Canada |

First Women’s Battalion of Death

by Matthew Rader

edited by Kevin Chong

Catherine’s throat was soft and open to the orange light of the salon. Josie held the back of Catherine’s head in one hand, moving the nozzle with the other, rinsing Catherine’s hair with warm water. Catherine felt herself relax into Josie’s hand, give in, let this other, younger woman support her. She had her eyes closed. The water was loud against her skull and against the porcelain sink and Catherine allowed herself to slip away into her body where it was dark and endless and uncommonly quiet, where the hand holding her head was part of her body going on forever.

Then the water stopped.

The phone was ringing.

“He can fuck off,” Josie said.

Catherine felt the words before she heard them and they brought her out of herself and then, paradoxically, in an instant, locked her back into her body, a reminder that her body and her awareness of her body were two different places, locked her into her finitude, to the space between herself and Josie.

Then Josie laughed. 

Catherine opened her eyes.

Above her on the ceiling was a map of the world. The map was upside down and the hemispheres reversed. All the proportions were unfamiliar, with Europe and Russia and Canada crammed into a fat landmass along the bottom of the image. It looked like a different place.

“Sorry,” she said to Catherine. Her voice was soft and regretful, half-embarrassed, half-irreverent. She sounded fatigued and at the same time energized by her fatigue, as if swearing like that were at once a weakness and a thrill.

She let Catherine’s neck rest in the support of the sink.

The phone was still ringing.

“He’s a fucking asshole,” said a voice from a few feet away—one of the other hairdressers—a blonde woman called Hannah who had cut Catherine’s hair once before and who had reminded Catherine of her sister, Jessica—Yashka she’d called her since they were children—with her strident voice and her lazy left eye, like Yashka’s, so that both women seemed to only ever half-see her and simultaneously to see something Catherine could not, to see in a way Catherine could not.

They were talking about Josie's boyfriend.                    

Then the phone stopped.

Catherine heard Josie pump the shampoo then Josie’s fingers were working her scalp. She would have paid just for this part. She liked Josie’s soft body leaning over her. She liked the heat of that body. She liked Josie’s fingers moving her scalp back and forth. Josie smelled of butter and soap and Pinot Gris and something grimy and tired and young that seemed familiar to Catherine but that had gone out of her life several years before, back when she was Josie’s age, in her late-twenties, or perhaps even younger, before she'd taken her post at the university, before her Facebook feed had been overrun by pictures of other women’s babies, then other women’s toddlers, then school performances, then even the teenaged rock bands of her friends’ children—always the fathers posting these—before she had friends who were divorced or declaring bankruptcy or getting chemotherapy for some rare form of stomach cancer or cancer of the blood or cancer of the skin or kidneys, losing their hair, drinking kombucha, cutting out sugar and gluten, going camping in the late fall for that last moment in the autumn sunlight over the islands, arbutus trees with their peeling skin and persistent green leaves, before tenure, before the pain in her hands that made it excruciating to type, before the novel began to languish, even in her own mind, before she'd tired, finally, of being tired. 

What she knew: Josie had broken up with her boyfriend, an unknown but gifted painter from Australia named Matthias, who she’d been with for some years. His small 12 X 10 inch paintings were all over the salon walls, floating in large rectangular frames. The images were tiny, photo-realistic depictions of women’s clothing alive in colourless, roughly-penciled settings: a sheer smock walking a nighttime highway, an old woolen bathing suit and cap on the sidewalk of a North American city, a paisley dress expressing the wind on top of a double decker bus in the heart of London. The clothes looked like they were walking or running or standing in the energy of the world, with gravity and weather and motion acting on them. But there were no bodies, no people alive in the clothing, as if the bodies—women, Catherine thought, or even men—had been removed, erased. Yashka would have a field day with these images. She would never stop ripping them apart. Then she’d have a go at Catherine for using a cliché like “field day” and a second cliché like “ripping them apart.”

Or she’d laugh and say nothing.

Sometimes Yashka would say nothing just when she had the most to say.

There’d been a party in the salon two nights before to celebrate the hanging of these paintings and the place had been closed the following day. It still had the faint odor of beer and wine gilding the scent of product. Catherine had not caught the details of what happened between Josie and the painter, but at some point in that day the salon was closed—the day before this day—Josie had had enough.

Catherine was waiting for something to say.

She didn’t know Josie well, but they had friends in common. They were neighbours in that loose sense of belonging to a certain part of the city.

Maybe he’ll go home, she thought, but she didn’t say it.

Looking at the map with her head tilted back Catherine had the sense she herself was hanging upside down. South America reached up into the top of the world like a plume of smoke where the fat north was the dull fire below. Australia was a lonely cloud. As strange as it was, she’d seen it before. She recognized it. Yashka had it hanging in her office. There was so much blue ocean in the south—it looked to Catherine like the sky.

“Take home a bottle of white and drink it in the bath,” Hannah said, her tone all solidarity and sympathetic vindictiveness, as if by adopting some of the uglier of Josie’s feelings she might alleviate those very feelings in Josie, ease some of her friend’s burden. Catherine imagined Hannah’s eyes looking off in two different directions at once. "We'll take these fucking paintings down tonight."

Josie lifted Catherine’s head up and wrapped a towel around her hair, patting it and squeezing it. Catherine felt the blood running back into her body.

“Do you want a cup of tea?” Josie said. She was still patting Catherine’s hair. “Or coffee? We have green tea? Lemonade?”

Josie had her hand on Catherine’s back, between her shoulders, so Catherine knew to stand up. There was late afternoon light filling up the front part of the salon, getting hung up on the ficus and in the blue barbicide on the counters. Catherine was the only client.

“Offer her the wine,” said another young woman who was sweeping the floor. Catherine didn’t know her name.

The hair on the floor was a mixture of black and silver like Catherine's own. Already the person from whom it had been cut was growing new hair, having left some physical part of herself behind, some part she felt she no longer wanted. This struck Catherine as sad and disgusting in a way that had never occurred to her before. She listened to the sound of the broom against the floor and she imagined in that instant that it was the sound of the hairs moving against each other. All our hair going on even after death, “like grass in good soil.” That’s what Remarque’s beleaguered German in All Quiet On the Western Front imagines: the hair growing on his dead comrades’ corpses in the mud of Western Europe, their nails twisting into corkscrews. Catherine knew it was a myth that these cells went on without us, without our beating hearts, but it compelled her imagination as it had Remarque’s and now here was all that hair that her mind could not quite make dead being drawn across the floor. When the young woman turned away from Catherine a tattoo of Ganesha reached its arms and elephant head out from the scooped back of her dress.

"I don't think I can stomach the smell of wine," Josie said, guiding Catherine into a chair and stepping on the foot pump to raise Catherine's head to a comfortable height. Catherine felt Josie shudder at the thought.

"Is that ok?" she apologized.

She meant the wine.

She was looking at Catherine in the mirror where they could see each other so clearly and also themselves, and then their further reflections in the mirror behind them and so on to the limits of their vision or light, Catherine didn’t know which. Josie had her hands on Catherine’s shoulders.

Josie had big round eyes and long eyelashes and bangs. The skin around her eyes was dark and her nose was red and sore looking underneath her make-up. She reminded Catherine of a particular movie star. Not because she was beautiful but because she was not quite, as if the presence of some essential woman, essential image of a woman, interfered with the face Catherine was seeing reflected before her.

"Of course," Catherine said.

She didn’t need wine.

She wanted to be friendly. Kind. Josie was sweet and struggling.

She liked Josie. She was like Josie.

Or Josie was like her. A little younger. A little more alive.

That’s how Catherine felt. She was surprised by the feeling. Surprised that it came to her as clearly as it did and without bitterness. She felt sorry for Josie. And for herself.

And also proud. Intimate.

Josie was some part of herself she’d left behind but that she still loved. That was Catherine’s thought or the tenor of her thought, something not quite direct or formal, but implied in her thinking. A kind of pressure that tilted her mind. She was picturing the hair again.

Then she said, "Maybe you're pregnant."

It was a half-joke. The kind of thing that was meant to be funny in its awkwardness. She’d never been pregnant or had wanted to be.

She'd meant to wink or smile conspiratorially. 

But she didn’t.

In Russia, at the end of the First World War, in the period between the fall of the Czar and the October Revolution, a woman named Maria Bochkareva formed the First Russian Women’s Battalion of Death. That’s what it was called and there were others in Petrograd and Moscow. The battalions were meant to shame the demoralized Russian army who no longer knew for whom or what they were fighting. During the Kerensky Offensive, she lead more than 200 Russian women over the top of trenches in the Belarusian earth and drove back the Germans for a time.

Catherine knew all this because Bochkareva had been called “Yashka” and when Catherine had come across the nickname while researching Catherine the Great for her now sick and moldering novel, she’d experienced the particular kind of delight and horror that had characterized all the most important moments of her writing life: the rhyme of her own limited expression—her inability to say Jessica as a child—with this woman in history, how that limitation had superseded the name her parents had given her sister, the doubling of her own name and the famous empress’—

She tried to tell her sister.

“They called her Yashka,” she said. It seemed so unlikely that anyone else should have this name that had been between Catherine and her sister as an error, a skewing of something essential that others had access to but that could not be described accurately in Catherine’s mouth. Somehow that error had overtaken the essential and become not just the signifier of the signifier but her sister’s name. Together they’d invented Yashka and her sister embodied that collaboration. Now here it was again, somehow prefigured in history. 

They were sitting in Yashka’s office at the clinic, the map Catherine remembered hanging like a flag on the drab wall to her left, next to Yashka’s graduate degrees from the University of British Columbia and from John Hopkins. Yashka had always been so focused, as if she were clearing a path for Catherine, for her children. On the desk were portraits of Yashka’s two sons. The oldest was fourteen now and he looked like no one Catherine had ever known.

Yashka was writing a note and when she looked up her left eye peered over Catherine’s shoulder and for half a moment Catherine felt compelled to glance behind her. But she resisted. She’d been fighting that impulse all her life.

“What happened after they drove back the Germans?” Yashka asked.

It was nearing noon and the sunlight in the window cast few shadows.

Catherine wanted to tell her sister about the other women’s battalion that had defended the Winter Palace and then been imprisoned in the Smolny Institute following the revolution, a place that had once been the first school for girls in Russia as decreed by Catherine the Great and then later, the Bolshevik headquarters before the capital was moved to Moscow. Even Vladimir Putin had worked there at something or other in the 1990s. Now it is a museum to Lenin and the statue of Stalin has been removed from the gardens. History was like this for Catherine: full of doublings, repetitions, echoes, rhymes, recurring shapes in time that lit up when viewed through the agency of her perception. Often her life seemed to be lit with recognition, as if history were looking her in the eyes, as if she were seen by Time. That was how she felt at that moment in the office.

That was how she felt in the salon.

Only half a second had passed, but it was enough to think all this.

She was looking at Josie in the mirror. Josie with scissors in her hand.

Yashka’s oldest son was too old now to hold her hand while they walked. Yashka had told Catherine this recently and Catherine had not known what it meant.

“There were no reinforcements,” she told her sister. “The men wouldn’t leave the trenches. They lost everything.” Bochkareva went to America. She dictated her memoirs. She met Woodrow Wilson.

Josie held her gaze. She was ready to cut. To take something away from Catherine. To give something back. To help shape her into whom she might be at a later stage of history.

When Bochkereva returned to Russia in 1919 the Soviets shot her as a traitor.

No one in the salon said anything. 

Then Josie burst out laughing.

And Hannah was laughing.

And the girl sweeping the hair.

And Yashka.