The Tales of Veresaiev
To get out of the city or not to get out? Some days it got clear that you needed to flee. In the middle of March, Dmytro Cherniavskyi, a Ukrainian patriot and still just a boy, was killed at a rally downtown. Less and less hope, more and more fighters. They were supported by the local police and the Ukrainian Security Service. Most of the separatists emerged from the criminal element, as Maxim Gorky had done from the simple people. Moreover, there were advisors, personnel officers from the Russian intelligence agencies, professional mercenaries, and people with romantic ideas about the process. Khoma pitied the last group terribly, which further intensified the ambivalence he felt as a true member of the intelligentsia.
Maybe they’re right, he would think wistfully. Maybe the West is to blame for everything. Maybe it is to blame.
But for some reason the West has stayed in the west, as before. While here, more and more people are coming from the east. Bandits and village idiots claiming their rights. There’s shooting and marauding by night, and slogans, rallies and signs by day. Sushkin looked with fear at the armed people. They turned insolent from the boost they felt from weapons and power. They felt like heroes because they had taken an enormous city without a fight. Khoma was anxious about Europe, which stood at the threshold of a great war. But looking at the drunk tourists from Rostov, he thought about how the inferno had recognized its own. And that was what scared him most about everything that was happening.
All spring and in the beginning of the summer, the sky, pregnant with a horrible future, was emptying itself out on the land below. It wept with rain. It poured out ruthlessly. So many slugs were crawling in the park beside Khoma’s home that it was getting creepy. Snails and night crawlers were swarming in swarms. Large, insolent grey mice kept running across the paths. It was the first time Sushkin had observed something like that in forty-five years of living in this city. Fruit trees and non-fruit trees drove all their flowers out at the same time, paying no attention at all to the dates assigned by nature. Linden and cherry, bird-cherry and apple, chestnut and lilac, rowan and apricot. It was so rambunctious and unceasing that you wanted to cry. Nature was bidding farewell to the lives of those who were doomed to lie down in the earth in the months ahead. The compensatory mechanisms of existence.
Khoma drew no closer to the fans of the Russian World. He couldn’t get used to their reality. They looked at him with eyes like those of aquarium fish. They swam by through the waves of Lethe, touching the streets and avenues, buildings, and trees with their fins, testing the brains of passersby with their soft lips. They deposited black and red caviar on the walls of existence, on the lindens and chestnuts that stood there in flower. They waved their nerves, stretched tense as steel cables, they sang songs, talked nonsense, in which a few entirely sensible ideas sometimes slipped through. “Down with the bastards!” Sushkin read once on a dirty sign by the regional administration building. He, touched, thought it would in fact be good to down them. The question is how feasible that would be under conditions of occupation.
But on the square—stentorian voices. A sunny evening. The scent of flowering lindens. A megaphone’s hoarse echo. The rumble of enormous columns. Verses of Soviet poets and songs from the war years. Sushkin sensed a strange recognition and after not too long a time realized what was going on.
There was an empire and it vanished. Its sunset had coincided with his childhood and youth. You could feel a little grief sometimes, gazing into the bright-colored pictures of the slideshow known as memory. There are mama and papa. The beach on the strand, summer on the sand, berry juice smeared on your hand. Milk in tetrapacks. Fermented milk in glass bottles. The Politbureau. Plastilene woodpeckers from stop-action Soviet cartoons. The tale about how thirty douchebags found their happiness. But a little person doesn’t need to be afraid. Sleep, my sonny, lucky-fucky, you’re mama’s handsome little bucky. The fighters who had come to the city this spring looked more frightening.
At the rallies this spring you could sense a familiar aroma. Sharp déja vu. What was noticeable now in the air of the city of Z could be immediately defined with the warm and simple word “crap.” It made you remember the red neckerchiefs, the Pioneer straightedges, the energetic slogans. We’re all great kids here, Lenin’s own Pioneers. A nightmare but, in essence, slipping by like wind by your forehead. It hardly impacts the brains of children. After all, for a child the main thing is that enormous childhood, not the regrettable fact that Zionists met up with American militarism.
Yes, that was it. Impenetrable, insolent, so Soviet. It was totally impossible not to recognize it. It had always remained here. In the time it had taken the Soviet Union to sink into the sand like spilled blood, that crap hadn’t gone anywhere. In the nineties, when communism was slowly finishing rotting away in shallow rainbow puddles, Z had been hit by a criminal revolution. The inferno had fully entered the city, like a black penis into a white codpiece. It fell on the region like a pulsating net. It bonded with the Soviet crap, and turned into some third thing.
On television screens they talked about Ukraine’s independence. Meanwhile, in Z the dependence got ever stronger. It was weighty, almost narcotic. People were knocked off; the surviving but badly ruffled businessmen and patriots abandoned the region. The folk didn’t give up so simply. But tough, kiddoes, it’s too bad.
Hang in there, fellow citizens, everything ought to be wonderful, the country’s latest president would say from the television screens. While residents of Z were simply vanishing. They were buried in neglected cemeteries. People were shot point-blank on the boulevards, illuminated with un-vesperal light. They were rolled up in cement, drowned in ponds, hanged on trees in the old Soviet groves. They were sucked in by a black whirlwind that spun over the city. And it took them away to marvelous distances, about which Khoma had only the vaguest idea. The inferno stepped into the city of Z, and the sunsets were splendid. And time flowed, as it always does, but now it wasn’t the law that stood at the head corner, but concepts.
And only the cupolas of the churches. Early services, but also late ones. The ringing of bells, the alarm bell, Shabbat, and the month of Ramadan. Only the prayers of the righteous, such as the Lord still has, maintained the sky of Z above the city and the steppe, imbued with bitter wormwood sweetness, the sound of the wind in the grass and the soft singing of springs.
Sushkin calmed Lyusya down, stroked her hair, kissed her mossy little forehead that smelled of mint and whispered into it. Everything will pass, all this has to come to an end. It’s a carnival here. Fuck carnivals like this, Lyusya said. She looked with eyes as big and black as nights above annexed Crimea. Nothing would come back any longer, and nothing more would ever be here.
Remember Slavik and Klara? Three guys with machine guns showed up at their place at night. They warned them, if they wrote anything else unflattering about the Russian idea on their site, they’d each get a bullet in the belly. And what? Sushkin sat down on the couch and started clicking his lighter. And so? Lyusya shrugged. They packed their things, in the morning they left. I talked with Klara on the phone while you were sleeping. She left her keys with her coworkers. She asked me to take her cat and to water the plants. And to pick up some kind of documents from the safe in her office. What kind of documents? She said important ones, Lyusya shrugged. So fine, Sushkin darkened. Your girlfriends, just like always.
And they were lucky, Lyusya added. They could’ve thrown them into the cellars at the former Ukrainian Security Services building. Aren’t a lot of people there already? And then what would have happened with their children? Khoma sighed, looking at the spots of sunlight running over the wall.
A carousel outside the window was creaking loudly and merrily. A dog barked. Lyusya waited for Khoma to say something, but he didn’t. She got up and went out. For five minutes or so, Sushkin listened to the water dripping in the bathroom. A warm wind filled the sails of the curtains. Children shouted and laughed on the playground. His eyes hurt, and he thought about how for a few nights he hadn’t been able to sleep properly. There was shooting downtown at night. If only he knew who and why, and the main thing—where? But maybe it’s better not to know, he suddenly thought. The defenders of the Russian World were stealing too much. Banks, stores, private businesses. Though not all of them. It was selective somehow. And that made it even more frightening. You no longer know this city. You have no idea how to live in it and what to expect from it.
Public transit goes out along its routes. City employees plant flowers, clean the streets, pick up trash. People who haven’t abandoned Z go to work. There’s a surprising amount of order, even though no one is concerned with it. People remain people. And the city, full as a chalice, babbling with brooks, ponds, streams, rustling with bright green trees, smelling deafeningly of flowers, remains a city. Although it reminds you more and more of a stage set.
Government forces are approaching the outskirts of Z, and soon there will be fighting here. War is coming this way. People have been perishing around us for a long time now, while there are fountains and flowers here. Life in the eye of a typhoon. A dark-blue unblinking eye, the ultimate silence.
The smell of flowers is too concentrated. It interferes with breathing and living. The thick aroma speeds up your heart rate. Perspiration and stuffiness. The most ordinary foods—bread and beer—have started to taste stronger. Sugar is excessively sweet, salt is overly salty. Your frontal lobes ache from the piercing blue of the sky, your eyes twitch and you want to drink. Sounds and feelings turn extraordinary, isolated, like extended pain. Sexual acts are intolerable. Conversations, smiles, music, the wind. A splendid world in the absence of harmony.
Lyusya came back and sat down on the couch, looking out the open balcony door.
Something’s broken, said Sushkin. And no one can restore it. Neither the hamlets, nor the ophelias, nor the OSCE. It would be good to go to Copenhagen now, said Lyusya. To sit on a bench in Tivoli Park and light a cigarette. I want so much to live, Sushkin! Well, so we’re living. We aren’t living, we’re surviving. And it’s just going to get worse. We’re just at the beginning. Trust my intuition.
Lyusya’s right, thought Khoma. But it’s easier for her to leave Z. Besides Sushkin, she has no one here. Whereas Sushkin has a great uncle and the little girl Liza, his dead sister’s adopted daughter. They won’t be going anywhere. Stay or flee? That’s the question. If only we could know, Sushkin spoke up, smiling guiltily, what is a dream in all this and where the reality in it begins. Lyusya shrugged, exhausted, lit a cigarette, wrapped herself in smoke. When will you make up your mind? Don’t you understand that we can’t stay in the city?! I’ll talk to my uncle tomorrow. Trying not to look into Lyusya’s plum-colored eyes, Khoma started getting dressed.
All day long he didn’t find time to call. He got back at twilight. The sounds of his steps rang out with an echo in the empty yard. The apartment windows were dark. He went up, made some coffee, dialed the number. No response. He drank three cups of coffee, ate a piece of bread and butter. Sat down at the coffee table in the hall, lit a cigarette and called twenty-four times in a row. He went out onto the balcony, took some deep breaths, and made three calls, more productive, to other people. Then he called a taxi. A slightly crumpled little Zhiguli showed up. He jumped into the front seat and said the address.
And what’d you call me for? The driver spat out the window with annoyance and scowled at Sushkin. It’s two blocks away. Faster to walk it! It’s urgent! Urgent!
Khoma shouted. His voice broke into a counter-tenor and he started coughing. May I light a cigarette? In brief, the driver unhurriedly got a lighter from the glove box and gave him a light. You’ll pay me fifty or we aren’t driving anywhere. All right, you’ll get it, Sushkin agreed at once. Somewhere far away—by the sound it was out past the central city ponds—volleys of machine-gun fire started to hit, one after another. Outside the windshield a tipsy couple passed, swaying slightly in the warm light of a streetlamp. The woman was guffawing, tossing her head back. She held a cigarette with two fingers. Sparks scattered on the wind.
It’s understandable, of course, the driver nodded. As he reversed to turn around, he glanced at the rear-view mirror. Times have come that you don’t want to take a walk downtown in the evening. But you have to understand me too. I do understand. In Sushkin’s mouth tobacco was mixing with saliva that had too much caffeine in it. His heart was beating mercilessly. A sweet-and-sour hint of Brazil. He desperately wanted some cognac.
If you… The driver tossed a bent cigarette into his mouth, grown over with a red beard. If it’s not for long… So, toss in a twenty and I’ll wait by the office. It’s an office building? Yes, it’s an office, Khoma nodded with relief. An office, of course, an office. So okay? The cabby smiled with unexpected warmth. Okay, Sushkin grinned palely, okay! But you see, he started speaking feverishly, my girl’s gone missing. She went to see her girlfriend at work. They saw her in the building an hour ago, but she’s still not home. I call her but she doesn’t answer! Sushkin fell silent, took a couple of quick drags, tossed the butt out the window. And there’s simply nowhere else for her to be. You see, she doesn’t have anyone but me in this city… He cut himself off, noticing that the driver was listening with half an ear. However, he couldn’t stop himself. He ended weakly, without enthusiasm, feeling keenly his pointlessness. I call again and there’s no answer. And again, and again… You think all kinds of things, of course.
We’re here! The driver looked at him patiently, but mockingly. Are you getting out or what? Yes, of course. Khoma put his damp palm on the door handle and looked around. Go on, go on, the cabby nodded, I’ll wait. Just make it quick, really. I’ll give you ten minutes, no more. What floor? —The third, said Sushkin. There’s a light on the third floor. The cabby nodded, looking up. Anyway, go. But in and out, quickly.
It turned out there was nobody at the porter’s booth. The corridor was as empty as Murakami’s prose. Singing wind through shattered glass. Every step resounds like brass. The bathroom door was open. Someone had left the faucet running, water pouring in a thin intermittent trickle. For some reason Sushkin carefully turned it off, turned out the light, and closed the door. He wanted to take the stairs, but he pushed the elevator button.
The door to room three hundred five was open A stripe of light fell into the dark corridor. It was dark and empty and led off into infinity. It hummed with the syncopes of a full-spectrum lamp. Lyusya, Sushkin called, Lyusya. He took three steps straight ahead and went through the door.
They had killed her with an axe or something very like one. She was lying by the window, arms spread out to each side, an office bird that had tried to fly away. Her blood had turned into a black mirror, beside her a red handbag. Her jeans were smeared with blood, but her blouse gleamed with a blinding whiteness.
Sushkin pressed his back to the wall. He slowly slid downward, feeling the cold, rough surface through his sweatshirt. He covered his head with his hands, took a deep breath, and only then screamed. Somewhere far away a factory siren started wailing in harmony with him. Under the table a cat with green eyes looked dispassionately at the screaming Sushkin. It sniffed the blood and walked off to one side and stared at the window, in which a yellow rusk of moon crawled slowly.
This excerpt was originally published in Volodymyr Rafeyenko, The Length of Days: An Urban Ballad, trans. by Sibelan Forrester, afterword and interview with the author by Marci Shore. Cambridge, Mass.: Harvard Ukrainian Research Institute, 2023. © President and Fellows of Harvard College. Reproduced with permission.