Aimie K. Runyan celebrates history’s unsung heroines in four historical novels, including the internationally bestselling “Daughters of the Night Sky” and “Promised to the Crown.” She is active as an educator and speaker in the writing community and beyond.
The following is an excerpt from Runyan’s “Daughters of the Night Sky”.
Each week, The Colorado Sun and Colorado Humanities & Center For The Book feature an excerpt from a Colorado book and an interview with the author. Explore the SunLit archives at coloradosun.com/sunlit
2019 Colorado Book Awards finalist for General Fiction
Russia, 1941. Katya Ivanova is a young pilot in a far-flung military academy in the Ural Mountains. From childhood, she’s dreamed of taking to the skies to escape her bleak mountain life. With the Nazis on the march across Europe, she is called on to use her wings to serve her country in its darkest hour. Not even the entreaties of her new husband–a sensitive artist who fears for her safety–can dissuade her from doing her part as a proud daughter of Russia.
1931, Miass, Chelyabinsk Oblast, the Gateway to Siberia
I stared as the rainbow-hued blooms danced in the breeze, imagining them ballerinas on the Moscow stage. The expansive steel-blue mountains, always capped with a hood of ice, were so different from the narrow streets and towering buildings of the city where I had spent my earliest years. My memories of the capital were garish with color. On bleak days, I could see in my mind Saint Basil’s with its earthy, sienna-colored body and onion-shaped spires swathed in rich tones of emerald, ruby, sapphire, and topaz, always set against a flurry of snow. The white swirl of frost made the colors reverberate even more, the memory refusing to be erased from the brilliant palette of my youth. The people—happy or cross, handsome or plain—were more colorful, too. Miass was gray, and the people with it. They mined in the hills, tended their shops, managed their farms. Mama worked in the laundry, day after day in a fog of gray.
But for two weeks in July, the muddy hills along the riverbank outside Miass were a riot of color. The summer of my tenth year was a particularly magnificent display. The splashes of lavender, crimson, and indigo against the sea of grass were the closest thing I could imagine to heaven. It was as though the Ural Mountains had been given an annual allotment of color by the new regime and they had chosen to use it up during those two glorious weeks.
I should have been at home in the cabin, doing the mending or preparing supper for Mama. She would be too tired to attend to these things when she came home, but to waste any of that color seemed inexcusable. So I left the chores undone, reveling in the light of summer.
When the hulking, olive-green airplane scarred the sky with its white trail, I thought perhaps my mother’s worst fears had been realized, that my imagination had run wild and I had finally gone mad. She would be so disappointed, but there was always a satisfaction in being proved right, I supposed.
But then I saw the neighbor, a squat old farmer with a face like a weathered beet, emerge from his cabin and follow the winding white exhaust from the sputtering engines with his dull, black eyes until the green speck was low on the horizon. It was real, and it was landing in the field outside the town square.
I knew I was running the risk of making Mama angry. I had no school that day, or marketing, or any other errand that would call me into town. She didn’t want me there more than I had to be, but she could hardly blame me for my curiosity. Papa used to talk about the airplanes he had flown in the European War—the war that had made him a hero—and Mama had to know the lure of seeing an aircraft for myself would be too great to resist.
I ran the two kilometers into Miass, and by the time I reached it, the townspeople had abandoned their work and gathered in the field to the east of town to see the remarkable machine and its pilot. He was a tall man with dark hair and a bristling black mustache that gleamed in the afternoon sun. He spoke to the crowd with a strong voice, and they stood captivated, as though Stalin himself had come to speak. I had seen Stalin once when he addressed the people of Moscow, and was far more impressed with this new visitor with the leather helmet and goggles atop his head.
Mama, who had been straining to take a peek, spotted me as I approached the crowd, and wove her way through the throng to my side, clasping my hand when I was within reach. Her power for worry was a formidable monster, and I had learned it was easier to placate it than to fight it.
“I thought this would bring you in, Katya. I wish you’d stayed home.” Annoyance or sheer exhaustion lined her face. “I can’t afford to leave early to see you home.”
“I made it here, Mama. I can make it home,” I answered, careful to keep any hint of cheek from my tone.
“Very well,” she said. “But I won’t tolerate this again.”
I laced my fingers in hers and kissed the back of her hand, hoping to soften her mood. I wouldn’t enjoy this if she were angry with me. “What has he told everyone, Mama?”
“He’s flying across the whole country,” she said, absently stroking my hair with her free hand. “He says there is a problem with his engine and he had to land for repairs.”
She strained her neck and stood on the tips of her toes to get a better view of the aircraft, but it was useless for me. I was a tall girl but still could not hope to see over the heads of the swarm that encircled the astounding contraption. I broke free from Mama’s grip and squeezed myself through the cracks until I was standing only a few centimeters from the metal casing. It was not smooth, as it appeared from a distance, but dimpled by the rivets that attached the sheets of metal to the frame beneath.
The pilot answered the townspeople’s questions with patience.
“How does it stay up?” one of the town’s mechanics called out.
“Aren’t you afraid to crash?” a young woman with a squawking toddler asked.
They didn’t seem like interesting questions to me, but all the same he didn’t answer the mechanic with a sarcastic “Fairy dust” or the young mother with a “No, I wouldn’t feel a thing if I did,” as others might have done. He gave a very simple explanation and spoke as if each question was the most important matter in his world. No one chattered when he offered his explanations; no one muttered about men forgetting that their place was on the ground.
Emboldened, I placed my hand on the metal of the plane’s body, warmed by the summer sun, but not too hot to touch for a few seconds. I removed my hand before the pilot could chastise me. Though I longed to run my hands along the wings that spread outward forever, I wouldn’t have the stolen caress ruined by a reprimand. Papa’s descriptions had not come close to doing the machine justice. My mind could only begin to understand the freedom this aircraft gave its pilot. He could go anywhere he pleased: If he could fly from the western border of Russia to the farthest reaches of Siberia, there was nothing stopping him from continuing on to see the wonders of China. Better still, he could go back west to see Geneva, Madrid, Florence, and all the cities Mama had dreamed of seeing but no longer spoke of.
I knew that if I had one of these machines for myself, I would never settle in one place for the rest of my days. I would hop from the pyramids of Egypt to the Amazon to the streets of New York and wherever else my fancy flew me. I looked at the pilot and tried not to let my jealousy consume me. He had earned his wings, his freedom. Someday I could earn mine, too. I would take Mama on my adventures, and she could leave the laundry behind her. She’d never do so much as rinse a blouse out in a sink ever again. She would smile again. Sing again. We would eat like queens and hire people to see to the less pleasant tasks of daily life. I would never speak that aloud in front of my teacher, Comrade Dokorov. He’d chastise me for setting a bad example of capitalist greed.
In an unprecedented gesture of generosity, Mama’s boss allowed her to come home early that day without docking her pay, owing to my presence in town. The plane must have bewitched him as it had me. The entire way home and all throughout preparations of dinner, I spoke of nothing but the pilot and his airplane. Mama listened patiently, but her cornflower eyes began to grow hazy.
“I’m sorry, Mama. I’m boring you,” I said, adding the potatoes to the stewpot.
“No, darling. I’m simply tired, as usual.” She wiped her brow with the back of her hand as she stirred.
“I’m going to learn how to fly a plane of my own someday, Mama. I’m going to get us out of here.” I looked down at the simmering stew and added a pinch of salt. It was not a hearty stew, or a very flavorful one. I wanted to do more for Mama.
“I don’t think they license many lady pilots,” she said, taking a seat at the wobbly kitchen table as we waited for the flavors of the stew to meld together as the chunks of tough meat—not more than a fistful—softened with the potatoes and vegetables. “You ought to consider becoming a schoolteacher. It’s regular work and decent pay.”
I blanched at the thought. Helping the village children learn to read and add their sums seemed as interesting as watching the paint dry on the neighbor’s barn. “I don’t want to teach, Mama. You said they don’t license ‘many’ lady pilots, Mama. Many doesn’t mean none. I can be one of the few.” I tried to summon the confidence of the visiting pilot. I placed her bowl in front of her and tore off a large chunk of the black bread I had made that morning and placed it by her spoon.
Mama looked up from the stew, the dark creases under her eyes so deep I was sure she’d never be completely rid of them if she slept twelve hours a day for the rest of her life. “You’re right, Katinka. If you want to fly, go earn your wings. Just don’t let them stop you. And make no mistake, they will try.”
I blinked in surprise, expecting Mama would continue to dissuade me. “I won’t give them the choice, Mama. I’ll be so good they won’t be able to turn me away.”
She smiled weakly at me and sighed as her eyes scanned, taking stock of our small cabin. It had belonged to my babushka Olga, and when she passed away it came to Mama. Which was fortunate for us, because we had no means to stay on in Moscow, which I think broke Mama’s heart almost as badly as losing Papa. Mama had told me Miass had been a nice enough place to grow up, but that she had yearned for life in the city when she was a girl. She studied dance and became skilled enough to garner the attention of the right people.
She earned her ticket to the capital when she was eighteen and then danced on the great stages of Moscow until Papa, a well-respected professor of history, coaxed her down from the limelight and into domestic life. They had lived happily together for nine years before Papa was taken by a stray bullet during one of the little uprisings against the new regime. Papa, who had done nothing to anger either side, was simply collateral damage to them. A tragic but ultimately inevitable loss in troubled times.
If Mama missed dancing, she’d never once said. The city? Yes. Papa? Like she would miss one of her lungs. Dancing, though, she rarely mentioned.
“You’ll have to work twice as hard as the boys, Katinka,” she mused as I ladled stew from the steaming pot into her bowl. She lifted her spoon and blew gently on the steaming broth. “And avoid distractions, no matter how pleasant they might be.”
I nodded solemnly, knowing that she spoke from her own experience. She had danced for five years, which was a long run according to Mama. The girls got distracted by boys, city life, or other mischief. And they were in a career deemed suitable for women. I would not have that advantage.
“If this is what you want, you will need excellent marks. Especially in science and mathematics.” Mama’s tired eyes appeared to look past me and out the window over my left shoulder as she tore the black bread into tiny morsels and popped them into her mouth.
“I don’t think Comrade Dokorov much cares for teaching the girls,” I said quietly into my bowl. “Especially ‘serious’ subjects like mathematics and philosophy.”
“And I don’t give one whit about what he ‘cares for.’ He’s paid the same to teach you as he is the boys.” Mama’s eyes flashed from cornflower to cobalt, as they tended to do when she was truly angry. It was beautiful to see when her fury wasn’t directed at me. “The party wants to see you educated. But we’ll see how serious you are in time, Katinka. There are many years yet.”
Mama, I was sure, had no particular affection for Stalin, speaking of him with more reluctance and fear than admiration, but she found no fault with his stance on women’s rights. More than once, she predicted he would declare us equal citizens to men. “Then you will see change, Katinka. Then things will start to set themselves right.”
“Talk to him, Mama. I’m sure Comrade Dokorov will listen to you,” I said, wishing the words would make it so. If Papa were alive, the grimy old man that ran the schoolhouse would have to listen. Here no one cared that she had been the wife of a celebrated professor; they only knew her as a simple laundress with an extra mouth to feed. As though the life we’d had in Moscow never existed. The voice of a washerwoman carried little weight. I could see that burden, among others, in the dark circles under her weary eyes. I cleared the table and handed her a teapot brimming with boiling water.
“Play for me, Katinka,” Mama said, adding tea leaves to the pot from her little tin. “It’s been too long.”
I went to my little room and fetched Papa’s violin, which I kept propped on the table next to my bed. It was no grand instrument. Old when it had come to him, its russet varnish was fading to a tawny yellow at the edges and the middle, and the strings were well beyond the need for replacement. I handled the instrument as though it were made of paper-thin glass and played just as gently. If a string broke, it would remain so.
I scurried back to the table and pulled my chair out to the center of the room. I placed the violin under my chin and touched the bow to the strings. I played one of the folk tunes Papa had loved. Sweet, but with a hint of melancholy, like the violin itself. Like much of our folk music.
Papa was barely proficient as a musician, but Mama and I loved to listen to him play simple tunes after dinner. He had begun to teach me before he was killed, and Mama had taught me to read music. I had no real talent, either, but my playing made Mama smile when little else did.
I used to tell Papa that Russia was too cold for too much of the year for anyone to be truly happy. “There is truth to that, my Katinka. And music, if nothing else, must be true if it is to be beautiful.”
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