Vowels, Vodka and Voices

Hannah Twenty

Thursday, 7:10 AM Kyiv, Ukraine

Hannah dressed, searched for a bathroom, girded herself with her morning routine, and found the dining room on the first floor down a narrow hall through an open door. Anton sat at one end of a square wooden table. The polish of the wood shone dark through the pattern of the white lace tablecloth. A long wall unit matched the table, and contained a display of dishes inside glass doors and many, many sets of tea servings.

Hannah nodded to Anton and gingerly took the seat next to him. Anton grumbled a greeting that Hannah did not clearly hear. She acknowledged him with her own monosyllable. He lit a cigarette, and Hannah moved to the opposite end of the table, near a window that offered the same heavy air as the window in the bedroom.

 On each of the dining room’s four tables sat diagonal rows of what looked like elongated sugar packets but bore the imprint of a coffee cup. Hannah picked one up, tore it open and let the contents fall into a cup near her. The strong, wake-up aroma of coffee burst out. Wasn’t Ukraine a tea-drinking country? She scanned the table, but there was no tea.

Dobre utra.” Good morning. The woman from the night before greeted Hannah in perfunctory Ukrainian. Hannah answered with the same. “Haryacha voda?” Hot water?

Hannah thanked her and lifted her cup for the electric pot the woman held, then stirred the overbearing contents into a muddy brew.

Hannah studied the room, trying to ignore the smoke gathering around Anton. How long could she hold back the ache behind her sinuses? The additional discomfort drew her attention to her stiff neck, aching shoulder and swollen ankles – leftovers from the long flight. In the dining room, the list went on: cigarette smoke, the heaviness of the air, the food smell that seemed familiar but that she couldn’t name, the coffee that replaced her usual tea. She fought an uneasy feeling.

Horizontal rows of utensils at the end of each table supplied four diners each. Salt crystals sat in a small saucer, four small cups with spoons resting inside set at a diagonal on each side of the table – three on her side, since she had one in her hand filled with coffee. Exactly four paper napkins lay arranged in a fan in the middle for a table of four. Exactly enough, placed in exact order.

Hannah recognized everything that the woman brought, but it was all so different. Soup for breakfast, pickles and beet salad, something that looked like light-colored meatballs and something else with an enormous quantity of mayonnaise, numerous small plates. And the smoke. It had been years since she had to tolerate cigarettes.

Even the host’s voice held a different quality. It was shielded, her words sheltered from meaning. Hannah wondered how – or if – her language abilities would translate into Ukrainian.

Anton lifted his chin to Hannah then gestured to the table, offering a small plate with a round portion of wobbling off-white substance.

Salo,” he said.

In his eyes she could see a smile or a challenge, Hannah couldn’t tell, only that the word itself called to her and she wanted to understand. She felt so fatigued.

Salo?” she asked.

“Is custom. You eat.”

She watched him take a knife to the salo, cut a thick slice, then spread it onto a piece of bread. As he chewed, his lips glistened.

Hannah picked up her knife, reached for the plate. The salo held together better than room-temperature butter, so she pressed harder until it split away in a wobble that unsettled her stomach.

Anton grunted an encouraging Ukrainian consonant. Hannah spread the fatty substance onto a piece of bread, took a small bite and chewed. The bread was slightly dry, so the salo gave a bit of lubrication. Hannah swallowed. Anton tilted up his chin.

Urah. Urah. Now you belong.”

“Solid bacon fat does that?”

Her stomach lurched as if coming out of an air pocket on the plane.

Anton grumbled a crowd of Cyrillic letters. Not Ukrainian, Hannah’s ears told her, not quite. She rose from her seat, brought her coffee cup with her and faced Anton.

“That’s the second language, Surgic. I don’t know if I can wait around for the promised third,” she said, then left the dining room as rapidly as she could, answering the plea of her stomach.

Cleo Twenty

Thursday, 8:05 AM Kyiv, Ukraine

Cleo woke with a gut-emptying feeling that told her she did not know where she was.

The slim long bed, the thin sheets undone from her sleep roll-overs, the heavy blanket that had fallen off the foot of the bed: all unfamiliar. But so comfortable. She recalled she had already let herself slip back into sleep earlier, and felt that had probably been some time ago. She had slept deeply. Cleo should really wake up this time.

As she began to put together the past day or two, she felt a bemused relief to at least be off the tiny plane. This was what private air companies offered? She would never complain about business class again.

What an ordeal the long overnight flight, the changing of planes and the continued journey had been. She hadn’t thought to confirm with Anton what the seats would be like. She had thought, being a private carrier, the comfort would be first class. The lurching of the plane had prevented her from asking even one of the many questions that came to mind. Her headache had clenched on tight and stayed with her the entire journey.

She breathed in the heavy air. Breathed again. No headache. No headache? As she continued to wake, Cleo realized that she had slept well, felt rested. She stretched her neck, tilted her head. Still no pain.

What was that luscious aroma? A cooking smell, it pushed her awakening state.

“Breakfast,” she said, pulling out a sarong from her day bag, collecting yesterday’s clothes, then heading to the restroom she had used the night before.

Cleo hurried through her bathroom routine and dressed, lured by the tempting aroma that lingered in the hall. She had not a shred of the headache that screamed at her during the flight. She felt not a bit of the jet-lag she had expected. She wasn’t even certain she felt any leftover muscle cramping from the tight seats on the plane. What had happened? Never mind all that, she just wanted some food.

Following her nose, she tapped down the stairs, through the corridor, past the heavy wood doors and into a dining room. Anton sat at the table, smoking. A coffee cup and two small plates lay in front of him.

“What is that wonderful smell? I am hungrier than I’ve been in a month. Two. Maybe three.”

Salo?”

“Yes, please. What else is there?”

Anton motioned to the table, with bread, vegetable salad, something with rice, hot soup and sour cream set out. The small plate of salo, he pushed over to Cleo. She lifted the plate to her nose, sniffed.

“Wonderful,” she said.

The hostess, an unsmiling middle-aged woman she vaguely remembered from the night before, entered carrying a glass tea carafe. Bright green leaves and red berries floated in the steaming liquid. Cleo’s glance was drawn downward to the woman’s shoes, three-inch heels perilously thin, impossibly stylish next to her housewife’s duster.

“Love the shoes,” said Cleo, plastering a spread of salo onto a piece of bread, then tasting. “Oh my god this is good.”

The woman poured tea into a cup in front of Cleo.

“What on earth is this?” asked Cleo dipping her face near to the cup to breathe in the steam. “Fabulous. I think I’ll have to have some coffee, also, if that’s okay. Anton, what is the tea?”

Cleo heard his mumbled response, but didn’t understand any part of it.

“Can I eat whatever I want?” she asked, motioning to the table’s offerings.

Dah, dah, dah,” he said.

Cleo noticed the slight smile that changed the woman’s composure from dour to radiant. After helping herself to the vegetable salad, rice balls, and chicken soup, Cleo was smiling, too.

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