Vowels, Vodka and Voices

Hannah Thirty-seven

Friday, 11:30 PM Outside Chernihiv, Ukraine

Hannah knew they had to leave.

She had judged the distance from the highway to Anton’s dacha, and it was easily walkable. Though the gravel road had tire tread rows, it was really more of a walking path to the bus stop. The marked bus stop, with a covered bench, waited for them at the corner of Anton’s street and the highway. She and Cleo could catch a bus.

When they got to Chernihiv, Hannah would see Cleo safely on her way. That much, she owed her. It wasn’t Cleo’s fault that things had taken this turn.

Then, alone, Hannah would have some time to think. Away from Young Cleo. Away from Anton. Away, most especially, from the shadow of JSA and the thoughtless passport they had given her. Hannah thumbed the corner of the passport one last time, then placed it into the flap of her backpack.

Hannah had always been an American. Hadn’t she? It was a fact she knew to be true. There was never any doubt, nor reason to think about it. A fact is a fact; it doesn’t change with any new lesson in geography.

It wasn’t possible that Chernihiv was her childhood home. But what about the memories? What about the remembered words? And Anton? What does a person do when an entire part of their brain stops hurting and starts opening up with new places and people and ideas?

An unwanted truth had come to visit Hannah and sunk in to stay. Now, she began to think that this different truth had always been walking around in the back of her consciousness, had just now wandered to the front, presented itself, and would forever be the new truth. The real thing. The truth that was beginning to bring Hannah comfort and peace.

She reached over to Cleo’s shoulder, gave a soft shake.

“I wasn’t really asleep,” Cleo said. “I have to pee.”

“Handy coincidence. We have to leave.”

Cleo sat up from the couch she had settled on in the living room of the dacha. The two had refused Anton’s suggestion they share the second upstairs room, telling him the ladder was a step too far for them both.

“Leave? Really leave? Like back to Kyiv?”

“Something like that. It’s not yet midnight, and Anton said buses run along the highway until 1AM.”

“Let’s go. Grab your things. I’m already packed. Let’s go. Let’s go now.”

“How much money do you have?” asked Hannah. “In cash?”

“A bit. I exchanged some, about two hundred, in Kyiv.”

“And US dollars?”

“Cash? About two hundred more,” said Cleo.

“Good. I’m sure Anton will hear us moving about, so let’s let him think we’re just using the facilities. We’ll take turns with the flashlight and meet outside. You first.”

“Really? Alone?”

“You remember where it is?” asked Hannah.

“Yes. Of course. Out there.”

“Cleo, have you ever used an outhouse before today?”

“Probably. Can’t we go together?”

“Quietly, then. Step lightly. Don’t drag your feet.”

Interior moonlight lit their way. Hannah breathed in the feel of this place, the familiar light of nighttime, the feel of thin floor tiles on bare feet, the habit of leaving your shoes at the door. As she reached for her shoes, she put one hand on the door latch for support. And noticed it was locked, from the inside, with no key. Another unbidden, remembered piece of her life. Her fingers lingered on the door. Yes, her life.

Cleo, at her elbow, gave a quick breath of surprise. “You have to have a key to get out of the house? He locked us in?” she said.

“Hush,” said Hannah.

Anton’s feet appear at the top of the ladder, then his face.

“To outhouse? I come.”

“Anton, why is the door locked? What would we have done if you hadn’t woken up?” asked Hannah.

“Unlock door.”


“Key.” Anton picked up the chain that was hung near the ladder, in clear view if only Hannah had remembered to look there and if there had been a bit more light. He rattled the keys. “We go,” said Anton. “Ukrainian tradition. Midnight outhouse pee walk.”

They were caught. But Anton would be helpful on the way to the outhouse. They could simply follow him, instead of searching out the pathway in the dark themselves. Hannah began to revise her plans. She turned on her flashlight and stepped out the door and down the two steps to the gravel area at the side of the house.

It seemed lighter than Hannah expected. She looked up to see more stars, and brighter, than she ever remembered seeing before in her life. She smelled the deep night aroma of promised dew and wet earth, and listened to the quieting nighttime chatter of tiny insects that she couldn’t see. Anton led the way to the trellis.

“You two go first,” Hannah said, then sat on the picnic table bench, in the middle of the night with a flashlight in her hand. This, too, she had done before, she knew it. The calm of night settled around her. “Anton, Cleo will need your flashlight and a little direction. You can make your way back here to the bench, can’t you?”

Dah, dah, dah.”

Hannah heard them shuffle away, listened to the instruction from Anton, then a door opening and Anton returning.

Let’s go. Let’s go now. She recalled Young Cleo’s voice.

But she and Anton sat, quiet, in companionable silence. The barbecue let out a faint simmer of roasting smells, the embers still smoldering.

“Good God, this is not a place for heels,” she heard Cleo say from the dark on her way back. Anton insisted Hannah take her turn next.

Then Hannah and Cleo sat on the bench, alone together in the Ukrainian countryside miles from electricity and plumbing. Hannah felt torn. Here, she was at peace, but there were other things she must do.

“Hannah. We could almost leave now,” Cleo said.

“Very tempting, but I doubt you can run in heels.”

“How long should we wait? It’s 11:40.”

“Let’s wait 30 minutes. Anton will be settled in and we should still have time.”

Anton was very quiet on his return, stopping to touch a tree limb, and adjust a metal support for the trellis, the actions of a proud and content owner. As he reached the picnic table, he pointed to the few lights along the highway, perhaps 1/4 mile away. A well-lit bus was pulling away from the stop.

“Last bus. Is early.”

Cleo Thirty-seven

Saturday, 4:45 AM Outside Chernihiv, Ukraine

Cleo felt trapped inside this tiny house. Anton had locked the door when they returned from the midnight prowl. He had said the heavy metal door would not stay closed if not locked. The clatter of old metal keys had resounded, noisily, and she had shared a look with Hannah.

She thought it must be nearly dawn. Had she slept? Perhaps an hour or two. Nervous pee called to her again, mostly because there was no handy bathroom.

From the couch, Cleo glanced over her shoulder, saw Hannah rouse and sit up. Hannah nodded her head at Cleo. Did she have a plan? Cleo watched as Hannah put on Anton’s jacket, empty money from her backpack into the jacket pockets, and stand up. She placed her finger over her lips, asking for quiet, then beckoned to Cleo.

She didn’t need any other invitation. Cleo grabbed her bag and was up in an instant. She cared not at all that her clothes would be rumpled from acting like pajamas. Anton’s extra coat would hide the wrinkles for a while.

They made as little noise as possible with the key at the door. Forewarned, they could minimize their movements, and hope that Anton, relaxed and comfortable in his upstairs room, might be fully asleep.

“Outhouse,” Cleo mouthed the word and pointed her request. If they were going to be on a long bus ride, she would need to prepare.

They walked together in the dark to the back of the garden. A wash basin and soap stood alongside the water barrel. Cleo had to admit everything in this little plot was exactly organized, perfectly sufficient, just what anyone would need to live.

Having finished, Cleo and Hannah began the walk back to the gate that led onto the street. Up along the highway, a car’s engine geared down. Dawn’s light was just beginning to release, and Cleo could see the edges of the highway. She could also see the headlights that were coming along the road toward the dacha.

Cleo felt Hannah pull at her arm, halting them at the corner of the trellis. The car came closer. Then stopped at the gate, engine idling.

Cleo closed her eyes and sighed out a frustrated breath. It was their car, with their driver, obviously returning to the scene for today’s episode in this misadventure. She looked to Hannah for ideas.

Hannah pulled again at her arm, toward the back of the garden plot. Cleo followed Hannah, who appeared to walk like she was born to this living. Hannah paced along the back fence, seeming to Cleo to be feeling her way. Hannah paused, and Cleo saw her push open a back gate, then beckon her to follow.

Cleo’s heels sunk immediately into soft earth, worked over for the next crop. She had no idea where Hannah was leading her, but Hannah seemed to have no doubt about where she was going. Cleo followed, reaching to the fences for support. They passed into the neighbor’s yard, then the next, and the next.

Sneaking away from Anton and the waiting car, away from the bus stop through the neighbor’s back plots made Cleo wonder about their plans. How would they get to the bus stop now? As they passed the back of the fourth dacha away from Anton’s, Cleo risked a whisper.

“We’re heading away from the highway.”

“Hush. We’re nearly there.”

Hannah continued past two more garden plots, then nodded with satisfaction and pointed to a pathway road just ahead. If Cleo’s sense of direction was correct, this road would bisect Anton’s road. But they couldn’t go back that way. The car, and possibly now Anton himself, stood in their way.

Hannah pulled two scarves from the coat’s pocket, tied one around her head. She handed the other to Cleo. Hannah then brought two pairs of gloves from another deep pocket. Most of the fingers in the garden gloves were gone, but they would disguise hands that had not seen any yard work since Iowa.

As they stepped out onto the roadway, Hannah put her arm through Cleo’s and led them away from the highway. A faint sun on the eastern horizon broke through the veil of clouds.

Two women turned the corner of the path just ahead, and came toward Hannah and Cleo. The women had linked arms and wore headscarves that covered their ears and tied under their chins. Thick woven socks covered their feet. One wore three-inch heels, even with the socks. A slow-breaking dawn revealed mist hugging the ground, making it appear as if the women were walking through a fairy tale. As they approached, the women dipped their heads.

Dobre utra,” they said ‘good morning’ in unison.

Dobre utra,” said Hannah back.

Cleo joined in the head bow, but she was more focused on the image. Two pairs of women, passing each other on a country lane in the early morning, each with old ill-fitting coats covering newer clothes, colorful scarves on their heads. In each pair, one was older, one younger, one in heels, one in practical walking shoes. Cleo thought they must be almost indistinguishable from each other.

But Hannah was still leading Cleo away from the highway and the bus stop. They passed three more dachas, away from the women and farther from where Cleo wanted to go. Then, with the bracing light of early morning, Cleo looked closely at Hannah.

“Good lord. Look at you. There is nothing American about you. You’ve changed your clothes. You’ve changed the way you walk. Hannah, where is your backpack?”

“Change of plans,” said Hannah.

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