Vowels, Vodka and Voices

Hannah Twenty-one

Thursday, 10:30 AM Kyiv, Ukraine

   Young Cleo insisted on a shopping trip. She had complained before the flight about how ill-prepared she was for this forced excursion. Anton had arranged for a Kyiv city tour in a private car with the driver pointing out notable sights. But to appease the young woman, the car would pick up the three of them on the Maidan Nezalezhnosti, Kyiv’s central area. They would walk down the hill to the shopping streets from their boarding house and then to the Maidan, allowing Cleo to supply herself along the way.

   “A tour,” said Hannah to Anton, in rapid English, hoping the out-of-place words would irritate the man. “As if we were simply here for the pleasure of a visit.”

   “Driver speak Ukrainian. Language lesson or tour, is same,” said Anton.

   “Our young friend, Cleo, may not appreciate the lesson as much as I.”

   Cleo joined the other two at the door of the residence wearing Mendota’s clothes. She looked far more cheerful than she should have.

   “I’m just here for the shoes,” said Cleo. “Oh my god, the four-inch heels. And those skirts with the triple pleats. Get me to a few nice stores and everything will be good again.”

   Anton opened the door into the stairwell. It had given off the feeling of dirt and grit the night before, but Hannah had been too tired to question it. Now, the surprising unclean state of the stairs added to the uneasiness of her stomach. How could such a well-kept rooming house lead off of this filthy staircase?

They were only six steps up from the sidewalk. Hannah covered the distance without taking a breath. They reached the sidewalk and began their walk.

   “Is short distance,” said Anton.

   “Oh, for heaven’s sake,” said Cleo in a delighted gasp, pointing at a woman passing by on the opposite sidewalk. “Look at that enormous hand bag. I must have one.”

They passed through a street filled with restaurants and bars, all now closed. That street entered onto a retail avenue supplied with high-value necessities. Hannah noticed that the street was quite long, and that Cleo’s smile had just broadened.

“How many shops must we visit?” asked Hannah.

Anton shrugged his shoulders, tapped out a cigarette and found a seat on a nearby bench.

   Shoe store after clothes store after glitzy shop lay in wait. Hannah’s stomach settled somewhat, but a general uneasiness, a new sensation, had replaced the after-effects of the salo.

She followed Cleo into the first store, thinking that she would further her Ukrainian language. She hadn’t counted on the international language of fashion, however. Cleo seemed fluent. When her pantomime and pointing failed Cleo, the store clerks had been delighted to practice their English.

   Hannah left Cleo to her vices, walked the length of the street, then retreated to join Anton in his outdoor vigil, grumbling at the fact that the clerks’ English had been better than her Ukrainian.

   “You said you needed me only for one morning,” said Hannah.

   “Dah.”

   “May I ask what help I will be offering? And when?”

   “Is simple matter.”

   “For which I must remain here five days?”

   “Maybe not here, no.”

   “Will we at least see St. Sofia’s? I am ready to leave now if we don’t.”

   “Dah, dah, dah. We see Sofia.”

   “Anton. I have come to your country, agreed to help. But I need specifics. What is it you want me to do?”

   “Advise. Consult. Language work,” Anton said. He stood, pointed to a black sedan as Cleo walked out of the last store on the block with three new bags. “But not now. Driver here. First, we eat. Then, we see Kyiv.”

   She questioned the need for yet another meal, but realized it was already noontime. Lunch offered only difficulties. Hannah could not rid herself of the constant sour cream, the mayonnaise in the salads, the salt bowls on each table that had an unknowable trace of other people’s fingers dipped into each one. No one could assure her the mushrooms had been certified. And all of it made Hannah more annoyed than it should have.

Learn the Ukrainian language, help Anton with a language issue, go home. It should be simple, not aggravating.

After they ate, things improved slightly. The tour of Kyiv promised to be not just a language lesson, but a heart-rending portrayal of history from today to times beyond imagination. The sights they drove by tugged at Hannah’s mind. There was so much to explore.

   “Vydubychi Monastery,” Anton announced at one stop.

   The driver gave a long-winded history that seemed to Hannah a recited epic poem. Then she, Cleo and Anton stepped out, leaving the car idling at the curb. Anton urged them to walk up the long path to the entrance. As he explained to Cleo in one-word English sentences something about the monastery, Hannah noticed a plaque outside the door, and read the history in Ukrainian.

   She stepped into the sanctuary as the choir’s voices began chanting in unison. Hannah stood mesmerized by the practicing choir. She had no need to understand the words, as voices blended into sounds that spoke, but not through language. Hannah felt herself calm. Spoken communication without language? It was a new sensation, almost a vocal hum.

   By the time she stepped up to the massive front doors of Saint Sofia’s Cathedral, Hannah began to feel grateful for this unexpected turn in her vacation plans. She had been correct this morning when she had decided to stay. Somehow, she felt it was important to experience this country, whose complex languages were a perfect fit for her skills. And Anton had become the genial host.

   Even the stop at the historic university offered a stunning visit. The name seemed a tangled mix of a man’s name and the English word for institute. Hannah stood at the entrance to the university, matching her new sounds to the Cyrillic letters. It was a daunting puzzle, or it should have been. The letters had a familiar look, even placed together as they were in long paragraphs. But, even in many western countries, foreign alphabets appear and remind others of the power of writing.

Hannah’s fatigue returned after she stepped through the odd metal detector of the university library. Each of them had been screened with an electronic scanner that left an almost stinging sensation. Hannah understood close scrutiny after Ukraine’s most recent turmoil, and she was glad to see such an intimate view of this city, a surprising gift from Anton.

   By the end of the tour, though, sitting in the black sedan, Hannah’s suspicions resurfaced. A full day in Ukraine, and she still had no idea what she had promised to do for this man. She felt he was hiding something, but Hannah could not know what it was if he did not put it into words. The car began to feel confining, and Hannah’s desire to leave returned. She looked to the three companions – Anton, the driver and Young Cleo. She hardly knew them at all. Certainly, she did not owe them a longer stay for an ill-defined commitment. Her eyes rested on Young Cleo, looking content in the front seat. Even she was here for a reason Hannah could not fathom.

   “All this is lovely,” Hannah said to Anton, sitting next to her. “The history is riveting. I have had a day full of hearing Ukrainian language all around. But you still have told me nothing about my responsibility here.”

   “Or Miss Cleo,” said Anton.

   Hannah glanced to Cleo, counting her bags and trying on shoes.

   “I’ve lost interest in Young Cleo.”

   Hannah turned back to face Anton and found him looking with such intensity into her face that Hannah felt stunned. The silence from Anton confounded her. Voices, sounds, she could always interpret. But this silent, concentrated look from Anton rocked Hannah with doubt. She sat, tucked into the corner of an unfamiliar sedan in a country she did not know, whose complex language she was just beginning to understand.

What had she misjudged? She had gotten something terribly wrong about this entire situation. Violence, she could detect. Threats and falsehoods, she could detect. What danger was left? Evil? Shivers stabbed into her throat and heat rose into her temple.

Cleo Twenty-one

Thursday, 4:35 PM Kyiv, Ukraine

   The soup at lunch, Borscht, red from the luscious beets, with beef fat and sour cream floating on top and chunks of beef and potatoes and cabbage and carrots had been such a revelation that Cleo had been sent into a stupor of bliss. But not so much of a stupor that she disregarded the unspoken contact between Anton and the driver. Neither had said anything revealing. But she could tell they knew each other well. And Cleo was certain they were trying to hide it.

   Perhaps it had been a stroke of luck that Cleo had taken the seat in the front of the sedan, where this interaction was likely hidden from Hannah. Cleo believed the entire day had been planned around that inexplicable visit to the “university”.

For goodness sake, no one would believe that was really a place for academic study. It was a laboratory. Hannah must have noticed that, at least. They had to walk through a metal detector and some other scanner. They’d been patted down. She had tried to catch Hannah’s attention several times, but her companion had an uncharacteristic lack of focus. She’d stood in front of the tall nameplate for the building for a long time, staring at those unreadable Cyrillic letters.

   Inside, they passed through some areas with books – quite a lot, in fact, with rows of binders, but the only truly important part of that stop had been to use the restroom facilities. Cleo and Hannah had been escorted up two short staircases and around three corners to a ladies’ restroom. It didn’t stand to reason that women would need to trek such a distance in search of facilities. And these facilities may have been posing as a normal restroom, but they were not what Cleo expected.

An older woman, dressed in a thick white lab-coat, support hose and sturdy white shoes with squared heels, stood guard by the restroom and briefly scanned Cleo herself, then settled on Hannah. She had reacted to Hannah’s spare spoken Ukrainian with a start, and her razor-sharp eyes had registered great interest, maybe even alarm.

As Cleo and Hannah stood at the wash basins, the woman approached, and had stationed herself beside Hannah, as if the woman assumed Hannah had no idea how to wash her hands. The attendant leaned close to Hannah, almost posing her, pressing her hands into an unusual wet cloth and saving the cloth afterwards, placing it aside on the counter top. Cleo was certain the woman had also saved the towel Hannah had used to dry her hands.

   Maybe she was reading more into it than necessary, but no one had handed Cleo a special cloth, and she had had to place her used towel into a laundry basket all by herself. Whatever the interaction would reveal, Cleo was enormously satisfied that she had noticed not only the peculiar university, but Anton and the driver’s complicit behavior.

The day had been full of distractions. The beauty of the history of this city had been presented to them in monument after building after historic site. Cleo knew it was all a game of smoke and mirrors, though, and that knowledge filled her with pride. That sensation, the pride in her ability, was only slightly, very slightly, more satisfying than her stomach filled with glorious Ukrainian food.

   Cleo stretched out her feet. She admired the new pale lavender leather sling-backs with the four-inch heels. Then she made sure the tracking device she had hidden in her hand was activated.

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