They call her the robber girl because she takes whatever she wants, and what she wants to take most are lives. She does it best with her Mosin-Nagant, iron-sighted like all sensible snipers; she has done it with flare matches and bottles of sticky petrol, with a borrowed rifle when her own jammed in a fog of snow and cordite and once, the time she remembers because she wore it back to camp like a uniform, with a knife and the freezing bark of pine branches, smashed like red windows in the snow. Glass is the enemy of secrecy: it glints, it clouds, it splinters. The robber girl’s breath dances reflections on her lashes and she blinks them clear, looking for Soviet coats and caps, summer-khaki against the winter’s white eye. There is snow in everyone’s hearts these days.
She sleeps with her arm around the neck of the boy called Reindeer, for his dark, delicate eyes and his long-legged stride over the wind-crusted drifts. He makes a poor soldier, but she swore to herself when she was eight that she would keep him safe and she has kept that promise through the Mannerheim Line and Taipale and Tolvajärvi, showing him how to stuff his boots and sling his rifle and stitch bedsheets into snow-smocks, the little blue-and-white badge he pinned to his student’s cap almost the same colour as the forget-me-nots he picked once for her. She has never wanted to kiss him, with his face all wind-skinned angles and his soft lank hair as buttery as cloudberries; she never had a brother to love him like and when she dreams with her fellow-soldiers of clean deep-pillowed beds and warm stoves and nothing itching anywhere, it is not a body like his, broad-shouldered and bony, that entangles her. But she will set herself against all odds between him and the snow that wraps itself around the bodies of dying men, whispers itself into their mouths, leaves their eyes open so that they stare, dazzled, forever into its heart; he is the last companion of her childhood and so she understands the girl who comes from the south with not even a pistol in her hand, looking for a boy lost, like so many before him, to the winter and the war.
She brought her name with her, but the robber girl thinks of her as the rose girl — she looks like a schoolgirl with her long, fair plait and her blouse that comes untucked at the back when she bends, her cheeks as flushed as if they were newly scrubbed, but her nails are bitten short and broken, so that sometimes, passing a plate or a cartridge, she scratches, and the green of her eyes is pricked around the edges with something that will smart if touched; the robber girl is careful not to. Her pockets are full of bark bread and salmiakki, the dried skin of a stockfish like a letter from which the writing has been scraped clean; she came on foot over birch forests and spruce bogs, behind the lines of battle, asking at every camp she found. She was lucky, river-led, charmed as a mad thing. An officer by the sedge-lashed shores of Ladoga gave her a coat of furs sent by his fiancée, a scout with crow-black hair warned her away from the trails frozen hard enough for tanks not to mire down in. Her boots were stitched with red once, but the snow broke every thread until she turned north. Cross-legged by the stove at night as it spits over ice-grained knots of pine, she shows the robber girl her only token of a boy who loved mathematics and puzzles and strode off into the cold sunshine of a recruiting day as if he could see the snow calling, hollowing itself a place to fit his limbs when he threw his arms open for the bullet and fell: the burnt red petals of a rose, dried and crushed close as a heart. It fits in her palm, when she curls up to sleep. She smells like moss and the sweat of a long road, dusty crescents behind her ears like a child that needs washing. With one arm around her neck, one hand on her knife as she has slept since she left home to learn to kill, the robber girl does not sleep.
She gives the rose girl a knife, because she cannot fight Russians with salt candy and summer flowers; she gives her a kiss on the mouth, because she cannot fight snow with steel. When their hair curls together, she cuts the bright and dark strands and twines them like a compass, though she knows it will not lead the rose girl back to her. The robber girl has deaths to steal and Reindeer to look after, the war to fight until she falls like a broken window in the snow or walks home to a quiet house she can hardly remember, with forget-me-nots in the meadow and rye bread rising on the stove; the rose girl has a boy in steel-rimmed spectacles to find, if they have not shattered like cat-ice, blinded him, deceived him, given him away. He wore a soldier’s new boots and loved the taste of licorice, black as biting frost. It burned the robber girl’s lips, strong as tears in a kiss. When he asks, she gives her Reindeer, just as far as the forest’s edge, his light-footed swiftness to lead her over the treacherous rime, the branch-tangles that lie under the breaking crusts of snow, and she lies with her arm around no one’s neck that night. She dreams of running with them, over endless snowfields without ski-tracks or the treads of stopped tanks; she dreams of summer, as distant and strange as home. She dreams of her finger on the trigger, the sun on the shine of glass. She dreams of blood, blooming like roses in the snow.
Story copyright © 2014 by Sonya Taaffe
Artwork copyright © 2014 by Gregory St. John
Sonya Taaffe‘s short fiction and poetry can be found in the collections Postcards from the Province of Hyphens (Prime Books), Singing Innocence and Experience (Prime Books), and A Mayse-Bikhl (Papaveria Press), and in anthologies including Beyond Binary: Genderqueer and Sexually Fluid Speculative Fiction, The Moment of Change: An Anthology of Feminist Speculative Poetry, People of the Book: A Decade of Jewish Science Fiction & Fantasy, The Year’s Best Fantasy and Horror, The Alchemy of Stars: Rhysling Award Winners Showcase, and The Best of Not One of Us. She is currently senior poetry editor at Strange Horizons; she holds master’s degrees in Classics from Brandeis and Yale and once named a Kuiper belt object. She lives in Somerville with her husband and their two cats.
Gregory St. John is an artist and fiction writer living in Gainesville, Florida. If he is not painting or sculpting, tending to his gardens and chickens, studying history and science, reading while walking his four dogs, cooking, or building something, he is hard at work at the family perfume business, Solstice Scents. He is currently drafting his first novel and editing a collection of his short stories titled The Short and Curlies, featuring “The Presence of Hell,” “Servant of Stone,” “A Helping Hand,” and “The Dare.”