The note feels a thousand years old and crinkles as I open it. I look at the calendar. It was just a month ago when Oleg promised me he’d take me home, promised we could live there. He wrote the note so I wouldn’t forget.
He’ll be here today. It’s too dark now. When the sun is bright enough to wake the spring blooms, he’ll be here.
Breakfast sounds good, but I can’t remember if I ate or not. I check the paper by the sink: “Eat breakfast, then cross this out.” I didn’t put a line through it, so I look through the sparse pantry and pluck a potato and half an onion from the shelf. I decide on deruny. For a moment I consider checking the calendar to see when Oleg will bring more food … but no, I don’t have to worry. It’s my last day here. I am going home. I will celebrate.
I stare at the skillet, frustrated that I’ve forgotten how to make the potato pancakes my mother so loved. My memory is sporadic. Sometimes I can’t remember simple things, like this recipe we made so often. Other times I remember everything I did and ate. I even remember the varied patterns and colors of scarves the old women wore at the old market. Oleg says my memory is defective because my mother dropped me. My mother’s journals confirm what he says.
I walk over the scarred and dusty wood floor and pick a journal from the table. On the 26 day of April, 1986, my mother and her friend went to the bridge over the railroad tracks. I was five. She held me fast in her arms, so many people gathered. Even now as I look at her writing I can still feel her arms tight and the light jostles of the others on the bridge.
“…I watched billows of smoke pour from the Chernobyl Nuclear Power Plant. I held Oksana close. We weren’t on the bridge long when I heard Yeva yelling for me. She shoved through the dense crowd until she located me. The first firemen on the scene were transported to the hospital. At the time, we didn’t know who. Aleksander was on duty at the fire station. Her husband had been called in. The fresh early spring morning air marred by the horror that coursed through me. I tried to pass Oksana to Yeva, but I dropped her. Her head cracked on the railing and she fell, limply, at my feet. Yeva scooped her up, told me to go. Go and find Aleksander.”
Mother found father at the hospital. He was the first one on the roof of Unit C, one of the first to look into the mouth of the monstrosity that belched radiation in his face. He died two days later in Moscow Clinic 6. Mother wrote much about Father’s death. She filled pages with horrible descriptions of his swollen body and oozing lesions, the peeling reddish-brown of his skin, what they called “nuclear sunburn,” the agony of his every breath. Dry splotches of water mar the pages, the tears that Mother shed while recording his pain. My tears drop as I read, “death was his relief.” Mother never talked about Father’s final day. I don’t remember but a small part of that night. Mother came home breathless, tears staining her face and blood covering her hands. She stuffed clothes in bags and repeated, “He needed relief; death was his relief.”
We left Pripyat, went to Belasur where most of Pripyat’s people were evacuated. Yeva died a year later. Many people who stood on the bridge died. Death and illness surrounded us. Mother was fearful, she kept us secluded in a small apartment. She put thick blinds over the windows, paranoid of radiation. She wouldn’t let me go to school. She taught me well how to read and write, but mathematics was harder. We didn’t go out often. When we did it was for food; food that she washed before we ate. She cried as she scrubbed, angry that the water wasn’t safe either.
We never went to doctors, no matter how much pain infected Mother. She hated them, feared they expedited the death of Pripyat’s abandoned people. She told me they wanted us dead. If we roamed by ourselves, they would kill us because we were contaminated. In public I was forbidden to say from where we came.
Pain runs through me and I set the journal down, walk to the sink, and scan the wall. My walls are full of notes written on scraps of paper that I tape and tack to them, notes that I carve into the walls when paper isn’t nearby. Life I don’t want to forget. I rub my hand over a spot above the faucet: Mother – 26 April 1996. She had gone mad. Mad from pain and grief and fear.
After mother’s death, I packed her journals with my clothes and books and asked many people, “Please take me to Pripyat.” No one would. Oleg tells me he found me crying in the market. He brought me here; a forest outside Pripyat. He returned here after his wife and baby died. His wife died from the birth, the baby girl days later from what Oleg called “Chernobyl heart.” He said it was the radiation from the power plant. He understood my need to be where I belonged, closer to home.
I don’t know how long I’ve been here. I could look at the calendar, but I’m too tired. My deruny doesn’t look right. It should be more pancake-like, but I eat it and rest my head on the table. I’m grateful that Oleg brought me here. He brings me food, bread, mushrooms, potatoes, onions, eggs, milk, sometimes meat. I don’t think I’ve ever been hungry.
Once in a while Oleg takes me to his doctor friend. I don’t like the doctor. He wants me dead. He feels my neck and shakes his head when I cry out from the pain. He raises his voice with Oleg and says things like “thyroid” and “treatments.” Then the doctor looks him over and says things like “radiation,” “not much time,” and “no condition to take care of her.” I know he means me. I know he wants to separate us so he can kill me. The pain is worse after every visit.
The sun is still too low; Oleg will be here later. He lived in Pripyat, too. After Chernobyl he said he was a … a … I search through the notebooks on the table until I find the one with his name on it and flip through. It takes some time, but I find it. He was a liquidator. He helped clean up Pripyat. That’s what he sees his doctor friend for, the marks on his body, black and peeling. He doesn’t yell when the doctor touches him, but his eyes scrunch tight, his body stiffens, and he groans. The last visit with the doctor they fought. That was when Oleg said we didn’t have to go back anymore. That was when he said we could finally go to Pripyat. That was the day he left me the note.
A light rap at the door lets me know he is here. We are going home. We can live in Pripyat now. I let him in and go pack the few clothes I have and as many journals as I can fit in the bag. He says we don’t need much, I’m sure he’s right, but I have to get one more thing. I lift the lid of the can and pick up a few pages torn from Mother’s last journal and tuck them with the item in my bag. I struggle with the weight of the bag and finally get it on my back. As I stumble out, I feel hair pull from my scalp. I grab the chunk from my shoulder and drop it on the floor with the other clumps.
We ride in Oleg’s jeep to the fence that now surrounds Pripyat. From here we walk. When we hear noises we duck behind bushes and trees. There are people who will stop us from going home if they find us, so we are careful and quiet. Oleg has read Mother’s journals. He knows the area where we lived. We arrive at a bridge. He says it was the main entrance into Pripyat. He says this is where Mother stood, where Yeva came to her, where somewhere along this metal bar my head cracked. I rub my hand along the metal as if I will find the part of my brain that was forever lost and ruined. As if I can pick it up, put it back and life will reverse and become everything it was supposed to be.
I look up and see him staring in the distance. He points to the concrete sarcophagus that confines Chernobyl reactor number 4. We are silent as he stares at the power plant and I stare at him, and his body seems to hunch as if it’s a burden to stand up straight.
I want to know more of Pripyat, the café with stained glass windows that my mother loved so much. She wrote about the beautiful colors that glowed when the sun was bright, and when it was overcast, the colors were deep and soothing. I want to know about School Number Two where I would have gone. I want to know about the amusement park that she looked forward to taking me to when it opened.
Oleg nods and throughout the day, we walk and I see all those places. The school with peeling paint, papers and books that lie among crumbling desks and scattered gas masks. We see the café with broken stained glass windows and we eat lunch at one of the tables. Even in this decayed condition I understand why mother loved this place. We see the amusement park, rusted metal too old and worn to move, held even tighter by the weeds that creep up and around the rails and cars. It was to open on 1 May, 1986. Some say it opened prior for families of the workers who built it, some say it opened right after the Chernobyl blast in an attempt to quell the people’s fears. But it doesn’t matter, it sits empty and alone, decrepit and sad. Like us.
After lunch Oleg shows me the farms where he destroyed and buried lush crops of vegetables. He shows me where he shot and buried animals so they wouldn’t spread the radiation. We walk through an area filled with vehicles of all sorts: tanks, buses, helicopters, tractors. Metal carcasses, crusted in decay, corroded, and oxidized. Oleg tells me these were used in the cleanup, that the helicopters sprayed decontaminant over the area in an effort to stop the radiation. It didn’t work. If it had, Mother and I would have never left.
We walk back toward the city, toward the apartments where I had lived. As the sun sets, the quiet becomes prominent. A lone reminder of life defiled and forgotten; left for nature to grind up and swallow.
I stumble over concrete broken by tree roots and stop my fall by grabbing Oleg’s back. He screams and drops to his hands and knees. Blood seeps through his shirt. It takes time for him to get up. He leaves his bag, says we can get it tomorrow. He tells me to leave my bag, too. He says my neck and face are swollen like my hands. He says we need to rest now. I won’t let him slide the bag from my back. I have to keep it. I need it tonight.
We enter the apartment building, but we don’t look for the unit I lived in. Instead we find one with a heap of shredded linens and lie down. He falls asleep and I pull the last pages mother wrote from my bag: the pages she’d torn out. Pages that caused her pain to write, and pain to rip, and pain to shove toward me.
“Forgive me Oksana. It is too much to bear. I need relief. You need it to. We will be together with your father. A family again, at home in Pripyat.”
Mother wrote these pages because her voice failed her. Her writing disjointed, childish in size and formation, the pen too heavy for her withered, faltering hands. She told me to use the gun when she slept, to bring her relief. The same relief she brought my father.
I didn’t join her then. The pain wasn’t as great as it is now.
I lay the pages on the floor and slide the gun from my bag: the gun mother used to bring father relief. The gun I used to bring mother relief. The gun that will help Oleg and I found our relief.
About the AuthorDiane DeMasi Johnson lives in Washington State. When not writing she can be found exploring abandoned, forgotten, and dilapidated places, searching for remnants of tales left untold.