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Author’s Note:

My spiritual mother, Colonel Marina Raskova, founder of 588th Night Bomber Regiment — what the Germans in WW2 called “Die Nachthexen,” the “Night Witches” — once asked me, “what is the purpose of prose if not poetry?” She delighted in French Avant-garde theater, Dada art, surrealistic poetry, and so do I. If stream of consciousness bores you, dear reader, you might want to read elsewhere. My mother was the lover of the Spanish poet Federico Garcia Lorca, and from that union I was born. Federico was shot by fascists for being a queer poet on August 19, 1936. Marina perished in a fiery plane crash on January 4, 1943. I am now an orphan and dedicate this story to the queer poets and women warriors the world over. Paz, mãe e pai.

* * *

PROLOGUE:

[a dream, half wild: the breasts of tiresias]

“So here we are once more among the smell of petrol and menstrual cramps and sulfur and shit. We’ve found our ardent country, our ardent country girls. Comrades, girls, my girl, we have a stage, a theater of war. The Ukrainian Steppes are ablaze. To our dismay, on Saturday June 21, 1941, our pilots fell out of the sky like rain, men on fire and so the Panzer tanks rolled on. White tigers. They say theater no longer holds any greatness and so little truth in virtue but I have also found a stage, Lily. Stalin ordered us thirteen hundred into the air and thanks to Comrade Raskova, my very own Yes Ma’am, No Ma’am, Lick Your Clit, Ma’am, we have killed the tedious nights before the war. Don’t you think that we’ll die like all other men die, Lily?”

“Except we’re not dying, Anahit dear. You’re just talking about the sin, but you never mention the saviors. We’re still flying in the 588th Night Bomber Regiment, you know. When the hour is struck it will be women who will be raining down, lit matches, hair ablaze. I have been at war like all other men, one night while flying over the western front, gazing up into the pulsating stars in heaven, a thousand rockets rose from the trenches to greet me. I heard the shells’ voices but no explosions.”

“Yes, I’ve flown over the flashes of enemy guns, too. Their angles are all on fire. And at each billowing orange bloom the stars were darkening in the sky, one by one. I think this is how constellations die.”

“Do you really think constellations can die that easily?”

“I never thought girls could die that easily.”

A shadow passed over them.

The two girls stopped, squinted into the empty, dry sky.

A biplane, its engine rhythmically puttering, crossed overhead. The pilot, her hair trailing behind her in the slipstream as she glided along for a landing, dipped and curved into the lap of a gentle valley, flashing brilliant in the light.

The scene in the valley of Engels was a striking one. Low ranges of gently sloping hills, green by the mill, widened out and here, secluded, their factories had not yet been bombed to ruin, their villages not yet razed, the whole world above the tree-line not yet set on fire with phosphorescent fuses that sucked the oxygen out of everyone’s lungs. The Regiment’s training base, spread out over a dead lee-level of swamp and twice-trampled grassland, was enclosed by high-barbed walls, irregular ovals of wire and mesh, torch-light and spot-fire and burning pits of crude with large clumps of trees in the center, witch’s oak, a multiplicity of large hangars; small, mostly queer-shaped buildings all scattered, peck-a-hen, about.

There were a few idle wide roadways, mud spills and loose pages, with smaller avenues intersecting, hairy-like legs and larger fur-down open spaces, bordered by tarp and tarpaulin tents, at either end of the oval.

On a bulletin board in front of one of the hangers stood a placard, tacked with thumb-prints that read like the signatures of clouds, at which several young women in baggy khaki flight-suits, wearing aviator skull-caps and those glorious chunky goggles, all pinked lip, were gazing, remarking and fingering otherwise. There was no pandemonium that this placard had to tell, war apparently, for all its sleepless moons and daily bling and night sallow blindness, had dulled the senses of the pilots and mechanics and navigators. What was written was as follows (officer stamped twice): ‘They’re putting out the stars with shellfire — qui vive at 7 pm. tonight. Specific orders will be issued to each at that time.’

The words ‘Members of 586th Fighter Regiment – will be on the’ having been crossed out by some waggette, adding the very conversation Lily and Anahit had been talking about. Curious.

“I suppose this is coming from that bigmouth megaphone at supreme headquarter or whatever they’re calling that lonely bull paddock two miles away from here, who will no doubt be driven in a Party car to stare at our planes, check off names on a clip board and have something interesting to say, smelling of brute and vodka,” remarked the short athletic girl, throwing an arm casually over the shoulder of her smaller companion, tweaking her nipple that, even in heavy elevation gear, threatened to expose itself to the cool Barbarossa morning. “Do you think this means that we’re going up in those crazy old biplanes they’ve foisted on us?”

“What, just because all the male pilots have refused to fly in them? They have refused to give up their shiny Yakovlev Yakety Yaks, no doubt. Then that will be a fine reason to make us take their ancestral relics up for a spin or two,” replied the smaller girl, a sprightly youngster, dark-eyed, curly-headed, round-faced.

“Well, all the world is a stage, they say, especially when you’re burning up over Leningrad at 30,000 feet in your very own popcorn popper. I say, any landing in which I am once more among you huddled groundlings is a finger-fucking good landing, eh, Anahit?”

“What?”

“Were you thinking about playing with your pussy just now?” chided Lily, jokingly.

“Er …”

“Mention the words ‘finger fuck’ and you are so cute in your embarrassment.”

The two strolled off together as others, also in bulky flight suits, gathered about to read, sigh, then turn away to their own private musings.

“I wonder if they’ll ever build us a bigger stage one day.”

“What, big enough for your pussy?” laughed Lily Litvyak, the athletic nestling. “‘All the world is a pussy’ – no, it doesn’t have the same ring in Russian now, does it?”

“Shush, you foul girl,” Anahit Abandian furrowed her brow. “No. But if war is a story, all we have to write is our own wry action scene and who does not love when the tone of a story turns from pathos to ironic burlesque? and with reasonable use of the improbable we can turn any actress into an, er, what did you call me yesterday? Ah yes, a ‘big ol’ hairy bush pilot,’ since we’re all to be going round soon, we all go round and around, and suffer the enemy’s squeals and the blare and rupture of eardrums at 30,000 feet, and I ask you, dear, the moment you mount the stage and pull that wire and drop your bombs, haven’t you ever thought for a second that this stage is spread out before us not just mankind to witness our feats of daring-do, but for the whole universe to see?”

“All that monologuing just to complain about having to fly in a Polikarpov Po-2?”

“Po-2, Sewing Machine, Popcorn Popper – why do the Germans call them popcorn poppers?”

“Because they can hear us popping away over head even during a December wind storm.”

Anahit nodded. Lily pinched her girlfriend’s forearm, having grown tired of the nipple. The air was cold and damp, the mist thickening by the minute.

“You know what I’m going to do? I’m going to go up to that bigmouth megaphone and say, no, mister colonel, you won’t make me fly in one of these old junk heaps. I will fly as I please, hup hup. You pilots have been doing what you want long enough. After all I too want to go and fight the enemy, hup one hup two.”

But Litvyak was thinking, scanning the ghostly fields and hedgerows. Finally she announced decidedly: “You know what, dear heart, after being a soldier I want to be an artist. Yes. Perfectly perfectly. I also want to be a doctor and a psychiatrist. I want to make Europe and America trot and tremble before me.”

The other shook her head dubiously, for a second her expression held something slightly predatory, a delicious look in a creature so small, but it melted away almost as suddenly as it appeared and she replied, “Yeah? Well, I want to be a philosopher chemist mathematician princess firefighter. Give me a plan and a plane that I can drop bombs from and I’ll bomb the Nazis for you, Madam Artist, Comrade Klitt.”

Litvyak, of course, disclaimed any need for a design, an idea or a plan, since engines of chaos need only but a direction to let loose their bloodhounds of hell, and Anahit felt that her girlfriend was putting on airs (the downside of a liberal Soviet education), as usual. When they parted Lily watched Anahit walk away, delighting in the sight of her massive, round girlie bum wiggling under her high altitude uniform.

* * *

A half hour later, Lily stood under the shower, contemplating the type of soap needed to wash grief right out of her hair and what a terrible metaphor it was. If grief really was so easily washed away it wouldn’t be grief. Dominika’s and Galochka’s plane had been caught in the German searchlights only two days ago, Galochka was carried from the plane, a bloody lump soaking her seat, Dominika, burned, her whole arm broken when she brought the old crop duster down in the dark.

Her hand massaged her sore muscles, stopping at her belly, enjoying the feeling of her hip bone against under hot water, then slipping down to her bushy honey-milk bush. Bush pilot, indeed. She took the shower head and directed the water across her nipples, moving it closer to her skin. After a whole night of constant vibrations from the airplane’s Shvetsov M-11 air-cooled, five cylinder, radial engine between her open thighs, the hot water felt like a hand, or, perhaps, a three foot long tongue.

As she moved the Joie de vivre down, with her legs spread, Lily directed the spray to her pink tippled-tip clit, moving the shower head up and down, exciting constantly excited nerves. A finger slipped into her wet gap, airy void. She finger fucked herself furiously, as if no one would ever touched her again for years and years, as if she was about to perish in flames. She moaned, glad there wasn’t anyone else in the barrack’s shower room, just this once. She lay against the cold wall when her legs started shaking into orgasm, the gift of the gods, a feeling like screaming, like burning, like twisting naked in the air, falling from her plane’s canopy, turning over and over in lust, the heat in her cunt exploding. She finally gushed, spreading her girl-cum over each of her fingers, the palm of her hand.

The water splattered hot in the shower, turning cold then hot again, pressure washing away any proof of her solitary exercise.

* * *

Later, when dinner was over, Lily Litvyak found her way to where the squadron commander was checking off the different machines, assigning each killer machine the various pilots and navigators. All this on a yellow pad, in one of the hangars, with no one else near. Lily passed her squadron leader, Yevgeniya Rudenov, who nodded. In Hangar Four were two Polikarpovs, all in trim order. The Colonel stared at one of them, grumbling to himself.

“What will I do?” he mused, half aloud, through his Wilhelm II mustache. “I forgot that Dominika’s arm was all shattered into little bits and the like and poor Galochka with that great big hole in the top of her curly head. Sending girls up into the air, chyort voz’mi! What was Uncle Josef thinking?”

“Begging your pardon, Comrade Colonel!” A short, athletic young girl with hair like sunlight through silk on a Sunday afternoon was beside him, standing respectfully at attention in her bulky uniform. There was always something slightly unsettling for the older man knowing that under these khaki, bulky, unisex uniforms the female pilots were naked save for their government-issued panties – black-market bras being the only way most of these girls could acquire them, what with the selling of cotton for breast control being prohibited just now for the glory of the war effort. “Why not let me take Galochka’s place? Give me a chance!”

So commanding — so deferential — Lily’s attitude, her curt Moscow manner, her firm flat shoes, the obvious feminine shape under her uniform, her dirty vanilla panties, her — Colonel Dragomira blinked for a second, said nothing, simply stared at the girl.

“But – but, lysyi didko, you’re too young, too inexperienced, too – too -”

“Comarade Colonel, please, go and ask Dominika! You know what her judgment is. If I am to have a navigator, let Dominika go with me.”

“Dash your bally impertinence, you young skip and ruggamuffin!” Dragomira had once seen a rather droll British comedy, ‘All Riot on the Western Front’, where the marvelous Donald Calthrop went around saying that exact line, in fact, it was his only line. The Colonel had memorized it by heart and hoped that one day there would come a time he could use it, even though he and Lily did not understand a lick of the English language themselves. He smiled to himself and asked, “What do you know about Polikarpovs, anyway?”

In five minutes of seductive engine-talk, expertly fingering various parts of the green pleasure machine, Lily had convinced her superior. Furthermore, by ingenious manipulation of certain bolts with a wrench, a pair of tweezers and a gob of greasy spittle, she readjusted a valve in the petrol tank which she had heard Dominika grumbling about before her last flight. This she did with such deft speediness that the Colonel nodded his approval, standing so close to the young pilot, adding: “Where did you pick up so much mechanical knowledge, Comrade Litvyak?”

“At the Nova Slobodskaya Flying Club, in Moscow.”

“Well now, go and see our poor Dominika. If she is not well enough to go with you, er, have you anyone else in mind?”

* * *

Half an hour later Lily Litvyak stood by the cot of a gray-faced girl who lay groaning discontentedly. At sight of the young Moscow pilot she tried to raise herself up to a sitting position, revealing her whole right arm still bound up in splints. Lily noted that the pain of moving made sweat stand out on her forehead.

“Lily dear, my comrade is! I welcome so much you.”

Dominika was a native from Tajikistan. There was a lot about her Russian that could be desired and sometimes it took Lily a few moments to simply decipher what it was her friend was talking about. When Lily briefly explained why she was there, what the Colonel had told her, Dominika fell back, gave a horrific groan and said: “Thank you, comrade!” Here she chuckled. “No use to you now, I would like to go, I want to go! But I am no use to myself, not at all! But you be sure to bring my baby back safe now, you hear? my Polikarpov — Ah! What a great baby my Polikarpov is!”

Lily smiled and gave her friend a kiss on the forehead, the only spot on her entire body that was not giving the Tajikistan girl pain, promising to do her best.

An hour later Lily, accompanied by her new navigator, Tamryn Zolotov, stood before Colonel Dragomira in his pigeonhole-sized office, while a stream of flightsuit-clad young women filed in one by one. Dragomira waved them all to their chairs, then turned to Lily.

“I saw Comrade Dominika myself,” he said grimly. “She wanted to go but it will be a week before she can use that arm. I spoke to Major Bershanskaya about you. She was reluctant, but owing to the inexperience of so many of you Moscow pilots, she stressed that you two must be careful, dare I say, cautious even. Can you bring the plane back, Comrade Zolotov, if anything happens to Comrade Litvyak?”

“Yes, sir, I think so. I’ve often flown before, alone.”

“Under fire by sausage eaters?”

“We shall soon find out, Comrade Colonel.”

Dragomira gave them both one long look, then turned away to address the other pilots and navigators with a soft, “here go hell come,” under his breath.

* * *

Shortly after a bugle call the following order was posted on the bulletin board in front of the hanger for all concerned parties to see.

“Members of 588th Night Bomber Regiment will carry out the following order at 10 a.m., 12 midnight, 2 a.m. At each time three machines, each carrying eight 25 pound bombs, will bomb respectively Charlie Foxtrot and Charlie Lima India Tango. Each member of the squadrons assigned will be ready at Hangars No. 4, No. 7, No. 9 at times noted. That is all.”

Each aviator, with her navigator, had been privately notified by the Colonel in person. These night raids were mostly for the purpose of keeping the Nazis nervous after a hard day of getting shot at, anything to lower their morale even lower than it was. Usually the points selected were the shell-torn fields outside of villages where the Nazis had been sent for a brief period of rest before advancing into cannon fire once more. Then the witches would come. The Night Witches, Die Nachthexen, around the time the exhausted men were just beginning to lie down in their billets, dreaming of home or whatever it was Nazis thought about. Then the bombs would begin to fall, tents would explode into fragments, men crawling about in the dark on their hands and knees, a whole night’s rest lost to general turmoil, fire and death.

When Lily and Tamryn clambered into their waiting Polikarpov — bombs already stowed, wheeled out in front of their hangar — everything was quiet. The other women moved about, ghosts now, shadows of women facing an inky unknown. A few minutes later the first of the night raiders climbed up into the swirling darkness, the only noise being the wind and the whirring putt-putt-putt of their engines. Watching for the signal of the leader of the squadron, they all banked sharp and headed to the front.

Over the ruined farmland, star-shelled from continual artillery fire, their infantry could be seen below. There were women soldiers down there too – tank teams, snipers, explosive experts – Stalin was using everything in his power to push back Hitler and his drive toward Moscow. Following their flight leader, the Night Witches kept at a sufficient altitude, hugging the darkness, avoiding glints of light, dodging occasional search lamps, all without speaking a single word.

“You’ve been out here before, Litvyak?” Zolotov spoke at last. “How much further are we going?”

“We’ll be there in two minutes. Hold on, I’m going lower. Get ready our bombs.”

“Rodger Dodger, girl friend.”

Below lay blackness, broken at one point only by a few dots of orange light that marked where German troops sat, smoking in the dark, their lit cigarettes custom homing signals on which these women were to let loose their bombs.

“Now!” whispered Lily to her navigator. Others were at work as well. The enemy tents below, already in half ruin, began to detonate with sharp explosions, lurid flashings, an inhuman uproar of human cries. It was evident that the raiders had struck the right spot.

Just then a blinding gleam of spotlight flashed aslant into Lily’s eyes. Pulling hard on the throttle, she darted the plane aside suddenly, giving her whole attention to the machine. The Polikarpov zigzagged, dodged, spun, while the scene below was soon illuminated by the flashing roar of hostile artillery. A shell blossomed with a deafening explosion so close to their plane that it was evident that the artillery had sighted them during Litvyak’s last lower loop. Pulling back on the throttle, the old biplane began to climb into the upper atmosphere, little whiffs of cumulus clouds lessening the danger of further shells.

“Did we make it?” Lily yelled over the roar of the wind.

Receiving no answer, she glanced behind her. To her dismay Tamryn’s slender figure lay drooping again the side of her cockpit, her head knocking this and that in the slipstream. She tried to crane her neck even further back, reach her navigator, and in doing so heard something pop in her back and immediately her muscles began to scream.

Tears running down her face in pain, Lily scanned the sky. The two other Polikarpovs had vanished in the darkness, undoubtedly bearing for a higher strata and safety in their flight back to their Engels aerodrome. Meantime German spotlights were stabbing through the inky night. The swift reports of anti-aircraft fire could still be heard in a most dreamlike manner. Tamryn groaned, trying to raise her head. There was blood everywhere.

[to be continued]