Matador Review

A Quarterly Missive of Alternative Concern

Elana Gomel

Little Sister

           The day her father was arrested, Svetlana lost her notebook.

           The notebook was important because all the latest definitions were there, written down in her careful round script. She searched for it everywhere: under the roll-up top of her desk, where balls of blotting paper nested like spider eggs; at the bottom of her satchel where she discovered an ink-stained white ribbon; on the floor of the classroom, crawling between the rows of desks until she was chased away by old Aunt Sonya, the cleaner.

           She could not find the notebook and went home downcast. She could always ask her best friend Tattie. But Tattie lived five streets away and the winter day was drawing to a close; the sky was like a dusty bowl filling with darkness. It was at night when the oborotni came out and prowled the streets. And though the Patrols of Light were there to protect the workers coming home from late shifts, children were strongly discouraged from venturing outside after dark. Even if, like Svetlana, they no longer considered themselves children.  

           A snowball hit her between the shoulder-blades and cold wetness trickled down through a rent in her old coat. The boy had dived into the gaping mouth of a house but she had seen enough to know him for Misha, one of her classmates, rather than something more sinister. Lazy, stupid, good-for-nothing! Well, if anybody was destined to become an oboroten, it was him! Svetlana defiantly stuck out her tongue and hurried on. A heavy hand landed on her shoulder.

           "Little sister," said a hoarse voice, and a cloud of warm tobacco smell enveloped her, "where is the nearest dorm?"

           She looked up. The day had curdled into purple twilight. Sparse snowflakes shivering in the frigid air landed on the soldier's shabby greatcoat. His face, under stubble and dirt, was haggard and thin. He looked barely older than her.

           "You mean the House of Light?" she asked.

           "Whatever you call it here. A place to kip."

           "Over there," she pointed toward the city center where the broken windows of granite-clad towers gaped over the wide boulevards lined with splintered tree-trunks. Many of the towers were abandoned; infested by the Enemy who wove its cocoons in the stuffy dark. There they were hatching new generations of shape-shifting oborotni; of brutal kulaki, whose face was a giant clenched fist; of wily kosmopolity, whose beguiling squeaks grew louder as their stature diminished (the latest kind were the size of rats); and worst of all, krovososy, the crawling vampires whose human bodies had degenerated into a fat worm-like tube, tipped with a toothy snout.

           Or perhaps these scary images were yesterday's news. Svetlana once again bitterly regretted her inattention in class. She had written down today's definitions in a daze of fatigue, their meaning sliding off her mind like water off a duck's back. Of course, she was tired but this was no justification for slacking. She was not the only one to have spent the night glued to the dining-room table or whatever other piece of furniture the Voice happened to be coming from. She had been mesmerized by the Voice's rich cadences but most of all she had been entranced by the everyday miracle of His words materializing into tiny flame soldiers who marched off into the darkness to do battle with the Enemy. She loved watching this happen; how unfortunate that one paid for sleepless nights with drooping eyelids and a foggy head next morning! Her parents had fallen asleep on the couch, still sitting upright, as if she would not notice!

She had been mesmerized by the Voice's rich cadences but most of all she had been entranced by the everyday miracle of His words materializing into tiny flame soldiers who marched off into the darkness to do battle with the Enemy.

           And now her notebook was lost and she was unprotected against the Enemy's inexhaustible wiles. What was it the teacher had said? There seemed to be a new variety of the krovosos that walked upright and had a human face with a coiled proboscis hidden in its mouth, like the stinger of a bee. Or was it a new oboroten?

           Svetlana realized that the soldier was looking at her expectantly. She blushed; so much for her good manners!   

           "I'm sorry," she said. "It's a ten-minute walk. I'm going in that direction. Would you like to come with me?"


           As the soldier fell in step by her side, Svetlana became aware of the profound stillness of the city. The shuffling of pedestrians, the screech of streetcars, the smart marching of the Patrols, all had been hushed by the snowfall. The only sound was a soft rustle coming from the soldier's feet that were wrapped in layers of newspaper inside his scuffled military boots. The snow was now collecting on the ground, giving off a pale ghostly light.

           "Are you on home leave?" she asked.

           The soldier mumbled something.


           "I'm not . . . I don't . . . Shell-shock, you know. Not very clear in the head."

           Svetlana did not know what shell-shock was but she nodded, afraid of appearing ignorant. Obviously, it was some new trick of the Enemy. It was hard to keep up with them. At unpredictable intervals, the Voice would issue from some household object, illuminating the darkness of their ignorance with His flaming words. Most of what He said was incomprehensible, though sometimes an occasional sentence or even a whole batch of them would sound quite ordinary and she would tremble, suffused with love and gratitude for His guidance. But even if the entire speech were spoken in no human language, it did not matter, for His word was made light, and life, and battle. And then there would be classes for schoolchildren and emergency meetings for adults, where the Voice's pronouncements were painstakingly translated into new definitions and instructions for rooting the Enemy out.

           Svetlana wrenched her thoughts away from her lost notebook, glanced at the soldier again. What if he was a Word incarnated? Often, as she watched flame soldiers disappear into the darkness, she tried to imagine them swell up to human size, clothe themselves with flesh, acquire names, faces, eyebrows, birthmarks, zits . . . Nobody knew whether it actually happened, but she liked to believe it did.

           "Andrei. And yours?"

           "Svetlana," she said a little reluctantly. Normally she was very proud of her name, which meant "light". But she liked the way he called her "Little sister." This is how nurses were addressed and Svetlana had decided long ago that she was going to be a nurse when she grew up, healing the devastation wrought by the Enemy on the human bodies and souls. Not everybody had to be a warrior, she told her classmates, and though some boys curled their lips in contempt, the teacher agreed.

           "Svetlana? Sveta? I have a sister named Sveta."

           "Really?" she smiled at him. "So you can still call me 'Little sister.'"

           The bent pin holding her hair under the kerchief chose this moment to break, and her plaits tumbled down.   

           He gently tugged one thick fair rope of hair braided with a threadbare ribbon.

           "My sister is a pest. I bet you're a good girl."

           "You shouldn't . . ." She was frowning and smiling simultaneously.

           A black shadow detached itself from the ruined building at the corner, ran screaming toward them, its ragged coat of loose skin flapping over its shapeless body, a piercing shriek coming from the hole in its fist-face, the thick head-fingers stretching toward them.

           "Run!" Svetlana screamed but the soldier stood petrified. The sour stench of the creature washed over her, old blood and rancid fat, and despite the waning light, she could see with painful clarity the juddering sack of its belly, filled to bursting with the larvae of its young coiling under the pale membrane.

           She tried to drag him away but the soldier stood staring at the Enemy, his mouth hanging open.

           He was a soldier; she was a schoolgirl, dispensable. There was really no choice. She stepped in front of him, shielding him from the ravening creature.

He was a soldier; she was a schoolgirl, dispensable. There was really no choice. She stepped in front of him, shielding him from the ravening creature.

           And then a powerful side-blow sent her sprawling into the snow and a deafening noise exploded in her ear.

           Svetlana scrambled upright. The soldier was bending over the creature that lay on its back in a pool of black blood, its belly-sack split and the larvae squirming feebly, trying to crawl out. In one hand Andrei clutched a curved smoking stick.

           "Don't!" she screamed when she saw how close he was to the kulak and its offspring. "Back off! They'll jump on you!"

           He turned around; his face was the color of the steely-gray sky.

           "What? . . . What is this?"

           "It's a kulak. A big one. They're getting uppity. And the weather is good for them too. So cold."

           "A kulak?" he repeated uncomprehendingly. "What do you mean? There was a kulak in our village, Uncle Vassilii, but he was exiled . . . Anyway, this is not a man!"

           "Of course not! It's a kulak!"  

           The larvae were now spilling out of the rent in the creature's stomach like a clutch of bleached earthworms. It was really terrible how their shapes approximated humanity! Wrinkling her nose in disgust, Svetlana stomped on them.

           "What the hell are you doing?" the soldier dragged her away. "Those are babies!"

           "Babies? What are you, daft?"

           Suddenly a horrible suspicion blossomed in her mind and she backed away from him.

           "Who are you?" she whispered.

           He saw the change in her face and lifted his hand.

           "Little sister . . ."

           "Don't call me this!" she screamed. "Patrol!"

           But there were no patrols and no passers-by. The city lay empty around them, ice and iron and broken concrete.

           "Listen, Sveta," he said slowly, "I don't know what's happening, and where I am, and who the hell this monster is . . . I was fighting, OK? Kurskaya Duga. The Fritzes were coming at us like bats out of hell and we were hunkering down in the trenches and the Commissar was giving his pep talk and then . . . I don't remember. I thought I had a concussion and was given some R and R. I heard from mates that it happens; your memory is wiped clean, like, and then it comes back . . . But sure as I am my mother's son, I could not have forgotten something like that!"

           Half of what he said made no sense but despite this, she was curiously reassured that he was no Enemy. He seemed too human, too lost; the bewildered blinking of his eyes telegraphed his honesty to her.

He seemed too human, too lost; the bewildered blinking of his eyes telegraphed his honesty to her.

           "Who are the Fritzes?" she asked. "A new kind of Enemy?"

           "New kind? They are the enemy! German fascists! Lackeys of imperialism! Bloody vampires!"

           She nodded.

           "I thought so," she said. "I knew you were fighting them. But where is your torch?"

           "My what?"

           "How did you . . ." Her words petered out.

           She had seen no flash of light, such as given off by the sacred electric torches of the Patrols. They were the only infallible weapon against the Enemy. Ordinary fire did not work so well—even assuming that there was something to burn, which increasingly, was not the case.

           "How did you kill it?"

           "With my Nagant, how else? You were just in line of fire . . . Why the fuck did you step in front of me?"

           The question stung badly. Svetlana turned around and walked into the rising wind that cut her cheeks like broken glass and justified her tears.

           Andrei caught up with her and grasped her arm.

           "I'm sorry," he said. "I've to watch my tongue, I know, but this is what you pick up in the trenches . . . You're a nice girl. But I just . . . I just don't understand! Am I dead?"

           "No," she answered sulkily, "you would know if you were, and zombies don't talk."

           He sighed."All right. Is there anybody around who can explain the situation to me?"

           She was going to point him to the House of Light but they had already passed the street and the darkness was gathering behind them, a frigid wall of livid purple and black enlivened with fleeting shadows.

           "Well . . . " she said uncertainly. "My Dad. He knows everything."

           "Please!" Andrei grasped her hand. "Take me home! I know it's hard for civilians now, but I still have my ration. Tobacco, even some chocolate . . . I'll share!"

           She was not doing it for food but she did not argue. They hurried through the inky dusk, hearing the mournful cry of a krovosos from a courtyard.

           "A vampire," she explained. "You must be used to this if you're fighting them all the time!"

           "Germans are pigs but they don't squeal like this!" he muttered.

           Svetlana's parents were already home. She hid her face in her mother's warm bosom, for once not being ashamed of behaving like a baby. Andrei was standing patiently at the door while she tried to explain to her parents who he was. Her mother frowned but her father invited him in.

           While they were drinking tea with the promised chocolate (crumbly and chalky and tasting like heaven), Andrei looked curiously at the smoky homemade candles that sent legions of dancing shadows into the corners.

           "I only saw those when I was a child," he said, "I thought all cities have electricity now."

           "We do," Svetlana's father replied. "All the patrols are armed with electric torches."

           "Despite the blackout?"

           "What do you mean, blackout?" Svetlana's mother asked sharply. "How could we fight the enemy if there was a blackout?"

           "But the raids . . . " Andrei started.

           From a glazed ceramic vase on the dresser came the Voice. The paper flowers, poppies and carnations that Svetlana had made in her crafts class, instantly burst into flame. A stream of power poured into the tiny apartment, filling it with a cataract of sound, echoing from the peeling walls and shabby furniture, sweeping over the four people like a mighty river. Svetlana stole a glance at her parents' bowed heads, but the moment was really too private to share with anybody, even them. Trembling, she watched the feeble candle-flames shatter into seeds of fire that sunk into the already pitted and scarred floorboards. From these black holes, miniature flame figurines crawled out and rushed toward the window, galloping over the four people in their eagerness, leaving scorched streaks on Svetlana's arms and shoulders. She felt no pain. And then the Words joined with the other flaming hordes rising from the lit windows of human families—too few, in the city encroached upon by the Enemy, but still enough to fill the frozen air with the maelstrom of dancing stars. And then the host of Words shaped itself into a whirlpool of fire, rose up, and disappeared beyond the clouds.

the Words joined with the other flaming hordes rising from the lit windows of human families—too few, in the city encroached upon by the Enemy, but still enough to fill the frozen air with the maelstrom of dancing stars.

           "What was that?" asked the soldier hoarsely.

           He was huddling at the table, his hands sliding off his ears where he had clamped them and a pained expression on his face.

           "I thought it was a broadcast . . . sounded like, you-know-who . . .  But no, of course not, I couldn't make out a single word . . . How can you stand this bloody noise?"

           "Who did you bring into our home?" screamed Svetlana's mother.

           The door burst open.

           Dark helmet-wearing figures crowded the doorway, their torches stabbing the dusty air. Svetlana backed away from Andrei, torn between the horror of having been taken in by the Enemy and the gratitude to the Patrol for having arrived in the nick of time.

           "Comrades . . ." Andrei took a hesitant step forward and she thought, dazed: this cannot be; he should shrivel and crawl into the corner confronted with the Light, shed his deceptive human masquerade, reveal himself for . . .

           But she could not finish the thought because the patrol, a bunch of tired, callow youths, their leather coats torn and filthy, paid him no attention. Their leader, whose star-crowned helmet sat askew on his shaven head, shoved him aside and marched toward Svetlana's father. And before she could process what was happening, before she could take in her mother's thin wail, he kicked the man to the floor and the Patrol crowded around him, their torches trained upon the huddled mass.

           Svetlana threw herself at them, cannoned into their tobacco-smelling wall, pushed them aside, rushed forward to lift her father—and was caught by rough hands, pinned between two swearing, angry, tired young men.

           But she did not even struggle. She looked.

           Looked at her father, the kindest, wisest of men, roll himself into a ball like a hedgehog, his arms covering his face tightly but not so tight that she could not see the transformation taking place.

           The familiar face was sloughing off, washed away by a thin stream of evil-smelling liquid, and another face was unfolding like a poisonous flower: the hooked snout with needle-sharp teeth; the tiny ruby-colored eyes set so close to each other that they looked like a single raw wound below the bulging bony forehead; the forked black tongue, ceaselessly licking bleeding lips . . . And his hands were fleshless claws now; and his stooped back arched into an animal spine . . . An oboroten! Her father: a shape-shifter, a werewolf!

           Everything went black before her eyes and from far away she heard voices, distant and unimportant.

his hands were fleshless claws now; and his stooped back arched into an animal
spine. . . An oboroten! Her father: a shape-shifter, a werewolf!

           "Where are you taking him, Comrades?"

           "Where else?"

           "Stay with the girl!"

           "Calm down, Mother. We're doing you a favor!"

           "They never understand . . ."

           She understood each word but they made no sense. Nothing did.

           When she came to, sluggishly and reluctantly, she found herself lying on the family's single shabby sofa. Andrei was sitting by her side. A sparse dawn bled through the un-curtained window.

           "Mummy . . ." she whispered.

           "She went to the headquarters," he said. "I told her not to . . . It's not a good idea. But she would not listen."

           Svetlana stared at him. His face looked dusty, somehow. She noticed, distantly, a half-healed scar on his cheek.

           "They took my Dad too," he was saying softly. "A month before the war started. They said he was a cosm . . . cosmop . . ."

           "Cosmopolitan," she said. "It's a kind of vermin."

           "This is what they said. I can't even pronounce it. Anyway, I knew it was my turn next but the war started and I volunteered. I think they forgot about me."

           "Where is your father?" she asked.

           "Dead. We got an official letter. Executed as a traitor to the Motherland."

           "Good for you. At least you know he's not with the Enemy."

           "I don't know . . ." Andrei seemed to be oblivious to her, staring at the wall above her head. "My Dad was a good man. He would never . . . He did not even know what it was. After they came for him, I started thinking . . . But then the fascists attacked and I had to go. It's our land. And Comrade Stalin does not make mistakes."


           "That voice yesterday . . . What was it?"

           "It is the Voice," she said dully.

           For the first time since she woke up, he looked straight at her.

           "How old are you, Sveta?" he asked.

           "I . . ." she started and stopped. "I don't know."

           "There was that guy in the trenches," he went on, speaking to himself. "Trofim . . . an older guy, an intellectual. They were coming for him but he was lucky: led an attack, got a bullet in the head. Clean death. He was telling me that words cast shadows and these shadows get together and weave a world for themselves. And live in it, not knowing that they are shadows of our thoughts, feelings, loves, and hates. And he also said that a shadow is the body of a soul. So every man has a sister shadow that goes with him, and lives the reflection of his life, and dies the reflection of his death . . ."

           "What are you talking about?" Svetlana cried in despair. "It's all because of you! I lost my notebook with all the definitions and then I met you . . . If I had it, maybe it wouldn't have happened! Maybe I could have warned him, told him he was being taken over!"

           Andrei finally looked her straight in the face and the fire of his blue eyes, so like her own, burnt her.

           "Little sister, little sister," he said. "My own Svetlana, you see, she died too because when Dad was arrested, we lost our ration card, and didn't have enough to eat . . . But here you are, in the world of our shadows, and it's a bad world, a hard world. I can see that. I'm sorry for all the words we said so many times, each of them becoming a monster, a demon to harass you. But a man’s got to believe in something, and there is a war, and the Germans are worse than the Cheka . . . At least, those who come at night are our own people."

           "What are you talking about?" Svetlana whispered. But even as she was saying it, gray fog was rising in front of her, blurring the outlines of Andrei's face, and her own body felt strange and insubstantial, and she thought, resignedly, now it's my turn, an Enemy's child is always an Enemy . . .

Andrei opened his eyes and a woman's face swam into focus. It was tired and pale but familiar; and equally familiar was the stench of carbolic acid and rotting flesh.

           "Little sister . . ." he whispered.

           "Don't talk," the nurse said roughly. "You're lucky; it's only a flesh wound. We'll patch you up and send you back to fight."

           The door of the field hospital burst open and a group of men in scuffled leather coats walked in.

Elana Gomel is the author of five non-fiction books published by Routledge, Macmillan and others, and the author of numerous articles on subjects ranging from science fiction and fantasy to posthumanism and Victorian literature. Her fantasy stories appeared in New Horizons, Aoife's Kiss, Bewildering Stories, Timeless Tales, The Singularity, New Realm, Mythic, The Fantasist and other magazines; and in anthologies The Apex Book of World SF, People of the Book, Twelve Days of Christmas, and others. Her fantasy novel A Tale of Three Cities was published in 2013.