When the sirens wail like my brother at feeding time I grab my emergency bag and my phone and fly down the hollow concrete stairs to the basement of this shelter and burrow myself in the corner hole where no one ever goes and no one will ever find me. My mother hates it when I vanish during the air raids but like our cat I always find my way back to her and so she finds it in herself to forgive me one more time. Besides, I’m not going to tell her about our English lessons–I would sooner tell the Russians–and we haven’t had one for a month. Bombs or no bombs, I have to know where you’ve been.
I find you on my Instagram feed and tap the photo icon of you with your wife and then hit the call button. After a few rings your pale scruffy four-eyed face pops up on my smartphone screen. Hello, you say flatly, as if nothing’s ever happened.
I say, You busy? and you say, Busy busy. Always busy.
No English today? I ask, and I hear you sigh.
Please? I ask, and you sigh again. Ok, Svetlana, you say. We can have English now.
I launch into A apple a-a-a-, B bat, b-b-b-, c cat c-c-c- before you change your mind and hang up the phone. It was the first thing you taught us in school before your trip was cut short and you had to go back home.
Fine, Svetlana, you say, that’s fine. You’re not smiling like you used to; you’re not even trying. You’ve never been the same since you left.
We looking at your garden now? I ask, and without speaking you reverse screen and walk me outside your house to show me the garden that you’ve been taking care of since your wife got sick.
I see a tomato! I say, trying to jump start the conversation.
Good, I see a tomato, you repeat. And what is this? you ask.
This is a pepper, you say, hammering out each word. Use complete sentences! you say in your teacher voice. Then you drive the point home in Ukrainian: Povtory. So I repeat, This is a pepper.
What color is the pepper? you ask, and I say, Green. But you correct me again. The pepper is green, you say. Povtory!
The pepper is green, I repeat.
The tomato is red.
The tomato is red, I repeat.
The corn is yellow.
The corn is yellow, I repeat. The peppers are green and the tomatoes are red and the corn is yellow, but they all look soft and rotten–like you forgot all about them.
How your woman? I ask, but you don’t answer because I probably said that wrong. Instead I see your hand digging into the ground and pulling up a handful of wormy earth. What color is this? you ask.
Brown, I say.
Brown what? you ask.
I don’t know.
Brown dirt, you say. This is brown dirt. Povtory!
I repeat, This is brown dirt. Then I ask, not ‘brown Earth’?
Yes, you say. You can say, ‘brown earth’ too.
Field trip now? I ask, and your groan vents the regret of ever teaching me those words. No, you say. No field trip today.
But I beg you.
No, Svetlana. NOT TODAY.
Your anger heats up this hole for a moment and a bomb goes off in the distance. I’m very scared, I say, and I don’t know if it was perfect English or perfect timing because the next thing I know we’re getting in your car.
You put me in your selfie stick mounted on the dashboard and I pull my hood over my head like a helmet, pull the laces tight so it covers my ears and cinches right under my chin.
Cindy no coming? I ask, but you ignore the question. You always ignore my bad English until I get it right.
We drive down your street on clean quiet roads and you show me the houses passing by. No tanks, no soldiers–not even people.
What do you see? you ask.
I see a house, I say.
I see a pink house, you add. Povtory!
I see a pink house, I repeat.
I see a white car, you say.
I see a white car, I repeat.
I see a white car and a white house and a blue car and a blue house and a green house–all as neat and clean and perfect as the sentences you made us write in our notebooks at school what seems like a million years ago. We wrote those sentences again and again and again until we got them right. Now there’s no more sentences, and no more school. And no more you. Now there’s only Russians, and sirens, and bombs. Again and again and again.
What time is it there right now? you ask me.
I look at my phone. Midnight, I say.
You’re up late again, you say. But this time you don’t tell me to go to bed.
What time is it for you? I ask.
Here? you ask. It’s almost happy hour. You remember happy hour? you say, and I can hear your smile.
You taught us words like Happy Hour when you were over here. And noon. And midnight. And twilight. We learned everything there was to say about time, but then your wife had to go to the hospital because of Covid, and you had to go home.
We drive for a while but it’s not long before I grow impatient. I love it when you take me driving because it takes my mind off things, but tonight the bombs are getting on my nerves and I wish we’d get there already so I try to focus on the road but the roads are getting louder and bigger with more cars and more horns and more bombs and you’re driving faster and faster and faster with all these roads and cars and bombs flying by. Then everything stops and the silence is like a rush of wind that blows dust in my eyes.
There it is, you say, but I don’t know where there is. You’ve never taken me here before. We slow down and the roads get smaller and the cars get quieter until there is nothing left but trees. The car whines and slows and I hear rocks rumble underneath. We’re climbing up a hill now, climbing high, climbing slow, and the road is swallowed by a million green leaves. Soon the car skids to a halt and I hear you turn the engine off. There is silence except for the breeze blowing through the open car windows and the trees swaying in the windshield in front of me but I know you are still there because I hear you breathing. I want to ask about her but I don’t know how, so instead I say, Let’s go?
Let’s go, you repeat.
You take me out of the car and close the door and we walk up the path. We go deeper and deeper into the forest and the wood is thick and green and I feel it cover me so fresh and crisp and cool I pull my hood down to pretend I’m breathing it in. I hear the crunch of rock and leaves beneath your feet so I take off my shoes to feel the bite of jagged stone under mine. I want to speak because you do not, so I ask, Where is Cindy?
You stop, and then I realize I’ve asked the perfect question. But I can’t see you; the phone is dangling by your side and all I see is a fallen log, years old and dried out–dead, except for its cloak of soft moss, emerald green. I see your hand touch it and I remember how it felt on my feet as Tato and I would walk the forest floor by our cabin in Summer. Softer than any carpet in any palace I could ever imagine.
Soft, I say.
Very soft, you repeat. She loved the moss, you say. She liked touching it with her feet.
You talk some more and I can’t understand it but it sounds more real, more natural–less like a teacher, more like a friend. You must be talking about her, because it sounds like love.
We walk on, climb up the hill, until you see a tree. You show me a small sign nailed to the bark. See? you ask.
I read its yellow letters aloud, Shelter Rock.
But you correct me. Sunset Rock, you say. This was her favorite place.
And now your camera is waving around again and we’re climbing up the hill and I’m feeling tired and dizzy and the bombs are coming back and I wish you would just pick me up and carry me like Tato used to when I was too tired to walk to this shelter and live here with my mother and my brother before he had to leave.
You stop and I see your feet and the rock you’re standing on. Then you say, Here it is. But all I see is your shoes.
I see brown shoes, I say.
Wait, you say, and your camera moves over the bedrock.
I see a big rock, I say.
Just wait, you repeat, and your camera moves up to the trees.
I see green trees, I say.
And now? you ask.
A sliver of light leaks into the lense, like sunlight peeking through the crack of an open door.
I see light.
Then more and more light, like a sunshower of gold raining on the trees, shining right through your screen into mine and then right out at me, soaking me through to every last pore.
Beautiful sun, I say.
Sunset, you correct me.
We got a good one tonight, you say, your voice choking up. She would have loved it. Then your voice cracks open, and falls like a tree.
You’re breathing funny, like you’re trying to talk but cannot, so I say, It’s okay. My words come out easy and natural and they must be right because you repeat them. It’s okay, you say back.
The camera shakes as you struggle to hold it up.
It’s okay, I repeat.
It’s okay, you repeat. It’s okay.
It’s okay, I repeat, again, and again and again like Tato did when it was time to go. I was too big to carry but I jumped into his arms anyway, my legs squeezing the fat of his belly until he could no longer breathe. Then my toes touched the nose of his rifle, and gave it a shake as if they were making a pact: I’ll do whatever Mama wants, I promised. Just bring Tato back safe.
But I stopped listening to mother long ago. Every time I ask why Tato’s phone isn’t ringing all she’ll ever say is that everything is fine, even though he hasn’t called for a month. Even the Russians wouldn’t hide the truth for so long.
Pobachny zavtra? you ask me in Ukrainian. You say that every time you’re tired or bored and just want to go. Today I realize you don’t need any excuses, but neither do I, so I say, No. You stay with me.
I stay with you? you say.
I stay with you, I repeat. And you say, Okay.
You sit down on the rock and reverse camera to show me your face, wet with tears, glistening in the light. I was right; you have been crying. So have I, and now I can’t seem to stop.
Shhhhh, you say, like the way I quiet down my brother when the sirens get too loud and he can’t sleep. It will soon be over, I repeat. Again again and again until he falls asleep. All this will soon be over.
The camera shakes loose again and I grow dizzy watching. I’m exhausted, and I feel like I’m falling, but then you catch me and say, There. That’s better.
You’re laying down now, and we’re nose to nose, screen to screen–your head resting on a mossy patch of stone, mine on my hand. If only I had such a pillow to rest on, but no matter. I’m so tired this pile of rubble will do. I stretch out on the concrete floor and lay my head down with your face staring at me. It’s finally quiet. I think the Russians are done–at least for tonight.
Goodnight, I say.
Good night, you repeat.
Then you reverse the camera to face the trees once more, and I watch the light glow through their leaves one last time before I fall asleep.
— for Маргарита
Paul Cassidy is a New York State high school English as a second language teacher who has recently returned from teaching English to Ukrainian Refugees in Warsaw, Poland–a practice he now continues online for many of his students, which gave him the inspiration for this story. He has most recently published works in Smerconish.com, and Passagers Journal, which describe his experiences as a teacher during the Covid-19 pandemic. Presently he is collaborating with other writers to produce a literary Journal called Stories for Ukraine.