Rebane had toiled to gain entrance into the Russian special forces: the elite unit of Operational Reconnaissance. She remained deaf to the racist slurs and withstood violent hazing without display of emotional reactions. Her oath demanded that she endured.
Any time, any place, any task.
The husky voice of her commanding officer echoed in her ears as he lectured during the SERE course: “Nobody can withstand interrogation indefinitely. The main thing is to hold on until the information you have becomes useless to the interrogators. Become the grey man. Remember; don’t be too defiant but you cannot submit either. Stay alert. Let the interrogator think he’s controlling you. There’s no harm in exaggerating your wounds. If you’re alive, they want to keep you that way.”
In this Union prison, the same cycle repeated until she lost count of time. When the low-level guys were done with the stress-positions and the threats and the yelling, they dragged her into the interrogation room where Weisser sat with the aura of calmness itself. His linked hands rested on the counter, and he sighed as the brutes had taken too long to beat Rebane. The air lulled grey with the smoke from Weisser’s excellent brand of tobacco.
Rebane played the part of the Grey Woman until the vizor arms of the clock on the wall snailed toward dawn. An empty moment overcrowded the space with silence as the night drew its dying breath. The fluorescent bars on the ceiling hummed naked light, and the air conditioning ruffled the pages of the file on the desk. A photo of Rebane landed on the tiled floor with the top sheet.
The major caught the paper. He removed his glasses and rubbed his eyes. His face was puffy with fatigue when he placed his left hand in the pocket of his black cargo pants and adjusted the belt on his paunch middle section. All Rebane could think of was her need to sleep.
Let me sleep. Please.
She stared into the middle distance when Weisser lowered himself to her level. She flinched against her will as his shovel of a hand rested on her thigh.
“Look at me,” he said. Rebane met his gaze as he continued: “No one will ever find out that you were the last one. No one will ever learn of your courage.”
A tear escaped the fortress of Rebane and made its way down the dry hillside of her cheek. Daniil had to be dead by now, but guessing and knowing were two separate things.
The buzz of the air-conditioning in her cell paused, only to start again fifteen minutes later. The light intensified by the hour and closing her eyelids was of no help. Rebane was too overstrung to sleep. She removed the blankets and stacked her shirt under her neck for a pillow. The CCTV above the door blinked red. This time she didn’t bother to give the camera the finger but rolled over to face the wall. The dimpled cement felt dry and cold upon touching.
She tossed and turned. A pathetic slip of the lessening moon remained in the light blue sky against all the odds. The steps of the day shift guards stopped outside her cell door, but no one entered. The men talked in the corridor until they were ready to move on.
The paint on her bunk and the walls in suitable private corners were filled with the messages of previous inmates. Rebane used her dirty fingernail to scratch her name among the I-was-here messages, and the farewell lines to loved ones: “I will always love you Svetlana, Olga, Marina, Julija, Viktorija…” the occasional Mary or Sarah. She even found one Gertrud who had to be the forgotten sweetheart of a German underground fighter: “God bless you and the boys. We will meet in heaven,” the line said in meticulous lettering.
What a stupid bastard! There is no Heaven. Now you rot, and that’s that.
Some prisoners had written the exact addresses of family members, in case someone struck a deal with the devil and managed to return home. Most of the old ghosts scribbled to prove that they once existed. Curses in many languages filled the lower tiles. The guards had painted over the words many times, but the scratches remained embedded like hieroglyphs.
Maybe the next poor bastard will wonder about me when I rot at the bottom of the mass grave.
When the evening frost wove intricate patterns of lace on the windowpane, Rebane’s eyelids became heavy until they finally closed. It didn’t take long before a black shadow glided across her mind. The form of a raven steeple-chased above the fluffy clouds. He dove towards the hostile ground and curved up inches from the earth. The tips of his glossy wings brushed the sand on the prison yard.
Rebane stood tiptoed on the bunk. She held herself at the window level by gripping the iron bars. The raven arrived again.
Such skill you have!
Rebane leaned her chin against the window ledge when the raven’s sad call rang among the walls: “Craa, craa, craa.”
The old people believed the raven was a messenger from the land of the dead, but Rebane loved the bird for its shiny feathers and the brazen flight. The ravens mated for life, and immortal love bound the pair of them together. The male raven showed off his flying skills to attract a mate, and the old duo went through the marital dance when spring melted the snow. They plunged together- just for fun. They spiraled down as a ball of obsidian feathers and averted crushing against the ground at the last moment.
How both of them knew when to turn was a secret known only to the Ravens.
A single raven always followed Rebane and Pertti on the hunt. The bird circled far above their heads and kept in contact with his flock using that same call which now echoed from the prison walls. As Rebane entered the green embrace of the forest, the wall of firs and pines blocked the bird’s request. The raven disappeared from sight until she stepped into the unhinged sunlight of the open field. The western wind caught up with her and so did the raven who made loops in the cloudless sky. Rebane raised her collar. She wondered how the rifle on her back could mean soft meat from a fresh kill to this highly intelligent bird.
She called out for Pertti as she reached the fallen moose. The animal stretched on its side at the far edge of the cropped field. The enormous ten-spike ran half a mile after her .308 punctured both of his lungs. The majestic Corvus corax sat on the carcass’s forehead. Rebane never forced the bird to leave. After pecking on the moose’s glazed eyeballs, he tilted his head. The bird studied her with his sheer, bottomless eyes and he listened to her thoughts:
*I know how the raven was born,
I guess how the eater came to be,
How was the black bird made?
Who raised the Raven?
He was born on the coal hill,
Grew in the darkness of the boreal forest,
He was put together from embers,
Molded from burnt wood,
Made from tar sticks.
Now the messenger spirit soared high beyond the coils of razor-sharp barbed wire. He claimed victory above the gathering thunderclouds, and the sky swallowed him. For Rebane he was the spirit of Daniil, her lover, and he was free.
*An ancient Finnish prayer.