“The River” by Markiyan Kamysh
Translated from the Ukrainian by Hanna Leliv
…Kamysh’s style is characterized by a rapid narrative, fresh metaphors and striking imagery, with a touch of empathy. “The River” is a stand-alone short story thematically connected with his other texts. It’s a rough sketch of two men working in the Zone who embark on a minor smuggling venture which slowly assumes an existential dimension. Set in the gloomy decorations of the almost post-apocalyptic Zone, Kamysh’s crisp narrative weaves reverberations from the Soviet past into the present-day.
Morning is silent here.
Cars are not swishing on the road yet, their distant roar not mixing with the buzzing of bees who settled near his shack that year and wouldn’t be smoked out. He boiled water in a huge blue cooking pot several times and poured it into the hole, but the surviving bees stung him on his arms.
He fears them more than anything else.
More than the wolves’ howling, more than unexpected copperheads underneath his army boots or grass snakes deep inside them. More than the boars’ sudden races and the stomping of the Przewalski’s horses in the overgrown meadow across from his shack. More than the densest silence in the world enveloping him as soon as the early signs of night appear in the sky.
Days drag on here, arranging into identical links of a never-ending chain; showers start suddenly, as when someone turns on the sprinklers at the filming ground, water gushing down in an unnaturally thick sheet in the rays of an artificial sun.
The rains wash dirt off him and uncharge his soul, conducting despair and sadness away through giant ground cables that disappear underneath the shack, going down to the lower layers of Earth’s crust.
Today, he’s here by himself.
Usually, they are together, he and Most, closely watching the thick wisps of smoke that are about to rise into the sky on the horizon. One of them stays on the ground, making tea on the bench by the shack, while the other climbs up a hundred-foot tower to keep his finger on the fire pulse of the Chernobyl Exclusion Zone, to record the acts of aggression of the thick gray smoke and the bright-orange tongues of fire—the devourers of the young forest.
When he climbs all the three hundred steps, counting them silently, when all the squeaking of the crisp tower, audible even in the lightest wind, is left underneath his feet, the forest—endless, dense, stirring—spreads out as far as his eye can see. It’s endless even from the height a large enough bird would be proud of.
The forest. Its curly, leafy heads and sharp hawks of pine trees; its thin veins of meadows on the sappy, greenish body. Sandy Przewalski’s horses graze on those veins: he spots them only when they lash out, galloping toward the water through the well-trodden paths in the thicket.
A smoke—a cloudish-gray harbinger of fire—would curl in the air sometimes. He’d be restless after that. No matter how long he’d been working there, he’d make a fuss just as he did for the very first time: he’d panic, stick his head out the window, yelling obscenities and hammering his stick against the tower, so Most would wake up in his shack and call Chernobyl, so all hell would break loose and the helicopters of the Ministry of Emergency Situations would shoot for the sky.
They sit in the shack eight-to-eight, but Most grumbles that according to the rules, they have to be there until the night falls, whenever that might be. Had they followed this rule, they’d often host unbidden guests.
Over the brief spells of summer darkness, when they sleep it off at the Chernobyl barracks, the slices of cured pork fat, set aside as a snack for a morning drink, vanish from the shack. The sachets of wheat grits, the Prima cigarettes, the tubes of ketchup, the boxes of matches, and even the packs of salt also disappear, while instant noodles, bank bills, and notes scribbled in a third-grader’s handwriting suddenly appear instead.
Ghosts come at night. They arrive, carefully touching the asphalt with their soft rubber soles, slowing their pace by the tower of the abandoned village of Cherevach whose hosts left an hour before. Breaking into the shack, they run rampant, tearing topographic maps off the walls, drink up the remains of the filtered water and roam around, hungry, searching for the food under the pink blankets and the squeaky folding beds. They’ve been dragging their exhausted bodies for twenty miles from Prypiat, surviving on the canned meat and the remnants of gas you’ll hear sloshing around at the bottom of a gas bottle if you shake it well and press it to your ear like a large sea shell.
The ghosts sleep four hours in the shack and, leaving their bodyprints on the sheets, run on: to dash across the bridge, reaching the Zone border by a deserted night highway, dive into the fog before the checkpoint, and, taking one last look at the dense forest wall and orange lights of the dawn above it, climb over the barbed wire and dissolve in the civilization hive on the way south.
Neither he, nor Most can understand the pattern of their coming and going, so they could stay overnight, lying in wait. Nor can they understand why would someone trudge all the way to that wilderness? They even hung a padlock once, but the ghosts broke it in three days, leaving an excuse note and a two hundred hryvnia bill on the table. He and Most took the money, but never hung the padlock again.
He’s on his own today.
Most stayed overnight in Chernobyl. Sleeping it off in the barracks, Most gets back the package he’s been babbling on so much about from the district police station, and, gulping fake beer from a big plastic cup at the grocery store by the main street, dives down to the river.
He goes to the shipyard. Abandoned longboats, towboats, and barges lie scattered on the wet sand like dead fish. Spreading out their rusted bodies in the sun, they turn their knocked-out portholes like eyes toward the warmth, like the snakes crawling out onto the tracks of the derelict railway in daylight.
The ships have their noses in the water; it wraps them in sweaters of eternal ice in winter and drowns them in powerful floods in spring, raising the river to the status of a sea, while the violent stream drags along the trunks of pine trees from the north and the bodies of the drowned men with Belarusian passports in the inside pockets of their camo jackets.
Most has his boat hidden among the gazillion of these sea orphans, ripped-off cable veins, sawn-down metal hearts, and lairs of stray dogs at the captain’s bridge. It’s under the care of forestry workers: former firefighters with the pine tree ash in their pockets, bankrupt metal scrappers, and wind-scarred laborers from the far south—tough caretakers of a Yamaha engine and PVC, simple stuff that will take him and Most to another world tonight.
The workers knock back a shot of vodka with Most and, digging out his boat, go on to saw logs, pile them on the carts and drown in the pine wood chips whose smell can’t be killed even by the cheapest Vatra cigarettes or by the sweat that stinks so much Most feels it and tells himself to wash up, but then puts it off—until the night falls, in the river, if he needs to sit through the mayhem, or after he reaches his destination, if the Belarusians are late.
Most waits until his mate gets off: until he climbs up the tower one last time, looks over the endless prickly forest skin, decides to call it a day, and, hanging the slices of pork fat and Lipton teabags in a plastic bag, adjusts the pink bedcover straight and walks towards the highway—to hitchhike a ride to Chernobyl, catching foresters on UAZ offroad vehicles or engineers whisked away to the southern Zone on a lift truck to fix the power line.
Meeting at the shipyard, he and Most drink in silence, waiting until dark. They drink and smoke, one cigarette after another, not hiding the packs back into the deep pockets of their camo jackets. Most says that to stumble across the border guards today would be the same as to win the lottery, only the other way round. He says that, blowing up the boat, and laughs: he, an admiral of dried-up riverbeds, a master of flood plain labyrinths and motor-boat ambushes, a secret keeper of the forgotten world, a passionate curser of all the things in the world.
The oncoming night slowly locks the surrounding space in its first embrace. They maneuver at low speed, the river—silent, mysterious, fast—taking them to the quicksand. You stop talking on such a river, forgetting that just a moment ago you wanted to pull out a pack of cigarettes. You grow quiet and rock in the boat, picking up speed, no longer hearing the engine rumble, looking only at the moonlight blinking on the pitch-dark water. In silence.
Like any river in the thick jungle, this one also runs from the past to the future. Flowing straight from the asphalt of neat streets of small Belarusian towns—hellholes of social realism with propaganda posters on the trolley-buses and a total lack of commercial advertisements, it trickles southward, through the decrepit, abandoned villages in the Zone, falling finally into the golf clubs and polishing the white sides of Kyiv yachts to snow blindness.
It’s a pity, though, that he and Most go upstream.
They go toward the Belarusian border where the night air has a different thickness. Startling at the tiniest rustling, they will keep close to the opposite bank, listening for the sounds of the chase, look up to the stars, meet with the Belarusian guys and hand them the package, take a breather, snacking on rye bread with pork fat, get back into the boat and fly it downstream, looking around in the darkness that creeps up noiselessly and grabs their fingers when their reach their hands out over the water.
Most says they have twenty-five miles to go to reach their destination; no one will be standing guard there, he says, we’ll slip past, keep calm, buddy. He presses on, the Yamaha engine rumbling, and the boat glides slowly along the river: this is what he likes the most about the Zone—head wind fills your lungs, even if you don’t want it to, even if you don’t take deep breaths.
It fills your lungs and puts out your cigarette, drowning it in cold, dark water. Just like Most who once asked him if he’d like to see how Lenin had smoked. When he nodded, Most took his cigarette away, broke it in two and threw it overboard, saying that Lenin had been a non-smoker.
The river, calm as usual this time of the year. As usual since people left, so no one bothers them, only the slick shadows, the shapes on the other bank whisper something to them, their indistinct rustling spreading over the water, mingling with the bird cries and the train hum so far away you wonder whether you really heard it.
Most sniffs the air, trying to catch the smell he’s been expecting, trying to understand how close the disaster is, but it’s already there, lighting up the sky in front of them. It has already spattered the red paint on the black curtain above the horizon, sending more and more birds away toward them, throwing more and more screams—like bombs—into the water near the boat. Yet, the dense darkness of the jungle is not ashamed even in the face of the fire—it creeps up on them, locking them in its tight embrace, grabbing their hands, putting out their cigarettes, and whispering in a rustling whisper which sounds like a distant clatter of waves that you hear pressing a large sea shell to your ear.
Most turns the boat sharply toward the river bank. He cuts the engine and falls silent himself: a helicopter. You never hear its rattling in good time. It always comes all of a sudden, as if a third man has been riding in a boat, but they never noticed him, since he’d been sitting by the engine and talking too quietly. The helicopter is hovering right above them—a giant, striped, thunderously buzzing bee which they wished they could drown in the boiling water from the river.
They have to wait it out. He hides the cigarette in his fist—away from the night lights that get brighter and brighter on the road to the north. Their private northern lights: no illicit involvement of the ionosphere, only violent fire in the radioactive forest, only the high-rising pillars of smoke and the colossal walls of flames.
Once everything calms down, they finish their cigarettes in silence, wave the shadows away, and, begging God for a lucky strike, start the engine and move on toward the glow, hoping for a miracle. They hope that the fire took farther to the east, that the river will stay calm, that they will manage to slip past the guards in the night’s turmoil and sit it all out together with the Belarusian guys, recalling the sky glow, happy that the disaster passed them by.
They press on along the dark waters, upstream, toward the glow of fire. A striped humming of the metal sky beasts rolls from side to side; there is a smell of sulphur and Greek fire, and the further to the north, the smoke behaves more freely, covering everything with a veil, so that even the moon is no longer visible. There will be no oxygen soon—they will get drowsy and fall asleep forever, washed ashore, to the crowd of shadows that would never let them go.
The longer they sail, the warmer the water becomes, the river boiling, its thick steam mixing with the smoke of cigarettes and fire. They feel too hot and hazy; they don’t even want to smoke—only to escape, faster and faster, to the north, leaving all of this behind: this smoke, these bubbles, this boiling water.
Most says they cannot stop. They have to carry their package, to lug it, their black baggage, heavier than granite, anthracite, loadstone, amethyst or chrysolite—to drag the burden of their past in a black plastic bag through time and dump it away from the water, so the river won’t drag it back during the flood and wash it ashore by the shipyard along with the pine logs and the bodies of the drowned men with the Belarusian passports in the deep pockets of their camo jackets.
The glow of fire lights up the bridge in front of them, its metal lace, carefully painted white, its wires, big and small, its back curves and steep lines east to west and west to east.
They sail past its enormous stone legs, scarred both by the architect’s intent and by the gusts of wind, violent and ruthless through all these years, with a rusty flavor and a sweetish aftertaste.
They pass—slowly, quietly—through the arc which blocks the stars, but cannot block the glow. In the darkness and the respectful silence, they pass the border followed only by the north and the wall of impenetrable smoke.
He looks askingly at Most—he keeps silent. Then Most takes off his t-shirt and, dipping it into the water, pulls it up over his face like a cowboy bandana. Underneath it, his voice sounds hollow, as if coming not out of his mouth, but out of an underground space. You won’t suffocate this way, Most explains for some reason—as if he didn’t know it himself.
He also dips his t-shirt into the water.
Most is not going to turn back, even though the fire glows brighter and brighter, the shadows creep up closer and closer, the river boiling against the backdrop of their sizzling. They don’t hear the helicopter rattling until it hovers right above them. Most makes a sharp turn toward the river bank.
The boat capsizes.
The water splashes, the moon peeking through the smoke and the thick fog, and the muffled curses sound louder than the rhythmical buzzing of the night bee in the sky that drifts further and further away, falling silent, dissolving finally in the red paints of the north.
Climbing out of the river, they sit in silence, flushed from the boiling water, annoyed with the mishap that, sudden as it was, had been expected since the moment they noticed the glow. They sit quietly, taking deep breaths, trying to catch as much oxygen-poor air as possible, feeling that they should go, go right away, run toward the bridge, cross it over in the opposite direction, away from the smoke, the boiling rivers, and the slick shadows grabbing their hands.
They take mouthfuls of water from the river, in turns, and this drink burns his insides, sending him off into slumber. But they shouldn’t sleep.
They should go away.
Water is dripping from his phone: even this ‘brick’, his ancient Nokia, could not stand all those Prypiat tears, that boiling hot disaster of a bitter sea they’d turned into. Its soul is already somewhere there—at the bottom, beside the slices of pork fat and the loaf of rye bread, beside the big black plastic bag.
“Your bag drowned.”
“Now we’re fucked.”
They have to go.
The air is gooey, like a thickened milk mixed with water and sprinkled in the air. It’s thicker than the cigarette smoke they would have blown had the pack not been soaked in the river.
While they sit on the river bank, Most also starts to doze off, but then jumps to his feet, startled, and says it’s time to go. So they go away, sinking in the high grass of a boundless meadow peppered with the white flowers. The fog is so dense they can’t see the end of it, only a few bare trees here and there, not yet revived after the last year’s disaster and the walls of fire.
Plodding through the overgrown meadow for several hours, he tries to count his steps to keep his sanity, but loses count after two thousand. He takes in quick, short breaths and fixes his t-shirt around his face even tighter, tying its sleeves in a knot behind his head, taking it off only once—to smell a flower he picks, silver as the moon, white as the fog, the flower whose name he can’t recall. Most can’t recall it either.
They have to go away.
Most knows the way, since he’s been working there much longer. Having walked all around the Zone back in the day, he boasts now that he’s peeked in every broken window, yet he keeps mixing up the details: how many times, where exactly and when.
They have to reach the bridge, nothing more.
The bridge. How many times he’s heard about it? How many times has Most tortured him with his tales? How many times have they boiled water in the enormous blue cooking pot, slouching on the bench by the shack, listening to the never-ending tall tales? He has no idea. Year in, year out, one scorching summer into another—nothing changes, but for the excuse notes in the shack and the smoke rising above the forest each time in a different place.
He’s never been here before.
He’s exhausted. Too much for one day: all these rivers, helicopters, fires, bridges. He can only think of how he’ll get to his shack and pass out, chasing the ghosts away and plopping down on his bed, leaving the note saying sorry that he snuck out early yesterday to smuggle that package. That he didn’t keep watch at the tower and missed a thread of fire in late twilight. That night fell, but he was not putting out the fire together with the others, but was running back across the bridge.
The bridge. The metal-mesh walls hang over them on both sides, closing over their heads, turning the passage into a narrow gap. Most walks first, holding his breath. Lit up by the glow of fire, he keeps tripping over the dead birds, the river boiling underneath the bridge, the cloud of steam enveloping everything around him, impenetrable like smoke. The glow gets dimmer with every step; they try not to turn back, they try to keep silent and walk softly—heels first, then toes—so as not to disturb the silence, but the milky darkness ahead of them erupts suddenly with the furious barking, and they freeze. Most raises his arm in a warning gesture, says “Run!” under his breath, and they dash forward.
They make it in the last moment, running out of the gap and racing down the river bank. The dogs chase after them, barking themselves hoarse, but the yapping stays behind soon, quieting down, mingling with the late-night bustle of the Chernobyl power plant workers and the distant rattling of the helicopters in the sky. The dogs calm down, making peace with the fact that those two made it, that they can leave them be, those poor bastards, there’s nothing to envy anyway, look at them—trudging in the dark toward the abandoned town, wet and tired, leaving loose footprints in the sand.
Getting his breath back, Most turns to take one last look at the glow from the opposite bank. To look in the direction where the river flows. This river washes away our memories: our delusions, our inescapable anxieties, our worries about the unknown future. It heals, like a week-long binge drinking at the shipyard with the masters of logging.
Everyone walks its banks in one way or other: the rich and the poor, the happy and the miserable, the doomed and the blessed. We come close to it, putting our feet into its boiling waters—without getting burned. We roam about in its shallow waters, holding hands with those we love.
Not letting them go.
At night, Prypiat looks like a giant dead wolf if you look at its body from above. Its skin sags here and there, gone soft with time, the bones of high-risers sticking out its carcass. The deserted streets and avenues look like the gaps between the ribs, clogged with fur, so it’s hard to walk across them from late spring till fall.
Finally, they arrive.
They stop on the backstreet in the northern part of town. A little square, where the locals used to beat carpets and play ball, overgrown with shrubs, the electric substation and the playground drowning in the thicket. The yard became another dark gap surrounded by the dark cliffs of the high-rises whose windows—those yet unbroken—reflected the moonlight, sometimes terrifying, sometimes entrancing.
He smashes chairs for firewood, while Most runs up and down the house, looking for a good spot to rest his bones. He goes round the apartments, opening every door. Finally, he finds a room with the couch and the washed floor, with intact windows, a table in the middle, and a few chairs neatly arranged around it. Most searches the room, looking for a reward for the Lipton tea and pork fat they lost. He wants to clean out a stalkers’ hideout, leaving a note with a sincere excuse, but without any bills.
Running himself ragged, he plops down on the couch covered with a piece of black polyethylene to protect it from the dust and the water which rains upon these empty, gloomy egg boxes year in, year out. The remnants of the recent downpour trickle down on the hardwood floor, not yet set on fire by hobos, and on the linoleum whose pattern is being steadily washed out. A thick layer of moss grows on the linolium, its light-green cushions eye-catching in their strangeness. You want to step on them again and again to feel their incredible softness, palpable even through a deep tread sole.
Most brings some tinned food, and they have dinner by the light of a head torch which, luckily, didn’t drown and which Most attempted to turn on when they were trudging across the sandy flatland—each time he heard distant grunting and tried to distinguish the shapes of beasts in the soft, generous moonbeams falling on the soft sand under their feet.
They sink into the chairs standing right outside the high-rise. Shaking the dust and the plaster off the green plush, which is not that easy, they finally take off their boots and slouch in their seats—like seals, like lazy, sluggish leopard seals—munching the canned meat against the backdrop of the bonfire made of chairs and window frames.
Whenever the flame wavers, the darkness creeps up on them, boxing them in, sneaking under their clothes. Once the moon hides behind the clouds, the glow of the Chernobyl power plant, the orange gradients of the forest fire, and the flames of the bonfire by their side are all helpless to outshine the stars scattered all over above them.
He’s watching Most setting out their army boots by the fire, trying to measure the best distance, so the boots won’t burn or shrink by three sizes when he, drowsy with the free canned meat, will doze off by the fire. He looks at Most and asks:
“What did you have in that bag, huh?”
He says nothing.
They fall asleep at the crack of dawn, not even trying to crawl from the concrete slabs, cold even in mid-summer, to the caves. They have an uneasy sleep, waking up time and again, listening to the midday silence and the distant roar of cars, to the bugs buzzing and the animals rustling in the shrubs, watching the swallows flipping in the clear sky, and then falling asleep again. Only at night the abandoned town becomes truly abandoned, Most murmurs.
The wind scatters the ashes from the bonfire, whipping it around the backyards, and it’s only when the sun dips below the white tusks of the high-risers, when long shadows lie on the ground, and the last tourists leave the town that they wake up. Slowly finishing their cigarettes, they set off along the deserted streets toward the south, silence hanging above them heavier than the abandoned houses, heavier than the stars not yet visible, but tangible on the cusp of an inevitable night.
They have to go.
There’s nothing to fear, Most says. To run into a police ambush in the Zone is as likely as hitting a rock in an asteroid belt. He says that it’s like that only in the movies: in real life, the distance between the asteroids is so big that you have to win in a lottery to bang into one.
They set up ambushes only on a tip-off, Most explains, and who could’ve tipped them? No one, but the ducks who started to quack after their boat capsized or the slick shadows searching for something in the dark water by the floodlights of the moon and the soft pastels of the fire.
No one cared about them. No one heard about their Britannic. No one lay in wait for them—there’s only twenty miles of way ahead and a smell of the forest burning.
And the night.
Morning is silent here.
He should be silent, too. Over the past night and day, his orbit has stretched out toward the north, toward the dark space, toward the unknown trans-Neptunian objects that come closer and closer to us, causing mass extinctions, setting forests on fire, throwing the admirals of night rivers off the course, capsizing their boats. They approach the tower. Most sits down on the bench and, fending off the bees, basks in the long rays of the sun, silent. Meanwhile, he opens the shack and, plopping down on the couch covered with the pink blanket with the stalkers’ buttprints, notices forty hryvnias, a note, and a joint on the table. Shoving money into his pocket, he lights up the joint and takes a deep puff.
And then another one, and another, and another.