A woman who had been waiting for the Russian world to come had been lying under the rubble of her own house for two months.
When it started, and the woman heard the first explosions, she got scared. But then she realized who was behind the morning bangs and rejoiced, “‘Our boys’ will be here soon.”
The woman had taught Russian language and literature all her life at the school just a hundred meters from her house. Two years before she was to retire, the school had switched to the Ukrainian language of teaching, and she had been quietly dismissed. She barely recovered from this blow. Suddenly she had a lot of free time, which she spent preparing for classes that would never take place anyway. She immersed herself in Pushkin, read up on Lermontov with a pencil, and got carried away with Tutchev. The woman spent her evenings convincing herself of the greatness and glory of the mighty Russian culture while sitting in an old armchair she had bought two decades ago.
Then she would remember her youth. Linguistics department, dormitory, calico dresses, poems in a dark park, hot hands, words of love. Then memories of cheap sausage and the world’s most delicious ice cream would slip into her mind. The woman did not remember the taste of the sausage or the ice cream, but she firmly believed in their perfection. The woman was confident that all of this could be restored. She just had to wait a little—the misunderstandings would soon be cleared up: ‘our boys’ would never shoot at civilians.
The woman was sleeping when the part of her apartment block from the fifth to the first floor collapsed. The greatness of Russian culture buried her without asking her opinion about Pushkin and Lermontov.
A woman searching for her husband in a mass grave remembered the geography of his body like a hand-drawn contour map of Ukraine.
Her husband had a birthmark on the index and middle fingers of his right hand. His mother once told him that during labor, the doctor had held on to those two fingers to pull him out, saving both of their lives. His mother only joked, but he continued to tell this story in earnest for years.
Her husband had had a tooth knocked out. The fourth on the left side of his upper jaw. It was barely noticeable unless he was smiling from ear to ear. Her husband played soccer. In a game last fall, he collided with the opposing team’s attacker. Jaws crunched; teeth cracked. He kept joking that he should have had that tooth implanted before the war.
Her husband had a tattoo. A sleeve with a wolf, his teeth bared, and the runes. He had been toying with the idea for several years until he finally made the sketch himself. When the drawing was tattooed on his body, it turned out to have a twist—if you looked at the wolf at a certain angle, it seemed as if it was smiling.
Her husband had a scar. Knee surgery many years ago; a result of his past as a soccer player, which was supposed to become his career. The crooked lines of an old stitch were not visible under his pants, and her husband rarely wore shorts. His knee often ached in cold weather.
The woman was lucky. Her husband had distinguishing marks that helped her identify him.
The tattooed wolf smiled at her for the last time.
A woman returning to the town of her childhood did not recognize it.
Where the woman had gone to school, there was now a deep crater and a pile of bricks. She remembered her classroom, the last one at the end of the corridor on the first floor. Her desk, the second in the middle row, with “Kolia + Ira” and a little heart scratched on it. Her friend Taya who wore two plaids and a short skirt. She’d heard that Taya had moved to Russia a decade ago.
Where the woman heard a love confession for the first time in her life at the end of the last school summer, there was now someone’s grave. The woman almost stepped on it, but she noticed a makeshift cross and jumped aside. The grave was already overgrown with grass—bindweed, chicory, and wheatgrass. There were no inscriptions on the cross made of gray boards.
Where her parents’ white-brick house had stood, there were only walls. Black and charred, they looked like the stumps of rotten teeth in a mouth contorted in pain. The woman took a few steps forward. Glass crunched under her feet; roof shingles crackled. She looked inside through the frameless window that looked like a knocked-out eye. Her childhood, which until recently had lived within these walls, had turned to ashes.
The woman looked with dry eyes at the town of her childhood lying in ruins. Then she adjusted her gun, straightened her back, which ached from the bulletproof vest, and slowly walked back to her fellow soldiers.
A woman who could not take it anymore drank a bottle of wine every night.
At first, the ‘child’s’ dose relaxed her. Every night the woman poured the wine with her trembling hands in complete darkness—blackouts created a black hole under her ribs. She poured it not into a glass—to hell with the romantic and aesthetic stuff—but into a cup, up to the brim. Then she gulped it down and went to bed—not because she wanted to sleep, but because she craved more. But oblivion would not come.
Soon the dose increased. Two cups, then three. In a short while, the woman found herself downing a bottle of the cheapest wine in one night. “Hooch,” she would have said earlier. “What a dud,” she thought now.
The woman desperately sought peace of mind in liquor—and did not find it. She found pain. Found rage. Found tears. She wept and cursed when the bottle was empty. But that very cup became her lifeline. The woman thought of it when the air raid alarm went off. She thought of it when she heard explosions. She thought of it when the bad news spread. She was losing herself, falling into an abyss with the last drop.
One day, the woman noticed that her hands were trembling all the time—and she got scared. In her fear, she reached for the bottle again.
A woman who hid a black hole inside her applied red lipstick every morning.
Before the war, she had never used this color, but in March, she bought five lipsticks at once in different shades. Bright red, carrot red, brick red, wine red, rose red.
Every workday, she chose the color of lipstick in the morning, as if she would wear it all day in the office. Only, her office had been bombed in February, and the woman hastily applied lipstick and hurried down to the basement.
Down in the basement, it was gloomy, so no one could see that the woman’s lips were crooked. The left half of her upper lip was wider and asymmetrical to the right half. Lipstick was smeared in the corners as if a blood-stained mouth was contorted in pain. When the woman had to sit in the basement for a long time, she pulled out her lipstick and reapplied it in the dark.
When the chestnuts blossomed, and the shelling subsided, the gossipmongers returned to their places on the benches next to the apartment blocks. They smiled at the woman when she went to the grocery store or to get humanitarian aid, then whispered behind her back:
“She caked on her red lipstick again. And her husband has been missing since March, do you know that? There’s been no news since then. And this one? She has no shame!”
The gossipmongers, who knew exactly how one was supposed to mourn, spat on the ground in indignation and switched to the next passerby.
A woman who was learning to live could not find peace.
The world, which had seemed so wide to her, kept shrinking. It was lying in front of her like an ABC book in front of a first grader, but she was too weak to learn the letters. The woman slept poorly and ate little. She was losing weight and ageing. She could not stay in one place for a long time—only the road saved her from bad thoughts; only new locations helped her forget. The woman liked hotels—they created an illusion of home, a mock projection of happiness. At hotels, the woman felt like she was living her previous life, when every trip was a long-awaited holiday, not a hurried escape.
The towns changed like a kaleidoscope. She walked around each of them as long as it took her to get tired enough to sleep and not dream. She now had all those towns, too beautiful for words, the ones she’d been dreaming of visiting all her life. But she was not there.
The woman wanted to return to her former self, blissfully oblivious of her happiness. But she lost that self in one of the countless trains. Only a looped unknown was spreading in front of her.
Another road awaited her the next day.
© Yuliia Iliukha and Hanna Leliv
Yuliia Iliukha is a poet, prose writer, and journalist, born 1982 in Kharkivska Oblast, Ukraine. She is the author of several books for adults and children. Her poems and prose stories have been translated into English, German, Italian, Bulgarian, Hungarian, Catalan, Polish, Swedish. Her works have appeared in magazines and newspapers of Ukraine, Austria, Poland, Bulgaria, Hungary, Spain, UK, Sweden, USA. Iliukha has received a number of awards, including the Oles Honchar International Ukrainian-German Literary Prize, International Literary Contest Word Coronation 2018 Prize, and the Smoloskyp Prize. Currently, she is a writer-in-residence at Internationales Haus der Autorinnen in Graz, Austria.
Hanna Leliv is a freelance translator from Lviv, Ukraine. She was a Fulbright fellow at the University of Iowa’s Literary Translation Workshop and mentee at the Emerging Translators Mentorship Program run by the UK National Center for Writing. Her translations of contemporary Ukrainian literature into English have appeared in Asymptote, BOMB, Washington Square Review, The Adirondack Review, The Puritan, and elsewhere. In 2022, Stalking the Atomic City: Life Among the Decadent and the Depraved of Chornobyl, a non-fiction book by Markiyan Kamysh, was published in her translation by Astra House. Currently, she is a translator-in-residence at Dartmouth College.