The noon heat was at its suffocating best, the sun busily going about baking people’s scalps, when Talya’s father called a break from the labor. Everyone had been waiting for the whistle, signaling the pause. Men dropped their scythes. On cue, the women stashed the pitchforks and left the hay bales, then brought out baskets laden with food for the midday repast. The rhythmic hum of harvest was replaced by a tune. Its first lilting notes, sung by a maid, were soon picked up by a choir of men and women. Their voices carried the joy only work well-done could procure. The gaggle of children running merrily around, spurred by the joyous song, completed the tableau.
The little ones, not that they ever lacked incentive when it comes to play, played hide-and-seek between the wagons or relentlessly chased each other around the hay stacks. A few of the older boys who had been helping their folks now sat together playing cards, and occasionally shot a furtive glance towards the older girls, who in turn were busy making headdresses out of the flowers they’d been collecting. Every now and then a girl would notice the looks and blush right back. Sometimes it was the boys who blushed, caught watching. The sun was up, spirits were high despite the heat and the absence of a breeze did nothing to dissipate the sweet scent of hay in the air.
Talya, however, did not join in the song, nor did she fool around with the other children. She stood to the side of the beaten road, cradling her teddy bear, eyes fixed at the hulking colossi rising from behind the distant hills, like metal giants rising out of the shimmering haze. She spotted them before the ground underneath her feet began to shake. Before she heard any of the mechanical screeching and clanging. Not that it was too long a-coming. Soon enough the ruckus raised by the mechs stamped out all trace of previous song or laughter.
She felt her father’s hands touch her slender shoulders. He squeezed, just barely. Whether he meant it as a gesture of reassurance, she could not tell. She peered up at him, scanning his face. Couldn’t quite make out what the steeling of his bearded jaw or the defiant tilt of the chin meant. Mama stood just behind him, pressing herself against his back, appearing (or making herself appear) small.
There was a tension in the air, all right. She felt it, as a spell binding everyone present, though she could not comprehend it, not entirely. It was as if she was watching clouds massing on the horizon, the first stirring of a summer storm. A sense of abandonment washed over her, as if she was standing alone in the field. A mounting sense of dread followed soon after, not dissimilar to the urge to run for the safety of home and avoid being stranded in the storm. Talya wondered whether the others saw the coming mechs the same way.
The towering metal contraptions had shuffled closer now, cutting through the fields and heading in a westerly direction. Black smoke trailed in their wake, the stench of oil so overpowering she wrinkled her nose even though she stood perhaps half a mile away. Talya knew soldiers would be marching in tow. Soldiers were always around the machines, in their matching brown uniforms.
She was equal parts disappointed and glad. Disappointed, because she knew how tense and impatient papa could get with soldiers around. How uneasy and fearful her usually bright and smiling mama would become. Papa would whisper to her to hide away from sight, thinking Talya didn’t overhear their conversation, when soldiers were passing through their small village. He would then forbid his daughter to go anywhere near the soldiers. Of course, she’d disobey. And she was glad too, in a way. The soldiers had always been nice to her. Gave her sweets or chocolate, when they had some. One time she got crayons and paper to draw on, from one of them. She drew a mech, or tried anyway, tall and spindly and fearsome-looking. It earned her a good hiding from papa. The soldiers never stayed for too long, however, moving on to wherever they were moving.
Someone was whistling, gaily. A tune she knew, Talya realized. The melody broke the spell which held everyone, the tension of the moment passing. She turned to look where it was coming from and saw two familiar figures walking up the road. A girl and a bear, headed straight at them. She was walking with a spring in her step, light on her feet, compared to the bear’s lumbering gait. Her father’s grip relaxed, she noticed, and she did too. She knew who these two were of course, everyone did. The girl was Anna and the bear was her friend, Wojtek his name. Everyone called him Woj, though.
Anna waved at them, as they drew near, Talya noticing her wide smile. Anna was one of them. A girl of this land. Looking younger than she probably was, strawberry-haired, with freckles liberally sprayed on her skin, blue-green eyes betraying a youthful exuberance. Ever cheerful, her spirit was contagious. She was just like Talya remembered her last time, when Anna last showed up. Knee-high socks tucked in high leather boots, cotton skirt and sleeveless shirt, her long green coat draped over a shoulder as it was too hot, her rifle slung over the other. She wore her czapka – Talya couldn’t have imagined her without it.
As for Woj, Anna’s companion looked docile as a kitten, though Talya had heard the grown-ups saying otherwise. Woj was taller than her papa, when standing on his four legs. She remembered the first time the big bear shuffled close, sniffing, inspecting her. She shied away, naturally, until Anna laughed heartily, instantly melting Talya’s fears. Anna had that gift, putting people at ease, pouring courage into their hearts. Talya recalled the spark in Woj’s gaze, as if he was reacting to Anna’s good humor, her laughter his command. Bent his head down to her and Talya, seeing Anna nodding vigorously, mustered the courage to pat the bear’s snout. She got a good lick of his tongue in return and figured it meant they were pals. Could swear Woj was laughing with Anna, if his ragged breath could pass for laughter.
Woj must have remembered her too. Spotting her, he trotted her way. Repeated his trick with the tongue, in greeting, and Talya couldn’t help but giggle, playfully pushing Woj’s snout away, but failing to nudge the bear by even an inch. By then Anna caught up with them and was saying hello to everyone, as usual.
“What news, Anna?”
“Is war brewing again?”
Talya heard the grown-ups pepper Anna with questions and she answered all of them dutifully, truthful and cheerful. Something was up, in the west, though Talya couldn’t quite figure out what Anna meant. She saw faces cloud over, then resolve and courage replacing any doubt, as Anna continued to speak. She was their leader, Anna was. They knew they were safe with her and Woj around.
“We got this,” Anna said. And even small Talya knew it was true.
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This short story draws inspiration from the fantastic art and creations of Jakub Rozalski. The image at the top of the page is his own, I claim no ownership thereof. For more 1920s alternate history imagery, visit Jakub’s website here.