Svetlana Kortchik was born in a small Siberian town of Tomsk and, when she was 16, moved to Australia with her mum. She has lived in London for the last five years, working as a computer programmer. Her passions are writing, travelling, history and martial arts.
Three Months of Summer
by Svetlana Kortchik
Katya walked as fast as she could through the nearly empty streets of occupied Kharkiv, trying to keep up with her brother Anton. Gentle afternoon sun played on the walls of war damaged buildings, illuminating gaunt faces of the town’s inhabitants. At least it’s warm again, Katya thought with relief, shuddering at the memory of last winter when so many people died from cold and hunger. The old and the young, strangers and people she knew. For Katya, war meant living in fear for everyone she loved. More and more each day, it meant thinking about nothing but food. And most of all, it meant losing hope.
Right now, however, all she could think about was catching up to her brother and convincing him to go home. The streets of Kharkiv weren’t safe anymore, especially so late in the afternoon.
‘Anton, wait. We can’t go there. It’s the German part of town.’ At eighteen, Katya was very protective of her fifteen-year-old brother and tried to look out for him as much as she could.
‘Trust me. It’s fine. I’ve been here before.’
‘That doesn’t mean it’s safe,’ muttered Katya, but, ignoring her, Anton sped up again, and she had no choice but to follow him. Her sparkly green sandals, the only pair of high-heeled shoes she owned, left angry red marks on her skin, and her feet were killing her. She wished she could take them off and walk barefoot on the dusty pavement.
Turning around the corner, they came across a German regiment. Soldiers were having dinner, and the delicious smell of meatballs and sausages, cooked with tomatoes and basil, made Katya’s mouth water. One of the officers was playing a guitar, which sounded gloomy and melancholy, muffled by loud laughter of the rest of the soldiers. A few Soviet children were huddled in the corner, as if waiting for something.
Finishing his song, the soldier put his guitar down, walked briskly to the kitchen and then came out again, balancing plates in one hand and a giant soup pot in another. Seeing the soldier pour the soup for Soviet kids, Katya blinked in disbelief, as if doubting her eyes. His kindness contradicted everything she knew about German soldiers, and yet there it was, right in front of her in the evening dusk.
Suddenly, Anton jumped up and began to sing, his voice trembling slightly, whether from nerves or excitement, Katya couldn’t tell: ‘O Tannenbaum, o Tannenbaum, wie grün sind deine Blätter!’
‘Anton, you are singing in German!’ Katya was horrified.
‘So what? They love it. Aren’t you hungry?’ Shaking her head at her brother’s audacity, Katya had to admit that yes, of course she was hungry. Come to think of it, she struggled to remember the last time she was full. It seemed like a lifetime ago.
Anton was right. The young German soldier heard him and changed direction, walking straight towards them. His eyes seemed to be drinking her in, admiring her long blond hair and slim legs exposed by a short yellow dress. A bright summer dress to lift her spirits in the bleakness of German occupation. Feeling his eyes on her, Katya was pleased that she wore the dress.
The officer poured two platefuls of soup and handed them to Anton and Katya. Taking her plate, she studied him. He was tall, very tall, taller than any man she’d ever met before. His black hair, dark eyes and broad shoulders made Katya’s heart beat faster, and she went bright red, lowering her gaze.
The soldier turned to Anton. ‘I love this song. Where did you learn it?’ To Katya’s surprise, he spoke almost perfect Russian, his words only faintly marked by a slight accent.
‘At school,’ Anton was staring at him with undisguised curiosity. ‘Where did you learn Russian?’
‘My grandparents are Russian. From Moscow.’ He smiled at Anton, who tucked into his food, trying to eat as fast as he could and already asking for more.
‘Moscow? Cool! We have a cousin there,’ Anton muttered through a mouthful of bread.
The soldier put the plates down and sat on the ground next to them. ‘My name is Hans.’ He stretched out his hand and Katya shook it, her own hand barely half the size of his.
‘I’m Anton and this is Katya. Don’t mind her, she’s too shy to talk to strangers.’
Pinching Anton, Katya protested: ‘I’m not too shy!’ That was a lie—she was shy. But she wasn’t about to admit it in front of Hans. If only she could stop blushing. ‘It’s nice of you to feed the kids,’ she said quietly.
‘It’s the least I can do.’ His shoulders tensed as he gazed at starving children and at starving Katya. ‘I have six little brothers and sisters back home.’
‘Do you miss home?’
‘Every day. Can’t wait to go back.’ His chocolate eyes melted at the thought of home. ‘You live with your parents?’
‘Yes, we do. My dad is at the front. We haven’t had any letters from him since the occupation.’ She finished her soup and hid her bread safely in a small bag, which she always carried with her in case she came across something to eat. Although strangely drawn to Hans, she also felt a little timid around him. What was she supposed to say to a German soldier whom she couldn’t help but like, no matter how much she wished she didn’t? She wasn’t good at small talk at the best of times. ‘We better get going or mama will wonder where we are. Let’s go, Anton.’
‘Wait a second.’ The soldier seemed reluctant to let them leave. ‘I’ll give you some sausages and butter. And some more bread. You can take it home to your mum.’
Anton jumped up and down with enthusiasm. ‘Wow, sausages! We haven’t had those for months!’
As Hans turned around to go back to the kitchen, Katya murmured uncertainly, ‘I’m not sure we can accept it …’ But she stopped talking abruptly as she felt Anton’s sharp elbow dig into her ribs. ‘Ouch,’ she whispered and bit her lip.
Taking the food from Hans, Katya thanked him, grabbed Anton’s hand and walked away. Halfway down the street, however, she couldn’t help but turn around. He was still looking at them, and for some reason seeing him standing there made her smile. He waved, and she waved back, trying to ignore an unfamiliar feeling of excitement that suddenly filled her whole being.
Katya and Hans held hands, enjoying the humid warmth of Ukrainian summer. Shevchenko Park was magnificent at this time of year, with its flowers as far as the eye could see and its centuries-old oak trees overlooking tranquil green ponds. Walking barefoot on the grass was the best feeling in the world, she thought. Hans kissed her. No, this is the best feeling! In the midst of the occupied city, amongst suffering and grief and death and starvation, she was desperately, recklessly, incorrigibly in love.
Every evening for the last month she came to see Hans at his barracks, and not a living soul knew about it. She was torn by doubt and guilt but she couldn’t help falling for him more and more each day. And whenever she was with him, the doubt and the guilt vanished and she felt unbearably happy. She felt more alive than ever.
‘I love lilies,’ she said, pointing at hundreds of snow white flowers, which were just beginning to bloom. ‘Somehow they make everything seem so much more cheerful. I bet you don’t have parks like this in Germany.’ She tickled him, making him giggle.
‘Oh yes, we do. Even better than this! I grew up on a farm. We have land, animals, and even a river and a lake. I learnt to swim before I learnt how to walk.’ Hans put his hands around her and she felt momentarily dizzy.
‘That sounds wonderful. I wish I could see it one day.’
‘One day you will! I can’t wait for you to meet my parents.’
She was quiet for a minute, her eyes thoughtful and apprehensive. ‘How can that ever be possible? You are German. And I … I can’t even tell you where I live because I don’t want my family or neighbours to see you when you come for a visit.’ She looked at him pleadingly, as if hoping that somehow he could make everything alright.
‘I think you should tell me where you live.’ He sighed. They walked in silence, past the breathtaking scenery of birch trees and pines, unaffected and calm in the still summer air.
‘I’m so scared, Hans. I can’t bear it anymore,’ she said. What she didn’t say was: I can’t bear the thought of being without you. Turning around to face him, she whispered: ‘How do you feel about being here, in the Soviet Union? I mean, as a German soldier. I would feel terrible if I was a part of something like that.’ She quivered slightly. For weeks, she tried to avoid asking the one question that bothered her the most. For weeks, they spoke about everything except the most important topic of all. Now, seeing the sadness in his eyes, she wished she kept quiet. Hurting his feelings was too high a price to pay to hear the answer that deep in her heart she already knew. Apologetically, she took his hand, squeezing it gently.
‘Of course I feel terrible. None of it is easy. You think soldiers like me have a choice? We are just following orders. But, Katya, it has nothing to do with you and me.’
‘How can you say that? There’s a war on, Hans.’ She turned away, trying to hide the sudden tears behind her sun-streaked hair.
‘Katya, listen to me. The war will be over one day, soon. What I feel for you is for life. I want to marry you.’ He held her, wiping her tears away, and as she listened to his soothing voice, for a fleeting summer moment, a perfect summer moment when there was just the two of them and nothing else mattered, she almost believed him.