A Phantom Search for the Guilty

Оповідь українською

Story by Zoya-Valeriya

Illustrated by Yevheniia Polosina

Though I find myself here again, I am without the faintest notion or the calmness that comes with confidence about what each turn will bring.

Everything seems intentionally laid out to prevent my memory from arranging the bits of recollection into an approximate map to show me where to go next. As I blindly make my way out of here, my memories quickly turn into instant oatmeal – blurred and indistinct, like someone else has chewed them for me.

So, I surrender the choice of which path to follow to the conscience of my feet. With that, my worries ease, knowing my steps at least have the ground under them to provide support, unlike my mind. I rest the weight of my entire body on them, my hands dangle limply on both sides. A stranger might think this relaxed gait means I know what I am doing. They would be wrong.

Yet, this is exactly what my companion with a deep, scratchy voice seems to think. A virus made a running leap into Zakhar’s throat, casting hundreds of hooks, and is now lodged in there tightly. It plans to carefully descend into his bronchial tubes and continue to live in his body for at least a brief while. Having done so, the virus has transformed him into a silent traveling companion, which fits my mood today.

Everything looks familiar and understandable, until I start to define it. Again, I bang my head against this brittle wall of reality which instantly collapses onto itself, disintegrating into grains of sand, forgetting it once had a distinct shape. Even though this has become a habit, I am still startled, like when one of your relatives digs up a healing ritual for a stye out of the book of family secrets and unexpectedly spits in your eye. Trying to protect yourself from this act of kindness, your eyelashes pull towards one another, the top lid embracing the bottom one, and then, with your eyes closed, you’re tempted to stay this way, to give yourself some peace.

However, I keep my eyes open, especially since the local roads don’t condone carelessness. They are quick to catch every misstep in a pothole, thrusting my knees, palms, and elbows onto the ground, leaving behind colorful bruises – pink, maroon, green, midnight blue, with some lazy sapphire – as a reminder.

Whether by coincidence or, more likely, as inspiration for the local residents, the houses here are painted in that same color scheme. Here and there the cracked paint glistens in the sun like pus oozing out from beneath the surface of your skin.

One of the bruise-hued homes reminds me of a house I have been to before. It also has one floor, blue walls, red window frames, and a large built-on attic, diligently storing all sorts of junk, albeit chaotically. The house is somewhere nearby, and an elongated table is spread out in the small yard. What holiday is it? We’re too lightly dressed and the weather’s too sunny for it to be New Year. I don’t know why, but all my friends and relatives are here, even those I’ve only seen once in my life. The table can barely hold all the food as if this were an illustration for a fairy tale – all that’s missing is a giant with honey dripping down his moustache with painted props for food on the table.

Normally, even the fleeting thought of bringing my friends and family together in one space, time, and reality would quickly vanish, destroyed under fire from my catastrophic prognosis of what might happen (which made me feel weird thinking about having a wedding, for example), but right now somehow, they are blithely getting along.

My friend Maryana is loudly describing the problems of the education system to someone who’s listening attentively and asking questions, engaging in the conversation rather than waving away the opportunity for dialogue like they would the white fluff from poplar trees in May. Maryana’s back is straight, as though her muscles have remembered those countless hours of dance lessons in the studio ten years ago, as though the scoliosis she developed afterwards has been expelled from her body through willpower. Unconsciously, I stretch and straighten my shoulders.

Her arms, usually folded over her stomach and held in position by heavy restraints tied tightly around her wrists so there is only enough give for her to tear at already long-destroyed cuticles in her insane rage, now seem almost physically imbued with meaning; these same arms now wave about freely at her sides, having untangled the knots tying them down or, perhaps, they have simply been transformed into sulguni cheese.

My relatives are paying attention to Maryana, leaning forward, eagerly waiting to hear every next word. They are ready to listen. And they do in fact listen.

My other friend Anya is flushed and has put on some weight. She and my aunt Ira are running back and forth to the kitchen bringing new dishes for the table, even though there are already too many. This is the first time I have noticed their resemblance: both have a birthmark on their foreheads, strong legs slightly longer than their torso, soft facial features, and small noses whose tips point curiously upwards. When my uncle tries to impress them with a joke, catching them at the only moment they stand still as they strive to find space to fit the new dishes on the table, they even laugh alike: loudly, their teeth showing through wide smiles, as though their hearts are as big as the table and happy to accommodate any kind of nonsense.

The only thing I find puzzling is when did they manage to grow their hair so long?

The table is bustling with life. Having left behind (I don’t know where) the shame and condemnation usually preceding them, my family and friends are sharing opinions about the world and thoughts on what needs to be done about it. And there are no fists being punched at faces, no mutual insults being thrown, no doors being slammed, nor are forks being tossed on the table, so they hit one of the salads and the shockwave dramatically flings eggs and mayonnaise all over the place, leaving a stain on the white lace tablecloth. On the contrary, everything they are saying to one another seems to be… bringing them closer together? They are literally leaning across the table. And although their shirt cuffs are stained red from accidentally having been dipped in the borshch, they don’t get upset (once they notice), absorbed as they are in interesting conversations.

I feel uneasy about this peacefulness. Instead of sitting down next to someone, I climb up on the peeling limestone fence embedded with shells, like I used to as a child, to gaze about, and absentmindedly pick at the worn remains of mollusk shells under me.

Suddenly the door opens. Grandma and Grandpa walk in holding a bouquet of flowers like an offering. They are greeted with toasts and kisses on the cheek. I kiss them too and return to my hiding spot. I’m confused; for some reason I thought Grandma and Grandpa were dead. But here they are. Grandma has a fresh perm, and Grandpa’s face is flush from drinking vodka and he’s smiling from ear to ear, showing off his gold teeth. Everyone seems happy to be here, which means everything is okay and I’m the only one suspecting a problem. I feel like there are sharp rocks hidden beneath this river, yet I am content we are all together.

Finally, I sit down next to Grandma and prepare to defend my plate from her attempts to pile it with food because “You’re too skinny, your face is the size of a little fist.” I dam myself against her flash flood of nagging suggestions like, “Let me give you some more,” “Why aren’t you taking any fish?” “Have some more potatoes,” as she pours food onto my plate turning it into an edible Lake Brebenskul atop the Carpathian Mountains. All the familiar home-cooked dishes are truly appealing, but I have a lump in my throat and no appetite.

Grandma, however, is oddly calm, as the portion of her favorite dressed herring salad slowly shrinks traveling on her fork from the table to her mouth, merrily talking with auntie Ira and offering toasts in Russian (“Together everything will be alright!”), neglecting the urge to feed me.

It’s a dream come true, but how do I shake this nervous feeling like someone’s cut me out and pasted me into this collage? I bite into a pickle and try to share this feeling with Grandma… 

And I don’t remember the rest. I try with all my might to force my brain to work. I literally wring it like a wet blouse trying to squeeze something out. Pinching my eyes shut, furrowing my brow, and gnawing at the inside of my cheeks all fail me. So, I tense every muscle in my body trying to contort myself into a thin safety pin to break open my chest of memories. Through sheer force of will I coerce out a variety of lock picks only to end with a screwdriver, a crowbar, and finally gentle persuasion. After loosening a little at first, the lock still refuses to budge, keeping the secrets hidden inside. Abundantly exasperated, my shoulders shrug involuntarily, and I decide to abandon the effort.

“Anyway, Zakhar…” I say to my friend, distracting my brain with a new topic. “It’s not that I mind. I am okay with it. But why do we always end up here together and why am I always the one to lead?”

“I’m just taking a stroll with you, I’m not going anywhere in particular,” he replies in a half-whisper, trying not to strain his throat.

Interesting. So, this whole time it hasn’t mattered to him where we would end up and I wasn’t the one carrying the burden of responsibility, like a masonry stone, for two humans at once? It’s like the feeling from childhood, when you’re being dragged down by the weight of your school rucksack and suddenly your mother or father appears and lifts it up by the handle. Ah, what a blessed relief! The joy of a liberated back! That’s what I felt when I realized Zakhar wasn’t looking for a way out, he was simply walking along beside me.

We approach the spot where the locals claim there should be a bus stop. There’s nothing obvious about it: no bench, no sign or map, not even a kiosk nearby selling cigarettes. But the bus stop is there – if you know about it.

We perch ourselves on the cracked fence and try to balance on the two-finger wide crossbar, its corners digging into our soft tissue, leaving red lines on our skin. Our hands grip the metal tightly on either side of our bodies for balance, large scales of paint peeling off and covering our palms – the old blue paint sticks like glue to sweaty surfaces. We wait for the trolleybus which will slowly, but cheaply get us across the long bridge, the other side of which is not visible from where we sit. I shut my eyes to give my fatigue a chance to rest, when suddenly, my nose catches a whiff of a distinct stench.

The worst smell in the world has been seared in my memory since childhood. Caustic and strong, it shamelessly climbs into your nostrils, making them flare widely, and turns the tip of your nose towards the sky. Spreading rapidly between the fine nasal hairs, you feel it immediately once it touches the sensitive smell receptors: it’s like inhaling tiny particles of crushed glass. The brain pulls your panic lever with all its might. It doesn’t like the messages coming from the nerve impulses, it doesn’t want to stay here, bad smells promise bad news, and all this could end in a lethal encounter with eternity. A person lived this way a thousand years ago, and still lives like this today.

The smell hits you without fanfare. It seeps deeply into your nasopharynx. Your lips open involuntarily to let in a fresh breath and give your nose a break. But this is never a smart decision. Now it’s no longer just a smell, you taste it in your mouth, as though you ate it. Impulses originating in your stomach shorten your diaphragm, bringing it up closer to your throat. Will you let the vomit escape or swallow it?

This is the smell of a room in which a drunk person leads their existence. It’s not just the simple smell of alcohol emanating from a drunk; no, it’s the stale, clinging scent which seeps into their clothing, the furniture, the walls – everything buried in the unventilated tomb of their living space. Musty, suffocating. Sick.

I turn my head. Nearby, two men are sitting on the same peeling fence waiting for the marshrutka, a local minibus, or maybe they’ve just perched themselves here indefinitely. They look normal, even pedestrian, but still have the visual cues of addiction: stubble, grimy jackets, and the unfocused thousand-yard stare. Honestly, they could have been any one of my friends, but the plume of stink gave them away. One of them was leaning against the tree, his arms folded across his chest, bent at the knees, and sitting there as though half-dreaming.

I see my uncle standing before me: tall, thin, wearing jeans and a sport coat, holding a cigarette between his fingers. Whenever he found something funny, he would let out a guffaw, his face lighting up in a big smile with crow’s feet on either side of his squinted eyes. The tragedy of being a gifted child followed him throughout his life. He was the smartest kid in school, did very well at technical college, but dropped out of university rather quickly. He drank. He stopped drinking and re-enrolled. Then he started drinking again and dropped out again. He did that several times. The last attempt was when he was almost 40 and I was already an adult. By then, his eyes shone dimly, hiding behind them enough intelligence for more than just survival, but it had been drowned too many times to be able to surface any more.

Not in a hurry, I plod along to the next stop, carrying my fatigue with me. The suffocating stench of alcohol gave way to the smell of the green algae-filled river. Some people may think it stinks and it makes them gag, but for me it’s a talisman, an amulet. I like that the river drives everyone else away. Closing my eyes, I smell home.

The rust on the bridge warmly welcomes the worn soles of my sneakers.

The bridge sways slightly from the weight of the cars passing over it, sporadic asphalt patches covering its old age and forgotten need for repairs. The water glistens in the sun, the river foams and blooms despite it being too early in the year. There are no people on the shore. Left on their own, the trees move psychedelically from the pressure of the wind, the leaves lose their distinct contours as they merge into a single green splotch and then break up into more pieces than we think can exist in an objective reality, if there even is such a thing. The park ends somewhere behind the trees and in the distance nine-story grey buildings stick out like needles stuck in a green pincushion.

It’s hot. The sun is sizzling, leisurely trying to nail me down with its rays. Yet, I keep walking across the bridge and the farther I go, the more I feel the force of the wind, which becomes elastic, forming low-hanging waves; the more actively my hair tousles in front of my face, tickling my cheeks and nose, clinging to my lips to then crawl into my mouth stubbornly.

Two opposing forces are trying to unbalance my equilibrium with every step: the heat, which turns a person into a walking cigarette butt – stuffy, neglected, and sweaty; and the wind, which should counter the power of the sun but only slows you from reaching the sought-after shelter in the shade. A third one could be added: the odd feeling of a vacuum, of the hollowness in my head, the strange lightness which has consumed the entire space inside my porous skull, emptying it from my brains, muscles, nerve endings, blood, and all the sludge forming the brine for them. But I know I shouldn’t pay much attention to this feeling right now. Once I have the strength, I’ll try to make sense of everything inside of me. For now, I am simply walking.

The bridge is crisscrossed with wires woven into the imitation of a grotesque monstrous netting. A red trolleybus is slowly approaching, gently rolling along on the thousand-year-old asphalt-patched road. It’s in no rush: at the next stop, the pensioners who ride for free will definitely choose it over the marshrutka, a local minibus they have to pay to ride; as will the youth, who find these rides somewhat romantic and childishly mischievous (especially if they opt out of following a passenger’s number one rule: to buy a ticket). Outcasts also don’t let the opportunity pass them by and come prepared for the distrustful and contemptuous looks of the other passengers. All this time the trolleybus will not be lonely, no matter how slowly it moves.

I sway to the beat of its shrill squeaking, letting the arc of these familiar childhood sounds pass through me like a shock. Sometimes you can read something sentimental written on the railings of the bridge. The first one I spot is the life-affirming inscription “Live for your own pleasure.” You can probably find this strikingly philosophical quote on every bridge, somewhere between “Zhenya is an asshole,” “Pot rules,” and “Olya + Kyrylo.”

But to me most of the inscriptions remain white childlike squiggles protruding slightly from the black surface of the metal. They swim and jump, and sometimes even form a single line, acting as a guide, pointing me in a specific direction.

I am parched. My throat is so dry it feels like a piece of stale bread that fell on the floor and was forgotten, lying there for a couple of weeks. My tongue is like a pumice stone and my mouth opens instinctively, hoping to absorb moisture from the air. My lips are cracked, like the benches the city repaints every spring which by autumn reveal the catalogue of annual color preferences of the municipal street cleaning crews.

Exhausted, I drag my body to the railing of the bridge and drape myself over it like a wet rag. Had my internal water balance been normal, perhaps I’d even drip if you gave me a good wringing. But I am as dry as a desert. My salvation so close – I can see it and I think if I bend over just a little further and stick my tongue out – there it will be. I try to estimate how many lengths of me it would take to span the distance between the surface of the water and the railing, but I keep losing count.

The most recent chemical analysis showed the colonies of organisms living in this river are best left alone. It’s not even a matter of simply interfering with their delivery to your stomach. They recommend not to go near them. Instead, let them exist peacefully in their water.

I hear a ding behind me, and something passes me nearby. A cyclist. I turn to look at him and quietly honor the strength of the person who has the energy in this weather to take on the beating sun and spin those pedals. I regret that my prince on a red and black bicycle didn’t stop and pick me up. I would have sat on the back of the bike, planted one hand on his shoulder and the other somewhere else, summoned all my balancing skills, and we’d move forward, fleeing from the sizzling hot iron and soft asphalt. Fearless and merciless, with one shrug of our shoulders, we’d cast off all our burdens and deprive them of the chance to slow down our escape. We’d ride without stopping, without turning our heads, without knowing if anything is left behind us or if it’s crumbling into ashes in our tire tracks. We wouldn’t want to know, there would be no temptation to check, to turn back, to remember. Nothing more would exist but the road ahead, the red and black bicycle, and my hand gripping his shoulder. There is nothing more my heart could desire.

We’d reach the park and I’d find out he’s in a hurry, and I too would want to be on my own as soon as possible. I would leap off the bicycle and thank him.

“Goodbye, my prince. I don’t even know your name.”

But the opportunity spirals away along with the rider until I can barely make out his small figure in the distance. The trolleybus is still weaving its way across the bridge, finally catching up to me, its passengers tiredly staring out the windows at what’s happening to the river.

Suddenly I hear a loud “pop” as a spark from the overhead cable dislodges the pair of poles (which have always reminded me of horns protruding from the back of the carriage) connecting the top of the red trolleybus to the cables carrying electricity, and it stops in its tracks. A few seconds later, the driver, a man in a blue and white checkered shirt, wearing beige breathable moccasins dotted with tiny holes, and a blue cap, his belly humbly bulging over the waist of his dark pants – jumps out of the cab. He plunges his hands into huge-sized protective gloves while scurrying to the back of the trolleybus. Nimbly raising the dislodged “horns,” he positions them, so they once again firmly grip the cables that had thrown them off. With a resigned nod of his head, he parts with the blue cap which has fallen off and whose fate is now destined to be as black as the car tires passing over it. The driver’s bald pate has now been surrendered to the will of the powerful sun.

My grandpa has a similar cap. Until I was eight, we would share the tradition of going to the boat club every morning to bask in the sun and sit in the shallow water near the red “No swimming” sign put there as a joke. Each of these journeys began with us waiting for what seemed like forever for the trolleybus at the stop by our house. Since only one of the four bus lines could take us to the shore, we often found ourselves holding our breath in anticipation, only to exhale in frustration when the squeaking red blotch approaching us was trolleybus #3, #11 or #6, but never #1. Our enthusiasm wouldn’t wane, though, and we’d be overjoyed when we finally saw the number “1” on the front of the limping coach constantly heaving from side to side, struggling to maintain its balance. I’d raise both my hands overhead and let out a triumphant “Hurray!” while my grandfather would celebrate by throwing his blue cap in the air.

This driver, however, is having a hard time taming the trolleybus’s “horns,” obstinately defying his efforts and leaping around like young goats refusing to be enslaved. Inside, a woman has taken out her fan and is nervously fanning herself and constantly looking about. The other passengers are hopelessly staring out the windows, at their phones, or at every single one of the ads someone has managed to plaster on the walls inside the trolleybus carriage.

“You bastard!” the driver grumbles. 

Drops of sweat glisten on his forehead. It’s not an easy task, but I have an inkling of a desire for him to call me over to help. I’d put on those huge gloves, drowning my hands in their infinity, deftly jump on the step on the back of the trolleybus, and restore the vitalizing bond between this red metal box and the electrical grid.

The driver – who I now call “Uncle Lyosha” – would shake my hand.

“Atta girl!” he’d say with sincere respect. 

The inhabitants of the trolleybus would also come out to thank me. Old ladies would pull whatever they could find out of their bags, from homemade buns and herbs to soap, ready to give them to me for heroically saving them from sunstroke. Men would fling their caps high up into the sky in a swarm to congratulate me for my heroism. Passing cars would honk a simple, joyful melody, as though their favorite football team had won for the first time in ten years (even if it was in the lowest division). Traffic on the bridge would stop and dozens of palms would reach out wanting to shake my hand. I would demur, and it would no longer be cute, it’d be a little uncomfortable. I would stand there not shaking their hands, smiling a lot, until the attention paid to me slipped away for a second to some political conversation, offering me an opening to move on, to search for new labors, because I need to complete eleven more.

The minutes pass by, albeit slowly. The battle is still being lost and I am still standing on the other side of the road watching the tired, suffering passengers roast under the sun as their patience rapidly wanes, dripping out and rolling down their now radiant, wet skin. 

The door opens and the driver peeks his head into the cabin, probably saying something like: “We’re not going farther, we’ve broken down.” The people are disappointed; they’ll have to limp across half the bridge under the merciless sun to the next stop. Someone clinging to hope asks: “Can you do something about it? How much longer do we have to wait?”

But there’s nothing that can be done.

Other than taking your life in your hands, or in this case your feet, and walking to Admiralska Street.

The wind gusts on my back and these are the first 10 seconds in the eternity of crossing the bridge during which I felt a bit alive. Since my destination is in the opposite direction from the crowd on the trolleybus, I mentally bid farewell to my colleagues in misfortune and set out to tackle the second half of the bridge.

“If this isn’t a problem for you, it doesn’t mean it’s not a problem,” a canonical trinity of young people walk past me.

The two guys are wearing black jeans and brightly colored t-shirts and the girl is wearing pants and a shirt. This emphatic and somewhat inspired statement, as if it were a revolutionary slogan, came from her. Her loose shirt could easily be turned into a flag or banner depicting something new. Her red lips are blood, she is the sacrifice the protesters are ready to put under the sword for this something “new” to happen and spill over into the real world.

Although superficial, it’s not a simple statement. It raises the question of how we perceive the world – a problem is what I consider to be a problem, or can a problem still be a problem if I don’t consider it to be a problem? I’m curious what her black-jeaned satellites will reply, but they whiz past me. My head is now flooding me with pain, so I let them go and continue at my own pace. It’s a hyperbolized sketch of what passes for life.

My legs feel like they have begun accumulating cotton under the skin, filling with air, causing a light tickling wave of numbness quickly rises to my shoulders and throat, holds there for exactly three seconds, then releases like a final discharge.

Blech. I shudder reflexively, as if to flick it off me like a bug.

The sky becomes metallic and smooth, a lightly mirrored surface of stainless steel pulled across the heavens like a stretch ceiling. The sleek, flawlessly poured grey veneer is so perfect it’s almost unpleasant. The sky is silent, but the wind rages. The water in the river is having a hard time remaining calm – the waves grow, crash against the bridge supports, and lick the shore.

I’m waiting for the sky to swell with moisture, the way it often happens with stretch ceilings, and start to sag in spots from the weight of thousands of drops, then hang over my head like the roof of a tent on a rainy night, until someone touches one of the sagging spots with their (not too smart) finger and so much water gushes out, it’s best to know how to swim.   

I can’t lift my head to see where I am; the road ahead is beginning to seem too long. As I take a step forward, focusing all my remaining strength on my legs, my brain magically adds a half meter to the length of the bridge. It’s an enemy unable to be taken by force. The bridge’s body lengthens with every step I take, like the Hydra of Lerna regrowing two heads every time one is lopped off by a sword.

We know from mythology that the only solution in these situations is cunning. But what trickery can there be when nearly everything has evaporated from my body?

My eyelids stick together.

“Run! Run!” a small group of people laugh and fly by too quickly for me to see who they are.

“Where are they running?” I wonder.

I notice a small drop roll down my neck, along the arc of my shoulder, then slow down before turning to track along my forearm. It slips off the edge off my shoulder pausing there for a few seconds before continuing on its way. Just then, another drop dislodges and envelops the first. Rain.

“Well, if they’re fine with it and they’re happy, then God bless, let them do what they want,” a man and woman walk past me, speaking in Russian. My neck still can’t support my heavy, drooping head, so their faces are invisible. All I can see is her red manicured nails holding onto his grey shirt. The woman presses closer. They probably only have one umbrella.

“True… What should we have for dinner?” the man replies. 

I don’t trust people who escape from the rain or constantly carry an umbrella. With that thought in my head, I sit down next to the railing of the bridge. What will the rain do to me? It’ll help me cool down a bit and my body will start rehydrating through my skin.

Rain like this – unexpected, immediately darkening the sky – joined us one morning when K and I had a date. By the time he exited the marshrutka to meet me, my drenched clothes had stuck to my body, my hair had straightened from the weight of the water, and my nose had turned rosy red. There was barely anyone on the street except for the street vendors rushing to rescue their cheese, homemade varenyky-dumplings, Korean-style carrot salad, and radishes. It was the start of a rather chilly May, the kind when rain could easily chase people indoors. Sometimes I even think that’s its plan.

K got off the bus and I saw him for just a split second before our lips were magnetically drawn together. The silent celebration of our encounter lasted three or maybe four eternities. When two bodies are drenched in rain, when every thread of clothing is full of moisture, when the skin is resigned to being a conduit for the flow of water, physical barriers switch roles. A well-moisturized body glides more softly against another, and the contact between them is completely unhindered.

The rainwater was cold, our skin – hot. We’re steaming, as if we’ve gotten out of the shower in winter having exhausted the hot water. A haze rose from spots where the cool temperature of the air met our bodies, numbing yet hypersensitive, responding not only to touch but even to proximity. There’s a physical intuition, the skin more pliable than plastic, the hairs on it electrified, and sometimes you don’t know whether you’re kissing his shoulders, or it’s your shoulders being kissed and licked all over.

“Hi,” I finally said to him when the distance between our faces expanded to eight centimeters.

“Hello,” he smiled back.

I remember the smell of his saliva on my chin. What am I supposed to do when this is the most erotic scent I know?

My foot lands in a water-filled pothole on the bridge. As the pounding in my head worsens, I curse my parents for raising me to endure pain instead of popping pills. When I was a child and something hurt, I would tell myself, “It’s OK. So, what if it hurts? It won’t hurt forever, it’ll eventually stop.”

“It’ll eventually stop” was the oft-repeated rock-solid argument to supposedly save me and help me endure the pain. Can you imagine how much free time I could have had for reading, for lounging around, for idle chit-chat, for other forms of pain, or even for pleasure, had I known it wasn’t always justified, that sometimes the easier way is better, that one simple pill is a panacea for relieving senseless suffering?

Maybe if they had given me a pill back then while I was clutching the edge of the table, anguishing in pain from the rain, from the sun, from whatever else, I would have had one with me now? And I could finally cross this damned bridge?

“Zakhar! Zakhar! Come here!” a woman in a white tracksuit shouts near my ear. “Zakhar! Zakhar, do you hear me?”

Where is Zakhar? The thought he was no longer at my side finally caught up with me and leapt onto my shoulder. Just like that, after he confessed he simply wants to walk by my side then poof, he disappears. Our elbows were still touching at the bus stop, yet I crossed the entire bridge, almost, on my own two feet, alone.

“Zakhar, come here this instant!” her hand deftly grabs little Zakhar, who surprisingly looks like the Zakhar who left me at the bus stop, apart from his height. They have the same haircut.

The woman in the white tracksuit lifts Zakhar Jr. up by one arm, jerking his legs off the ground. He makes a face as if he’s about to cry. She shakes him the way I would shake my purse when I’m mad at it for losing my earphones or keys.

“Are you going to listen to me?! Let’s go, hurry up!”

She lowers him to the ground, and at that moment Zakhar Jr. bursts into tears, his whole body goes limp, his knees bend, he folds himself up like a sweater thrown on the floor and screams at the top of his lungs in child-speak.


White-tracksuit-lady gets even angrier, furrowing her brow, bending down to the youngster, and says something to him I can’t hear over the thunder which has forced my shoulders into a typical stress response: first raising them straight up to my ears and then lowering them back down, plucking them like a loose violin string. The woman tries again to lift Zakhar Jr. back up on his feet, but he puts all his energy into producing a piercing scream – his only way to interact with the world, to explain himself, to be heard. That’s why he keeps trying harder and harder, his entire face, not just his cheeks, turning red so he looks as if he’s just come out of the womb, his cry nothing more than a cry of terror about the unknown, the astonishment from the beginning of life.

The sky rings with another low note, the woman lifts Zakhar Jr. into her arms and rushes off, mumbling to herself.

But where is my Zakhar?

My head is splitting. Maybe I’ll look for him later. It’s strange how he disappeared when he just said he’s walking with me for companionship, and the next minute he’s vanished, there’s no trace of him, no smell of him, he’s gone without a word. This always happens with him, like the time he got offended we were seeing each other less often, when I was busy, and had almost no free time. He gave me an annoyed look, but kept his lips sealed and the lump of my perceived offence remained stuck in his throat.

Or maybe he meant “walk along together” only as long as he wants? How long has he been gone? Why did I just notice this now? Was he even on the bridge with me? Or did he turn back before the bridge? Or at the bus stop? Or maybe he said something, and I didn’t hear him because my entire head – beyond my ears, all the way to my collarbones, it seems – was churning in a slurry of thought? Is it true he’s becoming an afterthought for me, that I am forgetting to touch his heart and am wearing mine out? Is it true I simply need for my heart to be loved, the formaldehyde solution it’s preserved in to be refilled, the jar wiped clean, to hear nice things said about me? The kind of things I hear without at first noticing their disparity, their contrast, until I dissolve them in the air and distill them to their decorative, complementary, and other, not so positive elements. And is this not a long-lasting act of self-humiliation in which I assign greatness to semi-fictional beings to emphasize and strangely justify my own inadequacy? Is there a victor in all this or is it one never-ending, pointless mind fuck?

The heat is messing with my head. Too bad I can’t measure my temperature, though it’s reached the point of “I apologize for everything I’ve done in the past and promise to be better.”

“I will definitely take better care of myself.”

“I will pay more attention to my friends, even if I don’t agree with their perception of the world.”

“I will not yell at my cat for waking me up at 6 am every day.”

“And I will apologize to Him, even to them, for not leaving as soon as I felt an emptiness in my heart and my stomach.”

“And I will apologize to Maryana. I will tell her, ‘I should have listened to you more closely because I cared about you. I’m sorry I turned away, but I got bored with you. And I couldn’t see beyond it. Sorry I couldn’t find the right words, or even the wrong words, or even a single letter of the alphabet to say so. I should have been a better, more patient friend, and if you want, I can become that friend to you.’”

“I will call Anya’s mother. Or better yet, I will write to Anya, even if she never reads it, and I’ll say:

‘Anya, forgive me. And forgive me that I’m only saying ‘sorry’ now, you should have heard it long ago. Or immediately. Or I shouldn’t have made it necessary in the first place. Anya, I’m sorry I disappeared, didn’t explain, and turned my back on you; that I left you on your own with all this and only saved myself, and in the end, saved myself from you. Forgive me, Anya, that I didn’t want to save you. I was afraid of being too close when you ended it, because I knew you would end it soon. Forgive me, Anya, that I didn’t respond to your calls. I felt uncomfortable, I felt scared, I felt sick being with you, and the further you spiraled downwards, the worse it became, the more I turned my back on you. Forgive me, Anya, that I didn’t respond to your ‘How are things?’ even though I still had two weeks before the end, and that I didn’t wish you well. I miss you, no matter what happened, no matter what you were like, I miss you terribly, though not often enough. Forgive me.’”

And of course: “Forgive me, God, that I don’t believe in you, but I turn to you when I’m feeling bad, but I feel so bad, so very bad, I don’t want to die. Please, if you help me, I will become a better person. I promise.”

And suddenly I understand. It all comes together, never to be separated, like Grandma’s China set and cupboard. My body howls like a wailing dog under the balcony in the rain. One day it too will take on a shape, not of dust, not of ashes, or the disgusting slime of unknown origin you find on your shoulder in the mirror when you get home and don’t know if someone spat at you or it’s a living organism. And then it will become a somewhat disgusting but not overly emotional memory, like the unwarranted expectations from the cheap sushi place near your house. Still retaining its human form, this body is stretched out on the cold surface of the unfriendly crossing meant to help me reach the other side of the Southern Buh River. But what do I have instead?

I have a bitter and starkly obvious truth. All this pain in my body and the rainy sky is my punishment from God. A heavy chrestomathy of transgressions processed into punishment. I’m not sure God tried very hard when he compiled it or if he selected the delivery time carefully, but it is just that, and the order which was placed, is now in the recipient’s hands.

Of course, I knew this would happen. Every move I made during these last few months was taken with this knowledge. And for a split second of smug reverence, I boast to myself that “I was right,” although I pray now it wasn’t true, no matter how weak my faith. 

Yes, God, I am a sinner.

“What did you say, girl?” someone moustached and bearded, wearing a hat and carrying a large rucksack, makes his way towards me.

“I am a traitor,” I choose this strange word and say it so quietly he can barely hear me, because my punishment has now entered the active phase.

“You’re a separatist?” he asks seriously but not aggressively, in a manner to make you unsure of the response he wants to hear.

“No,” I reply, “Glory to Ukraine.”

“Glory to the Heroes,” he answers in Ukrainian with a Mykolayiv accent which both hurts my ears and doesn’t. “So, what happened to you?”

He takes a couple of A4 sized sheets of paper with writing on both sides out of his bag, carefully lays them on the ground next to me, and suggests I move the axis of my existence (meaning my buttocks) a little to the left to sit on them. Afterwards, he repeats the process of laying out more sheets of paper, this time sitting on them himself, but at a distance of some seven steps away from me, from what I can guess, since I can only hear him, because my head has broken apart into mosaic pieces and is begging my eyes not to give it any new visual information – it can’t process what it already has.

“So, what happened to you?” he repeats.

“Well, I just…” I say, matter-of-factly, muttering as much as the bodily apparatus used for speaking will allow. “It’s just that…” I was never strong in moments when you had to say what hurts.

“Yes, indeed,” he says, lighting a cigarette. “Do you want one?” he extends his hand towards me, and I hold up mine to refuse. Breathing takes too much effort already. “So, what is it?” he asks for the third time.

“I… you know…”

“Uh-huh,” he replies again.

“I am a bad person.”

“Ay!” his squeal was so stark, it warranted opening my eyes.

First of all, he was sitting at most one and a half steps away from me, not seven. Second, his shrill shriek in the form of the degrading “Ay” did not mean he understood who I was and nor was he condemning the underhanded actions I have allowed myself to commit. He was trying to open a beer and the cap slipped on his yellow teeth, striking the tender flesh of his mouth and releasing a thin red stream across his gums. But he seems ok. He smiles and tries again. This time successfully.

“Why are you such a bad person?”

“I always make mistakes, and I push people away, and I’m angry, I’m so angry and so offended, and I don’t know how to come to terms with myself, and whether I will be able to make peace with others, whether I can be forgiven.”

A feeling of nausea reaches my throat but goes no further – for which I am grateful.  

“I mean, will I be all alone now?”

“Aw, come on, don’t be so mad at yourself. You’ll drive yourself to the grave like that,” he smiles and drinks his beer. “We’re all human. I once took a sweater from a friend. I basically stole it, for a while. And why did I steal it? It was an ordinary dark sweater. But it was so…  it just touched my heart, you know. So, I took it. And then we met, and he says: ‘Oh, you have the same sweater as me.’ And I say: ‘Yeah, I found it at the flea market.’ You know how that goes.”

My sweater is all wet, I can hardly feel it anymore, but I do feel the water running down my forehead into my nose. I feel like I’m diving underwater, and all these cubic meters of liquid are crawling into my sinuses, and I should cough to clear them or do something.

“And then I couldn’t take it any longer and said: ‘Yura, can you imagine, this is probably your sweater… Because mine had a different label here… I misplaced mine and found this one, it’s probably yours….’ And he believed me. So, what’s the big deal? I’m sitting here, you’re sitting here, everything’s fine. It’s fine, isn’t it?”

Guilt envelops me, pressing closer as if it wants to warm itself from my elevated temperature. It doesn’t injure me but seems to indicate where I should hurt. A spasm obediently follows each thought, something echoes in my stomach, under my ribs, and even in my arms and legs. I need to delve into it, give the pain a response, physically strike it so the soul and body merge.

But I don’t have the strength. I don’t have the strength and so the distance between my soul and my body grows. They hear each other less and less, they seem to live different lives, they don’t even know each other. Whose hands are these?

“Whose hands are these?” I say aloud. 

“Huh?” replies whoever he is.

I turn towards him to look, to see who he is.

“Listen, you should warm up, you’re burning up, eh?” I can’t see his lips through his beard. “Do you live far away? Should I walk you home?”

“I don’t live here.” I mean this neighborhood.

“You’re visiting?” he asks. “You want me to take you to the café to warm up?”

Nyet,” I respond in Russian, hoping he’ll absolutely understand what I mean. “I’ll stay here.”

He looks at me silently and then turns his gaze to the water. Water is everywhere, in fact. People are 80 percent water, and then there’s this rain… It pulses on my skin in a quick rhythm. “Raz-dva-try, one-two-three, one-two-three,” I count to three not because it’s the rhythm of a waltz; on the contrary, it’s the 160-bmp techno rhythm, but you have to count fast and the next number ‘chotyry’ is too long to say. Just like the number four breaks the rhythm of ‘one-two-three.’ “Raz-dva-try, one-two-three, one-two….”

His outstretched, almost endlessly long arm touches my shoulder.


“Is everything okay?” a woman with a scarf draped over her shoulders and a transparent umbrella appears behind him.

“Yes, yes. The girl has a fever. I’ll take her home…”

“Girl, are you alright?” she asks behind his back. “Do you know each other?”

“Yes, yes…” he says.

Who is he? How do we know each other? I shake my head. She turns to my supposed friend and talks to him about something. I hear bits of their conversations: “taxi,” “to the end of the bridge,” “it’s pouring buckets,” “storm warning,” “not far from here,” “good luck!” “Have a nice day!”

The raindrops splashing on the bridge drown out the footsteps of the lady with the umbrella, she shrinks as she fades into the distance, like all those who had come before.

“There’s a place on the other side of the bridge. You need to go somewhere warm; you’re burning up. I’ll take you,” says the man I allegedly know. 

I don’t have the strength to argue. He picks me up, throws my arm around his shoulder, and we hobble along together. The end of the bridge is hidden behind the horizon, if it ever even existed, but now it’s been devoured by the fog.

For a while I focus my gaze on what lies ahead, hoping to see the opposite shore, but my nose has sunk to my breastbone, and I am stuck looking straight down, trying to prevent myself from completely collapsing inward.

I remember K’s eyes. I always regretted I couldn’t come up with an unusual metaphor for them. They looked like the sea floor, seen through transparent, slightly blue water and green algae, dotted with different kinds of stones. Looking at them was nice, like touching earthy soil. It was piercing, like when you step on a sharp stone with your bare foot, but the naturalness of this discomfort and your own bare footedness negated the pain and returned the flow of blood, enticing you to continue your journey.

His loving gaze and this almost carnal connection with my loving gaze is the most wonderful thing in life I can remember. It’s like biting into a “pop rock” candy, only it lasts longer, and sometimes it doesn’t stop.

I don’t think I’ll ever see him again.

It’s logical. If God is punishing me, the first thing he will do is choose something special, like a crow would do, wanting to grab something shiny, and managing to do the trick even without a light source. Or is this not God? Is this fate, instead? Fatum? Boomerang? This boomerang flew around my peak of pleasure and now hits my eyes or my forehead, almost chopping off my head, and what’s left of it is living out its hallucinogenic final minutes.

I don’t expect mercy.


My “satellite” and I shudder instinctively. But it’s only a large truck running over the seams of the bridge, forcing the old metal to bend. War becomes imprinted, locked inside a person for a long time, if not forever.

My satellite grabs my hand tighter, and we swim on. I can’t remember if we introduced ourselves. He looks somewhere between forty and fifty, his thick beard is greying, a pendant (or cross?) is dangling around his neck, he’s thin, ascetic, and has a heavy rucksack on his shoulders, perhaps containing all his belongings. He is the legendary messenger, the “number two” who appears to help the hero. In a word, could he be my Virgil?

But how am I to believe there is a road up from hell?

I can see K’s cold eyes while he says, “Sorry.”

And I understand what for.


Oh no.

The sky is making animal noises, dramatically plucking new notes from the air. In the past I would walk out the blue supermarket doors with eggs, vegetables, and everything else I bought for a late breakfast, take my usual route home past the garages and spontaneous street markets, when suddenly amid the cars rumbling and screeching, amongst the voices buying and selling cucumbers or having an everyday conversation next to cars seemingly doomed to be in a constant state of repairs, I would hear something unusual, not native to this area: a sublime angelic chant filtering through the unrelenting cacophony of human life carved out between the blue supermarket doors and my building, along with the sun which had reached its zenith and was glistening on every surface with the faintest reflective ability. It was so gentle I couldn’t find its source at first. Somewhere along the road, my ears would reconcile with my head, and I would realize that I’ve been hearing this for some time, and all these garages and vegetables seemed to rise above the level of this existence, exposing their divine roots.

Then I would spend a few minutes wondering if it’s an auditory illusion or if I’m actually hearing this, because the choir seems distant – you can turn away and force yourself not to hear it.

“It’s those angels again, for God’s sake!” the annoyed old man who turned the trunk of his car into a good imitation of a shop counter, enticing customers to buy his homemade cheese and milk, would say.

Precisely this comment coming from this man would confirm the song isn’t a collection of random sounds my brain arranged into some orthodox hymn but was part of reality (barring the possibility of a group hallucination). At that moment, I decide to stick around to look for the source.

Now, it no longer sounds like angels. A tragic sounding piano cuts through the natural noise of the downpour and amazingly matches the tempo of our stride. I feel the weight of each beat sapping my strength with every inhale I take.

I lean on my satellite as he pulls me across the bridge – so the music must be an illusion. It must be an illusion because there’s no window behind which a half-deaf music-loving old man can turn the volume up on his TV as loud as he wants. Or this is an ordinary illusion which happens to anyone, one of those amazing coincidences when you make associations with the howling of the wind, forcing your brain to lose faith in itself. Either that or I’m hallucinating.

Maybe I should follow the sound, as unreal as it seems? But I don’t understand where its roots begin.

It keeps getting stronger, more aggressive, separating from nature, acquiring an artificial prominence. It seems to be coming at me, as if it wants to absorb me. Everything inside me starts a war with the sound, my body weakens, my head tries to make my ears disengage from the obsessive hammering at each nerve ending, as if I’m undergoing a medical examination.

But ignoring pain is never the best medicine, and in most cases it’s a completely unreliable painkiller the body quickly adapts to and requires increasingly larger doses of diminishing returns to reduce suffering.

This disturbing artificial sound doesn’t give me peace, it awakens primal fears of an animal roaring in the distance or panting into your ear at night. My satellite stops and reaches into my jacket.

“Here you go,” he hands me my phone. This is what was causing my anxiety.

The angelic singing was the lunchtime ritual of Vasyl, a local Christian who connected with God by listening to prayers on a Soviet Akai-type radio.

A car drives by and splashes us with water, but this changes nothing; my satellite and I barely pay attention, as we continue to gravitate towards the warm dry shelter like an impossible dream.

The phone stops singing and either my eyes are blurry, and I have double vision, or the rain soaked the screen, and I can’t see who called. Who could it have been?

The car drives in reverse and stops next to us. It stands there. We stand there.

“I’m sorry!” The window opens and on the other side of it is a different universe, as if the window leads not to five seats but to another dimension where it is calm and safe. You understand why car owners treat their vehicles almost like a home, or even a friend. Steam from the heat inside the car seems to be coming from the gap which appeared when the glass disappeared into the door. “Hey! I’m sorry!”

We lean in.

“I’m sorry I splashed you.” I can’t make out the woman’s face, but I can see blonde hair and a red splotch where her lips should be. “Sorry, sorry… Are you going that way? Let me give you a lift,” she offers like a fairy godmother. “Yes, yes…Let me give you something…” Apparently, we’ve agreed to get a ride. “I’ll give you something, so you don’t make a mess on the seat.”

While my satellite spreads some kinds of rags on the seat, I try to climb over the railing. It’s only thigh-high, but I feel like my body has become somewhat longer, that all of me, especially my limbs, have elongated and are now so far away they can barely hear the signals my brain tries to send them.

Finally, I’m in the back seat, there is a five-year-old child next to me, and my satellite is in the front, his hair jutting out from the headrest.

“Yes, yes, I know,” the Good Fairy says to him with a laugh.

“All sorts of things happen,” he replies. “I traveled a lot before the war and there are lots of things to see over there. The people here thought only we had a crisis and elsewhere it was solved, but…”

“Yep, the grass is always greener on the other side,” the Good Fairy says with a laugh, shaking her head ironically.

“Exactly. I wanted to do this thing…” he pauses. “I like to walk up to people, talk to them, find out something about their lives. That’s how we met,” my satellite nods towards me. “I used to travel even more back then; I met all sorts of people. I would ask people who gave me a ride, or if I saw someone interesting on the street, in the park, or on the beach, to tell me something about themselves and I would record it on my phone…”

“How interesting!” she turns away from the road to give my satellite’s story an encouraging look.

“Either on video, or at least a voice recording… It was research for me, or simply as a remembrance. I’m an engineer by trade… Let me show you something…”

I am surprised how in those seconds my impression of my Satellite grew eightfold, or even more. How he, who until then had reminded me of a chalk outline of an awkwardly posed person on the asphalt, suddenly began sparkling with color and taking on mass, muscles, blood, skin, scars with both interesting and stereotypical stories behind them, and maybe even birthmarks. His face, hidden from me by the wide seat back, rarely emerging into view and only in profile, now reminded me of Zakhar’s. The more he spoke, the greater the resemblance – his hair was the same color (like the child on the bridge), his laugh, his nose…

“Wow, how interesting!” The Good Fairy was turning her head back and forth, trying to balance watching the road and looking at what my Satellite was showing her on his phone.

From my angle, it mostly looks like an illuminated screen with random blue blotches. My eyes start to tear, and I ask myself if I am crying, but I don’t think I’m crying. It is nice to sit in the warmth. I wonder if perhaps these people are some of my relatives, the ones I talk to rarely if at all.

As a child it was nice when you fell asleep in an inconvenient place (when you don’t have the autonomy to spend a night outside your parents’ house, an inconvenient place is anywhere other than your own bed), in the middle of a movie or an adult conversation – it didn’t matter. What mattered was you didn’t have to force your body to rise from the soft first stage of sleep and make the difficult move to another room and spread the blankets and pillows out onto flat bed sheets. They lifted you up and while they were carrying you, you opened your eyes only once, less than halfway, to see the light in the corridor before shutting them even tighter.

“…He said he went there because of his former wife,” my Satellite continues one of his stories. “There was some strange story involving the church…”

When my Satellite shows her a video, he first shows her the screen and then places the speaker closer to her ear.

I really want to sleep. The car is warm enough for me to confuse it with a blanket and my body stops being a collection of things: it’s no longer arms, legs, head, stomach, shoulder blades, neck, elbows, buttocks, birthmarks, nails, hair, scars, tendons, muscles, knees, shins, fingers, navel, breasts, armpits, ears, thighs, lower back, vagina, Achilles something or other, feet, heels, etc.; no, now it’s a rather large, well-kneaded piece of dough, a unified whole. Like when a clay pot isn’t formed properly and you knead the clay, pull it apart, knead it some more, then add water and knead it again, add more water until it becomes a solid chunk of clay which can be spun again on the potter’s wheel.

My body is a single mass, so I don’t know if it’s my head, my heart, or my heels wanting to sleep, because all of it wants to sleep all at once.

“People have interesting fates…” I hear the Good Fairy’s dreamy voice.

“And then, almost exactly a year later, I met her again,” says my Satellite.

“No way! And what happened to her?” I can picture her shouting in the same way at the TV over something happening on soap operas.

But I don’t allow sleep to kick in. Something has broken away from the whole and this something says not to sleep, to listen attentively, to be a nice, polite passenger for the Good Fairy.

“… But he didn’t admit it,” my Satellite continues. “Maybe he was afraid I would go to the police, or he just didn’t want to…”

“But obviously he did it,” a sense of superiority over the hero of the story, whoever he is, creeps into the Good Fairy’s voice.

“Of course, I’m not sure, it’s not a proven fact, he didn’t say anything, but I think yes, he did it… Because why else would he have cut off the story so abruptly?” my Satellite agrees with her cautiously.

I feel weightless, as if I’m gradually floating higher and higher above the seat and will soon touch the roof of the car with the top of my head and accidentally press the button which turns on the light.

The rhythmic movement of the windshield wipers is making me nauseous. The car bounces over potholes, which helps keep me from descending into the world of secrets hidden on the surface of my inner eyelids.  

“…then he flew away,” I only manage to catch snippets of what my Satellite says and can’t piece them together into something that makes sense.

“No way!”

“Yes, I voted for the conservatives.”

I must think about something, think something, about anything, somehow think. Conservatives… are in power, come to power periodically, people elect conservatives, and then leave the country, leave, leave for a long time, and maybe even forever, move around the world or settle down illegally in European democracies, start a life there, remaining true to their dogmas, but build a house, buy a dog…

He probably moved to France and now complains about the French, who don’t like tourists and speak exclusively in French, even if time wipes out these French, he’ll find them, and they will find him. He moved to France and complains about everything the modern political system provides him. But he really loves baguettes and croissants, and that’s where France ends for him, when it truly ends with the inability to act and to choose between Godard and Truffaut.

He gets up in the morning and immediately has coffee, but doesn’t eat breakfast, because his stomach stopped accepting food in the morning since moving out of his parents’ house, and now he and his stomach grumble incessantly, because the irritation inside has legs and will walk out of there no matter how hard you try to hide it. It will get up and leave, with or without your permission, because the essence of democracy is independence.   

His irritation will wake up in the morning, go out and have some orange juice, not because it’s good on an empty stomach, but while it’s being made you can bark at the barista. Then another irritation will find its way out, and this repeats, becoming like an uroboros. When I was a kid, I thought the Uroboros was a green island, one of those islands with very few or no people, just one naked tribe surrounded by parrots, panthers, some other animals starting with the letter “p” and lots of greenery, and the ocean…

I almost drowned once. I remember how I tried to lift my head above the water, unsuccessfully the first time, my eyes filling with water, popped my head above the water again, then again, and again, and I could see my uncle reading a book. He was totally calm and completely unreachable, as if he was not on the shore in front of me but somewhere very far away, as if he was only visible through a screen or a sketch. There was an incomprehensible contrast between us, an unbreachable distance between my choking on river water and his immersion in his book. I tried to scream but it was like screaming in a dream: something soft and hoarse flying out of your mouth and dissolving into nothing in space.

My head went under water again, and again it popped to the surface, and I wondered how it can be that nobody sees what’s happening? Why didn’t a single person who was swimming here, eating boiled eggs and cucumbers, reading a book, staring at the horizon, drinking beer, digging in the sand, shaking it off their feet – why didn’t anyone notice me appearing and then disappearing?

I like to not put my shoes on immediately after leaving the beach and walk barefoot across the bridge so the sand dries and sprinkles off on its own. My feet touch the warm concrete. You can see the best sunsets from the bridge, and sometimes I would have the opportunity to pause there and wait for it to be absorbed by the water. I wonder if it hears the sounds the water makes, the gurgle plop plop gurgle splash…

The water was mostly green, but it seemed very clear, so I didn’t close my eyes. My feet struck at the water incessantly, they wanted to reach the river floor, but this was the part of the river they scared us with – there’s a deep hole, an endless black abyss whose bottom is only theoretical. The water rumbled and gurgled in my ear, and in my mouth, and in my stomach, and everywhere… plop plop gurgle splash…

“So, what’s wrong with her?” the Good Fairy nervously nods her head towards the back seat. With this nod, like dust banished from strained lungs by a strong exhale, her smile vanishes and the wrinkles around her eyes curve differently, her eyebrows transform into two comets endowed with a clear goal of destruction and are on the verge of reaching their goal: colliding with Earth.

My Satellite stretches his hand out and helps me to lean back because I have been lying with my chest on my knees and apparently, have bumped my head.

She has blonde hair and long red nails gripping the steering wheel tightly.

“I don’t like this…” the seconds drag on tensely; the comets are getting closer to realizing their potential. “Artem, hand me my bag, please.”

The boy sitting next to me, who’s probably her son, is looking down and persistently clicking something colorful on his phone.

“Artem, do you hear me?” The Good Fairy raises her voice and leers into the rear-view mirror, but Artem pays no attention. “Artem!” Her voice somewhat trembles, breaks, and I wonder if she’s nervous or if this is normal for her.

This unexpected betrayal by her own voice changes something inside her, throws her off course, dries up the comets’ confidence but retains their primary goal, which is even worse, because unrealized potential is released through pain, and through nervous breakdowns.

An awkwardness hangs in the air like a semi-transparent mist, like the kind you can almost touch in the kitchen on a June day when your mother is cooking on all the burners and closes the door to protect the rest of the apartment from this sauna.

“Kids these days…” the Good Fairy growls, slightly gritting her teeth as she turns around to take the bag separating me and Artem, who remains true to himself and continues playing on his phone, propping his chin on his hand. 

“Oh, don’t worry. It’s nothing, she just has a temperature. Maybe you have some paracetamol?” my Satellite says, trying to ease the tension growing more oppressive with each second.

“Are you sure it’s only a fever?” she asks doubtfully.

“What else do you think it could be?” my Satellite replies.

“Where did you get that she has a fever?”

“Isn’t it obvious?”

“I don’t know if it’s obvious or not, but she looks strange,” our driver can barely tolerate it anymore, I think she’d rather wrap the car around the nearest tree than put up with us for even a few minutes more. “Where should I drop you off?”

I think the Good Fairy was swapped out while I wasn’t listening to their conversation, while I was trying not to fall asleep, or while I slept if I did in fact sleep. The red spot on her face is rising in a menacing arc and her nervous glances into the rear-view mirror indicate we are no longer welcome here.

I am surprised at how quickly she changed, how sharp her intonations became, distorted by her displeasure, and how it affected the expression on her face. She had started speaking rapidly, slurring her words a bit and swallowing sounds, making it difficult to understand her. It would have been a better choice for her to stop talking, the noises weren’t necessary to understand what she wants: her breathing, head movements, red-nailed fingers on the steering wheel were screaming “GET OUT OF MY CAR! WHEN WILL YOU GET OUT OF HERE ALREADY?”

I had set this mechanism in motion, and now her contempt had swelled to such a degree it crept out of the car through the small cracks in the windows and doors and was about something bigger than me dropping my chest down onto my knees. A wall had emerged between us, a barrier which would have blocked Ulay and Marina Abramovic or Abelard and Heloise from meeting when approaching each other from different directions, which means they wouldn’t have been able to say goodbye, bringing to tears anyone who blindly admires romance of any kind.

“We can get out at the corner, on Moskovska Street…”

“Fine,” the Good Fairy eats this word as if she swallowed it whole, trying to relocate my Satellite’s unfinished sentence to her stomach.

“…Mariupolska, that is,” he adds. “At the café, is that okay?” he turns to me and asks.

I nod my head. I really want to laugh. My temples still throb in pain, it seems any word, and especially anything as strong as a spasm of laughter, will shatter my head. Any moment it will turn into the wall in the foyer of my building, covered by peeling plaster, built before independence, and held together by the grace of God and the indifference of those living next to it. All I have to do is give free reign to this impulse, smile widely, and my head will splinter as if someone has nicked the wall with their backpack or punched it in response to anger at something located dozens of kilometers away from here or is disconnected from any physical location. The fist perfectly aims at, then makes contact with the plaster – and the plaster loses the fight. It’s an undisputed knockout, the referee only counts to ten because those are the rules, but the outcome of the match is obvious to everyone in the arena. The opponent will never enter the ring again because he’s lying on the floor, shattered into pieces.  

“Hello. I’m on my way. I don’t know, I’ll be there soon. I’m turning onto the avenue,” the Good Fairy no longer swallows her words, she cuts them off abruptly at the end like a heavy hand wielding a kitchen knife meeting a cutting board with a thud. “Well, what other avenue could I be turning onto?” she sighs deeply. “On the central avenue. Central. Okay.” Someone on the phone continues to say something to her, she nervously shakes her head, then turns away from the phone. “I’ll be there soon,” but this isn’t enough for the person on the other end, they want more, or maybe they’re taking revenge. “I’ll be there soon. Yes. I’m on my way.”

She is annoyed, and this emotion has swept all other thoughts out of her head with an aggressive wave of its arm. What remains is the indescribable discomfort of existence, the impossibility of reconciliation, a tension resonating with itself. 

I recently learned when a cat hisses, it means it’s afraid. When it’s angry, more often it howls.

“Don’t drive me crazy! I’ll be there soon. Bye.”

I can’t take it anymore. I try to contain the laughter, pushing it down into my stomach and tensing my diaphragm, I try not to let it out of my trachea, I squeeze my lips so it doesn’t slip through the gaps between my teeth. But the dam is broken, it can’t hold back the flood, the water will rush through until it chooses a good place to settle, having calmed down, now overflowing with chunks of buildings, uprooted trees, all sorts of junk, cups, tables from outdoor terraces, and carcasses of innocent animals.

“What is wrong with her?” the Good Fairy asks anxiously, and although it makes the air between us tense, I don’t feel its heaviness. “What is it? What’s wrong with her?” I want to explain I’m laughing not because I’m evil or on drugs, which she probably wants to think, but from this pleasant lightness, from the freedom of being able to do as I wish, even among the scattered axes and barbed wire surrounding me. I find it funny that I CAN laugh.

It’s getting hot. My laughter rolls out in unexpected waves, sound bursting forward in peaks, then dropping into troughs of silence, as I gasp for air as if waiting for another trigger to turn up the volume. My cheekbones hurt, like they’re being squeezed tightly by someone’s strong hands. And it’s very hot – I can feel the redness rising on my skin, on my ears, on my cheeks.

“Yes, you can stop here.”

The door opens, my Satellite jumps out first, I crawl out after him, and immediately step into a puddle. Although the car didn’t dry me out with its heat, it warmed me up and restored my vulnerability to the cold. I once again feel every single raindrop, as if I’m standing under a mulberry tree someone is shaking, and the berries are falling on me. And it hasn’t gotten any brighter, the sky is the dark grey color of freshly laid asphalt. But I stepped in a puddle, and it made me feel happy.

Like a breath of fresh air, like running into you when coming out of the metro, like hearing that special song, like regaining a memory lost long ago, like when power is restored in your apartment after two days of no electricity, or like finally going outside after two nights in a bomb shelter and only then truly waking up, or like when an icicle falls into your coffee cup and splashes coffee on your coat, and you realize it is a double dousing… Like finally collapsing the plaster wall in the foyer.

I received a sign, a providence from the strangers’ dialogue in this car. The changes in the Good Fairy’s facial expression – so unexpected and quick – showed me change is possible. I’m being given a second chance and I feel better, and I no longer think God is punishing me for my sins. Honestly, I’m not even thinking about God anymore.

“Are you okay?”

I smile. 

The café greets me with a powerful blast of warm dry steam, the kind I always forget is there when I open the oven to check how much longer the food I’m cooking needs to bake. This waft melds my lightness into a bridge leading me towards a soft sofa. The room is shrouded in semidarkness, with ancient orange wallpaper, a TV showing music videos on mute, the performers looking rather ironic when the movement of their lips don’t match the words in the subtitles and the dramatic tension reflects the opposite of the text on the bottom of the screen. It is all so ridiculously cute and so safe I could move in on that couch.

That’s what happened. The waiter came up to me and I ordered the largest cup of coffee they could make. His figure hadn’t yet dissolved behind the old-fashioned counter filled with a variety of syrups in every possible flavor, when my Satellite leaned towards me and asked me something about how I’m feeling, or maybe something else. He spoke so quickly I couldn’t make out what he said, and didn’t even have time to ask him, because he briefly hugged me and flew out the door to continue being cleansed by the rain. He evaporated so fast; it was like he was never there. But he had been.

What got under his collar and pulled him out of here so rapidly? Maybe when I started feeling better our journey became uncomfortable for him, and something worried him, maybe even shamed him. Shame can blind you with a light so bright you don’t see where you’re running to because you’re running in place, because it clings to you strongly, faithfully, and will follow you to the edge of the world, to Ternivka, or wherever you may run.

Was he no longer interested? He chose the role of protector but now this body can walk on its own or count on the warmth and help of other people. The hero did his job, he has nothing left to do. Or he’s not a hero but… an Angel? A Guardian Angel who picked me up with his wings outside the gates of hell and carried me out because it was too early for me to knock on that door. But biblical references don’t seem appropriate.

Maybe he had plans and was running out of time? Or maybe he was already late? Maybe he even told me so? Something like:

“I’ve known my wife Anna since school, but whenever I see her my heart beats faster, like the first time we went to see a movie and I spilled popcorn on the floor and our hands touched under the seat, and then we went out and talked about the movie, and it was strange because I was thinking about her for the whole two hours, but I remembered every scene, even the dialogues, I could even quote the dialogues, and she laughed and repeated the dialogues along with me, and then we kissed by her door for as long as the movie had lasted. And now… Anna is giving birth today! I have to go to the maternity hospital. I’ll go there as soon as I bring you to the café.” 

What would Anna think about this?

The waiter appears in front of me; that is, at some moment I see him in my peripheral vision. Or maybe I hear him first?

“Excuse me, may I take this away?”

The cup in front of me is empty but I don’t even remember the taste of the coffee.

“Yes. Have I paid yet?”

“No, not yet. Should I bring the bill?”

I take stock of how I feel. My head is bursting, like out-of-tune cymbals reverberating too long and drowning out the beat of the drums; I see my legs but can only feel them from the shins up; my hands are red but fully under my control. I am ready to muster my last vestiges of energy to get home. That’s why I agree.

Eighty hryvnias is the price of my warming up and the cost to renew my energy, both processes having occurred surreptitiously, unnoticed by me. I rummage through my pockets filled, as always, with crumbs, cigarette filters, forgotten receipts, and, on a more positive note – gum. I rifle through my pockets first with one hand, then with both, eventually emptying everything onto the slightly scratched sofa seat next to me (mixed up amongst other things, I find onion skins, making me smile), then I turn my pockets inside out, looking for the type of hole in the lining which likes to steal and hide all sorts of things in the mystical space between the outer fabric and thin inner lining. Nothing.

Of course, at this point, another theory emerges of why my Satellite disappeared so quickly after hugging me and muttering something incoherently. Perhaps my Virgil is not an exemplar of piety but instead, stole my wallet with two 100-hryvnia notes, a bank card with no money on it, a bunch of tiny pebbles, tile fragments, glass, and a bunch of things dear to my memory, but… So be it.

Not knowing how I will pay my bill I order another coffee. I drink it. I feel warm. My head relaxes gradually and empties of thought. If you shone a light behind it, you would probably see absurd made-up scenes pouring out of my ears, sometimes picking up ordinary thoughts and taking them along as well, leaving some equanimity and pure physical satisfaction. I watch the people who walk in the door through the thin slit between my eyelids, having relaxed them, given them peace. In the weightlessness engendered by the heat of the hot coffee and my slow breathing, one question remains:

“Where is Zakhar?”

Other stories written by Zoya-Valeriya

Other stories illustrated by Yevheniia Polosina

Zoya-Valeria is convinced 80% of her body is not composed of water, but is held up by construction cranes, ports and a variety of faces, backs and bruises from the industrial districts of Mykolaiv. And if there is any water inside, it’s from the Ingul or the Southern Buh river. And that’s what she writes about (even when it seems she’s writing about something else entirely).


Voices in the Ukrainian Wilderness. Part II

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Voices in the Ukrainian Wilderness

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Zones of Alienation… and Rebirth

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The Adventures of Russian Propagandists

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