Girl in a Mask

by Gregg Zimmerman

 

1. Epiphany

The evening wind picked up, sending waves and furrows racing through the wheat fields, and mountainous cumulus clouds scudded across a sky of deepening blue. Leaves rustled and the loose doors of barns and sheds rattled as the dying reds and yellows of a beautiful sunset faded in the west.

The two sisters, auburn Angelika and blonde Serafina, whirled in the wind in ecstasy, aprons and colorful sashes flying behind them. Never since the innocent days of childhood had they felt such elation: it was if the world had arrived at a new beginning and the horrors of war and a brutal occupation were things of the past.

“The Nazis are gone, the Nazis are gone!” sang out Angelika in a sweet-voiced but unmusical chant, while Serafina, two years younger, sang a provincial folk song full of joy and happy expectations from her youth.

The young women waltzed and pirouetted, bumping each other and giggling like schoolgirls as the impact nearly knocked them sprawling in the tall grass.

Angelika, ever on the alert, stopped abruptly and stood staring as she caught a movement out of the corner of her eye; Serafina kept singing and twirling, waving her slender arms in the air like flashing bronze-peach colored stalks in the last rays of the declining sun.

Angelika took one half-running step toward the farmhouse which was concealed from view behind the milling shed. But she could not abandon her little sister, even to summon help.

Three men had slouched into view from the field behind the tool shed. Ragged, scruffily bearded, and grimy in their worn Russian military fatigues, gaunt and pale as if they were half-starved, the three advanced slowly with the downcast demeanor of beaten mongrels.

“Ladies, beautiful ladies,” said the man in the lead, raising a dirty white hand in a gesture of supplication. “We have walked for days and days, and have not eaten.” The man, whom Angelika noticed bore a jagged scar high on his cheekbone, half-concealed beneath a frayed beret, spoke Russian in a soft, plaintive voice. Both women, of course, spoke Russian fluently.

Serafina stopped twirling with a gasp of alarm, which quickly gave way to another emotion when she recognized the men as belonging to the Soviet military.

“Soldiers, Angelika, Russian soldiers!” she said in an adoring tone, as if she were addressing war heroes from her homeland. She moved toward them with a greeting on her lips. Angelika looked on with trepidation, her mouth forming a severe line.

Suddenly, as if at a pre-concerted signal, the two soldiers behind the leader sprang forward. Serafina made not a sound, and Angelika’s warning cry was cut off by strangling fingers at her throat as the men grasped the two women and hustled them after the man with the scar, who had kicked open the door of the nearby tool shed.

2. Horror

The two girls, auburn Angelika and blonde Serafina, crouched against the shed wall beneath a broken horse yolk that was suspended by pegs. Their lower clothing lay in a tangled heap just beyond their reach; their upper clothing had been clawed to tatters and no longer concealed their breasts or privates, which they both felt a desperate need to cover. Neither woman reached for the discarded clothing.

The man with the scar favored the girls with a leering look as he stood, slowly fastening his breeches. His two companions lay back against a pile of leather harnesses, passing back and forth between them a water bottle filled with contraband vodka. Unlike their leader, they avoided eye contact with the women and made no remarks to them.

Serafina sobbed quietly. Angelika stared at their persecutors with eyes of stone.

“Ladies,” said the man with the scar. “That was a very kind welcome, I’m sure my comrades will agree. Your country women are renowned sluts, and as I expected it was not the first time for either of you. But now with deepest regrets we must be leaving.”

He lazily withdrew a German Luger from his pocket and pointed it about in an offhand manner as he spoke.

Serafina’s eyes opened wide, she inhaled loudly to launch a scream. The man with the scar lowered the pistol and shot her through the temple.

Serafina slumped sideways against Angelika, splashing her neck and breast with blood. Angelika shuddered with a spasm that she quickly suppressed. She said nothing, cradling her sister’s bleeding head in her lap and fixing her stony, menacing glare on the man with the scar.

The two other soldiers leaped to their feet and put away the bottle. The discharge of the gun sounded like an exploding mortar round in the confined space of the shed. One of them fastened his eye to the crack at the edge of the shed door, checking if the coast was clear.

The man with the scar approached Angelika in an unhurried manner and placed the gun barrel against her forehead. Angelika neither flinched nor blinked, continuing to fix his eyes with her stare.

“Andrey, the other one!” hissed the man at the door. “They will be coming!”

The man called Andrey caressed Angelika’s cheek gently with the gun barrel. “Blondie would have talked,” he said with a grin that revealed large, stained, horse-like teeth. “But not this one. She is proud!”

“Andrey!” the man called again with a note of panic.

“She would kill me with her look if she could, this one. Sweet-faced vixen, remember me by this,” and he took Angelika’s chin in his hand and tilted up her face. He pointed the gun barrel at the lightning-shaped scar high up on his right cheekbone. Then he brought the handle of the pistol down with a crack on the crown of her head. Angelika’s world exploded into blazing stars, followed by darkness.

3. The Mask

The Leather Flask was a run down public house at the edge of the city’s business district that was heavily patronized by the newly arrived Soviet soldiers, mainly because it was close to their base. The soldiers threw around their scanty silver half-rubles as if they were Dutch guilders, as they may as well have been with their power to purchase the services of the aging hookers with crow’s feet at the corners of their eyes and missing teeth or the scrawny half-starved village girls with their frayed sleeves and dirty necks who had begun to congregate there.

The less inebriated regulars noticed the recent attendance of a girl of a different class, well dressed with a statuesque figure and auburn hair that gleamed like fine golden mesh in the harsh light of the incandescent bulbs without shades. She came in regularly at the fall of darkness and sat for a couple of hours at a corner table away from the others, spurning company but watching the comings and goings of the soldiers with the fixity of a spy from the central government. She always left alone.

On the third day of her presence a non-commissioned officer by the name of Egor, who wore the characteristic red breeches of the hussars—a great bear of a man with a kindly face and a twinkling eye—threw down a few extra brandies and water and determined to make a pass at her. He approached her table and sat down, blocking her view of the entrance. Leaning forward, he caught her upper arm in a familiar grasp and whispered his proposition into her ear. His offer was answered with a resounding slap on the face. Egor’s bushy mustache rose to reveal an indulgent smile and he began to move away when the lady caught his upper arm in turn. “Wait,” she said imperiously.

He looked into the glacial grey-blue eyes that stared coldly into his own and for a passing moment he felt something akin to fear. He also noticed the surpassing beauty of the woman and quickly banished any reservations.

“Andrey with the scar,” she said, “do you know him?”

“Andrey, Andrey, there are a hundred Andreys, dearest lady—”

“Andrey with a jagged scar like a lightning bolt above his right cheek.”

“I’m afraid, sweetest love—”

“Find him for me and you can do what you will with me. And you can keep your dirty kopeks.”

Three days later Egor the bear-like hussar led a slim village errand boy wearing an oversized hat with earflaps through the encampment to the motor pool. A mechanic and his helper were leaning over the engine compartment of a transport vehicle, working on the engine block with a pair of wrenches.

“Andrey with the scar,” muttered Egor, and he felt the slim figure beside him give a sudden start as if of recognition.

Later that night in an un-mown hay field behind the makeshift barracks, Egor the hussar grasped in his arms the most delectable, frigid woman he had lain with during the course of a long and hideous war.

* * * * *

Tomas Stefanik, biochemistry professor turned house painter, wiped the sweat from his brow with the back of his hand and climbed down the scaffolding to the dusty street. A well-dressed woman noticeable for her profusion of auburn-golden hair was waiting for him at the curbside.

“Tomas,” she said in a hushed voice that was familiar to him.

He gave a start, staring at her face. “Angelika, my God, I have not seen you for—it must be more than a year now!” And he hugged her to his breast, the joy of this unexpected meeting overwhelming his usual circumspection.

“My god, the Nazis are gone, can you believe it! At long last life can return to normal, and no one has risked more for this moment, has sacrificed more, than you—”

“The Russians are worse,” she said.

“No, no, Angelika, they are a little crude, perhaps, a little ill-mannered, but—”

“The Russians are worse. The rest of you will find out in time what I know now.” And then she related to him her story in as few words as possible. The joyous smile on Stefanik’s face melted away, a growing horror overspread his features, his hand went out to her with fingers splayed apart as if beseeching her to end the assault her words were making on his sensibilities.

“I, I have to sit down,” he said, slipping to the pavement. “How many atrocities can a man bear in one lifetime? She is—was—more than a daughter to me. She was the savior of my family!”

He rocked back and forth as if in physical pain. “Serafina!” he whispered.

“Yes, Serafina,” she said, dry-eyed.

“Oh, oh,” said Stefanik, making an effort to regain his composure. He owed these two women—Angelika and Serafina—a debt of gratitude that time would never efface and that he would never be able to repay. In the dreadful days of 1939 when the Nazis stormed into Poland, Tomas Stefanik was verging on world recognition as a research biochemist in his professorship at the University of Krakow. He had made breakthroughs in the function of the adrenal gland and was delaying the publication of his results until he completed his investigations into certain practical applications of his discoveries.

The invasion could not have come at a more disruptive time for him. As the Nazi persecution of the Jews intensified, it was Angelika Pacek, his brilliant undergraduate student and research assistant who stepped forward to assist him in protecting Jolanta, his Jewish wife, and their two daughters when all the others turned their backs. She hid the family in a cellar on the family farm for six months, and when Angelika went off to join the partisans in their unequal struggle against the occupiers, her angelic sister Serafina served as the lifeline to the concealed family, bringing them food and supplies and keeping them informed of the great, tragic events happening in the outside world. For six months the family knew no greater joy than Serafina’s regular visits when she gave all she could of herself to cheer them up, even teaching the two girls, who adored her, folk songs and keeping them amused by telling them fairy tales and ancient legends of the Polish countryside. At the end of six months Angelika returned to the farm bringing the official papers after having established the needed contacts to spirit Jolanta and the two girls out of the country to a safe haven in Sweden. Stefanik, less worldly than his young protégée, never fully understand how she had accomplished this seemingly impossible feat; all she would ever tell him about it is that he would sleep better not knowing. To this day, Stefanik’s family awaited the coming reunion in their tenement in Stockholm.

“Now,” said Angelika, “my mentor, my esteemed professor, my friend, I need you to do something for me. I need you to do a thing that only you can do.” And she kneeled down beside him on the curbside and whispered her request into his ear.

“No!” he cried, “it cannot be done! The science is not perfected—”

Again Angelika made her request, and again he protested. “It would kill you, my dear, kill you, do you hear? Request anything, but not that!”

“Very well,” she said coldly, rising to her feet. “Tomas, be easy. I will never again trouble you with a request.” And ashen-faced, she turned from him and began to walk away.

Tomas Stefanik, scientist and now house painter, found himself crawling after her on his hands and knees. Lunging forward, he wrapped his arms around her legs and brought her to a halt.

“A week from Tuesday, 3:00 pm, at my studio on Lubicz Street,” he stammered. “It will take me that long to gather supplies—and even that is only possible because of the disorganized security of the Soviets. Come alone, and please, oh please, try to change your mind.”

* * * * *

The studio was tiny, and the truckle bed had to be collapsed and turned on its side to make room for the medical equipment and chemical supplies.

Angelika sat on the edge of the coffin-like wooden box that would have to serve as a surgical table for the upcoming operation.

“When I complete the procedure that will stimulate your adrenal gland, the production of adrenalin will be constantly elevated. Your rate of metabolism will increase, and you will need to breathe a richer mix of oxygen than the atmosphere provides. So you will have to wear an oxygen cylinder and a gas mask wherever you go.” Stefanik held up the mask for her to view—a conventional army-issue combat-green gas mask with a tinted glass eye plate and a breathing port from which the activated carbon had been removed. A small, malleable copper tube provided a connection to the oxygen tank that would need to be strapped to her back.

“I smuggled out six oxygen tanks,” Stefanik resumed. “At the feed rate we must set, each tank will last you 24 hours. You’ll use up one per day, and have to change them. That gives you six days. I will try to obtain more tanks in the meantime. Remember, without the oxygen you will quickly grow lethargic and suffocate within an hour. When you finish your mission come back here and I will try to reverse the procedure. You know about the adaptive memory of our biological processes—I’m not sure I can do it. If not, oh Angelika,” and he squeezed her hand, “this will be irreversible—a death sentence.”

“I have fought beside the partisans,” she replied quietly. “I am not afraid.”

“When you wake up your strength and speed will be abnormal, incredible. But you are still made of the old flesh and bones. You can break your own as easily as your opponent’s.”

There was a silence. Stefanik was clearly reluctant to start the procedure.

“If that’s all, let’s do it,” said Angelika.

“I just can’t bear the thought of losing you both. Can’t you get the partisans together again? There should be a sniper who can take care of your mission by the more conventional means.”

“Where they are all now,” Angelika replied, “Serafina has joined them there.” She lay back on the box while Stefanik applied the anesthetic.

4. The First One

Oleg Pravdin, assistant mechanic with the Soviet Infantry, walked through the un-mown hay field behind the garrison’s barracks. He felt the desire to have a woman strongly tonight, and had meant to remind Andrey of the “girling” expedition he had been promising to lead for a week now. Andrey’s girling expeditions simultaneously satisfied Oleg’s two most pressing cravings: the thrill of the chase, and the sensual bliss of having his way with a woman. It was far more rewarding than throwing away his scant earnings on aging whores or village sluts that smelled of garlic and onions at low dives like the Leather Flask.

But Andrey was stubborn, maintaining that girling must not be done too frequently. “These war-ravaged peasants,” Andrey had observed, “are used to a few dead women popping up here and there, but too many and they will revolt.” Oleg had come to consider Andrey somewhat of a barrack room philosopher, and it was rumored that he had picked up some university education somewhere along the way. At any rate, it was Andrey—and of course he had the final word on the matter.

Andrey had disappeared from the motor pool an hour earlier than usual. So tonight Oleg would be on his own.

Descending a shallow declivity that put him out of sight of the garrison, he thought that he heard a noise to his right. A burnt and abandoned building left by the Nazis, little more than a foundation with a couple of fire-scarred crumbling block walls rose from the weeds at the edge of the field. A rather small, strange figure stepped out of a ruinous doorway and stood facing him.

Oleg’s mouth fell open and he craned his neck forward. At first he took the figure to be a soldier who had somehow emerged from the front line of battle. Dressed in green military fatigues, the figure wore an outlandish head gear that Oleg recognized after some effort as a gas mask. Some sort of metal cylinder rose up from behind the shoulders and was connected by a gleaming copper tube to the gas mask. “Hell’s devils,” Oleg muttered as he discerned, both by its slender build and by the cascade of golden-red hair that surrounded the mask, that it was a woman. The distinctive color of the hair told him which woman.

“You,” he said.

“Yes, me.”

“What do you want?” He fumbled for a moment and drew a Soviet issue Tokarev pistol from the ill-fitting German holster he had pilfered from an abandoned Nazi encampment.

There was no answer.

“I don’t want no trouble, miss.” He pointed the pistol in her direction with a trembling hand. “It was Andrey who offed your friend. I didn’t want to do it. Why the mask—”

The figure lunged to its right with blinding speed. Then it darted to the left. Oleg did not realize, did not have time to notice, that the two movements had also eliminated the distance that separated them.

The handgun was struck from his hand with a force that broke three of his fingers and sent the weapon spinning over the top of the scorched wall. Then Oleg experienced a series of sensations unlike anything he had encountered before. It was as if some sort of lethal machine clasped and crushed his body with unfathomable strength. He felt himself shaken as a mastiff shakes a kitten, and heard his own bones popping and cracking and felt his flesh being mashed to a pulp through waves of unbearable physical agony.

In the morning they found Oleg Pravdin’s corpse at the foot of the ruined wall. Every bone in his body had been broken and splintered and his rib cage was crushed in as if he had been hurled from a vast height. In fact there was some speculation, soon discarded as implausible, that he had been dropped from an airplane. It was also noticed that high on his right cheekbone there was a large jagged wound in the shape of a lightning bolt, apparently carved with a knife.

5. The Second One

Andrey and Pavel the gunner sat on a wad of disheveled blankets that served as a bunk in the corner of a barrack building. The room was lit by a kerosene lantern as the high command had not bothered to extend an electrical feed to the barracks. Pavel was pale and agitated, swiveling his head at every sound, real or imagined, and shuffling his feet or twitching his hands. Andrey, on the other hand, appeared calm and unperturbed as he meditatively smoked a small briarwood pipe.

“You saw the scar,” Pavel uttered abruptly.

“Yes, shut up, be quiet. Do you want the whole garrison to hear us?”

“The body was smashed—like a fly—smashed!” The last word was almost shrieked.

“Yes,” said Andrey.

“It had to be—because of the woman. The blonde woman you shot when we were out girling.”

“Yes,” said Andrey.

“Well, we’re next, you—don’t be stupid!”

There was a silence that Pavel once again felt constrained to break.

“How did they do that to him?”

“That’s the only mystery.”

“You should have shot the other one, you stupid bastard! Like I told you.”

Andrey grinned, revealing his great horse-like teeth. “They may get you, but they won’t get me.”

Pavel lunged at him, but Andrey moved deftly aside.

“Pull yourself together, you fool. I am not the enemy.”

“This girling business was your plan, you brought this upon us.”

“You were not complaining when you were riding the little mares with their legs in the air.”

“Go to hell and be damned, you devil,” said Pavel, but his tone was conciliatory.

“Anyway, it won’t help things to let you know, numbskull, but I have a plan.”

* * * * *

At a discrete distance, so as not to be recognized, Andrey and Pavel watched the roaring flames that consumed the Pacek family’s farmhouse lick upwards into the night sky. The farmhouse which had endured six years of Nazi occupation did not survive six weeks under the Soviets.

“Well, they weren’t home, what did you expect,” grumbled Pavel. “So this is your plan? A lot of good it will do us.”

“They know we struck back, and that the Soviet military is on to them. Let’s go.”

The next morning Andrey submitted a request for a transfer to the Warsaw garrison. He said not a word of it to Pavel.

For his part, Pavel made a concerted effort not to be alone. Wherever the soldiers congregated, that was where he would be found. This was after hours, on his own time. But while on duty he was subject to the orders of his superiors.

The Soviet authorities had begun rounding up the Polish intelligentsia: doctors, university professors, and highly educated professionals that Stalin’s government anticipated might interfere with their plans for Poland. As the jails and prisons were not spacious enough to accommodate these detainees as they awaited transportation to destinations still being worked out—Siberia, military detention centers, or oblivion—the military units were called upon to assist in creating temporary local detention centers.

Pavel’s superior officer knew that he had carpentry and building experience in his private life before the war, therefore he was co-opted to join a team of two other soldiers and a supervising lieutenant to inspect and report on the condition and suitability for use of an abandoned spa and resort complex twenty kilometers outside of Krakow.

Upon arrival of the transport vehicle on the grounds of the resort, the lieutenant dusted off and unfolded a set of blueprints for the facility that he had somehow acquired. To Pavel’s chagrin, the lieutenant dispatched the three soldiers to inspect the buildings separately.

Pavel argued, irrationally the lieutenant thought, to be allowed to team up with one of the others. His request was denied, and the three were ordered to return from their assignments with logged inspection reports by 4:00 pm. The blueprints were distributed and each man provided with a kerosene lantern.

The weather was cool and drizzly as Pavel set out on foot across the overgrown entrance drive to a large deteriorated building at the rear of the compound. The structure still retained the vestiges of luxury, although it had been in disuse since the Nazi occupation.

Electric power had long been cut off, which made the building, whose window spacing was designed for incandescent illumination, exceedingly gloomy inside. Just as Pavel closed the grand, nine-foot tall entry door behind him and prepared to light his kerosene lantern, he thought he heard a sound common enough along the busy streets of Krakow, but out of place in this secluded place—the rumble of a motorbike. He quickly opened the door again—silence. Shaking his head, he lit the lantern and set to work.

In spite of his strained nerves, Pavel soon became immersed in his work, and made his way through room after room, inspecting walls, flooring, fixtures, and making notes. His focus was interrupted by the distinct sound of the opening and slamming shut of the entrance door. Dropping his log book and snatching up the lantern, Pavel rushed into the corridor and called out “Who’s there?”

There was no answer.

Instantly apprehension transformed into icy terror, causing his knees to wobble and beads of cold sweat to break out on his forehead.

He must get out and join the others at all cost. There would be protection where there were numbers.

He sprinted toward the entryway, the kerosene lantern swaying and causing crazy shadows to rush up and down the walls. Then he stopped short with a gasp.

A solitary figure in military fatigues and wearing a gas mask stood against the door as if barring his exit. It occurred to him that, caught by his enemy like a rat, he would be gassed and suffocated in the corridor. With a shout, he pulled his handgun from the pocket of his uniform jacket and fired off two rounds. But the figure was no longer in the doorway.

Was he seeing things? No, there it was, springing out from behind an ornamental column. But the rapidity of it movements! The unbelievable, shocking quickness!

Disconcerted, he dropped the handgun rather than the lantern as he intended. He darted up a high-piled carpeted staircase with a rich mahogany banister, and wheeled around at the top. His pursuer was almost upon him; he dashed the lantern into its face and rushed through a heavy-paneled oak door into one of the upstairs luxury suites. Slamming shut the door, he noticed a heavy metal latch which he shot into place. Immediately a thunderous impact rattled the door in its frame. The doorknob was twisted and he heard metal snap within the lockset. Next there was a second impact against the door and an upper panel buckled inward but did not give way, as if it had been struck by a battering ram. There was a high-pitched scream of pain—could that be a woman’s voice? Pavel turned and raced in almost total darkness down the hallway. A band of light could be seen beneath the door at the far end. Once past that, he might be able to exit the building and hide among the overgrown bushes and trees in the landscaped yard.

Another explosive noise, and—was it possible?—something seemed to be inside the annular space of the wall on the left side of the hallway. He heard wall studs cracking and breaking at the impact of an irresistible force. He threw open the door in front of him; a flood of daylight entered the hallway. A brief glance over his shoulder revealed a large chunk of plaster falling from the wall and crashing to powder against the floor boards while an ominous moving bulge in the plaster followed in the direction of his flight. Internal boards and studs cracked and splintered as a large body made its passage through the annular space in the wall. It appeared that only the strength of the heavy oak wainscoting prevented his attacker form bursting through the wall and into the hallway. It was the vision of a nightmare.

Pavel ran toward the balcony, fully prepared to hurtle over the balustrade to drop down to the overgrown sward below. He flung open the French door leading to the balcony. With a horrible crash and explosion of plaster, the wall behind him burst outward. He once again whirled around—he could not help himself.

There before him, fatigues covered with plaster powder and the splinters of wall boards, and with a splash of kerosene flaming above the left breast, stood his attacker. Brief as the vision was, he could not be mistaken—the figure was a woman.

* * * * *

The lieutenant saw it first—a cloud of smoke rising above the building Pavel had been assigned to inspect. By the time he and the two remaining soldiers reached it, the entrance corridor was fully involved in flames. He now regretted not investigating the two earlier popping sounds that could have been distant gun shots.

“Pavel, Pavel!” the lieutenant shouted. There was no response. He took a step as if to enter the inferno, then thought better of it.

“One of you, go around the back!” he ordered. “There may be a way in from that side. You, help me here,” he said to the other soldier.

The two of them moved in opposite directions along the ground floor, breaking windows with a shovel and a garden hoe they had found and peering inside the rooms shouting Pavel’s name. They had not proceeded far when the lieutenant heard a voice behind him.

“Sir, it’s no use going in.”

He faced the speaker. It was the soldier who had made the circuit of the building. The lieutenant started—the last time he had seen such a horror-stricken face was when he had led teenage boys into a fire fight for the first time.

“Sir, follow me, you’ll want to see this.” Without another word he led the lieutenant and the second soldier around to the rear side of the building. There, beneath an overhanging second floor balcony with an ornate limestone balustrade lay Pavel’s body. It was nearly unrecognizable, having been crushed and pulverized to a near jelly-like state. The lieutenant observed, high on the right cheekbone, a jagged cut in the shape of a lightning bolt. This wound did not seem to be related to the other injuries.

6. Andrey with the scar

The day after word came back of Pavel’s hideous death, Andrey sat alone in the barracks. He rolled the notice carrying the denial of his transfer request into a tight tube, lit it with a match, and applied it to the tobacco packed in the bowl of his briarwood pipe. He drank shot after shot of straight vodka until his lips pulled back to reveal his horse-like teeth in a sardonic grin.

He held his hand straight out in front of him—it did not quiver.

“Ha, ha,” he laughed. “Ha, ha, ha! For once justice is being done; I thought I would never see the day. Well,” and he rose to his feet, “let’s finish this. If I have to go, I hope it’s my little red-haired vixen who takes me out. Because,” and he wobbled on his feet for a moment before steadying himself, “because of all women I love her best.”

He marched with two duffel bags brazenly into the armory, throwing into them a protective vest, a submachine gun and two ammo belts with a hundred rounds, two handguns, and a battle helmet. He was not able to lay his hands on any grenades, which had been at the top of his list. It is a testimony to the utter lack of discipline among the Soviet occupiers that he was neither stopped nor challenged as he made this unauthorized appropriation of military hardware and walked slowly out of the armory and then the garrison half carrying and half dragging his heavy bags.

* * * * *

Andrey had not forgotten his vodka, and had consumed a dangerous, near lethal dosage when he rose to his feet once more. He had been sitting with his back against the Pacek farm tool shed where all of this had started only two weeks ago. For over an hour he had seen no human beings. His liquor was now gone, he saw no reason to protract things.

He put on his battle helmet, then the protective vest which weighed like lead. He thrust the two handguns into his large pockets, and inserted an ammo belt into the submachine gun, throwing the strap around his shoulders. Being a veteran soldier, he accomplished these preparations successfully in spite of his inebriation.

“Ladies,” he shouted, “or shall I say lady. I’m back. This business between us is not finished. Come out, wherever you are.”

He pointed the submachine gun into the air and fired off a burst of rounds.

“Come out now,” he resumed. You’ve traded kiss for kiss with your other two boyfriends. Now it’s my turn. Best for last.”

He skirted the milling shed and was next to the foundation of the house now.

“I know you’re here watching me. You’ve been watching us all along. You Polish girls can be coy, but no need for that now. We know each other like husband and wife. Like husband and wife, I say, you know it’s true. There are no secrets between us.”

Silence.

“I miss you, you fiery-haired virago. I want to marry you, that’s why I’m here. Ha, ha!”

Time passed, the hot sun beat down on his helmeted head. His mood changed.

“Your friend, the blonde—was she your sister? Now there’s one, I tell you. But she got what she deserved. None of us—your three boyfriends I mean—thought her performance was very good that day. Now, you… that’s another story!”

Andrey suddenly noticed a solitary figure standing at the edge of the wheat field. He did not see how it arrived there. He squinted and began walking toward it.

“You are the most vile scum of creation,” said a woman’s quiet voice.

“Oh, it’s you at last!” Andrey cried. “I knew you would come. Having once tasted, how could you resist!”

“I am going to kill you now,” she said.

“Ha, ha! Maybe that’s better than marrying you after all. Marrying you would be a living death.”

She came for him, and for a moment he was taken aback by the rapidity of her movements. As she darted from side to side in a tacking motion, drawing ever closer, he sent a spray of rounds in her direction. He lost sight of her as the gun stock kicked against him.

“Drunken fool,” she said from her place of concealment. “You have the arms of the Kremlin with you, and I bring only my bare hands. Still, I will kill you now.”

“Where are you?” he muttered, moving in the direction he had lost sight of her.

There was a frenzied motion among the wheat stalks and he discharged a second prolonged spray of rounds into the field.

Suddenly she shot out of the wheat field and ran behind the tool shed. He strafed the shed with rounds until the ammo belt was empty. He suddenly recalled that the other ammo belt was in the duffel bag. Angelika stole out of the shelter behind the shed and raced to the duffel bag. “Are you looking for this?” she said, withdrawing the ammo belt and flinging it into the wheat.

Roaring wordlessly, Andrey threw the submachine gun from him and pulled out the two pistols from his pockets. He began firing at her with both hands. But Angelika had retreated behind the shed again.

Andrey stalked forward, meaning to circle around the shed and flush her out. He told himself that if he could get between her and the field and cut off her retreat he would have her where he wanted her.

As he rounded the corner of the shed he noticed that its door was hanging ajar. “Stupid slut, I have you now!” he yelled triumphantly, running to the doorway. He was convinced that she was hiding inside.

The loud metallic squeak of a hinge caused him to look up in time to see the open shed door swinging toward him with incredible velocity. He half turned; the wooden door slammed into him and exploded into fragments. Andrey was thrown headlong into the shed. The two guns flew out of his hands at the impact of his heavy face-forward fall to the floor. He lost consciousness momentarily, reawakening to his own retching. He wheezed amidst the puddle of vodka he had made, trying to regain the wind that had been knocked out of him. He spit several splinters out of his bloody mouth which he became vaguely aware were broken teeth.

When he was able to direct his attention to external things, he saw before him in the doorway the girl in the mask.

“What’s your name?” he asked thickly, trying to navigate his words around the ruins of his mouth.

“It won’t matter, where you’re going.”

She advanced toward him in a slow, deliberate manner.

Appearing to awaken at last to his predicament, he thrust out his left hand in a placating gesture. “Is there nothing I can do?” he asked, a plaintive quaver in his voice.

“Yes,” she said with silky sweetness. “You can bring back my sister that you stole from me.”

“I can do it! I have the power to do it, to bring her back to you!” With his right hand, which had been hidden from her behind his outstretched arm, he flung the thin-bladed knife that he had withdrawn from a compartment in his boot. The half-obscured light from the doorway was sufficient for him to see the knife sink to the handle in her side below her left breast.

“But you would not like her smell,” he finished in his old taunting tone.

Angelika gasped, fell back a step, dropped to a knee, fought to suck in a breath of air. Then gathering herself, she was on him like a tigress.

7. Epiphany

The moonlight streamed down on the village cemetery that had grown greatly in size over the past six years. The chirping crickets stilled their song at the sound of an approaching footstep. A strange figure came into view. It was a woman dressed incongruently in battle fatigues and wearing an army-issue gas mask. Blood streamed from a wound in her side and she moved as if she were at the end of her strength. She dropped to her knees when she reached the most recent grave site, then unhooked and flung away the gas mask, revealing a face pale with suffering, but filled with a sort of ethereal beauty. Angelika lowered her face to the ground, her spreading auburn tresses looking spectral in the moonlight. Then she wept for the first and last time, her tears mingling with the freshly placed soil over her sister Serafina’s grave.

 

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