Rabbit, Soldier, Angel, Thief - by Katrina Nannestad

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HarperCollins Publishers Australia • Brazil • Canada • France • Germany • Holland • Hungary India • Italy • Japan • Mexico • New Zealand • Poland • Spain Sweden • Switzerland • United Kingdom • United States of America First published in Australia in 2021 by HarperCollins Children’sBooks a division of HarperCollins Publishers Australia Pty Limited

ABN 36 009 913 517 harpercollins.com.au

Text copyright © Katrina Nannestad 2021 Illustrations copyright © Martina Heiduczek 2021

The rights of Katrina Nannestad and Martina Heiduczek to be identified as the author and illustrator of this work have been asserted by them in accordance with the Copyright Amendment (Moral Rights) Act 2000 . This work is copyright. Apart from any use as permitted under the Copyright Act 1968 , no part may be reproduced, copied, scanned, stored in a retrieval system, recorded, or transmitted, in any form or by any means, without the prior written permission of the publisher.

A catalogue record for this book is available from the National Library of Australia

ISBN 978 0 7333 4146 5 (hardback) ISBN 978 1 4607 1336 5 (ebook)

Cover and internal design by Hazel Lam, HarperCollins Design Studio Cover and internal illustrations by Martina Heiduczek Author photograph by Rebecca Rocks Typeset in Bembo Std by Kirby Jones Printed and bound in Australia by McPherson’s Printing Group

For Carsten with all my love

Chapter One

I’m cold. I’m crawling through the dark, flat on my belly, elbows and legs working. But I’m cold. So cold. The ground is hard, icy, cruel. The chill presses through my clothes and skin, right to the core of me. And the fear does, too. I start to shake. A little at first. Then plenty, so that every bone in my body rattles. Surely rattling bones make a sound. Like pebbles in a pocket. No, louder. Like hand grenades jiggling in their crates in the back of a truck. The sound will give me away. I hear footfalls, soft and stealthy. A patrol. They don’t want others to hear as they approach. But I hear. My ears are sharp, practised in the art of listening. I press myself into the shadows. Even the dark of night has shadows. Perfect for hiding. I merge into the darkness and wrap my fingers more firmly around the handle of my knife. I force my rattling bones to be still. Feet and legs pass by. Two pairs. They’re so close to my face I could lick the heels as they go. I wait until there is nothing but silence.

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I wait a little longer, then slip out of the shadows. The way is clear now. I slither like a lizard, no longer feeling cold or pain, fear or fatigue. I make straight for my target, pale and plump, almost shining in the night. I pull back my arm, clench my jaw, then stab. I plunge the knife in as deep as it will go. A voice cries out, waking soldiers all around me, but I’m here now and determined to finish what I started. I pull downward and the blade of the knife rips the stab wound wide. There’s another howl and a bright flash. A searchlight draws a line through the darkness. Then two. They dash about, their beams crossing and separating and scanning past my face and my feet and the crying, howling soldier who’s now cursing, too. I grab what I came for, squeeze my fist tight and run like a rabbit. I run and trip and collide with soldiers and bits of iron and metal and fabric, dodging one searchlight, then another, until at last I’m hit. Blinded by the light. Frozen to the spot. Caught.

I remain silent as the nurse guides me back to bed. It’s Irena, my favourite. She’s young and pretty and talks a lot about her family at home in Siberia.

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‘Poor boy.’ She shakes her head and tucks the end of my bandages back inside my pyjama shirt. ‘It was bad enough when we found you wandering in the street last night. But now this! Running about with a knife in your hand. A ten- year-old! And on those legs!’ I wasn’t just running, I was crawling, too. But I don’t say it out loud. ‘And for what?’ Nurse Irena’s voice is growing louder. ‘To stab Sergeant Stepanov’s pillow? That pillow was a gift from his lieutenant for saving his life.’ Nurse Sophie peers at me from the other side of the bed. ‘Sergeant Stepanov sacrificed his arm and his left buttock to save his lieutenant. That pillow was as good as a medal for bravery.’ ‘ Better than a medal,’ says Nurse Irena. ‘A medal won’t give him a good night’s sleep. But that pillow, soft and plump, is made for deep sleep and peaceful dreams. It’s fit for Stalin himself !’ Sergeant Stepanov now hobbles to the end of my bed. ‘That pillow is hardly fit for anyone now. There are feathers flying out all over. They’re floating up around the bed, drifting down one by one, tickling my nose and chest and armpits so that I want to giggle like a little child!’ His forehead is as wrinkled as his pyjamas. ‘What were you thinking, boy?’ I blink three times, then stare. Nurse Irena and Nurse Sophie smile, hovering over my face. Sergeant Stepanov opens his mouth and breathes

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noisily. They are all waiting for my answer. Hoping for any answer. But I don’t speak. I haven’t spoken for months. Not since I woke up here in the Red Army hospital in Berlin. Sergeant Stepanov waves his remaining hand in the air. ‘Ah, it’s nothing, young Sasha. After four years of war, I am so used to sleeping on sticks and straw and dirt that I can hardly bear to feel my head sinking into something as soft as feathers. Even so, I don’t think you should go around stabbing at things in the dark. That knife might have missed the pillow and sliced something off my body. And honestly, I can’t afford to lose another hand.’ ‘Or buttock!’ calls a voice from across the ward. ‘He won’t have anything left to sit on!’ shouts another. ‘Shut up!’ cries a third. ‘It’s the middle of the night! I need my beauty sleep.’ ‘They’re right,’ says Nurse Irena. ‘All of these soldiers need their rest so they can recover from their injuries. It’s time you slept, too, Sergeant Stepanov. And you, Sasha.’ She and Nurse Sophie tuck me in from both sides. They pull and tug and tuck as hard as they can. I think they’re hoping the sheets will pin me down so I can’t escape again. Nurse Irena leans forward and presses her lips to my forehead. Nurse Sophie wiggles her fingers in a baby wave. Sergeant Stepanov winks. And then they are gone.

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I pull my hand from beneath the sheets and open it. Feathers. So many feathers! I smile, glad that my mission was a success. Ever since the lieutenant brought Sergeant Stepanov the pillow three days ago, I have wanted the feathers from inside. I have needed the feathers. I don’t know why, but I had to get them. I sniff them. Brush them across my face. Rub them between my fingers. Then I tuck them beneath my pillow. Later, when everyone’s asleep, I’ll climb out of bed and stuff them into the hole I’ve made in my mattress, together with all the other things I have stolen.

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Chapter Two

Doctor Orlova is sitting by my bed. She’s there most days when I wake from my afternoon sleep. Sometimes she’s smiling into my face. Other times she’s dozing in her chair. But as soon as I move, even if it’s just a twitch of my little finger, she springs to life. ‘Hello, Sasha.’ Doctor Orlova smiles, and the wrinkles around her eyes and mouth multiply. I rub my eyes and sit up, slowly, carefully, so my chest wounds don’t hurt too badly. I stare at her. I don’t smile and I don’t speak. I can’t. I’ve forgotten how. But I think the kind doctor understands. She must know I’m glad to see her, otherwise she wouldn’t keep visiting, day after day. ‘I hear you had another adventure last night.’ Doctor Orlova chuckles softly. ‘And I understand that the adventure involved Sergeant Stepanov’s pillow.’ She laughs a little louder, a little harder, so that now her bony shoulders are dancing up and down. She’s lovely and I want to smile at her. I want to say, ‘You’re beautiful, with your crinkle wrinkles and your

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frazzled grey hair that looks like it’s never been brushed and your bony shoulders that jiggle and dance in time with your chicken-clucking chuckles.’ But I can’t. I don’t know how to make the words run from my head to my lips and out into the air. So I just stare. ‘I know,’ whispers Doctor Orlova, as though she has heard my thoughts. She reaches out and pats my knee through the blankets. ‘I know, Sasha … I know …’ I stare. ‘Ah! I almost forgot!’ The doctor leans sideways and feels about on the floor beneath her chair. When she straightens, she’s holding a small bouquet of flowers – yellow marigolds, pink and white daisies and blue, blue cornflowers. I stare and she waves the bouquet around, carelessly. ‘I went for a walk this morning. Through the rubble in the street outside the hospital. Ugh! What a mess we have made of Berlin! It had to be done, of course. Hitler had to be stopped. But the ruins! The dust! The rubble! It’s almost as bad as Stalingrad.’ She stops after mentioning Stalingrad, as though she expects me to say something. But I don’t. I never speak. She knows that. And all I can think about is the flowers. ‘Anyway,’ Doctor Orlova continues, still waving the bouquet about in front of her, ‘I walked, ankle-deep in dust, then climbed over broken walls and kicked through bricks and, all of a sudden, I found myself standing in a garden. There, in the middle of the ruins! Can you imagine such a thing, Sasha?’

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I open my mouth and lean forward, just a tiny bit. Maybe a centimetre. I want to touch the cornflowers, but I can’t make myself move any further. I can’t get my hands to shift or reach or stretch. ‘The garden was so very beautiful,’ says the doctor, ‘that I sat down on a broken step and laughed. Really laughed. It was joy, you see.’ I do see. I do! ‘How wonderful,’ she sighs, ‘that these delicate blooms have survived the destruction of war.’ She closes her eyes and falls silent. I don’t take my eyes off the flowers. I want to reach out and touch them. Yellow marigolds. Pink and white daisies. Blue, blue cornflowers. The doctor’s eyes flick open and she smiles. ‘And they made me think of you, Sasha. So I picked some and here they are.’ She holds out the bouquet, but my hands stay by my side, resting on the blanket, fingers curled shut, even though I want to take it. I am desperate to hold the flowers, to touch them and sniff them and feel their petals tickling the tip of my nose. I am hungry to own them, to keep them. I long for the flowers like I longed for the feathers from Sergeant Stepanov’s pillow. Doctor Orlova sighs and her shoulders droop. ‘But maybe you are not one for flowers. Forgive me, Sasha. It was

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foolish.’ She withdraws the bouquet, pressing it to her chest. She stands, smiles and begins to walk away.

‘Please,’ I whisper. The doctor stops.

‘Please,’ I say little louder, my voice sounding strange and rough after not being used for so long. ‘I would like the flowers very much.’

I hold the flowers for the rest of the day. I brush them across my cheeks. I smell them. I poke at their petals, softly, lovingly, first with my little finger, then with my pointer. They’re so pretty. So special. And not just because they’re a gift from Doctor Orlova, or because they’ve survived the bombings and the Battle of Berlin. There’s something else that makes them special. If only I could remember. ‘Pretty flowers,’ says Nurse Sophie when she brings my soup. I don’t answer, but I eat with the flowers clutched in my free hand. ‘Pretty flowers,’ says Nurse Irena when she arrives to change the dressings on my head and chest and legs. I don’t answer, but I keep hold of the flowers. Irena tells me all about her village in Siberia and how the donkeys hate it when her papa plays the accordion, but

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love listening to her mama sing. She prattles on and on so that I barely think about the ugly red wounds scattered all over my body, until they are covered once more with fresh white bandages. I want to say thank you to Irena for looking after me so well. I think it would be nice to give her one of the pink daisies to match her pretty pink lips, but I can’t bear to part with even one of them. They are so special. So important. I sleep with the flowers tucked under my chin and cling to them throughout the following morning, even though they’ve wilted. Then, while I’m eating my kasha for lunch, a picture pops into my head. It’s a picture with flowers in it. Lots and lots of flowers. And a village. And a house with a garden. And the flowers are there in every bit of the picture. They might be inside the house, too. Then other pictures start to pop into my head. By the time my bowl is taken away, my mind is racing and some of the things that are stuffed into the hole in my mattress begin to make sense, because they, too, are in the pictures in my head. I wait, silent and still, until the sick and injured soldiers around me are taking their afternoon sleep, then I sort through all the things I’ve stolen.

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When Doctor Orlova arrives, I am sitting up in bed, the flowers in my lap and a strange mix of objects lined up across my blanket: a dead beetle, eight buttons, three pencils, a piece of frayed rope, a handful of feathers, twelve matchboxes, a harmonica, a ball of string, a pair of underpants, six spoons, a piece of chalk, two blocks of soap, a brick, a furry ushanka hat and a photo of Nurse Irena’s family in Siberia. Doctor Orlova’s eyelids flutter, but otherwise she doesn’t seem surprised. And then I realise. She already knows I’m a thief ! And if she knows, Nurse Irena and Nurse Sophie know, too. I blush at the idea. Doctor Orlova takes one of the pencils and uses it to lift up the pair of underpants. ‘I hope these are clean, Sasha.’ They are. I stole them from the laundry three days ago – from the clean pile, not the bag of dirty clothes. Doctor Orlova tosses the underpants aside and takes the buttons in her hand, all eight of them. She jiggles them about and chuckles. ‘So this is where the buttons from Doctor Kozlov’s robe got to. And the buttons from Sergeant Stepanov’s pyjama shirt. Poor man. First his buttons, then his feathers. You’ve been picking on him, Sasha.’ She reaches for the harmonica, but I interrupt her. ‘Flowers,’ I whisper. Doctor Orlova sets the harmonica back down. She pushes a frizz of hair away from her face and sits on my bed.

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She reaches for the flowers, but I grab the wilted bouquet and hold it as far away from her as I can. ‘Yes,’ says Doctor Orlova. ‘The flowers are very important. I can see that. I won’t try to touch them again, I promise.’ I stare at her and return the flowers to my lap. We sit in silence for a long time. At last, Doctor Orlova speaks. ‘Would you like to tell me about the flowers, Sasha?’ I blink at her. I nod. I open my mouth, but still I cannot speak. It’s not just the flowers that are important. There’s more. I take the piece of frayed rope and sit it gently beside the flowers. I frown. I pick up the rope, tie a knot in it, then sit it back down. That’s better. I peer at all the other things arranged on the end of my bed. Twelve matchboxes. Twelve! It’s a lot, yet I still feel the need for more. I gather them up and sit them in my lap. I choose one and open it. It’s full of ashes. Ashes that I put there. All the matchboxes are full of ashes. My skin creeps. I don’t know if I want to do this. But then my eyes settle on the ushanka, the fur hat with the ear flaps. I take it gently in my hands and stroke the thick, soft fur. And I smile for the first time in months. Flowers.

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A knotted piece of rope. Twelve matchboxes filled with ashes.

A soft, fluffy hat. I am ready now. I nod again and I speak.

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A bouquet of flowers, a knotted piece of rope, twelve matchboxes filled with ashes, and a ushanka, soft and fluffy.

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Chapter Three

It’s spring, 1942. The sky is blue, the air is warm and there are flowers everywhere. In our garden, dancing between the vegetables, we have crocuses, larkspurs, daffodils and daisies. We have five cherry trees, all loaded with blossoms. Bees buzz around the delicate pink flowers – like fat ballerinas fussing at the sight of so many tiny pink tutus. I saw a picture of a ballet dancer once. She was skinny and strong, but I prefer my fat buzzing ballerinas. Beyond our garden, the village is blooming, too: lilac bushes, violets, lupins, a whole orchard of apricot and almond trees in blossom, and more cherries. Even the meadows stretching out from the village are filled with flowers: chamomile, wild yarrow and cornflowers. So many blue, blue cornflowers. All of Russia is blooming. I’m six and a half, which means that I’m old enough to wander out of the house on my own. I feel grown up and important as I roam the meadows and pick wildflowers for Mama.

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Flowers are Mama’s favourite thing in the whole wide world. Even though our garden and village are crowded with them, Mama will be so happy when I give her these gifts from the meadow. She will put them in a jar of water and place them on the windowsill so that everyone who walks by can also enjoy the sight of them. And tonight, when she has read a fairy tale to Yelena, my twelve-year-old sister, and me, and settled us down in our wide, warm bed above the stove, Mama will choose her favourite meadow flower, study it, then embroider its twin onto her headscarf. Mama’s headscarf is covered in flowers. Every week she adds another with her needle and thread. She says the flowers make her feel beautiful. But Mama is beautiful even without a scarf full of blooms. She is the most beautiful woman in the village, with yellow yarrow hair, blue, blue cornflower eyes, soft cherry-blossom cheeks and a magic smile. When Mama smiles, everyone around her smiles, too. They cannot help it. And Mama smiles a lot. Even now, when all she has left is Yelena and me. Papa and my sister Roza joined the Red Army at the start of the Great Patriotic War. All the papas and big brothers in our village joined up, and some of the big sisters, too, like Roza. But now, Papa and Roza are no more. We miss them, deep, deep in our hearts and souls. But we must all make sacrifices for Father Stalin and Mother Russia, and we are proud that our family has been part of the fight against Hitler and his German monsters.

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And we still have loveliness in our lives. Like here. Now. I am picking wildflowers for Mama, humming a tune and thinking how good it is to feel the sun on my back and Ushanka’s soft, fluffy body weaving in and out between my legs. Ushanka is our cat. We named her after the hat, because she’s black and fluffy and likes to sleep on our heads at night. Ushanka and I wander through the meadow, tall grass sweeping across our bodies, flowers begging to be plucked. When my hands are full, I straighten and turn back toward the village. It looks so pretty with its log houses and wooden fences and full gardens. A flock of snow-white geese are out for their morning walk, heads held high. They are proud to be a part of this beautiful place. I think, I am a lucky boy. I have a good life. But sometimes our thoughts make mistakes, don’t they? Even as I walk back toward the village, there’s a change. The breeze is still there, and the warmth of the sun. But the birdsong is gone and something else has taken its place. I hear it first, a low hum. Next, I feel it in my feet, through the thin bark soles of my shoes. And then the grass and the flowers begin to shake! Ushanka twitches her tail and dashes away, across the meadow, toward the forest. I walk faster, and soon I hear clunking and screeching, and the chugging of engines. The noise grows louder and uglier and the ground shakes even more as five big brown beasts roll into sight. I’ve never seen such things before, but

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I know what they are. Yelena has told me all about them. They are tanks. German tanks. I begin to run. I clutch the flowers in my hand and run as fast as I can, out of the meadow, past Old Nikolay’s workshop and straight through the middle of the flock of geese. They’re scurrying now, stretching their wings out wide and honking, ‘Trouble! Trouble!’ For the tiniest moment, I wonder if I should try to round them up and hide them in a shed or deep in the forest where they’ll be safe. But I’m scared for myself, too, so I keep running until I’m back home. Mama wraps her arms around Yelena and me. We all stare out the window as the tanks roll through our village, just one street away. The floor shakes, the pots rattle, my tummy aches and I hold on to the bunch of flowers, tighter and tighter. The tanks groan and screech and rumble and roll and churn up the dirt road better than any horse and plough could ever do. The rumbling and shaking pass, and Mama pulls the hard tips of her fingers out of our shoulders. We creep outside. Old Anna Pushinka, our neighbour, stares at us from her door. Others soon join us in the street, but nobody speaks a word. For a long time, the village is silent.

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So silent. Until the stomping begins. Stomp. Stomp. Stomp. Stomp. Over and over again. The tanks are gone, but the soldiers are here. German soldiers. Monsters. They march into the village, down our street, their boots all striking the ground at the same time. Stomp! Stomp! Stomp! Stomp! Their boots are big and black and heavy with lots of nails in the soles and they stomp so hard that my head throbs. Stomp! Stomp! Stomp! Stomp! And then they stop. Right here in front of our house. I stare up at the Germans. They are young and handsome. Their boots are dusty but their clothes are clean and finely made, and their shirtsleeves are rolled up to show strong tanned arms. They don’t look like monsters. They look like princes. Every single one of them. Mama tries to push Yelena and me back into our house, but one of the princes barks some sort of command and we know that we are supposed to stay and admire their beauty. Two princes now step forward. One of them shouts to us in his own language and another shouts it all again in Russian. They lie. They tell us that Russia no longer exists. The Red Army has been defeated. Our land and all the land

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around it are now part of the Third Reich, Hitler’s glorious kingdom. Their glorious kingdom. They shout that we must serve nobody but King Hitler and his princes. If anyone helps the Partisans, there will be consequences. I know what Partisans are. They’re Russian men and women who hide in the forests and the swamps, and fight against the German Army. They sneak out at night and blow up German trains and German trucks and German supplies of guns and food. I know what Partisans are, but I don’t know what consequences are. They sound bad. The German princes stomp around our village with their hard boots and muscly arms and big guns, smashing windows, kicking in doors, ripping up floorboards to get at potatoes and onions. They catch some of the geese and tie their legs together with string. The poor things lie in the dirt, honking and helpless, no longer proud. I want to sneak forward and set them free, but the knots the Germans have tied look big and sturdy and impossible to untangle, and Mama is digging her fingertips into my shoulder once more, holding me to the spot. The soldiers grow tired of kicking doors and start kicking people and dogs, and they laugh! One of them snatches the flowers from my hand, strikes them over Mama’s head and tosses them to the ground. They laugh at this, too. And that’s when I know that they are monsters – monsters disguised as princes.

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When they have had enough fun, they fall into line, holding our vegetables and our geese, and march away. Stomp! Stomp! Stomp! Stomp! And as they go, they trample Mama’s flowers beneath their big black boots. The chamomile, the yarrow and the blue, blue cornflowers I picked from the meadow all turn to mush.

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