They left me here during the evacuation. Old shrunken and childless widow with broken hips and no one to check on her, knees that lock beneath soiled nightgown and sheets, I listened as it all played out on my now-dead transistor radio. “Only three days,” my wageless nursemaid Natalia said, “I’ll be back in three days,” and she never returned. No food for a week, well-drawn water long emptied from the bottles at my bedside in this patchwork cottage with the windows covered in newsprint since the light hurts my eyes, the same way it hurts to look at you. So blindingly blue. Now they’re gone, from Pripyat to Chernobyl, all of them gone, eighteen miles in every direction around the plant. Such a waste. And I’m reaching the end.
Fitting fate to die alone, but then you came. Part of me hoped you would. And now you’re here. Just as you were then, so very long ago.
Come closer. No, closer still, for you and I must speak on what I pray will be my last night on this godless earth. I might have had a few more days or weeks if someone else had come for me, but no matter. One day is just as good as another.
Tell me your name. I’ve always wanted to know.
So then you came to listen. In that case I’ll talk, and tell you what you want to hear. If only you’ll do me one favor.
Then I’ll tell it.
I was born at the turn of the century as Irina Aleksandrovna Semonenko, named after the Grand Duke’s daughter. Our only royalty, though, was my father, who was indeed a king but only of the local tavern, where he would rule over his court of drunken loyalists. Member of the Black Hundred through and through, and I remember his second pair of workboots lined up against the wall in the hallway, wondering when the first would walk home from the fields, his swollen feet inside. He was not a bad man, as far as fathers go: as a breed they are largely absent. The worst kind are the ones who are always hovering about, and he was a mercifully empty space in my childhood.
My mother, however, took great joy in her children, the four that lasted through infancy. We would dance around her dress hems, making mischief which might earn a hard slap on the head; that didn’t mean the same thing then as it does now.
There was no school in those days, certainly not when this place was called Lokachkiv, so family was everything; my oldest brother Ivan was the one who taught me how to read. There was no going to Kiev then, no modern means of transport or pleasure to occupy our time, and when there wasn’t work there was boredom, which hung heavy over all of us. Especially the men, who would drink and drink more until their thoughts turned to either hatred or lust.
Now that I think on it, that’s why we’re talking now.
When was it? Was I six years old? Or was I seven? It’s hard for me to put it in place, all that time before the revolution we were supposed to forget. My strongest memory from that time is of you; that’s how I knew you’d return to me, once the accident happened at the plant. I said before I had hoped it, but actually I knew. I knew.
You ruined my wedding night, did you know that? The night I became a Petrova. You came to me in a dream and gave me a horrible scare. Sergei had to stay up with me until morning. I was so afraid, over nothing. I tried to talk with my friend Elizaveta about you years later but she just laughed, as she did the night it happened. I never mentioned you again.
Where was I? Pardon me. I keep thinking I hear someone calling me. My mother perhaps, crying “Irinotchka” with anger from the kitchen, for I’ve done something wrong. But she’s dead now.
Then again, so are you.
This has become a village of ghosts, and in a way, it’s your fault, your people’s fault, I mean. They’re the ones who invented this way of turning energy into destruction. And now you’ve gotten your revenge on us, made us flee our homes as we once made you flee, and I suppose I can’t really blame you for that. For there was a time when some of the men of this province wouldn’t think much more about slitting one of your children’s throats than they would peeling an apple; it was almost their national duty. So try not to judge us too harshly, if you can. Especially Ivan, God rest his soul, may he live on in heaven’s embrace. He of the three of them was the drunkest, and if I hadn’t gotten him from the tavern that night, then they might never have done what they did. But maybe that’s just the wishful thoughts of a dying old woman.
And you. Come even closer, sit on the edge of the bed. Right here. Take my hand. I know you came to hear about yourself, not me. All young men are that way. You’re more handsome than I remember, especially for what you are. And so young. So very young. How old are you, sixteen years? Seventeen?
I can feel pins and needles on my face, pricking at me. Is that you?
Your skin is the color of the sky that first night after the accident, has the same radiant bluish glow that there was in the clouds over the plant, one month gone now. Natalia propped me up in bed before running off with everyone else to the hills and rooftops to watch. So bright.
Is the accident what brought you back? I heard a program on the radio once, regarding some foreigners, from the Orient, I believe, who could think something so strongly that they could will it to life, so that it walked free in the world. Is that what you are? Or perhaps you were here all along, watching me, and the radiation just illuminated you, made you visible to the eye. I don’t know about such things, the old superstitions weaned from us by the state, only what I hear on the now-dead transistor, or what I might hear from Natalia, who is a gossipmonger; she talks a lot, and never listens. You’re a good listener.
So you want to hear a story you already know? But why?
Are you my confessor?
If you insist, then, I’ll tell it. It will be my last tale.
That night Alexander and Yuri found you, our mother had sent me to bring them home; your cries hurried me along the rain-slicked streets and that’s when I found the three of you at the corner, my brothers bent over you, taking turns kicking you in your sides. Your skullcap had fallen off, and Yuri ground it into the mud with his heel. I ran inside the tavern and screamed, “Ivan, Ivan, they’re beating a Jew in the gutter,” and the whole town seemed to spill outside to watch as your blood started soaking into the dirt. It was Ivan who stumbled forward and shouted for them to stop, and a grumble of disappointment passed through the crowd.
You got up, or at least on one knee, and Ivan reached out his hand. You looked so peaceful then, not afraid, peering with wonder between the curls on the sides of your head as if looking up into the face of God himself. When you went to take his hand he grabbed you by your wrist instead and dragged you through the crowd, which roared its approval and trailed after him. I ran alongside you, watching as you tried to keep your head from hitting the stones; maybe it would have been better for you if you had managed to concuss yourself, I don’t know.
The alley behind the tavern reeked of urine and sick, and there was a wooden barrel there against the wall, high as Ivan’s waist and nearly full with rainwater and vomit. He pulled you forward as he held your hands behind your back, tipped your head into the barrel as Alexander and Yuri lifted you from your feet. The crowd cheered.
Our father stepped out of the back door of the tavern then, and when he saw what was happening his face lit up with pride, radiant. He began to clap his hands above his head and started the crowd in a Black Hundred rhyme. Oh, let me see, if I can remember I . . .
“Remember the crown, for the good of Russia,
Strike out at the heart of thieves,
Take up the sword, and make it prosper
May it bloody our enemies.”
Something of the sort.
I watched you begin to drown, your body convulsing like a fish on the floor of a boat, and then your legs twisted so hard that my brothers, laughing, dropped you into the barrel before lifting you again so that only your head was beneath the water’s surface. I turned to the crowd then, everyone so much taller than me I could barely see their faces, though I do remember seeing young Elizaveta Baranskaia—Natalia’s mother, she died just last year, God rest her soul, may she live on in heaven’s embrace—with a great smile on her lips. How much fun they were all having. I laughed along with the rest of them, clapping my hands and stamping my feet into the mud. But part of me felt for you, it really did, for I didn’t know how to swim and I have always feared the water so.
Maybe that’s because of you.
I started to turn away but there was a strong hand on my shoulder and I was made to face forward, your legs just twitching now, barely struggling at all. “Irinochka, what are you doing?” my mother said at my side, holding me. “You must watch.” And I did.
After a few minutes my brothers lifted you out of the barrel, and your dead face had gone blue. But not the blue of you now, the steady blue glow of a toxic cloud, but rather a face mottled with white and red blotches. The crowd continued to carry on, and my mother abruptly scooped me into her arms as she made her way through the crowd. “Okay, time for bed now, sweet one. All good little girls should be in bed.”
All good little girls should be in bed. And now I can’t get out of mine.
And now I’m done. Eighty more years gone, and I’m done. Over there on the wall is a portrait of my husband Sergei, God rest his soul, may he live on in heaven’s embrace. Everyone loved him so. When I met him I was nearly your age, and he reminded me so much of my father. So loved.
How does it feel, then, to be hated? To be despised, hounded from your homes and hunted down in the streets like dogs until you’re driven out or dead? Of course, your people have their own land now; the world should have thought of that sooner. Such a waste.
Oh, it’s time, it’s time, I must leave my bed for the very last time. Won’t you help me, so I can see the midnight sky once more? I’ve told you the story, so that you might be free of it, if that is why you came. But now it’s time. And you promised.
That’s it. Slip your hands beneath me. Oh, pins and needles, pricking everywhere. It’s your skin, you unholy thing, it’s on fire with power like sunlight, penetrating me. That’s it. Lift me up. Not too roughly, I’m all bones and loosened flesh. Only a monster like you would hold me now.
Carry me to the front door. That’s it. Careful. I’ll help keep your skullcap upon your head, if you’ll let me. Now, over the threshold, like a bridegroom from the cinema. Look, there’s my cat Misha. So skinny, what have you been eating, my dear, nothing but weeds? Oh, my garden, my once-beautiful garden, who will tend you now?
One moment. There. Look around, do you see them? There. Right there. And there. What are those things, glowing blue in the darkness at the edges of the field, watching us as we pass through the garden gates? Are they your people? They frighten me. So many of them. So many of them so young. Look at her, that child there, her face is familiar to me. Perhaps she and I passed one another on the street one summer’s day, when I too was a girl. So bright, blinding radiance, it hurts to look. I’ll close my eyes, and never open them again.
Is that the sound of my mother, calling me from the kitchen? It’s too late for that.
Now, do as you promised, monster Jew. I can’t do it myself, for that would be a sin. Help this old woman down to the well and throw her in, so that I too may see the true face of God.
Originally published in Shadows & Tall Trees 6, edited by Michael Kelly.