IN A FEW MINUTES, the air-raid siren will begin to wail. “The kid is dragging his neighbor’s bodies,” Zarina says. “Adults, children, all morning. He’s dragging them from the rubble of a bombed-out building. I ask him questions but all he wants to talk about is nails and a hammer to repair the window. That’s all he speaks of. Hammer. Nails.”
We are sitting in a restaurant on Kanatnaya Street in Odesa, Ukraine. Zarina looks straight at me.
“He was dragging grandmothers and moms and toddlers from under the rubble.”
Instead of running to the shelter, Zarina will ask if I would like more cognac. Surreal to be clinking glasses and continuing our dinner during the air raid. But that’s what we do.
“The city itself helps to get over it,” she says. “You walk into the street and feel better.”
Zarina is a war journalist. She runs her fingers around the rim of the cognac glass and whispers, “I told my family I was going to visit friends in Europe. I keep sending home photos of kittens.”
Her phone vibrates: a journalist from the U.S. wants to borrow her bulletproof vest. She is going into an active combat zone, she says. Then she proceeds to order appetizers.
The next day, I find myself at a poetry reading in Odesa.
Not exactly a thing you expect in a city with a curfew and sandbag barricades.
The poetry recitations take place between air-raid sirens. Wine is served. Cherries.
Elena Andreychykova is here as well.
A few days ago Elena arranged a car for my visit to the city. Ukraine is a no-fly zone, so one must fly into the neighboring Republic of Moldova and cross the border by motor vehicle or on foot.
She herself left Ukraine to make sure her mother and child were safe, and then returned.
“Despite everything,” she wrote in an email, “Odesa is so luminous.”
At the event she turns to me. “Odesa isn’t occupied like Kherson. So let’s come together and read poems. We have only one life.”
And so we read along with the others, our words punctuated by air-raid sirens.
At home, I get an email from Ludmila Khersonsky, who fled Ukraine with her husband, the poet Boris Khersonsky, a few months earlier. She describes fleeing the country, the first days of bombardments. How she barricaded her windows with her own poetry books—so that an attack wouldn’t shower the room with broken glass. Reading, I recall a line from her poems, written many years ago, but as relevant as ever: “Buried in a human neck, a bullet looks like an eye, sewn in / an eye looking back at one’s fate.”
So, here are three voices from a city under naval blockade, a city whose streets are shelled as I type this. The stray cats are everywhere. They sleep on top of anti-tank fortifications, shivering, as military cars and taxis whoosh by. It is a city where people continue going to the opera, to poetry readings, despite the air raids; where a zoo recently reopened and a huge crowd of people lined up for blocks to say hello to the animals. A cow gave birth on reopening day, in front of the crowd. They named the baby Javelin, after the anti-tank device.
These are three voices whose prose has silences in it, the unsaid moments, moments of terror at what is done to Ukraine while the world watches on.
July 10, 2022
Cat Beneath a Birdless Sky
An Essay from Ukraine by Ludmila Khersonsky
NOW IT IS THERE. Harsh sound behind the window. Thth-th-th-sss-ss-bang! The cat jumps and hides under the bed, then under the sofa. My black cat is hiding in the shadows. My body is trembling.
I shy away from the thought that this will continue. I want to stay strong. And I want to sleep too. But how do I sleep after THAT? What if we are never to sleep anymore? I try to imagine our sleepless nights, heads up.
The explosion. Russia has finally decided we are too unimportant to let live or sleep. Or have happy, unscared pets.
Later I will learn cats hear the missile three or four minutes ahead of its actual appearance. If you want to know there is a missile approaching: look at your pet. The cats begin to run back and forth in dismay, bumping against the walls. I talked to a woman from Lebanon who said her cat behaved the same way before the rocket shelling—running about the room, restlessly beating up and down the walls and windows. That was back in 2008, she said. That is what I see in 2022.
First, I listen to my body, to my chattering teeth. This chatter, animal fear, so shameful. Should I hide under the sofa, too, and lie there flat as a pancake? A cat hides under the sofa, but where can a human creature hide when home is no longer safe? How soon do I disappear?
I go to the dining room.
I try to make coffee. My first war coffee, at four o’clock in the morning, right after the explosion.
These rockets, the heavy pieces of deadly metal, how much do they weigh? Later I will know they can weigh up to four thousand kilos.
Nothing I am aware of weighs that much.
Even the cupboard, that antique piece of furniture we had restored and repaired and brought back in with the help of three strong men, does not weigh that much. Besides, no sane person would shell cupboards…
I go outside. The sky brightens, the white-and-blue sky of the first war morning—so far and so close. Every tree in the garden witnesses us. I need reliable witnesses to tell the story of the early morning rocket explosions.
The war erodes your breathing. It becomes hard and cloddy, like damaged soil. I will find it hard to breathe later on. My breathing will become bumpy, I will pant and wait to breathe out. That’s how breathing resists pain and despair. Look at other people to see how they breathe and you can tell right away how troubled or untroubled they are. Some people develop unnoticeable breathing as if they are not there anymore. Wars are unfit for breath.
The war morning: everything has become grayish. Even the bright crocuses are not as bright anymore. The flowers look ashy.
I’ve always loved making a fire in the fireplace, the smell of burning wood and the dying ember in the end, the ashes. Will I love it as much as I did before?
I can’t say what I will appreciate most as life is broken in two parts—before the war and during the war. During the war I need your citizens walking along the streets. I need to talk to taxi drivers, to bank clerks and shop assistants. While talking to people, I regain the feeling of being alive, the pleasures of staying normal. Life strives to be sane and people get up and go to work. Someone bakes bread.
Get up, take a shower, do your work.
We don’t have a basement where we could hide in bombardment. Neither do we have a place that could protect us from the missiles. Of course, a missile may hit our home directly. The chances of survival are very low then—but what if it explodes nearby? Then a window glass shatters, pieces fly everywhere around us, at us.
So my first activity this morning is to build a barricade of our books on the windowsill. These are books written by me and by my husband—extra copies at home, they now serve to protect us if our street is shelled. This is the room where we hide from missiles.
How do I prepare my house for war? What else do I need? Blankets, sheets, shawls? Will my favorite cashmere shawl do? I need an elegant covering from this nightmare.
Quick glimpses around the rooms of my home: so many beautiful things around me seem useless now. Dolls, beads, pictures, figurines, books on the shelves. I need shelter. I wrap my cashmere shawl around my shoulders.
My mom lived through World War II. She understands.
“Don’t leave your home,” she says. “Do they shell around your house?”
“I don’t know,” I say.
“Okay, then,” she says, “don’t leave.”
After the war started, we had an “evacuee” in our place, a tall silent woman with two children. The children were skinny. They were very poor. People shared some plain food with them. Nobody knew her name. We called her “Evacuee.” People who have no home lose their names.
I still have a name. My name is Ludmila. I have my home, though there are missiles flying above it. I used to wake up and talk to birds in the sky. The birds are gone now. It’s too loud for them to stay on our rooftop. I fill a windowsill with books to protect my husband and our cat from the glass shower during the air raid. I booked it. I used words for protection and safety. I think it will help.
I need to find a flashlight. And a go-bag. It should be very small, but it should have all my life in it—everything I love and value and everything I might need—family photos, books, documents, food and water, medication, cell phone, chargers, money, and my necklace, and warm clothes, and our collections of art, and my pillow, and my cashmere shawl, and my lipstick, and my husband’s glasses, and my fear, and my grief, and my anger, and my hope.
I Will Buy Sperm Whale Teeth
An Essay from Ukraine by Zarina Zabrisky
I‘M WRITING THIS at six in the morning on July 16. I woke up just past 5 a.m. when Odesa got hit by yet another missile. Black smoke rose over the city. We don’t know the details yet. Last night, the sirens howled a lot. Their wailing always makes me think of a bloodthirsty, senile dragon rising from a dark, damp cave in the depth of an ocean, blazing through the sky and scorching the earth with its putrid breath. It wants to devour us. It snatches children. It loses its rusty teeth.
I decide to go to Duke’s baths to forget it all, to wash it all off. Public baths, something exotic and ethnic in the U.S., are a staple in the post-Soviet space—and in Europe and Asia. It is an ancient ritual in Japan, Turkey, Germany, Hungary, Morocco—and, certainly, in Odesa. Wherever I am, when I’m in distress, I go to a bathhouse. I’ve drowned my grief in Korean baths, Moroccan baths, and, yes, Russian baths. Salt scrubs, honey wraps, eucalyptus-mint steam, lavender and pink grapefruit saunas, panoramic steam room, even a beer sauna in Poland. Slavs believed in the magic of baths: you die and then get dunked into “dead water” and “alive water” and come back to life, all shiny and new, purified. I need this bath resurrection to cleanse myself of the black soil of bombed cemeteries, to stop hearing the wailing of the dragon.
I’ve been to Duke’s bath before. An ageless, mermaid-like woman, a high priestess of the baths in a turquoise string bikini, places a Canada oak mop on your face and hits you with a mop of birch branches until you feel the poison coming out of your pores. I want to go back there, to jump into the icy pool of water to the Ukrainian tunes mixing with the women’s voices and splashing, ringing under the vaulted ceiling. I want to chat with strangers. The last time I went there, an ER doctor complained that she became an Odesa celebrity after an amateur paparazzo snapped a photo of her sunbathing topless in a city park and shared it on social media. We laughed and drank kvass, a honey-infused, slightly fizzy drink. A little boy was diving in the cold pool because he missed swimming in the Black Sea. The sea is mined and beaches are closed.
I walk to the baths, taking a long detour, passing by several wedding dress salons in a row: white lace, pearls, and diamonds, giant cakes, the blue-and-yellow Ukrainian flags playing in the wind outside. So many things in Odesa are like cakes from the famous Privoz Market—the Opera theater, the sea foam at the beach called Langeron, the very air that smells so sweet in summer, you want to eat it. Odesa makes you hungry. Maybe, that’s why the dragon is raging. Maybe, it just longs for Odesa the way everyone does, the lovely Amazon bride belonging to no one.
Odesa is not afraid of the dragon. It eats, drinks, dances, sings, and goes mad in between the raids. By my house, a rock band is playing a song about Ukraine, and people in fatigues set up a pizza stand, rolling soft, white dough, making fire, melting golden cheese, and dancing to the music. At Deribaskovskaya, little girls in Ukrainian embroidered shirts ride feisty ponies with pink ribbons in their manes to the sound of air-raid sirens. Lazy cats and grumpy dogs rule the street, sleeping on the hot cobblestones and by boarded stores. By my favorite, salad-green art nouveau building, a band is playing Jewish Odesa songs and the whole street is dancing; kids run after giant soap bubbles blown by a pretty girl in a wheelchair, and a tanned boy makes sweet cotton candy—as the sick, bloodthirsty dragon keeps howling and howling and the sirens do not stop.
I pass by the only patriotic casino I have ever seen in the world: “Glory to Ukraine!” reads the electronic sign, changing right away to “Russian military ship go f*** yourself” and by an open sex shop called Strawberry. (The sign on the door has a joke about palianytsia, a Ukrainian word for strawberry no Russian can ever pronounce right.)
“Nobody canceled sex,” says a drunk man at the bus stop.
I walk by a closed strip club, “Jamaica, 26 February” painted on the dark window. The war started on February 24. Black cats are staring at me from the curb. They look like Jewish bandits from Isaac Babel’s stories.
Babel once wrote, “There is no reason why a well thought-out story should resemble real life; life strives with all its might to resemble a well thought-out story.” It certainly does in Odesa. Rough-looking men with massive golden chains around their necks at the corner of Derybasivska (“Jewish”) Street talk just like his charismatic gangsters: short, juicy phrases, prison slang, and tongue-in-cheek jokes. A man from the mayor’s office carries a gun on his hip, his blue eyes sparkling as he tells me he used to sell herring at Privoz Market. He too could have stepped out of a Babel story. In a way, these stories are too recognizable, too much of a cliché by now; the intellectual Odesa is looking for a different vibe, for another layer of the city, past its cartoonlike gangster chic and stand-up comedian talk.
A restaurant called Babel is open, and white tents for internally displaced persons across the street feel like a street fair.
As I walk, I read the homemade notices on the walls and lampposts at the corners. It is a special art. “I will buy the teeth of a sperm whale,” says one, and I keep reading, “Porcelain teacups made in GDR. Crystal chandeliers. Beads. Samovars. Medals.” GDR is the German Democratic Republic. East Berlin. Soviets. Before 1990. A giant poster with Dracula Vlad musical, with “Will buy hair” and “Clairvoyant Anna” slapped over. Another notice, “Hiring an office worker. Balzac age. 4–6 hours.”
I bump into a tiny store, with the door plastered with notices handwritten in black felt pen: “Attention: Luxurious blue-eyed herring babies: girls and boys,” “Cottage cheese from an Ethiopian long-eared goat,” “Entrance with dogs and crocodiles is allowed,” and “Strictly no entrance without a mask, a rabbit, bear, fox!” Inside, a Balzac-age lady with a hair pyramid is eating a juicy tomato sliced on a newspaper page—I wonder if it is Pravda (“truth”), the Soviet newspaper. Everything is like a grocery shop in the Soviet Union: “eggplant caviar,” sugar, salt, pasta, and preserved pork in lard. It even carries the poor, dull scent of the past. From the ceiling, yellowish sticky stripes hang, with dead flies stuck to them. I get the same feeling that in Moldova, we, the unfortunate inhabitants of the post-Mordor, can never escape that bloody sickle, that Russian hammer. The flesheating dragon resurrects from ashes to devour us, luxurious herring babies, boys and girls, wide-eyed, pickled in the juice of history. “What do you do?” says the lady. “You gotta laugh, woman. It’s Odesa.”
I think of what a writer friend told me: “Odesa’s got to cry sometimes.” Where is the sadness? How do you cry in the open? I keep walking but, instead of the bath, I see the black smoke covering the sky. I am on Babel Street now, and two laughing kids are looking for pieces of a Russian missile on the pavement, next to a chalk drawing of jumping squares. I wonder if they will make “secrets”—dragon teeth under the glass—take my phone out and get ready to take snapshots of the elusive, absurd, sad, funny truth of Odesa.
— Zarina Zabrisky
Return to Sea
An Essay from Ukraine by Elena Andreychykova
HUMANS ARE STRANGE CREATURES. There is an opportunity to leave your country, in which the cruel war is going on now. There is an opportunity to leave and to live in safety, to continue your work there, to volunteer from a distance, to hope from afar that this will end soon.
Actually, I did leave in the early days with my son and mother, when there was an attempt to attack the Odesa airport. We went by car to Istanbul, stayed there for two months. When we left, there was no time to think about how to live on. I was scared for my son and mother; all I concentrated on was how quickly to leave Ukraine, because the lines at the borders were miles long.
I returned for a week to Odesa to see my husband and realized how far away, how foreign, I felt from home. I’m just passing through Istanbul. I just exist. I don’t love the taste of food there, although Turkish food was always delicious for me before. I don’t smell the greenery waking up after the winter. I force myself to look around and get distracted, but my eyes return again and again to the phone and the news. How can I force myself to enjoy this exotic city when all I really want is to be home? There is even the same Black Sea, but it doesn’t suit me. I need my Black Sea: my beaches, with my sand, which I walked on when I was a child. My seagulls cry differently, my algae has a higher concentration of iodine, my shells are a different shape. Why didn’t I ever appreciate it the way I do now?
At the end of April, I inform all my relatives that I am returning. My son, who is eleven, also demands to return to his grandmother’s house, which has a basement. “You know, I’m a brave guy,” he says. My mother also insists on her return. She has her own arguments: her son (my brother) is at home; she is no longer afraid. But she really just wants to go to our sea.
In May we make our way back. We pass through Turkey, Bulgaria, Romania. It would seem that this is also the Black Sea. We see it during our stops; it is also pleasant and almost replaces the long-awaited picture of our coast.
These shores remind me of ours. Make the heart beat a little faster. They make you believe you’re close, you’ll be home soon. Soon you will be able to approach the water that is similar in salt composition to your blood. Your deoxyribonucleic power.
We arrive on the sixth of May in Odesa. The first thing I do is go to the sea.
It’s amazing. Despite the sirens, the explosions that we hear, I feel very happy here. It’s a stupid, contradictory, tearful state.
There is no point in lying, especially to yourself. I’m just as scared as everyone else. I’m just as sad as everyone else. I also hate, rage, suffer, and fall into despair.
Happy not because of, but in spite of.
Even more than in childhood. Although my childhood was absolutely happy.
And definitely more than in my youth. Although there are also many dopamine episodes.
And any other day before the start of the war. Because I didn’t know how to appreciate it.
My friend told me: “There is nothing to be proud of. Your happiness is out of time.”
I was about to feel guilty, but changed my mind.
Perhaps he is right. Probably. Most likely. Everywhere is grief. So much grief. Inside. Outside. And deep. And through.
But I’m happy. Desperately happy. Just from the fact that I can feel anything. And I can admit it. Because I won’t get another chance. For example, go to the sea. And I’m going today. Because who knows what will happen tomorrow?
Odessites, of course, are invincible optimists. Every morning when I go to the sea, I meet many friends and acquaintances. Almost all beaches are closed, but they find loopholes. You can’t swim; the probability of meeting a mine is higher than a jellyfish. But when Odesa citizens really want to, they can. Some kind of resilient people, who even now are laughing.
“Darling, if you want to swim, come before nine in the morning,” a tanned old man teaches me. “The police are not there so early. I checked.”
The next morning I follow his advice.
I have never seen such clear water in the Black Sea. Clean, sparkling in the sun. Flocks of fearless fish. They say that even dolphins and little sharks have begun to swim very close to the shore. They are probably surprised that the bathers have disappeared. The sea is calm, bright, serene. Looks wisely at humanity and slightly shakes the waves.
“Everything will pass,” it says. “Everything will pass, but I will stay.”
And we hear it.
Every morning I come here to be given this wisdom and power. On the way back home, I pick the neighbor’s sour cherries. I purse my lips slightly, but then I smile. I feel it right now. I feel life. And right now there is nothing more important. I would never want to be taught this kind of hedonism by war. But it has already happened; nothing can be changed.
I hope the war will end soon, and my ability to dissolve into shades of tastes, smells, and sounds will remain with me. And will I still have the opportunity to swim far? And to fish? I’ve loved fishing since my childhood. I imagine how I catch a bucket of gobies and fry them at home. I enjoy this taste with all the power of a new ability to appreciate life. With all my deoxyribonucleic power.
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