, so there’s nothing for it but to go closer and closer, knowing they know we’re coming, waiting for the bullets to start.

(I miss the sound of the wind through the wires; it had always sounded to me like an owl on my shoulder, and it was a comfort as you were moving in for the drop.)

The first floodlight is almost a relief—it’s something to do, at least, instead of just something to be afraid of—and I wait two seconds longer than my instincts scream to, just enough that the nose of the plane catches the light, that it can almost but not quite follow me when I snap a turn to one side, dropping out of their sight. A spray of bullets arcs behind me, whistling clean and hitting nothing.

I don’t look for Popova. It’s not safe.

Instead I drop steeply so the searchlights casting at my prior heading can’t find me, and pull up at the last second with my heart pounding in my throat and the engine grinding underneath me. I cut through three lights at once, a dead hover for a moment as gravity gets confused, the blinding flashes underneath us reminding me to bank left and out of the line of fire.

I hear a series of dull thunders, then a thudding rip—a wingtip’s been struck. Nothing serious, it’s a lucky hit for them, that’s all, but my lungs go so tight I have to wrestle them for breath as I circle back. There’s already ice on my tiny windshield; there’s ice in my throat when I breathe.

Then I see Sebrova’s plane arcing up to meet us. She’s done it; the thunders were her bombs hitting home.

It’s my turn.

Petrova gives me the all-clear, and I do a big, lazy loop well out of the scope of the spotlights—I glimpse Popova, barely, practically cartwheeling and vanishing into the dark—breathe deep through my nose as we sail over the iron garden. Sebrova’s been kind enough to mark the way (a fire’s already started next to the drop site), but I want to be careful, and only when Petrova gives the sign do I tilt us five degrees closer to the Earth, no more, and let the unfastened bombs slide forward, hurtling toward the ground with a cheerful whistle.

I sweep up and to the left, taking my place on the flank, and the plane shakes for just a second as the payload explodes, a warm burst of orange in the black night. Petrova whoops; I grin for as long as I can stand the wind in my teeth, which isn’t long, and then push through the acrid scents of fire and guns and panic toward my secondary position.

Popova’s plane drops so fast I think for a second, my grip seizing on the controls, that she’s been struck, but it’s just the way she handles a plane—I hear the whirr of her engines above the tuneless wind as I cut straight across and through the searchlights, distracting them from her, letting them waste two arcs of ammunition trying to pin me as I drop and spin out lazily, letting the wind pull us the last few inches to the top of the arc.

But it’s too bright when I get there, far too bright, and I realize with numb panic that they’ve got me locked, and the next round of bullets will hit home.

I try for more altitude, already knowing I’m too late, and I wonder wildly if I can point the plane at the ground so hard that Petrova and I die without pain. We have to die—we can’t let the Germans take us—but she shouldn’t suffer.

Really, the way to go out is a bullet through the heart. The Germans could oblige. It would keep them from wondering where Popova’s gone.

Better this than ten days in the wilderness, I think; better this than to wait at the Sea of Okhotsk.

I let out my breath until there’s nothing left (blood-ash-air, I think dimly, someplace with no hope left, blood-ash-air), and bank the turn straight into the center of the circling lights.

• • • •

I die that way, the way Raskova died—in combat, with a strike and a tailspin and then nightfall—but not on this run.

On this run, the spray of bullets never comes, because Popova’s plane soars straight in front of me.

The Germans are only tracking two of our planes, and with the interruption they can’t tell whether or not they’ve tricked themselves into a double image with the swinging searchlights, and in the few seconds where the lights freeze in place as they try to decide what to do, I bank as hard as I can and cut down and out and back into the dark, fingers aching, pointed for home.

We’re the last to get back. When I climb out of the plane I can barely stand; I don’t know where all my blood’s gone. Bershanskaya’s come to meet us. When she nods, I find it in me to straighten up and nod back.

Popova’s leaning against her plane, a few feet back from the mark of my blood and her ashes that she’ll never see. There are three bullet holes through one of her wings, like a smattering of freckles at the tip of someone’s nose, but she’s there.

She grins around a square of chocolate, calls over, “What kept you?”

• • • •

I put blood and ashes on every plane that goes out after that.

Once I duck out between the planes and see Bershanskaya watching me, her hands behind her. She doesn’t ask what I’m doing there. I never say. It doesn’t matter. It’s what I’ve given over, and you can’t call it back.

It’s on my plane, too, the night I go down, but I never expected that to protect me for long. They all run out; our gifts are designed to be spent.

• • • •

A little while from now, Popova will go on a raid and get caught in German fire. When she makes it back to the base, there will be more than forty bullet holes in the plane. There are bullet holes in her helmet.

No one will understand how she survived it; no one can imagine what protected her.

Genevieve Valentine

Genevieve Valentine is the author of the novels Mechanique, The Girls at the Kingfisher Club, Persona, and Icon. She has also written the comics Catwoman for DC and Xena: Warrior Princess for Dynamite. Her nonfiction and criticism has appeared at NPR.org, The Atlantic, LA Review of Books, and The AV Club. Her love of bad movies is evergreen; you can read about it at genevievevalentine.com.