27 January 1945


This is loosely based on the life, words and death of Roza Shanina, who was killed seventy years ago.  It’s my response to the #500Words competition.

Breathe slowly. Forget the cold creeping through your chest, belly and legs. Steady your arm, adjust your eye, still your breath and squeeze. No, stop for a moment. How did you get here, crawling across frozen Prussian soil, sliding across black ice, pushing through powdery snow?

The cold beneath you is no stranger.

It takes you back to the crunch, crunch, crunch of your steps on the way to school across the quiet Siberian permafrost, eight miles each way, your breath steaming, your eyes streaming and your skin stinging, despite your mother’s best efforts to wrap you warmly.

You long to be warm again.

Back in the crowded Archangelsk kindergarten: hugged by other people’s laughing, busy children; singing made-up songs with them; helping them to build imaginary castles and paint outlandish animals; telling them the stories your father used to tell you at home, beside the fire.

A fire flares up to your left.

Fire became your enemy’s weapon. You waited for the raids each night, watched the buildings burn and did what you could to fight the flames. And then the enemy killed your brother, at Leningrad. Mikhail, who’d marched ahead of you on the frozen walks to school.

You wait for the man to move.

You couldn’t just wait and watch others die. At first, the recruitment officers had no intention of letting you join up. After all, what could a sixteen year-old girl do? But you were determined to do something. After hours on the ranges and weeks of basic training they took you on. The army needed snipers.

You mouth the instructions you learnt at the academy.

You didn’t just pass; you excelled. They wanted you to stay and teach but you wanted to fight, for the happiness of others. How could ‘happiness’ be a noun with no plural? Well, if you had to die for this common ‘happiness’, then you were braced for it.

Your shoulder aches.

Two small, scarred holes show the entrance and exit of a sniper’s shot. There’d been no more than a sharp, cracking sound and the feeling that you had been scalded with something hot. Last night you dreamt that someone would score a second hit, in the same place.

It won’t be long now, not since all but six of the seventy-eight in your battalion are gone. You’d rather be safe, but something keeps bringing you back to the front line. It’s too late to feel afraid. They gave you medals for your courage, for fifty-nine ‘blacks’, sometimes two at a time. But what have you actually done? No more than any other man.

A man groans beside you. The wounded, dying officer you’re sheltering is unaware of the fatal danger of any noise out here. He reminds you of Misha, who loved you, and you him. There’s no solace for you now, but you comfort the man with a song: “Oy tumany moi, rastumany.” O My Mists. You lower your sights and the world explodes.