Build yourself a time capsule. Fill it up with the excess portion of your disappointment and disgust. Stuff it with the nausea induced by their unending, towering lies. Pour in the words you need to remember. You will need these things later, and you will be glad to have them close at hand. They will be buried there, right there, not two inches down. In the meantime, you will need to be strange and find strange ways to fight. Those who can will resist, and those who can’t will persist.
When the time comes—in eight months, in two years, in four years—your capsule will be ready to be unearthed. When you pry it open, you’ll find that the things that you saved have intermingled and coalesced. They have become a monster, a golem at your command. You will unleash it, and it will drag you uphill. You will look down at where you languished, and then, then you will not fail to act.
~Bram Shay, Editor
Had I Been There…(?) and Viva Voce: Closed Universes: by Mark Brewer
Those Early Years by Paul Ilechko
A Circus and Rorschach Test by Charles Kell
Rikkaruohoja (Weeds) by Eino Leino (translated by Ron Riekki)
Stories We Will Tell the Children of the Future by Joan Mazza
Mountains and Meteors by Robert Paul Cesaretti
Escape from Crimea by Svet Di-Nahum (translated by Matthew Brown)
I might have seen the
frayed copper tassel delivering
the final fibrillation.Tinker beneath fiberglass panels
of the refrigerator casing,
He can’t have known he’d send
himself to a more absolute icebox.
Electrons can be tricky
customers. You won’t find
them, but they’ll sure take charge
if you’re all front and negative heart.
Or else I can’t make sense of
why he’d cross the streams of
negative to positive, wrenching twain
his skin; rent the air with screams
that never came: lungs can’t
fill with the air sucked out.
With a vacuum cleaner, the cleaner
dared to tear his hair from scalp.
Oops-a-daisy, now he’s gone:
a thing he can’t have meant to do.
Slice a cheque for panicked in-laws –
bought himself back his red guitar.
(maybe, [if only])
(kick a little extra juice in his jug)(the unqualified expert)
(fingers twitching from a cold)
(unrelated to the ambient temperature)
(building in his chest for weeks now)
(if they’re even)
(there at all – a cloud)
(of possible places to be.)
(They can hit you really hard.)
(If I’d have been there)
(would I have caused the jump)
(that snapped his hand to the)
(Not that you’d know)
(for the chronic reflux pain)
(sick jokes for Kubrick only,)
(as low as the floor they litter)
(Just last week he’d set)
(all previously avoidable)
(affairs in order. Wait – on second)
(thought, perhaps he knew)
Viva voce: Closed Universes
(citations needed/pending peer review/corrections made)
Grey and brown wilt and the husk of a root
barks like a badger wearing
her hardened amber waistcoat.
If that sounds like a metaphor, it’s not.
In fact, in a closed-universe, you might
need to appeal to analogy to draw
a picture/scanlines in between
two different things, by reference
to the third.
But the reality is, each closed,
tar-like malleable bubble arises and
fades, like thoughts and feelings in the
infinitely open space where sensations
pop into existence, either get noticed/
more often than not, not, not, not.
Then they ebb, trickle and vaporise
Albert’s got half the wrong idea again.
Space and time have unified the
‘where’ and ‘when’, in a single place.
Coincidence then that the mind
does just the same thing?
Each time a quality arises, be sure
it’s happened ten thousand times,
and will surely occur at least a
couple more, and may occur
a thousand different ways—
a thousand fledgling lives.
A variation here/course correction
Your badger’s amber waistcoat;
her badger’s resin jacket;
their dog’s badgered fur coat;
his badger’s dogged, waste coat.
The wooden boards, dirty, oil-covered.
Mangled spider webs trail translucent ropes.
The child, playing on the floor, looking
for insects to dismember.
The father is a man who works with his hands.
He built this garage with wood and metal,
corrugated sheets of unrusting steel. The odor
of welding lingers in the air.
The boy plays on, engrossed in
his entomological experimentation.
The father is not the type of man who measures.
He works quickly, works by eye, cutting to size. One
shelf is filled with electric motors. He is a man from the
era before solid state. Stacks of color-coded boxes
contain electronic debris from a previous age.
The man loves his boy, although he
often seems distracted, unavailable.
He wants the boy to grow up to be an
engineer, perhaps a chemist. Some
stolid, worthy career.
The boy pulls the legs off a crane
fly: science or cruelty?
The father ended his life in pain. Cancer
was eating away at his guts. In a
photograph of him as a young man,
somewhere in Austria, he sits astride a
motorcycle, a rebel without
a cause. The boy, now grown,
cherishes that image.
The juggler lapped fire, doused
his beautiful sidekick with a bucket
of wet strings.
A nondescript carcass rests
at the edge of the stage.
I ate sweetbread, fried crust, puked
after I got off the loop.
I’ve never been happier.
My sister throws darts. Balloons pop.
A trapped frog scratches
at the side of the glass enclosure.
All of my allowance is gone.
Two lovers wrap wet hands in masses
I tried to feed the two-headed goat & got nipped.
This is the darkest place we’ve ever been,
my sister said. Save the tubed neons buzzing.
Save the eyes glowing from a dark doorway.
Years later, after she disappeared, I tried
to recreate this world in a picture.
I was drunk & the yellow smeared in glass
The walls weren’t right. Arms & legs
turned to rubber, a disappearing mirror. Fog
I thought of the silent man, huddled in the corner
of the tent, staring at the juggler dance.
His eyes were dark slits, left hand fingering an out-
dated time piece. This is his world, I realized,
we’re all here waiting, scratching at the glass.
I wanted to run—we all did—but my back was latched
fast to a splintered chair.
Blink if you see a pain-devil.
Make a left fist if you notice your ma
Wipe the wet when you make out your dead
Black morphs into blue shadows who ring
themselves around your heart handle.
Your first girl’s red hair.
Third boy’s bruise.
There, see a football softly floating off
the edge of a cliff.
Tap your right toe twice if you catch
the river swallowing a lost boy.
Your childhood dog, Bear, wagging its black
The Amish man who cut his finger off behind
you in the sawmill.
Close your eyes if you can see your jail cell.
Sit up straight if you see the unlocking gait.
Open your eyes if you can see inside
your still-locked cell.
Noin noukit rikkaruohoja,
oi äiti, taimitarhastas
ja kohta kaikk’ on puhdasta
sun pienoisessa puistossas.
Mut kohta sydän lapseskin
jo versoo rikkaruohoja –
kun sielläi, äiti armahin,
sa saisit yhtä puhdasta!
—Eino Leino (1878-1926)
Like picked weeds, there,
oh mother, your nursery of grey hairs
and here is the point: all is purest—
even the sun is a miniature forest.
But soon the heart is skin,
already weeds sprouting—
there! poor mother;
you are just as pure.
—Translation by Ron Riekki
Big trucks arrived twice a week to haul away our waste
materials, even furniture. Trucks, like the cars we drove,
ran on a product of oil called gasoline and made a racket,
growling and groaning like monsters at our door.
They stank from decayed meat and kitchen scraps,
had an opening like a huge mouth at the back
where the trash men emptied our rubbish bins.
Powerful motors turned the muck over, squashed
it tight, compacted to be carried away to places
called landfills—mountains that grew larger each year,
and gave off methane gas and further heated the planet.
You might find it hard to believe we wasted so much,
threw away instead of reusing. It’s true we packaged goods
in materials that would never degrade or disappear.
We didn’t sort our trash, but put it all in one bin—
food tins mixed with glass and paper, plastic, paints,
broken appliances we didn’t bother to fix. This is history,
not a horror story for your entertainment or to give you
a frisson, a momentary thrill. Those trucks, on schedule,
woke us early on school days when we took buses
or cars because people had stopped walking. No one
yet worked from home or learned through the Internet.
Some people still read paper books, but most of those
were burned or sent to the landfill. Some day you will
inherit the last books, which I’ve hidden for your future.
I am proud
that I am indigenous
even if I am
that there are Native Europeans,
Saami, Yupik, Karelian,
and when someone says
Eskimo, I want to stab them
in their knives.
The intense beauty of being
around your people—the intense
anger that they are critically
endangered, that the language
is dying, breathless,
aporic, wishing to exist
with the intensity
That hyphen, signaling separation,
the segregation of history, how we
came to the U.S. to escape the hollow
pits of eugenics, the way the U.P.
seemed so similarly Arctic, the bear
rituals left behind, our drums left
behind, our lectures in the new land
of Armageddon and how we had to
give our heart to Jesus or we would
burn in a hell so far from the ice
of our backstory, the aurora borealis
of earthquake-sunshine and nothing
makes sense now, especially the mines
that took and took and take with
the noon shaking of the city when
the dynamite owns everything
and it makes me think of Atja,
the god of lightning if she’d been
bottled and forced into slavery.
The Wealthy are Those Who Have Jobs and They Look at Me Like I am a Rope
that I can use to hang myself.
Standing in the unemployment line,
you can feel the rage for jobs.
I met a woman there, jobless too,
who took me to a diner and we ate
scrambled eggs and she asked me
if I wanted children and I could tell
if I answered wrong, that I would
never hear from her again and I said
yes and she said, “You’re unemployed”
and she said, “And I’m unemployed”
and she said, “The only thing we can
have is this” and she looked down
at the egg, unfinished, on her plate,
and you could see its future, its past.
Their boy was dying of a brain tumor, and there was little time for him left, so they took him on a road trip, wanting him to see many things before he died. As they drove along, his mother talked to him about what they saw, helping him to appreciate them and wanting him to have a rich experience, wanting him to die happy and fulfilled in some way. He was a young boy, and the sights fired his imagination, like revelations, even as his mind began to change, as the tumor grew.
They came to a mountain pass. There had been a landslide, and a great part of the mountain had fallen onto the highway. Much work would have to be done to make it passable; many men and machines would be needed to do the job. “We’ll take a look at the map,” said the father, “take another route.” The father and mother then thought it would be a good place to have lunch with their son. They had some food with them—sandwiches, juice, crackers—it would be like a picnic. They picked a nice place to sit, a vista point where the view was fantastic. “The mountains over there are still standing,” said the boy.
A big flatbed truck pulled up. It had one very large rock on it, strapped down with chains. It was black like it had been burned. The driver saw the family sitting on the grass overlooking the great valley, and he too decided it would be a good place to have lunch. He joined them, and they asked him what he was carrying. “A meteor,” said the truck driver. A meteor had been dug up and was being taken to a laboratory to be studied. “It’s part of another planet,” said the truck driver. That was all he knew about it. “Will there be more?” asked the boy.
Meteors occur in the Earth’s atmosphere daily. Most of them are insignificant—they burn up in the atmosphere. Meteors may occur in showers, which arise when the Earth passes through a stream of debris left by a comet, or as “random” or “sporadic” meteors, not associated with a specific stream of space debris. The atmospheric velocities of meteors result from the movement of the Earth around the Sun, the orbital speeds of meteoroids, and the gravity well of Earth.
Millions of people were having their lunch at this time on the face of the Earth, on mountains and in valleys. A few were having a sumptuous meal in very fancy places. Many were on a lunch break at work or in school, and some were scrounging for their food in desperate circumstances. But this family was enjoying their lunch in front of a fallen mountain and next to a piece of another planet. They had made it a special occasion. The velocity of life is affected by many factors, not the least of which is the gravity of wonder. And the weight of death can come upon us like a mountain. But we can also bring what we know about this life when we get there, the boy was thinking, the way boys do when presented with great things. Like mountains bowing down and planets sending invitations.
—Robert Paul Cesaretti
The sun descends in a red flame over the Dobrudzha Plains, over the Free West, warming the sunflowers for a few final moments. At my back lies the Black Sea, which carried me here from Crimea, from dictatorship. But my suffering lives on, burning just like that fiery sphere before me. Here, in the present, I see before me thousands of wind turbines, clustered across the great plains, spun by the breeze. I turn east to the Black Sea and look across the dark water toward the horizon, back toward Crimea.
I am Tanya, a Ukrainian from Sevastopol. I was a chemical engineer in a large production plant for artificial fertilizers. The plant ran on enormous quantities of natural gas, which came from Russia at twice the European market price.
Until 2014 I lived fairly well, though my salary was modest. I am 29 years old, not yet married. I come from a small village near Lviv. My parents live there still, as do my sister and her husband. I shared an apartment owned by the plant with my colleague, Masha, who had managed to leave Kazakhstan and the Nazarbayev regime and find quiet refuge in Ukraine. She was a nuclear engineer.
I am no nationalist, and I was not particularly interested in politics. But I expected our leaders to be decent and honest people. Science was my hobby, and I dreamt of earning my doctorate in chemistry at Sevastopol State University.
When ordinary Ukrainians resisted our corrupt president Yanukovych and his criminal faction, we accomplished something wonderful. Things changed. They may have shot us in the Maidan in Kiev, and we may have been beaten by the Berkut special forces but, in the end, we were victorious. Yanukovych was removed from power and fled to Moscow—the source of his orders for a long time anyway. We were on a path toward Europe, toward the European Union. We had freed ourselves from the shackles of Putin and the war he waged on our country. Freedom, hope and the possibility of a new, independent life were within reach. At least, that is what happened for most Ukrainians. But not for us in Crimea.
In March of 2014 a referendum was called in Crimea about joining Russia. This was against the Ukrainian Constitution, but Crimea was already occupied.
On the day of the referendum, the military gathered us all in the courtyard of the plant. Heavily armed men appeared, bearing no military insignia. They were all secret militia members, not accountable for the brutality they wreaked upon others They were led by a tall, muscular, middle-aged man who called himself Chesnyakov. Later, we learned that he was a colonel in the Russian special forces and a veteran of the Soviet—Afghan War of the 1980s.
“Think very carefully about your vote tomorrow,” barked Chesnyakov. “Crimea is and always will be Russian! Anyone who votes no may have to worry about where they’re going to work and how they’re going to live.”
We stood in somber silence. Our grey—haired director dared not say a word. He hunched in the back of the courtyard, all his quiet dignity useless.
At the precincts, the voting stations were surrounded by members Crimea’s new, pro-Russian militia. Young Ukrainian boys demonstrated peacefully against Crimea joining Russia. Suddenly, they were attacked by paramilitary units, along with gangsters and former Berkut forces. They beat up some of the boys and threw them like dead dogs in a big dumpster. They left others lying bloody on the pavement. Still others they loaded, nearly lifeless, into trucks. I tried to take a photo with my cell phone—as if documentation did any good—but I was approached by one of the guerillas. Scowling, he snatched my phone, threw it onto the pavement and crushed it beneath his boot.
I voted against. Most of my colleagues voted against. But somehow when they announced the results that evening, it turned out that 93% of Crimea had voted to join Russia. That was the beginning of my own personal hell.
A week later, the plant director was replaced, and Ukrainian workers began to be fired.
We held a strike, painting posters with large block letters: “Stop firing Ukrainians!” “Energy independence from Russia!” “Food for our families!”
My roommate Masha and I, along with around ten colleagues, held up a huge sign, reading, “STOP THE OCCUPATION OF CRIMEA!”
Just as we were raising the sign high over our heads and shouting for the nth time, a wave of men came out of nowhere. Waving clubs and sticks, they dragged people onto the ground and beat them, kicked them in the head.
As Masha and I stood frozen, still grasping our ends of the sign, they grabbed our unit head, Ivanchuk, and threw him down at our feet. Colonel Chesnyakov, the new head of the Crimea militia, stepped over, a cruel pleasure twisting on his face.
“I warned you!” Chesnyakov shouted. “Who do you think you are? I told you, Crimea is ours. Pieces of trash!” He pulled out a pistol, and we all tensed. He grabbed Ivanchuk’s head, pointed the barrel of the gun at his left temple, and shot behind him. Everyone, including Ivanchuk himself, thought he was dead. Finding himself alive, he crumpled to the ground, terrified.
Chesnyakov paused only a moment before lifting him out of his slump with one strong fist. This time, the muzzle of his gun was directly attached to the back of Ivanchuk’s head. Chesnyakov pulled the trigger.
Blood and brains sprayed out, splattering the people in front. They winced, as if burned by molten lead. I watched as Ivanchuk writhed on the ground and then convulsed before finally going still.
It was the first time I had seen a person die. I turned around and vomited amid the sound of my colleagues’ curses, pleas, and cries.
Chesnyakov looked on, laughing. “Any more protests? Well? Who wants to join Ivanchuk?”
We trembled in silence.
The commandos arrested twelve of our union organizers, loaded them into armored jeeps, and disappeared.
I didn’t sleep that night., thinking of poor Ivanchuk’s shattered head and Chesnyakov’s ugly face and violent threats. I recalled my first job as a junior engineer, at a natural gas metering station on the Russia—Ukraine border. My role was to monitor the gas transit, and take samples to monitor the quality and quantity of fuel. During the night shifts, I noticed that Russia was putting less gas through, and with a composition of lower quality than had been agreed to. Ukraine was being defrauded while paying exorbitant rates. I recorded the data diligently in the log, not knowing that the head of the transit station was a man from Moscow. He destroyed the records, and a few days later came by when I was on night duty. He walked in without a word, pressed me against the control panel, and groped me roughly. I pushed him away and slapped him. Then I ran out of the station and walked six kilometers in the December cold to get to my hostel. I was lucky not to be attacked by the street dogs that roamed the unpopulated border area.
In the morning, face puffy and eyes bloodshot, I went to work. I didn’t know what else to do. My colleagues were in the same defeated state. But we didn’t have long to commiserate: they started calling us into the new director’s office one by one.
My turn arrived in just an hour, and I went in, quivering and terrified. The director, a stocky man in a grey suit, was seated behind Ivanchuk’s enormous old desk: a remnant of Soviet times, back when the plant had been named after Leonid Brezhnev. A huge portrait of Vladimir Putin hung over his head. This was new.
The director grinned, malicious already. He did not invite me to sit but left me standing by the door. He fixed his eyes on me. “Effective immediately, consider your employment terminated. And as the apartment is plant property, you and Masha must be out by tonight.”
“But I … That would leave me out on the street… What are the grounds for my termination?”
He looked up, as if reading from a teleprompter. “Incompetence, and negatively influencing the work environment. That’s all. Have your things out of the apartment by eight o’clock tonight. Dismissed.”
I turned away, grabbed the doorknob, started to open the door. Then I turned again to face the director, and hissed, under my breath, “You’re all criminals.”
He laughed and reached for the phone, no doubt awaiting the next rebel identified for termination. As he replaced the phone in its cradle, he flicked his eyes over me in revulsion and scowled. “Get the hell out of here, Bandera trash.”
In late afternoon, Masha and I finished packing our modest belongings. We vacated the apartment, dropped the keys on the kitchen table, and walked out. She planned to go to her brother’s place in Kiev. I didn’t know what to do. All I needed was to get away. The situation seemed like a succession of currents in an ancient stream, its boundless mouth opening into some dark era. To get out was salvation. But the question was, how?
We went to Admiral, a coffee shop at the seaside, to say our goodbyes. We had been not only roommates but also good friends. We had shared the experience of striking—and being fired.
The rough waves hit the shore below and moaned like a wounded giant, rising in revenge against a mob of infidels. Masha and I gazed at them, uneasy.
“You know,” she said, “What we’ve always known as our country has come to an end.”
I nodded, mute.
The waitress approached, and we each ordered coffee. Even she seemed uneasy, stilted. Masha and I glanced around. At a nearby tables was Colonel Chesnyakov. presiding like a king in a booth off-limits to regular customers. A bottle of Louis XIII cognac laid empty on the table. Masha and I had seen it on the menu before and joked about its impossible price: $2,000.
As the waitress scuttled back behind the bar, Chesnyakov demanded a cigar. He was clearly drunk and in a dark mood. Two waiters emerged, bowing obsequiously and presenting two large wooden boxes. Chesnyakov drew out the moment, trailing his hands in the air above each box. Finally, he chose an enormous cigar—“Cuban,” I heard him mutter, satisfied—and the head waiter made to light the cigar with an small green lighter. Chesnyakov cracked him across the face.
“How dare you.” The cigar, still dangling between his lips, bobbed as he spoke.
The bartender, seeing the altercation, ran over with a long wooden cigar match. He placed it on the table without a word. The colonel struck the match and turned the cigar while drawing the flame along its length. He repeated this process with another match. He went through a third. And then another, and one more after that. Finally, he inhaled, nodding, and leaned back.
His phone rang, a jangling, robotic sound.
“Zdravstvui, Sergei!”.He listened carefully for a moment.
“Yes, horosho, buy the refinery in Genoa! Transfer two billion from the office in Lausanne! I’ll deal with Berlusconi afterwards—we’re meeting next Monday!” Pause. Clearly, the caller asked a stupid question, which elicited a sharp response from Chesnyakov.“It’s none of your business where! That’s all! Until further contact! If you come up short, remember Mayakovski! You remember his last words before he ‘killed himself?’ ‘Comrades, don’t shoot!’ Over and out!”
After Chesnakov slammed the phone back onto the table, a customer in the next booth leaned over and groused, “Can people enjoy their drinks in peace?”
Chesnyakov didn’t turn around. He only lifted his left hand, bent his fingers and made a slight sideways gesture against his neck. Four commandos jumped up from a table in the corner and expertly grabbed the customer. They dragged him outside, never ceasing to beat him. They threw him onto the dock, kicked him for awhile longer, and then discarded him into the breakwater. The next day, the newspapers would report that he had gotten drunk and drowned.
Not in the least cheered by the bloody event, Chesnyakov continued puffing gloomily on his cigar. After a few moments, he muttered, “This is what you get, imbeciles! You lived well under Yeltsin. You stole. You robbed. You sold our country to the Americans. I’ll destroy you all!” Chesnyakov seemed to be forgetting that he was was a high-level official in an oil conglomerate, a whole empire. He continued mumbling to himself, “Grandpa Aleksei, veteran of Sevastopol… Ah!” He looked up and began to sing in a loud voice, raspy and alarming: “We set off a few of us strapping young men, Behind every fusillade ten of us sailors.”
He tipped back a snifter of his expensive cognac at the window, where the other customer had disappeared beneath the waves. “To the sea, the Black Sea! The Song of Admiral Ushakov!”
He turned to his commandos, who were almost as drunk as he was and the waiters, and commanded, “Sing with me, boys!”
The discordant sound of their voices assembled, halting and hoarse, like a chorus of drunken sailors.
But Chesnyakov interrupted the tune again. “The Americans are to blame for everything,” he shouted. “And their agent, Gorbachev! Who abandons whom? The older sister abandons the younger? And then the young one despises her? No, Ukraine is the younger sister and she will be ours! Crimea is ours!”
Suddenly Chesnyakov’s blurred glance fell on Masha and me. The hairs rose on our skin.
“Bandera whores! The ones who were protesting at the chemical plant, right? I know you! Now you will dance. “He gestured at his commandoes again, this time in a sinuous S, a caricature of a woman’s form. “I want them naked.”
In an instant, two of the men pulled us up from our chairs. One pointed his machine gun at us, while his fellow struck at us, tearing our clothes. When they had stripped us, they forced us to perform a belly dance before Chesnyakov’s table. Masha and I didn’t meet each other’s eyes as we writhed joylessly, trying to deflect the gropes and paws. The men laughed, idiotic in their tuneless chorus: “Our numbers increased, we teemed from the sea.”
I groaned, beneath the swell of their voices. The sea of groping hands did seem to be multiplying.
Chesnyakov snapped his fingers, and the waiter brought him another bottle. He grabbed it off the tray and filled his squat glass to the rim with cognac. “Bottoms up, Colonel,” he toasted himself. He downed another. And another. “To honor!” He yelled, frantic as he poured. “To Colonel Chesnyakov, a man true to Mother Russia! The voice of the true President!”
He picked up his Kalashnikov, until now resting in his lap like a faithful pet, and emptied the entire magazine into the ceiling. Slivers of silver sextants fell from above.
Then he turned to us. Masha and I allowed one look to pass between us, her pupils huge and darting.
But Chesnyakov only flapped a hand at us. “Get out of here, Ukrainian bitches! Go hide on the moon. If you’re anywhere in Ukraine, I’ll hunt you down! I know who you are. I’ll offhand you to my boys. That’s right, I’ll drag you out of your parents’ houses, and I’ll bring you in as the company spittoon. Get out, Bandera whores, both of you!”
The commandos threw us out on the street, naked. Shamed, we hid in the dark corners of the street, away from the streetlamps. Leaping from shadow to shadow, we took shelter in a quiet yard near the pier, among some dark bushes. We sobbed and held each other. Chesnyakov knew the names and addresses of our relatives. There was no longer a place for us in Crimea or the Ukraine.
A lamp in the house flicked on. We barely had time to startle before the door opened on an elderly couple with a flashlight. The man took the lead, shining it on us. Seeing we were naked, he turned away. The woman stepped out from behind him and spoke kindly to us. “Come here, my dears. We heard what happened”.
Masha and I exchanged glances, and the woman added, “The neighbors were at the Admiral, and they said Chesnyakov had done terrible things to two young women. That must be you. Don’t be afraid. Come in.”
We hurried in, flanked by her. She showed us to the bathroom. We bathed, and she gave us clean clothes. Then they set the table and invited us to eat. Their name was Savchenko, the woman told us. They were pensioners.
“What are you going to do now?” Savchenko asked me, able to look me in the eye now that I was wrapped in a loose cotton dress of his wife’s.
“I want to go to Bulgaria.” I answered.
“Why Bulgaria?” asked Mrs. Savchenko.
“I have a cousin who lives in a small town in the north. Near the Black Sea. I think it’s called Shabla.”
“Have you been there?” Mr. Savchenko chimed in.
“No. But I was in Bulgaria once for vacation. A resort, Golden Sands. Years ago.”
“Then how will you track down your cousin? Do you know her family name?”
“Natalia. Natalia Harchenko. But she married a Bulgarian, a sailor, and probably changed her name. I can ask people about Natalia the Ukrainian, she’s a piano teacher, and it’s a small town, so someone will surely know her. Hopefully she can take me in.” I talked faster, trying to convince myself. “Besides, Bulgaria is in NATO and part of the EU now. The Kremlin has no power there. I will be safe, thank God.”
Masha was quiet, afraid. Mr. Savchenko glanced at her, like a parent worried that his child is unfit to handle whatever lies in store. He sighed, and then looked at me again.
“And how do you plan to get there?”
“I don’t know. By bus?”
“Hmm. The border between Crimea and the Ukraine is closed. And the new border police are all Russians now. They might report to Chesnyakov when they see your passport. Don’t count on him forgetting your name just because he was drunk.”.
“What should I do then? I asked, feeling suddenly like I was in mourning.
“I can help you,” answered Savchenko after flicking his eyes in the direction of his wife “My pension doesn’t go far, so I make extra money as a fisherman. I have a small motorboat. If the sea is calm I can get us to the northern shore of Bulgaria. I have GPS, so we can find Shabla. I’ve heard from other fishermen that there’s a lighthouse.And a fishing pier and a quay where I can moor the boat. I can drop you off and come back. In good weather, it’ll take me ten to fifteen hours each way.”
He paused, and I kept nodding through it, feeling something like hope lift behind the ample bodice of Mrs. Savchenko’s dress.
“But… It will cost money. For fuel,. And the risk is huge, if the Russian coast guard catches us. They’d confiscate my boat, they’d fine me, and they’d even throw me in jail for human trafficking… It’s really dangerous, you know.”
“How much?” I asked excitedly.
“Well… Around three thousand dollars. He looked at his hands, as if embarrassed to name his price
I was quiet for a second. “I have two thousand. That’s all I have. As God is my witness.”
Mr. Savchenko exhaled quietly, thought for a moment, then nodded. “Fine. What else can I do? You’re one of us. Bring me the money tomorrow.”
“I will,” I cried, my voice louder and higher than I expected. I cleared my throat. “Absolutely will,” I amended, in my normal tone.
“Right now, there’s a storm, but the forecast calls for it to end within two days, and then we’ll have two days of tranquil seas. That will be enough for me to get there, drop you off, and return.”
I nodded, heart pounding. Masha sat there quietly, brow knit.
“Will you come with me?” I asked her. Then I realized she might not have any money. “Mr. Savchenko,” I began, turning to the old man. “Could you take both of us with my two thousand?” I gazed pleadingly at my host.
“I could,” he answered simply.
“I have some money saved—that isn’t the problem!” Masha broke in. “I’m afraid!” She hissed in my ear. “I don’t want to fall into the hands of those guys from the border police! I don’t want to be drugged! I don’t want to dance naked! I don’t want to be groped! Or raped!”
I patted her shoulder. “But what will you do?”
“I’ll try to get to my brother’s in Kiev by bus. Whatever happens, I have to make it. I can’t stay here.”
“Will you make it?” I asked. Now I was worried.
“I got out of Kazakhstan.” She shrugged. “I thought I was safe here, but then Putin came along with his gangsters. There’s no rest. No peace.” She shook her head, eyes full of tears.
The next day, Masha said goodbye to me and the Savchenkos. I walked her to the Sevastopol bus station, where she boarded a bus for Kiev. I watched, through tears, as she found a seat by the window and waved at me.
I wondered what her fate would be, whether she would make it. My heart ached, for her and for me too. The bus pulled out slowly. I saw her face crumple, but she waved even bigger and blew kisses.
“See you soon, Masha!” I yelled from the platform. It felt like an act of rebellion.
I went to the bank and withdrew my savings, and that night I gave the money to Mr. Savchenko.
“Tomorrow night,” he said, handing me back a fifty. “Buy some food for the trip. Some water. And bring at least one change of warm clothes, batteries, medicine, cigarettes. And a bucket. Mine is dirty.”
The next day, I went to the market and bought everything I needed, including the bucket. But I couldn’t find cigarettes anywhere—there had been a shortage ever since the Russians had occupied the peninsula. I visited a guy who always had a secret supply for the black market.
He gave me a carton of cigarettes. He was quiet and focused. I pulled out the money, loath to part with the last few bills. He always charged at least double the market price. But he shook his head and waved away the bills. “Your money’s no good here.”
“Put it away, you’ll need it. Don’t even think about coming back. Your friend Masha was arrested at the border. Get out of here as fast as you can.”
I felt a deep pain. Poor Masha. My eyes filled. “But how… how do you know these things?” I asked timidly.
“Smugglers know everything,” he replied, scowling. “Come on, get out of here. God protect you.”
When night fell, we climbed into Savchenko’s motorboat and quietly drifted away from the fishing pier. As we bumped our way out of the inlet, we saw powerful lights in the sea. Savchenko explained that they were Russian missile boats, torpedo boats, destroyers, cruisers, frigates, and gunboats. There were submarines too. Helicopters circled overhead, and I could hear the whine of their engines.
“They brought in an aircraft carrier, too, the bastards,” said Savchenko. “Their fighter jets are always taking off and landing.” He spat over the side of the boat.
After we had put some distance between us and the lights, I was praying make it all the way out. Out of nowhere, a spotlight blinded us from the darkness.
A male voice, roughened by a bullhorn called, “Stop! Coast Guard!”
“Shit!” Savchenko cursed. “Quick, come over here.”
Savchenko hid me in a barrel at the dark end of the deck, in the corner. On top of the barrel he threw some old fishing nets, ropes, and a pile of greasy rags that smelled of oil. Through a slit between the boards, I could see what was happening.
The Russian cutter pulled up alongside our boat, and a figure threw out boat hooks and ropes. Four muscular men in uniform jumped aboard the fishing boat, landing deftly in front of Savchenko. One of them leaned on the barrel, making the slats above my head creak. I could smell the smoke from his cigarette.
“Where are you going this time of night, Old Man Savchenko?”
“I have nets out for flounder. I’m going to check.”
“Is that right, in the middle of the night?”
“Well you know our tricks. It’s warmer now.”
“You’re looking for flounder at the end of March?”
“Oh, I got mixed up. I’m an old man and sometimes I don’t make any sense. It’s goby I’m out for.”
“Even for goby it’s too early.”
“It isn’t too early. There’s goby out there. Just three days ago, before the storm, Kovalchuk pulled out a couple of nets and—”
“Enough, enough!” The coast guard captain cut him off sharply. “Enough nonsense! It’s just sea snail out here now, and only during daylight, and we know you’re not out for snails. You’re not here for fish. I’m guessing it’s contraband cigarettes. So let’s have a little taste!”
Savchenko sighed, pulled out a hundred-dollar bill. And handed it to the captain. who scowled and erupted at the old man: “You want to sleep behind bars tonight? Get it together, man!”
Savchenko sighed even more deeply, pulled out another hundred, and handed it over. “Boys, I don’t have any more. This is it.”
The captain pocketed the money, with a dissatisfied look. “I’ll let you go this time, but don’t let stinginess become a habit. With some regular payments, you won’t have any problems with us. Let’s go, boys.”
The captain hopped back into the cutter, and his men followed. They gunned the engine and disappeared into the darkness., leaving the motorboat rocking in the wake.
I breathed a heavy sigh of relief. I heard Savchenko saying softly: “Best to stay in the barrel until we get out into neutral waters. You never know who else might turn up.”
After about half an hour, he pulled me out of the barrel. Desperate, I asked where the toilet was. Savchenko laughed and handed me the bucket I had purchased.
“Here’s your toilet. You can use it behind those casks. Don’t worry, I can’t see anything from this side. I have another bucket for myself, but I’m ashamed at how dirty it is. That’s why I asked you to bring your own. It will be clean—at least at first.”
We laughed for the first time in three days.
The sea was smooth and calm. There were clouds here and there in the sky, but it was mostly clear, showing off the half moon and many stars.
The motor hummed along, even and quiet. Savchenko gave me some blankets, and I slept in the cockpit. He stayed at the helm, smoking cigarette after cigarette and pouring himself coffee from a huge thermos. He added a bit of rum from time to time.
At dawn, Savchenko nudged my shoulder, waking me. “Come take a look at something beautiful.”
I startled, not recognizing Savchenko or knowing where I was. “Leave me alone!”
“Relax, my girl! You’re among friends. There’s nothing to be afraid of.”
“Sorry,” I replied, sheepish now that I was gathering my wits. Calm now, I looked in the direction Savchenko was pointing with his callused hand.
A few large dolphins jumped and dived a few meters from the boat, squealing gleefully to each other. My heart swelled.
“You see, we made some friends.” Savchenko smiled.
Within the hour, we were docked at the fishing pier near the Shabla lighthouse. The sun was rising over the sea to the east. Savchenko helped me out of the boat and placed my bags on the pier.
“I hope you find a home here.” He patted my shoulder. “Best of luck.”
He turned toward the boat, started to board, but turned around and sighed. He walked toward me, reaching his hand into some hidden pocket and pulled out a tousled handful of bills. It was the remaining fifteen hundred dollars:
“I don’t have the heart to leave you alone in a foreign land without a cent to your name.”
“But you said… I mean …” I started, confused and overcome with emotion.
“I know.” He waved his hand at his prior silliness, as if brushing it away. “This time, I don’t need to make a profit. Be happy!” And he jumped quickly into his boat and started the motor, giving me a final wave.
I found my cousin, and she and her husband took me in for awhile. They helped me find a job as a lab technician in a local cable factory. People in town are good and kind. After a few paychecks, I saved enough to rent a place of my own: a small, old house near the sea with a yard full of fig and pomegranate trees. Grapevines hang over them, and the grapes ripen and fill with sweet juice.
My small, immaculate rooms are furnished with old pieces and covered with lace like a grandmother’s. In the air is a scent of Bulgarian herbs—chubritza, Queen Anne’s Lace, pennyroyal, spearmint, lemon balm, thyme, lavender, and linden. And the scent of village life: simple, gentle, forgetful.
—Svet Di-Nahum, translation by Matthew Brown