Pertti Nordstrom had passed out among the empty moonshine jars. His bearded cheek rested on the kitchen table, and his snoring echoed in the cabin. His right-hand fingers clutched the butt of a hunting rifle: the only friend he could trust.
Rebane moved like a ghost because her stepfather slept light. She cleared the dirty plates and stacked the empty jars into neat rows on the kitchen cupboard’s lowest shelf. She added wood into the dying fire and watched how the hungry flames devoured the birch bark. Her cheeks glowed the rosy red of anticipation. She tightened the rucksack straps and laced her boots while the crackling and popping intensified and sparks fought to reach the night sky.
Her sniper rifle weighed on her back, but she returned into the kitchen as the old floorboards wailed. Rebane took one last look at him. She removed her mitten and extended her trembling hand to stroke his hair, but controlled her urge. She turned the key in the lock and pressed the door handle. The chill of the September air greeted her on the porch of their hideout.
The darkness of autumn, the close friend of winter, swallowed Rebane. Heavy rainclouds traveled low and wiped the barren ground. The stars remained weak. A puddle of slush let out a slurp as Rebane stepped on it. She ran across the black yard until she reached the home path guarded by a row of birches on both sides. She didn’t need her headlamp to find her way in the pitch blackness. The Norwegian elkhound caught up with her where the overturned field began. She heard the dog’s panting before his fluffy body pressed against her shin. Rebane kneeled and hugged him so tight that the dog let out a yelp. He rewarded her with a wet lick on her numb cheek.
“Go back. Father needs someone to hunt with him while I’m gone.”
Rebane would never return to the farm. The machinery of war called out for her. She patted the dog’s head and the musky aroma of the damp earth surrounded them. He obeyed, and his breathing distanced.
She arrived at the intersection. A Finnish signpost with shotgun pellet holes bore a name impossible to read. Rebane listened to the sighs of the wind. She extended her hand into the darkness but couldn’t see the outlines of her fingers. The world appeared empty. She ran across the muddy field and stumbled on the turf of grass. She got on her feet cursing like a butcher and headed towards the nearest village forty miles away to hitch a ride South.
She stopped to catch her breath. The airflow of flapping wings startled her. The hushed call of the boreal owl echoed from the cliffs. The forest swarmed with mice and birds of prey. Frost coated the lichen and heather with white lace, and the mist moved among the trees. The darkness held his breath. Rebane didn’t say goodbye to Pertti because he would have talked her out of the plan. He spoke of the nuclear and the guerrilla war until she didn’t bother to listen. He screamed in his sleep and drank to banish the ghosts, but Rebane’s war would be different. The recruitment would be her great moment. She had planned for months and gathered supplies in secret. Pertti didn’t take care of the cabin, or sow the fields. He never made preservatives or reloaded the empty cartridges with fresh gunpowder. But Pertti could place a shot through the eye of a flying bird, no matter how pissed he was.
Rebane sat on a stone of the sacred meadow until the first light painted the cliffs with gold. She spotted the bear’s skull high on the branch of a holy pine. The old forest waited. The air was dark and green. Soft moss covered the round stones which formed a half circle. The ancient firs looked down on her and listened. Rebane placed a bottle of her stepfather’s moonshine and two shining .308 cartridges at the root of the blessed pine. She retreated and bowed her head.
*Where was the bear born?
Where was the beast made?
By the moon,
with the day,
on the shoulders of the Plough
Then lowered on silver chains,
let down on golden cords.
The dawn slithered across the meadow and licked the naked trunk. The hollow eyesockets of the beast stared at Rebane.
Hongotar, mother of the mighty bear, bless Pertti. Remind him that he was once young. Force him to forgive me. Make him forget my betrayal.
Bless me with the courage of your son, the bear, the king of all animals.
Let his spirit enter me. Make me worthy of a warrior’s honor.
The grain truck had left Rebane at the roadside two hours ago.
She sat in front of the recruitment office on the frozen pavement. The morning arrived as piercing cold and she drank some moonshine to warm her guts. Rebane ate the crust of her dry bread. A glimmering light danced on the ice which closed the harbor during winter months. A sleepy silence dwelled between the shops and fishermen’s shacks. The market square remained empty until local peasant girls emerged with their carts and baskets. They gave her the evil eye. Rebane’s Asian face and her manly garments reminded them of violent times. She was a sign of war to the locals.
Ten years had passed since The Russian Federation claimed what remained of Scandinavia but old grudges died hard. Pertti would never forgive Rebane for joining the Russian army: his old enemy.
She wore Pertti’s best forest green camouflage with folded trouser legs and wrapped-up sleeves. His wide leather belt reached twice around her waist. The belt sheathed the beautiful knife he gave for her eighteenth birthday: the blade blessed by a powerful Sami shaman. Rebane removed her wolf-fur hat and let her thick braid land on her shoulder.
She stood straight-backed and first in line when the conscripted young men gathered on the pavement.
“Go home. Go back to your husband and children,” someone yelled. “Go warm the stove, woman,” another one accompanied.
But Rebane didn’t move a muscle.
Fuck you all.
A hand landed on her shoulder.
“Never mind those idiots,” a warm voice said in native Russian.
She turned around to face a young man with smiling blue eyes. He removed his cap and revealed a bush of tangled chestnut hair. He extended his hand and when Rebane didn’t respond, he grabbed her hand and shook it violently.
“I’m Daniil Kowalski.”
“Okay, I believe you. Now let go of me,” she hissed with her left hand on the handle of her knife.
“Stick with me and they’ll accept you. I’m a master marksman.”
A blonde youngster chewed tobacco when he peeked over Daniil’s shoulder and revealed two of his front teeth missing: “Don’t believe a word he says. He’s just trying to get laid.”
He gave the one called Daniil a rough-handed nudge and the group of friends blasted into coarse laughter. But Rebane wasn’t interested in the conscripted. They had already been accepted into tonight’s trainload. She studied her competitors. The grey-haired guy was sixty or older, and the youngest boy around thirteen. She was the only female volunteer.
When the recruitment officer unlocked the door, Rebane rushed in and the men followed elbowing each other. The Russian sergeant limped behind his desk and his left sleeve hung empty. He took his time to sit down, and to extend the wooden leg. The expression on his face became solemn and stern but Rebane could hardly contain her excitement. She shifted her feet and her hands strangled the fur hat. The pressure in her heart grew and the weight of the sniper rifle on her back hunched her posture.
The sergeant studied her for a long time with furrowed brows and a downturned mouth. The others coughed, shuffled their feet, and tapped on something to signal that the first choice took too long. People at the back pushed on the ones before them. The old shop bulged with sweaty bodies in their winter garments.
“Look, war is no business for young girls,” the officer sighed.
“I’m a hunter. Take me to the forest rim, to the range. I’ll show you…Sir.”
His bloodshot eyes met hers and Rebane concentrated on not averting his gaze. She gathered her willpower to signal this man that she was dead serious and perfectly capable of killing men. But she couldn’t say that the Finnish forest guerrillas taught her how to do it.
A muscular arm wrapped itself around her shoulders and pressed her against a firm body. Daniil was taller than her and his coarse jaw scratched her cheek. Rebane wanted to slap him hard, and to twist his arm but contained her anger.
“Come on, Sir. Give the pretty girl a try,” Daniil smooched.
An angry murmur arose from the audience: “This is nonsense. Go home girl. Go home and make babies. This is a fucking waste of time.”
But something intrigued the sergeant to respond: “Okay then. Come with me. Others- move! Step out, wait outside!”
The recruitment office had taken over an old store and the door chimed on each opening. The large shop windows covered with propaganda posters. Rebane admired the beautiful woman who held a rifle in her strong hands and filled the uniform of the Russian Federation army in just the right places. Her eyes reflected the courage of the peasants and her blonde hair waved in the wind. The smoke from the battle filled the background. A broad-chested man charged forward with his bayonetted rifle and a war yell on his lips. The sight moved the depths of Rebane’s heart. They had to accept her.
“That will be us, Дopoгaя,” Daniil winked his eye.
The sergeant forgot his heroic limp and strode forward. He reached the other side of the marketplace and Rebane ran to catch him as the rifle on her back resisted her movements. Daniil tailed her. Whenever she looked at him, his broad smile beamed, and his eyes twinkled.
“I’m in love,” he formed with his lips and outlined a heart in the air with his index finger.
What an idiot. Give me a break!
Outside the village and between the asleep fields, a small forest patch spread out with a shooting range. The nearest targets seemed three hundred feet away, and the farthest six-hundred and fifty feet. The sergeant looked at her and she swallowed her panting: “Which ones?”
“The farthest. You said you could hunt,” he answered with a shade of mock in his voice.
Rebane adjusted the distance turret on her rifle scope. Her pulse gained speed and became a nagging tempo on her temples. She forgot where she placed her mittens, and her fingers stiffened in the cold wind. Her earlobes numbed and the raw pain of a disaster grew in her abdomen. The sergeant struggled to light a makhorka cigarette. Daniil helped him with the lighter.
“Are the targets untouched, so you’ll know which hits are mine?”
“What do you think? Are you going to shoot or what?”
The cardboard targets flapped in the wind which wind blew from her left flank. She pushed the lock bolt forward and down feeding the first .308 cartridge into the chamber. Rebane left the safety button on and looked through the scope. The mist sailed on the cropped field as the crosshairs hovered over the target. The rifle was too heavy for her to maintain perfect aiming with a freehold. She steadied the barrel against the robust pole of the barbed-wire fence.
“No! You can’t always find support on the battlefield. Men depend on you with their lives. If you miss, they die!” the sergeant snapped. “Shoot three times, I expect each one to be nine or ten.”
Rebane sat on the moist ground and crossed her legs. She steadied the weight of the weapon over her left arm which rested on the soft side of her left knee. She looked at the sergeant to see if he approved. He gazed into the empty distance, but Daniil gave her thumbs up. Rebane closed her left eye to take aim. The cardboard sheet jumped up and down with her accelerated breathing.
Just one shot and if I miss…
She let the air out of her lungs as her finger tightened around the trigger. The shot broke and filled the forest with a boom. The echo returned and sent a lonely bullfinch fleeing. The rifle stock knocked against her pectoral muscle but she swallowed the pain and blinked away the water in her eyes.
Rebane drew the bolt lock lever back. The chamber released the smoking-hot cartridge and the smell of gunpowder entered her nostrils. She aimed anew.
It’s a bull’s eye… perhaps a nine?
It was impossible to see the first hit through the smoke and vibrating air.
Stupid bitch! You missed. A small breeze can throw you off several inches. It went outside the cardboard and you don’t see it. You don’t know how to adjust the next shot.
And then… all doubt left her and the familiar peace of a huntress filled each corner of her body. She remembered why she loved shooting, and how all else distanced when she aimed. Rebane let out a slow breath and the crosshairs stayed over the target. Her finger squeezed steadily and resisted when the trigger wanted to return. The recoil was the same, but the weapon landed into the exact position. The crosshairs returned and she fed the next cartridge in and shot the final bullet without pause.
Rebane rose and secured her weapon. She tightened the strap. She kicked the dirt and stomped on the slush while the officer limped over the field to check the target and returned. When he loomed directly in front of her, she dared to raise her eyes. He held the cardboard in his only hand. Rebane saw the punctures: nine and two tens.
“What do you want?” His voice was friendlier now.
“To fight for the Motherland.“
“And you’re Russian?”
Rebane reached for her breast pocket and produced a wrinkled document: a Siberian birth certificate. He checked the stamps and flipped through her Russian Federation passport.
“Okay, I believe you,” he said but hesitated. The sergeant turned towards the village. He gazed at the blue sky. He stared at his muddy boots and placed his hand inside his trouser pocket. Daniil stood beside Rebane the whole time.
Where are Daniil’s jokes when I really need one?
“Look… I want to accept you. I mean you are an excellent shooter but…but you don’t know what war is. I don’t want the enemy to capture you. What they do to our women. A young woman, a girl from my unit was… she…”
The sergeant swallowed. His Adam’s apple bobbed. The wind blew from the north and its bite was ferocious. The sweet gunpowder had dispersed. Rebane met Daniil’s eyes. Her hand searched into his.
“Come on Sergeant, you’ve got to let her join. We need shooters like her!”
“I bet you want to be a sniper?”
“You see how I shoot, no?”
“Very well then. I’ll accept you, but I cannot promise anything. You’ll get basic training and the superiors will decide your fate. They can send you to a nursing school anyway.”
Daniil drowned Rebane into a happy bear hug. She stood tiptoed to reach his ear. He bowed his head to listen.
“A nurse, blah! I want to fight.”
“Me too, shorty. You’re coming with the boys and me.”
* An old Finnish prayer