Cherkasy, Ukraine (Spring 2016)
Klym was lying wounded, shell-shocked on the hot black soil. The reflection of a distant, cold sky and the silent copper sun mirrored in his wide open eyes. Only he had survived the battle. The watch on his wrist was glinting in the sun. Somehow it remained undamaged. It was caked with blood. The stubborn hands of Klym’s watch were counting the moments, slowly giving them away without regret to the eternity. Klym lost the perception of time and space. His whole body was burning as if lying on the red-hot sun. It was ruthlessly grilling each and every cell of his body. He was breathing heavily, every gulp of air was unbearably painful, as though someone was speaking weak lungs with a sharp sword. Klym could not feel his legs anymore — they had become numb and heavy, but his big, kind heart was still frantically beating in his chest, wanting to leap out. Like a wounded bird, he was helplessly sprawled on the ground, spreading his arms like wings. He was only twenty. Do people die at such a young age? This thought like a corkscrew was piercing his strained brain.
War and spring— these two notions are so incongruous and wild. Such an inharmonious picture— shell holes and blooming gardens. You must cling to life with all your might here, now like that lofty, lonely acacia. The tree has been standing firmly on the edge of an abyss for many years. The soil is eroded by melting snow and early spring rainfalls. The roots are like raw nerves and tendons. They shine in the sun. But the tree is still blooming every spring. Desperately. Unbowed. Until the end. Any moment the acacia can fall into the abyss, but it is still fiercely clinging to the air with its naked roots. Only trees and some brave, persistent people can do it.
Will Klym be strong enough to make it to the next day? He came to the Eastern Ukraine as a volunteer to protect his homeland four months ago. There were thousands like him, patriots of their country. It was the most horrible winter in his life – hungry, fiery, treacherous. There was a battle in the morning, and now he was like a child helplessly lying on the ground, closing his eyes from the piercing sun’s rays with his black burnt palm. He was still automatically clenching the gun with the other numb hand as if someone would steal it any minute. Were his fellow combatants alive? He did not know that only he had survived.
His morbid imagination was painting different images. Like in a magnifying glass he saw a giant ant drinking evening dew. The stag beetles were underpinning the clouds with their twiggy antennae if they stopped the sky might fall at any moment. His soul was feeling so sharply, so reverently the smallest grass blade and the farthest stars which were hiding from people in their remote galaxies. He was thirsty, but his flask was no longer with him. His windburned lips were mumbling silently: “water, water”… I wish it would rain – this thought flashed through his mind, and he clenched his gun even more firmly. His hands got used to this move. During these months, the gun became for him a friend, a foe, and a judge. Klym abhorred killing, but did he have a choice? He was thinking every night about those whose lives he had taken. And every night he was judging himself. Only being twenty, his heart was not yet withered. His selflessness was outweighing the feeling of vengeance. These reflections were swarming in his head from night to morning.
Klym made a great effort to turn to another side. He saw a wild lilac nearby. A bumblebee got lost in its gorgeous blossom. It was buzzing like a jet plane. He wanted to close his ears, but his hands were not obeying him. The twigs of lilac were like violet hands of mighty giants. They bent to the ground to make a hiding place for a tiny bug from the terrors of war. Why was it then so obstinately trying to escape to the indifferent, cruel world from the fragrant purple labyrinths? He wished he could also go amiss in this violet shelter. Klym could not understand why would the bumblebee want to break loose from such beauty and peace? Why did he not he feel everything earlier so sharply? Why only now? Or maybe because the sands of time were running out? A blue butterfly with a burnt wing was creeping on the grass, will it fly again to the light? People with burnt torn souls also don’t pursue the light; they hide in their velvet lilacs-hideouts.
He was lying now on his back, staring at the blue sky. “Zok-zok-zok” — his old watch kept on striking the seconds. It felt like the whole world could hear this sound. All of a sudden a thought pierced his mind: why does he now see the sun the face of his watch? Was it only the reflection or had he become delirious? The big and the small hand of the watch were picking up speed as if competing. Which one will win? Or maybe it was a game between his consciousness and his imagination? Everything was blurred. A moment and the whole eternity equated for him. The time was passing through him. Klym spreadeagled on the ground like a giant, who lay down to have some rest, very soon he would stand up and continue his road again.
What is this? Are the hands of his mother caressing his hair now? Why are they so gentle and light then? Klym remembered she had rough, cracked hands. She lost her health working hard on the land. Paid a mere pittance, she spent all her life surrounded by never-ending potato vines, impudent Colorado beetles, and weeds. But the heavy work did not touch her gentle, simple soul. He heard the words of his mother – quiet, tender. And he smiled having heard such a dear voice. But in reality, his face froze in a dreadful from pain grimace. He did not know about it. Nor did he know that it was not the hands of his mother that were caressing his forehead. It was a light wind. It had come to stay with Klym for a while; it wanted to console him. They were bosom friends. How many times the wind was disheveling his unruly hair when a boy was walking on the streets of his small town. How strange, was it everything in another life? “Mother, mommy!” His dry lips were inaudibly muttering. More than anything else he did want to cuddle her and say simple words he never told her before. He was her child. And here, being a soldier, he was a child of war.
A Colorado beetle in his striped prison clothing sat on the barrel of his gun. Where did it come from? Was it his imagination again? This beetle was the prisoner of nature. How many more days left before it will be poisoned by the farmers in June or July? Or maybe it will hide deep in the soil and find its salvation till the next spring? And how much more Colorado beetles that sent thousands like Klym to war, are hiding now in the capital? Such a filthy insect! “Don’t worry, your days will soon be over,” Klym thought with irony. He did not know back then that he would live even less than this obnoxious insect. He was trying to catch this beetle-prisoner, but his numb hands were only passing through it.
The face of the copper sun-watch was coming down lower and lower. Its color changed from golden into charcoal-black. Suddenly half of the sky flared up. A red glow was pushing out the gargantuan clouds of plasma. They were fiercely racing to the earth, transforming themselves into birds with firm beaks and wide strong wings. With the last strength, Klym pointed his gun to these bloodthirsty creatures. He shot. He shot again. The birds began to fall. One of them fell on Klym. His lungs were filling up with zinc. Then everything disappeared. But only for a while. The stars from the remote galaxies started hailing down over his mournful face. Everything was so real. Klym realized that he, like those cold stars, had been lying here for millions or perhaps even billions of years. In reality, only three hours have passed. The light of stars were flowing, pouring on the earth. The stars had died a long time ago –transformed into white dwarfs, neutron stars, or maybe black holes. But the light from them was still piercing through the whole galaxy. His unconscious mind was depicting something that never existed. His brain imprinted all those beautiful things he had seen before, and it was repeating them again and again. He was lying in the middle of the field in Eastern Ukraine, on the planet which got lost at the brink of the Milky Way. The birds’ singing got under his skin; he was feeling giddy. But indeed there were no birds’ chirping, it was a desperate howl of his soul. How many like Klym were also saying goodbye to life on such fields?
The same blue butterfly with burnt wings sat on Klym’s watch. It was restlessly flickering its wings as though it wanted to turn back an implacable flow of time so that this moment would never become a part of eternity. And only this tiny butterfly was the witness of the tragedy that had happened here earlier this day. It knew that there was no lilac blossoms, nor lofty acacias, nor stars. There was only black land, burnt, sprinkled with blood and tears. And Klym looked just like this land. Abruptly the butterfly spread its wings and disappeared into the night sky. This moment became the eternity for Klym. But now he was in another lilac hideout. The bullets and shells would not kill him there. And here on earth, the Colorado beetle continued its way, creeping farther and seeking out potato vines. As if nothing happened today. It disappeared unnoticed on the charcoal-black field somewhere in Eastern Ukraine.
Lidiia Riabova is a graduate of the Faculty of Linguistics in Cherkasy, Ukraine. During university years, Lidiia participated in various competitions and obtained numerous prizes and gratitude letters for her academic performances. Earning her Master’s degree with distinction, Lidiia is fluent in 5 languages – Ukrainian, English, German, French and Russian. As of now she works as translator, interpreter, writer, German teacher.