Perhaps one of the most chilling and memorable lines in war poetry comes from the third stanza of John McCrae’s work In Flanders Fields: “To you from failing hands we throw/The torch; be yours to hold it high”. For me, this section has always carried a hint of the futility and uncertainty of the two World Wars; as well as the necessity for those of us– veterans, children, new generations– to accept that torch. Not a torch of conflict, but certainly one of remembrance and of resolve. I think of this every time I hear McCrae’s lines and every time I watch those staunch veterans march past a little fewer.
The idea for a brief story based around this idea of inherited remembrance has been in my head for awhile, and finally I got it on paper. I don’t have much time for writing anymore, but as I write this I realise how much I’ve missed it! Perhaps that is a good metaphor for remembrance too; let us each contribute what we have when we can, and what’s important will never be forgotten. I hope you enjoy, and remember.
The Past Mind: A Short Story
The Tuesday 09:50 to Kamenskoye was my trip; every week, without fail. I used to walk it, but sometimes if weather was poor I wouldn’t make it in time for lunch, and Babushka loved her Tuesday lunches. So now that I was head seamstress on my factory floor, I made sure that I always put aside that bus fare. I’d bring along whatever leftovers I had– usually okroshka– and my book bag. Tuesday was reading day at Babushka’s.
As the bus lumbered past the Bylniki junction, I heard engines outside and looked up to see the four contrails of a jet tracing the sky. Too bad Babushka was housebound, she’d get a thrill to see that. She was used to being alone, really, but I’m not sure she was used to not getting out. Dedushka died during the First Battle of Smolensk; and their daughter, my mother, died in ’83. In the past few years though, Babushka has started to get old and forget. So with my father in prison now for car theft and with no children on the horizon, I’d decided it would do us both good if I gave her some of my time. A few hours every Tuesday wasn’t bad, even if she didn’t remember it for long.
After an hour or so, I was off the bus and at the door of Babushka’s flat. It looked grim, paint peeling and number askew, but it really hadn’t gotten much worse in twenty years. I’d hardly finished my first knock when the door swung open, Babushka peering keenly up at me. “What is it?”
“I’m Nastya,” I pointed to myself as I’d learned was necessary. “How would you like some lunch?”
“Lunch? Well, I haven’t eaten today. Are you alone?” She asked, looking past me into the hall.
“I am quite. I have some books too, if you’d like to read.”
“Books?” Babushka sounded surprised. “Well, alright. Come in and tell me a good story.”
Walking inside, my eyes lingered on the portrait of a smiling Yuri Gagarin which still hung pristine in the hallway. Babushka caught my gaze, and she nudged me and chuckled, “Handsome, isn’t he? Look at that smile…”
She can’t remember, but she sure is sharp in the moment. Pity she can’t remember, though. Mama always told me how she stayed up all day and night waiting for updates and Gagarin’s inevitable speech once it was announced that he was in orbit in ’61.
“Here, have some food,” I said, setting a plate on the windowsill and opening my book bag. “And what would you like me to read?” As usual, I brought a selection of books with me; a volume of classic Russian short stories, an imagining of The Firebird, and a timeworn book full of the exploits of women aviators in the Great Patriotic War. Scanning the books with keen eyes, Babushka picked the last one. And that’s the funny thing; she always did. I don’t know how you can have favourites if you can’t remember and everything seems new, but she did. She always picked that book.
And so I read to her, choosing a few particular accounts which she had always seemed to enjoy. There were many magnificent women who fought for our country, and they displayed bravery seldom seen even in our men. Many of these women had worked in factories or in the fields and already were raising families, so they completed their Soviet duty and then some. I’d always seen them with an eye of admiration that I extended to Babushka.
Babushka’s favourite story was about a lesser-known woman pilot named Vasilisa Orlova. She flew Lavochkins for nearly three years in the war, and although she was not an ace she was characterised by her relentless attacks even in poor weather and damaged aircraft. Through interviews with her comrades, the book spoke glowingly of how she never gave up on her targets and how she was a fearsome and relentless thorn in the fascists’ side. It gave particular praise to the instance where she escorted a heavily-damaged and flaming parachute plane to its drop-zone; ignoring the threat of its imminent explosion, and navigating a barrage of anti-aircraft fire while firing upon attacking Messerschmitts all the while.
This woman was never awarded Hero of the Soviet Union nor anything beyond awards for bravery and for battle merit, yet her conduct had an effect upon all her comrades and all those who knew her. After making such a positive contribution to the defense of our Motherland, the book noted that Vasilisa Orlova returned to civilian life and focused on raising a good Soviet family, although she never forgot her love of the skies. Her story seemed to have an effect on Babushka, as it did every Tuesday.
“What a woman,” she marvelled once this astonishing account was finished. “To fly high above in fire and adversity and to accomplish so much! And yet, she was an ordinary Soviet woman through it all.”
“Indeed,” I replied. “She led a life that I aspire to.”
“You know, Nastya–” Babushka turned her eyes to the window and the sky; the sky that held so much promise and that had seen Captain Orlova’s legacy: “–I am not a young woman, but if I were young again, I should do all that.”
I smiled to myself, slipping the volume back into my bag for next week. “Ahh, Babushka Vasilisa. You did.”
Text copyright © Adair E. R. Jacobs, 2019