A gentle wind has pulled the clouds apart like a gray curtain to reveal the peaks of the Caucasus mountains, and I am pleased because it means that we will fly tonight.
It is the evening of October 24th, 1942, a Saturday, and I am resting in the open cockpit of my flimsy plywood and canvas biplane waiting for the night. My breath causes little cloudbursts to flow from my lips, and I know from previous flights that my and my navigator Vasilisa’s feet will freeze in our boots once we take flight.
All around me, the engineers of the 588th Night Bomber Regiment rush about outside the barn that tonight serves as our hangar, laying down planks of wood in the mud that will be our runway for the night. I do not envy their labor, but I am grateful for each of their efforts. Each woman of the regiment has a role to play, and I am proud of mine. Just six months ago I could not have foreseen that I would find joy in the idea of flying into the dark night sky to drop bombs on the heads of Germans, but tonight the idea makes my heart race.
Commander Bershanskaya, our regiment’s second in command, wrapped the briefing for tonight’s mission just an hour ago. She stood before us and explained that our target was the occupied city of Armavir. Vasilisa looked back at me as though to ask whether I had ever heard of it, and I shrugged. Flying with the 588th I dropped bombs over many Soviet cities and towns occupied by the Germans, most of which I did not know existed until the evening briefing. Tonight would be no different.
Tonight does feel different, or at least I do. I am collecting my thoughts when Vasilisa walks up and catches my attention.
“Oksana, have you heard? Word from the front is that the captured Germans are talking about us.”
I look down from the open cockpit and am unsurprised to see Vasilisa is eating straight out of a can of beans. The other girls in the regiment, myself included, eat a kind of chocolate toffee to stay alert for night missions but Vasilisa swears flat tins packed with salty fish. The beans are a recent addition to our rations – shipments from our British allies. The labels were all in English still and none of the other girls wanted to guess at the contents, but Vasilisa fears nothing.
I am for a moment grateful for the Polikarpov biplane’s open cockpit.
“Talking about us? What do you mean?”
“They call us Nachthexen, Oksana,” she says between bites.
“I don’t speak fascist, Vasilisa.”
“It means ‘Night Witches’ in German. They say they cannot shoot us down because we are sorceresses.”
I laugh at this. “Witches? Grown men say this?”
Vasilisa finishes her can of beans and throws it on the rubbish pile. The engineers have completed the wooden runway and begin to load our biplanes with bombs, two to a plane. Vasilisa climbs into the cockpit with me.
“It’s true. They say that the Red Army gives us injections that let us see at night, like cats.”
“What superstition. Why witches? Why not demons or devils or something just as preposterous?”
Vasilisa’s face lights up and I realize she has been waiting to share this with me.
“Well, you know how we shut the engines off and glide so they won’t hear us coming? The captured Germans say that right before the bombs come down, they hear the sounds of witches flying overhead on their brooms.”
“Brooms? Germans believe witches have flying brooms?” I look out over the mountains and try to imagine such a thing. Above the jagged peaks of the Caucasus, the full moon is rising and a deep black cape is trailing behind it. Bombs are clicked under our planes wings by a pair of engineers, and I look over my shoulder at Vasilisa. She shrugs.
“I know, I always thought they flew in giant mortars while grinding their pestles.”
“Don’t be so bourgeois, Vasilisa. There’s no such thing as witches.”
She makes a shocked and playfully angry face, and strikes me lightly on the shoulder. “I know that! I mean, that is what my grandmother would say. Besides, I’ve seen you playing with fortune telling cards some nights,” she points accusingly at me, “So maybe you really are a witch.”
I laugh and twist my hands into claw-like shapes. “Maybe I am.” I begin to make cackling noises and feint lunges at Vasilisa, who in turn makes mocking sounds of helplessness. We play at this only for a moment before she suddenly stops. A serious expression haunts her brow, and I stop.
“Vasilisa, what is it? Are you alright?”
She looks at me solemnly for several seconds before speaking.
“Do you remember when we first started the night bombing? How scared we were?”
I nod, for she is right – we were petrified. She hangs her head slightly, and the moonlight glints off the goggles that rest on her aviator cap. When she looks up, any trace of humor is gone from her face.
“Perhaps we are becoming too used to this, Oksana.”
The night closes in around us and the sounds of engines being turned on fills the air. It is nearly time for us to fly. Vasilisa pulls her goggles down over her eyes and readies her compass and map.
I face forward and pull my goggles down. Perhaps that is the thing I felt different in myself. Engineers are waving at us to take off and our coven of aviatrixes takes to the sky in the light of the full moon. Tonight I will descend from darkness in silence, my broom a gliding cropduster and my curses in the shapes of bombs.
Let the fascists call us witches.
I won’t argue.