12. A taxi driver
“How long have you been waiting?” the taxi driver asks me.
“About five minutes,” I say.
“Ha! You’re lucky,” he says. “People usually wait for two hours for a taxi. I just happened to stand in line at the drugstore, but I guess I can pick you up and drive you wherever you want to pass the time.”
I look at the line at the drugstore. It’s reasonably long: hundreds of people.
When I dialed the number for a cab company this morning, I was almost sure no one would answer. But I was wrong. The same female voice as usual that sounded as if from a great distance, asked me the same questions and charged a price that was only five times as high as it used to be the day before the war started. The connection was awful, and I had to press the phone to my ear tight to make out what the woman was saying.
I get into the car. “Why do you think so many people siege the drugstores at the same time?” I ask the driver.
“I have no clue,” he says. “As for me, I need Enalapril. Some issues with high blood pressure, you know, so I have to be back in that line as soon as possible.”
“How soon do you need your medicine?” I ask.
The taxi driver is a fat, flabby man in his sixties, so I think his issues with blood pressure may be rather serious.
“I don’t know. I need it every day.”
If patients with chronic hypertension discontinue their medication, they’ll have a hypertensive crisis sooner or later. It is serious. Without Enalapril or emergency help, they may die.
He starts the engine and speeds up the street. We are going far beyond the speed limit. There are no traffic police any longer. The streets are empty, but in front of each supermarket we see a line of people of impossible length and width. Hundreds of people are standing in each line, maybe thousands. They seem not to mind the sound of artillery fire above their heads.
“Hey! Check out that!” the taxi driver says, pointing to the longest line of all, at the door of an ATB supermarket. “What are they thinking? They don’t have any food there at all!”
He tells me a story of how he managed to get into a food store, but all he could see was empty shelves and a few packets of overpriced coffee.
“No food and no vodka,” he grieves, and tells me another story about his wife, who poured all alcohol in their house down the kitchen sink, then grabbed a suitcase and boarded an evacuation train to Lviv. “She’s going to cross the border to Poland,” the taxi driver says. “We have a nephew there. She has some money. A thousand dollars.”
“It’s not much,” I say.
“It’s enough to get by for starters. Then she’ll find a job. Any job.”
“Why aren’t you going to Poland with her?” I ask him.
“They won’t let me go,” he says, “because I’ve got a credit in a bank. Thirty thousand.” You can’t leave the country with money in the bank.
As we near the edge of the city, the landscape changes.
“Hey! Look at that!” says the taxi driver and I follow with my eyes a burnt down tank.YES Then another one. They look definitely dead and even rusty, probably because the green camouflage paint on their sides is singed by fire and looks almost brown. They look like dead bugs. There’s something insectile about their iron wheels and long barrels, hanging from their brainless foreheads like long snouts.
We stop at a roadblock. A man with a machine gun motions to the driver to show his papers. The taxi driver does not have any, but he shows the military man his smartphone with the call from the taxi cab company. Two men in camouflage uniforms and with machine guns search the car quickly. They mean business.
We start forward, but in some twenty meters, there is another roadblock, then the third one. Then we see the perimeter highway. It’s been the line of battle for the last few days. Dead Russian tanks and armored vehicles lie all over the place. Our tanks and armored vehicles are brown green and new, freshly painted. Their barrels are aimed at the highway. They look resolute.
Horizont is an eastern suburb of Kharkiv. It’s a new neighborhood with big supermarkets and a lot of children’s playgrounds, kindergartens, and schools. Even the trees here are young: I remember them being as tall as my shoulder, but that was some twenty years ago.
The first thing I see when we are approaching Horizont is a white automobile that looks as if a giant’s foot has stepped on it. I have no idea what could have caused such kind of damage. It can’t be a bomb because the automobile is not burnt. Was it squashed by a tank or another military vehicle? I don’t know. Was there anyone in the driver’s seat?
To the right of me stretches Belgorod highway, which is blocked by barbed wire, tank traps, rows of automobile tires, and sacks of sand. I don’t believe some sack of sand will be much of a protection if a tank fires at them point-blank. I ASSUME HE MEANT SAND BAGS.
We turn left, and for the first time today, I can’t believe my eyes. No, I think, it should be some other place. Maybe Syria after years of bombing. Maybe a set from a science fiction movie.
The most surprising thing is the absence of asphalt. The whole neighborhood used to be dressed in asphalt, concrete, and glistening glass. Now the wide street looks like a plowed field. That must be dirt the explosions have lifted in the air: it rained down and carpeted everything. Then I see several high-rise residential buildings blackened by fire or with their top floors destroyed.
Suddenly I understand why Russians aim at these towers of brick and concrete, killing civilians. Russians have been stopped on the approaches to the city and, actually, now they have nothing to do except fire in any direction. In any direction at all. So they chose the most conspicuous target: the group of buildings standing tall and bright, defiant like rugged cliffs and, at the same time, humble like candles in a church.
During the Russian revolution of 1905, gendarmes fired at little kids who’d climbed up onto the fences, to better see what was going on. They shot them down like sparrows, just for fun. They probably thought it was fun to kill if they could get away with it. I think the motivation of Russian gendarmes hasn’t changed much in 117 years.
Then I see a bomb crater in the middle of the road. Water is gushing out of it. A bright red emergency truck stopped in front of it, tilted to one side. It’s been hit by a shell.
We circle the crater carefully and soon approach my house.
“Are your windows broken?” the taxi driver asks.
I look at the wall to the left of me, but from the taxi window I can’t see higher than the sixth floor.
The elevator doesn’t work, so I run all the way up the stairs. Breathless, I unlock the door. A disheveled neighbor peeks out of her room. She is a psychologist, a confident, well-read person, but now she looks gray, small, and mouse-like fast. “Are your windows broken?” she asks and squints at me above her glasses.
Why does this question concern everyone?
“Let us see,” I say, coming in. She follows me. “Yes, they are broken,” I say. The woman gives out something resembling an animal moan and disappears. I take a deep breath. The air in the room still has the familiar, backwater quality of the days before the war.
The rooms that have been so silent after my parents died are not quiet now. Over and again, tanks fire deafening shots. Probably “deafening” is not the right word. They are not unbearably loud, but painful, as if someone repeatedly hits your head with a pillow. Those windows that are not broken yet jump in their frames in sync. There’s something apocalyptic about their jerking dance. There’s something apocalyptic about this whole day, this point of space and time, this moment of history. Through the window, I can see the destroyed top floors of a neighboring building. They are right before my eyes. They look like a big heap of concrete rubble. They are completely dead.
I take a plastic bottle that had been sitting on a kitchen counter since the days before the war, and water two beautiful roses my mother loved so much. A big and a small one. The big rose is thirty years old. My mother brought it one day from the hospital where she worked. The plant was just two leaves tall then. We stuck it into the soil, and it started growing. I remember I felt happy seeing every new leaf on it. I remember my mother’s smile when she was looking at it. Now the rose bush is huge: it occupies half of the room. The smaller rose was planted by my mother only a month before she died. She liked that tiny green sprout of life, which has already turned into a small bush.
I’m not going to give the invaders anything. I’m too old and too weak to hold a weapon in my hands, but I can do at least something. For example, not to allow Putin to kill these two rose bushes my mother loved. That is why I am here today.
14. Rose Bushes.
I know someone may say I am crazy to risk my life for two rose bushes dying of thirst. But I’m not only doing it for those rose bushes. I’m doing it because I’m a free man and no one can tell me what to do or not to do, except for the people I love, of course. The people I love boss me around all the time. But no way will anyone else do that. Definitely not those Russians who are destroying everything I love.
I know my mother would never allow me to risk my life. But I also know she loved these bushes and would be unhappy to know that they have died of thirst.
The leaves of both roses are wilted. First, I water the smaller plant, using up practically all the water. Maybe I give it too much water, but I don’t know when I’ll be able to do it again. Probably after the Kremlin Dwarf has died.
Then I turn the tap on.
There’s no water in it.
I turn on the hot water tap. There’s no water in it either. I look in the toilet and see that it’s dry. Then I remember the bomb crater in the middle of the road and the water that was gushing out of it. I can’t get water anywhere, which means that one of my roses, the bigger one, is going to die. But the other will live, so my expedition was not for nothing after all.
I rummage in a drawer and pull out a big pack of Enalapril, the medicine my mother used.
Tanks fire new shots one after another. Rhythmical, controlled bangs. Suddenly, the glass on the window in front of me bursts. But the shards of it don’t fly too far: the fastest of them hardly reach the middle of the room and land in front of my feet. The quality of the air changes. Now it smells of the wetness of early spring. I hope the taxi driver was not having a heart attack while waiting for me.
When I walk out of the door, I see the frightened neighbor again. She is not alone in the room. Her elderly mother wrapped in a shawl sits in her wheelchair near the door. Her face is skeletal and as white as chalk. All people in Kharkiv know that the entrance door is the safest place because it is situated far from the windows and from the outer wall a missile might break through. There’s a moment when I want to ask the neighbor for some water, but then I realize that water, if there’s any left, is too precious now.
I run all the way down the stairs, and the taxi driver starts the car as soon as I hop in. Even a split second before that. I give him the pack of Enalapril. He pockets it hastily without thanking me. It’s not the best time for exchanging pleasantries.
“What took you so long?” he asks.
“Nothing,” I say. “It wasn’t long, actually. I was right back.”
The car speeds up. The tank shots are so close now that I feel my eardrums can burst like a window pushed in by a blast wave. We drive around the crater in the road and for the first time I realize why the place looks so unfamiliar now. Because there’s too much space around, too much air. The streets used to be crowded with cumbersome supermarkets before. Now the ATB supermarket is burnt down. The Equator supermarket is partly destroyed. The bowling club lies in ruins, so instead of those oversized match-boxes I can see fields, distant hills and orchards. The tanks don’t stop firing, but I can’t see any explosions. Nothing is catching fire. What are they firing at?
We stop at the nearest roadblock.
Now they check the car more carefully because we are heading from there. They make us both get out. They check our papers. The taxi driver has none, but he is old, fat, chatty, and scared. The way he speaks and moves and gestures reveals he is not Russian. He looks like a character from Gogol. From the Ukrainian period of Gogol. A minor character from Taras Bulba.
Then we slow down at another roadblock, but the soldiers just wave us to go on.
The inner parts of the plundered city, especially the sleepy residential areas, look peaceful after what I’ve just seen. Some shop windows are broken by looters. And the air smells of spring.
Sergey Gerasimov is a Ukraine-based writer and translator. He studied psychology and has authored several academic articles on cognition. When he is not writing, he teaches, plays tennis, and kayaks. His work has been published in Russian and English, appearing in Adbusters, Clarkesworld Magazine, Strange Horizons, J Journal, The Bitter Oleander, and Acumen, among many others. His last book is Oasis published by Gypsy Shadow. The poetry he translated has been nominated for several Pushcart Prizes. He wrote this in English.