I was just like hundreds of others: simple, without any particular desires, without an excess of ambition, I just was. I loved when everything was clean, when it was loud, when the kettle whistled and the aroma of cheap Nescafé Classic and Slava’s Bond Red cigarettes filled the air; I loved when people visited me—lots of people, so many that there wasn’t enough space for everyone; I loved when the neighbor children ran over because I always kept candies hidden in the bottom drawer of the cupboard—you know, those Royal Masterpiece chocolate hazelnut truffles from our own Donetsk chocolate factory—who doesn’t know them? So Slava’s buddy Valerka’s kids, Vanka and Zhenia, knew about these small “masterpieces” and came to get some every Friday. Right behind them would be Valerka himself. “Just don’t tell Mom that you’ve eaten a bunch of chocolate again. Plus you have to keep up our end of the bargain and eat dinner.”
Valerka . . . I loved him too. I think he and my Slava were together from the beginning. They started everything together: looked for the goods, the warehouses, the wholesalers. They drove around the country in a truck together. Valerka even lent Slava some money at the end of the crazy nineties so he could buy me—me, a kiosk at the market. Valerka really liked coming over as a friend; his own kiosk was right nearby, but he loved to say that he liked my “ambience.” Perhaps. It was all because I loved books—not to read them, but to have them stand in a line on a shelf and show off their spines. I liked nice music, so something pleasant was always playing in the corner. I liked my walls, which were covered in interesting black-and-white photographs that Slava’s daughter sent. Lots of people were surprised that she turned out so starry-eyed and “old school”: once when Slava wanted to give her a new camera for her birthday, she turned him down and asked instead for more developer. His daughter, of course, was already grown and rarely visited the city of her childhood. She had been working in the capital for a long time, but every month she mailed him black-and-white photos from her trips. I loved her photographs; so did Slava. Valerka obviously loved them too because he always came and looked at them and said they were the pinnacle of my “ambience.”
That’s what I was like. I resembled the hundreds of others, but I was different too. I woke up very early—by six in the morning work was already in full swing—but I also went to bed rather early. I was an early bird, or whatever it’s called. But I guess we were all early birds there. It was that kind of work. The market. Hustle and bustle.
And then it suddenly started. I didn’t understand anything, people just kept getting angrier and it really saddened me. Shoppers would approach Slava and it would start up—curse after curse, and I had to listen to it all. Where could I have gone? There was exactly nothing I could do. I knew I was born here and I would die here. I stopped enjoying when it was loud. It was an unpleasant loudness, scary, hostile, and it filled the air with horrors and endless grief. And the air . . . It had become different, thick with panic, aggression, and pain.
I watched as my neighbors were shuttered and the crowds grew thinner with each passing week. There were more and more “closed” signs. But Valerka stayed and believed it would all “work itself out,” that it was just a passing threat, even though this menace almost caused him to divorce his wife, who also believed everything would end soon, just in another way. But then everything went sideways.
I remember that Friday very well. From early morning it was dark all around. Clouds huddled in the anxious sky. The deadly sounds, which we had already gotten used to, were raining down from “that side.” There were almost no people, but I was still open for business. Zhenia popped in to say hi to her dad. Her younger brother had by then been taken away to their grandma in Berdiansk. But Zhenia wanted to stay in the city and be with their dad. She was always waiting for him to wrap up work so they could go to the warehouse together. She proudly sat in the front seat of her dad’s Sprinter and carefully studied passersby through the windows. Even this small kid noticed that there were fewer people on the streets of this once densely populated city. She also noticed that there hadn’t been traffic jams on Kyiv Boulevard for some time. What she didn’t know was that that morning Valerka had told Slava they were leaving because the neighborhood had become less safe and it made no sense to wait any longer.
Sometime after lunch, a few customers visited Valerka, and Zhenia took the opportunity to run and get some candies from me. She was holding on tight to a water gun as if she was afraid someone might take it away from her.
“Ahh,” the girl screamed. Suddenly it was loud and scary. We were all frightened. “Zhenia? Where are you?” a frightened Valerka shouted.
“Daddy, they’re going to bomb us.” She laughed. “If they start to bomb us, we’ll run away again and hide.”
This phantasmagorical girlish laughter against the background of bullets whistling by very close was the last thing I remember. Slava started quickly grabbing some things.
“Slava, what’s taking you so long? Let’s go!” Valerka shouted.
“Uncle Slava, let’s go. They’ll bomb us,” Zhenia repeated.
Slava, meanwhile, was looking for his keys, but no sooner had he found them than his phone rang. It was his wife. He was about to answer when something exploded very close by. The shock wave was so strong that Slava’s keys and phone flew out of his hand with the roar. For a few seconds everything around us froze like in a blockbuster movie full of special effects. Then Zhenia started to cry, Valerka began comforting her, and Slava finally locked me up. They ran away, leaving behind their former life with the aftertaste of cheap coffee and Bond Red cigarettes. They ran like ants whose anthill had just been obliterated.
Later they found out that their Putilovka, that is, my home, was shelled by heavy artillery. But that was later, when Valerka, Zhenia, and Slava had made it to safety.
As for me . . . I’m no different from everyone else, but I guess I got a bit luckier. After the terrible shelling, I remained intact, unlike many of my neighbors. I preserved their past within me along with the books, photographs, unfinished coffee, forgotten eyeglasses, and TV guide from August 2014.
Over these years I have carefully held on to the past Slava left inside me when he saved his own life. I heard the unbearable sounds when my neighbors perished, when the bricks were turned to dust, when the glass shattered mournfully, sending millions of little pieces up into the air.
I again saw the world two and a half years later, when Slava arrived to gather the things he’d abandoned and say goodbye. After three years of war, after countless kilometers of hope and tears, he and his wife were forced to go live with their daughter in the capital. “Well, buddy, see you later. Thank you for keeping all this and thanks for holding on,” Slava said, taking a look around me. When he was gathering his things, Slava found the candies that had expired in 2014 and a forgotten pack of Bond Reds. “Ukrainian! What a treasure. There’s nothing like this in the city anymore.” He pulled out a cigarette and lit it, looking around at the surrounding kiosks that had been bombed to the ground. The market had been closed for a long time. The body of a missile was sticking out of the roof; the earth was sown with glass and shell casings. Valerka’s neighboring kiosk was also destroyed, just like his life.
“What’d you have to see and hear, my friend?” Slava said to himself. Then he quickly grabbed his things, closed me, and left.
© Kseniya Fuchs. By arrangement with the author. Translation © 2022 by Ali Kinsella. All rights reserved.