I open my eyes and see a rifle pointing at me. Well, not at me exactly. At me and Sister. Or just at Sister, I’m not sure, because the barrel is dancing in circles and zigzags. Sister’s heavy breathing rumbles, hur, hur, hur, lulling me. Her snoring shakes her chest, which, in turn, shakes my head, as it’s tucked under her tit. I elbow her hard.
“Sis,” I whisper.
She grunts, tightens her arms around me. Then she spots the gun barrel and jumps up.
I can make out only one comrade’s face in the candlelight; I think he’s called Yiannis. A lot of people are called Yiannis, not just comrades. Some switched to Yoan or Yanko, because that’s what the Bulgarians told them to do. Some refused but when the Bulgarians killed them, their relatives went and carved their new names on their graves.
Sister doesn’t talk for a while. I don’t know why, maybe because from time to time comrades point their rifles at each other for no apparent reason. Sometimes they even shoot each other, and then the last man standing says that the dead one was an agent. An agent means a bad comrade.
“What do you want?” says Sister.
“Get up, let’s go. You, and the girl.”
“We’re not going anywhere.”
“I said no! We’ve discussed this already. We agreed. Perhaps your ears got full of wax and you went deaf, but we’ve made a deal with the Secretary. So, stick the rifle up your ass and let us sleep.”
Yiannis raises his hand to his ear, but stops halfway; he gets hold of the rifle again. “My ears are clean…”
Crackling, the candlewick burns out. Darkness, footsteps, rustling. “Find a match, you asshole, don’t you have any matches?” Commotion. I can help. Here. Now everyone can see. My finger is like a vigil lamp, except that the flame is the shape of a dove, quietly perched on my index finger, illuminating the rough walls of the cave, Sister’s books, the two logs we have for chairs, the little table with the crooked legs; there’s a beach pebble underneath one of them so it doesn’t wobble too much.
Clang. Yiannis picks the rifle up from the floor. The barrel is shaking. The comrades take a few steps back, as if they’re scared of my little dove. I don’t know whether they’re really afraid of it, but, truth be told, my doves are often followed by silence. Just like now.
“Shall we?” It’s me who asks.
We go down the slope. I wrap my coat around me. The moonlight falls on trails that look like rivers, on pine needle hills that look like giant hedgehogs, on oak trees that look like… I don’t know what. Sister would know. Sister always knows; she comes up with the best similes. Not the most pleasing, but the most peculiar. Now, she’s holding my hand. Two comrades walk ahead of us, one behind us, Yiannis, with his rifle.
“Are we going to an assembly?” I ask Sister.
“To an assembly.”
She extends her hand and touches my shoulder. “My little Pyrrha.”
My name is not Pyrrha. I had a different name, once. But Sister gave me this name because, she says, I’ve got red hair. Same as the comrades change their names, more or less; but Sister says that I’m too young to be a comrade.
Now she squeezes my shoulder.
“I don’t want any tricks, comrade,” Yiannis with the rifle says from behind.
“Shut up,” Sister tells him. “If we were to play any tricks we’d have already burned you alive.”
“You want me to burn them, Sis?” I ask. This is a game; I don’t mean it. We play this whenever Sister says that we’ll burn this and we’ll burn that. I don’t mind, even though after every game I remind her that I don’t want to burn a person ever again. She always says she knows, but I remind her anyway.
“Hmm, maybe later,” she replies.
“Sister?” I whisper.
“Will they give us molasses where we’re going?”
“Where did that come from, love?”
“I’d like some molasses now.”
“That’s what you meant to ask me?”
Sister can tell when I lie.
I pull her sleeve and whisper in her ear: “You remember that I don’t want to burn anyone ever again, right, Sis?”
Four more comrades wait for us in the vineyard. I know they’re comrades because I recognize one of them. He has all kinds of names, Captain this and Captain that. Some call him Secretary. He wears a pair of pretty riding boots, made of leather, and he’s round, with puffed-up cheeks hidden under his beard. Almost all comrades have a beard, but his is thick and frizzy and its hairs look like black thorns.
The Secretary approaches me and squats. He fumbles in his pocket and fishes out something small and wrinkled.
“I don’t like gum,” I say. I’d ask for some molasses but I dare not. Not yet.
He laughs. “All right, little comrade. Will you show me your magic tricks? And I’ll give you whatever you want.”
“I’m not a comrade yet,” I reply, squeezing Sister’s hand.
“You think this is a freak show?” she asks the Secretary.
“Comrade,” the Secretary says, gets up and shoves the gum back in his pocket. “If she’s going to be a part of this Revolution…”
“She shouldn’t! She’s a fucking child!’’
“Yet if what they say she can do is true…”
“It doesn’t matter if it’s true! Even if you make her do it, have you thought of what will happen afterwards? What will the Bulgarians do in retaliation? They’ll lay waste to the entire countryside.”
“Let them lay waste to it, then. If that’s what it takes for the people to wake up, let them do it. These lazy-ass yokels put up with anything the Bulgarians do to them; they won’t take to the mountains, if no blood is spilled.”
“We’re not talking about a little blood. There will be a bloodbath.” Sister looks ready to catch fire, same as I can set anything I want alight.
“Comrade, we made a decision in the assembly. Do you dissent from the assembly’s decision?”
“The decision didn’t involve her, did it?”
I don’t want them to fight. As Sister would’ve said, I’ve had enough.
I light up five little doves, one for every finger. Wings of fire come to life, making the smallest of sounds, phoop, phoop, phoop, phoop, phoop. Suddenly, I hear proper fluttering: something jerks up from the vineyard and flies into the sky. I wish it were a dove too, but it’s probably an owl, and an owl is never a good omen.
Yiannis with the rifle brings his hand to his chest and makes a quick gesture as if he’s crossing himself. The Secretary shoots an angry look at him and Yiannis squeezes his hand into a fist, brings it to his mouth and coughs. It’s not that it’s forbidden to make the sign of the cross, but the comrades never do that.
Meanwhile, five doves burn quietly on my fingers and Sister has taken her hand from mine and has placed it on her forehead. She mumbles something I can’t hear, but I know her and I can read her lips under the light of my little fires. “Fuck, no,” that’s what she said. I guess I did something stupid. I put the doves out. No one speaks for a while.
“All right,” the Secretary says in the end. “But do these damn birds work, or is it just a trick?”
“They do, they do!” I say.
“Oh, they do, huh? And can you do it from afar, little comrade?”
“She can do nothing!” Sister screams. “She’s a child, she’s not a part of this bullshit!”
“Comrade,” the Secretary says. “It’s the only way and you know it.”
“You mean to tell me that this bullshit plan of yours depends on some rumors about a magic child? Didn’t we have an inside man at the power plant? Why do you need her?”
The Secretary shuts his eyes and snorts. His breath smells of onions. He opens his eyes. “They caught our inside man in the power plant yesterday. His replacement supports the Bulgarian Exarchate. Meanwhile, everyone up on the mountain is waiting for the power to go out. We don’t have any other options left, comrade. You have to choose, you and the girl both. You’re either with the Revolution, or you’re against it.”
Sister looks at the comrades; at their faces, at their hands, at their rifles. She doesn’t answer.
“So,” the Secretary says. “Let’s go.”
The moon has climbed up and the night is now a heavier grey. We walk on unseeded fields. Sister and the seven comrades have swallowed their tongues, as if the animals lurking in the wilderness would overhear their secrets. In the silence, I hear the hroop-hroop of their combat boots.
Speaking of boots, the shoes I’m wearing are too big and I’ve tucked crumpled newspapers at the tips. They’re not mine; Sister got them and my coat from a short agent. I asked her whether she’d stolen them, but she said that when we take something from the dead we don’t call it stealing. We call it looting. I asked why we call it that and what it has to do with playing the lute and she explained to me that it might be a very old simile, so good that, in the end, it was forgotten and ended up being a word of its own. I’d love it if something like this happened to one of my similes; to be so old that it finally becomes a word. Even though I think that if something like that happened, it would happen to one of Sister’s similes. They’re very good. Not always kind to the ears, but peculiar.
I walk carefully because my looted shoes sink in the ground, which is dry on top but plump underneath. There’s my chance to chat with Sister.
“The ground is like frozen snow,” I tell her.
She smiles. She’s thinking. Now she’s going to say a simile and it’s going to be way better than mine.
“Yes, that’s pretty much on the spot,” she finally says. She couldn’t find a good one. “Or like fresh bread, hard on the outside but soft on the inside.” She found one, after all.
“Why the long face? You didn’t like the simile?”
“It’s not that.”
“What is it, then?”
“Are we going to start a revolution now?”
“We’re going to do shit now.”
Sometimes, Sister swears.
I hear someone from behind: “Comrade, what happened to your high morale?”
“Shove it up your ass, asshole.”
Sometimes, Sister swears too much. Now the comrades are whispering to each other.
“Comrade, we have to inform the child.” A hoarse voice. The Secretary.
“I’ll inform her,” Sister replies. Inform is a more difficult word to say tell. The comrades use difficult words from time to time, especially when there are many of them around. I’ve been at an assembly once. I didn’t understand a thing, that’s how many difficult words they spat out.
Sister informs me. She tells me I must burn the power plant from afar.
“Yes, but I don’t want to burn people, OK?” I don’t want to burn people ever again. When my doves burn people, they scream.
“You won’t burn anyone, my love, don’t worry.”
“Do you want me to burn the power plant?”
Sister keeps her eyes shut for a while. She sighs and opens them. Just like the Secretary did earlier on, only that she looks sad and not angry.
“I do. I do.”
“And there won’t be a bud…a blood…”
“A bloodbath?” Sister asks.
“We don’t know that. The Secretary was right. There are times when you have to choose, even if you don’t know what.”
“All right, then. But, when it’s finished, will you find us some molasses?”
“I will. I’ll find us some molasses.”
I hear a psst from behind. A hand stretches towards Sister, holding a small jar without a cap. It’s Yiannis. “For the little one,” he whispers. Sister looks at him; then, she looks at me. She takes it and gives it to me.
I can’t see in the dark, but I can tell from the smell. It’s molasses.
The power plant is close to the river and the train station, but you can hear neither the gurgling waters nor the trains. You can hear nothing; not even the comrades breathing. It’s a huge building made of bricks. The bricks don’t look red under the moonlight—everything looks dark blue under the moonlight—but I know they’re reddish-brown; all bricks are reddish-brown.
An owl. It’s bad luck when an owl comes to your house. That’s why I never light up owls. Also because I don’t like them. I like doves. I wish I could make real ones, not just flames shaped like doves.
I lick my lips. My mouth still sticks from the molasses.
A thud. Not close to us, but a couple of Yiannises jump.
“What is it?” I whisper. A second thud.
“It’s coming from the trees,” Sister says. “Over there, you see?”
She points towards the trees at the train station. Behind them there is an array of train cars and another building, with a roughcast exterior and a round clock on top. A few meters away there’s a train car, collapsed to the side, gutted.
I’m not surprised by the thuds; the trees make all kinds of noises. Especially at night, if you’re in the woods.
“The aspens stretch their limbs,” Sister says. “It’s as if they’re yawning.”
“The aspens are like a fence,” I answer and Sister smiles.
“So,” the Secretary says—he must be obsessed with the word—”Come on, hurry up.”
“What’s wrong? Is the Party in a hurry?”
“Comrade, I remind you that when everything is finished I’ll have to write a report.”
“Who gives a shit?”
The Secretary clears his throat. He speaks to Sis: “Comrade, I’m afraid you haven’t chosen a side.”
“Of course I have. I just chose the wrong side. The idiots’ side.”
A comrade makes a move towards Sister—it’s not Yiannis, the one who gave me molasses. He holds his rifle with both hands, as if it’s a bat. The Secretary places his hand against his chest and stops him.
Sister grants them a glance; then she kneels down and grabs my shoulders. She always has something important to tell me when she does this. Like now. She explains to me what I need to do.
“Do you understand?”
“All right,” she says and caresses my hair. She knows I like it when she caresses my hair. She likes it too—even though it’s cut like a boy’s—because it’s ginger and soft.
“And then we’ll ask the comrade where he found the molasses and we’ll go get some more,” she says.
“All right,” I say and softly push her with my elbow. I hear whispers. I don’t light up my doves yet.
I turn and look at her. “Are there people in the power plant?”
“And how does it work, then?”
“It’s automated, my little Pyrrha.”
“When something is automated, it means that it runs on its own.”
I’d ask her if we’re all automated, but, “Hurry up!” the Secretary’s yelling through clenched jaws. “Shut up!” says Sister.
“And what are those whispers, then?”
“The comrades, my love.” The tone of her voice is the same as before, when she talked about the whole automated thing; flat.
“Sis… You remember that I don’t want to burn anyone, right?”
“I remember, love.” Here, the same tone again.
“All right.” I wait a bit. The owl has stopped crying. Now, I can hear the wind blowing, like a trowel smoothening mortar. This is Sister’s simile.
I hear more things, apart from the wind. Whispers: “She’s a pain in the ass. Let’s just toss a grenade.” “The grenade’s not enough, you idiot. The machines are inside. Even ten grenades wouldn’t be enough.” You could say that the whispers too were like a trowel smoothening mortar. “And what’s this bitch telling her?” “She’s her sister, you asshole.” Lies. “Bullshit.” Oh, he knows. “Isn’t she?” “No, you fucker, the little shit’s an orphan.” I’m not a little shit, just an orphan. Long story. But Sister said that now she’s my sister.
“Love?” Sister’s voice; same tone, same tone.
“Yes,” I say. And I do what I have to, in order for the trowel to stop smoothening the mortar. That is, to make the whispers stop. Not the wind. Even though, in a short while, I’ll make the wind hush too. It happens when you cause a ruckus; softer noises disappear.
I light up ten doves, one for every finger. I feel the air through their fiery claws. It’s a nice, night wind, just a bit moist from the stream, but not too much. It swirls around my fingers and tickles my skin where the fingers join.
“Is that it?” someone asks.
A little dove flexes its wings. Another one picks the feathers under its armpit. Or wingpits. Whatever doves have.
Someone spits. “We shouldn’t have come. The kid’s a fraud.”
Two doves flap their wings and hover above my hands. Another one coos silently. Well, not exactly silently, it makes a subtle fthup.
“We’ll have to barge in, I’m telling you. And how will we get out?”
“Shut the fuck up!”
“Shut up? With all this bullshit and the damned birds they’ll sniff us out. And then…”
My doves take flight. They lift themselves up, more like butterflies and less like real birds, leaving glimmering sparkles as they go—a small flock of flames—and then they enter the power plant through a window on the ground floor.
The fire rises with a gust of wind, foup.
“Look,” I say to Sister and point at the ground floor windows. “The fire is like a beaded curtain.” I look at her, but she’s not smiling.
Indeed, orange ribbons dance like paper curtains blown by the wind. My doves are flying inside the building, their wings brushing against wooden beams, chairs, tables, floors, ceilings. I can’t see my birds, but the windows, one after another, gain their own ribbons, while a yellow, blinding light pours out of the first ones, the kind of light you can’t look directly at because it’ll hurt your eyes. The crackling of the fire sounds like a lullaby and still no Bulgarian is on to us. My doves must be sowing fire in the upper floor now, while grey snakes of smoke lash out of a ground floor window, shapes I can’t control, with bodies that swell more and more and turn into trees with fiery blossoms. The power plant’s burning pretty much as regular houses burn, and as I’m thinking that, over the crackling of the wood and the furniture crashing and the beams falling apart, I hear something. It happens sometimes, to hear something not as loud as the rest of the commotion, maybe because what you pick up is strange or unexpected. Now, for example, this something sounds like fluttering, like an owl’s wings, and my heart clenches.
“What’s this, asshole?”
“There. Top floor, at the window.”
For a moment, my heart feels lighter at the thought that the living dove that takes flight might be one of my creations. The next moment I notice its wings burning; it’s like the ones I make or, rather, like a firefly—would Sister like this simile? I don’t know, I just hear her breathing cut short, and it’s strange, my hearing must be excellent to be able to hear her breathing and the bird’s fluttering as it manages to fly away. The wind that ruffles its feathers slowly puts the fire out; the bird will make it. It flies off into the night sky. Behind it I hear a hissing sound, something weak and weird that I recognize too. A chick appears on the same window sill. It’s tiny and it’s frantically looking around and one of its tiny wings is on fire. A small fire springs up behind it; no, it’s one of my doves, and I immediately put it out with a small explosion which scares the chick; it hops delicately on the windowsill, slips and jumps off, and I hope it follows the other bird that got away, but no, the chick falls, then flutters and manages to gain some height, only a little, so little. And then I hear the soft thud on the ground.
A hand squeezes my shoulder. It’s Sister’s. I said that I didn’t want to burn anyone; and when I said anyone I meant any people. Sometimes you have to think of every little detail before you say what you want to say.
My doves have faded, the power plant’s on fire, but the city remains silent, just like the comrades. Something is moving at the window, perhaps there’s a third bird or the flames may be playing tricks, now they look like… I forget what they look like. I hear the scream.
It’s a human scream. It comes from inside the building and breaks down into shorter screams, sharp and loud and desperate. A ground floor door collapses and a human shadow appears at the frame in front of an orange, blazing background. It’s probably a man. I see him in a blur, because tears have welled up in my eyes since the chick fell.
“Sister,” I whisper and feel her moving. Her hand flies off my shoulder. She elbows the comrade next to her. “What are you doing?” he says.
“Don’t just look at him, you asshole! Shoot him!”
“They’ll hear us.”
And at that moment, they do. Not us, but the power plant, out of which comes a deafening bang that swallows the man’s screams. The man runs and falls and gets up again; runs, falls and gets back up. The flames on his body almost fade whenever he stumbles, just like with the birds earlier, but every time he gets up they rekindle, and I don’t want to say it, but they do look like wings.
“Can’t she put him out?”
The one asking is Yiannis, the comrade who had woken us up, the one who gave me the molasses.
“No, she can’t,” Sister says. “And now they definitely heard us. So, stop wasting time. Finish him.”
Yiannis puts the butt of the rifle on his shoulder.
“Fuck him,” the Secretary says. “He’s Bulgarian.”
“What is it, love?”
“Sister.” I smother a sob. The bang from the explosion has left a constant iiing and a buzzing in my ears, as if from a truck engine. “I told you I don’t want to kill anyone…”
“Yes, my love, but…”
A shot and Sister collapses in my arms. I step back and her hands fall off my shoulders, they slide down half-clenched, they scratch my clothes and end up on her throat as she crouches on my feet. A spring of blood gushes from her neck, painting her hands, her fingers, the skin between them. A truck’s engine. More shots. Voices in Bulgarian. The guard’s screams. Yiannis, who gave me molasses, falls down, pretty much like Sister. The Secretary kneels above her. Shakes her. “Tell her! Tell her to save us! To burn them!”
Sister opens her mouth, but says nothing. Shots, fire crackling, explosions, screams. Yiannis moans, injured. The Secretary grabs the rifle.
I drop next to him, on top of Sister, her blood sticks on my fingers, like the molasses on my lips. Her eyelashes flutter. The Secretary aims across the field and shoots—the sound is deafening. Then, a shot from afar, the Secretary jerks away, drops the rifle and falls on his side too. He clutches his shoulder and groans. He grabs my arm with his other hand. His fingers are trembling, his nails dig into my clothes, so I stop shaking Sister.
“Wake up,” I tell her, “you swore to me…” I don’t want to blame her for swearing to me that I wouldn’t have to burn people. Her face is still, her eyes are still, white, like landscapes. “Wake up and I don’t care how many of them I burn!”
“Leave her,” the Secretary says. “She’s gone. Dead.”
Sister’s blood gathers in a pool around my coat and knees. It’s warm and my skirt floats on it, like a water lily. She would love this simile. But she’ll never hear another, neither will she come up with one. Perhaps, if I repeat her good similes again and again, then they’ll too become words, like “loot” has?
The shots from the comrades are sparse now, but I can hear some far away, from where the truck engine was coming, scattered, then three in a row, three more, two, silence, one, silence. Silence, by which I mean fire crackling and comrades groaning. The guard has fallen silent. Yiannis has fallen silent. Footsteps are approaching, voices in Bulgarian. Shadows in the dark, I can see them moving; they’re coming.
“Burn them,” the Secretary says, now barely standing on his feet. He’s panting, like a hound. “Burn them, they’re Bulgarian. Didn’t you just say to your Sister you don’t care? Burn them, perhaps she’s only wounded… Perhaps we can save her, perhaps…”
“Shut the fuck up,” I tell him and his mouth drops. It’s like an O now. “I’m not stupid and I don’t burn people, you asshole.” I sound like Sis. I push his hand off my arm. The blood in the pool is now lukewarm against my knees. My skirt is soaked.
“I—I know you’re not stupid…” he stutters. “But… But if you don’t burn them, they’ll kill you.”
The Bulgarians are close. Under the dead moonlight I notice helmets, rifles. One of them shouts, but I don’t understand a word he says. I don’t speak Bulgarian. He must be yelling something at the Secretary.
“So, you have to choose,” he says, as if he’s talking to himself. Now he’s not panting as much. “You’re either with the Revolution or against it.” And then he gets ready to shoot, but the shooting comes from the Bulgarians. Not one shot; four. The Secretary collapses next to me. There’s a hole above his ear, black blood is pouring out. His round belly doesn’t seem as swollen now, perhaps because he’s lying face down. A black pond forms underneath him, smaller than the one that swallowed my knees, my skirt, the edges of my coat. A small stream of it comes towards me, warm blood mixes with cold.
The Bulgarians are here. They have the butts of their rifles on their shoulders and they tilt their heads to take aim. They say something and they lower their guns. They hang their rifles on their shoulders. One of them takes a pistol out of a leather holder and leans over the comrades. He shoots them on the head. Every bang sounds deafening, but I don’t jerk any more, I’m used to it now. In the end, you get used to anything.
I shut my eyes. The shots continue, once in a while, steadily. Bam. Silence. Bam. Silence. I open my eyes. The hand with the pistol is near me. The soldier is skinny and hunched and he smells of garlic and unwashed clothes. His eyes are sad. “Sŭzhalyavam, momiche,” he says and I think he says he’s sorry. Sister’s face seems silver under the moonlight.
The soldier’s pistol aims at her head.
I light up ten doves and the soldier steps back. Scared voices, rustling. Rifles pointing at me. A dove lifts its tiny leg from my finger, another one stretches its wings. Silence.
The Secretary said I have to choose. Sister had promised that I wouldn’t burn any people. But I did. Sometimes you have to choose yourself. Sometimes, choosing is a total mess.
Every gun barrel is on me. Rifles and the pistol that was aiming at Sister point at me. I wish Sister would wake up and speak to them; if she woke up she’d find a way to save us. But her face is still silver and her blood cold and sometimes you have to choose yourself what to do.
The doves have stretched their wings, ready. But a fluttering that comes from the power plant is quicker. I turn to see and I hear the shot and then something burns my throat and my chest fills with something wet and warm, like Sister’s blood around my knees. I see the tops of the aspen trees, far at the train station, the power plant on fire. I don’t see my doves, but up there, in the sky, among the stars that blink behind the blurry ribbons of smoke, a bird is fluttering and flies up high; I don’t know why, but I’m sure it’s the chick that fell off before. My arms and legs are heavy; I can’t help it, and I fall like a marionette with its strings cut.