The cell was small: six feet wide, and thirteen long from the back wall to the massive iron door which separated her from the corridor of a German maximum security prison. Rebane contemplated her fate as she sat on the narrow bunk. She supported her back against the whitewashed wall and wrapped the grey blanket tighter around her shoulders. Her feet dangled above the concrete floor. The pair of Russian-made boots stood in the corner; one shoe leaning against the other in search of comfort. Her jaw was sore. She had ground her teeth during the restless night.
Rebane frowned, and the usual furrow appeared on her forehead. She grabbed a fistful of dust particles dancing on the ray of light. The narrow window above her head filtered the dawn which crowned her coal-black hair.
The spyhole opened with an abrupt clank. A pale blue eye appeared before the Judas hatch snapped shut. The iron bolts retreated. Rebane jumped to lace her boots. She stood legs apart for balance in the middle of the cell and raised her fists to shield her face. One blow to the chin could make you black out. She browsed a few quick scenarios and chose her attack plan. The anticipation of close combat whipped her heart into a gallop.
Weisser bowed his head when he entered the doorway. He straightened into his full length and adjusted the glasses on his nose. He smiled but his eyes were cold and hard.
“There’s no need to pick up a fight, Miss Nordstrom. Stand down and spare yourself from a beating,” he said with a matter-of-fact voice.
Rebane ignored him and targeted the next man who stepped in: a stumpy, wide-shouldered guard who opened his telescope truncheon with a swift forward hit. He drew his arm back to smack her, but Rebane evaded with a simple Systema move. She stepped aside and nudged him. As he folded on the bunk she delivered a tight hook into his kidney and wrenched the truncheon from his grip.
The second guard leaped at her. Her baton slammed into his thigh above the knee and incapacitated his leg. His attempt to punch her missed and he slumped on the floor. Guards number three and four bumped into each other in the narrow doorway. The duo hesitated when they saw the injured guards. They exchanged glances before the bigger one rushed forward. The whole sequence seemed to amuse Weisser.
Rebane lodged herself between the washbasin and the bunk. She backed up until her shoulder blades met the wall. She tried to leap over the bed and go around the attacker, but she hit her pelvis against the washbasin and crash-landed over the blankets. The bigger guy managed to grab her uniform shirt. She extended her left hand and the hard bone of her palm cracked his nose. He fell on the floor as blood gushed into his cupped hands. The next man got kneed in the stomach. Rebane lost hold of the truncheon while she grabbed his neck and mashed her knee up repeatedly.
The master alarm went off and filled the corridor with a deafening noise. A swarm of men toppled her but she managed to kick nuts, thighs, and shins. She scratched the faces which came near enough and bit into the flesh of a hairy forearm. She didn’t let go until a crowd of hands and knees pinned her to the floor and forced her jaws open. The first blow landed at her shoulder and watered her eyes with pain. A big boot stepped on her diaphragm. Tears forced out when she squirmed and battled for air. It took just seconds for her to lose the fight.
“Stop!” she screamed when violent hands tore her clothing and fists pounded at her ribs.
A boar of a man sat on her stomach and growled into her ear. Rebane spat at him which only angered him more. Weisser’s voice toppled the screams and the commotion. He grabbed the boar by his fatigue collar and tore him away from Rebane, but the next madman mounted her and banged her head against the cement floor.
Yells echoed from the walls. Rebane tasted iron as a sticky brook of her blood reached her lips. Blows rained on her elbow, and on her thighs. She raised her arms to shield her head. She folded her legs against her stomach and curled into a fetal position. Her left index finger twisted backward and the joint dislocated. If she lost consciousness now, they would crack her skull. Someone yanked her head back so hard that her spine let out a snap.
“Gook whore, I’ll teach you to behave,” the boar hissed into her ear.
Weisser ordered the guards to stop beating Rebane, but the men were too angry to stop. He called out for the MPs who stomped along the hallway and forced their way through the amused spectators blocking the doorway. They separated the guards from Rebane with experienced motions, and shoved the bleeding and cursing men out of the cell. The MPs held Rebane in a kneeling position and handcuffed her arms behind her back. They helped her up and steadied her standing against the wall. Rebane needed to throw up and urinate at the same time.
“Are you okay, Fraulein?” the young MP asked but she didn’t answer.
Holding her by the armpits, the husky pair escorted her down the hallway. The eyes of the curious prisoners appeared in the Judas hatches which remained open for breakfast service. The prisoners banged on their cell doors and the stomping multiplied in Rebane’s aching skull. A voice emerged from an open hatch at the end of the row of metal doors.
“God bless you,” Ivanov whispered from his cell with a raspy throat.
Rebane closed her eyes, but the corridor didn’t stop tilting. The MPs had to carry her down the flight of stairs. The main lobby fell silent when she stumbled into the first-floor and vomited. The uniformed officers paused in the middle of their duties and the smart secretaries stared wide-eyed at her.
Rebane’s dull pain sharpened into a choir of agony when the effect of adrenaline wore off. Her vision narrowed into a tunnel with smudged edges. Every breath caused pain in her broken rib.
A buzz warned the guards of an open door, and the MPs tightened their grip on her arms. They yanked her elbows up behind her back and forced Rebane to bow forward with a jagged pain in her ribs. Resisting from this position was impossible. She concentrated on breathing through the torture, and straightened her back when they allowed her elbows to descend.
The chilly outside air slapped Rebane’s cheeks when she found herself standing in the prison yard. She blinked at the white-hot sun. A swirl of dust traveled across the yard until the stone wall broke its spirit. The wind chased a herd of volatile clouds beyond the barbed wire fences. The solemn silence scared her: not a whisper emerged from the line of prisoners. They stood with lowered heads. Rebane met the eyes of a skeleton man. His mute gaze reflected the fear of death.
The bullet holes in the wall and the poles with binding ropes told a story. The firing squad sat on folding chairs. Some loaded their rifles with new clips and the others smoked and chatted in huddled groups. This was a place of execution and Rebane was the first one in the line.
A young Union soldier had a cigarette between his lips. He stood like a slab of stone, and forgot to inhale. He was a mere teenager staring into the middle distance. His bolt-locked rifle hung at the end of his limp arm.
The Northern wind dived inside Rebane’s torn uniform collar. The earth quivered under her carelessly laced boots and the gravel shifted like quicksand. A lonely violet grew next to the wall among a speck of green grass. The flower was the only sign of life within sight.
The guards held the door open for Weisser. He strode across the yard and halted only to button up his black overcoat. His sand-colored hair ruffled in the wind. The air vibrated as he sat behind the backs of the firing squad, and produced a cigarette pack from his pocket. He clicked his golden lighter thrice before it gave him a live flame. The major leaned back and blew thin smoke rings towards the perfect blue sky.
Why are you here if you’re going to kill me? To watch?
Rebane’s fevered brain tried to work out a plan. What if she told him that she would talk?
Weisser would walk her into the interrogation room at the end of the corridor. He would light a lamp, and place a tape recorder on the desk. The major would take his time to arrange his papers and offer her some coffee. He would let her eat and rest to prove his goodwill. Each stalling movement meant more seconds, minutes and hours. Rebane was desperate for time.
A day more of life.
The sand escaped through the narrowing glass. Each grain hit the heap at the bottom of her hourglass like a rockslide. A black hole emerged in the middle of the yard and began to devour the sand.
Prisoners crowded the yard, and the line grew behind Rebane’s back. The guards placed three men in denim overalls in front of her.
Which was worse; to watch them die or to be the first one shot?
The guards forced the condemned ones to step forward, and tied them to the poles as a breathless silence ruled over the courtyard. The poor guys lowered their heads and allowed themselves to be blindfolded while the firing squad lined up. One of the walking dead was wounded: his torn trouser leg revealed an open fracture. The guards roped him tight because he couldn’t stand on his own. A straight-backed captain stepped forth with a face carved out of stone and raised his hand while Weisser studied his fingernails.
“Prepare to fire.”
The squad lifted their rifles, and took aim. Rebane held her breath because she couldn’t cover her ears.
The captain’s hand slashed the chilly air and the cloud of simultaneous shots echoed in the yard. Pain ringed in Rebane’s ears.
I closed my eyes. I let the shots startle me. I’m a coward like everyone else.
Two prisoners sustained only flesh wounds. The captain walked across the soft sand and delivered a coup de grâce with his pistol, at the back of their necks. Rebane couldn’t understand how the execution company was such a lousy shot. The distance was hardly ninety feet. Some men fired above the victims’ heads. That’s why they used blindfolds: to calm the execution squad, not the victims.
Rebane took a deep breath before she stepped forward. The MPs loosened their grip, and that was a severe mistake. She turned toward the man on her left. She head-butted his solar plexus and spun towards his mate. She extended her foot as the sole of her boot bent his knee joint backward. When he collapsed, she kicked him between his ribs and ran.
Rebane spurted across the sunbathing courtyard. Her feet didn’t touch the ground. She almost fell when she evaded the first man trying to catch her. Making sharp turns on the sand was difficult without using her arms for balance. She gazed over her shoulder to see if anyone was gaining on her. Weisser blocked her and she crashed straight into him. It was easy for him to spin her around and get his forearm around her throat. He choke-held her until she stopped struggling and faded out of consciousness.
A pink haze parted while the ringing in her ears never stopped. The air scratched her windpipes and the ropes yanked tighter around her chest by an unseen force. The pole against Rebane’s back didn’t move one inch while she leaned against it. The flattened bullets had buried into the cracked plaster of the wall behind her. The sand beneath her feet littered with bloodstains. Rebane struggled, and the guards laughed. One of them placed a hood over her head and it smelled of vomit.
“Can’t you shoot a woman when you see her face? Fuck you, cowards!” Rebane screamed at the top of her voice.
Heavy steps approached atop the crunching gravel. A shadow blocked the sunlight and the hood lifted. It was Weisser.
“As you wish,” he said without emotion. Rebane didn’t come up with anything to say.
Four soldiers in fatigues emerged with brand-new rifles. They loaded their ammo, and Weisser checked everyone was ready. Rebane gazed up to see the flawless dying sky. A shroud of soft clouds glided across the surface of heaven. She squinted to see past the burning of the morning sun. She breathed faster to devour the last seconds of life inside her lungs. The men aimed and the black barrels concentrated on her. Rebane envisioned how her skull exploded, her brains spilled, and her aorta burst open. Her lips parted for the final time.
This is it then.
The order broke and the shots punctured the air. The airflow of the bullets grazed her skin as they smashed into the wall, and sent bits of stone flying. She closed her eyes against her will, and cringed.
I’m dead, and Nga is coming for my soul.
Nga- the Siberian God of Death- dragged her soul into the dark underground. He breathed fire on her face and the scent of Sulphur was distinct among the moist odor of the grave.
Nga claimed her spirit for all the men she had killed: the unsuspecting young men who had enough bad luck to move across her rifle scope. Rebane fell to her knees and touched her groin to make sure she hadn’t wet herself. Grains of sand entered beneath her fingernails.
Rebane gathered enough courage to open her eyes. Weisser loomed above her. He yanked her up and Rebane was a weightless feather to him.
You never intended to kill me.
It was a deliberate mock execution, but Rebane didn’t care. She wanted to thank Weisser for sparing her life.
Copyright © 2019 Rebecka Jäger
All rights reserved. No part of this publication may be reproduced, distributed, or transmitted in any form or by any means, including photocopying, recording, or other electronic or mechanical methods, without prior written permission of the publisher, except in the case of brief quotations embodied in critical reviews and certain other noncommercial uses permitted by copyright law. For permission requests, write to the publisher, addressed “Attention: Permissions Coordinator,” at the address below. Any references to historical events, real people, or real places are used fictitiously. Names, characters, and places are products of the author’s imagination.