Swish-swish. Swish-swish. Her skis, hardwood coated lovingly with resin, slid across the surface of the snow, like the mechanical wipers on the automobiles in town. It was just like the familiar virgin snow of the taiga; even the tracks of the few competitors who’d gone before her were already being filled in by falling snow. The steady rhythm of her skis and the long-practiced motions of her ski poles made the pine forest around her glide by. The cheers of the spectators at the starting line had long since faded away; now that her mind was beginning to wander, she found herself thinking about how the reindeer-hide boots she wore pinched her feet at the sides — her father’s feet had been narrower than her wide ones. She was grateful for the discomfort. It distracted from the other thoughts that often found her when she skied: homesteads set ablaze, the invader’s convoys seething like an ant’s nest from the moment your shot takes the first enemy conscript in the chest, blood dappling the snow.
She reached the clearing in the trees and brought herself to a stop, unslinging the heavy rifle from her back. She’d carved a little lily-of-the-valley flower on the stock by firelight on one bitter-cold eve, and that carving sat just beneath her right thumb when she lowered herself onto her belly, lying in the snow, and sighted down the barrel. Five cartridges, and at the other end of the snowy field, five clay discs, a row of three on the bottom and two above, set against a snow-shrouded hay bale. A few moments to settle her breathing, and then she pulled the trigger. The report from the shot nearly deafened her, as usual. A sound like broken pottery from the other end of the field. The mechanical sound of the bolt as she jerked back on it to eject the spent cartridge, and the familiar accompanying click as she wrenched the bolt forward to bring the next cartridge into place. Another shot, another shattered plate. One shot after the next, each instance of the bolt pushing back into place heralding the next target shattered from across the field.
There are those who will tell you that the deaths tallied and allotted to the legendary marksmen and -women are of dubious veracity, merely inflated estimates. They will contend, rightfully, that the deaths dealt to an invader from many dozens of meters away are the most difficult to verify, that during the war the enemy forces, for all their faults, only left their men to perish in the snow for their deaths to be counted when they were forced to retreat in a rout. They will point out, rightfully, that every small nation in a patriotic war against a more numerous foe will desire its own “Black Widow” or “White Death” to lionize in propaganda and terrorize the invader. Those are all truths. But today, the naysayers are wrong, for in a little homestead in a valley at the edge of the taiga there lives a woman who once took up her rifle against the enemy and dealt death to precisely 47 of them, more than two for every year of her young life. The small, quiet homestead where she lives holds, in pride of place over the mantel alongside her father’s picture, the cut-out newspaper article that a kind reporter from the city sent to her; it features a flattering picture of her holding her rifle and skis as if she’s about to rush back out to the front lines. And now, the very woman who dealt those 47 deaths carefully wraps her clay targets in a burlap sack she ties to her shoulder before skiing on. She wants to be done with this before the sun dips behind the mountains.
* * *
When she skis back into town, her path takes her straight down the town’s only street, past the mayor’s and the merchant’s automobiles halfway-engulfed by snowdrifts just like the wrecks of enemy half-tracks. She carefully unfastens her skis and tromps into the general store.
“You’re taller every time I see you!” one of the old men in the corner exclaims, a pipe dangling from his mouth. She walks up to the counter and sets the burlap sack down with a thud onto the counter, right in front of the burly shopkeeper, who sports a finely-waxed mustache.
“Well? How many?” he rumbles.
She pours out onto the counter the remnants of nineteen shattered clay disks. The last one is partly intact; the wind must have caught her bullet and whisked it off slightly to one side. He assesses the targets with begrudging admiration, and for a moment she thinks the 50-silver prize is hers, before:
“Not good enough this time, Miss.” He points to the thin-faced man now warming his gloves by the fireplace, a recent arrival from several valleys over. “He hit all twenty of his. Quite the marksman. Very unfortunate for you, I’m afraid—I suppose there’s always that one you just don’t hit.”
Her vision fills hot, nearly spilling over with fierce fiery tears of rage, and she feels her fists clench at her sides. She’s about to deck the shopkeeper right across his smirking face when an unfamiliar male voice cuts across the room.
“Not so fast.” A man emerges from the gaggle of burly trappers by the fire, leaning on a wooden cane though he seems barely middle-aged, in a weather-beaten jacket and furs he wears with as much pride as any soldier’s uniform. For all she knows, it was his uniform.
“I watched this newcomer as he took his shots at the fourth shooting-ground. He crept just a few meters away from his targets before shooting.” The thin-faced huntsman sags, as the other men around the fireplace loudly exclaim their indignation: “For shame!” “A cheat?” “And to a war hero like her, too!”
Under the veteran’s watchful eye, the shopkeeper hands her the pouch containing the 50 silver coins, which she tucks away in her belongings as she heads back to the door. The homestead is waiting.
“Thank you,” she says to the veteran right as she’s about to leave.
“Just a minute,” he says, leaning on his cane. He surveys her face intently for a moment; unlike most, he seems to look past the deep, ugly furrow running deep along one side of her face, where an enemy bullet once plowed its path across her cheek. Finally, he seems to find what he’s looking for. “You’re your father’s daughter, aren’t you?” He gestures to a flask at his side, etched with an army insignia she still had tattooed in crude, fading inks across one knuckle. “Come, I’ve some elderberry liqueur with me. A gift I’m well willing to part with, to meet the sharpshooter who shoots with such famed accuracy.” She glances back outside, the snow now piling up higher over the car in the approaching dusk, and she comes along with him as he leads her to take the fine stuffed armchair by the fire.