Green Hills Literary Lantern

Dreaming Chernobyl

 

-1-

“Natasha, wake up your brother and get dressed,” Mom says taking out our travel bag.

            “Wake him up? But you just put him to bed!”

            It’s 10 o’clock at night. My six-year-old brother had watched his evening cartoon program and went to bed hours ago.

            “Yes, I know. Don’t ask any questions right now. We are going to your grandparents.” She starts filling the bag with clothes from the laundry she just folded.

            My grandparents? They leave in Zaporozhyie, a small town 300 kilometers south of Kiev. We have to take a train. An overnight train.

“Mom, I have to go to school tomorrow.”

“Listen.”  She turns to look at me. “I can’t explain anything right now. You have to do what I say. Get dressed.”

            Confused, I change from my flannel pajamas into a pair of gray corduroy pants and a teal pullover sweater. She’s never like that. She doesn’t give orders. She always explains. I watch her out of the corner of my eye. She walks fast, pulling out t-shirts, socks and underwear from cabinets and drawers. The bag is quickly filling up.

            “Where is Dad?” I ask pretending to tie my shoes.

            “Your dad just called from the train station. We got tickets for the 10:30 train. Are you dressed? Good. Wake up your brother.”

            I open the door into the bedroom. A desk lamp, covered with a dark yellow napkin, sheds a dull light onto a room packed with unmatched furniture—my parents’ bed in the corner, a desk by the window, book shelves along the wall, a little polished table with a record player and a chair housing my brother’s miniature race car collection. In the same corner where his cradle used to be, his bed is made up with white linens. The down blanket is thrown on the floor. My brother, curled up into a ball, is sound asleep with his face tacked into a corner of the wall.

            “Oleg, wake up.” I push him on his shoulder. He doesn’t move. “Wake up.”

Mom walks in and turns on the ceiling light. She shakes him up.  He makes a cranky sound.

“Get up, honey. We are going on a train,” she says knowing full well that trains are his favorite thing in the whole world. It does the trick. He rubs his eyes, crinkles his nose and pushes himself up from the pillow.

Mom sits next to him and starts to unbutton his pajamas.

“You have to get dressed quickly,” she says. “Or we will miss the train.”

            The door bell rings.

            “It’s Dad.” Mom jumps up. “Finish up getting dressed. Hurry. We have to leave in a few minutes.” She runs out to get the door.

            “Where are we going?” Oleg asks with a yawn.

            “To our grandparents.”

            “Really?”  His eyes light up. 

            “Yes, c’mon. Mom’s waiting.”

            “Can I bring my race cars.”

            “I don’t know. You’ll have to ask Mom.”

            From the bedroom I can hear Dad’s voice.

            “Are you ready? We have to go. Now.”

            “Yes-yes,” Mom responds. “Kids!” She yells towards the bedroom.

            Quickly pulling a sweater over his head, Oleg grabs a red race car and slips it into a pocket of his pants.

 

            A white taxi with black and green checkers on its side door is waiting for us on the corner of our street. We slide onto the back seat. Dad is in front.

            “I have never seen anything like this.” He turns to talk to Mom. “The train station was packed. I stood in line for hours.”

            “I told you,” Mom responds from the back seat. “I knew yesterday something was wrong. I saw a car pulling into our courtyard. It was packed with kids, clothes, even pillows. If this was summer, I’d think they were just visiting. But when they pulled out pressed school uniforms, on hangers, I knew they were refugees.”

            “When you called this morning I thought you were overreacting. The city is full of rumors.”

            “Yesterday they were rumors. Today, when I got to work, the chief editor said point blank, ‘If you have a place to take your kids away from Kiev, do it now.’”

            Dad nods glancing at the driver.

            I can see the driver’s back. His head and shoulders are frozen. Is he listening? Does he know what’s going on?

            They are quiet for a few minutes. I look out of the window. It’s dark. A light drizzle blurs the street lights and the shop windows. I didn’t notice when it started to rain. The taxi is screeching up a wet cobblestone street. We bounce on the back seat and Oleg pretends to fall over my knees.

            “Stop it.” I push him back. He pretends to start falling again, but Mom gives him a look and he sinks into his seat.

“Zhenya,” Mom leans forward and puts her hand on Dad’s shoulder. “My jewelry is in a little wooden box in the underwear drawer.” She speaks into his ear. Her words sound sharp and hollow like staccato in my piano lessons. “Our passports, birth certificates and other documents are on the top shelf of the bookcase.”

Outside the window I recognize the street I took a few days ago going to the May Day parade with my friends from school. It was hot and dusty. The sun was blazing. Trees, touched with a young shade of green, smelled of upcoming summer. Stone buildings decorated with red banners and flags were soaking in the heat after a long winter. I walked in the parade, sun burning my pale winter skin.

“I watched your news today.” Dad looks over his shoulder at Mom. “All they showed were gardeners and early spring. Are you sure we are not overreacting?”

            “News,” Mom shakes her head with a sigh. “The news director sent his wife and daughter to his in-laws two days ago. All the higher-ups are packing up and leaving town. Did you see all the cars in the city today—packed with children and luggage?”

            “They say there is nothing to worry about. It’s all rumors.”

            “They haven’t figured out what to do yet. You saw what is happening at the train station.”

            “Yes. It’s a chaos. Reminded me of that documentary we watched on the Second World War. All tickets are sold out. I got to the cashier and asked for three tickets to Zaporozhie. She said only tickets left are to Dnepropetrovsk. I hesitated for a minute—didn’t want you to take the bus for three hours with the kids, you know. And she looked at me as if to say, listen carefully, and said ‘Take them.’ That’s all. Just ‘take them.’ Like that. So, I did. You’ll have to take the bus.”

            “It’s alright.” Mom nods in the dark.

            “It was either that or wait until tomorrow,” Dad says apologetically.

            “It will be worse by tomorrow.”

 

             The taxi is taking us to the Kiev Railroad Station. It is a crowded place with dirty marble stairs and a big clock in the center. It smells of spilled oil, trains and people. The first floor houses ticket counters and the restaurant. Up the stairs, past the clock, on the second floor are the gates to platforms. Every summer Mom takes me here to take the train to my grandparents. As we walk up the stairs she tells me not to touch the railing and to wash my hands when I get on the train. She also tells me not to leave the cabin except to use the bathroom and that the next morning Grandma and Grandpa will meet me at Zaporozhie train station and take me home.

 

            The driver pulls up to the front entrance with heavy iron doors. Despite the late hour, people are swarming in and out of the station. Children and luggage are left outside under the rain. A woman stands on the curb surrounded by suitcases and duffle bags. In her arms a fussy toddler is weeping quietly, rubbing his wet face with a dirty fist. Her eyes are searching the crowd.

“You’ll never get through here,” the driver says. “I know the back way. I’ll get you to your platform. Dnepropetrovsk, right?”

He makes a couple sharp turns into the darkness behind the train station.

“Just go across, straight down that way.” He points towards the platforms. “You’ll make it.”

“Thank you.” Dad pays the driver and grabs the bag.

Carrying Oleg in one arm and our bag in the other, he’s leading the way. Mom is clutching my hand so tightly it almost hurts. We jump across the tracks. It’s dark. I hear hissing bursts of steam and clanking of metal wheels. Afraid to trip on the wet rails I don’t look up.

            When we finally get to the train, a tall, stocky woman in pale blue blouse and navy skirt checks our tickets. She looks down at us with a frown.

            “You barely made it,” she says to my father.

             Mom takes Oleg and climbs the steep steps into the train car. I quickly follow.      “Mom, is Dad coming?”

            “No. Watch your brother,” she says and turns to look at Dad.

            They lock eyes for a brief second.

            “I’ll call you tomorrow,” she says.

            He nods.

            “Passengers, settle in! It’s time to go!” The tall woman in uniform pushes herself past Mom and closes the door.

 

-2-

 

We squeeze into our four bench cabin and close the sliding door. The top two benches are folded up but it is still too tight.

            “Oleg, sit down. Right here. You can look out the window and tell us when the train starts moving.” Mom slides our bag under one of the bottom benches. “That’s better.”

She sits down with a sigh and stays still for a few moments.

            “Mom, why didn’t Dad come with us?” I ask.

            “He couldn’t, honey,” she answers tightening her lips. “He has to go to work tomorrow.” She looks at me for a while and then at Oleg. She knows I have been waiting for an explanation.

“Come here,” she says. I slide closer to her on the cool, vinyl covered bench. She takes my hand into hers. I like the warmth of her skin. She has the softest skin.

“I have to tell you something. There has been an accident near Kiev. At the Chernobyl Nuclear Station. Do you know where Chernobyl is?”

I shake my head no.

“It’s about 80 km away from Kiev. Your uncle worked there one summer. You know, your uncle Yuri, he’s a nuclear physicist.”

I nod.

“Well, something exploded in one of the reactors and a lot of radiation came out. Do you know what radiation is?”

 “No,” I answer.

“Your father can explain it better, but it’s bad for people to be exposed to it. You can die from it. That’s why you saw all those people at the train station. They are trying to leave, to get further away.”

She rubs my hand with her fingers. I watch her hands move nervously over mine.

“Mom, is Dad in danger?” I ask.

“It’s more dangerous for the kids, honey. That’s why I’m taking you to your grandparents.”

            We sit quietly for a while. Oleg presses his little nose to the window and caps his face with his hands straining to see through the glare of light in our cabin. Outside it’s pitch black with spots of dull yellow light over empty benches. A heavy push makes me lose my balance and I grab onto the edge of the bench. The train starts moving slowly from light to light.

            “Mom, will you stay with us at Grandma’s?”

            “No, I’ll get on the train back to Kiev tomorrow.”

            “How long will we stay?”

            “Until it’s safe to come back.”

            “Now,” Mom says in the same tone she uses when I’m in trouble. “This is very important, Natasha.” She looks me straight in the eye. Assured she has my full attention, she says firmly: “You can’t tell anybody. This is not public knowledge. I can lose my job. Understand?”

            “Does Grandma know?”

            “Grandma knows. But you cannot tell the neighbors or your friends.”

            “I don’t have any friends at Grandma’s.”

            “You know what I mean.” Her tone dictates the end of discussion. I sigh and turn away.

            I am used to having secrets. Dad is a physicist. He runs a government laboratory. Oleg and I know his work has something to do with submarines, but we are not allowed to ask any questions. Every night Dad comes home after work and heads straight to his desk. It is made of dark brown wood and covered by green plastic under which notes and photographs are chaotically arranged. The desk is covered with piles of paper, books and scientific-looking magazines. It’s been around as long as I have and is practically a member of the family. Mom jokes that if Oleg and I were lost in a crowd, the only way we would recognize Dad would be if his back was turned to us. That’s all we ever see of him. He works all the time.

Sometimes when he is sitting at his desk, I peek over his shoulder. A sheet of paper is in front of him.  An old fountain pen with a gold tip, Mom’s present for his birthday, is in his hand. He sketches graphs and figures that resemble rays of light.

            “Mom, what is Dad doing?” I’d ask.

            “Thinking,” she’d reply. “Don’t disturb him.”

            Oleg and I know not to discuss with our friends anything we hear at home. Political jokes, anything adults say around the dinner table, books we read and even music we listen too are off limits. Most importantly, we don’t discuss my father’s work.

            “All you need to know is that your father is a scientist,” Mom explains. “When you grow up, if you work hard at school and make good grades, you can become a scientist too.” Before starting elementary school, if anyone asked me what I wanted to be when I grow up, I’d answer: “I will be a physicist like my dad.” My answer changed only in 4th grade when I had my first physics class. Now I reply: “I think I will be a TV producer like my mom.”

 

            Oleg, bored with the darkness outside the window, is now playing with his red race car.

            “How do you know about the explosion?” I ask Mom.

            “I know from work,” she says. “This morning, when I got in, we got the wire from the Ministry of Health. They ordered our reporters to go to the outskirts of Kiev and interview people that work in their gardens and out in the fields. They wanted to fight the rumors about the explosion. Sasha had to go. Remember Sasha?”

I remember Sasha, the young tall man with a full head of dark brown hair. He hung out with me one day when Mom took me to work.  It was spring and he took me to the park in the center of Kiev. The tulips were blooming bright red and yellow. He told me a story of two young lovers whose families didn’t want them to be together. Desperate, they took each other’s hands and jumped off the tallest bridge in Kiev—the Devil’s Bridge, so they would be together forever. He told me the story as we were walking down the wide alleys of the park. Then he showed me the Devil’s Bridge.

“Sasha told me it’s not a rumor.” Mom continues her story. “The army units are being sent to Chernobyl to fight the fires. The explosion is much bigger than they thought. He called his family right away. That’s when I made a decision to send you to Grandma. I was never so sure about anything in my entire life.”

            I am not sure anymore if Mom is talking to me or to herself. Her eyes are transfixed on something far, far away.

            “Just to think, over two million people in Kiev, they have no idea.” She covers her mouth with her cupped hand.

            “I watched your news tonight,” I say quietly.

            “Did you.” She’s still far away in her thoughts.

            “I saw your name at the end.”

            Mom produces the daily news program on one of the three government operated TV channels. She’s never on TV.  On the nights when she produces the 7 o’clock evening news I watch her program so that I can see her name scroll up at the end of the show: “Marina Shmareva, Producer.”

            “How come it wasn’t on the news?”

            “It’s a secret. The government doesn’t want people to know.”

Oleg puts his race car back in his pocket.

“Mom, will you tell me a story?” he says with a yawn.

“It is way past your bed time, isn’t it?” Mom says. “Let’s put you to bed.”

“I’m not sleepy.” He opens his eyes extra wide proving there is no sleep in them.

“Sure you are.”

“No, Mom, I’m not. Look.” He strains to open them even wider. “I want a story, Mom. I can stay awake.”

“Not tonight, honey.” Mom smoothes his dirty-blond hair. “We are all tired. Not tonight.”

 

-3-

 

The train is gaining speed and I am falling under the hypnosis of its metallic music. I know I will sleep on the top bench. Oleg is too young to be on top, and he rolls and kicks in his sleep. He can fall off easily. I like sleeping on the top.

I help Mom to lower the bench and unroll a cotton futon. It’s heavy and we both are out of breath by the time it’s lifted to its place. Usually it is Dad’s job.

An authoritative knock on the door cracks the shell of our solitude. We look at each other, as if we have forgotten that we are not alone on the train.

“I wish Dad was with us,” I whisper to Mom. Without him we are alone and vulnerable.

            Mom pushes on the door handle and struggles to slide it open. It’s the tall woman in uniform.

            “Tea?” She’s all business.

            We order three teas and make our beds. The sheets are worn out and damp. Mom tries to air them out. “No sense to complain. Our hostess doesn’t appear to be in a good mood.”

            I crack open the sliding door and watch the big lady make the tea. She pours water into a large stove built into the wall at the head of the train car. The stove is crackling with fire wood. She opens a little metal door and throws in some coal. That’s how they make it so hot.  A few moments later she takes out some clear glasses and pours in steaming tea the color of amber.

            I close the door and wait.

            If this was a planned trip, Mom would have brought dinner—a couple of boiled eggs, bread, some roasted chicken, salt and pepper. Since we usually take this trip in the summer, she prepares food that doesn’t require refrigeration and can be packed in foil to stay warm. She would unfold the little table attached to the wall of our cabin just under the window, cover it with a white starched linen towel she brought from home to set the table, and unwrap the food. But tonight, everything is different.

            The door slides open again, our tea is piping hot, glasses are cradled in silver trays with handles—served this way they won’t fall and break when the train moves.

“Are you one of those refugees?” she addresses Mom in a tone that’s too familiar, too intrusive for a stranger.

“No,” Mom answers abruptly. I can see her lips tighten.

“There’s lots of you, you know, wanting to go to Dnepropetrovsk all of a sudden.” The woman is ready to interrogate all night but Mom interrupts her.

“We are just going to see family.” She holds out the money for tea and the damp linens.

“Uh-huh.” A suspicious grimace appears on the woman’s face. She doesn’t believe Mom but she won’t ask any more questions. She takes the money out of Mom’s hand, and, stepping out of our cabin, glances spitefully in my direction. “You think you are so smart, darn intelligencia,” she mumbles under her breath and slides the door shut behind her.

We are left alone for the night.

 

            “Careful, it’s hot,” Mom says. “And don’t drink too much. It’s strong. Not good for your skin.”

            I nod and blow against the steam. I look forward to drinking tea on the train. I like the steam, the nutty rich flavor and the silver trays with intricate design of vines and flowers. It is served much hotter and much stronger than at home. In addition to tea we get sugar in paper packages.  Two sugar cubes in each package. Two packages for each cup of tea. I like three sugar cubes in my tea. I drop them in one by one holding each cube in my fingers just touching the hot surface until they slowly take on the same amber color.  Grain by grain they dissolve away, until nothing is left in my fingers and the bottom of my glass is covered with their sandy sweetness.

The train is moving faster. Trying not to spill, I lift the glass slowly and hold it as if it were suspended from the ceiling on a string. I take a sip. It’s sweet. Almost too sweet. I take another sip. I begin to feel warm inside.

            “Mom, will I go to school at Grandma’s?”

            “I don’t know yet, honey. We’ll figure it out tomorrow,” she says not looking at me. “Finish your tea and let’s go to sleep.”

            “What about the kids in my class? Will they finish the year without me?”

            “Don’t worry about that right now.”

            She tucks me in, turns off the overhead light. From my bunk bed up above, in the stream of barely-alive reading light I can see her sitting across her bed. Leaning against the wall, she wraps her arms around her legs as if she wants to curl into a ball. Her face is in the shadow of the bed above her and I can’t tell if she’s looking out of the window or if she’s watching Oleg, who is now breathing deeply and peacefully under his damp sheets.

I wake up once in the middle of the night to find her in the same position.

            “Mom,” I call into the beam of light.

            “What’s the matter, honey?” she sounds completely awake.

            “Are you going to sleep?”

            “Yes.” She gets up to run her fingers through my hair. “Go back to sleep.”

            Maybe she’s afraid we’ll miss our stop, I think to myself and roll over to face the wall.

 

-4-

In the morning we fold the sheets and roll up the futons.

“Pack up, then we’ll go to the restroom,” Mom says to me.

“I don’t have to go,” Oleg says from under his sheets.

“You need to wash your face and brush your teeth, don’t you? C’mon. We don’t have much time.”

I’m thirteen years old and perfectly capable of going to the restroom by myself, but she won’t hear of it:

            “Children disappear on trains all the time. Especially young girls. End of discussion.” Her face is pale. I notice puffiness under her eyes and a new wrinkle in the corner of her mouth. She never sleeps on trains, I think, and start packing up.

            Mom opens the door of our cabin. The train car is busy. People are waiting for their stop. Some are smoking by the restroom; others are sitting on their suitcases blocking the way to the next car.

            “We are not arriving for another twenty minutes,” the woman in uniform yells out into the aisle. “No reason to crowd the place. Go back to your seats. Go.” She shushes them back into the cabins.

            A man is smoking just outside of our cabin. He inhales deeply into his lungs and blows the smoke out of the open window.

            “Don’t be so angry, beautiful,” he says to the attendant and smiles a jagged smile revealing a row of yellow, tobacco-stained teeth.

            She waves him off, but her face softens and I can see she is pleased to be addressed in this manner. She sticks her head into our cabin.

            “Closing the restroom ten minutes before arrival. Hurry up, refugees.”

            She says it so loud, I know others can hear. I refuse to step out of the cabin.

            “I will hold it until we get to Grandma’s,” I say to Mom.

            “It will be three hours or more. We have to take a bus remember?” Mom is not pleased.

            “I don’t care.” I cross my arms and plump down on the bench in protest.

           

            We finally stop at Dnepropetrovsk.  Mom grabs the bag and takes Oleg by the hand.

            “Follow me closely,” she says to me. “I don’t know this place.”

            We merge with the crowd and pick up the pace. Mom must know where we are going. I follow her step for step. We have left the train car, but the space around me feels tight. I get bumped by luggage and people passing by. They are so close I can smell the wool of their coat sleeves. The crowd is pressing and I get separated.

            Instantly knowing I’m not there, Mom turns around and stops. The moving crowd splits to her right and left nearly knocking her over.

“What’s the matter with you, lady?” One man curses under his breath. She doesn’t blink. She’s searching for me with her panicking eyes.

“Mom!” I yell out. I can see her the whole time. She is the one lost.

            “Mom!” I yell out again and begin pushing towards her. Her eyes place me in the chaos of the crowd. I am just a few feet away.

            “Stay close.” She’s trying to sound angry, but I know she’s scared. “Take Oleg’s hand.”

            I take my brother’s cold little hand. Overwhelmed by people around him, Oleg is quiet. He squeezes my hand and makes firm little steps to keep up with Mom.

            We find the right bus. Mom leaves us by the door and runs to get tickets. We are the last ones to board. There are no seats left.

            “How long till we get to Grandma’s?” I ask.

            “Two hours, honey.”

            The bus is packed; I recognize faces from the train. People shuffle, try to find a place to stand, to lean on the wall or to hang on to a rail. Mom squeezes us into a corner in the front of the bus. With our bag placed in the middle we form a little circle. Oleg is leaning against the wall with the big window. I hang on to the back of a seat. Mom’s hands are on our shoulders, she’s standing wide, ready for the bus to push off.

In the seat in front of me is a young woman with round cheeks. She has a face of a country girl: radiant with a healthy blush, touched by the spring sun. “Made of blood and milk,” my grandmother would say. The bus is so full I feel my body press into her. I am close, too close. Mom pulls me towards herself. In the city you learn quickly to keep a distance. But it doesn’t bother the woman in the seat. She looks absentmindedly into the window as if she were lounging in a plush chair with a fresh breeze around her. No sweaty crowd, no pushing and shoving, no heavy bags. She looks peaceful and remote and for a while I fall under the spell of her undisturbed aura. And then it happens.

            Just like last year, at Grandma’s. I was taking a bath. I could feel that something was going wrong. I got out of the hot water slowly. But it didn’t stop. It kept coming. Now again.

            My fingers are icy cold. My back is covered in clammy sweat and I can feel my sweater sticking to my skin. I’m hot and cold at the same time. I feel a drop of sweat rolling slowly down my back, separating from my skin and dropping. I squeeze the handle on the seat in front of me, trying to hang on to consciousness. But just like the last time, coming out of the bath tub, I feel I have no control. I’m paralyzed.

            “My god, she’s going to faint.” I hear my mom’s voice. The sound reaches me from far-far away. I look at her face. Her lips move in slow motion. Everything rushes out of me. I stand there, an empty shell, knowing I only have a few seconds before my knees go out.

 

            When I open my eyes the young woman with blushed cheeks is standing by me.

            “You are alright?” she purrs to me. And then to my mother “She’s alright.”

            I am sitting in her seat. Mom is holding my hand. The bus is moving.

            “Breathe deep,” the woman says. “It will help you.”

            “Thank god.” Mom looks at me. “You are so pale. Like you have no blood in you.”  She rubs my hand with her thumb.

            “Thank you for giving up your seat,” she says to the woman. “I caught her last second. She would have dropped right on the floor.”

            My hands feel tingly. I’m not sure if I can stand up, but I feel embarrassed to be taking the woman’s seat. I pull myself up.

            “I’m better now. Please sit down.”

            It is not polite for young people to be sitting in public transportation. Not when there are older people around. Not when Mom is standing. But this woman won’t hear of it.            

            “We don’t want you to be fainting again,” she says. “You sit. It must be the heat that did it. Not enough air in here.”

            I look at Mom. She nods. I can stay seated. When the color comes back to my cheeks, Mom tells Oleg to sit on my lap. He reclines on my shoulder and falls asleep. He’s heavy and my leg falls asleep underneath him, but I won’t say a word. I have caused enough trouble.

-5-

My grandparents live in the center of Zaporozhie, a small industrial city with large dusty streets, old trolleys and stone buildings. Most of its residents work in factories, mines or at the dam which divides Ukraine’s largest river, Dnepr, into the upper and lower halves and the city into the Old Part and the New. My grandfather helped to build the dam.  

            After taking the train, the bus and the trolley we walk a couple of blocks to the old, gray building where my grandparents’ flat is on the first floor. As we turn the corner I see my grandmother’s face through the kitchen window. The window glass is shining and the white, lacy curtains are starched stiff. We are home.

            “Thank god you are here,” my grandmother greets us at the door. It’s late in the afternoon. It seems we’ve been traveling for days.

            She takes our luggage and sends me straight to the bathroom to wash up and change my clothes.

            “Wash well behind your ears and clean your finger nails,” she instructs. “That railroad grime will get in everywhere.”

            She worked on railroad when she was young. The railroad grime, black and super fine, is the last thing she wants to see on her grandchildren.

            I take my time in the shower, scrubbing my nails and washing my hair. She checks on me a couple of times.

            “Everything is alright in here?” She crack-opens the door and peeks in. Mom must have told her I fainted on the bus.

            “Yes. Everything is alright in here.”

            “Do you want me to scrub your back?”

            “Sure.”

            She comes in, rolls up her sleeves and stars soaping up the luffah.

            “Is this what Grandpa grew in the garden last summer?” I ask recalling the odd looking luffah plant in my grandfather’s garden outside of the city.

            “Yes,” she says and starts scrubbing. Then looks at me inquisitively.

            “How are you feeling?”

            “Tired.”

            My arms and legs lay heavy on the bottom of the tub filled with hot soapy water. Running the scratchy luffah in circles up and down my back, my grandmother asks about our trip, about Kiev and the people at the train station. I answer tiredly yes and no. Sometimes I just nod my head. It feels good to be cared for. Life begins to feel normal again.

            When we finish, Grandma gives me my aunt’s red robe with little yellow and pink flowers. It’s too big. I could wrap it twice around me. I fix it with a tie and come out to the kitchen, smelling of soap and water. Grandma is making tea.

            “You smell good. Sit. Tea is just about brewed. “

            “Where is Mom?”

            “She went to get you into a school.”

            “When is she coming back?”

            “I don’t know. When she finds a school for you. You need to finish the year, don’t you?”

            “She’s going back to Kiev tonight, you know.” I wonder if Mom ate or washed her face since we left home. I think of Dad. We have not spoken since yesterday.

            “Oleg, your sister is done with the bathroom. Your turn.” Grandma pours me a cup of tea and leaves to run the water for my brother’s bath.

            “He won’t let you scrub his back,” I yell so that Grandma can hear me over the running water. “He’s too grown-up for that now.”

            “We’ll see about that,” Grandma responds from the bathroom.

 

            Mom comes back with good news: a local school will take me in. She changes clothes and sits down at the table where Grandma is setting a plate of hot borsch. It smells sweet like beets and sour like stewed tomatoes. She sets down a jar of sour cream and slices dark Ukrainian rye bread into thick slices.

            “What did you tell them?” Grandma asks.

            “Everything,” Mom starts on her borsch. “It’s very good, Mom.” She takes a spoonful of sour cream and mixes it into the red borsch making white and pink circles.

            “Eat-eat,” Grandma says. “You are all skin and bones.” She always says that. We are skinny and pale because we live in a big city and don’t get enough fresh air. It is her job to save us from the city every summer, to feed us borsch and fresh southern fruit, to get us suntanned and ready for school again.

“I had no choice,” Mom continues. “Without any authorization or a letter or even a phone call from the school, how would I explain?”          

            “Uh-huh. So, what did they say?”

            “That they think there are no kids left in Kiev. Apparently, I wasn’t the first one.”

            I listen quietly. I realize tomorrow I will have to go to a new school. Oleg is lucky. He’s still a preschooler. I am in 6th grade and have always attended the same school.

            “Mom, I don’t have my uniform and my books.”

            “It’s alright, honey. These are special circumstances. Your teachers will know. You just go on tomorrow and listen to the teachers. I am sure you will do just fine. ”

            Mom always has this confidence about me. Especially when it comes to school.

            I remember the day she took me to school for the first time. Eight and a half months pregnant with Oleg, she pressed my new uniform, tied two white bows in my hair and arranged a bunch of yellow mums I was to give to my first teacher. On the way to school, we walked slowly up the hill stopping so that she could stretch her back.

            “Everyone in our family had always been a good student. Dad only made A’s in school. I made good grades. Your aunt Tanya was an excellent student. She went to school for gifted children. So, you see, you will be a good student too.”

            She was right up to this point.

 

            The phone rings. It’s Dad.

            He tells Mom that, as she expected, many people are leaving Kiev now and it’s impossible to get tickets.    

            “Have you watched the news?” Mom asks. “Did they say anything at all?”

            No they didn’t. Early spring and busy gardeners are the dominating theme of the news.

            Mom sighs and puts the phone down.

            “We’ll watch tonight,” she says. “It might change.”           

            We watch the 7 o’clock evening news in my grandparents’ living room. Mom’s friend Sasha appears on the TV with a smile. To his right is an old woman wearing a black wool head scarf and a button-down sweater. Her sunned face is plowed with wrinkles. A long string of her silver hair escapes from her scarf. It flops in the playful spring breeze and she tries to catch it and tuck it back in before Sasha turns to her with a question. Behind them, rows of dark, freshly plowed soil run towards a dirty-white country house with a hay roof.

            “You have heard the rumors about the explosion at the Chernobyl Nuclear Station. What is your reaction?” Sasha says and points the microphone towards the old woman.

            “We are working as we always have,” the woman says. Her language is a mix of Ukrainian and Russian, common in the country outside of Kiev. “Spring is a busy time for farmers. Lots of planting to do.”

            “So there is no reason to panic?”

            “No. No reason to panic.” She lets out a chuckle. “We going to have a good harvest this year. Now is the time to plant the seeds for it. The winter has been long here. And cold. It will be a good summer for the harvest.”

            I catch a disapproving glance Mom exchanges with my grandmother. She gets up to get ready to go back to Kiev. She has to catch the 10 o’clock train to make it back to work the next morning.

            Before Mom leaves she reminds me of our conversation on the train: “Remember, you can’t tell the kids at school what happened or I will get in trouble.”

 

-6-

Kiev is asleep under the light spring sky. I can see it in the distance, deep down between and under the clouds.

My grandmother used to fly in her sleep, I think, and dive into the cloud net.

I descend slowly and quietly so as to not to disturb the sleeping old city. The sun just touched the horizon and the first rays of light are peeking out into the deep May sky. I circle over the Botanical Garden. Blooming curls of purple, blue and white lilac flow down the hills of Kiev, spilling into the wide waters of Dnipro-river. April showers bring May flowers, my grandmother always said. And we’ve had plenty of both this spring. I take a turn and, for a second, I am blinded.  Reflecting off St. Andrew’s, a sunray bounces from its emerald green, gold-trimmed dome to the toll windows of the surrounding buildings.  Its marble steps, cool to the touch even in the heat of summer, glisten with the early morning mist.

 I dive further down the hill and whisk past the statue of Vladimir. Troubled, he is gazing with his heavy bronze eyes down the valley of the Dnipro-river, a large cross in his left hand and his right raised towards the horizon as if to forewarn and protect at the same time.

            I look over my shoulder at the river snaking among the verdant hills and golden domes, and take off to the place that’s more precious then the 2000-years-old churches, more familiar than the gardens and the rivers. I swoop over the empty cobblestone streets, wing over parks with iron benches and playgrounds, I soar above the red wall surrounding Kiev University and, finally, before me is my school yard.

            I can see my classroom through the large window lit up by bright fluorescent lights. One by one, students in familiar uniforms come through the front door. I am too far up to see their faces. Maybe that girl turning the corner is Shura. And that boy with the dog, is that Max? I want to get closer but something is holding me back. Something has pinned me to the sky, trapping my body, snaring my flight with an invisible net. I strain, push with my arms and legs, but it’s no use.

            And then, I see it.

            First out of the corner of my eye, far away in the southern edge of the sky. Then growing bigger, slowly spreading over the horizon, coming right over my head. It’s purple, no yellow, no, it’s black and boiling with strength and power. It’s a storm. The kind we read about in my geography class, the kind that wipes out everything on its way leaving nothing behind, the kind only few survive to tell about. I am motionless, paralyzed in the presence of its mystical power. It’s rising right before my eyes. I hear the roaring thunder. Flashes of lightning penetrate the boiling mass exposing its depth, showing off its darkness.

            Underneath me, the school yard is getting busier. The windows are still colored by the pink light of the morning sun, the trees are still, untouched by the wind, the dust is settled, and my friends are walking to school in a sleepy, leisurely way.

            They can’t see it! They don’t know it’s coming! The thought terrifies me. Unable to move, I take a deep breath and scream at the top of my lungs: “Get inside! Shura! Max! Get inside!” I squeeze my lungs until it hurts inside but all that comes out is a groan, a sound stretched in time with no meaning. I try again, but my lips are heavy, they don’t move. I feel the veins on my neck tense up . . .

            “Natasha,” a voice comes though my struggle. “Natasha. Wake up, honey. You are having a bad dream. Wake up.” My grandmother is shaking me.

            The images of my dream shrink and evaporate. I open my eyes. In the dark, I can see my grandmother’s silhouette. She’s wiping my forehead with her handkerchief.

            “That’s better,” she says. “What was that all about?”

            “I was flying.” There is a scratch in my throat and my voice comes out deep and distant.

            “Oh, well, that’s all right. That just means your are growing,” she says fixing my sheets. “People grow in their sleep. You are just growing.” She leans forward to look at my face.

            “Better now?”

            I nod.

            “If you have a bad dream, all you have to do is turn over. Turn to the other side. You’ll have a different dream then. Go ahead. Try it.”

            I turn to the other side. She tucks my blanket under my back. My chest feels lighter, I take a deep breath and close my eyes.

 

 

Natasha Mancuso, born Shmarova, is a professor of Marketing at Montana State University. Her short stories and essays have appeared in Rainbow Curve, the Christian Science Monitor, Magic City Magazine, and other publications. Natasha was born in Kiev, Ukraine. She was the first in her family to immigrate to the United States and become an American citizen. She completed her undergraduate degree at the University of Louisville and her graduate degree at the University of Connecticut, both in Business Administration. She lives in Billings with her husband Jerry, her 10-month-old son, Daniel, and her black lab Winston.