Editor’s note: Given the ongoing war in Ukraine, Literary Hub is amplifying its coverage of Ukrainian writers this month. The following is an excerpt from Serhiy Zhadan’s The Orphanage, which “excavates the human collateral damage wrought by the ongoing conflict in eastern Ukraine,” according to the book’s publisher.
A January morning, long and motionless, like a line at the hospital. Morning briskness in the kitchen, slate twilight outside. Pasha walks over to the stove, and his nose instantly catches the sweetish smell of gas. For Pasha that smell is always associated with vigorous mornings—getting up for work, tossing textbooks and graded assignments into his briefcase, ducking into the kitchen, breathing in sweet gas, drinking strong tea, following it with black bread, assuring himself he’s living the good life, and running off to work once he’s fully convinced. That smell has been with him his whole life; any time he wakes up somewhere outside his own home without the morning stove, its aged burners crusted with ash, he has no appetite. Pasha peers out the window, considers the black snow and black sky, sits down at the table, and shakes his head, trying to gather his wits. Six a.m., January, Monday, one more day with no job to go to.
He grabs some assignments off the windowsill, leafs through them, puts them back immediately, gets up, goes over to the main room, peeks in. The old-timer’s sleeping in his chair. A blooddrenched man is crying out to him from the screen, to no avail—the sound’s been off since last night. Now you can’t get to him, no matter how loud you yell. Pasha stops for a second, looks at the blood. The yelling man shifts his eyes toward Pasha and starts yelling at him—don’t turn it off, listen, this is important, it involves you, too. But Pasha quickly finds the remote, squeezes the large red button like he’s trying to get toothpaste out of the tube, tosses the remote on the table, slips outside, and shuts the door carefully, so as not to wake his dad. But the door still creaks menacingly in the morning twilight. The old-timer wakes up immediately, finds the remote, and turns the TV back on. It’s showing something horrible, something that involves everyone. Pasha’s already running up to the station.
“Something’s off,” he thinks. “Something’s definitely off around here.” Not a living soul, not a single voice. No locomotive noise. No peddlers. It’s just above freezing, and water is leaking from the dark blue snowbanks—clouds in the sky, moisture hanging in the air, sometimes turning to barely perceptible drizzle, fog settling on the far-off tracks, no voices or footsteps coming out of that fog. “It’s still early,” Pasha thinks, anxious. “It’s still early, that’s all.” In the south, over there, by the city limits, a suspicious silence has settled. No blasts, no shredded air. A bus comes around the corner. Pasha exhales in relief. The buses are running, everything’s fine. Yeah, it’s just early, that’s all.
He nods to the driver, who tucks his head deeper into the collar of his leather coat, then walks through the empty bus and takes a seat on the left side. He sits for an instant, fidgets, then gets up and moves over to the right. The driver observes all this warily, as though he’s afraid of missing something important. Pasha locks eyes with him in the rearview mirror, which pushes him to look away, fire up the engine, and ease out the clutch. Disgruntled metal crunches, and the bus gets moving. The driver takes a victory lap in the empty fog, leaving the station behind. “They drive dead people to their funerals in buses like this,” Pasha thinks for some reason. “These same buses, just with a black ribbon running along the windows. I wonder if there’s any room for passengers? Or does the widow have to sit on top of the coffin? Where’s this hearse gonna take me, anyway?” The bus passes one empty street, then another. The market should be up ahead; old ladies are always selling some kind of frostbitten food there. They turn a corner—no old ladies, no pedestrians. Pasha’s starting to realize that something definitely is off, that something’s gone down, but he pretends everything is just fine. Come on, don’t freak out. The driver takes great pains to avoid making eye contact, goading the hearse through the fog and water. “Guess I should have checked the news,” Pasha thinks, his anxiety mounting. The thing is, there’s this silence—after all those days when the sky in the south, over the city, looked like scorched rebar. It’s quiet and empty, as if everyone just hopped on the night train and skipped town. Now Pasha and the driver are the only ones left. They pass two high-rises built on sand, then an auto repair shop, then they drive on out of the workers’ settlement. A long row of poplars leads out to the highway—the poplars peek out of the fog like children from behind their parents. The sun is moving somewhere up high, it’s already appeared somewhere up there, even though you can’t quite see it yet. You can feel it, though. You can’t feel anything else. Pasha’s watchful eyes consider the dampness all around him, trying to figure out what he’s missed and what that blood-drenched character was trying to communicate to him. The driver carefully dodges some cold potholes, reaches the highway, and turns right. The bus steals up to the stop, like usual. Generally, at least one person gets on here, but not today. The driver stays put, probably out of habit, without closing the doors, and then looks back at Pasha, as if asking for his permission to continue. The doors close. They get going, pick up speed—then there’s a checkpoint right in front of them.
“Motherfucker,” the driver mutters.
The place is packed with soldiers. They’re standing behind some cinder blocks, underneath some frayed national flags, wordlessly looking toward the city. Just how many times has he driven through this area over the past six months, since the government returned after brief, intense fighting? When he was heading into the city or coming back home to the Station, he had to wait for them to check his papers—wait for trouble, that is. But they always let Pasha through, without saying a word—he was a local, with the papers to prove it. The government didn’t have a bone to pick with him. Pasha had gotten used to the soldiers’ apathetic eyes, smooth, mechanical movements, and black fingernails, and to the fact that you had to hand over your papers and wait for your own country to verify your standing as a law-abiding citizen. The soldiers would give Pasha his papers back, and he’d stuff them in his pocket, trying not to make eye contact with anyone. Rain had washed the color out of the national flags. It dissolved in the gray autumn air like snow in warm water.
Pasha looks out the window and sees a jeep wrapped in dark metal armor streaking past them. Three men with assault rifles hop out of the jeep and run toward the pack of people clumped together up ahead, paying no mind to the express hearse. The soldiers are standing there, yelling back and forth, grabbing binoculars out of each other’s hands, scanning the highway, straining their eyes, red from smoke and sleepless nights, framed by deep wrinkles. But the highway is empty, so empty it’s unsettling. There’s generally always somebody driving through, even though the city’s been completely surrounded for a long period of time and the ring is tightening, someone or other is always making a run for the city or coming back along the only road. Mostly soldiers transporting ammunition or volunteers taking all sorts of useless crap like winter clothes or cold medicine from here, the north, where there isn’t any fighting, to the besieged city. Who needs cold medicine in a city getting pounded by heavy artillery, a city that’s going to fall any day now? But that wasn’t stopping anyone; every once in a while, a whole convoy would leave the mainland and make a run for the besieged area. Sometimes they’d come under fire, which was to be expected. It was obvious that the city would fall, the government troops would be forced to retreat and take the flags of Pasha’s country with them, and the front line would shift to the north, toward the station, and death would come a few miles closer. But did anyone actually care? Even civilians mustered up the courage to make a run for the city over the crumbling asphalt of the highway. The soldiers tried to talk them out of it, but nobody around here really trusted the soldiers. You just couldn’t tell people anything, they all thought they knew best. You’d see some old-timer hiking all the way into town in the middle of a mortar attack to file some paperwork for his pension. Well, if it comes down to death or bureaucracy, sometimes death is the right call. Sometimes the soldiers would get irritated enough to block off the crossings, but long lines would form at the checkpoints as soon as the shelling abated. Then they’d have to let people through.
Now the highway is completely empty. Seems like something’s happening over there, in the city, something scary enough it’s even deterring the taxi drivers and speculators. A pack of unshaven men, pissed off from sleepless nights and fighting without gaining or losing ground, are standing by cinder blocks and barbed wire, and they’re all yelling to vent their hatred. One tall soldier emerges from the group and heads toward their bus, frenzied eyes beneath his oversized helmet, frenzied and open, wide open with fear, probably. He thrusts his hand forward. Stop, don’t move. They aren’t moving, though—they’re standing still, holding their breath. Suddenly, there’s so much space inside the bus, and the air is so thin. Gulp down as much as you can, it still won’t be enough. The soldier walks over to the doors and smacks the metal with his hand. The bus echoes like a sunken submarine. The driver opens the door a bit too abruptly.
“Where the fuck are you goin’?” the soldier shouts as he ducks into the bus. He’s forced to hunch over a bit, so his helmet slips down over his eyes, and Pasha senses something familiar about him. Where does he remember him from? “Where have I seen him before?” Pasha asks himself. The soldier gives him a dirty look, comes over, adjusts his helmet, rubs his eyes, and yells right in Pasha’s face.
“Papers! Papers, for fuck’s sake!”
Pasha rummages through his pockets and suddenly, there are pockets everywhere. He gets lost in them, can’t find anything except junk—the wet wipes he uses to clean the mud off his shoes when he gets to school, printed lesson plans, and a slip informing him that his package is ready for pickup at the post office. “Yep, yep,” Pasha thinks, looking into the soldier’s eyes in terror. “Gotta pick up that package, package, package. I completely forgot.” His skin is instantly cold and clammy, as if it’s him, all of him, getting scrubbed with a wet wipe.
“Well?” the soldier yells, hovering over him.
The thing is, Pasha can’t seem to figure out what language he’s speaking. The words are bursting out of him, choppy and broken—no intonation, no detectable accent—he’s just hollering, like he’s trying to cough up some mucus. “He must be speaking the official language.” Some unit from Zhytomyr was stationed here a month back. They were Ukrainian speakers, so they laughed at him for sliding back and forth between languages. “Are they those same guys? They’ve gotta be,” goes Pasha’s frenzied line of reasoning as he looks into the soldier’s enraged eyes that reflect his fear back at him.
“Forgot ’em . . . ,” Pasha says.
“What?” The soldier doesn’t believe him.
The driver leaps out of his seat, still unsure what to do with himself. Run for it or stay put? Pasha doesn’t know what to do with himself either. He’s thinking, “How could this be? Just how could this be?”
Somebody’s shouting outside, a sharp, prolonged shout that makes the soldier shudder. He turns around and bolts off the bus, shoving the driver, who falls down into his seat and then springs to his feet again and darts after the soldier. Pasha darts off the bus too, and all of them run over to the pack, which suddenly falls silent and makes way for them. Then men—one at a time, two abreast, large groups—start emerging into view from the south, the direction of the besieged city, like they’re pushing out of an invisible patch of turbulence. They’re coming this way, plodding away from the horizon and moving toward the pack that stands and waits wordlessly. Barely visible at first over there on the horizon, they grow gradually, like shadows in the afternoon. Nobody’s looking through binoculars anymore, and nobody’s yelling—it’s like they’re afraid of disturbing this procession as it slowly strings out to fill up three hundred yards of highway. The men are moving at a measured pace; at first they seem to be in no rush, but it soon becomes apparent that they simply cannot go any faster: they’re exhausted and this last stretch is taking too much out of them. But they have to keep going, so they do, forging on doggedly, moving toward their flag, out of the valley, toward the checkpoint, like people walking along the highway because they got kicked off the bus for trying to get a free ride. It’s as if time has sped up, and everything’s happening so quickly that nobody even has a chance to feel scared or happy. The first group is approaching the paint-stained cinder blocks, while more of them continue appearing on the horizon, descending the slope and then moving upward again, heading north to join their buddies. The closer they come, the more distinct their features become, and the quieter it gets, because you can see their eyes now, and there’s nothing good in those eyes—just exhaustion and frost. Their breath is so cold that you can’t even see it rising from their mouths. Faces black with dirt, the bright whites of their eyes. Helmets, torn black winter hats. Handkerchiefs, gray from brick dust, wrapped around their necks. Weapons, belts, empty pockets, bags hoisted over their shoulders, hands black with motor oil, shoes smeared with pulverized brick and soggy black earth. As they approach, the men in the first group glare at the ones standing and waiting for them, their eyes reproachful, mistrustful, like they’re the ones at fault. It’s as though everything should have played out differently—the men who’ve just arrived should’ve been standing under the low-hanging January sky, looking toward the south, at the horizon, where there’s nothing but dirt and death.
From The Orphanage by Serhiy Zhadan, translated from the Ukrainian by Reilly Costigan-Humes and Isaac Stackhouse Wheeler. Published by Yale University Press in February 2021 in the Margellos World Republic of Letters series. Reproduced by permission.