With each contraction, the mother’s knuckles tightened around Zoya’s hand. The Nazi occupation made it dangerous to bring a child into the world, especially for an unwed young woman. As a midwife—and one who worked with magic—Zoya did what she could to heal the girl’s stretched and broken flesh. Her enchantments were solely physical, though; there was nothing she could do to relieve the anticipation of bringing a child into a war-stricken world.
Once the birth was over, Zoya was spent, too. She made her way home and fell into an easy chair, finally reading a new letter from her sister Anastasia, off defending Russia with a squadron of women flyers.
Last night, the plane rattled with every breeze and felt ready to shatter from each echo of nearby enemy fire. At first glance, these aircraft look like toys, made of nothing but plywood, nails, and glue, not a fleet of bombers.
Zoya held the letter to her chest, thinking of her sister in the air, brave but magicless. Ana wasn’t like Mama or the other women in their family, who could fly and heal flesh. Instead, this wooden box sounded like a winged coffin, a death trap for crossfire. Exhausted and fretting, Zoya fell asleep in the chair, dreaming of her sister at the front.
…Our numbers grow, we women donning uniforms and taking to the air. They call our volatile, fearless crew the Night Witches. And Zoya, we need you.
She woke, heart racing from hearing her sister’s voice in the dream. Zoya packed and waited for nightfall, the only safe time for a witch’s flight. On such a short winter’s day, there was little delay for cover of darkness.
Many afternoons as children, before Zoya came into her magic, the sisters played pretend. Anastasia would be a hawk, wings wide and keen-eyed, relentlessly chasing Zoya, a wren camouflaged in brown. They leapt and swooped, whooped and whirled. Two years older, Anastasia also was bolder, but Zoya confided that something stirred in her quiet energy.
One afternoon, scaling their favorite tree, they both lost their footing. When Anastasia dropped, she sprained her wrist, but Zoya landed on her feet without injury. While healing Anastasia’s hand, Mama told the girls that no one understood why some inherited magical talents and others didn’t, but this accident was the first sign that Zoya was likely a witch—and Ana was not.
To these inseparable girls, their differences didn’t matter. Anastasia loved sitting cross-legged on the lawn, watching Mama teach Zoya how to fly. “Use magic as breath and your body as a lung,” Mama demonstrated, cupping her hands to her mouth and sucking in air. When her sister followed along, Anastasia expected to see a balloon bulge from her chest. Instead, Zoya’s body launched into the air with a single exhale, and Ana laughed with joy to see her sister take off.
Anastasia wished she could release her own unbounded energy to the skies. Her urgency grew as the years passed, while Zoya honed her magic for healing instead of flight. So when Stalin called for women to join up in defense of the country, Ana jumped at the chance for a thrill to rival that of her sister’s abilities.
One sister, the hawk, went off to war. The other, the wren, stayed home, channeling her magic for women who needed her to survive childbirth.
Sitting in the cockpit, Anastasia closed the top button of her jacket and cinched the uniform belt one notch tighter. She couldn’t count on it for warmth in this freezing wind, but it was a damn good vehicle for dropping bombs on the Nazis. On the ground, it looked like nothing but a little box with wings. Loaded with explosives, her matchbox turned into a firestarter.
It was Anastasia’s third run that night. The radiant light of a full moon bounced off the canvas-stretched plywood structure of the plane, barely shielding her from scattered storm clouds. A whistle just higher than the wind filled with moonsong. Anastasia closed her eyes, savoring that feeling, one she imagined Zoya and Mama had when they took flight, without the airplane of course.
Dear sister, when I’m in the sky, I wonder if we all have a little magic in our power. I feel the grace and ferocity in flight. Even in this wooden box, the air enchants me.
A jolt brought her back. Looking out on the wing, the moon shone through a tear where a bullet hit the plane. Anastasia felt the plywood frame pitch, and then the steering column shuddered with an unearthly rhythm. The wind had sung to her just moments ago, and now it wailed. The airplane plummeted, dragging Anastasia with it.
When she felt blood sticking her lips together, Anastasia knew she was still alive. A gentle finger pressed against her mouth as she tried to lick her teeth. “Don’t speak. I haven’t finished the spell.”
The spell. “Zoya,” Anastasia rasped. She cracked her eyelids and glimpsed the figure in the moonlight, hair wild with wind tangle and face fretted with worry.
“Ana, my dear. Don’t move.” Her sister clasped her hand, a wave of warm healing magic swimming through her broken body.
The hawk and the wren were together again, no longer playing at adventure but living it.