To the heroines of the tragic battle of Brusna.
* * * * * * * * 1 * * * * * * * *
They were five and they didn’t walk together. It was raining. It was dark, and the hot clay and wet grass slipped insidiously beneath the feet. If they walked together, it might have been easier for them. They could take each other by the hand, as women like to do, complain to each other in whispers, cheer each other up. But between them in the line were two or three silent men whose large staggering figures depressed them even more.
Zora, Sonya, Tamara, Bilyana, Svetla - female names that spoke of tenderness, warmth, caress. Women with such names shouldn’t be out walking in this cold, wet night across the field with rough shoes, with hands muddied from falling, with lips blue with exhaustion. But those weren’t their real names. And they themselves, with the exception of Zora, hadn’t gotten used to them yet. But Zora had long been accustomed. Sometimes it even seemed to her that her parents had made a mistake, and it was only in the partisan detachment that she had received her real name.
Zora was an old partisan and it was obvious. She would go forward to where the commanders of the small company were because she herself was a platoon commander. A short Italian carbine hung over her shoulder, a pistol and two German hand grenades on her waist. When they saw her like that, other women were afraid of her. It seemed too cold and severe. The partisans showed more sympathy and understanding towards her, but as soon as they had formed the detachment, she exclaimed angrily: “Now we’re really in trouble! Great addition, I suppose!”
The detachment had been wanting to increase their size, but instead, due to the frequent failures in the area, a lot of collaborators had come, old men and very young boys and girls like Tamara, almost children, flocking to them unarmed, unclothed, frightened. The partisans themselves were in a difficult situation after the exhausting winter they had just spent, and now they had to take care of the new ones who were unfit for any serious action. They had to be led to safe winter hiding places high in the mountains. They were divided into two small companies and barely given a few guards, five or six rifles, and a dozen pistols. They were sent off in different directions.
Zora wanted to go with one of the companies. The headquarters didn’t want to part with her because she was the most experienced courier in the detachment, but Zora insisted. She had lost weight lately, turned yellow. They asked her what was wrong with her.
“I'm sick,” she told them. “I should be separated for a few months until I recover.”
“A few months!” the comrades were surprised.
“Yes,” she said calmly, but then suddenly “Why are you looking at me like that? I'm not going to quit. There is also work in the camp. These vacationers need to be trained, equipped…”
“Calm down, Zora!” the political commissar scolded her. “We’re asking you in a human way, and you’re shouting. And you don't have to insult your new comrades. These people have already risked their lives for us.”
“I'm telling you in a human way that I'm sick, and you're questioning me like a provocateur!”
They let her. They knew her irritability, but they didn't remember her being so nervous and unrestrained. They chalked it up to the disease and they felt bad for her. What could be the matter with her? She said she didn't know... probably some woman thing that she was ashamed to talk about...
But Zora did know very well. And now, as she walked in the thin bullshit ranks of the newly formed detachment, she was thinking about just that. The frequent nausea, the vomiting. Good thing the comrades hadn't noticed them! She was ready to curse, to shoot herself, but instead she just walked and was glad that she was feeling a little better now that they had set off. The terrible burning in the stomach, nausea taking over the diaphragm, the bitter taste on the tongue subsided, and she stepped, as usual, lightly and flexibly like a nocturnal predator. She could think about other things, but that never left her mind.
Well, what now! Once they get up in the mountains, everything will be fine. She’d been through so many things and she could make it through this too. She would calm down, rest, and then... then she would look for a grandmother in a Balkan hut. And then everyone will know. Then…
She didn’t know if she would be punished for it, but if she were a member of the Central Committee, she would positively suggest that such women be shot or at least disgracefully expelled from the detachments. And on top of all that, she’d been appointed platoon commander, assigned to be in charge of training the new ones in the camp! She couldn't object, that would look very suspicious. Still, an order is an order! But she felt like wandering off somewhere in the woods like a she-wolf, alone, with her inhuman grief and wild rage. And why did it have to happen right now! It was spring, new battles were coming, new victories, and she had to become a trainer, she - the first female partisan in the area, the bravest courier in the detachment! She would no longer be going down to the villages, she would no longer “play” the dangerous but merry chase with the gendarmerie, a chase that had gained almost mythical fame among the villagers and the police. She would train them! She would set a good example for them!
At that thought, the darkness thickened even more before her eyes. They were walking for the third night in a continuous, light, nasty rain, and the “vacationers” were well behaved, but Zora felt that she might go mad from their tired panting, from her own thoughts, and from this disgustingly muddy night which would be calmer if she were alone or with an experienced companion, because the courier habit had forced her to rely only on herself and to see the responsibility for people whose strengths and abilities she did not know as an unpleasant burden...
Zora followed Bai Stoyo in the line, and then came by Tamara. She was aligning herself with Zora's back and the barrel of Stoyo’s carbine protruding above it.
Interesting! Until recently, the barrel couldn’t be seen, but now it’s clearly visible despite the rain. So, it’s getting brighter? So, the new day is coming. The first day of Tamara's eighteenth year. She was looking forward to it because this day promised to make her a partisan, give her a rifle, a pistol, bombs. She had been asked about her age in the detachment. Tamara had lied: nineteen. She wasn’t ashamed of his lie. If she had told the truth, they might have sent her away, what was a seventeen-year-old girl going to do in the detachment? And now she would become a partisan like Zora, and when they won, everyone in the village would look at her and be awed. Good thing her relative, Goran, wasn't there! He knew the true number of her years.
She had been staying with him at the safehouse. When she’d returned to the village, she learned from a goat herder that a gendarmerie had come from the city and surrounded their house. So she went back to the forest, to the place where she was supposed to take the RMC members from the village two days later. They were expecting a whole group of brave boys, but instead they got a girl who was frozen and starving.
What had happened to her mother, to her father? The comrades seemed to be hiding something. They comforted her: as soon as we received the information, we'll tell you. Were they lying? Or maybe they actually haven’t gotten any messages. The village was blockaded. But grief doesn’t linger long in the soul of a seventeen-year-old girl, and as soon as they had left for the Balkans, Tamara had almost forgotten. Now she wanted to get to the camp, to be given a weapon, to go into battle, as soon as possible. Maybe that's why she was the most nimble of them all. She was being drawn forward, angry at the clumsy, unskilled drag of the old man. Why did they put her behind him?! If only she were by Zora… Yes, Zora! That’s what you call a real partisan! The whole area knows her. Her heroicness is carried by word-of-mouth like a legend...
“Bai Stoyo,” whispered Tamara behind the man who staggered before her, “give me some of your baggage! While you rest.”
Bai Stoyo refused, but Tamara pulled his bag towards her and he relented. The girl put the straps over her fit, mare-weathered shoulders and smiled proudly in the twilight. She even turned to see how others in the line would react to her deed. But no one noticed. Everyone was busy with themselves, with the little force left in their muscles, with their disobedient legs, sinking and slipping in the mud like stilts.
“Halt! Halt!” they whispered through the ranks, “Stop without sitting down! Stop without sitting down!”
The order reached Svetla. She passed it on and sat down involuntarily. Without meaning to. It was as if someone had pushed her. She tried to get up, but failed. And she sat there, clenching her teeth and fists to keep from crying.
For an entire hour now, she had been struggling not to cry. She was cold, her body ached, her eyes were watering from the wet darkness. For an hour now, thinking only of her mother.
“Venche, my dear! How beautiful you are to me, beautiful…” Her mother was talking and stroking her blond hair, soft as new silk. “Oh, how many hearts you will break with your beauty!”
The room was warm, cozy. The radio was playing, the cat was purring by the stove, an open book was lying on the chaise lounge.
Veneta is a good name, but Svetla had renounced it, as she had renounced her father's wealthy home, her dream of going to Sofia, the beautiful dresses, and the admiring eyes of the boys. In town, she was considered the best RMC agitator, even though her father owned a sawmill and had money in the bank. But Veneta suffered because of her bourgeois origins. And she shed many tears over them as well. That must be what made her soft and clumsy. Pff! For the RMC?! If the comrades knew what she was, they probably wouldn't accept her. But they had decided that she was a good and smart girl, that she could understand things, and they included her in the circle. She began to lead circles on her own. For a long time, the police hadn’t suspected her because she was the head of her class, and she was a wealthy daughter after all! But she was writing slogans, participating in their dispersal, and collecting clothes for the partisans. Until one night her father grabbed her by her blond hair. He had gotten a call from his friend, the local constable. He’d been told that she was forgiven this time on his account, but if he didn’t straighten her out, they would put her in prison. She cried, promised to sit at home, but that evening she jumped out the window and went looking for her comrades. In her detachment, they gave her the partisan name Svetla...
But they ought to call her Crybaby! And chase her away like a mangy dog! Partisan! It was only her first hike and she was squatting and couldn’t get up. She’s always thinking about her mother and a warm stove!
Svetla had a slender, beautiful body, tender and fragile as a cherry sapling. But now it was full of mortal fatigue, despair, and the painful shivers of weeping. Muddy streams of rain ran down her face, salted by the poisonous tears of helplessness.
“Venche, my dear.” Her mother continued to whisper something to her, as warm and sweet as mother's milk, and Svetla tried not to listen to this voice but to get up from this sticky terrifying ground which was pulling her in with such force.
“Get up! Didn't you hear the order?” A rude whisper struck her.
Zora grabbed her under the arm, and Svetla, punching down into the smeary clay, managed to stand up. Things were so hard, so trying, that she wanted to put her head on Zora’s shoulder and cry, but Zora was not a woman but a platoon commander passing through the ranks.
“Just a little further,” she told her, “You shouldn't sit down. If you sit down, you can't get back up. And it's wet, you'll catch a cold.”
She went on. In the dark, two silhouettes merged into one - shapeless, ugly, pathetic. Zora stopped beside it. They were Bilyana and Djendo. The thin, tall Djendo stood over his wife by a full head, but he was leaning against her. His glasses shone like murky puddles on his elongated face. Zora looked at the crumbled pile of a family and asked,
“Nothing. We're tired,” Bilyana replied. “Jacques... that is, Djendo, is very weak. He's sick.”
“We'll be there soon. We’ll treat him.”
Zora continued her rounds, but the thought of those two remained. Bilyana was the picture of a good comrade. It was no coincidence that she was sentenced to death by the Sofia court. They would be looking for her in the camp, she would have to be dealt with. But her husband is some kind of mekitsa! An academic!Let’s hope he at least knows Marxism, so he can give some lectures! But he…
Towards the end of the line stood the fifth woman - Sonya. Zora had known her since she was a child. She had been a rude, snotty country child. And as a teenager she was still rude, and ugly. Her real name, Kera, fit her better. She was the poorest girl in the village, and only the RMC could shake off the oppression that was causing her terrible poverty. They had helped her go to Sofia to look for bread. They found a place for her in the textile factories. There, she married a communist and went with him to the Ihtiman detachment. After the defeat of the detachment, the two transferred to the one in Chavdar.
When she saw her countrywoman in the camp, Zora was happy to see her. But Kera fell into her arms from numbness. Zora learned: the Chavdar detachment were defeated in the Eleshnitsa Balkans. The survivors were scattered and arriving now one by one in this detachment. Kera's husband was killed near Eleshnitsa. She had wandered the mountains alone for a week.
Zora had taken care of her. She surrounded her with tenderness, as much as she could, but Kera hadn't fully recovered. And now she stood lifeless, staring into the muddy darkness, as if she saw before her only the corpses of the slain - dozens of dear dead who lay on the slopes of the Ihtiman Sredno Goras and above the Eleshnitsa Monastery.
“It's not easy to go through two defeats in a month!” Zora thought before speaking to her.
“How are you feeling?”
Sonya didn't move.
“Kera,” Zora whispered, leaning close to her. She couldn’t say the other name which was so unsuitable for her friend. “Kerche, get better, my dear! This will pass.”
Sonya just stood there and stared at her. Her hands hung like half-trimmed branches.
“It's calm in the village. We'll hear about the child in a week at most.”
Before they left for the Balkans, Sonya had left her little girl with her parents.
“How old is she?”
Sonya didn't answer. Maybe she hadn't heard the question, but Zora didn't dare repeat it. It was terrifying for a mother to be this silent when you talk about her child.
“We'll be there soon,” she said, not knowing what else to say, and returned to the front end of the line.
The darkness grew gray, cloudy, as if the rain was washing away the black paint of the night. It would be daylight in an hour. Zora approached the command group, which had separated to the side, and listened to the tense, anxious whispering.
So, did they really not know where they were? A few hours ago, she instinctively sensed that they had gone the wrong way. Then they came across a village where there should have been no village and wasted a lot of time going around it. And what was around here?
The scouts hadn’t dared to go too far so as not to lose the detachment. They reported quietly, and the mist seemed to settle around them, mixing with the thick vapors of the morning dew, with the terrifying unknown lurking behind it. They decided to climb the slope of the hill they were walking at the foot of and look for a covered place to spend the day. Zora was against it, but she didn't know what else to offer, so she didn't say anything.
They departed. Walking became even harder. Legs bent like willow branches. Knees ached. Tamara had taken the rifle from Bai Stoyo. The heavy bag was viciously tugging at her shoulders and wanting to stop her, to take her back, but Tamara saw that she had turned seventeen yesterday and that she was a partisan with a rifle, albeit a borrowed one. And she climbed the hillside like a goat.
Bilyana had grabbed her Djendo by the waist and was constantly whispering to him,
“A little further, a little further!”
He leaned heavily on her numb arm and often stumbled because he could see nearly nothing through his wet glasses.
“Breathe calmly, don’t cough!” she ordered in his ear, though she could barely catch her own breath.
The hill unexpectedly came to a dead end somehow. The line stopped again. This time without a command. The thin streams of rain swirled and started striking them right in their faces, sharper and colder than the wind, but less frequent. The command group circled around the ravine. It was leaned to one side. Shrubs and ferns blackened it here and there like wide puddles. Its upper end was occupied by a young, hardy grove. Kamen said,
“At least it's a sign.”
The comrades were silent. Zora swallowed the nasty acids that were rising in her stomach again and objected,
“I don't like it. And the grove is too small. A real trap!”
“One post on the hillside, one at the edge of the grove,” ordered Kamen, breathing noisily through his stuffed nostrils, “It’s impossible to continue! People are dropping, and it's already getting light.”
“If I can walk, the others can walk too,” Zora said sharply.
“Don’t compare the others with yourself! They don’t have any conditioning. Help them make a dray camp. Let everyone get some sleep.”
Zora remembered that Kamen didn’t know her condition and fell silent. “We will take the first posts. We’ll switch in one hour.
“I’ll go to the hillside, I can’t sleep,” Zora suggested.
“Go! And keep your eyes open! Kamen replied, “Gero will change you. Philip - edge of the grove!”
Zora didn’t wait to hear the rest of the orders. She went back up. The acid gushed even harder from the climb, and from her anger at Kamen, it burned in her chest as if she had swallowed a glowing bullet. The others parted silently. Ten minutes later, everyone was resting.
Bilyana lay next to her Djendo, wiping his forehead with her palm from time to time. Cold dampness kept pouring down on him.
“When we get there, I'll look for goat's milk in the pens!” she thought. “They say goat's milk heals…”
She was worried about her husband and rebuked herself for involving him in conspiracy work! He was meek, impractical, cowardly, a real child, people had died from his clumsiness. Their battle group was exposed in Sofia and they had to flee headlong - but at the same time he was an excellent orator, educated, smart and infinitely pure man. He had to keep that! At any cost! After the victory, he would surely be very much needed on the cultural front. And maybe he will become a writer! No, she shouldn't have involved him in their battle group! But isn't he a communist? What kind of communist would he be if, now that everyone had taken up arms, he sat warmly and wrote theoretical articles that no one could publish...
Bilyana wiped his forehead again from the sticky sweat and sighed. This is what Jehovah decided, her mother would say. That’s what she had said when she buried her husband years ago. They were both the most diligent, the most faithful in the Jewish community. But they raised a daughter who despised humility above all else. Her mother wondered: who had this little girl named Ruth, with the very best biblical name, just who had she taken after? But the comrades knew her as a cold-blooded, resourceful, outlaw activist with considerable experience, to whom they calmly entrusted even the most responsible tasks. But they didn’t like her very much. They were not attracted to her excessive coldness and prudence, they were frightened by her dark, mysteriously impenetrable Jewish eyes. But no one suspected how much tenderness and age-old Semitic sadness there was in her soul and how much hard-pressed desire for freedom, for carefreeness, for simple female happiness. If they had known it, they would have understood why she had chosen the outlaw name Bilyana, which no one else had chosen as their partisan name.
The very first time she heard the song about the girl Bilyana who was doing her washing near the Bistritsa springs, Ruth was captivated by the wonderful melody of this majestically simple folk song, by the unusual image of a girl confidently declaring that if the winemaker’s caravan passes through her clothes, then she must be repaid with the young man of her choosing.
And because the winemaker song touched her, she had appropriated this illegal name...
Tamara and Svetla were huddled together like frozen kittens. The girls fell asleep first. Svetla was dreaming that her mother was brushing her beautiful blond hair, and Tamara was bragging about something to her uncle Goran.
Sonya was asleep too, but her dream did not bring her peace. It snatched her from her numbness. She was crying, screaming, fighting with someone, but her comrades didn’t hear it. Only a low whimper escaped her throat, but she writhed under the canvas like a man thrown on embers.
Zora stood on the hillside, staring at the pinkish mist rising like a heavy sigh from the chest of the waking earth. The rain had stopped. From the grove where the partisans slept came the chirping of birds. The blackbird was the most awake. Zora knew that he was the first to start singing. Even from three thirty. He was late now because of the rain. After that, the quail will call from the field. Yes, there it is! And then the cut-throat finches and the warblers wake up! Zora knew them well. She had listened to them so many nights and mornings in the forest and the fields! So many sleepless, exhausting partisan nights! From their voices, she could unmistakably name the morning hours. If the nightingale falls silent, then it is three o'clock, he falls asleep tired from his all-night love outpourings. He gives way to the blackbird and the lark. If he sings again, it's five o'clock and he’s up to meet the sun. And when does this little singer manage to get enough sleep? How did only two hours suffice? The first thing Zora wanted to do after the victory was to sleep good, really good. To sleep one sleep for all the nights she had traveled through so many forests and so many villages, during which she had met so many kind people whose names she didn’t know and whose faces she couldn’t see...
The fog soon disappeared. The wind gathered it in small fluffy clouds and chased them across the clear sky. It became warm, and Zora felt something inside her soften in the first rays of the sun. Her eyes ached. She looked around anxiously. It had suddenly become so bright that it frightened her. “This is a bad place!” she thought anxiously. “It couldn't be worse!” She spread out her canvas and lay down on it so as not to stand out on this clear morning, when the humidity made the air especially clear and transparent. You could already see some from the hillside. Another, larger hill which had hindered them last night, now stood over the plain, the plain, where the danger always lay to those who are in the Balkans.
Zora looked away. She remembered Vasil. He was there now, in the plain, at the zone headquarters. They hadn’t seen each other for more than half a year. They had kept diverging on the partisan path. Then, they met quite unexpectedly. She had been sent to receive a responsible comrade from the city, to accompany him on his tour of the villages, and to be his guard. This responsible comrade turned out to be Vasil, her husband, with whom she had lived together for only one year before going underground at the call of the party. Perhaps those who sent her hadn’t known this. Well it's better if they don’t find out at all! Then she won’t have to throw up hard bread and the floury partisan trienitsa...
On such a bright morning, one should daydream, but Zora was filled with fatigue and malice. She tried to think of something else, and in order not to fall asleep, she began to think about her beloved project, whispering in a low voice what she was going to say at the zone headquarters.
“Comrades, let's make an independent women's squad with a special purpose. It will make an excellent campaign among the population and will have a great effect. It will take better care of the food and clothing supply. You could assign them…”
Her eyelids somehow closed on their own. Zora shook her head and struggled to lift them again. She looked at the grove. Gero had come out and was about to crawl across the hillside. She walked toward him.
“Forgive me,” he apologized to her as they passed, “I’m late.”
“You have to keep watch lying down,” Zora said. “Be careful not to fall asleep! It’s dangerous.”
Gero smiled at her, but she couldn't bring herself to smile back. She barely dragged herself to the grove and fell down dead beside the sleeping girls.
Zora falls asleep, never knowing that, at the same moment, a sixth woman whom they did not know, is already waking up.
She is a large-breasted villager, frowning, angry, who has no time to enjoy the blue spring morning - she has to light the fire, sweep, go for water. And the well isn’t close. She slips muddy wooden shoes on her rough bare feet. After a while she comes back panting, and the empty buckets sway on the rocker wildly.
Grandpa Nedko, her father-in-law, reaches for the door and looks at the sky to see what the day will be like. These heavy rains have not been good lately. Time is passing and the fields are soaked with water. He sees his daughter-in-law in the distance running with empty buckets, but he needs time to wonder what might have frightened her.
“Dad, run to the town hall,” the daughter-in-law shouts before she enters the yard. “Guerillas passed by the well. There were so many footprints, footprints…”
Grandpa Nedko relaxes his hands. They begin to tremble slightly, and his lower jaw sags helplessly revealing a red, toothless cavity, like a wound.
“What are you standing there for!” the woman screams. “Can't you hear what I'm saying?”
“Daughter,” Grandpa Nedko stutters, “don’t. It's none of our business... They are people too.”
“Whaaaat?” the daughter-in-law approaches with a crooked face, and it seems to the old man that she may swing the rocker. “You want them to set our house on fire! To kill my children! Oh, oh, my God! What blackened my life with these damned old men! Petre, why have you gone, Petre, come comfort your wife, comfort your father who wants to destroy her and wipe out your children…”
“Daughter-in-law,” the old man pleadingly begins, but she suddenly cuts herself off and decisively tosses the rocker; the buckets deafly rattle into the mud.
“I will go! I'll go to town and tell them you're protecting them, you bastard. Just so you know!”
Grandpa Nedko shrugs as if hit in the head and walks to the village with a slight stagger. His heart pounds in his weak chest with tired, dull pain. If he were to die, it would have been better. For a long, long time, he had been wanting to leave this world where people were starting to eat each other like wolves. He remembers the officer who was gnashing like a rabid dog, and the mayor who called him that week and told him that if guerillas passed his house again and he didn’t tell them, they would set his house on fire. And his wife and his daughter-in-law will be sent to some camp. The guerillas often passed by and went past the well. There were many in this area. Only a month ago, in broad daylight, they had come down to the village and held a meeting. And then the gendarmerie from the city arrived. But what is he guilty of, that he lives on the edge of the village, that they pass by his house? And why do you need him, at his old age, nearly departed from this world...
Grandpa Nedko walks on, arguing on the muddy path and thinking that if his son Peter were alive now, he would know what to do, he would shut the mouth of this evil woman and surely save him from this mortal sin...
* * * * * * * * 2 * * * * * * * *
The battle started at noon. The sun shone brightly and merrily, as if it wanted to repay the earth for all the days it had kept from it. The partisans, immersed in the humid heat of the spring day, slept so soundly that not everyone, particularly the novices, woke up from the first shot. It began with Bai Stoyo heading numbly up the hillside, and before he knew where so many people had suddenly come from, and so close that he had to close his sunburned eyelids for a moment, the bullet hit him in the asthmatic chest and he rolled down the slope. The second bullet shot down one of the two policemen who appeared at the end of the grove. Bladje fired once more and quickly ran to the detachment already gathered around Kamen to bring them the news that the gendarmerie was surrounding the ravine.
With a pale face, but cool and calm, Kamen was already assigning positions. He didn’t hide that the situation was almost hopeless. He didn't have time to make speeches.
“Comrades, above all, be calm! All people die. Once we became partisans, we decided to die as communists. But first, let us show how communists fight!”
Maybe he would have added something more encouraging for the new ones, but at that moment a long line of machine gun fire shot the fresh leaves off the trees. It screamed and then passed, hoarsely ominous, as if shattering the air into pieces. Kamen paused, strained his ears as if counting the enemy's weapon and added,
“These dogs are ready! Heavy machine guns and mortars… they probably saw us from that village! Come on, comrades, sensibly, cautiously! The cartridges are few, and we have to hold out until evening.”
They split up. The tactic was a simple, tried-and-true partisan tactic of holding back, deceiving, and quickly seperating from the enemy. Kamen led one platoon, which consisted of the most experienced fighters. He would take the brunt of the battle so that Zora could pull the other, more numerous one, to where the new comrades and women were located.
Zora made her men lie down a few feet apart at the lower edge of the grove where the open part of the ravine began, dotted with bushes and fern-covered pits. After that, there was an open field and about five hundred meters - then the forest, a truly, big, beautiful forest! If they could have seen it at night, if they had walked a bit more...
Now there was no time to be angry with Kamen or her own acquiescence. Behind her, the battle was boiling with all it’s might. The enemy apparently didn’t dare to advance yet, because they didn’t know the number of partisans, but they were filling the grove with deafening drum fire. Zora looked around at her men. They lay silent, their faces tense, their eyes fixed on the great forest. There was their hope. But how many of them would reach it? How many would meet this night alive? They would have to wait a long, painful time. For dark, to sneak into the bushes, to approach the exit of the ravine and to try to reach the forest with a breakthrough. But some of them didn't even have weapons.
Zora did not like to wait. There was no gendarmerie at the exit of the ravine yet, and she crawled over to one of the high school students. She ordered him to run to the bushes, to hide in them. The boy jumped up willingly, ran off, and reached the first bush in one breath. A moment later, bullets whistled around him. But they were late. He crawled out nimbly, slipped to the second, the third, and then he was gone.
Zora pursed her lips. A second, even if it were a bird, wouldn’t fly through there unscathed. And then? No, we have to wait for dark! Suddenly the shooting stopped. A voice rose from the hillside which sounded pleading rather than threatening. He told the partisans that they were surrounded and that they had to surrender if they wanted to stay alive. He was answered by a friendly volley from Kamen's group. Zora cast her eyes for the faces of the new ones. They had all heard the voice, but they remained unchanged.
The battle flared up again. It turned into a hurricane and the grove bent under its furious pressure. Tamara crawled out of her cover,
“Give me a weapon! A pistol even.”
“I don't have one. I gave it to someone,” Zora answered.
“Please! I'm frightened of this...”
A shrill cry interrupted her. The girl shivered. Zora put a hand on her shoulder.
“It's not one of ours. Ours don’t scream.”
Her heart suddenly froze. Yes, ours don’t scream! But their shots were becoming less and less distinguishable in the deadly cracking pouring in from three sides of the grove. What was happening to them? The boy he had sent with a message hadn’t returned. Zora put her rifle in Tamara's hands and said so that the others could hear her,
“Don't shoot until I come back! While I’m gone, Ke… Sonya is in charge!” she said, angry from her mistake, “I’ll be right back”
From tree to tree, standing up, she approached Kamen's position. He was gone. Lead pieces sizzled around her and above her in the branches with a loud cracking, as if someone were spraying water on a hot stove. The group was dispersed. Zora went to the ground and started crawling. Between two trees, in the open, lay Gero. She tried to turn him over, but he was heavy, infinitely heavy, and he didn't seem to want to lift his face from the last year's moist leaves. Zora shuffled through his pockets. She found a handful of cartridges. She also took the rifle. A mine crashed into a nearby tree and sprinkled her with splinters and leaves. Zora calmly loaded Gero's rifle. She had reached the last row of trees. Dove-blue figures were descending in the nearby ravine. She aimed and pulled the trigger. Once, she clicked the bolt, a second time, the cry of a mortally wounded man was heard. Zora laughed dryly, gleefully, and nimbly rolled away. The machine gun almost immediately started, as if with its hands, deftly and quickly breaking the branches above the place she had just left.
A partisan was shooting from behind the thin branches of a blossoming elderberry. Zora recognized him, shouted at him,
“Stanko, what's going on?”
“Kamen is dead,” he replied, “and Philip, too.”
“Do you want some cartridges?”
She tossed him some of Gero's cartridges. Stanko looked at them and frowned,
“They won’t work.”
Zora realized that his rifle was Italian too, she gave him her spare pack, and moved on. She had to find Kamen and Philip. And the rest. She was angry with Kamen, but he was gone! But she would never quarrel with him again. In fact, they actually had been comrades, they liked each other with their sharp, slightly quarrelsome characters.
She crawled and forced herself to think only of the rifles and the cartridges she had to recover. She came across Philip first. The bullet had knocked him from a tree upside down. Zora didn't dare rummage in his pockets. She had seen many people before, but still! She only took the rifle. There were two more cartridges in it. She refused to look for Kamen either. Who knows how he would look. Maybe the mine tore him apart. And there was no time. Now she had to take command of the whole detachment. After the two of them, she was the senior. She had to check what was going on with those on the other side and make a decision. Their mines seemed to be running out, because their deafening thuds in the wet earth were heard less and less.
She climbed a taller tree and surveyed the area. There were a lot of them, a damned lot! But they’re as cowardly as rabbits. Zora found the machine-gun nests, outlined the firing sectors, and figured out where they could move to make the first attack. Suddenly she saw some suspicious smoke at both ends of the grove.
“Aha! Familiar story!” she exclaimed, descending the slippery trunk. At such moments, she had a habit of talking to herself. “They’re burning the forest. They want to burn us alive.”
She wasn't scared. She didn't think for herself. Two German grenades hung from her waist, and as long as she could move her arms, she would not die unavenged. But now she had to act. And that was better than the agonizing, empty lying down and waiting. She ran back to her platoon. She had to throw them into battle too. There were only a few people left, and the fascists would risk an attack if they learned that.
She sent several of the men to shoot at those who were setting fire to the forest. The others settled around Stanko. Her prediction came true. They hadn’t yet been able to lie down when a crowd of uniformed gendarmes and villagers from the “public force” with caps and short coats crawled out of the ravine. They were greeted by a well-measured volley. Stanko threw his only bomb. Several people fell, and the rest scattered back with shouts and screams like a frightened flock of geese.
Silence followed. Zora was pleased: they would not repeat such an attempt soon, they would wait for reinforcements, they would try with tricks. Time passed and the saving night was getting closer.
The machine guns were silent. From time to time, the fascits would randomly fire off their rifles, only for their own piece of mind, and they waited for the forest to catch fire. But it was as stubborn and tough as the partisans, and it still didn't want to burn.
The second offensive began two hours later on the left flank. Zora waved at Stanko and ran, but she arrived alone. Stanko staggered, leaned against a tree, and slid silently to its trunk. The oncoming were repelled, but this time she didn’t feel the trembling joy that had overwhelmed her during the other successful actions. Stanko was the last of the old partisans. The most experienced died. The comrades… The cartridges had run out and the others would be caught like chickens if she could not lead them through the bushes to the great forest. But how to do it, how?!
The shooting intensified again. The lively shouts, orders, and threats that were heard between the shots from the hill and the surrounding ravines said that the enemy had received reinforcements and was in a hurry to get ahead of nightfall.
The sun had disappeared and a dark, concealing shadow lay over the ravine, but it would not be dark any time soon. Those spring days were long, terribly long. The smoke from the burning grass drifted vengefully to the hillside where the machine-gun nests were. Zora counted her men. There were twelve people left. Half of them didn't know how to shoot.
She handed out the weapons of the slain, divided the cartridges evenly, and placed them all around the grove. She gave everyone precise instructions. They had to last at least another hour, giving the impression that their strength was intact by maneuvering. Then they would retreat carefully to the bushes, and when it got dark they would try to break through. And if someone saw a better way out for themself, let them save themself as best they could...
Bilyana and Djendo lay down together. Sleep had cheered him up, and he was battling with a pale but hard face. Bilyana was calm for her Jacques and for herself. She looked for the enemy, shot at him, and her breasts swelled in strange merriment. She even wanted to sing, to sing aloud once more the song about the girl from the Bistritsa springs. Maybe because it would be for the last time. For the last time! Bilyana understood this, but it did not frighten her. Yes, she would die! Only, you mustn't be separated from your Jacques, they must stay together! To the end! And it is clear that this is the end. She was not a fatalist, but the sentence of death seemed natural, and that sentence would always be carried out somehow. She had escaped it twice, but now it was time for the execution. But the good thing was that she could, even if only in her mind, sing a song about Bilyana, and before they shot her, she would shoot a little too. It was easier to die that way than standing alone by the execution wall.
But still, a quiet pity crept into her heart. Jacques! He had repeatedly reproached her for her restraint, for not loving him enough. But she no longer had the time, and she still didn't have the determination to overcome her shyness and be more gentle with him…. “my boy”. This address often slipped from her lips and it made Jacques angry. He was annoyed and opposed to her intrusive guardianship in the family workday, but was it her fault that she felt stronger, more resilient? Later, he was even tormented inwardly because she could never accept him as a real, superior man, as her support...
But now, in these last hours, she wanted to show weakness, to seek his help, to flatter his ego. But she didn't know how.
“Jacques,” she told him, “You’re a good shot.” And she barely restrained herself from adding “my boy”.
He smiled incredulously. How is it possible to shoot well with such stupid, short-sighted eyes that even the glasses couldn't help! And he replied after a while in a surprisingly calm voice,
“Ruth, we may not have time to say goodbye…”
Bilyana interrupted him,
“We will get out, you’ll see! The forest isn’t very far. Okay, let's go! It's getting dark.”