Loviisa held the rifle to arms, narrowed her eyes to focus on the deer in her sights. The glare of the sunlight made her head hurt, but she went away inside herself, to the cool perfect zero that enveloped her in the moment before she pulled the trigger.
She had learned to find comfort in pain and exhaustion before during and after her mandatory year of military service. Otso, her fiancee had died whilst she was out on exercise, whilst building the farm they would raise cattle and children on. She had wept herself into exhaustion, but the work of building then maintaining the farm became a way to absolve herself of her grief and guilt.
Her parents wrote letters, alternating between pleas and admonitions. They asked her to come home, but she told them in the plainest way possible she was home. It stung her, that they could not see how hard it had been for her, that she was making the best of it.
On the days she could not lift her arms above her head to undress, she believed herself incapable of it, but in time, she had built a fine smallholding and all of it her own work down to the last nail. She hunted as much for the reward of the hunt itself as the meat it allowed her to store. The cows were stubborn, the chickens stupid but the rifle never let her down.
She wore her white suit, furred on the inside with her finger on the trigger and all the world’s fate determined on a few ounces of pressure. She took in a deep breath, held it and pulled the trigger.
The deer collapsed the ground. She slung her rifle, unsheathed her knife and went over to it. She made a good, deep incision and pulled the intestines and anus with a good, hard tug that stained the snow a deep red beneath it. The upper organs joined the rest before she dragged the carcass back to the farm.
Let mother and father see how I struggle, she thought.
She had the carcass hanging from a hook in the larder before sundown. Her hands steamed and shone with blood. The act of death and birth was the same to her. Blood. Pain. Such thoughts led back to Otto and she left them in the dark of the larder.
She lit the fire to boil water and make dinner. Her back and thighs had ached when she heard the birdsong and went to listen.
A high melody always drew out the girl in her, even smeared in deer blood and sweat.
The sparrow sat on the branch of a fir, singing without a care in the world. She envied it but still stood there with the door open, listening to it and smiling to herself.
The song was a precious stone mounted on a bed of velvet silence. Its sweetness drew a dull blade down her side but she bore it without complaint.
Sparrows, Otto had told her, were psychopomps. Emissaries to and from the land of the dead. Its fragile courage gave truth to the idea, Loviisa thought and she wished she could sing her own joy to it. They might have been friends.
Joni crashed through the trees, with his left hand pressed to his shoulder, his raw lean face tight with shock.
He was sweating and unsteady on his feet as he approached her. He had time enough for two words before falling away into a deep faint.
‘The russians.’ he said.
Loviisa dragged him inside. He was lighter than a carcass, but she took him into the cabin rather than the larder.
She cleaned his wound, bandaged it and he ate a bowl of elk stew whilst he relayed the news to her.
Stalin had ordered Finland to cede territories along its border.
Territories like the land she owned and farmed.
The Russians would come through here. Through her.
‘You must come with me. It’s not safe here.’ he said.
Loviisa helped herself to another bowl of stew and shook her head.
‘This is my farm, I cannot just leave it.’
Joni meant well, but he spoke the same words as her parents, just from a different place and time. She smiled and blew across the surface of her stew. She whistled a little, and it sounded like the song of a bird.
A bird of prey.
She told Joni that he could stay the night and then leave in the morning. His feet were blistered and raw from his run, fortunate to survive his encounter by more courageous patriots and telling him to run.
Loviisa awoke before dawn. She broke down and cleaned her rifle, wrapped up whatever rounds she had in her parent’s letters to keep them dry and clean and packed whatever tins of food she could fit into her kit bag. She repeated the maintenance and cleaning routine with a sub-machine gun, an ugly but reliable souvenir from her time in service.
Joni watched from beneath the covers. Loviisa was a, robust woman but as she packed, her purpose lent her a beauty terrible in its power. He hated the Russians for what they had come here to do, but looking at her, he feared for them too.
Loviisa kept her promise and escorted him to the edge of the forest. She walked slow, precise and quiet. Joni worried that if he took his eyes from her, she would fade into the woods.
He stopped, fighting for something to say.
‘What are you going to do, Loviisa? You cannot fight them’
She walked over and planted a warm kiss that would haunt him into his dotage.
‘No, Joni, but I can hunt them.’
She turned and walked away. A sparrow sung overhead and as he watched her walk away, he thought he heard her whistling.
She hunted Russian soldiers through six feet of snow in temperatures of minus twenty.
Seven hundred and five Russian soldiers dead by the time the war was over.
They called her ‘The White Sparrow.’