T. C. Boyle
People told her she’d get cancer in her bones, that the mice were growing into monsters the size of dogs, that if she planted a tomato or a cucumber in her own garden she wouldn’t be able to eat it because of the poison in the ground. And the mushrooms she loved so? The ones that sprouted in the shady places after a rain, the big brown-capped porcini that were like meat in your mouth? They were the worst. They concentrated the poison and put it in your body where it gathered and glowed and killed you dead. Was that really what she wanted? Was she touched in the head?
Well, no, she wasn’t. And when the opportunity came to move back to the deserted ruins of her village after living for nearly three years in an inhuman space in a crumbling apartment bloc for evacuees in Kiev, she took it. Leonid Kovalenko, sixty-seven years old and with a pair of ears as big as a donkey’s, who’d been a friend of her late husband, Oleski, and whose wife wouldn’t budge from the apartments because she was afraid, knew of a man with a car who knew of a border guard who, for a bribe, would let you in. Back in. Where you belonged. Where the forest was cool and moist and striped with shade and the smoke unfurled from your chimney like a flag all twenty-four hours of the day so that when you went out to the well on a moonlit night you could see it there, a presence, hovering above the roof on the suspired breath of your ancestors. “How much do you want?” she asked Leonid as they browsed among the inferior cabbages and pulpy potatoes at the market, rutabagas like wet cardboard, overpriced honey in a jar without the comb. “Because I have little.”
He shrugged, weighing a cabbage in one hand while rich people, the educated rich and the corrupt rich alike, went by on the street in their automobiles that roared and belched and gave back the sun in glistening sheets of light. “For you?” he mused, gazing at her appraisingly from beneath the overgrown hedges of his eyebrows. He was a hairy man, hair creeping out from beneath his collar and sleeves, curling out of his nostrils and the pits of his great flapping ears, nothing at all like Oleski, who was smooth as a baby till the day he died, but for his private hair and his beard that came in so sketchily it was barely there at all. “For you,” he repeated, as if the deal had already been struck, “a little is more than enough.”
The man with the car was young, in his thirties, she guessed, and he wore a leather jacket like a hoodlum. He smoked the whole time, lighting one cigarette off the other. In place of conversation he had the radio that thrummed and buzzed with a low-level static and snatches of what someone in Prague or Moscow might have called music but to her was just noise. She sat in back with her two bags of possessions while Leonid, his great wide shoulders sagging against the cheap torn vinyl of the seat, sat up front with the driver. It was night. The road was rutted. From the ditches came the sounds of the spring peepers, awakening from the frost to glory in life and love and the spewing of their eggs that were like pale miniature grapes all bound up in transparent tissue. When they came to the checkpoint and the fence that enclosed the Zone of Alienation for thirty kilometers around, the young man got out and conferred with the guard while Leonid lit his first cigarette of the night and shifted in the seat to study her face in the dim light cast by the guard’s kiosk. “A small bribe,” he said. “Nothing to worry over.”
She wasn’t worried, or not particularly. Word had it that the Ministry of Emergencies was looking the other way and allowing a small number of people—old people, over fifty only—to return to their villages because they knew no other way of life and because they were expendable. The sooner they died, either from natural or unnatural causes, the sooner their pensions would be released to the state. There were rumors of criminals roaming the Zone, of looters dismantling machinery and mining the deserted apartment blocks of Pripyat, the city closest to the reactor, for television sets and stereos and the like, then smuggling them, radiant with poison, out into the larger world. She didn’t care. She peered past Leonid to where the driver was having a laugh with the guard and sharing something out of a bottle. Beyond them was night absolute, the black night of the primordial forest where there were no apartments or automobiles or shops. “I don’t like him,” she whispered. “I don’t like him and I don’t trust him.”
In the half light of the car, Leonid’s hand, blocky and work-hardened, snaked its way between the front seats to rest ever so lightly on her knee, and that was a revelation to her, that was when she began to understand things in the way the peepers in their ditches understood. Leonid’s own bags lay at his feet, two dark humps that were his life compacted. “Everything,” he murmured, his voice gone thick in his throat, “is going to be all right.”
And then the hoodlum was back in the car and the gate swung aside as if by magic and they were on a road that was no longer a road, jostling and scraping, shrieking through the brush of the dried and dead plants from the years past, dodging fallen trees no one had bothered to cut because there was no one to bother. They hadn’t gone more than a mile when the hoodlum tugged violently at the wheel and the car spun round in an exaggerated loop and came to a stop, the motor still ratcheting beneath them. “This is as far as I go,” he said.
“But it’s still seven miles to the village,” Leonid protested. And then, a wheedling tone come into his voice, “Maryska Syshylayeva is an old woman—don’t make her walk all that way. Not in the dark and the cold of night.”
Before she knew she was going to speak, the words were out: “I’m sixty-two years old and while I may be stout—I don’t deny it—I can out-walk you, Leonid Kovalenko, with your creaky knees and big fumbling feet.” She could picture the cabin she and Oleski had built of peeled logs cut from the forest and the thatch they’d laid across the roof that bloomed with wildflowers in the spring—and the stove, her pride, that had never gone cold a day in her life, until the order came to evacuate, that is. “And you too,” she said, turning to the black-jacketed driver and honing her voice, “whatever your name is.”
To read the rest of this piece, purchase the issue.