“Lubech—Lubech, that’s all you’ve been saying—Lubech,” Mother said.
True, Father did say “Lubech, Lubech” a lot on this trip. It sounded like “love” and “burning” at the same time. Kuzya and Lubasha loved playing “words.”
“In 1943, he was killed! It’s 1986! I just don’t see why I need to spend my May holidays this year bumping along these terrible roads, breaking the engine, being carsick, driving through snow and then dust and heat and running chickens and bugs—”
That was true, too. All kinds of bugs—mosquitoes, flies, some rare bugs Kuzya had never seen in Moscow.
“—and no toilets inside—”
“only one night, one more night, then to Pripyat’, to a nice hotel, with a great toilet, you’ll love it! Then to Chernobyl. From there—to Kiev!”
“. . . the middle of nowhere with two kids, that’s what it is, “Tmutarakan—”
Lubasha started to laugh, slapping her thigh: “T’mu-tarakan’, T’mu-tarakan’!”
T’mu-tarakan’ was such a funny word. “Darkness and Cockroach Country.” Kuzya laughed, too, frowned, and turned away but didn’t say anything. Because, honestly, she was not even supposed to be on vacation. Everyone in her 8th grade was in school for the last week of April, but to see Lubech—even just for that she was ready to love it—Father took her out of school. Nobody would mess with Father, him being such an important scientist! Plus, Kuzya had her drawing pad, pencils that Father sharpened specially for her—he had a pocket knife “just for Kuzya’s pencils!”—and the precious watercolor box called “Artist”—sold only in specialized stores for real artists (Father’s gift for Kuzya’s fourteenth birthday).
Because Kuzya was an Artist. Now, of course, they all called her Kuzya, but just give her time, she thought. Give her time and training, and all those ruins and churches to sketch, and she will be another Michelangelo (or sometimes, she was hoping to be a Dostoevsky; she was still deciding between an artist or a writer, but a genius—that’s for sure). Never mind she was born a girl, Katya Kuznetsova, and only started to draw at twelve, way too late. (Catherine the Great was Katya, too, and only learned to speak Russian at twelve because she was born a German princess—but she became a great Russian Empress, and a philosopher and a playwright.) Kuzya knew she had it.
The car smelled of gas and chamomile. Lubasha fell asleep, with her hot, heavy head in Kuzya’s lap. Her sleek, sandy hair tickled Kuzya’s thigh and smelled like Lubasha—melting cookies and freshly ironed linen.
Father started to sing a ballad about truth, in a coarse voice:
The clean truth wore beautiful dresses,
The dirty love took her clothes . . .
What did Father know about truth? More than other grown-ups, yes. Yet, practically, nothing.
They had been driving, stopping, driving, stopping…
Kuzya liked the city of Pripyat. It looked new and bright—as if someone had just washed the white buildings, the rose beds, the street stands with red banners—LENIN’S DEEDS AND IDEAS WILL LIVE FOREVER!—and the statue of Prometheus in front of the cinema.
“Kuzya, you remember who Prometheus was,” said Father.
It was not a question; he trusted Kuzya knew the Greek mythology by heart at this point. “Intelligentsia must.” Kuzya rolled her eyes.
“Just checking,” laughed Father. “It’s a funny symbol in a town built next to the nuclear reactor named after Lenin.”
At ten in the morning they loaded the car, and Kuzya closed her eyes, dozing off, when something cracked inside the engine. The car died without moving.
“Are we having an accident?” asked Lubasha.
Kuzya saw two small boys running past the car. Then two more. She only had one cookie this morning and had a sour taste in her mouth. She did suck on the brush too much. She closed her eyes again and waited for Father to fix the car. Through her slumber she heard him cursing, Mother screaming, then crying, and Lubasha wailing, then other people’s voices—with their soft “gh” and “au”—but very quickly, and more of a buzzing than yesterday. She wanted to wake up and do something—draw, write in the diary how she hated everyone and missed her friends. She didn’t really have friends. Kuzya really despised everyone . . .
When she woke up, she first felt a giant pimple on her chin. Where did this come from? She hated them. Mother told her to never, ever, touch them or she would end up with “craters” in her face like the neighbor, aunt Valya. Kuzya looked and could not see the ancestors in front of the car. She did see a lot of children and women running down the street, some with bags and suitcases.
She climbed into the driver’s seat and stuck her chin up towards the mirror.
And then, in the mirror, she saw a tank.
It crawled by her, crunching. Crunching horribly.
“Mama,” she whispered. “Maamaaa!”
She slumped deep in the seat. Was it war? Had her parents died already? Or had they abandoned her?
Mother appeared from nowhere, with Lubasha in her arms, and was already in the car and pulling Kuzya into the back seat and kissing her head. Mother’s fat stomach now felt good.
“Is it war?”
“No, bunny,” she whispered.
She called her bunny only when Kuzya was sick.
“It’s a . . . it’s an accident. The electric station exploded.”
“Named after Lenin?” asked Kuzya.
Mother looked at her, eyes wide behind her glasses.
“But why is there a tank? Where is Papa?”
“Papa is getting the part for the car, but it’s hard. All stores are closed. Everyone has to leave town.”
And here Mother started sobbing, and so did Kuzya.
She thought that she would die now, and her talent would be wasted and when they found her body there would be a big pimple on her chin, that’s all. Mother and Father were old, Lubasha . . . well, Lubasha would have to be saved, too, yes, but she, Kuzya—she wanted to live!
“Let’s run! Let’s go find Papa and take a bus or a train—”
Then they heard a cough, and a gasp, and there was Lubasha, throwing up again. Another tank crawled by.
They ended up going back into the hotel room. A lot of soldiers and other men in face masks were everywhere in the lobby and outside. Kuzya noticed a sweaty military man: he was throwing up in an ashtray. She didn’t know military men could throw up.
From vodka, she thought.
The TV didn’t work. Kuzya went all the way up to the fifth floor to the under-roof balcony and looked outside.
Far away she saw a strange, dreamlike wall. It soared, nightmarishly, like a gigantic steel spider web growing out of the forest. Transparent and distinct at the same time, sleek, graceful and ugly, uncanny in its clarity and its mysterious and terrible purpose. Like grown-up truth.
And then, to the other side, she saw helicopters and light, whitish smoke rising into the sky like a genie out of the bottle.
It was such a bright, sunny day. Shining white sheets ballooned on the balconies. Kuzya saw two dogs playing in the square by the red-rose flowerbed. She took her drawing pad and started to sketch. A dog scratching. A funny tail. Pigeons bathing in puddles. Where did puddles come from—there was no rain? A pair of women’s underwear billowing like a sail, on a string, on the balcony. The strange, lacey wall growing from the forest, a world-sized spider covering the sky. The pipes and stalks of the station far away in the forest with transparent smoke. Two rectangular buildings with red slogans: “PARTY OF LENIN, PEOPLE’S POWER, IS LEADING US TO COMMUNISM!” A tall building, the coat of arms of the Soviet Union on top. And buses—a ribbon of mustard-yellow buses, like a caravan of camels from One Thousand and One Nights, flooding the streets.
The town was getting emptier and emptier.
Kuzya went back to the room and kept drawing. She drew fast and with fury, breaking her pencils, page after page. More mermaids, sad and angry; Viy with eyelids so thick and long he couldn’t see; Mother and Lubasha, sleeping on the bed with their clothes on; her own hand with the pencil; Lubasha and her stuffed dog, Zhuk; a self-portrait (without a pimple) and a self-portrait as a prophetic singing bird, Gamaun.
The TV never worked. The radio kept making strange woodpecker noises. It woke up Mother and Lubasha.
“I am hungry!” said Lubasha.
Mother gave them some dry cookies and boiled water in a cup with an electrical coil—but they didn’t even have tea leaves. Time froze. Lubasha whined.
“Instead of drawing now, you could be a big girl and help me and entertain your little sister,” said Mother. “She is sick and bored, and my head is splitting; it’s probably a migraine, but you just won’t have any sense to help. Your father spoiled you rotten. What do you think you are, some genius? So you are excused from any responsibility?! Just like your father! All talk! No deeds!”
“You always have a migraine! It’s your daughter, right? We didn’t ask to be born! We didn’t ask to come here!”
“You are now scaring your sick sister! Shame on you! Egotistical and selfish trash!”
Kuzya ran out the door, slamming it as hard as she could.
Outside, Kuzya kept running for a few minutes until her head started to feel a bit cooler inside and she started to see that things were really, really different. Buses were still driving by in a long, endless column. The square was empty—completely. Like a desert.
A tall tree—a poplar, probably—threw lace-like shade over a bench. Kuzya sat down, looking at the trembling young leaves. Someone had left cigarettes and a box of matches on the bench, next to an empty bottle of vodka, with red lipstick around the neck. There was only one cigarette in the white-and-green crinkled pack.
Kuzya had never smoked before. Without thinking, she took the cigarette and hit the match on the box. Its tiny head crackled for a second, as if thinking, then exploded with sparks. Kuzya put the spongy cigarette filter between her lips, squeezed it, put the dancing flame to the chaotic brown fibers sticking out from the inside of a thin paper tube, and inhaled as hard as she could. Red dots flashed and slid over the cigarette end like rivulets of lava. Thin smoke rose up the same way it did from the reactor.“Aaaah-potheque!” whispered Kuzya. She heard in school that this was how you smoked. She always declined the invitation to try. “Aaah—(inhale!)—potheqaa (exhale)!” She coughed. Firm, hairy air hit her throat. She almost threw up and her head went dizzy. She took another drag. And then, something happened. In the trembling leaves she felt—God. God was whispering to Kuzya through the leaves, and his Angels. The tree was full of God, and he was beautiful and—splendid, superb!—like Gogol’s Dnieper—and terrifying at the same time. Kuzya dropped the still-burning cigarette in the dust, and sat up straight, her knees weak. “God,” she whispered to the tree. “Save us!”
And the leaves quivered gently, telling her everything was going to be fine.
So when Father came back at four, after they had finished all the cookies, and Kuzya had sharpened her pencils twice and played hide-and-seek with Lubasha, she was calm and helped carry the bags, smiling. Mother didn’t say much when Kuzya came back, just gave her some warm water. Kuzya didn’t despise her family or anyone anymore. Everyone had a halo of amber, warm light, God’s light.
Father didn’t pay much attention to Kuzya this time, though. With a dead-pale face, teeth piercing his lower lip, he turned the ignition key.
“God help us!” said Kuzya.
Mother suddenly echoed, “Mother of God, Mercy!”
Now the whole street, the whole world turned into buses, buses, buses that rolled by them in a solid yellow river. The engine rambled once, twice, and—“Thank God!” sighed both Mother and Kuzya, and off they went, beeping and driving slowly behind other cars, tanks, and buses.
“Do you think they will check us for radiation?” Mother asked.
“What’s radiation?” whispered Lubasha.
Father just kept driving as if someone were after him, a tank.
“It is all going to be fine,” said Kuzya.
“Quiet,” said Father, dryly, in a voice he only used for work.
“Home,” said Mother. “Please—home.”
Lubasha squeezed Zhuk to her chest. She seemed older, with dark circles under her eyes, and a question in her eyes. Kuzya hugged Lubasha close.
Yesterday, thought Kuzya, she wouldn’t have wanted to go home. It was still snowing in Moscow, and she would have to go to school for another three days before May Day. Yesterday, she would have touched her pimple, sighed, and decided to fake a cold if she had to.
But Kuzya had changed. She knew something that others, even Father, didn’t know. God had them under the poplar lace angel wing, and they—and everyone else in this world—were going to be saved. True to her Silentum oath, Kuzya didn’t say it. But she knew it—with her whole heart, her whole being.
They drove the concrete road towards Kiev, Kuzya staring at the endless pine trees on the side of the road. A few military men—one wearing a scary mask on his head instead of his face, like a devil in Hell in Bosch’s painting—smoked, at the place where Pripyat’ stopped being a town. They waved a metal stick over the car, and signed—“Go!” Kuzya recognized the sweaty-faced military man who had been throwing up in the hotel before. His face was radish-red this time.
Father kept driving, towards Chernobyl, slowly, because of all the other cars and buses driving with them.
“Look at that,” he said in his angry, loud voice. “Look at this! Buses! Buses called Icaruses! First Prometheus, now Icarus! Are they laughing at us? Is it a joke? What do they do to us next? Gulag Oedipus?!”
“Sasha, dear, remember yourself,” whispered Mother. “You are talking to the kids. . .”
But the kids didn’t pay attention. Lubasha whispered something into Zhuk’s ear, and Kuzya watched something odd and extremely disturbing—like a slight motion behind a see-through curtain, alarming and vague, like an empty cage of a predator in the zoo, door wide open. Bit by bit, Kuzya realized what was wrong.
Something very, very strange was happening to the forest. She remembered this forest so distinctly—from painting it, from mixing all the cold greens—emerald-mermaid-hair green and icicle-blue green and salad green—only it was not green at all anymore.
The pine trees—all of the pine trees—trunks, branches, needles—had turned orange. Golden, ginger red, fox red, squirrel red, rusty red. Burning red. As if autumn had suddenly come, a dry, creepy autumn from an evil cartoon. And then she saw a raspberry-violet fir tree.
“Mama!” she whispered. “Trees—”
They saw it, too.
No one said anything. Silent, they kept driving—crawling past the dead trees—but when the hellish forest was over and everything around them became summer again, Father stopped the car on the side of the concrete road.
Still silent, he opened the trunk and started to throw out suitcases with clothes, fish soup in a glass jar, fishing rods, Mother’s purple blanket, and then, Kuzya’s painting set—watercolor box, brushes, wrapped in a soft rag, and the watercolor pad.
Then he tried to tear Zhuk out of Lubasha’s hands but Lubasha wouldn’t give it. She didn’t scream, just held it tight and fought, face twisted.
Sweat streamed down Father’s face, his glasses steamed.
“Papa! Are you mad? Mama—do something! What are—”
Kuzya expected Mother to join her—for once—yet, Mother was just crying and shaking her head.
“Shut up, Kuzya,” said Father. “Let it go, Lubasha. Just give me—”
Suddenly, Lubasha let go, so Father almost fell back, and her face crashed into her knees, her little fists squeezed hard, knuckles white, silently and furiously hitting the seat.
“But why?!” screamed Kuzya.
Mother took Kuzya’s hand in hers. Kuzya wanted to draw back at first but she didn’t.
“Katenka, Kuzya, bunny, listen,” she said. “We can’t be talking to others about what we have seen. Not before we listen to the radio or watch TV or read a newspaper. We just don’t know. Chernobyl is a—it is a secret object important for the security of our Motherland. Military object. Remember those steel walls? Secret! Our country has enemies. Sometimes, one has to be silent. Not to say what you see. Or you can get in trouble. We all can.”
“Leave it, Olya,” said Father in his tired work voice. “Kuzya is fourteen. Cover up Lubasha’s ears. Listen, daughter, a nuclear reactor exploded. As in Hiroshima. The water, soil, air—all is filled with radiation. Everything is contaminated. Your dress, your hair, your brushes. This car. It’s dangerous. Most people don’t know much about it, but I do because I am a physicist. We need to get out of here as soon as possible.”
“Then, we take a shower. And go on living. And hope.”
“And not talk about it,” said Mother.
And, without stopping, they drove back.
Kuzya thought of God, who lived in the trees. Those dead, terrible orange-red trees . . . Did God die when the trees died? She didn’t feel that shining. It stopped. Quietly, Kuzya cried, swallowing her tears that tasted sour, until she gasped, coughed, choked on the sour, salty water that was in her mouth and threw up—all over the back of the car.
Back in Moscow, Mother took all their clothes, even underwear, and put them in a suitcase. Father took the suitcase, a small spade from the closet and was away for a while—long enough to miss the biggest fight so far. Mother slapped Kuzya.
When he returned, soil on his hands, Kuzya and Lubasha sat in the corner, hugging each other, Mother in front of them, big scissors in her hand, crying, too, “Your hair will grow back!”
“Let me,” said Father.
He crouched in front of the girls. Kuzya smelled his scent—gas, soil, sweat, home.
“Girls—listen up. Remember I told you about radiation? It’s invisible. You don’t hear it. Don’t see it. You can’t touch it. It doesn’t have a smell. It’s hard to believe it was there. But it was. We carried it back inside of us without knowing it. It gets into your bones and into your skin. That’s why you were sick there. It can kill you unless you wash it off, burn it, cut it.”
“And then it’s gone?” asked Lubasha.
“Yes,” said Mother.
“No,” said Father, rising. “No, girls. I am sick of lying. Listen, it’s never gone.”
He took off his glasses and the girls saw tears—two bright lines on his gray cheeks. Kuzya didn’t make faces. Father, finally, was telling the truth.
“You will carry it in you, always. Your children might carry it. We are all sick, poisoned. I am so sorry, children. I am a bad father—”
After Mother cut off their and her own hair and packed sandy, red, and brown—with lots of gray silver—hair in a bag, all mixed, Father took it outside again and they had to take hour-long showers in hot and then cold water three times, with soap and shampoo. Nobody talked.
They didn’t make her go to school the next day. Nor the next day. Not until May 1st—which was a holiday, of course, and a parade.
They didn’t go to the parade, either. They watched the marching crowd flowing down the wide street, with red banners: “PEACE, LABOR, MAY” and “GLORY TO PARTY!”
Kuzya looked outside from the window at the crowd. She couldn’t see faces from above, just a rolling black river of people with bright red stains—like an ant road with blood.
On the table, she set her new watercolor box, a jar of water, new brushes. Then she painted a multi-headed dragon breathing dark-red fire. She sucked on the brush for a while, and then added an orange-red, almost golden, forest. Then, in the skies she put a soaring, singing bird with a girl’s face and burning hair, wings spread. Like Icarus.
God’s light didn’t live in the trees, she now knew, but she was an Artist, after all, and it might as well live in her.
ZARINA ZABRISKY is the author of three short story collections, including EXPLOSION (Epic Rites Press, 2015) and a novel We, Monsters (Numina Press).Her work appeared in six countries and was featured and reviewed in over thirty magazines, including The Rumpus, Guernica, PANK Magazine, Anthropology Now and more. She has received literary awards and nominations, including Acker Award for Achievement in The Avant Garde. Zabrisky is involved in protest art as a co-founder of The Arts Resistance, a collective resisting the war and injustice through the means of the arts. Find more at www.zarinazabrisky.com and