Translated by Henry Perypatetik. Short list of the Babel International Literary Prize 2020.
Dedicated to M.K.
Based on real events
I hate sunflowers. I’ve hated them for four years now. And I dream about them almost every night, and then they hover in front of my eyes all day and don’t disappear: I push ahead, running between these hateful sunflowers, as rough stems nastily scratch my arms and legs. I try to catch up to my Slavik, but he doesn’t even turn around, as if he doesn’t hear me. Striding ahead, he pushes aside the high stalks with his broad shoulders and disappears under the yellow petals. I stumble, fall, but I don’t stop and yell to him from behind: “Slaavik.” And the sunflowers, like living ones, are closing closer and closer to each other, and I can no longer squeeze through the palisade of stalks. I can only see the crown of my husband’s head under the swinging yellow baskets, farther and farther...
In the class to start this year, one of my first-graders brought me a bouquet of decorative sunflowers. So I hid in the teacher’s bathroom and sobbed away the whole First Bell, sobbed and trampled the yellow florets.
And yet I had to park my car near a field with sunflowers. It was still an hour and a half’s drive home. We all needed to stop, take a rest, – we had already traveled four hundred kilometers. It was better to drink some water, snack and stretch our legs here. There would only be ravines and prickly thickets on the side of the road ahead – no place to sit down.
“Ducky, don’t worry! Everything will be fine,” Slavik loved to say repeatedly to me as soon as I began to get nervous about some broken cup or the exchange rate for dollars.
Then in 2013 the dollar suddenly jumped from eight to thirteen, and then to thirty, so I got all wound up and wailed after each trip to the supermarket:
“How can we live on these pennies now! No, really? Did you see how much salami costs?
The salaries of a primary school teacher and a welder in a foundry, even a 6G welder, arenot tied to the dollar or the price of salami either.
“Ducky, don’t worry!” my Slavik repeated and stroked my left ear like a cat.
His friends called their wives “honey,” “baby,” “sweetie,” and I was his “ducky.”
Before my hatred of sunflowers, Slavik and I lived together for twelve years. I was only twenty when I met him, green, inexperienced. I was young, and couldn’t think rationally. I could have fallen for a womanizer, a good-for-nothing, or simply a fool. There is a shortage of good guys who want to settle down in a home, rather than party in clubs or drink in bars. I was lucky. With Slavik, it was all banally simple, not like in the movies. It’s a small town; everyone knows each other and knows everything about each other. We met once at a mutual friend’s, liked each other and started living together. No romance, no kissing under the stars, no flowers and no candy.
Did I love him? Then, before the sunflowers, I never thought about it. I just lived. With him I felt good – warm. I always felt he was my rock: He built the house with his own hands, and the house had everything you could want or desire. I lived and thrived, without diamonds, but there was always a piece of meat in the borscht.
“You’re behind Slavik, like a stone wall,” said our neighbor Tanya, who loved to cast her X-ray look at my husband; she was thirty-five, without a man, but, really, with a solid profession – a doctor, after all. And I wasn’t even jealous of Slavik. That’s how he was with me – homely, calm, kind-hearted. His gentleness even angered me:
“Go to the director! Your co-worker Stepan got a bonus, but you’re a doormat,” – I chastised him once or twice a month.
“Ducky, don’t worry! Everything will be fine,” he replied calmly and stroked me behind the ear.
Everything was fine, except that God hadn’t given us children. No matter how much I prayed, went to the monasteries, once spending three nights of service on my knees – it was all useless. At first I counted the days to catch the very day when my egg ovulated. I bought test kits every month. I kept thinking, “Right now. This month.” But the pregnancy test lines always said, “No, not this time.” I finally came to terms with it and stopped running to the pharmacy for tests. And I was surrounded by children anyway, every day at school, strangers, but children nonetheless. And in all the hubbub of the children, I somehow got distracted from the thought of my own, since God was not giving them to me anyway. Slavik also stopped talking about it, either coming to terms with it or pitying me, although I knew that he dreamed about a baby and very much wanted one.
“Ducky, don’t worry! Everything will be fine!
And it seemed that even without kids, it would be fine. I even learned not to react to the caustic remarks of colleagues, and the bitchy female staff at our school:
“There’s a spell on her, you can see it.”
“She’s certainly had abortions, had flings. So what can you want now?”
“Why’s she going to doctors? Sick, I guess...”
And then the news from the capital started coming in, disturbing news: Tension is running high on the Maidan (Comment: Maidan (Ukr.)- Main square of Kiev, full name Independence Square. This is a reference to the mass protest in Kiev that began onNovember 21,2013in response to the Ukrainian government’s suspensionof preparations to signthe Association Agreementbetween Ukraine and theEU.The protest was supported by public demonstrations in other regions of Ukraine and lasted for many months. (Wikipedia))
Tires are being burnt, stones thrown, people are dying on the streets and being removed to the forest. What do you want me to do about it? Talk at work in the teachers’ lounge during breaks, read on Facebook, like photos. It’s a long way from my home. But my Slavik started to have strange conversations, saying that he belonged there, with the guys, “who if not us” and so on.
And then everything feminine in me rose up and boiled over:
“What are you thinking! Did you leave something behind? I need a husband in the house. The pipes in the kitchen are old; it’s December outside, and the heat goes on and off. And what’s going on at work? If you leave, there are a dozen people to replace you. Then what? To the unemployment office? And in the spring, we have to replace the fence! You forgot?
Slavik listened to me and dropped this Maidan thing, or so I thought back then. Yet in the spring, the news coming from the east intensified 2. (Comment2 Armed conflict in eastern Ukraine – military action in the Donetsk and Lugansk regions of Ukraine, which started in the spring of 2014 (Wikipedia)).
And my husband became irritable again:
“Why are they calling up men wet behind the ears?”, he reacted to the recruiting station’s draft letter that a relative received, the son of my older sister, Natasha. “I’ve already served my country dutifully, I’ve kept my gun, and I’m more intelligent one way or the other: thirty-four is not nineteen.”
But I wasn’t worried too much. What was it to me? Here it was quiet, peaceful. The school’s salary was paid without fail. With first-graders, there is less trouble – in half a year they have gotten used to school discipline, and to me, and their parents have calmed down, but, for that, at the beginning, all mommies-daddies are hyperactive, are worried about their offspring and torment the teacher.
I had already planned what flowers I would plant in the yard that spring; I wanted my tulips and gladioluses. My neighbor Tanyapromised to give me good cucumber seedlings; cucumbers small and strong would grow and turn out ideal for pickling
“With the potatoes, as you love it,” – I bragged to Slavik. He loved canned pickles, but not with vodka, just with potatoes. He didn’t drink vodka ever, and rarely had a glass of wine with guests. That was all.
Once we were sitting, watching TV, the news from the capital – new government, all Khreshchatyk in flowers and candles, the building burned right on Maidan, horror, not news, better to watch some show. And Slavik, out of nowhere, talked about it for the first time in two years, sadly:
“It’s a shame, ducky, it didn’t work out with the kids.”
“Yes... But the sun hasn’t set yet, Slavik. I’m only thirty-two,” I replied then.
A drop of hope still lived inside me “Maybe we can save money and try artificial insemination,” – I had already thought, and even consulted Tanya, the neighbor, since she was a doctor, after all, may be only a general practitioner, in our district, but she still had a medical education. Tanya told me that now it was not so expensive, and was a very real possibility at my age. You can even give birth at fifty now. I hadn’t shared this idea with Slavik yet; was still thinking about it myself.
March was warm. I had already made plans for where and what to plant; in the evenings I tried to discuss where the seedbeds would go, but he had been distracted over the last month in general. He pulled his old backpack out of the attic. I asked “Why?”, asked three times, until he heard it. Yet he brushed it aside: was just going through the old stuff, you know.
“Rummage away,” – I waved it off and went to check the notebooks of my first-graders, but somehow a shiver ran down my spine, and I even turned up the temperature in the radiators. It was good that Slavik had solid heating in the house: You pressed a button and it was warm.
A week later I was sitting in an empty classroom; my first-graders had been taken to gym, and Slavik called. He never called me when I was at school, knows I can rarely talk.
“Ducky, I’m coming to your school. In two minutes.”
He hung up. And I slumped down; my eyes darkened; I couldn’t breathe, as if all the oxygen had been sucked out of the classroom instantaneously. I wanted to get up from the table, open the ventilation window, but I couldn’t. My heart sunk, became like a crumpled sheet of notebook paper. I felt that something had happened, something that I couldn’t change, couldn’t stave off.
The door opened. Slavik looked in and saw that I was alone.
And I sit and look at him. I can’t say a word. He stands, with his broad shoulders blocking the doorway: without a hat, his jacket unbuttoned, the backpack, that old one from the attic, in his hands. And he looks mischievously, like my first-graders when they do something, and a smile – a sneaky smile – spreads from ear to ear. Fun, happy, and I’m scared of his fun, terrified.
“Ducky, they’re taking me away, the letter came, I’m headed to the army...”
Tanya told me back in February that she saw him near the recruiting station several times, and somehow I paid no attention to it. But it turns out he was going there while I disappeared for days at school. And he went over there to get drafted as a volunteer. And I felt so empty; it was like my hands had been cut off. So he was my hands.
“Ducky, everything will be fine. We’re just training. I’ll be home in ten days,” – he hugged me tightly and stroked my left ear. But his hand was cold from outside, like a piece of iron. The barrel of the machine gun is probably just as cold.
For a day or two, I’ve been running around an empty house, washed his stuff, cleaned his books on the shelves. He loved to read different historical novels at night, about who fought with whom, about hetmans and the voivode, remembered dates of battles and clashes. I like women detectives more.
“Don’t worry, ducky. We almost have a resort here. And a surprise,” – Slavik cheered me up on the phone after the first day of service. “We’re also getting paid here. So, in addition to my salary from the factory, you’ll get something from here, too.
But somehow I wasn’t happy about the abundance of money. It’s warmer with a husband at your side than with money on a card.
Slavik called every day:
“What do we have here, ducky? Nothing interesting. Roll call once a day, well, they took us to the range yesterday, shot for a while, and those were our duties. I told you everything would be fine.
He shared photos: they were fishing with the guys on a river, then barbecuing shish kebab, playing soccer on a beach. They are laughing, fooling around like teenagers. Not scenes of war. “Let him play,” I calmed down. Sort of nearby – they sent him to serve in a military unit not far away, in a neighboring district. What’s going to happen to him there?
I myself had more time; I stopped in to chat with Tanya almost every evening, made new friends – Lera, Ira, Sveta. Their husbands were as crazy as mine; they volunteered to serve as well, and were now chasing a soccer ball with Slavik in the same area.
“Do you think our guys are having love affairs with locals?”
“They are far from residential areas. Where would they find locals there?” – We calmed ourselves when we met once or twice a week in the café, near the recruiting station. We drank coffee-tea and shared photos on each other’s phones, whatever our husbands sent to us.
Then the photos of barbequing stopped, and photos stopped altogether. They were sent to the east, somewhere in the Donetsk region. As I understood from Slavik’s scanty accounts, they moved from one checkpoint to another, did not stay in one place for more than two days. There wasn’t any barbequing now. But Slavik’s voice on the phone was still buoyant and cheerful:
“Ducky, I’m fine. The connection here is just bad; the calls don’t go through,” he justified himself when I complained that my calls were not always answered.
To my question:
“Where are you now?”
He always responded briefly:
And I felt, in spite of his fervent voice, that “there” was farther than the moon. Once he disappeared for three days; none of my calls were answered even by text. And when he called back, the caller ID showed “unknown.”
“Everything’s fine, don’t worry about me, ducky. Take care of yourself... and... please don’t call me on your own again. Okay?” he said to me through a creepy crackle in the phone. “I’ll call you myself. Every three days. It’s easier for me.”
And for the first time since he left I was worried. “Maybe he’s gotten somebody else,” was the first thought to flash through my head. “They’re not in the desert there.”
“What’s going on? Are you clueless? What? Doesn’t he tell you anything?” – Lera rolled her eyes to the ceiling. We met at our cafe for ice cream after work. Her husband Volodiya and Slavik were at the same checkpoint together now. “You can’t call them because the sniper could take them out.”
“Where’d you hear that take? How do they take you out?” – I barely swallowed my bit of ice cream.
“When you call, the screen on the phone lights up; the sniper sees it and shoots. What’s not to understand?” – as she sipped her cappuccino, Lera was surprised at my stupidity.
“Where would they shoot?” – didn’t register with me.
“Yeah, they’ll shoot your Slavik too.”
I couldn’t finish my ice cream. That night I didn’t sleep a wink. It seemed to me that this wasn’t happening to me; I was in some bad movie: snipers, shooting and my Slavik. I didn’t cry. I crumpled the pillow, pressed it to my stomach and lay there until morning.
Soon I also got used to these calls every three days. There was a little bit of anxiety; no, it didn’t calm down, but became some sort of a daily routine. Like you get used to the smell of burning over time and stop noticing it. Slavik called, calm as always, briefly asked me how I was doing, whether everything was okay in the house, whether the sink in the kitchen was clogged again, promised that he would replace the fence in the fall, since it hadn’t been possible in the spring. In reply to my questions about what was going on there, what they were fed, he replied laconically:
“Everything’s fine, ducky.” I’m not going hungry. I’m just a little tired. The commander promised to let me go home soon for two weeks, maybe even three. We have a rotation coming up.”
I made friends with the volunteers, especially with Lyuba, young, lively, and not even thirty yet, from the capital, aggressive like a tank. She went east to our guys almost every week. Other wives and I sent food and clothes to our husbands with her. But the volunteers were more involved in armor, sniper scopes, medicine; they had their own channels for where to get it, and how to deliver it. I didn’t understand anything about it, and didn’t want to.
June passed, July came to an end, Slavik was “there”; it was school vacation, and I had nothing to do. I cleaned the whole house three times, bought new curtains, got a cat, so that I was not so lonely in bed, worked in the vegetable garden – and really did like the cucumbers. Tanya had not deceived me with the seedlings. There would be something to add to the potatoes in the fall. I was waiting for September; I missed my ignoramuses, my second-graders. And on TV, various politicians reasoned that all this in the east would be over by the fall, although some did not believe them. But I wanted to believe that everything would be fine, as Slavik loved to repeat.
Slavik didn’t get time off until late July. He called after he had already departed, said he was on the way. I quit digging in the garden, quickly prepared everything he loved: baked a chicken, made dumplings, stuffed cabbage leaves, boiled borscht. Like my first-graders during recess, I rushed around the house, over the moon with happiness, hitting corners, tripping over mats. I still had time to run to the salon, get a manicure. And the hairdresser, when she heard why I was dolling myself up, also did my hair for free – she refused to take the money. She twisted the locks beautifully and spread them over my shoulders – it turned out like in the movies.
Slavik entered the courtyard, slamming the gate noisily. He smiled; his eyes were shining. Big, like he’s grown up all these months. And got older. Deep wrinkles on his nose, which were not there before. A little gray by the temples, or maybe it was dust from the road. I hadn’t noticed it, probably wasn’t there before. A green jacket in his hand, a dirty undershirt sticking to his body, pants tucked into his boots, and black spots – crescent moons – on his right hand and the lower part of his face.
“It’s the shell casings that ricocheted off. Ducky, everything will be fine. It’ll heal.”
We didn’t sleep a wink all night, pressed our bodies together, snuggled under each other’s skin. I wanted to glue my stomach, my breasts to him and not peel them off, wrap him in my arms, legs and not let go until the morning, until the end of life. He stroked my hair sweaty from his affection and whispered:
“Ducky, we’ll be fine, be fine...”
And I immersed myself in that whisper, buried myself in his shoulder with the black crescent casings. And drifting off to sleep, I stroked the hair on his temple. Well, it was gray. It wasn’t dust.
Two weeks later, we gathered friends and family to celebrate together on the weekend: Tanya, my neighbor, Lera, Ira, Sveta, my parents, my sister Natasha and her husband and son, since they hadn’t drafted him into the army yet, and my colleague Zoya and her husband – she teaches biology at our school, and we often lounged around drinking tea during breaks. Slavik’s mother died ten years ago, and he never knew his father; there were no sisters-brothers. So my family was his family, too. In late August, we would mark twelve years of family life, so we decided to celebrate a little earlier, while Slavik was here. And I thought I’d talk to him tonight about this insemination thing – artificial. Tanya had told me all about it. And why not, a lot of people were doing it now.
In the morning I started cooking for the party, but I felt bad. My temperature was 99 degrees Fahrenheit, not that high, but I was weak, wobbly. Probably got a cold from the air conditioner. When he arrived, Slavik installed it in the kitchen, so that I would not suffer from the heat at the stove. But it was the air conditioner that got me. No sooner had I sliced a meat salad and grated some cheese than I began to feel fatigued. It was good that my mom came early, helped with the hot food.
The guests gathered. I seemed to improve a little; my weakness went away, but it was hard to get anything down my throat. We celebrate. Everyone wishes us happiness and children. Everything else that we want, as usual. There is a house; everything is in the house; we live; we do not argue much, Slavik, in principle, never argues; I can only quibble a little, and raise my voice.
“Slavik, so tell us what’s going on out there. What they say on the internet!” – Zoya pestered him, as she served herself a second portion of the meat salad.
Slavik brushed it off, like he was saying, I’ll tell you later.
“What, you can’t talk about it? Forbidden?” – My colleague didn’t lay off, squinting disapprovingly with her thickly made-up eyes.
We’d been sitting for about an hour and a half and started to eat the main course. Slavik’s cell phone began to ring. He jumped up as if he had been waiting for this call and went out into the yard so we wouldn’t hear him. Through the window I saw him saying something, frowning and looking at his watch. And then he noticed that I was looking at him and he waved for me to come over. And again I was shaken, nauseous. I got up quietly so I wouldn’t draw attention to myself, as if I were going to get the compote from the fridge.
“They called from the unit. We’re leaving today, ducky. The guys already grabbed my uniform. I have to go get my gun. They’re coming to pick me up now.”
So he left, and I stayed with the guests. Then I listened to toasts to our happy married life. Zoya tried especially hard.
Something didn’t feel right after Slavik’s departure; my heart was agitated. I was tormented by insomnia for more than two weeks; fatigue set in; my period was late; I was coming completely undone. “You never know,” I thought and bought a test at the pharmacy.
That morning, I did what I had to do, wet the strip, as Lera calls it:
“Masha, how are you? Has your husband called?”
“Yes, the day before yesterday.”
“Volodya hasn’t called me in three days. My heart is sinking. Yesterday, five guys died, I read it on Facebook. And Volodiya... I don’t know what to think.”
“Well, Slavik usually calls every three...”
I got sidetracked midsentence.
“Masha, why are you silent? Hello, hello, Masha, can you hear me?”
“Lera, I’ll call you later...”
The pregnancy test was on the washing machine... with two stripes. I looked at them and didn’t know what to do. Rejoice? Cry? This isn’t happening. Probably a mistake.
“Tanya, can you come over here?” I said to my neighbor after dialing her number with shaking fingers.
“In an hour, Masha. I’m cleaning up. What do you got there? Something urgent?”
“Two stripes. On the test.”
“I’ll be right there,” Tanya blurted out and hung up.
Tanya flew into my bathroom two minutes later. I just slid down the wall with the strip in my hand and stayed sitting on the tiled floor.
“Alright, my friend. First, with your nerves, it could be a hormonal breakdown. Before we get excited and hope for nothing,” – Tanya quickly took the situation into her own doctor’s hands. “I’ll make you an appointment at 9 a.m. with Irina Anatolyevna; she is the best gynecologist in town. That’s when we’ll know for sure.”
“Well,” – Irina Anatolyevna shifted her gaze from the monitor to me. “Your stripes are not the whole truth for you, my dear girl, they didn’t tell you everything.
Tanya stood next to me and just cried loudly, bouncing near the ultrasound machine:
“You’re at five weeks, sweetie, and...” – Irina Anatolyevna gave Tanya a conspiratorial sidelong glance and asked me. “Do twins run in your family?”
“Yes, my mother’s sister has twins,” I answered. “Why?”
“For that I congratulate you, dear mommy! Without a doubt, you are having twins!”
Tanya squealed and rushed to grab me like a madwoman. And I cried, quietly at first, holding back, and then I broke down. I sobbed loudly, unloading in pieces all those twelve years of waiting and despair. Everything will be different now. At last everything will be fine, as Slavik assured me. He knew, always knew. I wanted to call him, by video, to see his eyes, so he could see mine. But I decided to wait for his call tomorrow: I had to be patient. The video wouldn’t work anyway, he didn’t have a smartphone, and the connection there was poor, crackled, and did not work with video.
And my phone had just blown up. Before leaving the clinic, Tanya managed to share the news of my pregnancy with my mother, sister, and a bunch of mutual friends – I didn’t even have the strength to call, and let word of mouth messaging go viral. The girls who squealed into the speaker most of all were Lera, Ira, Sveta. They promised to keep their mouths shut and not say anything to their husbands until I told Slavik myself.
I felt antsy all day, passed time looking at childhood photographs, of Slavik and myself, gazed at his eyes, lips, examined myself as a child and tried to imagine what Slavik and I would get: boys, girls, or a boy and girl, and what they would be like. I lay on the sofa and was already seeing myself leave the maternity ward, and Slavik meets us with flowers and a large double stroller. I wonder how much that costs? And I also imagined while sitting at my desk in class – first two boys with black hair like Slavik’s, then two girls with light-brown pigtails – which had been braided for me when I was six years old. Irina Anatolyevna hadn’t told me the kids’ gender: it wasn’t visible yet.
Only Zoya, when I ran into school for a few minutes that day, asked me a strange question:
“So, what, you’re going to give birth to two?”
It was like having one. And what kind of question was that? I was happy twice over.
Mom dropped by in the evening and brought me dinner – a pot roast, because the happiness washing over me made me forget about food as well.
“Are you happy, my dear?” either she asked or confirmed the obvious fact, and hugged me tightly. And in her eyes, there was a cross between happiness and anxiety.
I hadn’t let go of the phone since that morning. Slavik could call at any time. Seven in the morning, seven o’ five, seven o’ seven... Time was crawling. It was eight in the morning. Slavik hadn’t called. Well, where was he? I didn’t take my eyes off the screen. With the curtain open, I took a shower to see the phone, in case I couldn’t hear the call because of the running water. I smoothed my wet stomach, listened with my fingertips to what was going on inside, what our kids were doing there, and looked at the screen.
Today I had to go to school for a meeting, as there were only a few days left until September 1, and there was no shortage of work. And it is raining cats and dogs outside – I wish I didn’t have to leave the house. I stand at a bus stop; it’s pouring, and I feel good, like a lightbulb shining under the umbrella. Our gym and handicraft teachers, who had already heard of my luck, saw me soaked and beaming, and picked me up in their car:
“Come on, mama, double mama, jump in. You’re not supposed to get wet now! You’ll get sick. You’re under our patronage now: tell your Slavik that.”
No sooner had I plopped myself down in the backseat than the phone rang. Unknown number.
“Ducky, hello. How are you?” – the connection began to crackle.
“Slavik, are you there?” – I shouted into the phone without even saying hello. I had wanted to tease him with hints before dropping the news, but the connection could break at any moment.
“I’m sitting in a tree... I clim... I,” – the crackling drowned out his voice. “The connection is crap!”
“Slavik, I have two stripes,” I shouted into the phone.
The phone just responded with buzzing.
“Slavik, Slavik, we have twins! Do you hear me? I’m pregnant. There are two of them!”
The phone fell silent for a second, and I heard Slavik’s voice, confused, not believing what he heard.
“Ducky, are you joking?” he asked, stretching his words. And the phone crackled again.
“I was at the gynecologist’s. There are two! Really!” – I yelled into the phone, pressing it to my lips as if he could hear me better as a result.
“Ducky! Take care.... of yourself as well.... I love you; you hear me; I love you so ...”
And the connection broke. I walked around school all day with the phone, thought he’d call back, but he didn’t. I guess it wasn’t possible to climb up a tree again.
For the next three days, I was flying on wings.
“You’re like a crystal chandelier,” – Tanya joked when she brought me some vitamins. Lera, Sveta and Ira already started collecting the things remaining from their more grown-up children. A two-seat stroller was even found – the volunteer Lyuba dug it up.
I walked around the house and thought about where to put the crib, where the changing table. At first, of course, in the bedroom – better to arrange the children’s corner closer to the bed.
“Not on the window side, my dear,” mama said. “It’s drafty.”
As soon as Slavik returns in autumn, all of this in the east should be over, and we must convert the second room near our bedroom into a children’s room. I went to the furniture store where they gave me catalogs to look at. Such beautiful children’s beds, wardrobes, chairs and other cute stuff with various fairy tale motifs.
I fell into a deep sleep and dreamed of Slavik, when he was young, when I met him, going somewhere through a field of sunflowers. In the morning I woke up to the bark of my neighbor’s dog. It was like a wolf, drawn-out and dreary. But I jumped out of bed easily, brightly – apparently sleep is good, and an appetite is also good for pregnant women. I gobbled up an omelet made of four eggs, along with bread, two tomatoes and a piece of sausage. It was a big breakfast. I’ll have to watch my appetite, or I’ll blow up like Zoya. And I ran off to school; September 1 would arrive in two days – I had to prepare everything in time. The phone didn’t leave my hand – Slavik was supposed to call.
But Lera called. At first I didn’t even understand what she was saying – all I could hear was crying.
“What’s wrong? Tell me!” I shouted in fright into the mouthpiece, and my heart stopped.
“Volodiya’s in the hospital,” – Lera’s voice was shaking. “He’s wounded. Badly. He may not survive! Won’t survive! Do you understand?”
“Where in the hospital? Where is your wounded husband? And Slavik? My Slavik?”
I leaned against the wall so I wouldn’t fall.
“In the hospital, near us,” – Lera sobbed, – “they’re all being taken there.”
“They? And Slavik? Slavik?” – I exhaled.
“I don’t know. It’s hell out there now. Nobody there knows anything. Don’t you read the Internet?”
“Where is there?” – I could hardly squeeze it out of myself.
“Don’t you know? They are now in ...”
I read, I already knew about the boiler, but that my Slavik was there.... No, he would have told me. The air stopped coming into my lungs, the teacher’s room began to get blurry, and Lera’s voice began to stretch into a rumble; the whole world around me began to stretch into a rope and twist around my throat, and tensing, tensing, not letting me breathe.
...the “Ilovaisk... 3,” reached me. (Comment: The battle for Ilovaisk,the “Ilovaisk Boiler,” was one of the fiercest battlesin the vicinity of the city ofIlovaiskduring themilitary conflict in eastern Ukraine where several hundred Ukrainian servicemen were killed (Wikipedia)
And I shouted, “Slavik!”, shouted as if machine guns, scatter shooting, and all the weapons of the world were pounding away at me. I shouted so that he could hear me there in that hellish boiler and save himself. I don’t recall well what happened next. Somebody’s strong hands gripped me; I struggled, screamed that I needed to see him, that something had happened to him, that he needed help.
“Masha, calm down, Masha... Honey. He’ll be back,” – I became aware of someone’s words. Then some doctors showed up, injected me with something. Tanya came, and took me home. Stayed with me for the night.
I don’t know if I slept. I sunk into oblivion. Even dreamed something, but in the morning, shattered and comatose, I remained lying in bed with my cat and looked at the ceiling.
“Where are you? You’re alive. I know. I can feel it. You can’t leave me. There are already four of us. Slavik...,” I whispered into the pillow.
Slavik’s phone was silent, “out of range.”
Tanya and mom were next to me. They called the recruiting station. Nobody knew anything there. Yes, there’s been fighting; there have been deaths; the wounded are being taken to a hospital in the neighboring town.
“Masha, Masha,” Lera called close to lunch, her voice sounded vibrant, joyful. “Volodiya regained consciousness after the operation.”
“And my Slavik?” I whispered into the phone.
“Masha, honey, I don’t know.”
Two hours later, I was already in the hospital. The gym teacher helped me get there, gave me a lift in his car.
Volodiya was lying in bed, pale, all wrapped up, with tubes attached all over him, but he could talk. The nurse wanted to chase Lera and me away:
“He can’t be agitated and he mustn't talk!”
But Volodiya looked at her frowningly and nodded, as if he were saying, don’t chase them away. Lera sat on a small chair next to him, stroked his hand hanging out from under the sheet and sobbed with happiness.
“I don’t know, Masha,” Volodiya answered me with his eyes closed, as if he were ashamed to be alive. “We were bombarded from all sides. Vehicles were flipping over like matchboxes. Everybody was running every which way. Slavik’s armored combat vehicles was in front of us... They were hit. The track was ripped off... I saw it... they were tossed up. Then they flipped over, right in front of our vehicle... They dashed off, and the last thing I remember is that the guys scatter like pebbles, running through a field of sunflowers. I think, it seems, Slavik was there, too.
“It seems or he was,” – I felt incensed.
Anger teemed inside me; he didn’t remember anything; why wasn’t Slavik lying here now, instead of him.
“Masha, it was real hell out there. Everybody ran every which way. There was one guy, tall, broad shoulders, running into the sunflowers; I saw him; he looked like Slavik;” – he breathed heavily, “shrapnel had grazed his lung,” Volodiya said quietly and averted his eyes.
“Don’t say ‘was’ about him. He’s alive,” I replied over my shoulder as I left the room.
My belly was slowly rounding. Nature, she’ll always take what’s hers; it’s only people who lose.
“You can imagine, my dear, what they will be like, what color eyes your babies will have, how they will go to school, how they will grow old,” my gynecologist, Irina Anatolyevna, told me. She worried about me as you would for your own daughter.
And at night I talked to Slavik: I told him that we were going to have a boy and a girl, that his friend Volodiya had recovered, but Zoya had turned out to be a bitch. She came to visit and, as she shoveled down my own stuffed cabbage, advised me with concern:
“What are you going to do alone with the kids, Masha? Maybe it would be better to have an abortion... I mean, they’ll shell out oodles of money for a killed husband, and you could spend it on yourself. We only live once.”
I kicked her out of the house. Idiot.
“Are you alive, Slavik?” I asked every night into the void around me. I couldn’t sleep, not even pills were helping. “Give me a sign whether you’re here or already there. Appear in a dream, please, and say... Well, tell me,” I whispered.
He didn’t come to me in a dream. He was silent. And the military unit, essentially, was silent, did not say anything substantive, just recorded him as something incomprehensible, a “missing person,” and “is in captivity according to unconfirmed reports.”
Volodiya, when he left the hospital, came to me and brought fruit:
“You know, Masha, he was so happy the day before...” Volodiya stopped short and, at a loss for words, then continued. “We were sitting with him in the dugout that evening, and Slavik says to me: ‘No, you won’t believe it, I’ll soon be a father! My Masha is great, two at once... I can’t die now under any circumstances... Can’t die now.’ He was so happy...”
“Don’t say ‘was,’ I already asked you,” – I cut him off.
And I began my own search. The volunteer Lyuba helped me get the contacts of everyone who landed in that terrible boiler with Slavik. I called the ones who survived and the families of those who didn’t. I went to the hospital more than once: I asked everyone who had escaped from that boiler what and whom they saw or heard – gathering pieces bit by bit. But in fact, the most detailed account was Volodiya’s story. At least he saw for sure the vehicle Slavik was sitting in before the explosion. All the other memories were filled with “maybe” and “seem.”
It was already getting cold when the bodies of the dead in that terrible boiler were brought to the city. Those who could be identified were handed over to their relatives immediately, fragments of the others were buried under numbers, described in detail, with DNA samples taken, and designated as “temporarily unidentified.”
An investigator tasked with searching for missing persons called me into the Department.
“We should get your husband’s DNA samples. Maybe there’s a razor or toothbrush he left behind?”
But there were no razors or toothbrushes in my house.
“Well, then family members. Who is the closest one he has? Father, mother, are there any brothers or sisters?” – The investigator offered me options.
“There’s nobody,” – I shook my head. “He had a mom, but she has been dead for ten years now. His father died while my mother-in-law was still pregnant. Crashed in an accident. So there is no one.”
A week later, I was called back to the Department.
“Look, the only way to determine if your husband is among the dead, I mean among the bodies found,” – the investigator looked at my already well-rounded belly, “is to take the DNA of your children. It’s taken from the amniotic fluid. It’s not a complicated procedure.”
I put my hand on my stomach.
“Yes, yes, think about it,” the investigator nodded his head.
“Masha, don’t you dare!” – Tanya ran through the kitchen with a cup of tea and waved her hands, spilling tea. “Don’t you dare! This procedure is dangerous! Risky! Could cause a miscarriage! Could lead to an infection! Anything! And if Slavik is alive, arrives, think about what you will tell him: to find out if he was living, you risked your children.”
“And if not,” – I whispered, biting my lips salty from tears.
“And if not,” Tanya sat down next to me and squeezed me, “it is all the more pointless to take the risk just to kill hope.”
But I was so tired of that hope. You can get tired of hope, too. It seemed to me that he was gone when I hadn’t received any news for so long. But then I read another story on the Internet about how someone had a concussion and was cared for by locals until his memory returned, and again it seemed to me that my Slavik is also in someone else’s house unable to remember, wounded, but alive.
“Slavik, I’ll do everything, I’ll bear you such sweet babies, you”ll be thrilled , just come back... Simply come back, and that’s all... even in a wheelchair, even on crutches, but alive...” – I either asked or prayed, lying in the maternity ward.
The girl was born first, and then, her brother entered the world.
“Slavik.... Slavik, congratulations! You’re a dad now! Wherever you are. They’re angels, look. Simply angels,” – I whispered and kissed the two infants that were lying next to me on the bed, and talked to their fathers. Let’s call them Solomiya and Miroslav. What do you think?”
And again, I dreamed of sunflowers. Yet in my dream I did not remember that we already had children and just ran after Slavik, but he did not turn around.
“Your husband’s grave is number...73,” the investigator informed me as soon as the DNA results from the twins’ tests came in. 99.97...% match with Miroslav and 99.98...% with Solomiya.
After that announcement, I lay in bed for two days. I had been waiting for the test results, and here they were, like a verdict. My Slavik is no more, and never will be, never will be.
Tanya stroked my head, saying again and again:
“Look at Miroslav’s eyes, and Solomiya’s nose. Slavik’s eyes, Slavik’s nose... He’s here with you, Masha... With you...
“You know, there are only a few bones in the grave. That’s what the investigator said. Maybe he’s... he’s got his leg ripped off, and that leg... they found it, and he’s alive somewhere, with no leg. I read about such a case,” – I shared my thoughts with Tanya.
Tanya didn’t argue.
“Volodiya saw him go into the sunflowers... alive.”
Tanya pressed me against her and rocked me like a little baby.
We reburied the remains of Slavik next to his mother.
Solomiya and Miroslav are four years old now. Solomiya looks very much like her father – nose, lips, chin – a copy of Slavik, but lively like me. She, the older one, fights with her brother, orders him around. We went to Kiev on a visit to see Lyuba; she is their godmother now. In her yard, Solomiya managed to climb all the trees and jungle gyms, and fell a couple of times, but did not even cry.
“Fire, that girl has,” laughed Lyuba.
Sitting in the car all the way from Kiev is a difficult thing for the restless Solomiya to do. It’s been half an hour since she threw first cookies, then wrappers at her brother – which she can reach despite being strapped in a child’s seat. That’s why I decided to stop the car, feed them, and let them run for a while, even if it’s near a field with sunflowers.
Miroslav looks more like me, but quiet, gentle like Slavik, lets his sister insult him, and did not even react to the cookies flying at him from the direction of his bully sister.
The children and I had a snack on the side of the road with sandwiches and tea, which Lyuba had prepared for us to eat on the way, and I let them run a little, stretch. The children ran happily between the sunflowers, chasing each other, squealing, tumbling, trying to hang and swing on the stems.
I sat on the side of the road, with my face to the sun, and smiled. It seemed to me that Slavik was watching them from the sunflowers and smiling at our angels too.
The wind swept over the field and made the yellow flower petals sway. In the distance, several sunflowers parted, forming a narrow path, as if someone was walking between them, spreading the tall stems with his broad shoulders...
I never dreamed of sunflowers again.