Vowels, Vodka and Voices

Hannah Thirty-five

Friday, 3:25 PM Chernihiv, Ukraine

They stopped at Lenin’s statue. They stopped at Chernihiv’s Red Square. They drove past the largest hotel, the long fountains, the enormous block of apartments.

Hannah allowed Anton to guide this tour, and he did so with a loving intensity. He was from this city. Hannah was sure of that. Anton had lost himself in the excitement of the tour, juggling three languages, showing a town he knew better than any other, introducing his home. It was obvious he wanted someone else to feel a similar sense of belonging.

That someone else was Hannah herself.

She did feel at home in this place. The word had come again to mind, in Russian, before she could race through her memory and translate it. In fact, she did not need to translate the word. Home. Glavnaya. She had not needed the English confirmation. This was home. How could that be?

Was that the reason for Anton’s intensity? She didn’t know if she could trust her instincts about judging his character. She had felt he did not have a violent intent, but what his intention was, Hannah did not know.

She also did not know how she, an American born in the United States, could have a home half a world away. A home she had never known about. Within all those uncertainties was the compelling sense that Hannah needed to learn what all this meant. There was no stopping now, regardless whatever was Anton’s motivation.

The car pulled up at the tin-box manufacturing site. The words again crowded Hannah’s mind: folga, zdaniye, ruka, dom, glavnaya. Russian words?

Krasnivyy vid,” said Anton. “Beautiful. Prekrasny.”

“English, if you don’t mind, Anton,” said Cleo.

“Please, let’s walk,” said Anton.

The three got out of the car. Hannah noticed weeds growing through cracks in the concrete of the parking lot, the tall chain link fence topped with barbed wire, the broken glass of the windows. The rusting metal of the closest building. She listened as the other two talked.

“Is beautiful view, no?” he said.

“Not really, Anton,” said Cleo. “Perhaps there is a way to get to the river. Then, there might be a nice view.”

“Look over building,” said Anton. “Zdaniye. There you see view.”

“That’s asking quite a lot, Anton. Maybe if we drive to the other side.”

“Yes, yes. Dah. Good idea.”

But nobody moved.

Hannah tried to ignore Anton’s steady gaze. How would he interpret her reaction to this setting? She did not know how to react herself. She had a need to move her hands to her chest, patting, soothing, comforting, but she resisted that emotion-laden movement. Instead, she shielded her eyes from the heavy sun, turned away to look past the tall empty factory-like building.

A row of small stone and wood houses stood along the side of the tin-box building. Wooden sections had fallen away in several places. The roofs were large pieces of rusting corrugated metal. Glavnaya. Home.

But, there was more. Hannah did not need to hear the translation in her mind. She understood. Without knowing how, she understood what her memories were telling her.

This was not only her home in a general sense. It was very specific. It was intensely personal. Hannah fought to keep her emotions from showing. She held her facial expression neutral, shielded, but her hand strayed to her heart.

Moy dom. In that tattered row stood her childhood house.

Cleo Thirty-five

Friday, 4:15 PM Chernihiv, Ukraine

First the ‘university’ in Kyiv that was anything but an academic student-filled institution, then the ‘beautiful view’ of that deserted factory. Anton had taken them on tours, but the entire visit – the whole reason for coming to Ukraine – was a simple exercise in getting them to these two places. A university that was not a place of learning, and a beautiful view that was not at all scenic.

 Two sites to visit, but the purpose of those visits Cleo could not understand. The places stood out, united in their peculiarity, completely dissimilar in every other way. These were the keys to their coming here, but the reasoning was incomprehensible, and now spoken by Anton in a mash-up of more languages than Cleo could take in.

And then, there was the interaction between Anton and Hannah. Cleo was an outsider observing a deepening of her companions’ connection. In the span of the past hour, they had developed a strange way of talking, as if in any language, these two would understand each other. Watching them raised the hairs on Cleo’s arms, especially since she had conceded it was her job to get to the bottom of their odd link.

Cleo was determined to do what her job required: follow Hannah, bring her home. It would help to understand Anton’s actions, but her allegiance was with Hannah. That responsibility came back with a singularly intense pull.

The completion of that task, though, would not be simple. It was the same as when Sandra had directed Cleo to get Hannah into her car. Simple to say, very difficult to accomplish. In fact, Cleo felt that everything she had accomplished since then had not brought her closer to that simple goal.

But the same basic fact remained: as enigmatic as Hannah was, unless Cleo just walked away from her life, Hannah was Cleo’s ticket home. And the first step of that journey was to get back to Kyiv.

The three returned to the car, where the driver had waited in air-conditioned comfort. Cleo calculated that they could be back at the boarding house for a late dinner.

“To Kyiv, then, Anton?” she said.

“Maybe not,” he said, hesitantly, looking at Hannah for something that appeared to Cleo like approval.

Hannah was staring out the window, as if they had already begun their journey and there were interesting things to see. But there was only a lonely row of forgotten houses running down a disused street alongside the empty factory building. She couldn’t plan on help from Hannah.

Cleo gathered the memories of herself as energized, capable, decisive. She would have to be like that once again. In that voice, she spoke.

“Let’s go, Anton. We need to get back to Kyiv. The rooming house is calling. Dinner will be waiting.”

Anton sat up straight in his seat, clapped his hands once and nodded his head. “Barbekyu!” he said.

It looked to Cleo like he thought he had solved all the world’s problems with that one word. Cleo glanced at Hannah to see her quickly hide a very slight smile.

“Did he just say ‘barbecue’?” Cleo asked.

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