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from the February 2017 issue

War

The child, a girl, is running ahead; she has a tiny face, long, thin arms and legs—in all, she makes you think of a puppy that you know will grow into a big graceful dog. It’s hard not to notice her bright, wide-open eyes and the almost unnaturally long lashes. Those eyes make her look a bit unreal, like an elf. She’s got a skateboard under her arm, even though it’s the middle of winter and the snow has just fallen. She gets to the elevator, which luckily has stopped precisely at that floor, and she waits—her parents are saying good-bye to someone, repeating the same farewells yet again: very best wishes, love and good health, yes, especially good health.

There’s a passageway downstairs—the girl takes advantage of it to have a go on the skateboard. Just a few seconds, but it’s enough: the child’s joy is absolute, it lacks nothing.

"Put your hat on," her mother tells her before they go outside.

The hat is light blue with a big pom-pom. The girl’s little face almost disappears underneath it, only her shining elfish eyes are visible.

"So winter has come," the child says with satisfaction, as though she’d won a bet.

A fine snow is still falling; in the street light it looks like silver dust. The man bends back the wipers and sweeps off a downy layer from the rear window with the edge of his hand. The woman stands motionless for a moment. She remembers the winters of her childhood—and that same joy which her daughter is feeling now. What separates adults from happiness, she thinks, is memory, which is by definition tied up with things that used to be but are no longer.

The little girl clambers into the child-seat at the front, the mother sits in the back, the father starts the engine and, very slowly, moves off. The snow is fresh, untouched, just like the Arctic used to be, or the tops of mountains and bottom of the ocean. The trees look like intricate sculptures; the city, transformed, pretends it can’t remember a thing. The mood of the winter night stirs even the adults; the father begins to sing a carol, but he can’t remember the words so he and his daughter make up their own. The main point of their antics is to amuse the mother, which sometimes succeeds and sometimes not—this time, it does. When they’ve run out of ideas, they put on some music—they chance on Rock ‘n’ Roll Suicide and try singing all together. Life may be short, but all the same these festive moments do happen such that you might almost— you’d like to think they were immortal.

They drive out of the housing development onto the main road, there isn’t much traffic about.

"It might be slippery," says the woman from the back seat.

Fortunately, they don’t have far to go. The man glances in the rearview mirror; their eyes meet for a moment. Those elfish eyes—the child gets them from him. The woman smiles and takes off her glove, perhaps she means to ruffle his hair, but at that moment, briefer than any intention, the man brakes violently and the woman hits her face against the back of his seat.

"What’s going on?"

The man doesn’t answer. He veers left to overtake the silver BMW that nearly caused an accident barely a second ago, but the BMW speeds up and, without signaling, crosses into their lane and brakes. The woman looks at the little girl and sees that her fear is as absolute as her joy was before. They turn right, someone’s honking their horn; the BMW draws up beside them and slowly begins to push into their lane, forcing them onto the verge.

"I’m calling the police," says the woman.

"Yes," says her husband and brakes again, then tries again to overtake the BMW.

The woman taps out the number. The operator answers. The BMW speeds up sharply and drives right under their wheels. This time it halts slanted across the road and there’s no way out, they have to stop. The woman is explaining to the operator where they are: by some miracle she manages to remember the name of the street.  She’s shouting because a man—well, a boy, really— dressed in black has gotten out of the BMW, he lunges at the driver’s door and yanks the handle. The operator is shouting at the woman to wait, they’re sending a patrol car. The woman shouts into the handset. An automatic voice answers: "Please wait, please wait, please wait." The boy is banging his fist against the window.

"Open up, fuckers, open up," he’s yelling.

"Don’t open it," says the woman because she realizes there are more of them over there; girls, too.

"Fuck you, dickhead, you cut right in front of me!" the boy yells.

In the rearview mirror, the woman sees the face of this man, her husband, changing.

"Don’t open it," she begs.

She’s sure that the guy’s going to smash the window when suddenly, brakes screeching, they lurch backward. They hear a horn and another car passes them at full speed. The woman holds out her phone, shows the boy, and mouths "Police" through the window at him, like a fish in a tank. The boy runs to his car. "Please wait, please wait, please wait," repeats the automatic voice in the handset. The woman hangs up. They manage to overtake the BMW. They mount the pavement, land on the road right at the red light, and drive straight through; another horn sounds, but a moment later they’re alone on the road—and it’s over.

"Can you see them?" the woman asks.

"They’re back at the lights," the man answers in a colorless voice.

The child sits with wide-open eyes, motionless, clutching the skateboard.

Two more cars overtake them, neither is the Beemer. The phone rings—it’s the woman from the police switchboard.

"Is everything all right?"

"We got away," said the woman, sensing that any minute now she’ll burst into tears.

"A-ha. So everything’s all right?" the operator double-checks.

"It’s fine."

Yes, everything is fine.

"I’ll call off the patrol," declares the operator and hangs up.

They park in front of their apartment, take their things out of the trunk. The woman tries to catch the man’s eye, but he’s not going to look at anyone right now, he’s shuttered tight. The woman puts her arm around the child. And only then does the child cry. She cries like she can’t have cried since she was a baby, she’s sobbing so hard that she can’t even catch her breath at moments. Her mother comforts her, tries to turn it into a joke. They go upstairs slowly. Finally the woman manages to make the child laugh, she says how proud she is of her father and how some people only know how to shout "fuck" and "dick," probably no one has ever taught them any better. They go inside, the father still in his coat, unpack their things, the mother runs a bath for the child.

The little girl is in the bath and the woman stands under the ventilation hood in the kitchen, smoking. Outside, the snow is falling thick and heavy, the world is blurring, the city is losing its contours. Slowly, the woman blows out a great cloud of smoke. Snowflakes in every shade of white fill the window like enlarged pixels. What is it that’s devouring us? the woman wonders. And she thinks that what separates adults from happiness are things that were not there before, but now they are and demand our attention. The man, still in his coat, switches on the Christmas tree lights. A colorful multitude of little reflections appear in the windowpane.
 

© Julia Fiedorczuk. By arrangement with the author. Translation © 2017 by Anna Zaranko. All rights reserved.

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