(© Biswapriya Purkayastha)
Here in the south, in afternoon in late summer the air is
drenched in sunshine, and looks as heavy as though it is full of honey. And
when a vehicle passes, the dust from its wheels hangs in the air as though
suspended in the liquid and reluctant to come down to the ground again.
It was an afternoon in
late summer when Alyosha’s tank came over the bulge of the little hill and
clanked down the trail through the birch forest. Tanks and soldiers had already
passed this way, and the air was still so hazy with dust that Alyosha had to
squint through the driver’s hatch to see to steer.
"Keep your mouth closed,
fishling," the bow machine gunner, Fyodor, said from his right. His large face
was creased with dirt mixed in with his beard stubble, and he rubbed his jaw
with a finger and held it up to demonstrate. "You don’t want that in your
mouth. All the pretty girls will laugh at your teeth."
Alyosha flushed. They all
kept making fun of him, because he was the new one, straight out of tank driver
training, and they called him fishling. It wasn’t his fault
that he was young and green and they were all veterans, or that he was the
replacement for the former driver, who had been killed by a sniper bullet right
through the front hatch.
That memory made him
nervous, as though someone was drawing a bead through a sniper scope at the top
of his chest, but there was nothing to be done about it. Besides, he told
himself, the enemy had gone from this sector and there was no fighting left to
Yes, but suppose they had
left behind a few men to delay the advance and fight to the last?
His thoughts were
interrupted by the commander’s voice in the helmet headphones. "Driver, slow
down. We turn off in fifty metres."
"Da, tovarish Starshina."
Alyosha stamped on the clutch and yanked back on the gearshift as hard as he
could. It amazed him as always how much strength it took to change gears on the
T 34/85, and once again he wondered just why he’d been chosen for tank driver
training when he was so small and thin. Once he’d asked and been told, leavened
with plenty of profanity, that it was because he was so small
"It’s little fishes like
you who can jump in easily through the driver’s hatch," Fyodor had said,
rotating his shoulders, hefty with muscle. As though, Alyosha had thought
sourly,he didn’t have to crawl in through the same hatch. And Sasha
the gunner had added from behind and above, "Besides, you’re so small that if
some sniper shoots at you through the hatch he’ll probably miss." And everyone
had laughed except Alyosha himself and Tereshchenko, the senior sergeant tank
"Turn off to the left,"
Tereshchenko called now, over the intercom. "Ten metres."
Alyosha pulled in the
left steering tiller and jerked the tank into the turn. Through the open hatch he
could see the village, a jumble of houses across a stretch of fields. Some
people were watching them from outside the houses.
"Back before the war,"
Fyodor said conversationally, "you could have a good time in these villages.
They knew how to live, no complexes on their backs like city people. And the
girls after harvest time, they..."
Alyosha tuned him out,
concentrating on driving the tank up the rutted trail to the village. The ruts
were so deep that each time a track would hit one the entire tank tilted
slightly, and the squad of soldiers riding on the rear deck swore and shouted abuse.
Here, off the main track, the dust was less thick but still enough to make his
eyes smart. He wished he had a pair of goggles.
They passed a line of
ditches dug into the fields perpendicular to the track, and arrived at the
village. Alyosha brought the vehicle to a juddering halt without waiting for
the commander’s order. Leaning back in his narrow seat, he switched off the
engine. The sudden silence was sweet.
A small knot of people
was coming up the village lane towards the tank. They looked apprehensive, and
were led by an old man with long grey moustaches.
"You’d think they’d be
happy to see us," Fyodor grunted. "Instead just look at them!"
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