Vowels, Vodka and Voices

Hannah Thirty-one

Friday, 12:45 PM Chernihiv, Ukraine

Inviting aromas sifted through the restaurant. Hannah settled in to a chair near an open window, glad for the view to the river and the rhythmic sound of flowing water, the outdoorsy smell of firewood smoke. Turkeys roamed the grounds outside and surprised Hannah with their occasional gobble sounds. Anton had let go the intense look that had confounded Hannah and taken on the look of a little boy, delighted in a shared discovery. But what he had discovered was still a mystery to Hannah.

She had asked for tea in careful Ukrainian, and the waitress offered four available teas. Which would she like? At least, Hannah assumed that was what the waitress was saying. She hadn’t answered Hannah’s question in Ukrainian. The waitress had ticked the choices off on her fingers and spoken Russian.

Hannah fumbled her answer, parroting back one of the choices without knowing which she had picked. What had she said? She had repeated one of the words, but could hardly remember it now, just a moment later. The language had been such a surprise. Why should any language surprise her?

Perhaps she was feeling fatigue. There had been so much that had happened in the last several days. She tried to think of expressing that thought in her new Ukrainian skills. Words came to mind, but the effort seemed laborious. Though she could imagine speaking Ukrainian, that did not mean it would be easy. And Russian? Hannah had listened to the cadence of the waitress’ sentence. Shouldn’t she be able to make some transition from one language to the other? She’d always been able to do that with other languages.

Hannah touched the back of her head, but just for a moment. There was no real need for the old habitual motion. She no longer had any sensation there at all.

The tea, though, was warm and comforting. She drew a deep breath, then sighed it out. Hannah told herself to focus on the moment. This puzzle would play out. She let that thought soothe her. Hannah was pain-free, and that alone should make her very, very grateful.

Cleo Thirty-one

Friday, 12:50 PM Chernihiv, Ukraine

Anton had begun a conversation with a group of businessmen at the next table, and Hannah seemed to be settled in with a before-lunch cup of tea. Cleo wanted a break from the restaurant’s fire wood smoke, and excused herself while they waited for their food. Why would the summer lunch crowd be sitting inside around a fire on a hot day? She remembered air conditioning in Kyiv.

First order of business: contact her boss.

Outside the restaurant, Cleo pulled out her phone. No connection. She had been assured the signal would work anywhere on the planet. But it did not work here, in this forest of Chernihiv. She brought out her notebook. No wifi. Rifling through her handbag, she pulled out the portable modem. Finally, a weak signal. She would have to use Skype.

What time would it be in Panamá City? No use worrying about that; she placed the call. It rang for a long time. When Sandra’s face finally came into view, she was hardly recognizable: rumpled, eyes barely open, glaring at Hannah from a room with one small grudging light.

“We’re in a place called Chernihiv,” Cleo said to Sandra’s unhappy face on the screen of her notebook.

   “You don’t call for days, then you wake me up at god-knows-when in the middle of the night. It’s dark outside.”

   “The phone doesn’t work here, Sandra. I know you keep your Skype on. Sorry about the hour.”

   “I keep it available for show, not so that anyone will actually contact me.”

Sandra shielded her eyes with a hand, then turned the bedside light away.

   “So, Chernihiv. Here we are. Sandra, you can’t believe how truly marvelous Kyiv was. The food, the shopping.”

   “You were there just one day. Are you still with Hannah, or did the shopping spree take over?”

   “That’s not fair. You wouldn’t believe the way I am working this job. I am suddenly so ahead of the game. I am the queen of competence.”

   “Briefly, then. And quietly. Tell me what you’ve discovered.”

   “Well,” said Cleo, taking a prideful deep breath. “Anton lives in that rooming house we stayed at. That’s his home.”

   “Perfect. You know where he lives.”

   “He needs Hannah for something that is very personal.”

   “For what?” asked Sandra.

   “What?” asked Cleo, not expecting the question.

   “What does he want her for?”

   “Don’t you know? Shouldn’t you know? It has something to do with this spot at the back of her ear. The rooming house host has one, too.”

Sandra’s unimpressed look disheartened Cleo. She had worked hard and well to learn what she knew.

   “A spot at the back of her ear?”

   “Maybe it doesn’t sound like a lot, but it seems like it’s more than you know.”

   “So,” said Sandra. “I’ll summarize. You are following along with Hannah and Anton because he lives in a boarding house and she has a spot at the back of her ear that the host also has.”

   “Don’t you have something for me? Shouldn’t I be getting some direction from you?” asked Cleo.

   “I’m going to pretend that this call was a bad dream. Tomorrow, call me back on my phone. Certainly, they have phones in wherever-the-hell, Ukraine. Find one.”

   “I sent an email. I thought I should report. You could have called me. We haven’t spoken since St. Louis.”

   “I always knew where you were. Carlos has figured out how to use a phone in Ukraine. And he calls at appropriate times.”

   Cleo wondered what had happened to her confidence. What had happened to her successes? Maybe her timing was off, but she should have been able to impress Sandra with some accomplishment. Perhaps if she had still been in Kyiv, Cleo might have been able to laugh it off. Then go shopping.

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