Author’s Note: This story and character is purely a work of fiction. However, the story is inspired by the 1986 Chernobyl disaster and the evacuation that took place in the town of Pripyat after the disaster. Therefore, events mentioned either in brief or in detail are facts and did happen. The author highly encourages readers to read more on the Chernobyl disaster and its aftermath to understand the context of the story more. The story is also dedicated to those who have lost their homes and lives to Chernobyl.
The moment my prayers are heard is when the barbed wire fence reveals its small bent corner to me. It is a sign, so simple and obvious, that this bent corner did not only answer my prayers, but the rest who came before me. The wire around the opening is frayed, seemingly chewed at by the stubbornness of us – the dogs who come crawling back to this place we once called home. That is what they see us as, they being the soldiers who helped put up these fences and guards the checkpoints, shouting day and night to people trying to enter that “This is an exclusion zone, only those with legitimate permits are allowed to enter!”
Sickened and contaminated dogs, they see us. Unworthy of their breaths to yell for our arrest for our crime of trespassing, they then point their rifles at us, maybe start to shoot at the unfortunate ones. Then what? Will they dump our bodies into concrete just like how they did the animals left in the zone? Where our souls will not even be able to roam our soil and our land in our death, for we have been mummified in the grey mixture they brought from their factories?
Where we live a few miles away from the exclusion zone, we tell ourselves stories, we reminisce, we pray, we hope. We keep hoping for our return back to our homes. Once we were sick of the hoping and the praying, that is when we put on our jackets, pack some food into our satchels, and make the journey back to our homes, whatever it takes. Some of us go on our own, some in groups of three or four. One thing’s for sure, once you leave, your name will seep from the memories of those who are left. No point trying to remember, because once you leave, you will have either made it safely there or arrested and possibly shot dead. We do not spend our time thinking which of those two possibilities the ones who have left encountered. All we do is pray one final time as they walk off into the distance that the land recognises their footsteps and their homes await them where they are headed. Then, we forget.
I do not think of those who are left back in the village we built temporarily, the place where we prayed day and night that they would finally let us back into our villages. I know my face is no longer imprinted on their memories so I let them go as well, and I face what is in front of me now.
The fence opening.
With a small prayer I pry open the fence a little more to accommodate my body passing through it. I crawl inside and pull down the fence I pried open to look exactly like it had been before to fool patrolling soldiers. Making my way into the forest line, it is like my body is transported to a different time. A leap in history. What happened the night of April 26 1986 shifted us into a new reality, a new place in history. When you exit the zone, you are brought back to the now, but when you step back in, everything is still under that other reality. It is still 1986, when time stopped.
The only thing moving and creating sound is me. Everything is silent except for the thuds of my boots, the exhale of my breaths, and the sweat sliding down my temples. No birds I can whistle to and sing to. It is like a glass dome has been placed over the entire place, enclosing everything in it, and anything that tries to fly or run in here will hit the solid wall of glass. Not even a sound dare makes its way in here.
The direction I am heading towards is my village, my lone home in the middle of the courtyard. The place where I grew up, where I buried my mother, where I gave birth to my children, where I fed them and their children, my grandchildren. My history is here and it is here with me. After what happened, they wanted to bury my history here without me. All of it, just like that. I pray they never know peace as long as I live.
Coincidentally, the direction I am heading towards is also where the other history lies. The reactor. The sarcophagus. I never call it any of that. I never mention it. Not in my conversations, not in my prayers and dreams. I never think of it. I never see it. Always in my dreams when I relive that night again, all I hear is the explosion. When I look out of my window, I see nothing. Just a black blankness in the distance. Some people in the temporary village want to talk about it despite it being a good few decades since it happened. They always struggle to find the words to describe it, so they beg and plead for us to find the words for them, as if we have them hidden in the palms of our hands away from them. When they grow tired of it, they scream the names of the scientists, the engineers, the people involved and who most likely are now already dead from extreme radiation. They scream and scream and scream until their voices are gone.
And so is the light from their eyes.
As I walk, I keep my eyes on the ground. I know my way well, I know these woods, I know where I am heading to, so I never look up. I never look up because I am afraid. Afraid for one second if among the branches and leaves I see it. I never want to see it again. I do not care for its presence even if I know it is still looming somewhere ahead of me because my village is not that far from it.
As I am nearing the end of the tree line, I smell metal. There is always that metal scent following you everywhere once you step foot inside the zone. They say it’s the radiation, but this is a different metal scent. I can only recognise it from one place and one place only. Before I know it, I feel the warm rivulets already sliding down my cheeks.
The clearing beyond the tree line gives way to what stands in the middle of it. The Ferris wheel.
It is obvious how long it has been here even if you did not grow up here. The flakes of chipped yellow paint, the rusted spokes, the ferns taking over the control booth at the bottom. I barely see any of that.
All I see is the wheel moving around and around with kids waving from inside the carriages high up in the air and all I hear is the joyful shouts all around me in this amusement park. I still see them and hear them. Of course, I am also facing this sadness, this emptiness that has taken over this place. I glance up one last time at the Ferris wheel looming above me and I promise it that all will be rebuilt again. Even if I will not be here again to witness it, I will still hear the running footsteps and the creaking metal from where I lay underneath. I pray for that.
It is almost sunset when I reach my village, or what used to be my village. I know what time it is despite not having a watch or anything by which I can use to tell the time of day. The birds used to be my time-teller. When the dusk breaks, groups of them flit around branch to branch, squawking loudly to one another as if they were waking each other from a night’s sleep. I woke up as well. Once dark is approaching, one of them would fly up high and chirp continuously, and slowly the rest follows suit until it becomes a whole commotion up in the sky well until the sun sinks below the horizon and the moon reveals its face. Now they are no more, but my nose still helps me. I am already used to the metal scent, so I can now pick up on other more subdued scents. The sunset has a distinct scent, the sweet earthiness of the grass puckering up for one last intake of light and the soil settling back as it readies itself for the cold. It’s a beautiful scent, and I smile proudly, still able to recognise it. There is hope again, and I hold it close to my chest.
Everything is almost unrecognisable amidst the destruction and the nature overtaking. I greet them all, the houses that are still standing. I sprinkle my prayers to the homes I walk past; I tell them to keep standing and to wait, their people will come back soon. They will be able to give their warmth to and protect again. Just be patient.
A cry escapes my throat as I see my home. The main building is still standing, the wood flaking and grown all over with moss, ferns, other greens I do not recognise that have called my home their home. The small barn next to it is destroyed, the wood collapsed and slowly being consumed by the plants. I dare not think of what has happened to all the animals I left behind. Especially my little koshka. All I left the small one as the soldiers forced me out of my own home to evacuate was a bowl of milk and a little prayer of a promise that I will be back soon as I gave her one last scratch of the ears.
Walking up to my front door, I realise it is no more. The door has been kicked down, and everything that is still left inside has been turned upside down. Everything is a mess. The cabinet near my front door is on its side, some pieces of glass tchotchkes shattered into pieces on the floor. I walk deeper into my house towards the kitchen and living room. The very thing I have always feared has happened in my own home. The room is empty save for the dust, dirt, dead leaves, and plants growing everywhere. All gone and looted. The tattered couch where decades of memories were seeped into, the wood dining table where all sorts of stains and scratches mar the surface lovingly, the shelves of leather-bound books my father left behind. All are replaced by an empty space where dust and dirt gather.
We’ve always heard stories of looting taking place here, the fear bright in everyone’s eyes as we pray each of our homes are protected from the sight of the looters. Never in my life would I expect it to happen to mine. I feel vulnerable, exposed, terrified now that only emptiness surrounds me here. My luck and prayers had to run out, it ran out the moment I stumbled across that opening in the fence earlier today.
I go back outside to see the light is slowly fading. A sudden weakness takes over me, lethargy dragging its fingers down my body. There is a little clearing of grass behind the house, I see the stone indicating where my mother was buried and I lay down next to it.
I feel the soil accepting me again as I accept it under me. They say the soil here is dangerous, it’s contaminated, every inch of it. The radiation has fallen and covered it, suffocating it and everything that rests under it. I place my hands at my sides and dig my fingers into it, the soil giving way and moving loosely around my fingers. The scent of metal hits me again. Tears flood my eyes and I close them tightly. I am filled with lightness and heat, my soul slowly seeping into the soil under me and making way for radiance.
They once called us O Beaming Ones because we live close to where it happened. When it happened, a bright blue beam shot up to the sky from the explosion site. It was beautiful. Now, I feel it shoot out from my chest right up to the sky. The heat swallows me, and with what energy is left in my hands I dig up the soil under me and slowly place them over my stomach, my chest, my neck, my face.
Heavy footsteps from far. Soldiers shouting. Rifles butting against their back. I know they are here to take me, to pull me up, to scream at me, to arrest me, to take me away from my home, from my history. They have found me. I am here, I am buried. They will have to unbury me where I lay, my body a beaming column that will burn their hands and their shovels. They will have to build another fence around me, around my home. They will scream and plead for the right words to use to describe what they see, and they will be terrified to look down, afraid they will stumble across my bones and my history. For this is where I lay with my beaming history and where I will continue to lay.
Written by: Natasha