Pripet Marshes, Northwest Ukraine, June 1944

Immaculate Conception

Ivan Pomorenko sat on a dry hummock near the mosquito-netted entrance to the bunker. Earlier he heard heavy vehicles moving, probably German, and assumed that they were building a temporary road somewhere to the north of the bunker. The marsh water had receded, and Pomorenko would have to move their hideout further in. He heard another soft moan from the entrance, and laughed bitterly—the Germans were killing everyone now because the front line was moving west-ward toward them and they now had to finish everything before leaving. In the past week alone he had gone out on sorties looking for food and information and had found tortured corpses; women and children and old men with their faces blasted away, partisans hanging from trees with their mouths full of flies and shiny ravens perched on their shoulders. Such was what became of their endless speculating about Ukrainian independence, and now all that was left was to kill before being killed. Even politics meant nothing. Only killing meant something. As long as there were two people killing independently, then there was a sort of Ukrainian independence. And he thought, no, one person killing.

And then, almost as if it were a vision from some perfect, earlier life, he saw her again: the side of her head with her cheek mashed onto the stock of the Mauser, and he with the field glasses, preparing to watch what seemed to him some cryptic scientific experiment, or some act of magic. A year ago, when she was sixteen, a year and a half. There was no sharp-shooter anyone knew or heard of who shot with the accuracy that she did. Pomorenko would watch until she began to relax around the rifle, both eyes open, and then he would turn and look through the field glasses —the two watery circles would melt into one, and he would see the figure in green, or better, black or grey—he could even see the insignia on the chest and on the collar. Then he would wait. The air would be hollow and dead for a second, like a half-held breath, and it would explode with a powerful surge of sound and energy, after which there would be a pause where time would seem to stop as the bullet made its flight. He would focus his eyes in the liquid circle, and see the man’s head explode. In the glasses he would clearly see the flying mist of blood and brain and hair, before the man crumpled in a heap to the ground. He would always turn and look again at her as she raised her face off the rifle stock, and he would see a wistful, hazy smile, almost as if she were in some very personal kind of trance, mesmerized by the beautiful silence that followed the shot.