If you are still staying close to home, like me, you might be getting close to the end of your bookshelf supply. To help things out, I am serializing a novel I wrote, putting up a chapter a day throughout September until the book is done. Happy reading – I hope you enjoy “Vowels, Vodka and Voices.”
Hannah hears every voice around her. Every utterance, every syllable, everything spoken. When Hannah listens, intentions and hidden meanings are revealed. She hears things she may not want to know. She hears people’s secrets.
Words – in eight languages – give her information normal people never notice. Hannah knows her skill is precious, but it comes at a cost. With each reclaimed secret, a pain grew in the soft bone behind her ear. Thousands of secrets over a 20-year career amounted to more pain than Hannah could endure. She sought peace. She left her agency, changed her name and hid for ten years, trying to escape the enormous hurt.
But an old problem has found its way to her former employer, and only Hannah can fix it. John Smith and Associates are in a tangle of vowels, vodka and voices that hold the past’s secrets. They send scouts to find her and bring her back. The question isn’t can Hannah solve their problem. The question is, does she want to?
Ushakova Boulevard in Kherson runs straight from the railway station to the Dneiper River quay. Along its sides, many of Kherson’s important buildings have stood for decades. The street is lined with broad pathways and sidewalks, covered by enormous green leaves from chestnut trees in the summer, made dangerous by ice and snow in the winter. If you walk one street in Kherson, it should be Ushakova, and it should be in springtime.
Like many post-Soviet railway stations this one impresses you with complex walkways from the many possible railway lines. There are overhead walkways, round and about walkways and zig zags. Follow the other passengers exiting the train, and you will soon enough find yourself in the reception area, filled with high ceilings, wooden walls and Cyrillic-lettered notices. Pass through the station, head toward the sidewalk and soon the street becomes a grand Avenue. Ushakova.
A slow crumble begins
Near the station, the buildings that line the street are Lenin-era buildings, kinder and gentler than the newer concrete-block buildings. The Stalin-era buildings, the concrete ones, were built to last not built to be loved. The Lenin-era buildings were built with love, wood, and high ceilings. Many are beginning to slowly crumble, waiting for someone to decide their future.
Glory to the Liberators of Kherson
Soon, you pass by one of those newer concrete buildings, and notice that even it is beginning a slow crumble of neglect. Other buildings, the Music College for example, are loved and well-tended.
Orthodox Church back view
There is an extravagant Naval College and a long, industrial-looking post office. From your sidewalk, you peek though an open lot and see a beautiful little Orthodox church. Tall feathered stems from grasses wave between you and the church, surrounded as it is with a graveyard that grows field grasses high during a quick and vigorous spring.
Many places to sit
Large sidewalks for the many walkers
Ushakova here becomes a true boulevard. Benches for sitting divide two wide walkways that line each side of the street. The traffic portion of the street itself is wide, but not so wide as either of the pedestrian walkways. More buses than private vehicles fill the avenue. But there are many, many people, like you, walking. You have to set a truly fast pace to keep up with your Ukrainian sidewalk companions. If you want to just sit and watch for awhile, pick a bench and rest.
But don’t stop yet, for farther down the boulevard is Lenin Square. When I was taking this walk, in 2010, a huge statue of Lenin stood in the middle of the expanse of concrete. I have seen You-tube videos of the statue being pulled down during the Maidan protests of 2011-2012. Whatever else is left in the square, the size of this rectangle of concrete will impress you. Massive public areas, a leftover of the Soviet Union, are here and there around Kherson. Once a city of 500,000, now retreating to near 200,000, this amount of common space seems almost overwhelming.
All along Ushakova, you have passed restaurants, many with cafe tables along the sidewalk. Now, as you pass the pedestrian street of Suvarova, you see there are many more, as well as shops and perhaps some sidewalk artists and vendors.
The street begins a fairly steep descent to the Dneiper River. There is a beautiful wharf walk along the river that runs through a park that is allowed to grow wild with spring grasses, then just in time, trimmed with weed whackers in a fit of tidiness.
a sometimes busy river
across to the island
Something invades your peaceful river thoughts – the Hotel Fregat. A futuristic design sixty years ago, the building and grounds now look like a sad mockery of the 1960’s. It hasn’t fallen into disrepair, just fallen wildly out of fashion. Maybe a little disrepair, too.
But the river is glorious. Ushakova ends here, at the wide, powerful, decisive Dneiper. Large and small outboard motor boats can take you back and forth to the islands just across the current. Large yachts sail by, but not often. Large commercial ships ferry goods occasionally. Most of the time, you can stand here at the quay with just you, your thoughts, and the steel-colored waves.
For a westerner’s eye, like mine, photographs capture the beauty of this city in northern Ukraine better than words. We have separated the world, giving an east/west classification that may be simple, but it is not descriptive. Ukraine is easily distinguished from many western countries, and Chernigiv is unlike any city in my home state of California in the USA. But different can be beautiful, and it is always interesting. Let’s prove that by seeing the sights in Chernigiv. Let’s take a walk.
Drain spouts hang politely over the sidewalk, buses pass by, and you walk past forested areas as you near the city center. The season is autumn, and it is felt in your toes as they contact the stony cold of the street or sidewalk, and in your lungs as you breathe crisp cold. You feel the cold on your nose as you try to figure out ways to cover up in the coming winter. Autumn is coat weather, but pleasantly so. As you walk, you gather some steam, for there are hills to climb in Chernigiv.
First, you walk past older homes, one-storied and rectangular. Their corrugated metal roofs are a study in geometry. Electric wires invade a building made before electricity, searching the easiest way to enter the home. Three-paned double windows line up along the houses’ sides, but only the smallest pane is open and only a few of those.
A river rambles by. Or maybe it is a stream off the main river. There are so many trees that it is hard to get a view. Until you walk up to the top of the hill, and then there it is, a panorama memorialized by the residents of Chernigiv. A shrine is placed at the top of the hill, and the view is suddenly extraordinary. Orthodox domes, one after another line up into the distance. A wedding party gathers in the bright yellow fallen leaves, posing for photos. The houses nearby give off steam, adding to the mist of the day, swirling this landscape in a beautiful uncertainty.
You stop at the restaurant by the river, amazed at the fireplace in the center of the dining room, and grateful for the warmth. The meal is plentiful and robust. Dark bread and buckwheat, roast chicken with vegetables. You drink hot tea simmered with leaves still on the twig in a iron-wrapped tall glass.
Now, you walk to the main avenue of downtown Chernigiv. You can walk on either side of the street on the broad sidewalks, or you can venture down the promenade in the center of the street, passing water fountains that you are told shoot colored sprays during festivals. Of course, there is a statue of Lenin in the middle of this concourse, and several other statues. You recognize the name of a famous poet, but struggle to read the Cyrillic letters on the plaques.
Continuing, you pass a school, then the side street that leads to a large outdoor market, and the underground entrances to the walkways that take you to the opposite side of the avenue. You decide to use one of these underground crosswalks, and are delighted to find a string of small shops hidden beneath the street. You linger a bit and make some purchases. On the other side of the avenue, you wander into a large apartment complex and past a neighborhood grocery store.
You feel chill in the air and decide it’s time to return home. Past the apartments, through the forested area and back to the older one-storied homes, you are grateful for those two-layered windows. For the first time, you realize the significance of the complex design of the three panes and the double layers. You open the larger pane at the bottom of the interior windows, then reach through to the small pane of the outer one. You take off your coat and scarf and gloves and hat – your boots have already been left at the door – and let the steam leave through the window. Then, you close everything up again, and are grateful for the two layers of protection from the cold.
Residents of Chernigiv have structured their city in a way that makes sense. The cold, the ice, the beauty of the autumn leaves, the wandering river, the church domes all remind you that California is half a world away, and you are so lucky to be seeing this place that is new to you.