September Stories (9/8)

So continues my September Stories project. If you missed any of them, go here for a running list at the bottom.

9-8

The Littlest Night Witch
By Danielle Davis

“I need you up here!” Nadya shouts. Her voice almost blows away in the rushing wind. Since the biplane only has two seats, one in front of the other, she has to turn and lean out to be heard.

I quiver in the back seat, terrified and shake my head quickly. There is no way. She can’t be asking me to move up to the plane’s pilot seat, can she? I’m only nine!

She nods again and makes a come here motion with her hands. “Sveta, we don’t have time to argue. I need you up here now!” She reaches her arms back towards me as far as they go. With wide eyes, hidden behind my flight goggles, I realize there is no way she is steering the plane and turning around to me at the same time.

In that moment, we are flying at late dusk without any control. And the plane is losing altitude.

The engine gives another gurgling splutter. The rhythm of the engine’s clattering noise pauses, then resumes as the engine flares back to life. The plane shudders.

“Now!” Nadya screams. This time I jump forward, leaning out of my own seat toward her. Her hands tuck themselves under my armpits like iron hooks. Then, with a jerk, she lifts me out of my seat and swings me forward into hers. Though the motion only takes seconds, it seems like I am floating in the air outside the plane for years.

I land with a jolt in the pilot’s seat. The cockpit is nothing more than a small hole with a dashboard, a few foot pedals, and a single large pole jutting up from the floor. I turn to ask her what she wants me to do, but she’s already scrambling out of the seat.

Another splutter from the engine, this time lasting longer than the first. The plane dips up and down as it struggles to stay steady.

“Aunt Nadya!” My voice isn’t strong enough to carry over the wind and she can’t hear me. I watch as she eases herself onto the lower side of one wing. One gloved hand clutches the edge of the pilot’s hole and the other extends into the air for balance. Her bulky canvas uniform flutters against the wind. The round eyes of her flight goggles looks like a dragonfly’s. The long flaps of her leather cap slap against her cheeks in the wind—usually they hang down over ears like a bloodhound’s.

She is grinning like a crazy woman.

I feel faint with fear. At any moment, I worry her hand will lose its grip and she’ll fly off the edge of the wing and disappear into the growing darkness below us. Then I’ll be stuck up here, unable to fly the plane and unable to land it safely.

I close my eyes and take several deep breaths. You won’t do anyone any good if you panic, my mother likes to say. When I open them again, Aunt Nadya moves forward, carefully stepping on the support wires connecting the top wings to the body of the plane.

Bending at the waist, she reaches forward to release a metal catch near the plane’s nose. I hear a loud thwap as a metal hatch opens, exposing the engine. The loud clatter of the engine grows even louder.

Aunt Nadya leans forward again, bracing herself with one foot on the support wire and the other on a large piston connected to the plane’s propeller. While one hand clings to one of the upper wing supports, the other tinkers around within the engine itself. Her face is inches from the flashing, whirling propeller.

As I crane my neck to see her better, my knee hits the long stick attached to the floor. Immediately the plane’s nose dives toward the ground. The engine splutters and coughs as a thin trail of black smoke trickles out of the engine compartment.

“Sveta!” Nadya shrieks as her feet lose their footing. She clings to the side of the plane.

I scramble to get my hands steady on the stick and then I ease it gently toward me. The plane evens out and rises back through the air.

When I glance at Nadya, I see she’s shaking her head and laughing. She pokes around the engine some more. After a moment, the smoke trail floats away and the hiccupping sounds of the engine smooth out into a familiar, steady chitter-chitter-chitter.

With the engine steadily working now, Nadya works her way back along the side of the plane until she stands on the lower wing again. She eases back into the pilot’s seat behind me, then swings me around to the back seat.

“That was a close one!” she laughs. For the first time, I wonder if my aunt is crazy. How can someone come so close to falling out of the sky and still laugh about it?

My heart thuds against my chest like it might burst free and fly away. As I huddle down into my seat, I wonder how I got myself into this situation.

*     *     *     *

Aunt Nadya had lived with us for six years when World War II broke out. The news reports said that Hitler was invading the Soviet Union, or was trying to. My Aunt, who was a pilot in the Soviet Air Force, had been called upon to report to her base headquarters. She was to be involved with a special mission, she told us at dinner. It was all she was allowed to tell us.

We all cried, worrying for her safety. Except Father, of course, who pulled her into a long hug. He didn’t want to see her go to war either. But we all knew how important it was. Innocent people were being hurt, she told me. She had to help stop it. She was leaving at dawn to drive to Moscow, which was an hour away.

I couldn’t stand to see her go. So the morning she was to leave, I decided to hide away in the back seat of the car so I could tell her goodbye one more time. I pulled all of her clothes out of a small suitcase and curled myself inside. With me was my favorite stuffed animal—I never left him behind. By the time she got in the vehicle to drive off, I was already hidden.

I hid a long time, thinking it would make the surprise better. After a long and bumpy ride, I finally popped out with a loud “Surprise!” But Nadya hadn’t seemed glad to see me. She’d looked scared instead.

“Oh, Sveta, you can’t be here!” She’d pulled me out of the suitcase. On impulse, I stuck the stuffed animal I’d been cuddling into the waistband of my pants. Instead of seeing a set of buildings with lots of soldiers standing about, it was just one small building and a small group of women. They were dressed funny, with baggy uniforms and large black goggles and heavy boots.

“Welcome to the 588th regiment, kid,” one of the women said.

Nadya had given her a dark look, then put her head in her hands. “Marina,” she’d said to a tall, dark-haired woman in uniform. “What can we do with her? She must be kept safe.”

The tall woman had shrugged. “She’s probably safer with you than anywhere else, Nadya.”

It hadn’t been an answer Aunt Nadya liked, but it apparently made sense to her. She later explained to me that I’d stayed in the suitcase longer than I thought—long enough to make it to base headquarters and then on to the secret location all the other women pilots were at. Somehow I’d become part of the mission team.

The women spent the rest of the afternoon preparing their planes. They weren’t like any plane I’d seen before. These were made mostly from wood and had two sets of wings—a long plank on top fixed to the plane on thick steel rods and a lower plank that attached to the belly of the plane. A long set of propellers stuck off the nose of the plane. When I asked about the two long tubes suspended on either wing, Nadya told me they were bombs, used to destroy the enemy’s camps. What fascinated me the most, though were the two seats, one behind the other, that were open to the air.

“How do you keep from blowing away?” I asked Nadya as she made adjustments to various parts of her plane.

She grinned. “Seatbelts.”

“But doesn’t it get windy?” I couldn’t understand how anyone could stay in them.

Nadya patted the thick leather helmet and pointed to her goggles. “That’s what these are for.” Then she unwound a long, wool scarf from around her neck and set it over mine. “Here. As our youngest Soviet pilot, you must look the part.”

After the planes were fueled and prepared, the women rested a while. Some told jokes, some played card games, and others just stared up at the sky deep in thought. I wondered what they were looking for.

I heard a few of the women laughing. When I looked, three of them were huddled together near a doorway, passing around a thin flask. An unfamiliar word caught my ear. I turned to Nadya.

“Aunt Nadya, what does nachthexen mean?” My lips stumbled over the guttural pronunciation of the German word.

Nadya grinned down at me. “It means ‘night witch.’ That’s what they call us out there. Because we fly in under the cover of night.”

I frowned. “But why witches?”

“Because our planes are wooden, like broomsticks. And because our bombs carry lots of mischief for them.” Her eyes sparkled at me in the dim light. Her smile was contagious and I grinned back.

Then a voice spoke up near my ear. “And what is this little utka?” I turned to see a short woman standing too close to me. I frowned and stepped closer to Nadya. The woman leaned forward and snatched the small item I’d hidden in the waist of my pants.

“Hey, give that back!” I yelled, forgetting my fear of the strange place.

The short woman held up my stuffed duck for everyone to see. He was a faded yellow, with an pink bill and orange feet. Around his neck, I’d wrapped the flight scarf Nadya had given me.

“Give the girl back her duck, Katya,” one of the women said from the card table.

Nadya stood and snatched the duck away. She passed it to me behind her back. “He’s here for luck,” she said in a stern tone. I knew she recognized him. She’d been the one to give him to me when I was little. I never went anywhere without him.

But the short woman, Katya, didn’t move away. Instead she asked, “Surely he’s not supporting the war effort, too?” Her voice dripped with honeyed interest. I didn’t trust it at all.

“His name is Quackerbottom,” I mumbled as I thrust him behind my back. The mean gleam in Katya’s eyes made me worry she might try to snatch him away again.

Katya snickered. Combined with her close-set eyes and round face, the expression made her look like a pig snorting. “You’re a spunky little utka yourself, aren’t you?” She began to reach around my back for Quackerbottom.

I pushed her hand away and glared up at her. I imagined I was a lion glaring at a hunter. I could be fierce. I could be brave. “Find your own friend. If you have any, that is.” Nadya snorted a laugh. The other women around giggled. They grinned at the two of us as if we were the most entertaining thing they’d seen all night.

Katya looked like she’d swallowed something sour. She glared at me. “Best make sure he doesn’t get roasted,” she taunted as she strolled away. I wasn’t sad to see her leave.

The other women stood, too. “We should get what sleep we can,” one of them sighed. As they passed, all of them patted me on the shoulder.

Galina was the last to leave. “You make a pretty tough nachthexen, little one. I think we should nominate you as our mascot.” She gave me a wide smile. I noticed she had a large gap between her two front teeth. The she was gone and Nadya ushered me to her sleeping sheets.

I fell asleep remembering the proud way they smiled at me. Like I was one of them. Like I belonged there. It was a good feeling.

*     *     *     *

The plane suddenly begins to ease slowly downward. The change startles me out of my thoughts.

“What are you aiming for?” I have to yell to be heard. It doesn’t matter how I’ve gotten myself in this situation. I’m here. And I’m going to make the most of it.

“We’re aiming for their supply depot.” At my blank look, she clarifies, “Where they store their supplies. You know: food, ammunition, clothes, et cetera. They can’t fight if they don’t have the resources to do so.”

“But does it have to be at night? You can’t see anything!”

Her chuckle rides the wind back to my ears. “I can see enough. Besides, night time is when they sleep. Resources aren’t the only thing they need to fight!”

I nod in affirmation, though she can’t see it, and hunch lower in my seat. The wind slaps at my cheeks and runs icy fingers through my hair. With Quackerbottom pressed against my chest, I tell myself this to be a simple plane ride. Aside from the fact that it’s so dark I can’t see the ground below. And the presence of two bombs strapped to either side on the plane’s wings. And I am terrified out of my mind. But also excited.

Be strong, Sveta. If I concentrate hard enough I could almost hear my mother’s voice whispering in my ear. After each bedtime story, we often talk about what made the hero good and the villain bad. Terror makes you unable to act. And good people are always obligated to act against evil. With my eyes scrunched shut, I can almost imagine the wind pressing against my face is my mother’s hand.

Tears sting my eyes as I think about how much I missed her. Her calm face smiling at me when I come home. The sound of her low laughter. Her habit of gently tucking my hair behind my ears. If we don’t stop these soldiers, they will someday make it to my town. It isn’t that far away. They will hurt the people I love.

I open my eyes and peer through the goggles into the night. I can be strong. Like my mother. Like Aunt Nadya. I will help her however I can.

The plane rattles through the night with the chitter-chitter of a sewing machine. I feel us getting closer to our destination. And when we get there, I’ll be ready for it.

Ten minutes later, I hear Nadya’s voice. “Are you ready for some fun?” she calls back. I grin.

“Let’s go!” I shout.

Nadya presses a button on the dashboard and a second later the engine splutters and stops. But we remain in the air as Nadya steer the gliding plane towards a small set of buildings in the distance. I can see their lights twinkling like stars on the ground.

“Be quiet now,” she yells. “It’s time for some mischief.” Her voice sounds wild with excitement.

I peek over the edge of my seat. It’s so dark I can’t see the ground, but I imagine I can feel it. It feels like a massive weight pulling me into my seat, pulling the plane down down down.

For the span of a few heartbeats, there is no noise but the whistling of the wind past us. I count my heartbeats the way Father and I count thunder: one one thousand, two one thousand, three one thousand.

Suddenly, the ground below us explodes in a flash of yellow and white light. The boom makes my heart stop for a moment. I forget to breathe.

Then the engine roars to life, and we lift through the air, away from the inferno below us. I can barely make out the sounds of people yelling commands below us.

In the seat ahead of me, Nadya is cackling like a witch. “We did it!” she shrieks, then lets out a series of loud whoops. Her joy is like a living thing. I take a deep breath, inhale the excitement and the thrill, and let out a whoop of my own.

We did it. We are safe. We have helped protect our family.

I raise one fist in the air as Nadya makes the plane pivot to head back to the flight camp. It feels so good, this excitement that fills my entire body. In the night, with the sky hiding us like children under a blanket, we could be anyone. We could be pilots in planes. We could be witches on broomsticks. We could be brave.

Total Writing Time: 3 hr.
Source: The Night Witches: The True Story of Incredible Women

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