Vowels, Vodka and Voices

Hannah Nineteen

Thursday, 7 AM Kyiv, Ukraine

Hot, thick air smelling of over-due chestnut blooms and broad fur-bottomed leaves greeted Hannah. The morning, almost motionless and already stifling, reminded her of Miami or even a mild Panamá, not the front door of the Tundra’s Steppe region. Kyiv, Ukraine.

She lay in a narrow twin bed, a pencil bed, she thought, and remembered arriving at the tall apartment building late the night before. It had appeared to Hannah to be a rooming house taking up two or more floors of the building, but no one had explained any part of her arrival, and she had not asked. A woman had expected them, showing Hannah almost immediately to this room. Hannah had nearly neglected her handy-wipe routine, she had been that tired. Nearly, but not quite.

The morning air, already settling into stillness, drifted in through a barred window. Hannah noticed the lack of a screen, the orderly décor of the room, the frill on the tatted lace window curtains, and the bedside telephone from the 1960’s.

The flight from St. Louis had been filled with regrets for her, and beer for Anton.  Thankfully, he had been talkative, and Hannah, behaving as a good student should, had developed her fluency through listening.

At least she fit better into the small craft’s seats than did Young Cleo, cramped, unhappy and showing her discomfort. They had transferred planes at Teterboro, a private airport in New Jersey. Eventually Anton had begun to snore, and Hannah had turned to The Wall Street Journal, translating it into Ukrainian as she read the pages to herself, ignoring her misgivings while concentrating on the language. She had muffled the drone of the engines with her ear plugs, but had not slept at all.

When she greeted her hostess in Kyiv, it had been in a careful, but correct, Ukrainian voice.

As Hannah further woke, the tiny doubt that had sat itself down in the back corner of her mind began to wake up and stretch. Hadn’t that been her objective: to learn the Ukrainian language? That mixture of Ukrainian with other Slavic languages – what had Anton called it? Surgic? – was certainly unnecessary. And to what third language had he been referring? Perhaps that was simply conversational filigree to keep her interest.

With the humid air backing into the room, Hannah decided since she had met her objective, she would take the next flight back to St. Louis, and continue on her vacation. The return flight did not appeal to her, but even less did the promise of inescapable heat and screen-less windows. What did she owe Anton?

She rose from the narrow bed, carefully turning back the blankets and sheets from their tucked-in position inside the frame. Sitting on the side of the bed, she let the jet-lagging dizziness drain away before standing up. She felt hot. Her brain operated as if in slow-motion. She touched the spot at the back of her ear.

Hannah wondered if the air might be fresher outside the room. The rectangular window, divided into three unequal sections, had metal slats disrupting the view. She stepped closer, pulled the window into a wider opening and looked out.

The apartment had been built on a hill that fell away quickly toward a planned grid of city life. Behind the window’s mass of green, she saw a sleek golden dome above a bright white tower, then a golden dome resting on a green tower, then another, and another, each one a smaller replica of the first.

For a reason she couldn’t quite name, she held her breath, taking in the sight. Doubt fled her mind, and Hannah knew she was looking at the view that would keep her in this country a little while longer.

“In person. Right here. In front of me. Kyiv’s famous St. Sofia Cathedral,” she whispered.

Through the shimmering hot air, behind St. Sofia’s, she saw the competing brilliant gold domes above the pale blue and white of St. Michael’s Cathedral. In this region of perpetual struggle, even the churches shouldered each other aside to claim territory. Or tried to. The sight pulled her attention with a surprisingly strong demand. She could postpone her trip back for a day. In fact, she felt she must.

Cleo Nineteen

Thursday, 7 AM Kyiv, Ukraine

The crisp bed sheets held her tight and the thin pillow eased her head. She breathed deep, a long and pleasant in-breath, full of aromas she couldn’t name. Cleo opened her eyes just enough to confirm it was morning. But the bed had cradled her all night, and the fatigue of the flight hadn’t yet lifted. She hadn’t quite let go the comfort of sleep, didn’t want to. The air held an intoxicating quality that kept her in the pleasant state between wakefulness and sleep. She invited the full restfulness back in.

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