Thursday, 7 PM Staroyemesto, Ukraine
Thursday, 7 PM Staroyemesto, Ukraine
Hannah sat outside under the arbor, watching evening fall around the small garden yard of the dacha Natalia had arranged.
The neighborhood had adopted her. Quietly, allowing the privacy she craved, they had acknowledged her presence with head nods and greetings in the street, then given her the welcome of acceptance, privacy and protection. It had even taken Anton three days to find her. She had expected it to be much more like three hours. Hannah was very grateful for the quiet and the time to think.
In that time, she had made her decision.
She knew what her dilemma was almost without Misha explaining it during their conversation at the bus terminal. She knew she held some key, something unique stemming from their time at the folga zdaniye, the tin foil factory, the medical facility. Misha had confirmed it.
“You, only, Khanna malyshka, came away from your childhood with your talent intact. Others had the pain, same as you,” he had said, “but never the gift. We need to know why we can turn yours on and off. And how it can be done. You have a debt to pay.”
“This debt I never accepted of my own will,” Hannah had said. “I had no choice in childhood. Now, I do.”
“Help me undo the harm my father did, Hannah.”
And that had been the end of their conversation.
His words would always bring a sting to her eyes and a remembered pain. She was beginning to understand her enormous debt to Misha. He had guarded her all these years, waiting for some change in her abilities, some change in Hannah herself. His motivation might have come from his own guilt, but he had done a service to the others from their childhood. Every time she thought of Misha’s words, she also remembered her own. Her reply had been honest, but contained an underbelly of shame.
Hannah’s hand crept to the habitual spot at the back of her ear. How much did she like being without pain? How much did she want her talent back? Her decision would impact others, but it was hers alone to make. She tried to put Misha’s words out of her mind. She was no longer Khanna malyshka. She had transformed into Hannah Antrim, then Hannah Black.
Which Hannah/Khanna would she be now that she had made her decision? Trouble. There was always trouble in life. Could she choose peace over problems?
Thirty days later, July 7, Chernihiv, Ukraine
Cleo stepped off the Boryspol Airport bus, the same one she had taken from Chernihiv to Kyiv’s airport 30 days earlier.
She felt for the slip of paper that JS had carefully written for her. Handwritten, because by the time she and Sandra had figured out how to call up a Cyrillic computer keyboard, John Smith had easily, in Russian, written down everything Cleo needed.
She looked at the letters now, complex gatherings of lines and twists, some looking like the Greek letters she used to see above the sorority house doors as she walked to classes at college. She thought one looked like a stepped-on spider and another was a backwards ‘N’. Cleo couldn’t read them, but she knew it contained Hannah’s address and directions for the taxi driver to the remote village of Hannah’s family dacha.
Remote? That’s how JS had described it. Cleo looked out onto the roadway and knew she could almost get there herself, so vivid were her memories of the place. She lifted her hand to call a taxi.
And then, just like that, she was back in this unreal world. She was glad she was coming right from the airport. Going into Kyiv itself would have been too much temptation. Maybe after the visit to Hannah.
Summer’s heat had settled in. People still walked along the roadways, but the women dressed in sleeveless tops and cotton skirts, and carried fans. The men wore tight short sleeved tee shirts and long pants, and found places in the shade to sit along the highway. The fields, still green, looked wilted, but trees covered the landscape with their offerings of cool retreat.
The taxi stopped at the dacha next door to Anton’s. Cleo began to step from the car.
Out from the gate bounded two 40-something men, calling back to the house in English, waving and nearly running over each other in their race to the taxi. Cleo stepped quickly aside.
“The scoundrels,” she said. “You are not mythical creatures.”
Michael nodded and Rico patted Cleo’s cheek.
“Bye, Hannah Banana,” said Michael, turning back to the house with a last wave.
“See you next month, Hanny,” called Rico.
Cleo walked through the gate, so like the one next door, and found Hannah standing on the porch dressed in a sleeveless top and a cotton skirt.
“Good god,” Hannah said. “I hope they don’t come back next month. It will take me a week to achieve a sense of peace again. Yelling in English all the way to the road. Inexcusable. Makes living here difficult. Carlos’s visits are much more calming. And his Russian language is coming along nicely.”
In a moment of crisscrossing events, Cleo relaxed, laughed, then spoke. “So. New place.”
“Welcome to my family’s home.”
“Are you living here now?” asked Cleo. “You are more than a week past your vacation deadline.”
Hannah turned toward the interior. Cleo saw a bandage on the back of her head near her left ear.
“What happened here, Hannah?”
“Ahh. You were right about the university, but wrong about the restroom facilities. It was the scanning wand. It deactivated the connection that aided my learning language, but only temporarily. Now, it has been removed permanently.”
“There was something in your head? And now you no longer have your ability with language?”
“I no longer have the pain,” said Hannah. “Perhaps I can’t learn any new languages as I once did, but I still know ten. I have decided that is enough, and that having no pain is a very, very good thing.”
They stepped into a square room, the duplicate of Anton’s. A new-looking open staircase led to the second floor. A large fan cooled the interior. Electricity. Hannah took Cleo’s bag and placed it next to the couch.
“Is this really your home?” asked Cleo.
“I am learning that home is a very fluid invention. But, yes, this is my family home, from which my parents fled. We went to Poland first, then England. Sometime when I was not yet three years old, I became a little American girl, and there was never any looking back.”
Hannah led Cleo on a tour of the dacha, giving Carlos and Anton credit for the improvements and the scoundrels credit for the mess they left behind.
“And now, we cook, Ukrainian style,” said Hannah.
She handed Cleo a large container and balanced two herself as she pushed aside the lace curtain covering the door’s opening and led Cleo out to the garden. There, Cleo refreshed herself at the water barrel and used the up-dated outhouse. It all seemed so normal, even sitting around the barbecue, waving paper fans to cool themselves.
Cleo watched as Hannah stood, leaned over, reached for the poker and spread out the flaming wood. She settled again on the bench, slow and peaceful movements.
“What do you think of all this, Hannah? Everything has changed.”
Cleo waited for Hannah to answer, watched the quiet movement of her fan, and waited some more before Hannah finally spoke.
“We have some control over what happens in our life. But we are also at the mercy of our parents, or our cultures, or our times. How can we look back and wish things had been different? Things are what they become.”
Cleo thought about Hannah’s calm words. What they had experienced wasn’t calming. There were many mysteries about their time together, and Cleo had spent a month wondering about the one that wouldn’t let go.
“I’m curious about your Misha. What’s his real name? The whole thing?” Hannah recited a long string full of consonants and shushing. “Now I see why he picked the name John Smith,” said Cleo. “Have you talked at all since you got here?”
Hannah’s hand began the movement toward her bandage, then stopped.
“See the house across the street?” she said. “It’s Misha’s family dacha. He and Anton have looked after all three – my family’s included – since they were young adults.”
“How is my friend Anton?”
“He thinks he is arranging my life. He has managed to get a passport for Khanna malyshka, in my family’s name, a Ukrainian passport for a forgotten Ukrainian girl. At times, we sit with a cup of tea and cook barbecue out here in the garden.”
“What are you doing here?” asked Cleo.
“Ah, I see the coals have settled,” said Hannah. “Time to put the meat on. We’ll let that cook, then mound the mushrooms and parboiled potatoes on top.”
“You’re not going to answer my question, are you?” she said.
Cleo saw Anton approach from beyond the fence that separated the back gardens.
“I think I see our guest. Come, Anton,” said Hannah. “We eat soon. Barbekyu.”