Odessa, Ukraine: 2022
I open the book with shaking hands, dirt smudged between my fingernails. I remember the ghosts of the screams, engraved on my heart. Boom! “Natasha!” my mother shouts, tossing me a duffel bag. “Pack anything you can. Quick!” I pull out all my drawers, stuffing wrinkled clothes into my bag, wincing every time I hear an explosion outside. I spin and accidentally knock my snow globe to the floor. Sorrow blooms inside of me, and I step over the glass shards to reach my memory box in the closet. At the top of the box was the pack of letters Babushka gave me before she passed, and underneath were photos of family, friends, and my cat, Lani. I shove the unopened letters and photos between pages of my favorite books and toss them into my backpack. Last, I pack my camera with as much care as my quivering hands can.
Carefully, I extracted Babushka’s letter from the book and opened the first one.
During my youth, I saw WWll unfold before my eyes. It was something ugly and twisted, born of hatred. Today, if I didn’t know any better, I would have said that everything is going to be okay. But with the way everything has been accelerating, I know that it’s not true. Enclosed in this envelope are notes from my older sister, Zoya, whom I see so much in you. I love you, Tasha. Don’t be afraid to fill your heart with love, it is what makes you strong, not what limits you.
Against the back of the envelope, I find an old selfie of us, me with my face puffed out like a blowfish, auburn hair tied back and her laughing beside me, her short gray hair blown by the wind. I shudder as memories course through me. Babushka braiding my hair, showing me how to hold my camera, teaching me how to roll varenyky dough. “Patience, Tasha, the best things come in time,” she whispered in my ear as my pudgy toddler hands punched the dough. I want to cry, feel like I should, but I have already spent all my tears. A part of me, the part filled with grief, wants to crawl down a hole and hold onto the cherished memories forever, afraid that I will one day forget them. The other side of me just wants to let the memories wither, like dried rose petals, because everything’s going so fast right now and I don’t have time for grief. But grief is on its own clock.
Before I can open another letter, my mom passes me Ivan, my baby brother, so that she can focus on driving.
The passenger seat is empty, my dad’s still at home. Many fathers and grandfathers were not allowed to flee the country like us. I blink back tears of anguish, praying that my dad is okay, and that soon we can go back to our small brick house–only half an hour from the beach and lined with tiny flowers the colors of honey and lilac.
My aunt lives in Chișinău, the capital of Moldova, which is lucky for us, but I still wish we could be at home, with my mom who used to smell like warm bread, and my dad who would pick me up when I was little, and spin me around like I was a fairy. I wish. I stroke Lani, my fierce orange cat, with my foot and gaze into Ivan’s wide eyes.
He reaches up and pulls a lock of my hair.
“Ouch!” I wince. “What was that for?” I turn on him with a stern gaze, but he sees past my facade and giggles, his gummy mouth showing. My heart warms. Unlike my thick russet hair, he has tight blond curls, but Ivan and I share the same pale skin, the same almond eyes and straight nose. He is a mirror of everything I love.
And yet, I can’t help but whisper, “Will you grow up in a war? With bullets and bombs instead of toys and trains?” I try to imagine it, innocence, standing on the brink of burning wreckage, clothes threadbare and worn, knotted hair and blood marking his face. My throat closes at the thought of Ivan having to learn how to hide under desks and run to basement’s in case of attack. Of any young person having to learn that.
I hand Ivan back to my mom and stare out the window, a ghost reflection staring back at me.
Before the bombings started and Babushka died, I wanted to be a photojournalist, capturing truth with the lens of my camera. Now, half of me wants to forget what’s happening, to let go of the pain and take the easy route out of my heart.
My eyes flutter and I wake up. We sleep in the car and I drive for short periods to give Mom a break. Her eyes don’t leak tears anymore, and her hands don’t shake on the wheel, but the magenta ovals under her eyes steadily grow–too exhausted to be frightened. The roads are packed, everyone is trying to flee Odessa at the same time, our blue minivan stuffed in the middle of it all. Time stretches.
I arch my back to grab a snack from the trunk of the car, and munch while I pull out my textbook and puzzle over my homework, even though I will never turn it in. I wonder where my friends are, if they are okay. I plug my phone into my portable charger to find that it’s blown up with messages from school friends. I sigh in relief when I see Lydia’s messages. There is little service, but eventually I am able to send one small message to her. I’m okay, I type. She’s headed to Moldova too, but to Ungheni, not Chișinău.
My homework lies abandoned on the floor and Ivan is once again buckled into his car-seat. Static-filled music plays from the car radio. I reach for the letters and pull out the next one. It’s addressed to Ruslana, which means lion, Babushka’s name. No other name could have fit her better.
Soviet Union, 1941
Little lion, how are you? Will this war ever stop? As you know by now, I have made it into the 588th Night Bomber Regiment. Being a navigator is tough work, but the only time I am happier than in the sky is when I am with you. Ruslana, I wish you could meet all the women in the regiment, you would love them so much, especially Yelena. She’s the pilot who flies with me. We are working on what to name our plane. All planes should have names. Anyway, I must get some rest, I can’t be tired when I wake up tomorrow. I love you!
I reread the letter, tracing the fancy cursive with my fingertips. I knew that Babushka had a sister, and that they lived through World War ll, but I never knew that Zoya was part of the all-women night bomber regiment. I quickly dig out the next letter. The last letter.
I have just gotten back from flying rounds on the Germans and there are twitters in the air. Yelena says that the Germans are calling us nacht hexen. One of the other girls translates. “Night witches,” she says. “The Germans call us night witches.” And I smiled, Ruslana. The stony Germans are afraid, afraid of a bunch of women. Yelena and I have finally come up with a name for the plane. We call her Zvezda, because that plane seems to shine even as we use the clouds and cover of night to hide.
I gasp. My middle name is Zvezda, and I never knew the meaning of it before today. I never gave the name a passing glance before. It is a string to the past, tugging me closer to decades of brilliant women.
And suddenly there are wings on my back, like Zoya in her plane and Babushka, whose personality took flight.
As soon as I had good service, I googled night witches on my phone and clicked on the first Wikipedia link. What I discovered amazed me. A whole portion of history, forgotten by the common person–disappearing into an abyss. Hundreds of courageous women risked their lives to save their country. I glanced at my bag, where my camera sat, dust starting to collect on the top of the case.
I have so many questions, but also so much fear. I reach for my camera. How many people could be here, in my position, capturing history before it is written down? If I don’t capture these moments, no matter how daunting, who will? Will we disappear like the 588th Night Bomber Regiment? Or will some ignorant reporter from another country attempt to speak for us? The world can not thrive in silence, or in fear, we have to do the hard work. Work through the hurt, the lies, the darkness, until we reach the truth–no matter how terrifying.
Along the ever-crowded roads, there are big blue tents in masses. Outside of them, children are crying and adults migrate into large huddles, talking in agitated voices. A young mother, face wrinkled with war, tugs her daughter away from the road. The toddler’s blond curls bounce under her hood.
I roll down the window and lean out of the car with my camera. I snap pictures through my lens, in frames. A pair of gnarled hands holding a pair of chubby ones stained with mud. A teen boy with a red knit cap finds my viewfinder. The corners of his eyes squint as he offers a grim smile. A girl with braids plays hopscotch and kicks a rock along the cement. Citizens of Moldova are also there, handing out food and fresh clothes. I click an image of a man in a yellow vest. Then I turn back into the car and take one of my baby brother sucking his knuckles.
Seeing the open window, an American reporter walks over to us with a translator.
“Hello, would you mind answering some questions for me?” she asks. I stop, my breathing jerks to a halt, and in my hesitation my mom obliges.
“What has this situation been like for you?”
“Are you planning to go back to Ukraine in the near future?” I know a little English from school, but the translator helps me understand better. My mom answers with as much grace as she can muster, choking when she talks of my dad at home. The American reporter glimpses at my camera and turns to me.
“Have you taken any good picture’s on that?” she asks. I shrug. The American reporter asks me some questions and I answer minimally.
As a parting word, she gives me her business card, in case I want to interview more. It’s shiny laminated white, with bold inky letters. She seems genuinely interested in trying to understand what we feel. But, at the same time, part of me believes that she could never understand the kind of toll war takes on you.
The path eventually clears and we drive once again.
My Aunt Anastasia’s house is on the outskirts of the city’s center, in a small apartment complex. It was neat, clean, and the bakery across the street made it smell like freshly baked rolls. I had been here three times before, once when I was a baby, the next when I was six, and the last time was five years ago, when I was eleven. The inside was just like I remembered, soft brown couches and tasteful backsplashes. Aunt Anastasia is an artist on the side, so she has a good eye for things. Some of her paintings hang on the walls.
When my mom knocked on her door, her arms full with our small duffle bags and Ivan, Anastasia came out in a flurry of messy hair and hugs.
“Mila!” Anastasia cried. “Natasha! I’m so happy to see you. Horrible that it’s in such bad circumstances. How are you? How’s Andriy? People are saying that the men had to stay in Ukraine.”
At the mention of my dad, Mom breaks down in Anastasia’s arms, from being too strong for too long. Anastasia comforts my mom and kindly asks me to take Ivan and Lani, my cat, into the guest room to unpack and give her and Mom a chance to speak.
There are two bedrooms: Anastasia’s and the guest room. I assumed Mom would be sleeping in Anastasia’s room so I set her bag in there before taking Ivan and our bags to the guest room. I liked to call it the Sage Room, because it was themed green and beige. Every shade from geranium leaf and khaki to pine and chocolate brown was contained in that room.
I started unpacking my bag, and the American reporter’s address card fell out along with Zoya’s letters to Ruslana, which I stashed back in my bag. In an instant, I become immersed in picture frames.
The picture of the Ukrainian boy’s sad smile.
Silent tears streaming down my best friend’s face the first night the bombs hit.
Ivan, flashing his toothless smile, a picture of purity.
The mental image of Anastasia holding my mother not but a minute ago.
My fingers tracing Zoya’s words, in the moments that she risked her life.
Ruslana, Babushka, who lived through a war, smiled through her life, and died with a smirk on her lips and courage in her heart.
People like shining stars, but are so tiny in the vast sky that they are looked over.
I pick up my camera, the cool metal like a rush of power beneath my hands. The only thing holding me back… is my fear. I fear the hurt and pain, a price that comes with the power of truth, even though I crave it at the same time. I’m so desperate to forget, that I will forget my courage, my will, my fight.
I make prints of all the pictures I took on my camera, with Anastasia’s printer, and stuff them into a large yellow envelope before I could talk myself out of it. People deserve to hear the truth, people need to remember so that we don’t disappear into the folds of history like so many others. I can be brave, just like Zoya and Ruslana. I want to make governments and citizens around the world to ask: what is happening to the people of Ukraine?
Lastly, I write down my account of everything we have been through, from when the first bomb fell, then put a stamp on it to post to the American reporter, who was so desperate to understand, even when I doubted her. I start with: Odessa, Ukraine, 2022. I open the book with shaking hands, dirt smudged between my fingernails…