Author’s note: Sometimes the past catches up with the present and drags you into a future you don’t want. So it happened to me with the novel Grey Bees. I wrote it four years ago, when the war in the Donbas “settled” and became the norm. When shots and explosions were heard less often, but quite regularly. When the inhabitants of the grey zone and other villages near the front line became fatalists and planted potatoes in fields littered with mines and shells.
When the novel came out, I realized that it would soon become further proof of the tragic history of Ukraine, the history of the war in the Donbass.
But Putin decided to “revive” the war, and has now made it an all-out attack against Ukraine. And this war, with dozens of destroyed villages and cities, with thousands of dead and wounded civilians, has made the novel Grey Bees even more relevant than when it was first published. Now all of Ukraine is Donbas, where Russian soldiers are fighting. Theaters and museums are on fire. The museum of the best native artist of Ukraine, Maria Primachenko, burned down, and with it the entire collection of her work. Hospitals and universities are burning. And now you can’t hear the bees at all. After all, bees can be heard only in peaceful silence.
Sergey Sergeyich was roused by the cold air at about three in the morning. The potbelly stove he had cobbled together in imitation of a picture in Cosy Cottage magazine, with its little glass door and two burners, had ceased to give off any warmth. The two tin buckets that stood by its side were empty. He lowered his hand into the nearest of them and his fingers found only coal dust.
“Alright,” he groaned sleepily, put on his trousers, slid his feet into the slippers he had fashioned out of an old pair of felt boots, pulled on his sheepskin coat, took both buckets and went into the yard.
He stopped behind the shed in front of a pile of coal and his eyes landed on the shovel—it was much brighter out here than inside. Lumps of coal poured down, thumping against the bottoms of the buckets. Soon the echoing thumps died away, and the rest of the lumps fell in silence.
Somewhere far off a cannon sounded. Half a minute later there was another blast, which seemed to come from the opposite direction. “Fools can’t get to sleep,” Sergeyich said to himself. “Probably just warming their hands.”
Then he returned to the dark interior of the house and lit a candle. Its warm, pleasant, honeyed scent hit his nose, and his ears were soothed by the familiar quiet ticking of the alarm clock on the narrow wooden windowsill.
There was still a hint of heat inside the stove’s belly, but not enough to get the frosty coal going without the help of woodchips and paper. Eventually, when the long bluish tongues of flame began to lick at the smoke-stained glass, the master of the house stepped out into the yard again. The sound of distant bombardment, almost inaudible inside the house, now reached Sergeyich’s ears from the east. But soon another sound drew his attention. He heard a car driving nearby.
Then it stopped. There were only two proper streets in the village—one named after Lenin, the other after Taras Shevchenko—and also Ivan Michurin Lane. Sergeyich himself lived on Lenin, in less than proud isolation. This meant that the car had been driving down Shevchenko.
There, too, only one person was left—Pashka Khmelenko, who, like Sergeyich, had retired early. The two men were almost exactly the same age and had been enemies from their first days at school. Pashka’s garden looked out towards Horlivka, so he was one street closer to Donetsk than Sergeyich. Sergeyich’s garden faced in the other direction, towards Sloviansk; it sloped down to a field, which first dipped then rose up towards Zhdanivka. You couldn’t actually see Zhdanivka from the garden—it lay hidden behind a hump. But you could sometimes hear the Ukrainian army, which had burrowed dugouts and trenches into that hump. And even when he couldn’t hear the army, Sergeyich was always aware of its presence. It sat in its dugouts and trenches, to the left of the forest plantation and the dirt road along which tractors and lorries used to drive.
The army had been there for three years now, while the local lads, together with the Russian military, had been drinking tea and vodka in their dugouts beyond Pashka’s street and its gardens, beyond the remnants of the apricot grove that had been planted back in Soviet times, and beyond another field that the war had stripped of its workers, as it had the field that lay between Sergeyich’s garden and Zhdanivka.
The village had been quiet for two whole weeks. Not a shot fired. Had they tired themselves out? Were they conserving their shells and bullets? Or maybe they were reluctant to disturb the last two residents of Little Starhorodivka, who were clinging to their homesteads more tenaciously than a dog clings to its favourite bone. Everyone else in Little Starhorodivka had wanted to leave when the fighting began. And so they left—because they feared for their lives more than they feared for their property, and that stronger fear had won out. But the war hadn’t made Sergeyich fear for his life. It had only made him confused, and indifferent to everything around him. It was as if he had lost all feeling, all his senses, except for one: his sense of responsibility. And this sense, which could make him worry terribly at any hour of the day, was focused entirely on one object: his bees. But now the bees were wintering. Their hives were lined on the inside with felt and covered with sheets of metal. Although they were in the shed, a dumb stray shell could fly in from either side. Its shrapnel would cut into the metal—but then maybe it wouldn’t have the strength to punch through the wooden walls and be the death of the bees?
Pashka showed up at Sergeyich’s at noon. The master of the house had just emptied the second bucket of coal into the stove and put the kettle on. His plan had been to have some tea alone.
Before letting his uninvited guest into the house, Sergeyich placed a broom in front of the “safety” axe by the door. You never know—Pashka might have a pistol or a Kalashnikov for self-defence. He’d see the axe and break out that grin of his, as if to say that Sergeyich was a fool. But the axe was all Sergeyich had to protect himself. Nothing else. He kept it under his bed at night, which is why he sometimes managed to sleep so calmly and deeply. Not always, of course.
Sergeyich opened the door for Pashka and gave a not very friendly grunt. This grunt was spurred by Sergeyich’s resentment of his neighbour from Shevchenko Street. It seemed the statute of limitations on his resentment would never run out. The very sight of him reminded Sergeyich of all the mean tricks Pashka used to play, of how he used to fight dirty and tattle to their teachers, of how he never let Sergeyich crib from him during exams. You might think that after forty years Sergeyich would have learned to forgive and forget. Forgive? Maybe. But how could he forget? There were seven girls in their class and only two boys—himself and Pashka—and that meant Sergeyich had never had a friend in school, only an enemy. “Enemy” was too harsh a word, of course. In Ukrainian one could say “vrazhenyatko”—what you might call a “frenemy”. That was more like it. Pashka was a harmless little enemy, the kind no-one fears.
“How goes it, Greyich?” Pashka greeted Sergeyich, a little tensely. “You know they turned on the electricity last night,” he said, casting a glance at the broom to see whether he might use it to brush the snow off his boots.
He picked up the broom, saw the axe, and his lips twisted into that grin of his.
“Liar,” Sergeyich said peaceably. “If they had, I would’ve woken up. I keep all my lights switched on, so I can’t miss it.”
“You probably slept right through it—hell, you could sleep through a direct hit. And they only turned it on for half an hour. Look,” he held out his mobile. “It’s fully charged! You wanna call someone?”
“Got no-one to call,” Sergeyich said. “Want some tea?” “Where’d you get tea from?”
“From the Protestants.”
“I’ll be damned,” Pashka said. “Mine’s long gone.”
They sat down at Sergeyich’s little table. Pashka’s back was to the stove and its tall metal pipe, which was now radiating warmth. “Why’s the tea so weak?” the guest grumbled. And then, in a more affable voice: “Got anything to eat?” Anger showed in Sergeyich’s eyes.
“They don’t bring me humanitarian aid at night . . .” “Me neither.”
“So what do they bring you, then?” “Nothing!”
Sergeyich grunted and sipped his tea. “So no-one came to see you last night?”
“You saw . . . ?”
“I did. Went out to get coal.”
“Ah. Well, what you saw were our boys,” Pashka nodded. “On reconnaissance.”
“So what were they reconnoitring for?” “For dirty Ukes . . .”
“That so?” Sergeyich stared directly into Pashka’s shifty eyes.
Pashka gave up right away.
“I lied,” he confessed. “Just some guys—said they were from Horlivka. Offered me an Audi for three hundred bucks. No papers.”
Sergeyich grinned. “D’you buy it?”
“Whaddaya take me for? A moron?” Pashka shook his head. “Think I don’t know how this stuff goes down? I turn round to get the money and they stick a knife in my back.”
“So why didn’t they come to my place?”
“I told them I was the only one left. Besides, you can’t drive from Lenin to Shevchenko anymore. There’s that big crater where the shell landed.”
Sergeyich just stared at Pashka’s devious countenance, which would have suited an aged pickpocket—one who had grown fearful and jumpy after countless arrests and beatings. At forty-nine he looked a full ten years older than Sergeyich. Was it his earthy complexion? His ragged cheeks? It was as if he’d been shaving with a dull razor all his life. Sergeyich stared at him and thought that if they hadn’t wound up alone in the village he would never have talked to him again. They would have gone on living their parallel lives on their parallel streets and would not have exchanged a word—if it hadn’t been for the war.
“Been a long time since I heard any shooting,” the guest said with a sigh. “But around Hatne, you know, they used to fire the big guns only at night—well, now they’re firing in the daytime too. Listen,” Pashka tilted his head forwards a bit, “if our boys ask you to do something—will you do it?”
“Who are ‘our boys’?” Sergeyich said irritably. “Stop playing the fool. Our boys—in Donetsk.”
“My boys are in my shed. I don’t have any others. You’re not exactly ‘mine’, either.”
“Oh, cut it out. What’s the matter with you, didn’t get enough sleep?” Pashka twisted his lips. “Or did your bees freeze their stingers off, so now you’re taking it out on me?”
“You shut your mouth about my bees . . .”
“Hey, don’t get me wrong, I’ve got nothing but respect for the little buggers—I’m just worried! I just can’t understand how they survive the winter. Don’t they get cold in the shed? I’d croak after one night.”
“As long as the shed’s in one piece, they’re fine,” Sergeyich said, his tone softening. “I keep an eye on them, check on them every day.”
“Tell me, how do they sleep in those hives?” Pashka said. “Like people?”
“Just like people. Each bee in its own little bed.”
“But you’re not heating the shed, are you?”
“They don’t need it. Inside the hives, it’s thirty-seven degrees. They keep themselves warm.”
Once the conversation shifted in an apian direction, it grew more amicable. Pashka felt he should leave while the going was good. This way, they might even manage to bid each other farewell, unlike last time, when Sergeyich sent him packing with a few choice words. But then Pashka thought of one more question.
“Have you thought at all about your pension?”
“What’s there to think about?” Sergeyich shrugged. “When the war ends, the postwoman will bring me three years’ worth of cheques. That’ll be the life.”
Pashka grinned. He wanted to needle his host, but managed to restrain himself.
Before he took his leave, his eyes met Sergeyich’s one more time. “Listen, while it’s charged . ..” He held out his mobile again. “Maybe you ought to give your Vitalina a call?”
“‘My’ Vitalina? She hasn’t been ‘mine’ for six years. No.” “What about your daughter?”
“Just go. I told you, I’ve got no-one to call.”
From Grey Bees by Andrey Kurkov, tr. by Boris Dralyuk, published by Deep Vellum.