From the author: Zoya joined the military to fly. Her love of the sky creates a curious bond when she is lost and trapped behind enemy lines.
The Names of the Sky
by Matthew Claxton
Zoya wished one of her flying instructors could have seen her land on that muddy field. Always she had been criticized for her landings. “Light as a feather in the air, lands like a brick,” one had written on his assessment. But this time she brought the bullet-riddled fighter in perfectly, despite the dead engine, despite the ruts that tried to fling her sideways. She bumped to a halt where the field ended and a bare-branched forest of white birches began.
Zoya climbed down, shakily pulling off her leather helmet. She patted the Yakovlev’s flank and muttered something between a prayer and the calming words one says to a nervous animal. She scanned the sky above, but it was empty. No pursuing Germans sullied the blushing evening sky. Her own flight had vanished, too.
There was no human sound. From the woods came the raw-throated cry of a raven, and nothing else.
What to do now, trapped west of the Soviet advance, with a broken radio and a grounded plane? Find shelter. Find food, if possible. Avoid the Germans. Hide, and hope that she could wait it out until the Red Army reached her.
Try not to think of the others who never returned to the aerodrome. Of Anna and Valeyria and Ludmilla, cremated as they fell to earth ablaze. Don’t think of Marta and Yulia, never returned, their bones bleaching in some fallow field much like this one.
Zoya pushed the thoughts down. They wouldn’t bear her aloft.
She opened the cowling and looked at the engine. Nothing was obviously wrong – no metal shattered by shells, no leaking lines.
“You might fly again,” she told the plane. Zoya considered briefly just waiting there, sticking close to the little fighter. The thought of leaving it behind made her wince, but she forced herself to turn and walk away.
At the south edge of the field, she found a weed-choked path. The path led her to a pair of ruts she thought might go by the name of road, in these rustic parts.
While she walked, she conducted an inventory of her flight suit’s pockets. She had her Tokarev pistol, never fired, a seven-ounce can of tinned beets in one pocket, a rectangular tin of Lend-Lease meat in her other. The bright original wrapper was a ghost under the crookedly-applied Cyrillic label that simply read “Pork.” The same pocket contained four squares of chocolate wrapped in paper. Zoya had been eating the bar a single square at a time, one for each time she landed back at the aerodrome.
She left those alone, for now. On the ground was not the same as safely home.
The road wound past fields hacked from the birch wood. The crops were last season’s, mixed with weeds and never harvested.
Fields needed farmers, yes? Zoya knew, from the joyful filmed scenes of the harvest at the cinema, that farmers lived in happy little villages on the big collective farms. Villages had cottages, people, perhaps even radios or friendly bands of partisans.
Her inventory of possible contents of a rural village grew with each mile, adding items such as a hot shower, hot coffee, cigarettes, clean clothes, warm bread, and kind words. Though she would settle for the shower and coffee.
She grew cold, and cursed every rut and hole in the miserable road. There was nothing so pathetic as a grounded pilot, she thought.
She saw the light just after midnight.
In the distance, against the stars, she saw looming buildings, sheds or barns. But closer by, as if pushed to the furthest edge of the village in its own little clearing amid the birches, sat a crude house. It had been slapped together out of scrap wood, roofed with tin.
The light came from within, the warm orange glow of a candle. The rest of the village was black as old engine oil.
A knock at the door returned silence.
“Citizen?” she said. “Is there anyone here? I’m a pilot with the First Air Army! My plane came down…”
The Russian words, if not their content, had the desired effect.
The door opened, and a young man glared out from under formidable brows.
“I was looking for help…”
“Have you come to the wrong place!” snapped the peasant. He was younger than Zoya, barely more than a boy.
“We’re all that’s left in these parts.”
The young man turned and walked back inside, leaving the door open. Zoya pushed through into the dim interior.
The floors were filthy, the walls gleamed with gold. Someone had hammered icons and crosses onto every vertical surface, an entire village’s stock of solemn saints and beneficent saviors. Zoya raised an eyebrow.
The boy waved a hand airily at the ostentatious display of religion. “The villagers are superstitious.”
She saw the cottage’s other occupant as he said it. An old-fashioned carved bed was tucked against the wall a few paces away. A face, seamed like frost-heaved ground, peered into the dimness. Long wisps of thin white hair escaped a kerchief and danced in the draft from the door.
“Hello, grandmother,” Zoya said. The old woman stared ahead, not at Zoya, not at anyone or anything. Her soft mouth moved, lips smacking wetly, forming sounds that were less than words.
“Her mind comes and goes,” the boy said, fussing with the kettle at the fire. “Tea? It’s weak, but there’s a bit left. They didn’t leave much.”
“The villagers. ‘Pyotr, guard the old woman. We’ll be back soon.’ Usually they have a girl come and see to her…” He snorted in disgust.
Pyotr waved a hand at the nearby collection of buildings, the collective farm proper.
“The Germans swept through here a few weeks ago. The party committee piled up their things in a truck and took off in the night just before they arrived, and everyone else took the hint and followed the next day. But my grandfather said someone had to stay with her.”
“Is she your grandmother?” Or great-grandmother, Zoya supposed. The woman was unspeakably ancient. She had most likely been born a serf. She would have been at least fifty, sixty years old during the revolution.
“She’s no one’s grandmother. She’s a witch.”
Zoya cocked her head until Pyotr shrugged.
“Well, I don’t believe it. But the old folks all say she’s Baba Yaga.”
Zoya laughed, then covered her mouth and glanced at the old woman. She appeared not to have noticed.
“I know, it’s nonsense. But it’s what they say.”
“Are there chicken legs tucked under the hut? Because I could use some transportation back to my unit.”
“They knocked down her old hut out in the woods when I was a baby, smashed up her things, and moved her here. She began losing her wits in my grandfather’s day. And she wasn’t much of a threat even then. That’s what the older villagers say.”
“Why not just…”
“String her up? They’re afraid she might have some last bit of magic to curse them. Or that her ghost might come back. So they feed her and hope she dies quietly in the night. People around here have minds like stones. That’s why I’m going to Moscow after the war is over. Are you from Moscow?”
Zoya shook her head. She’d fallen into a peasant fairy tale.
Pyotr poured tea into three cups. Zoya sipped hers and told him about growing up in Leningrad, about learning to fly and joining the Soviet Air Forces.
“I started out with the 588th Night Bomber Regiment,” Zoya said. Pyotr had left his cup near the fire to keep it warm, while he tipped spoonfuls of tea down the old woman’s throat. “So I suppose I’m a witch myself. The fascists called us the Night Witches.”
“Sorceresses, are you?”
“We scared the hell out of the Germans, which is magic enough. We flew these miserable old kites, biplanes. Lumbering things. We’d come in over their lines, cut the engines, glide in and drop our bombs. No louder than the wind, until they hit.”
“You crashed coming back from a bombing mission?”
“I didn’t crash,” said Zoya. “And no. I retrained for fighters last year. Got into a scrap over their rear areas. My engine gave out on the way back. I landed dead-stick in an empty field.”
She stretched and yawned.
“You need rest, citizen!” said Pyotr. “Here, take the cot. I’ll sleep sitting by the fire. It’s already almost dawn…”
Zoya scarcely protested as she tugged off her boots and allowed herself to be rolled onto the straw-stuffed mattress. It smelled of mice, she thought as her eyes closed.
She woke to fingers of daylight, probing the chinks in the cottage’s walls. Zoya rolled over and wished she had something to rinse the taste of fear from her mind. She’d dreamed of blood, breaking bones, the smell of raw marrow.
She rolled over and found her pockets light. The cans of meat and beets were both gone, as was the Tokarev pistol. The slender packet of chocolate was still there, missed perhaps by pilfering fingers.
Pyotr was gone. The old woman sat up in her bed, staring at Zoya.
“You’re not the girl,” the old woman said. Some wits after all, Zoya supposed.
“It’s all right, grandmother.”
“Nor the boy. What are you?”
The door was unlatched, and a scrap of paper was held down by a stone on the cutting board.
please look after her, it read.
sorry to go. joining partisans.
we all must do our part. you will make a better caretaker than I
Zoya spent a few minutes cursing peasants, men, boys, and the mischance that had knocked her out of the sky in this forsaken place.
She should just leave. There was no help here. She’d have to see if she couldn’t fix the Yakovlev herself, or at least wait for a friendly patrol to spot her. The old woman would be fine.
That thought immediately left a bitter taste in Zoya’s mouth. She tried a few justifications – couldn’t she do more as a pilot, driving out the invaders? – but they didn’t sit well either.
“I wish I was flying,” she sighed.
The old woman turned her head at that, or at least happened to look at Zoya. Her pupils were different sizes, one big and black as night, the other a pinprick. Her hands shook slightly as she tucked up the blankets around herself.
Baba Yaga, Zoya thought. What nonsense.
“Are you hungry, grandmother?” Zoya said.
She found some buckwheat in a clay jar, a few woody carrots and a string of small onions. A pot of milk had turned to clumps and sprouted blue fur.
“Kasha for breakfast, carrots and onions for supper. Then we starve, I suppose.”
The old woman still stared at her. “Yes, grandmother, me too. Do you need to get up, to make water? Can you get up?”
While the buckwheat boiled over the fire, Zoya helped the old woman to a chamber pot. Her legs were sticks, liver-spotted and tracked with old scars.
The woman settled back into her nest of rags and drifted into unquiet sleep.
Zoya searched the house and then, while the old woman slept, the rest of the village for a working radio. Her search in vain, she returned to the cottage and began cleaning up the filth. She swept dust and cobwebs, scrubbed pots and dishes, and threw scraps of spoiled food into the midden in the back yard. It at least kept her mind half-calm.
The old woman dozed, restless and twitching like a dreaming cat.
Sunset brought the sound of guns to the east. Zoya scrambled up the tin roof on all fours and stood on the beam. The naked branches still blocked any clear view, but she thought she could see flashes. A German retreat?
Good news, except for the mass of retreating fascists that would be coming their way.
She fed the old woman some thin soup. She devoured everything Zoya gave her, then watched with evident envy as Zoya ate her own, smaller portion.
A thought struck Zoya.
“Chocolate. Have you ever had chocolate, Grandmother?”
There was a mouse-quick shake of her head.
Zoya unwrapped her packet and handed over the four squares. The woman took them and lifted them to her nose, sniffed and cooed, and nibbled on them. Her teeth were still intact, though they were grey as iron.
Guns shouted again, closer this time. Zoya heard the sound of engines. Not the low diesel rumble of Russian tanks, but the tones of German gasoline-drinkers.
“I think we’d best be going, grandmother.”
The old woman had finished the chocolate, and licked the wrapper clean. She hummed to herself, some wordless peasant tune that made Zoya think of lanterns in dark forests.
There was only one place to retreat. She was a pilot, first, after all. She would live or die with her plane, grounded or not.
The so-called witch weighed almost nothing, at first. Her bony arms hung like a horse collar around Zoya’s neck, her thin legs easily held off the ground. Even through Zoya’s heavy coat, the old woman was hot as a coal from the fire. Her breath, smelling of onions and blood, warmed Zoya’s left ear.
Zoya had left the plane several miles to the north, but the damned narrow paths all looked the same. She had to stop several times to squint at her compass by moonlight.
“I honestly don’t know what I’m going to do with you, grandmother. You’ll barely fit in the cockpit with me. That’s even if we can get her airborne again, which I doubt. Damned Messerschmitt must have knocked something loose. Just enough to seize the engine. And now I’m stuck down here in the mud.
“I don’t mind dying. Well, I suppose I’d mind it quite a bit. But. But it wouldn’t hurt as much as if it were up there.”
The skies were clear, the air cold and threatening frost. The moon cast an owl’s flickering shadow across the path
“That’s all I want, now. To get back up there, even if it’s just one more time. Grandmother, do you mind if we stop now? I’m getting tired.”
She set the old woman down by a thick-trunked oak, on a bed of last year’s leaves. Zoya perched on a root and poured a little water from a canteen past the woman’s lips, then drank herself.
“You can fly?”
Zoya was so startled she choked.
“You can fly?”
It was hard to tell in the dark, but the woman’s pupils seemed the same size. She was looking directly at Zoya, really seeing her, it seemed.
“In an airplane, yes. A flying machine.” Zoya flattened one hand and mimed taxing, takeoff, a banking turn at shoulder-height.
The old woman’s eyes widened, and her tongue darted out like a snake’s, as if tasting Zoya’s words on the air.
“You flew by night. Owl and bat.”
“I… could. But not now. Something’s wrong with the engine.”
One hand shot out and grasped Zoya’s wrist with shocking strength. “Remind me!”
“Flying?” A nod. “It’s like… like nothing else. You feel different the moment the wheels leave the runway. You’re supported by air, engineering, and physics, and it’s all very technical. Power-to-weight ratios, wing geometry, wind speed. But that’s not how it feels. It’s glorious, when you push the controls of your machine and it follows your commands.”
The old woman nodded, gaze still intense.
“I was frightened at first. My first instructor in the flying club took me up and did loops in a trainer, over the city. I almost threw up. But when I have the yoke in my own hand, when it’s my feet moving the rudder, I never feel a thing. The machine is part of me, and we’re both just part of the sky. I can dive and soar like a falcon. You can feel the wind and gravity, right down to your marrow.
“Perhaps I should take you for a flight, someday,” Zoya said. “If this war is ever over.”
The old woman nodded. Her eyes were unfocused again, but not staring at nothing, Zoya thought. Looking inwards, now.
“I remember,” the old woman said. “I remember the first time I flew. I was young. My sisters and I, we wanted to know things, to do things. We dared much.”
Was she lucid? Or was this just another form of her senility? Perhaps, Zoya silently pleaded, she would stay sane long enough to help with directions through these damned woods.
“When first I flew,” said the old woman, “all was forest, dark beneath the boughs even on a summer’s noon. Men moved between the trees, silent, spears in their hands. I wore deerskin. I wove a basket of pale reeds while I whispered all the names of the sky. I flew by night, over the treetops, with my sisters. We called to the moon and heard her silver answer. But our baskets could not bear us up forever.
“I quarreled with my sisters, and they flew away west. “I wore wool, cloth left for me on stone cairns. The women wove for me, gave me gifts. Iron axes bit the forests, iron plows scarred the soil. I flew in a wooden bowl, steered with a spoon as long as your arm. I reached up at night and tried to pull down the cold stars. But wood rots.
“I carved my mortar from good stone, ground it smooth. I was old, then. Old, but not so old as I am now. I told the mortar a song the moon taught me, and that was a song to last for an age. Stone remembers what it hears.”
She trailed off at last, and looked around the little clearing, as if for something lost. Her hands clutched at air on her lap, as if tracing half-forgotten gestures.
“Even stone shatters,” she whispered. “I miss my sisters.”
Anna and Valeyria and Ludmilla, Marta and Yulia, Zoya thought. And the others, young pilots who had arrived and vanished so quickly they were just blurs.
“I miss my sisters, too, grandmother.”
The witch’s head jerked up.
“Where are we?”
“The woods. Hush, there are Germans nearby!”
“Where is my cottage? Who are you?” Her eyes were wide.
“I don’t know where your cottage was! I don’t suppose you know where my airplane is?”
The old woman sniffed loudly, and stretched one arm arrow-straight to north-northeast. “Your engine is there,” she said. “My cottage…”
The old woman spun quickly. “Close! Close by! That way!”
Zoya picked up the old witch again. She seemed heavier now, as though weighed down by the return of some of her wits. More likely, Zoya thought, she was just getting weary.
The path did lead north, and perhaps curved a bit to the east. She might as well follow Baba Yaga’s directions.
Twice she paused to crouch amid thickets while groups of men marched nearby through the woods. Where roads or trails ran east to west, the whine of hot truck engines mingled with the whickering protests of exhausted horses.
The old woman’s arms drew taut around Zoya’s neck. “Here! Stop!”
Zoya lowered her, and the woman scampered off the path, disappearing into the trees. Zoya cursed and pushed through the scratching branches after her. It was darker here, too many branches blocking the moonlight, and she stumbled over a stone.
Not just a stone, though. Zoya knelt and probing hands found a regular wall, unshaped rocks piled together and mortared with years of moss. It was the outline of a foundation.
The darker shadow at the center of the rectangle of stones was the old woman. She stood and surveyed what was left of the cottage. Bushes had pushed their way to shoulder height in the center, the collapsed roof beams serving as nurse logs.
“Gone,” the old woman said, her voice small.
“Grandmother?” Zoya said. “We should be quiet.”
The engines were sounding again, and worse than that, hooves and even the thud of boots on soil. More retreating Germans, moving faster this time, more desperate. A light flickered through the trees – a lantern.
Zoya suppressed a curse. The old woman was scrabbling in the leaves now, yanking up dead grass, acorns, the stalks of last year’s wildflowers.
Zoya grabbed the old woman’s shoulders. “We have to hide, to stay quiet.”
The witch tore herself free with surprising strength, and kept rooting about.
“Curse the ground! Give me sky!”
“Yes, later. For now we hide!”
The footsteps were closer. Not the disciplined march of advancing troops, but the scramble of fearful men in retreat. What would they do to two unarmed women, one of them wearing the uniform of the pilots who bombed and strafed their lines?
“Grandmother, be still!”
Zoya grabbed again, and the witch turned snake-swift, and sank her teeth into Zoya’s hand.
Zoya choked back a scream and wrapped her free arm around the old woman’s shoulders, lifting her off her feet and hauling her down to the ground. They fell together into a drift of leaves, the teeth hard and cold amid welling blood. Baba Yaga had bitten all the way through Zoya’s thick glove.
“Let. Go.” Zoya hissed the words between clenched teeth.
She didn’t. Perhaps that was better. The witch couldn’t cry out while she was biting. The eyes staring into Zoya’s were animal, terrified.
“I’m like you, grandmother,” she whispered. “A flyer. A night witch. It’s all right.”
The teeth loosened their grip. The old woman’s mouth was smeared red. One thin hand rose and brushed Zoya’s hair.
“I can’t find my sisters,” she said. “I’ve lost them. Have you seen them? They flew away west. I have to find them!”
“If I see them, I’ll tell them you’re looking for them, grandmother.”
She moved away again, fast as a hare, still probing with her hands in the dark, looking for something amid the ruins of the cottage.
Zoya heard the clack of stone against stone. The witch had gathered her skirt and was filling the makeshift pouch with rocks.
The noise obscured the sound of footsteps until it was too late.
A flashlight flickered on, blinding Zoya. The man behind it, a black shadow in a peaked cap, muttered something in German. She saw the black barrel of a pistol extending from his other hand, aimed at her. He moved closer.
Anna and Valeyria and Ludmilla, Marta and Yulia, and Zoya, she thought. This was how it ended. You never died in the sky, not really, you always fell to earth eventually.
The old woman rose up behind the German, one arm swinging. There was a soft, wet crunch. The German collapsed, and his flashlight rolled away, illuminating the bloody chunk of stone in Baba Yaga’s hand.
Zoya froze for just a moment, then dove for the flashlight, fumbled it off. She grabbed for the old woman, drew her down to a crouch.
More boots passed down the path, the Germans panting and cursing. Flickering flashlights and lanterns revealed men in flapping uniforms, limbs thinned by hunger, faces pale masks over the skulls beneath. None of them paused. The German lying on the ground didn’t make a sound.
When the last of the fleeing troops had passed, Zoya crept over to the German. He was already cooling.
“Ready to go, grandmother?”
“You’ll die if you stay here,” Zoya tried. How lucid was the old woman? “You’ll freeze, or starve, or be murdered. I can’t leave you here.”
The old woman turned away. One hand held a large chunk of stone, broken and rough on one side, ground smooth on the other.
“No,” she said. “I remember, now. I remember a name of the sky.”
She came close to Zoya, close enough that the old woman’s hot breath was on her face.
“Take this,” she said, and pressed a piece of rock into Zoya’s hands. It was sticky on its jagged edge, clean on the smooth side. “I’ve enough left here.”
Then she whispered a word into Zoya’s ear, a word that tasted of cool winds and towering cumulonimbus clouds.
“Go,” she said, and Zoya went, her feet following game trails and shadowed paths, until she stood at the edge of a field, next to her plane.
Dawn was coming, sometime soon. Starlight gleamed off frost-silvered branches.
“Engine’s dead,” Zoya muttered to herself. But she climbed into the cockpit all the same, and tucked the piece of stone into her pocket.
Maybe you always died on the ground, Zoya thought. But before that, you spent as much time in the sky as you could.
She flipped the switches and ran through the complete pre-flight check, then hit the ignition while whispering Baba Yaga’s word.
The engine roared and the prop tore the air. Zoya had to adjust the fuel mixture fast, swing the nose around before they were yanked straight into the tree line. She managed a tight turn, only scraping her left wingtip against a few branches, before she was facing back down the ruts she’d left on her landing.
Soft ground and a short runway. Not ideal conditions. Zoya grinned and pushed the throttle.
The wheels cleared the treetops by a finger’s width.
Zoya’s hand stopped bleeding, not long after takeoff. It was warm, even without a glove, and as swift and sure on the controls as it ever had been.
As she banked, Zoya saw a small shape below her, skimming along above the treetops. At this altitude, all she could make out was a circle of grey stone, and long white hair flowing behind it like a contrail. It was heading west, toward the last fading stars.
Zoya saluted the little figure. She flew east, out of the night.
This story originally appeared in Podcastle.