Kateryna Kalytko

Artwork by Shay Xie

“Fundamental untranslatability of landscape,” he thought to himself as he cast a look around the slope covered with dense stands of leafy stone pines and high-rise buildings like dusty white puffball mushrooms. The dark openings of the windows looked like small spore pockets covered with tiny shells of balconies, and the building’s glassed stairwell reminded him of a wormhole, causing him to wonder, "Is it good or bad to live like a spore inside such an organism, even with a sea view?" Grabbing the wheels of his wheelchair with his strong hands, he rocked back and forth just once at the top of a sloping gravel pathway to check the incline and make sure that he would be able to steady the wheelchair without help. Having decided he could, he set out.

“Borders, borders, nothing but borders everywhere you look!” he heard a local lunatic yell yesterday in the “Mama Juanita” roadside cafe. And no wonder: this land was cut into pieces like the last slice of cake that relatives cannot divide among themselves—borders truly were everywhere. He and Halka were having lunch after having crossed the border half an hour ago, but on the hill in front of them was already writhing a giant state flag of yet another checkpoint. The loud lunatic sniffled and dropped his head on the table over crossed arms. After a glance at the poor man, he decided to ask for a glass of whiskey to go with his pot pie. The bartender, who was lazily polishing glasses, announced that the man’s wife died giving birth in the nearby town while the man himself waited in line to go through customs, practically next door. Since then he has had no peace, and keeps coming back here as if jumping back into a time machine, drinking, damning the war and borders—and no wonder, said the bartender. At least that’s what he understood. No one is bound to know all languages in the world, especially the language of despair.

Actually, that’s exactly what’s untranslatable—the winding scar of the border that runs through even the water, he thought as he gained momentum, accumulating irreversible acceleration. This ravine of untranslatability now appears in Ukrainian as well. A layer of lexis with its rhizome root growing directly from the war but reaching into peace, struggling to explain something. In this way the tree maintains the integrity of the slope where it’s growing, or the integrity of a cracked wall, where its seed fell a long time ago. Now for some reason all seeds fall into cracks, embellishing scars with flowers. A popular saying goes: scars make the man. But what if this land is feminine, what fate awaits a woman with such a scarred face? An easy lover for everyone? A drug cartel leader? Vagina dentata that chews one generation of men after another and gets pregnant with stone babies? Or maybe, after all, this land is masculine, albeit endowed with feminine features? He had already come across a man like this, in the morning, when they got off the ferry. The man had stopped Halka and had endlessly showered her with compliments before asking her out for coffee. She had stepped aside, flattered, giggling and blushing in the stranger’s company. She forgot that he has the ears of a military interpreter—he is like a sea anemone that never sleeps and is quick to grasp the plankton of accidental sounds.

Here, people call men like that "martins." That is, birds. It’s a bitter irony, when your own name is Martin as well. Mother was a librarian and a fan of Jack London, in particular of Martin Eden. These days their friends always tease them—they were a couple of birds: Martin, the gull, and Halka, the seagull. Of course, it’s a joke for those who understand the difference between a martin, a marine wanderer, and a poor little seagull that has her hatchlings on the side of a worn-down road—all those ornithological nuances.

Now Halka has left with the martin, not with Martin. He found out when he woke up. And then he even saw them with his own eyes, after he got ready all by himself and went out for a walk in the park. They were drinking cocktails in the hotel bar, though it was early even for breakfast. A wave of disgust splashed him in the face and stopped somewhere near the throat. Men like these are called martins because they meet all kinds of passenger watercrafts that sail in local warm seas, crowd around them, and pick up women, just like regular martins pick up the scraps. Scraps, scraps. The wheelchair was accelerating, the advance downhill was becoming steeper and steeper.



The metamorphosis of a soldier into a military interpreter is very easy, especially if your military career is technically over: it is enough to fill out a sign-up sheet with your name and the word “volunteer” next to it. The metamorphosis of a human into a soldier is a bit more complicated. He was digging in his past trying to find the exact moment that had prompted this choice, but he was no longer sure of anything. Foreign language courses, rowing classes, even weekly training on a firing range—this wasn’t enough, none of it had played a pivotal role. Maybe it was love, god dang it? Maybe. The only reason he had fallen for Halka was because she looked just like the girl who had ruined his life.

Lots and lots of light. This was his most important memory of a provincial garrison town where he lived with his parents and an older brother, who had grown up too quickly, and then got deployed to Sakhalin. The light of garrison childhood, spread in the air among three-storied red brick buildings, was like a thin layer of a golden caramel on the bottom of the pan used to bake fruit pie in the mornings. Somehow they got along, four fourteen-year-olds from the neighborhood: they all went to the same school, three of them had recently moved to the garrison town together with their parents—Hercules, Bodia, Myshanya, and he. Very naturally they became a small, close-knit group of friends. On one of those afternoons that always invoke images of Cuba (God knows why, but at such moments he always thought of Cuba with palms along the esplanade and dark-skinned girls holding cigarettes between their lips), they were sitting under the brick wall of Hercules’ house and sluggishly exchanging jokes and basic information about their lives. They hadn’t yet become the kind of friends who can write each other’s biography. It was scorching hot, too hot to even want to move. But she had come out of her apartment building entryway with such a bouncy step, it seemed like she was almost running in her blue spaghetti-strap tank top, with a surprised look in her eyes and a bewildered smile. She was carrying a cake in a box. Seeing the guys, she cowered a little, then bit her lip and resolutely pushed forward, to visit her aunt or some other relative, or perhaps a favorite teacher, he never found out. Embracing the box with both arms and looking straight ahead despite their teasing, she walked past them with the same bouncy step that was equally close to a run as it was to a dance. As it turned out, this was all it took for a reserved and shy boy like him to fall in love.

She turned out to be Hercules’ younger sister, her name was Lika. She and her brother were so close they were almost fused. Their father, an aircraft mechanic, would come home for short visits. When he did show up he would always take them for a ride in a black motorcycle sidecar that looked like an old hippo. Lika’s blond hair fluttered in the breeze, and she gave her shocked neighbors scornful looks. Her stay-at-home mom was nothing like the typical woman of this town: she wore bright makeup, cooked great food, and treated them to pastries, although she spent most of her time with her pampered girlfriends, officers’ wives. The brother was protective of his sister, but sometimes allowed her to spend time with him and his guy friends. On those occasions they usually played cards, told funny jokes, ran to the river to swim and jump off granite blocks, and stole cherries that hung over the fence of other people’s gardens.

A few times he saw Lika watching him as he did his rowing exercises. He looked at Lika, Lika looked at him, he felt giddy, the world spun and seemed beautiful and full of possibility. But when, after two weeks, which could easily have been two years, he went to Hercules’ house to fetch him but stumbled upon Lika, all these possibilities were destroyed in one fell swoop. Without declaring war, the girl reached out to the table in front of her and grabbed a plate and hurled it right at his head. She missed, of course, the plate crashed against the wall, spattered all around in a rain of tiny shards, but he forever remembered the fury in her eyes there and then. If before Martin thought that he might be unwanted when it came to girls, now he grew certain it was definitely the case. He didn’t know if he should be afraid or ashamed, so he chose the most reliable option—to retreat into his shell. He hibernated almost a year. Get-togethers with friends were his only periods of social activity. Together they went hiking, wandered along the river, sat on granite rocks, laughed and got philosophical about life; it was there that they drank for the first time, and there that they shared stories about their first adventures in love. Actually, the guys shared stories while he just kept silent and listened. He still dreamt of Lika. And so he vowed to man up and ask her whether anything might still happen between them.

He was meticulous in his preparation. He watched her for a few weeks. Like a spy, he studied her everyday life, all of its bright nuances and darkest corners. He followed her movements from afar but nevertheless—with eyes closed or open—always saw her in front of him like a tiny beacon in her summer cambric dress with blue flowers. At night, instead of sleeping, he conjured up answers to all the questions that she might pose. He would not let her catch him off balance. It seemed like there was nothing left in the world she could possibly talk about that he had not already thought of.

During one of his reconnaissance missions, Martin saw her alone on a street. He squeezed his throat so that his heart wouldn’t jump out and approached her resolutely.

“Can I ask you something?”

“No, you can’t,” she replied with a flat voice and walked past him.

He stood still, rooted to the same spot, feeling the cold waters of the Mariana Trench swirl around him. He is a deep water clam; from now on his shells will be exceptionally hard and always closed.



Years went by, he saw his friends less and less. The situation was further complicated by the fact that almost everyone in their small group of guy friends was now seeing almost everyone in Lika’s group of girlfriends: Hercules was dating Iryna, a hairdresser from a street corner salon; Myshanya was dating a stunningly beautiful college student, Andriana; and one other girl from the group, a high school student named Olena, had eyes for Martin himself. Every time they hung out together, she was always teasing him and giggling. Lika found this situation entertaining, and she became dead set on the idea of setting him up with Olena—she thought it a thrilling experience, like a sport. In the end, he finally mustered up the courage to do something just to spite Lika.

High school graduation came, and after the official ceremony and a boring banquet in the school’s cafeteria, he and Olena very naturally found themselves in a dusty storage room behind the stage of the assembly hall. Myshanya, who was an assistant to the school’s movie technician, had the foresight to supply his friend with the keys. Squeezed between a drum and a broken piano, under a pioneer clarion with a dirty polyester rag on its handle, they had already been kissing for a long time when his hand delicately fell on her breasts. Something unexpected happened: Olena, who had seemed ready for anything, suddenly pushed him away and said, “You boys are all the same!”—and then got up and left. That evening, he sat for a long time in the storage room alone, perplexed and crushed. He decided he would join the army right after graduation.

Martin always knew that the roots of his strangest adventures were hidden away in a rich soil of dictionaries and self-teaching guides to foreign languages, as befits exotic flowers. For the next year, while waiting to come of age, he worked as a tour guide assistant at a travel bureau. In this job that his father had leveraged his connections to get him, he was more of an errand boy, but at least now he was among people. During one of the tours he worked with a group from Poland, where a girl he liked, Agnieszka, was mixed in with old shriveled women, a beautiful flower among weeds. Again the same damn type: big bright eyes, long hair with alternating light and dark strands, willowy body of a young freshly caught sardine, almost flat—he later realized that she looked just like the girl from the music video to Kaoma’s “Lambada,” whereupon his heart began to ache. Again, they didn’t manage to get up to anything except hasty lascivious kisses, followed by a short romantic correspondence, which provided enough impetus for him to embark on a crazy overnight hitchhiking trip to Przemyśl in autumn rain; problems with crossing the border, calls to his father—everything to be able to show up at Agnieszka’s house without warning, almost giving her mom a heart attack—only to find out that his sweetheart was out of town. After a few days she came back in a hurry, confused and a little angry, but nevertheless went with him to Łańcut, where they walked in the park in a frigid wind, talked about everything in the world, and kissed. And then the time came for him to join the army.

He was not crushed by the barrack schedule, the expected humiliation from his seniors, and the lack of daily comforts. He felt that he was a useful element of the system, and spent his free time reading foreign language textbooks, and soon developed a tolerable routine. But a setback befell him shortly in the form of a letter from Agnieszka, accompanied by a photo, wishing him good luck in his service. Silence thereafter. He was deeply hurt. Instead of Agnieszka, he heard from an offended and forgotten Olena, completely out of the blue. She started writing to him often and politely, almost affectionately; she also sent along a photo. She was studying to become a cook. In one of her letters, she explained that she was writing to all the boys from their group, because she understood how important it is for a soldier to know that he is not forgotten. These first few months, when everyone writes letters to everyone, were followed by calm. Soon, even letters from his family were scarce. Only Olena wrote regularly now, sending him letters every other day; he could tell by the stamps on the envelopes. One day, on a night shift, he suddenly had an urge to talk to his fellow private, a village boy with the inconceivably illogical call sign “Butterfly,” but he had no idea what they might talk about. At such a crepuscular hour, in such an altered state of consciousness, it always feels like an incredible contact of civilizations is about to happen—a contact that answers all the questions. As long as common language can be found. Talking about girls seemed like a good idea. From his breast pocket, he got out two photos, one of Olena and one of Agnieszka, and showed them to Butterfly—which did he like more? Butterfly, who reminded him of the fabled blacksmith Vakula, tamer of both witch and devil, grinned and took the photo of Agnieszka. I like her more, she will be mine. Martin only nodded in agreement. Later he even wrote down Agnieszka’s address and gave it to Butterfly. He had to find a way to get back at this girl as well, he who always lacked ideas for revenge of his own. Olena and her regular letters—these were what was left for him.

Once she came to visit him on a weekend and brought a homemade apple pie. He took leave and went home, just in time to celebrate her eighteenth birthday. She invited him to bed that same evening, very simply and very naturally, without flirting, without playing hard to get. She was his first one, but he was not hers. He was awfully nervous, but she calmed him down with a kind of inherent, intrinsic female wisdom and took him in such a way that he still carries happy memories about that night through the years that have followed. When he went back to finish his service, Olena resumed writing to him just as frequently as before, except now her letters carried unconcealed tenderness, and in one of her letters she told him that they would have a baby. When he came back home next, he declared to his father that he could not imagine his future without the army, and to his mother that his girlfriend was pregnant and they would have to get married. Both sighed—one with relief, the other with bitterness—and started preparing.

One scorching afternoon, having submitted his application to the department of military interpreting and special language training, he ran into Lika. Summer had already become charred on the edges, like a crumpled love note in an ashtray, but it still hadn’t lost all its beautiful excitement that fills you to the brim and overflows. Lika was walking back from the store after a brief rain shower; the hood of her short red raincoat still over her head, an iridescent rainbow seemed to glow around her, like an aura. Pink scratches dotted her tan legs, not yet fully healed. One of the straps on her right sandal had been worn down, so that it made a loud splashing noise with every step. Scallions were sticking out of her shopping bag filled with greens. She was the first to talk, asking about his life. He worked up the nerve to ask her why she threw the plate at him, why she always shut him out. The answer: her brother, not wanting to dilute their all-boy group of friends with a girl, had made up a bunch of lies that Martin had supposedly slept with all the girls in the neighborhood and that Martin had spread rumors about her as being very easy, so she wouldn’t say no to him either. Now she regretted Martin’s impending marriage. He would never forget the sound of her voice as she spoke: “Come sit with me on a bench for a little bit while we still can.” During the conversation that ensued, it seemed as if they were discovering each other all over again.

Three days later, they found themselves in a worn-down resort near Odessa, damp air from the clay bluff breathing down their necks. They sat on the seashore, in front of a bonfire that they had built to roast sea snails skewered with wires, kissed and talked about everything in the world, the maps of their dreams touching at the borders. At night, they shacked up in a wooden cabin on rotten legs with no windows and pictures of ghastly Soviet cartoon characters under a vicious red sun drawn on the wall; it was stiflingly hot and full of mosquitos. He was afraid that he wouldn’t be able to do it, that a chill had settled in his bones after seven years of waiting, but they made love as if they had known each other forever, and then plunged together into oblivion. Lika woke him up six times a night, each time exhausting him as if it were for the last time. In the morning, he waded through thickets of wolf-willow and rush, where the entire insect kingdom was buzzing viciously, and then ran to find something for breakfast. As he returned with a loaf of bread and a piece of fresh-seeming sausage, he was euphoric and did not even think of how he would explain to a pregnant Olena his unwillingness to get married. But that morning, Lika grew surprisingly serious and said that everything that had happened in that cabin would happen once and only that once, that he had his own life and that she could not and did not have a right to ruin anything in it, and so on and so forth, saying everything one is supposed to say in situations like this. They traveled back in a battered suburban train together—this time in silence—on a seemingly never-ending ride.

Two months later he got married, with two Apaurin to help him make it through the ceremony, and without even getting into a fight with Hercules, who was a witness on the groom’s side—even after the vodka they had drunk straight from the bottle in a dark corner of the “Cypress” banquet hall. Meanwhile, in Olena’s belly their twins were kicking; she sat at the table with a happy absent look, stroking her belly through her enormous wedding dress. A month and four days later, their healthy and beautiful baby girls were born.

After Lika’s decisive answer, life accelerated . . . Studies, degree in military translation with honors, promotion to officer, several deployments. During the short periods of time he spent at home, the first thing that always struck him was how fast the girls were growing. Then, how his own wife was changing, subtly but irreversibly. It took him a long time to realize that Olena’s childhood friend about whom she told funny stories long before they got married, had been then—and still was—more than just a friend. That the girls, as they grew older, looked nothing like him. But it did not even occur to him to do a DNA test or something of the kind. He loved his daughters; as far as he was concerned, they were his.

Besides, Lika had started contacting him from time to time; he channeled all his energy into thoughts of what to do with this. Lika lived nearby; she had never gotten married. Sometimes they would meet and go on walks, and nothing more, but after every conversation he was ready to divorce Olena and start a new life with Lika. Olena understood everything, always greeting him with a curse, trying to stir up at least one minor scandal every day, making home visits unbearable for him. One day he finally had enough and packed his bags. He rented a tiny apartment with nothing but walls in a nearby block. He would pick the girls up after school, go on walks with them and help them with homework, but in the evening he would go back to his tiny apartment. Sometimes Lika would light up his bachelor pad with her visits, and those times were as good as that fantastic night at the downtrodden southern resort. A few times she started to talk about running away with him, and each time, these stories were as beautiful as they were fantastic. Lika’s father, whose constant horrible mood was one of the consequences of the Chernobyl accident containment, demanded that she put an end to this “criminal” relationship, and threatened to stop providing for her, so that she would starve to death with her teacher’s salary and her multi-child lover. While this tinged their meetings with bitterness, it also made them more exciting. One day, Lika disappeared, as unexpectedly as she had appeared in his married life. No note, no sign, no warning. Confused, he wandered around town hoping to bump into her, but did not, and he finally worked up the nerve to delicately ask her girlfriends. They said a bunch of nonsense about Lika, that she had allegedly moved to Amsterdam because she had found herself a foreign man, who approached her in English on a street one day, a man who made rubber dolls for a living back home, a man who was sitting on a gold mine, whose side she would never leave because she, a daughter of a military man, would most definitely be accused of spying and get arrested if she returned. Martin listened to all of this disbelievingly—how unlike Lika. Based on his experience, he would sooner believe that the story was a piece of well-crafted fiction. But the fact remained the same: Lika disappeared while he was right here, and he had to live with it. He even attempted to reunite with his wife, albeit in vain, and after a few years they separated for good.



He translated because he thought that people could find a common language, even though all his life experience proved the opposite. His job was to translate interrogations of prisoners of war, to take minutes, to translate letters of ultimatum and communiqués regarding peaceful settlements—all those products of monumental misunderstanding—and to explain to the media where the military stood on various issues, however pathetic the attempt. A common language did not exist, no matter what exoticisms he used to piece it together. Nevertheless, Martin tried to be a good soldier; he saw it as his life mission.

Lika was the only instance of mutuality in his life, but of a mutuality so strange that no mechanism could be constructed on the basis of its example. He had dreams where Lika spoke a magnificent melodious language, unlike any of the languages of this earth, but very beautiful—maybe it was a Martian language, and it very much suited her. Every time Martin thought that he would be able to put an end to all misunderstandings on the planet if only he could understand this language, but every time he would wake up failing to understand even a single word. After a while, he finished his service and became a reserve officer, a retiree no longer assigned to any major missions.

Up to that point he had been to Eritrea, he had seen Nakfa in ruins, and just could not make peace with the fact that the currency of this independent state would later carry its name. It was akin to paying for something and receiving your change in death. A short and unpleasant task had taken him to Afghanistan right after the execution of Najibullah, where he saw a bombarded Kabul and regretted that humanity had not died out sometime in the Middle Ages. Before that he had been to a war-torn Yugoslavia and saw an almost burned out Vukovar. He had helped organize convoys for refugees. One day, right before his very eyes, a carrier that was accompanying the convoy blew up and Jurica, his best friend from this region, was transformed immediately into a hose with liquid pumping into one end and gushing out from the other. Martin happened to be in the second armored carrier that wasn’t affected by the explosion; he was the first to get out and see Jurica writhing on the ground, gasping for air. His chest had shattered, and something else, it seemed, had also been damaged. Martin, directed by an incredibly forceful intuition, pierced through Jurica's neck and cut his larynx to give him air, and then for a long time fussed with a bandage, trying to stop the bleeding without cutting off any vital points. Jurica made it to a hospital where his condition more or less stabilized, but for the rest of his life, Martin suffered from pangs of guilt: what if he had done something wrong, what if he had harmed him with his hasty cricothyrotomy, and someone more skilled, more experienced, and more adept could have saved Jurica’s life beyond its most basic form of existence, and allow him to live it to its fullest? He had asked around—Jurica was still alive, it seemed, and still existing in the state that he had left him in. He felt an urge to visit him, but then realized that you cannot get too far when you are an old ruin in a wheelchair.

Actually, he had also lost his legs because of the need for understanding through language. As a soldier, his picture of the world was always clear, if not very pleasant. Fear festered like a spiny ball inside of him, for some reason always in the stomach, as if Martin had eaten too much of it. He often thought back to his first night under shelling. It was only at dawn that the enemy’s artillery quieted. The ground under his feet was crumbling somewhere inside of itself. During a short pause between flashes and explosions he, dazed and almost deaf, rolled into an old shell crater where he curled up and lay motionless. He suddenly had a thought that people who die like this look like mounds of mice droppings, and started laughing. He laughed and sobbed, protractedly and loudly, but his sounds were buried by the roar of artillery. During a pause in the explosions he made out a high-pitched howl. There was a dog in the crater, he realized, one he had not noticed when he climbed in. It was dirty, skinny, and God knows of what breed, with mud on its back hardened into something like armor. It looked at him with large yellow eyes. Thus it came to be that the two of them would spend one night together, huddled with each other in a crater, trembling and, from time to time, howling. If the dog could also laugh hysterically, Martin would have called it his brother. Fear is not a function of what you have seen or what you have lived through. To fear, you are always a kid being beaten, a dog at whom cruel children throw stones. It was a miracle that they made it out alive after that shelling—Martin emerged from the crater holding the dog in his arms. The dog, after it had been thoroughly washed, turned out to be white and shaggy, so Martin named him Marshmallow and, after having done his part, took it home to his mom.

When he found himself on the front lines in Donbass he realized that he wouldn’t be able to explain to anyone what was going on here. Not even to himself. Unless people saw it with their own eyes and talked about it in their own language. And so in those rare moments when his phone had a signal, he sent text messages, wrote letters, and sent them with the help of volunteers. He ended up rounding up a small group of his old buddies—war correspondents he could trust completely—and taking them to see that ravine of untranslatability: life on the border with war. Whenever they went to examine a sector of terrain, he would go first. It could not have been otherwise. Near Popasna, he and a tripwire found each other. Who knows where the hell his intuition was at that moment. He woke up in a hospital from the pain in his no-longer-existing legs. His friend-correspondents had not been injured, but they all disbanded, having recorded his story as well, and wished him a speedy recovery on Skype. Nobody likes it when someone else’s war appears too close. It was just as well that the doctors performed the surgery while he was still unconscious. He’d always thought it a better fate to die than become an amputee.

When Halka appeared at the door of his hospital ward, his first thought was: Lika’s back! Only later he saw that no, it was not her, this one was much younger and walked with a limp. She was working on a photo project about injured soldiers and, to his own surprise, since he hated this kind of showing-off of wounds and misfortunes, he agreed to be a part of it. While Halka circled around him with a camera, he thought how beautiful it is to have legs—then felt ashamed of the thought. They talked for a long time, also because she needed it for the project, and he had told her everything while in return she told him about her illness; he liked gazing at her with a long look, and pouring her more tea from a thermos, and adding to it a little cognac from the flask that the girls had brought him—how great when they are all grown up! It did not hurt his daughters’ feelings when two weeks later, upon discharge from hospital, he announced to them that he was moving in with Halka. Dad is a hero, Dad survived, now he is allowed to do anything.

His evening talks with Halka were a true touching of inner borders. He let her—not right away, but eventually—wash his residual limbs and apply medication to them, because he did not detect even a sliver of disgust from her eyes while she did it. After a few months, when he stopped feeling ashamed of his body in front of her, they fell into a ritual leading up to his evening bath: every time Halka wanted to help him he would angrily refuse and grumble that he was fully capable of taking care of himself, he would even raise his voice, but she would persist, and finally he would agree, almost unwillingly, to raise himself over the bathtub using his strong hands, while Halka held him under his arms and helped him lower himself slowly into warm water.

She slept with her head on his shoulders, with hands clasped over his chest like a little boat; he would not move out of fear of causing a storm in her sea of sleep. When they went to the city, he would always roll in his wheelchair on her right side so that she, limping on her right leg, could lean on him. Halka loved him, old and legless, he had no doubt about it, even though he had tried to tell her off so that she wouldn’t ruin her life—pretending to be angry even as he was secretly terrified. And now she sits at the bar with a young gigolo from the south.

It is strange how much nonsense one recalls while one’s untethered wheelchair is gleefully plunging downhill among stone pines and palm trees. Screeeeech, the wheels squeal from pressure. He remembers now a rusty carousel among brick buildings of his childhood world. He and his friends would jump on it four at a time or, when the girls were with them, eight at a time, and they would spin as hard as they could, sitting on seats with backs that have now long since rotted away. The point of the game was to hold on for as long as possible while a powerful centrifugal force flung everyone to the grass or onto asphalt pathways. He could always last for about five minutes. And then there was a second round of the game—who would jump back on the carousel the fastest?—but he never wanted to participate in this latter part. And now he does not want to jump on someone else’s carousel. He can already see the sea at the end of the pathway. After all, is it merely a coincidence that he was named after Martin Eden? Maybe he will also open his lungs to the sea water.


* * *

She was in the movies with a friend when his legs got blown off. When she found out about this, she felt such guilt that she decided to treat her life up till that point as atonement. Back in nursery school she once fell badly, dislocating her hip, an accident she recalled when receiving her diagnosis of Perthes disease, which in plain language, simply means that one of her legs is shorter than the other. Later she often thought, what, in fact, was it: bad karma or atonement? When you are a girl with a noticeable physical defect in a pathologically patriarchal society, it is hard-to-shrug-off sin. This sin might not even have been hers, but located somewhere in the labyrinth between the fourth and the seventh generations of her family—such sins do not have an expiry date. Or was it this morning’s sin that she had paid for up front? Now her leg was really making it hard for her to run. She had been running from the moment she found out that Martin had disappeared. He was the only one whom she had ever accepted wholly, like one accepts a child, as if shielding him with herself. She, who never once thought that she could have something like this with a man, often silently joked to herself that she was only able to accept Martin because he was shorter and smaller than all the rest. And that Martin was the only one who wouldn’t curse her legs, since he himself no longer had legs. Black humor. Though it is hard not to develop black humor when you grow up amidst ridicule and mockery behind your back, when the phrase “poor limpy” from the well-meaning gossipers of the neighborhood is the kindest thing being said to you. Martin made her a woman, he forced her to get out of the battered chair in the editorial room of an online newspaper and face the real, visible her and not be frightened. It was not that easy to carry him, both literally and metaphorically speaking, with all of his age and experience. At first her mom would not get off her back. She would repeat over and over, look, Halka, you have to look if he still has something undamaged below the belt, or else why would you want him like this? She did not care for her mother’s words, she already had doubts that she would be able to carry a healthy baby, but her mother would not stop bringing it up. During the first weeks after she had brought Martin home from the hospital, he was bathing and changing all by himself no matter how much time and effort it took, so she knew little about his body. So when finally she was able to take a good look while he was asleep she felt like that princess from a fairytale, who through candelight tries to make out the features of her bewitched husband she has not yet seen. Of course, adjusted for real life: it was not his face she was looking at. As it turned out, everything was in place, albeit slightly damaged by shrapnel. According to fairytale logic, at the very moment the room is struck by lightning, the prince wakes up and says, “What have you done, woman!” and disappears. But, considering adjustments for real life, the lightning did not strike after all, and the prince would disappear only a bit later. When they signed up for this goddamn resort, Halka had been optimistic that he would unwind, that the people here would not pay as much attention to his condition as they did back home. She had gone out for an Aperol with this pathetic local gigolo for two reasons: to prove to herself that she is at least somewhat attractive, and to prove to Martin that she believes in herself, and always will, just like she had promised. Just one cocktail, she was not going to go any further. Who could have known that his post-traumatic syndrome would explode like this! When Halka did not find Martin in the hotel room and ran outside, she found that more people than she had expected remembered seeing a legless man heading somewhere determinedly in a wheelchair. Go, go, just a little further, she can already see the wheelchair, if only it had not been accelerating so fast. In one fairytale, a princess in search of her husband wears out seven pairs of steel boots and in those seven years, work coarsens her feet until they bleed. She does not have steel boots, just one sick leg. She does not have seven years either, she does not even have seven minutes. Halka can understand the princess very well already.

With one last effort, she lunges forward, catching the wheelchair and grabbing it by the back, but she does not have the requisite strength to stop it. The wheelchair, having gathered momentum, pulls her forward with all its force, and she loses her footing. But as she falls she manages to throw his wheelchair over to the side in one deft movement. Martin rolls out of it and she climbs over him and covers him with her body. Both cry soundlessly. Martin gasps from the pain in his scraped shoulder and through blurry eyes catches sight of the white puffball mushrooms of high-rise buildings near the sea—at any moment now, he expects them to burst and spatter half the sky with black, human seeds.

translated from the Ukrainian by Tetiana Savchynska