This story was written while researching my first novel Long Range, which required a deep dive into WWII and the Eastern front. One of the memorable images was the immense vastness of the Russian steppes, and how after the invasion the German Wehrmacht soon found itself marching for days among endless fields of sunflowers stretching towards the horizon (note: sunflowers were used by Russia for their oil). Lazy expanses of gigantic rustling flame-yellow flowers, that also turned out to be perfect cover for partisan snipers to pick off hapless soldiers in the distance. The story was published in the online periodical Tertulia Magazine.
The sunflowers bent and swayed in the light breeze and Sascha slid between the stalks like a ghost. At roughly three meters they towered above him, almost twice his own height, and he stopped, grasping one firmly and bending it towards him. His hands were boyish, calloused and soft, and he could feel the tension in the fibers straining through his fingertips. The enormous seed head bobbed closer, ringed with velvet dog ears of bright petals. Seeds at the center had shriveled and the stem was turning to burnt yellow, signs of a million genetic sunsets on the horizon, harvest, and long sweaty days from dawn to dark. Sascha let go of the plant and watched it spring back lazily into place. A blackbird guffawed somewhere off in the distance and he turned towards the sound momentarily. He then began parting his way again through the sea of leaves.
Sascha reached the first wood pole, roughly hewn from the trunk of a white birch, and began pulling off his pack. Lowering it to the ground, he reached into his waistband and pulled out the knife, then placed it between his teeth and began climbing. The pole had handholds chopped into the sides, and when he reached the rope binding the lower legs he pulled out the knife. Attached to the pole was a crude figure of a man, dressed in a threadbare calico shirt and worn dungarees. The feet were fitted with a discarded pair of laptys made from old tire treads and wound with strips of cloth, and a frayed avoska bag helped form a misshapen head at the top. Avoska. Maybe. A sarcastic term for the string bags used by women at market on the slim chance that the shops might have food that day. Which seemed slightly cruel for an innocent straw man. Maybe this one will have a brain. Maybe this one will not trade his bread ration for vodka. Sascha sawed through the first rope, then continued to ascend the pole like a circus monkey. He performed the same act at the waist, then climbed to the crossbar at the top and carefully cut the rope holding the left arm, reaching around and pinning it against the chest to cut away at the right side. He then wrapped both arms together and began sawing at the rope around the neck, afraid that the weight of the body would pull away and inadvertently decapitate the figure. It was a straw man, but, still. He had been raised not to waste things.
Sascha then climbed back down and picked up his pack, and began walking in the direction of the next pole far off in the endless swaying field. His memory accompanied him like a shadow.
“It is beautiful!” He remembered his eyes being frozen on the long rifle lying on top of the oily newspaper. “Where did you get it?”
Baba beamed at it as if looking at it for the first time. “It was a gift a long time ago. Partial payment for crops, before land was collectivized. It is foreign. Danish. Powerful enough to hunt boar and elk.”
Sascha had turned to him excitedly. “You hunted boar?”
Baba shook his head, still grinning. “I tried once. But I soon discovered that I am a poor shot. Someday, however, I will show you how to use it.” Upon hearing this Sascha reached for the glistening weapon, and Baba immediately slapped his grandson’s hands away. The force and quickness were surprising for an old man and Sascha pulled back, bewildered and hurt. Baba’s face had shown anger, an anger quickened by fear, but followed by reconciliation. He had put his hands on Sascha’s shoulders and begun smoothing his palms on them, but his face was hard, still tempered with the fire of his reaction. “Sascha. You must listen to me. I will show you one day. But you are never, ever to take this out. Never to even tell anyone about it. Not Vasily. No one at the kolkhoz. Nobody.” He stopped rubbing and stared into Sascha’s face until the youth nodded his understanding.
Baba then reached for the rifle and picked it up with two hands, one on the stock, the other on the barrel. He lifted it with a kind of military precision, and turned to Sascha. A nod of his head, and Sascha remembered growing excited all over again. He tentatively held out his hands, and Baba placed the gun tenderly in his grasp. Sascha remembered how heavy it had seemed. The black metal was well-oiled, trapping and warping the reflected firelight. His eyes felt their way across it, crawling over every bump and crevice from the stock to the muzzle and back again. The rifle was sleek and efficient, a thick metal artery wrapped in muscles of oak, God’s own arm.
The gun put to shame those in the blackbird room—the small dingy closet deep within the tool shed, where greasy Kuzma Shafarevich stored rifles and ammunition under lock and key for controlling the thieving birds in the fields. Those weapons were orphans of past wars and forgotten border skirmishes, spoils and relics. No two were alike, and each had different characteristics that defined its personality. Strange markings in foreign letters or Asian characters. Muzzle tips deliberately hacked off by the state to limit their ranges. Barrels crudely re-bored to accept the larger Russian calibers, making the bullets loose and the barrels hot after firing. But despite the poor condition of the rifles, blackbird duty was coveted on the kolkhoz. It was relatively easy work, necessary and, of course, involved shooting a gun. To a boy in puberty, a rifle meant manhood. Better than a beard or a large konec. An irony that those born thick and strong were sent to work the fields, while those with smaller, weaker bodies were assigned the manliest duty. Vot, tebye na. There you are. That is life.
Good eyesight was also required, and Sascha could spot a fly on the ridge of a barn roof. And, he was a smaller, weaker boy.
He stopped and peered between the multitudes of stalks. The wind blew and the fiery heads high above him swayed together like one organism, making the figure disappear and reappear in the air like a wraith. Sascha approached and began shrugging off his pack again, and pulled the knife from his waist. He looked up. This time it was a woman, dressed in a threadbare, pale blue cotton dress pocked with assorted holes. He set the knife between his teeth and began to climb the pole like before, cutting the ropes holding the figure. Sascha reached the top and paused at the faded red kerchief tied across the faceless head. He leaned into it and breathed in slowly.
Sometimes, if he were close enough to a woman at the kolkhoz, a particular scent would stir a forgotten memory. An odor of unwashed hair. Lye soap. Fresh perspiration. It was always a peculiar sensation, a lightning flash illuminating a mental landscape in blue-white electricity, then disappearing again to darkness. Sometimes he would have nightmares later of gunshots, wagons creaking, and harsh Tartar border guards. A putrefying body of a dead horse, and Baba telling him to lie still. This time, however, the scent was only moldy straw, and it brought no beautiful, terrifying flash. He set the knife between his teeth, and stroked the kerchief with his fingers. I wonder who once wore this? Sascha then leaned back and reached for the knife. He sawed through the rope around the neck, let go with his other arm, and watched the figure fall to the ground.
Three winters had passed since he and Baba had traveled south. His stomach remembered better than his head. Now, for a steaming bowl of shchi with black bread, and maybe some salt herring, he had to bring his quota of blackbirds to the communal kitchen each day. But, even though he had become the best shooter among the boys, this was not always his reward. Sometimes the birds would resist and he would have to put down his gun and forage in the woods for mushrooms, or find a patch of bright red cowberries that would stain his fingers and lips. But if he and Vasily went to the fields together, he never had to worry about quotas. Vasily’s father was the kolkhoz manager, so he always had food. He would bring a cloth sack with bread and tins of horse meat, and they would relax in the summer sun and use hunks of bread to soak up gravy congealed at the bottom of the cans. But before he and Baba arrived at the kolkhoz, it was not like that. Sascha remembered being hungry constantly. A kind of hunger that tore at his body and made his gums bleed. There had been food before, including meat, butter and sugar. Things he was sometimes not sure existed anymore. Then, men began arriving in black trucks with red stars on the doors. They took all the harvest from the storage bins, then got angry that there was not more. Some of them took long metal poles and began poking the ground, trying to find soft spots where they thought grain was secretly buried. Their anger made the other adults hard and red, including his father, and they decided to take him when they could not find more grain. They laughed and said we will return him when you give us what you stole. They kept calling everyone kulak and took the dairy cattle from the barn. They took everything. Mother was crying, and Baba’s wife, his second, kept wiping her hands with her apron, even though they were not wet.
He had cut down five straw men and women, and was now approaching the sixth. Sascha reached the feet and looked up to the sack head. This time someone had drawn a caricature on the pale cloth, a man’s face. It was blurred and bleached from rain and sun, with a cloth cap pinned on top, but he could make out the image. The eyes were thin and lifeless, with a large disfigured nose drawn in crude circular strokes. A dark mustache hung crookedly beneath, and the mouth was portrayed like the eyes, thin and grim. Below the head the figure had a large stuffed belly, and the pants were unbuttoned at the crotch where a small piece of limp rope hung out and swayed with each gust of wind. Sascha snorted and recognized it immediately. His image was everywhere around the kolkhoz, and the expression was always the same. Cold and hard, like the Russian word for steel that was his surname. Sascha was puzzled by him. He was always mentioned by others with lowered voices and distrustful eyes. But each time it ended the same, with a collective sigh and shrug of the shoulders. Vemu vidnyei. He knows what he is doing.
Once, during the last harvest when Baba had come in from the fields after dark, dirty and tired, Sascha had asked him. “They were talking about him at the tool shed today,” he said. “The quotas for next season are going up again. They say the land cannot support more.”
He remembered Baba sighing. “They are right. The land will only give so much.”
“I do not understand,” Sascha responded, his grandfather removing his tunic and wiping his beaded face with it. “If he is such a scoundrel, why does everyone do what he says?”
Baba stopped wiping and looked at Sascha. The fire played against the edges of his body and moist skin. He had been cutting seed heads all day, and his arms and hands showed the red thin lines of leaves and stalks slicing back at him. A long heavy machete lay on the table. Baba reached for it and approached Sascha. He stood before him like a demon with flayed arms, tanned and sinister, a fire writhing behind him. Baba raised the tip of the machete level with Sascha’s eyes, then lowered it to the dirt floor. He scratched a long line in the dirt, then two smaller lines crossing it. One was perpendicular, the other diagonal. It was an Orthodox cross, drawn upside-down to face Sascha.
“You know what this is?”
Sascha nodded. He remembered such symbols from another lifetime, although he was too young then to fully understand them. The state did not like them, for some reason. He still did not understand them.
“I want you to look at this line,” Baba said, laying the tip of the machete next to the diagonal line. “It points in two directions. Heaven and hell. Right and wrong. It means a choice, Sascha. Do you understand?”
Sascha nodded again, although hesitantly. Baba liked to give him lessons in riddles and metaphors, and sometimes the lessons eluded him. He was not afraid though. Baba was never cruel, and did not strike him as Vasily’s father struck Vasily when he gave a wrong answer.
“Our people. They like to think they are leaves floating on the water,” his grandfather replied. “That fate is in our culture. And in our blood. To accept our lives and whatever happens, and rejoice or suffer the fortunes or perils. But you always have a choice,” he said, bringing his foot forward and slowly rubbing out the marks in the dirt with his boot. “Only fools stand by while the wolf is scratching at the door. There is always a choice.”
“If you have a choice,” Sascha asked slowly, “then why do you do what he says?”
Baba continued rubbing out the mark in the dirt, silent. Sascha was not sure if he had asked something he should not have. Then his grandfather spoke.
“My choice,” he said, as if thinking about his answer, “is not whether I do what he says. But why I do it. I do not do it for him.” He looked up, and ran a calloused hand through Sascha’s hair and over his scalp. “I do it for you, Sascha.” And he removed his hand and turned to his straw mat on the floor next to the wall, lowering himself onto it.
Sascha remembered Baba’s breathing slowing to a rhythmic chant, and the fire lulling itself to sleep to dream of infernos.
A loud fat blackbird cawed above him, breaking him from his thoughts. He looked to the sky and watched the crow float lazily on the summer currents. Sascha positioned his legs in a shooter’s stance, aiming with an invisible rifle into the universe, tracking the bird in a long slow loop. “Bang,” he said softly into the wind. He imagined a quick flutter of wings, a cascade of feathers, and a tiny body being drawn back to earth. Sascha then turned and aimed at the face of the straw man hanging above him, pulling again on the trigger. “Bang.”
It was near spring the last time Sascha had seen Baba. He remembered waking early in the morning, the smell of coarse oatmeal wafting through the small shack. There was still snow on the ground, but the rains were arriving to change the colors of the landscape to brown and gray. Then it would be impassible mud roads and long days of waiting for the torrents to end so they could sow the fields. Long days that would be made even longer by Baba’s absence.
“I am going south, to Baku,” Baba told him. “To the oil fields.” He was carefully packing, pulling things out and repacking, even though his belongings were meager. Sascha got up and crawled to Baba’s straw mat, kneeling next to him. He was confused.
“I do not understand. Baku? Why Baku?”
Baba kept his head down. “I can make money there,” he answered. “There is work, and they need men. There is food everywhere, and apartments. Heat and running water. No ration cards.” Baba had looked up then, and given Sascha a wink. “When I have found a place to live and have some money saved, I will send for you. You will be able to go to school again.” He then nudged him with his elbow. “You will even ride the train, Sascha.”
Baba knew how badly Sascha wanted to ride the train, but for some reason he was not interested. Something was wrong. “Why go now, Baba?”
“There is war, Sascha. Oil is important. It needs to be brought from the ground. Refined. Shipped.”
“They make oil from our sunflowers. You can do that here.” Baba smiled at this and stroked Sascha’s hair.
“It is not the same, Sascha.” Baba looked into the cardboard suitcase and sighed. He closed the two ends together, then began to tie string around them because the clasps no longer worked. When he was finished he stood and wrapped his arms around Sascha’s thin shoulders, bringing him in closer. “Be brave, lad. We will see each other again soon. Remember that.”
Sascha remembered his neck feeling wet, and wanting to hold on to his grandfather forever. He had let go, however, and Baba turned towards the door. “Do not forget the pot, Sascha,” he said, pointing to the bubbling oatmeal over the fire. “And I left a present on the table.”
Sascha looked, and on the table were some broken pieces of hard sugar wrapped in newspaper.
He unwrapped the oilcloth carefully, starting at the barrel and working his way down to the shoulder stock. Sascha then began unfolding the newspaper, peeling it away like the layers of an onion, and soon the gun began to emerge. He had looked at it several times after Baba had gone and it always had the same effect on him. This time, though. This time it was not under the roof of the hut, enclosed by walls of mud and straw. It felt alive. As if it were actually breathing. He heard footsteps behind him and then a voice.
“Is that it?”
Sascha spun around and saw Vasily emerge from the stalks behind him. He was carrying his own rifle, one of the orphans from the blackbird room.
“Vasily! Do not surprise me like that.” Vasily grinned and stepped forward. He was a good head taller than Sascha and built like his father, stocky and dark. There were Mongol remnants in his features, but he would never be seen plowing or gathering the seed heads. Not as long as his father ran the kolkhoz.
Sascha held the gun out and Vasily picked it up with one hand by the stock. “Nice,” he said, the admiration coming through in his voice. “Have you fired it yet?”
Sascha shook his head. “No. I will practice first. To adjust the sights.”
Vasily nodded, approving. He handed the rifle back to Sascha, then set his own rifle against the pole. He carried a canvas backpack with him, and shrugged it off his shoulders. It was loaded full, and he undid a clasp and reached inside. “Cigarette?”
Sascha winced, shaking his head, and Vasily grinned. He knew Sascha hated the cheap mahorka he smoked, but offered it anyway. He pulled out a scrap of newspaper and a tin of brackish tobacco, and began to pour some in the middle of the paper.
“So. They are high in the sky today. Headed south to scout new territory.”
Sascha nodded, setting his gun against the pole and kneeling to open his own pack. He looked into the sky at the tiny dot high above, traveling in a straight line. A mechanical sound like a bee was faint in the air, and he began pulling out bullets and filling his pockets with them. As he did this, he spoke. “So. Are you still going to the Ukraine? To join with the nationalists?”
Vasily nodded, once to Sascha, then once to his backpack. There’s the proof. He finished rolling a crude version of a cigarette and put one end in his mouth. Vasily then turned away from the wind, struck a match and bent slightly over the flame until he expelled a large mouthful of smoke. Sascha spoke behind his shoulder.
“Did your father say anything? Or did you say anything to him?”
Vasily grinned. He turned and touched his throat with his index finger, the Russian sign for someone getting drunk. “No. He was too busy. Preparing for his new owners.” His expression then became thoughtful, and he looked hard at Sascha. “Soon there will be nothing for you here. Come with me. We will help start a new country, and kick them all out. The Communists first. Then when the Germans think they have us,” and Vasily drew his index finger across his throat.
Sascha gave a humorless grin and shook his head. “No. They are headed south towards Baku. Towards Baba. I will take them out. One by one. Like the blackbirds.”
Vasily nodded, secretly knowing that would be his answer. He sighed. “My cousin is in the army. He says they set landmines to explode under the third vehicle of convoys. That is where the commanding officers ride.” Sascha nodded silently and pulled the bolt back on his rifle, inspecting the chamber. Vasily watched him and inhaled deeply, held it, then followed with a long plume of smoke from his nostrils, like the twin contrails of a fighter plane. Zhivi kak khochesh, he thought. Live as you like. He turned and looked up at the bare wood pole, one of many that would be used as a stand to shoot at the only road twisting through the endless yellow fields. He remembered when the men from the organy came at winter’s end, and said they needed workers. Volunteers, they said. To go east. Vasily had stood on the other side of the door and listened. He knew that east was a euphemism for the Urals, Siberia and beyond. The war was taking all the available men, and the camps were running low of prisoner transports, the official slave labor needed to mine the raw materials.
His father’s voice had argued. You keep raising the quotas. How am I supposed to meet them when you take my workers?
That is not our problem, a different voice had answered. It was clipped and official, an accent from the west. Another voice had joined it. We know you have kulaks working here. A high percentage of workers with forged identification papers, all from Kiev. Do you think we are stupid? That we would not notice? Vasily knew that his father arranged to have papers made for the undocumented lishentsi. All with Kiev birthplaces, where a fire in the city records department had destroyed all the original identity papers and made verification of documents impossible. That did not mean the organy could not make trouble, though, and Vasily’s father knew it. Sascha and Baba were both members of this ‘Kiev’ populace, but Sascha was underage for transport. His grandfather, however, was well above age.
Vasily remembered when he had told him. Baba was in the drying shed, repairing a roof beam that had cracked under the weight of the heavy winter snows. He had simply stared at him, drying his hands on a dirty rag, expressionless. He, too, knew what it meant. Mining iron ore for the factory cities like Magnitogorsk. Felling trees in the taiga. Or the gold mines of Kolyma, a virtual death sentence, from the rumors. Thank you, Vasily, he had finally replied. If you would, please, do not tell my grandson this. I will make up something for him.
Vasily nodded slightly to himself, then looked to Sascha. He was aiming his rifle into the sky and focusing intently. Vasily looked up. One lone blackbird circled high above them, slowly drifting on the breath of martyrs.