What the Fire Said
CHORUS: Did you perhaps transgress even somewhat beyond this offence?
PROMETHEUS: Yes, I caused mortals to cease foreseeing their doom.
Carlos Villacorta Gonzales
Translation by Eleanor Heindrich
Originally Published in Revista Hiedra 3 (Nov 2o14)
Glancing around, Aliaksei Paulikovich searched for the statue in the center of the city. He couldn’t find it, because the soldiers had removed it from its place and brought it to the ground. When he tilted his head back, all he could see was the top of the building where his daughter and the other children had been the night before, watching the lights in the distance. They looked like the fireworks in advance of the celebrations of the first of May, but with a different radiance. In the central plaza, thousands of soldiers had milled about, heaping people together. “Do not take anything. Just get into your vehicles. Do not touch anything, do not eat anything, do not drink anything.” With Anya and Natashenka and the entire Filatova family, the elderly Aliaksei had climbed into the truck.
“Grandpa, I don’t like milk. Why do they give us so much?”
“Milk will give you strong bones, my girl.”
She smiled, but when she returned her gaze to the cup, the milk seemed no less disagreeable; mainly because it had formed a thick film of scum that made her nauseous to look at. The night before, the darkness too had given way to such a thick film, but of light, which at its edges was discolored into many tones.
“That? That is a very fiery red, just like Papa’s uniform.”
“What about that?”
“That, my girl, is the same blue that Natashenka wears when she goes to work.”
She pointed to the green, which glowed and spread until finally fusing itself with magenta, and cerulean: a color that he’d seen before only on the coasts of the Mediterranean as a boy. The houses, whitewashed by the light, suddenly seemed very old. When no one was watching, Anya turned around and emptied her cup out onto the street.
That night, as the truck made its way down the roads of Kiev, she drew to the window to watch the lights above. They had been glowing all day, and now began to fade until the darkness prevailed once again. She felt drops falling from her wide eyes. The rain had begun.
Natashenka almost never ate lunch or dinner at home. Her husband’s whereabouts had become a state secret, and although she had toured about the various hospitals of Kiev where those injured in the fire had been placed, Varenska had never appeared. Aliaksei couldn’t help her, because he was too busy taking Anya to the hospital playground every day after class.
“Higher, Grandpa,” she would say, smiling. The old man moved closer and smoothly pushed, hoping that the swing would go just a little higher. He had missed the way his granddaughter’s hair flew behind her through the air.
That autumn afternoon, he set out on the return journey. From her place in bed, Natashenka could only reach up to hug him.
“Take this, please.” Aliaksei briefly glanced at the old photo she had given him, and then tucked it away in his bag.
That day, Aliaksei Paulovich took the bus that was closest to the checkpoint 85 kilometers from Pripyat.
“Where you going, old man?” Aliaksei looked toward the guards, but did not respond. “Where you going, old man? Don’t you know this zone is contaminated? This way’s forbidden.” Expressionless, Aliaksei continued on.
“Fine. You want to die, that’s your problem.”
“Poor old man.”
“Watch out for the monsters.”
Listening to their laughter as he moved away from the lookout point, Aliaksei made his way around obstacles in the path until he found himself at a statue: the white egg that stood at the beginning of the roadway running through the zone. Aliaksei looked at it for a moment; it was like a headstone with no name.
He took the map out of his pocket. The distance stretching in front of him was remarkable, and he wasn’t sure he would be able to make it to the city at all. He had enough food and water with him for three days, maybe four; at which point he would have to find other sustenance.
“Doesn’t matter at 70,” he told himself. “There’s always a town close enough.”
Aliaksei gazed out over the zone’s unruly overgrowth, totally deserted of the faces of men.
The further I walk, the shorter the way, he thought.
When he collected some wood for a fire, it had no hint of the usual damp scent of a tree. He put it in his bag anyway, and kept walking.
At twilight, Natashenka arrived at the new house the government had arranged for her. She was more quiet than usual. Earlier that day on television, Gorbachev had said:
“Good afternoon, comrades. As you all know, there has been an unfortunate event…the accident at the nuclear plant at Chernobyl.”
Natashenka joined Aliaksei, sitting at the table.
“This event has gravely affected the Soviet population, and scandalized the international community.”
“Papa, a soldier told me that the people who died in the explosion are buried in the city cemetery.”
“For the first time, we are face-to-face with the power of uncontrolled nuclear energy.”
“They weren’t taken to any of the hospitals for safety reasons.”
The old man looked at her, but couldn’t hear her words. Mixed up with the sounds of the television, they were only noise, an unintelligible murmur: dull, hollow, and indecipherable.
The military truck dropped them off in Kiev. Throughout the whole trip, Anya couldn’t stop crying. She could feel a tingling throughout her whole body, especially in her face. Natashenka felt it too. However, she thought it better to keep quiet, so as to not call her daughter’s attention to it further.
“Where do you think Varenska is?” Aliaksei searched for his handkerchief to wipe the sweat from his brow.
“I don’t know, my girl.”
“Do you think the Filatovas know something?” whispered Natashenka.
“I doubt it.”
Zhulka Filatova, huddled in the corner of the truck, hadn’t said a word since climbing inside with her three sons that Monday. Her husband, one of the firefighters at the Central Station, had gone to put out the fire that had started around eleven the night before, at the plant. Although he hadn’t been on duty, a phone call nevertheless had roused her from bed.
Zhulka woke him to answer it, and that had been the last thing she was able to say to him before he walked out the door. What had followed was anguish. Eyes always tired, elbows on the table waiting for a knock at the door, the ringing of the telephone. Everything had become silent. As the night advanced, the lights in the sky faded away.
The next day, dawn arrived late. In the distance, a dark cloud hung over the plant. All Monday, not a single radio worked.
Zhulka hadn’t wanted to send her children to school that morning. Until Zoya returned, she couldn’t leave them alone, not for an instant. But when the military arrived in Pripyat Tuesday morning, Zhulka’s fears were confirmed. This fire was not like other fires. It would be only a matter of time before they would send out the order to evacuate the city, and to leave everything behind. But how could they leave everything behind if it was all that they had? And where would they go? What about Zoya? No one had an answer as to her husband’s whereabouts. A soldier told her that many of the firefighters had suffered burns, and had been transferred to a hospital outside of the city. But since the city was in chaos, that was all she had been able to find out. Everyone was being thrown out of their houses, the buildings, the shops, the offices. A huge crowd gathered in the plaza.
“Get the children out of the amusement park,” yelled a Party official. Helicopters and trucks began to bear down on Pripyat. No one could carry any belongings; the soldiers wouldn’t have allowed it. At most, people had taken things like photos, combs, letters; anything small, really.
That day, on the road to Kiev, all that anyone could think of was what they had left behind: clothes, photos, toys, animals, food, friends. With nothing but what they had managed to bring along, they had left for another city, with no idea why. Natashenka fixed her gaze on Zhulka, but no one said anything. In the darkness, the rain was the only sound.
He’d heard a lot about the dead zone. The horrible stories of mutation, the effects of the rays on the zone’s wildlife, the number of bodies that had been taken from the explosion that night, and the similar fate of the countless people who went near the plant. As he continued deeper and deeper into the zone, Ivan’s voice returned to his thoughts.
“You know what they did to my son? Every fifteen days, they made him climb to the top of the plant to replace the old Party flag with a new one, because the radiation destroyed them so quickly,” his friend had whispered serenely. “Who knows where he is now.”
Ivan had left Igovka upon receiving word of the explosion. He too had gone to Kiev, since it was there that the majority of the injured were being kept. But like so many others, he had been unable to find his son. He had heard that another kid named Yuri, the Legasovs’ boy, had been prosecuted and given a twenty-year sentence. However, Yuri had never been freed. He died two weeks later in Moscow.
Upon arriving at the hospital in Kiev, Anya, Natashenka and Aliaksei were given another bath. Then they were commanded to shave all the hair from their bodies: from their heads, their arms, their legs, their genitals, and were finally given new clothes. Aliaksei struggled to squeeze himself into pants that were a couple sizes too small, all the while knowing it was futile. Anya continued to whine about the tingle and about the new red spots that had appeared on her face. Although the doctors had said that they’d go away on their own, that never happened.
Days later when they finally left the hospital, the first thing Aliaksei did was buy a newspaper, in search of any information. Somewhere, there must have been some sort of lead as to where his son could be.
The day after they arrived in Pripyat, Aliaksei scanned the news section once again. There wasn’t a single hint of information to be found. In the library, all the books about nuclear energy and radiation had been removed, and what looked like fistfuls of pages had been ripped out of others. Only silent, hollow shelves were left in their place.
Pripyat wasn’t like other cities near Moscow, especially not Kiev. Life was less erratic there. Years ago, the city had been a peaceful place to live. The regime had modeled it according to the slogans of the revolution. All of the houses were to be constructed the same way: the same amount of space, the same number of rooms, the same height. There was also a school within walking distance for the children of the workers, and a shopping center that would be equidistant to all homes and apartment buildings. Over the years, the regime had been able to integrate the countryside into the city as well. Instead of leading entirely separate lives from the city folk, the farmers now supplied them with food.
Although he had always distrusted the regime, Aliaksei couldn’t deny that things had improved overall since they had opened the plant in ’78.
They had called upon many young people to participate in running the plant, but he hadn’t been one of them. He had a son and daughter to take care of, who had also given him a granddaughter with those great big eyes. But to Varenska, working in the new plant had seemed like a grand opportunity. From then on, Aliaksei felt that his family would never be the same.
At that time, people knew either very little or nothing at all about what had happened at Hiroshima. Aliaksei remembered that the soldiers had been wearing masks on the day of the evacuation. But radiation? What was that? Where was it? Since the plant’s opening, the city’s cattle and farming industries had seen significant growth. Business relations had also been cemented with other cities like Kiev, 130 kilometers away.
Anya was just happy because the apple tree in their yard had grown tall enough for her to climb. Perhaps these were the good things that came with the plant. Perhaps.
The night crept up on him just as he arrived at a place with no name, where he found a little house that rose up only a few meters high off the ground. He went inside to escape the cold for the night.
The next morning at first light, he took a tour around the house. Some plates, serving dishes, and corroded, dust-filled teacups formed a centerpiece on the wooden table. In the bedroom he found an old dress; once red, it had been irreparably discolored by sunlight until it was the same shade as the dirt that permeated the rest of the space. The old man peered through the window out into the abandoned garden, which was beginning to merge with the forest beyond.
Aliaksei left the house and resumed his journey.
“This once was a beautiful place,” he thought silently. “Nadezhda used to live here before.
But Nadezhda must no longer live here.”
A gentle breeze convinced him to take a rest that afternoon. As he continued further into the zone, the silence that hung over it grew more pervasive. Only the sound of a bird crashing into a nearby tree interrupted the muteness of the woods.
Aliaksei approached the wounded animal and gently picked it up. It trembled in his hands, its neck broken.
Suddenly, the old man dropped the bird, an expression of terror flashing in his eyes.
It was blind.
“Grandpa, tell me – did the fire get Papa?”
Natashenka took him by the hand.
But Aliaksei was tired. It had been three years since the explosion and Varenska still hadn’t been found.
“The guards won’t let you through. It’s a dead zone. You can’t go, Papa.”
The old man glanced over at the headline on the newspaper that lay at the bedside. The Soviet government had stopped construction of the plant’s fourth and fifth units.
“Do you know what it would mean if we were to return?” Even now there were remnants of red spots left on his wrinkled forehead: the same spots that had never disappeared on Anya.
“Do you know what that would mean?” she murmured.
Natashenka burst into tears.
“In this tree, the Nazis hung members of the Party. Later, we hung the Nazis. Do you know how much that costs, to hang a man in a tree and leave him there as an example for more than a week?
Now, this tree is dead. But if it could talk, what stories it could tell.”
Alexander Kravtsov settled into his thoughts as he crossed his arms. If he really tried, he could remember Aliaksei this way: an old man whose smile was still big enough to show the entirety of his dentures; an old man who, for all that he knew, hadn’t left Kiev, even when the Germans arrived and surrounded the city, killing more than half a million Russian soldiers. He had only moved to Pripyat when they had built the plant, and had christened it Lenin’s Central Nuclear Electricity. He’d never left Pripyat, not even when they evacuated the zone. Hanging over his ruined house, the trees of Chernobyl had grown and laid waste to everything. Branches like hands had split and extended from the reddish forest, striking at walls and windows.
As he circled the house, he found the well that they had built together more than twenty years ago. It was here that Aliaksei had crouched down and drank the little water he could cup in his hands. Alexander remembered how he had filled his canteen, and turned to gaze upon the forest of Chernobyl, that army of trees that surrounded everything in sight. Its green color had disappeared, and was now replaced by an unrecognizable shade in every direction.
“Wormwood in all of our houses,” he reminded himself. “That’s how the world will end.”
“What do you want?” asked the old woman.
“To find my son. And who are you?”
Cold, the old woman tugged at the piece of fabric slung across her body, which looked like it had perhaps once been a blouse.
“I used to live in one of these cabins with my two sisters. But that’s not the question you asked me, is it?”
Aliaksei looked at her, confused. He’d spent many hours walking and didn’t have much food left. The city couldn’t be too much further, but in the maze of vegetation surrounding him, he couldn’t be sure.
“Are we far from Pripyat?”
“No. Just a few hours that way.” The old woman leaned into her wooden cane and continued: “You know there’s no one in the city, right? The handful of people that lived there left for the other side of the river, far from the city and the plant. They don’t want to see anyone, and they don’t want to be seen either.” She scratched at the sores on her arms and smoothed out the few hairs left on her head. “Your boy died in the fire, you know. Returned to nature. It’s the destiny of all men.”
“You knew my son?”
“No, but I know those who seek. Let me tell you, old man: here, you’re only going to find fire. Not even a shadow of your son.”
Aliaksei stepped back and began to quickly move away from the old woman.
“There’s no one here, old man. There’s no way for you to save your son. But I’ll stay here and wait for you, just in case.”
Aliaksei turned and ran as fast as he could until the old lady was far behind him. Although obscured by branches, he could make out a shadowy building in the distance as the daylight began to fade.
LENIN’S PARTY WILL GUIDE US TO THE TRIUMPH OF COMMUNISM the Pripyat welcome sign told him. He continued down the main avenue until he arrived at his daughter’s and granddaughter’s old school. Its open doors received him silently.
He went in carefully, as the vegetation had begun to grow around the windows and ceiling. It had broken the floor as well, and climbed up the walls. In desperation the forest was dragging itself out of its emptiness and into the school.
The smudged blackboard left only a hint of a word that someone had once written on it. Aliaksei was afraid. Here it was impossible to even listen to one’s own thoughts. The silence was encamped around the city, and yet left not a trace. It hurled itself into the window like a blind animal, crashing into everything in its path: the furniture, the walls, the chairs, the map; until it finally reached Aliaksei’s own body. It crept into his skin and resounded in his heart. In this room, it was the only thing to be heard.
He held his breath for a moment when he heard a noise from out in the avenue, exhaling only when it was gone. He moved on, continuing to pass through the abandoned streets, the deserted commercial center. None of the streets had names: the radiation had burned them away.
The silence became more profound as Aliaksei approached the amusement park. Here too, the undergrowth had grown hastily until it became intertwined with the structures of twisted metal. A few meters away was the Ferris wheel, now cumbersome and paused in time. It rose up above him with no explanation to give. If he peered closely enough, he could still make out the faint yellow color of its passenger cars. It reminded him of Anya, and the countless times they had ridden the wheel together. Although looking down from above always triggered Aliaksei’s vertigo, his granddaughter would always shriek and laugh each time the car moved into the next highest spot. From the top, it would be possible to look over the entire city; even as far as the plant. He approached the control panel in the hopes of making the wheel turn again, but it was useless.
Aliaksei returned to his position, silently watching, hoping that a gust of wind might pull it out of its oblivion. It was then that he felt the first flakes of winter falling onto his head.
With it, the snowfall brought a chill. But Aliaksei hadn’t expected winter to arrive so early. From his seat in the amusement park, he watched the snow take hold of the city, passing through holes in roofs and windows and depositing slowly across the wilderness. In the distance, the old construction site of brick and cement: the nuclear plant. Hermetic and eternal, it towered over the city. Only the falling snow could continue to go near it without permission.
Then, a little ways away, Aliaksei believed he could see the silhouette of a man, carrying something in his hands. The old man began to call out to him, and walk toward him. The man in silhouette ignored him. Aliaksei began to run faster, but then he realized that the man wasn’t moving.
When Aliaksei arrived to face the man, he paused. He couldn’t hear his own heartbeat anymore; only the snow falling perpetually over the zone. In front of the plant, the statue stood absorbed, watching the fire in his hands that had been permanently put out.
Motionless, Aliaksei recognized him as the figure of Prometheus. He was finally home.