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.

Vowels, Vodka and Voices

Hannah Thirty-four

Friday, 2 PM Chernihiv, Ukraine

Hannah walked down a pathway heading away from the restaurant. Shouldn’t her mind be spinning? Shouldn’t the numbness be spreading? Why did she feel so calm? Hadn’t she just lost her identity? Why didn’t she feel lost?

So this was her choice. No pain, no language. That was the cost of her effortless, magical ability – constant pain.

But did she really have a choice in it? The pain had disappeared on its own. Why? How could Hannah call it back? Did she want to?

The work she had done for JSA was not a life-and-death issue. Hers was simply a talent, an ability with languages. A rare talent, and one that processed people’s meanings and therefore the lies they so often told. Important, unique, but not life-and-death. Even those rare violent words were simply that – words. Hannah could not persuade life to go on nor end it. She simply interpreted the spoken word. The world would continue, much the same, whether her skill lived or died.

What about Hannah?

What would she do now? She had some level of fluency in nine languages. Wasn’t that enough? She was over 50 years old. She should be old enough to accept life’s changes.

Without pain, would she be a different person? Would she only be without pain and new languages, or would she lose everything, even her ability to judge a speaker’s intentions, their lies? Maybe she’d lost that already.

There was suddenly so much in her life that was uncertain. Her identity had been so strong she had hidden herself away for ten years to find some relief. She had found none. Who would she be if she was no longer the little language lady? Why wasn’t she panicking at the loss of her identity?

She sat on a bench, enveloped in a sheath of green heavy leaves. She felt alone. There were no words around her. The abstract turmoil in her mind quieted as Hannah became more aware of the feeling of calm.

Tiny sprays of fuzz lifted with the slight breeze from the blossom of the tree, each vaporous seed floating away to add to the unending forest.

The bench had been placed in a perfect spot. On a slight rise, it faced a view over the very tips of the multitude of leaves, and then past the river.

There, across the river, was a series of large buildings. Not buildings people lived in, but some sort of manufacturing site. It looked distinctively metallic. From this distance, it seemed made of enormous heavy tin boxes. There was a tall immobile crane, or a mechanical arm that reached into a gap in the side of the largest building near the roof line. The site looked disused, empty, deserted.

Words came to Hannah’s mind – sudden, remembered words: folga, zdaniye, ruka, dom, glavnaya.

Tin foil, building, arm, house, home. Why did she know these Russian words?

Cleo Thirty-four

 Friday, 3:15 PM Chernihiv, Ukraine

Anton had won again.

They were in the car taking a driving tour of this riverside, tree-laden, once-new city of Chernihiv. Anton was pointing to buildings and long walkways and monuments and busy streets. He gave explanations in a curious English-Ukrainian-Russian language that Cleo tried to put into a background of droning noise. Hannah appeared to be listening. She nodded every once in a while, with a foggy uncertain expression on her face.

Cleo wondered where her own enthusiasm had gone. Where was that spark of capability that had been hers in Kyiv? She had come into an intoxicating feeling of self-possession, where she had believed in her ability to accomplish whatever came her way. And more. She had done things she would never before have thought to do in her life.

Follow an unknown person through the streets of a city she had never been to before? Not only had she done that, Cleo had placed the tracking device that had made it all possible. Search the room of a very suspicious-acting Anton? Well, searched perhaps was not the most accurate word, but she had certainly opened the door of his very locked room.

Cleo wanted that feeling back. She wanted to be in front of the action, directing the course of this journey back home. Or at least back to Kyiv.

She looked again to Anton.

He was turned around in his front seat, facing Hannah in the rear seat, explaining the monument of a very large man. Cleo saw his animation, his earnest intensity, his feeling of connection to Hannah. This part of communication, not the understanding of the language, but this expressive, open body language, Cleo understood. And it told her Anton’s reason to bring them here, to Ukraine, was intensely personal.

But Cleo got nowhere past that, and that was just interpretation on Cleo’s part. How could she regain control of this venture? Regain? Who was she kidding? Anton had controlled this outing from the very beginning. It kept coming back to this: if Cleo could understand Anton’s mission, she could make some progressive decisions that might get her home. That was a big ‘if’. Her only other option was just to get up and go.

She watched their conversation. He was investing himself in Hannah. There was a question, a plea, in his eyes. Looking at Anton, Cleo realized this venture would have no set timetable if she didn’t intercede. Personal connections had their own schedule. They defied the calendar Cleo lived by. If she did nothing, she would be along for the ride, which would take exactly as long as it took. No predictability. No rational schedule. No understanding until she understood.

Her job had placed her into an unthinkable mix of employment happenstance. No one had given her a believable reason to follow Hannah. So far, she seemed to be dog-paddling to stay above calm waters. What would happen when Cleo faced the inevitable rapids? How badly did she need this job?

Vowels, Vodka and Voices

Hannah Thirty-three

Friday, 1:35 PM Chernihiv, Ukraine

Light banter from every direction. Hannah had identified it as Russian, but that was only an educated guess. She had very little experience with that language, but could distinguish a ‘nyet’ from a ‘no’. At least that’s what she hoped she was hearing. The speech was so fast.

Anton had taken up a conversation with two men from the next table. As Hannah held her tea cup, she listened. There was the casual overlap of speech, occasional laughter with the usual person-to-person variation. Humor, teasing, relief, aggression. There was much to learn in laughter aside from the short respite from having to listen for words.

Hannah also heard the conversation from the table behind her. A man and a woman speaking in low tones with less gusto than the men in Anton’s conversation. What language were they speaking? Hannah tried to concentrate. Why was she having to concentrate?

Through all the conversations, with her relaxing cup of after-lunch tea, Hannah should be absorbing the words like a succulent absorbing water, letting the words fill her mind. Learning should be instant, without effort.

Hannah forced herself to listen, carefully, every detail. Why didn’t these people slow down and enunciate?

She understood the occasional words spoken in Ukrainian. Those, she had acquired earlier while talking with Anton, mostly on the airplane. Words had swirled around her then, new, but within her understanding. That learning experience had been swift, almost automatic. It now amounted to the vocabulary of a 10 or 11-year-old, she figured. Those words, the ones already a part of her repertoire, were hers still.

But there were so many other words, nuances of pronunciation, or regional colloquialisms, that she should have been learning, should have been adding to her knowledge base. Those words were not adding up.

Twenty, fifty, one hundred words a minute she had always been able to pick up in beginning to learn a language. Right now, though, she wasn’t learning any. None in Russian, no new ones even in Ukrainian.

Not only that, she heard several differences of speech around her that she assumed meant regional accents or personal choice in word usage, or perhaps even a different tongue altogether. But each word around her simply dropped into a puddle of sound. Hannah could hear them, but they were no longer significant. They had no meaning.

She asked a question to Anton. ‘What time is it?’ – a most basic question spoken well in Ukrainian. He answered that it was nearly two o’clock. All of this was fine, her language fluent and competent, her understanding easy. She hadn’t lost any of the words she already possessed.

She felt no sensitivity from the bone in back of her ear. She had no ache, no need to find the hum of distraction. No pain. None at all. Something else, though, was also missing. Hannah’s special language learning had shut down. She sensed the vacuum it had left behind. That talent had turned off completely at the loss of the pain.

Hannah’s breath accelerated, her palms tingled. Panic from an unexplored idea set in. She had never questioned her ability in language. It had set her apart – not always in a good way – and had been her life-long companion. Anton had said it well. Hannah was that little language lady.

Who was she if she lost her talent?

Hannah realized what was happening. It made her hand shake and her breath catch. She saved from splashing over what little tea remained and placed her cup on the table. Hannah turned fully toward the window, seeking some privacy as she sorted her thoughts.

Wait. A young voice spoke. ‘Chernyy khleb.‘ A new word association she picked up in context. The boy from two tables over pointed to the bread on his plate, repeated the words.

Was she certain of the meaning? No, but having heard each word in other contexts, Hannah might presume the meaning. Dark bread? She would have to remember and test out the words. She would have to study it, experiment, perhaps change her understanding. And it was the simplest of word connections. Dark bread? No – black bread. That was it.

Hannah was struggling to learn. Would she have to work this hard with each small, insignificant piece of meaning in vocal sound? Was this what other people went through? A numbness spread from her hands up her arms, around her shoulders and through her chest.

She would have to learn language like a normal person.

Ease with language had been her longest identity. Maybe she had been odd, short, abrupt, with a general forgettable physical ugliness. Maybe she behaved awkwardly, always, by her nature, and because of that, people reacted to her as a peculiar, difficult person. Maybe she had always looked like she did not fit in with any social group. Perhaps that gap had strengthened and become a part of her outward life, and her self-concept. All this had become who she was.

But she had also always been gifted with languages. It explained away her oddities. Now, though, with her unique talent disappeared, she was left with simply being odd.

Cleo Thirty-three

Friday, 1:45 PM Chernihiv, Ukraine

Carlos had disappeared like the phantom he seemed to be. He would follow them, but how he would accomplish that, Cleo had no idea. The only thing she had learned from Carlos was that he might not be trusted with telling the truth. Well, she had noticed the lie. That was something.

She walked back into the restaurant, where Hannah and Anton were still at the table.

“Anton,” Cleo said, “I need a plan. I’ve come with you on trust. Now, I’d like to know what to expect. Please answer in English. I’m here because of Hannah. What does she need to do for you?”

“Is easy. Hannah does this.” Anton waved his hand around the restaurant. “Is simple.”

“She eats in a restaurant?”

“She learn language. Talk. Is all.”

“This is the work you were talking about?” asked Cleo.

Dah, yes. Is work.”

“No, Anton. It’s not work. This is not at all the impression you gave us.”

“You ask what work. I tell what work,” said Anton. “Is problem? Is no problem.”

“Hannah. What do you think of this? Was this your understanding?”

Cleo turned to their companion and saw confusion on her face. Cleo had thought Hannah had gotten over the jet-lag.

“Anton,” said Hannah, “say ‘restaurant’ in English, then in Ukrainian.”

Restoran. Restaurant.”

“Oh, please. There was enough of this on the airplane,” said Cleo.

“Now say something I wouldn’t know in Ukrainian,” said Hannah. “Say something very specific, a word that isn’t often used, and let me figure it out.”

“Hannah, let’s stay with one topic,” said Cleo. “Finally, Anton begins to give us an answer about your work. Let’s stay in that conversation.”

“Say ‘elastic’,” said Hannah. “Let me see if I can find the root word.”

“I do not know word,” said Anton.

“You don’t know this English word,” said Hannah. Anton nodded. “I see. You, a normal person learning the English language in a normal way, don’t know such a specific word yet.”

Dah.”

“No more,” said Cleo, trying to keep the shrill out of her voice. “Let’s get back to the work plan. In English.”

“And you can’t guess the meaning,” said Hannah. Anton shook his head, then shrugged his shoulders. “But there is some doubt. Perhaps you could attempt a reasonable estimation.”

“Maybe is clothes thing,” he said.

“Ah,” said Hannah. “You’ve heard the word ‘elastic’ and it is associated with clothing. I see.”

Cleo could feel the heat on her forehead.

“Just stop right now,” she said. “I want an answer from you, Anton. I want to know how much longer we will be here.”

Cleo watched as Hannah placed her hands on the arms of her chair, stretched her feet to the ground, first one then the other, and used the traction to push her chair from the table with an effort that put a sad look of concentration on her face. She rose and spoke.

“I won’t be leaving just yet, Young Cleo.”

Before Cleo could respond, Hannah left the table and walked out the restaurant door.

Vowels, Vodka and Voices

Hannah Thirty-two

Friday, 1:10 PM Chernihiv, Ukraine

Lunch came oven-baked in a crock, with a blend of root vegetables and unusual flavors. Delicious. The bread was dark-colored with a heavy crust and soft inside.

Hannah listened to Anton ask Cleo a question, heard Cleo’s perfunctory answer. She wondered about the sounds, but it did not occupy her mind. The restaurant seemed tranquil, relaxing. Was it simply this place itself, able to produce a lull in life’s usual complexity? Maybe some of Hannah’s sense of calm came from the utter, complete lack of pain.

Hannah breathed deep. Even the smoky atmosphere brought the comfort of peacefulness.

People talked, back and forth, in calm and ease. The wait staff carried food and plates here and there in a mealtime rhythm, commenting as they set down their selections. Patrons seemed to linger, to enjoy their conversation. This place was a haven. Complete charm, absolute comfort. Indistinguishable chatter went on contentedly around her. She had no pain.

Something was very, very wrong.

Cleo Thirty-two

Friday, 1:15 PM Chernihiv, Ukraine

Cleo ate without thinking much about the food. Hannah seemed preoccupied with her tea and the view out the window. Anton played the host with a mixed-up version of some language that Cleo stopped trying to understand.

She had begun the conversation with Anton to figure out a schedule for the work Hannah would do, but could not understand the maxi-lingual answer Anton gave. She felt a headache coming on, intensified by the interior smoke. As the meal ended, she excused herself again, visited the restroom, then walked outside.

And saw Carlos. He was resting against the wooden fence that lined one of the walkways. Cleo approached. He looked a bit more fatigued than she remembered.

“Should I be surprised to find you here?” said Cleo. “Because I’m not. Not at all. But I am surprised at how tired you look.”

“Finding my way around a country without language skills can be tough. I’ll admit to that.”

“No Ukrainian?”

“None. Not much Russian, either.”

“Unusual feeling, being without good language skills?” asked Cleo.

 “If you two hadn’t taken some time getting your stuff together back at the boarding house, I would never have made it here on time.”

“How are you finding us?”

“I am a bit better-trained in those tracking devices than you. And mine lasts much longer.”

“I did pretty well, considering.”

“That you did. Clever, the one you put on the runner. Battery life is short on those, right?”

“Right. I was so proud to have followed him. Why can’t I convey my cleverness to Sandra?”

Carlos hmphed, a sound not a word. “She’s a tall order, that one.”

“Who’s your contact at JSA?”

Carlos crossed his arms, placed one heel against the wooden rail behind him.

“So. Where is Anton taking you from here?”

“You don’t answer my question, but I’m supposed to answer yours? Don’t we work together, for the same agency?”

“For the same agency, that’s right,” said Carlos.

Cleo heard a gobble, and looked toward a grassy area, counting four turkeys walking toward the river. Why wouldn’t Carlos tell her who his direct boss was? She’d assumed it was JS himself. It made her feel hesitant.

“So, you are tracking us. That was probably easier in Kyiv.”

“Yup.”

“Have you found anyone here who speaks English?”

“Nope.”

“German?” asked Cleo.

“Some.”

“English, Spanish, German. What other languages do you speak?”

“Who said anything about Spanish.”

“I can tell. I live in Panamá City, remember? So, Carlos. Why can’t we make this simple? Why don’t you just join us?”

“Better to have someone on the outside.”

“Come on. You and me working together? Wouldn’t that make this easier? Can’t you just tell me why JSA is interested in following Hannah? You must have an idea.”

“They have their reasons. Have you gotten anything from Anton?”

“There’s no way to guess what Anton is thinking or where he plans to go. I am sure he knows, but I’m not going to get any specific answer from him. I can’t get him to talk about the purpose for Hannah’s trip here. Isn’t that why JSA is interested?”

“I suppose,” he said.

“I know that Hannah is a brilliant interpreter. I know she can learn completely new languages like I learn a repetitive nursery rhyme in my mother tongue. But my guess is that JSA wants her for her ability to judge the truth. She can do that in every language she knows, right?

“That and a bit more is my guess.”

“And that’s why JSA needs her?”

Carlos looked away, scanning the pathway. “That’d be my guess.”

But his words had lost their life. He spoke flat, unconvincing sounds. Maybe jet-lag had pushed him to let his guard down, but Cleo was sure that Carlos had just told a lie himself.

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.

Vowels, Vodka and Voices

Hannah Thirty

Friday, 7:45 AM Kyiv, Ukraine

Young Cleo had grudgingly poured herself a cup of coffee. Hannah had laughed at her attempt to pull a more substantial breakfast out of the refrigerator. Apparently, her cooking skills did not include heating Ukrainian leftovers.

As Hannah sipped the last of her second cup of wonderful tea – was it birch? – the swinging door swung and in plunged Anton.

“We go to Chernihiv,” he said, clapped his hands once and nodded his head.

Then he stood aside the open door as if Hannah and Cleo would march out at his command, ready for anything.

“What?” asked Cleo, poised near the refrigerator with a coffee mug in hand and a sideways look of concern.

“Chernihiv. We go to Chernihiv.”

“Where is that?”

Cleo asked the question, and seemed suspicious at the proposed change. Hannah, though, was ready to play out this next part of the adventure. She had been reluctant to change her train travel plans, and would not have ventured here without the promise of language. But now, she was pain-free for the first time in her memory. This next adventure might deliver on even more.

“North,” said Anton. “We drive. Is nice ride. To Chernihiv.”

“Where I will hear more delightful Ukrainian spoken?” asked Hannah.

Nyet. Of course, not Ukrainian,” said Anton.

“This is where Hannah will do the work you’ve asked her to perform?” asked Cleo.

Dah, dah, dah,” said Anton.

“Not Ukrainian?” asked Hannah. “So, it must be that interesting mixture of languages. Surgic, I believe it is called?”

“Of course not,” said Anton. “Why speak Surgic in Chernihiv?”

“The city is in Ukraine, isn’t it?” asked Cleo.

“Of course is Ukraine. Chernihiv, Ukraine. Where we speak Russian.”

The double wood doors flew open. Olga, buttoning up her duster and still in worn-down slippers, burst into the room. Her look of fear and fury gave Hannah a moment of sympathy. Olga would be running hard all day to catch up for one morning of sleeping in. She made flicking motions with her hands to shoo them out of the kitchen.

Hannah placed her tea cup on the table and rose. She was eager to hear a new language – the third in Ukraine. Fluency in Russian, she had always wanted that. From what she had learned about the Ukrainian language, there were many and significant differences between the two. 

But as far as work was concerned, Hannah knew there would be none. She mentally cautioned herself. She reminded herself how she had doubted her abilities the day before. But Hannah had been listening carefully to Anton’s enunciation. She was certain his ‘yes, yes, yes’, even in Ukrainian, had been all lies.

Cleo Thirty

Friday, 9:45 AM Kyiv, Ukraine

The same car and driver met them on the sidewalk in front of the rooming house. Cleo practiced the name over and over as they began the drive. Chernihiv. Chernihiv.

There had been some confounding alternate pronunciation that Hannah and Anton discussed extensively. How could they be so concerned about sounds in speech when they were leaving the gorgeous sophistication of Kyiv and heading off into forests with tall thin pine trees that covered everything as far as Cleo could see?

And when would the conversation get around to specifics, the real reason for Hannah coming to this part of the world? Cleo had felt purposeful, in control and safe in the large, cosmopolitan atmosphere of Kyiv. But now, heading into never-ending countryside, she was ready for a schedule and something more than ‘dah, dah, dah.’

Anton seemed to be growing more excited and less understandable. Cleo could hardly distinguish his English from his Ukrainian as he spoke. Or had he already switched to speaking Russian? This back-and-forth with languages was so complicated. In Kyiv, many people had spoken English. It had softened the blow of a new culture for Cleo.

When they reached Chernihiv, driving finally out of interminable forest and into a lovely small city alongside a broad river, Cleo was ready to get on with her work. Carlos’ presence at the rooming house, though immediately annoying, at least gave her encouragement that her agency’s interest was still current. She was still following along for work.

And since Cleo had developed a taste for taking this job and running with it, she felt up to the task. Now, she needed to bring it home, figuratively and literally. Certainly, she owed Sandra a phone call, but she no longer felt a need for Sandra’s step-by-step approval. If she could find out what Hannah needed to do and help her get it done, then she could go home with success. That was Cleo’s self-appointed to-do list.

The car stopped. They had reached a small parking lot inside a large park-like enclosure. Ahead of them was a long one-story building with rough log siding and an over-hanging roof. Pathways reached out in several directions. Various groups of people seemed to be heading into the building. Anton spoke.

“We eat. Is lunchtime.”

“This is a restaurant?” asked Cleo.

“Ukrainian restaurant. Very old style. Food vkusno.”

“I take it that is a good thing,” said Cleo. “Is it a good thing, Hannah?”

Hannah seemed to be mouthing the same word Anton had spoken, a troubled expression on her face.

“Is wonderful,” said Anton. “Authentic.”

“You seem to have perfect timing to bring distractions, Anton. You probably know I won’t complain about Ukrainian food. But during lunch, you and I will discuss the work Hannah needs to accomplish.”

Dah, dah, dah.”

Cleo noticed Hannah’s look of abstraction. She no longer had the foggy look of jet-lag, but something was taking away her attention. Cleo thought she might not be able to count on Hannah for any help with her fact-finding conversation. Fine. She’d already proven she could accomplish that on her own.

Perched along the river, the restaurant sprawled under a forest of leaves. As they walked from the car, Cleo noticed the wood-smoke smell and wondered what typical Ukrainian meal would be offered. The menu looked promising, posted outside the restaurant on a large wooden scroll with helpful pictures. There was an enormous wood-burning fireplace in the middle of the dining room. Wall-sized windows had been opened onto a view of the river.

A charming and apparently historic setting, Cleo tried to concentrate on the adventure of exploring a new culture, but she longed for the tall buildings and busy sidewalks of Kyiv. That was much more like home, much more what she was used to. Here, everything seemed like elaborate camping: wood fences and buildings, trees everywhere, with hearty fireside conversation she did not understand. Cleo relied on Anton to order lunch.

She was surprised to think she might be tiring of this new experience. Perhaps Kyiv had been truly a place like no other, a place that made her feel immediately at ease. Now in a countryside city, even a classically charming one, she felt ready to get back to familiar things. The sooner, the better.

Vowels, Vodka and Voices

Hannah Twenty-nine

Friday, 6:00 AM Kyiv, Ukraine

It was as if she had never before been able to breathe into that part of her brain. Hannah had finally inhaled deep enough to pull oxygen into the bed of hurt behind her left ear. Did she even feel the same sensation she had always felt? She didn’t think so. Maybe even the tenderness she sensed now was just a memory of the pain that had always been there. She touched the spot, stretched her neck and smiled.

Good morning, Ukraine.

She knew it was early. She began her morning routine, including a trip to the bathroom. She fetched her dried and clean clothes. Hannah did not linger over the episode of the night before. She simply gathered her belongings, letting the mystery of the radiator reveal itself as her experience in Ukraine unfolded. She was confident the connection between all these events – her interrupted trip, reuniting with JSA, coming to Ukraine – would become apparent in time. That everything was connected, she did not doubt even a bit.

Her worry about Anton remained, but her curiosity won out. She decided to believe that, without pain, her other skills would get her through any likely challenge. And Anton seemed a necessary part of figuring out this puzzle that had just released her from decades of misery. She couldn’t leave before she put the pieces back together.

For now, Hannah simply accepted the comfort of the night before. Her presence in Ukraine was linked to her mother’s voice. As Young Cleo had said, this venture had become a personal one, but one that was bringing Hannah relief.

And a mystery to solve. The memory of her mother speaking in Polish, a language outside Hannah’s experience, should have been confusing. Instead, she felt at ease, even patient. Hannah simply needed to continue pulling on this thread of her life’s fabric.

She made her way to the dining room, hoping for hot tea, despite the promise of another day of heat. No one was around, not even the hostess. What was her name? Hannah could not recall. Yesterday afternoon and evening were a fuzz of confusion.

Hannah checked the sideboard for a tea kettle, a hot pot, a carafe, some container with a promise of brew. The room was clean to the point of precision, nothing out of place, no nick-knacks of cooking nor eating apparatus in view.

Hannah went in search of tea. Out the door, turning the opposite direction of the staircase, a heavy wooden double door beckoned. Hannah headed that direction.

As she pushed open the door and entered, she found a kitchen. It must be even earlier than she thought. Nothing seemed to be prepared for breakfast. No cooking smells, no kitchen clatter. In fact, no lights were on; the dim light that guided her came from the window above the sink. No one was present in the kitchen at all. Perhaps breakfast was not offered today?

It didn’t make sense, but Hannah was here for Earl Gray or Oolong, not to solve someone else’s customer service issue. She quickly found a kettle, located tea leaves and a strainer, boiled some water, pressed a cup into service and steeped her tea. More comfort.

Hannah tentatively touched the back of her ear. The motion was habit, difficult to let go, even though she had no sensation at all from the spot that had shown such constant pain. She sighed deep, cradled her cup.

The kitchen was just above street-level on the first floor, but did not face the street. One of the large-leafed trees, a chestnut, splayed its foliage across the open window. She stepped close to its odd three-framed opening.

A face looked back at her.

“Why, Carlos,” said Hannah. “I wondered when you would arrive.”

Cleo Twenty-nine

Friday, 7 AM Kyiv, Ukraine

Cleo woke still pondering the scene in the kitchen. That motion. This entire venture might be held together by that touch at the back of the ear. She thought it most likely was. Or maybe it was. Well, the touch was important. It had been such a novelty to see that exact movement from two middle-aged women at nearly the same time in the same building.

Cleo continued her morning routine, a push-and-pull of thoughts distracting her. Certainly, there was a clue here that Cleo should not ignore. But, did it come from the motion or from the rooming house itself? She didn’t want to make more of it than there was, but somehow, there was a personal connection between Olga, Hannah, and, through a locked door, to Anton.

Cleo, however, had been sent here by her employer and no one so far had called her home. In fact, everyone had been forceful in their insistence she follow Hannah. Even when Sandra had realized they would be heading off to Ukraine, she hadn’t been surprised. She’d almost been relieved, as if things had finally made some sense.

Why would JSA want her to pursue what seemed like a personal issue in Ukraine? Cleo might be getting used to surprising twists in her usually stable job, but that particular turn, she couldn’t figure out by herself. She needed Anton’s information.

She hadn’t called her boss since arriving in Kyiv, and wondered what time it was in Panamá City. Sandra hadn’t contacted her, either. She quickly checked her notebook for emails. Nothing from her boss. Cleo tapped out a generic email to Sandra, ‘doing-fine-call-when-you-can.’

What was happening to her appetite? As Cleo strapped on her baby blue heels and picked up her big-enough-for-anything handbag, she could not even imagine what delights might await her on the breakfast table.

Perhaps she was early. Cleo did not notice any cooking smells luring her down the stairs, as they had yesterday morning. She approached the dining room as two guests were leaving. A man and a woman, they spoke a few words to Cleo, shook their heads while pointing to the dining room. Cleo glanced through the glass doors, and understood their meaning. Not only was there no cooking aroma, there was no food.

One other guest was seated at a table, apparently a very patient sort. Nothing had been placed on the tables, nothing prepared, nothing to let the guests know when to expect their breakfast. But they did seem to be expecting something, and another made his way down the stairs, glanced through the glass doors, shrugged his shoulders, then left.

Since Cleo knew where the kitchen was, she made her way there.

Faint cooking smells encouraged her, but there was something missing. They weren’t the aromas from yesterday. She pushed the door open.

Hannah sat at the kitchen table, a cup of tea in her hands, and a smile on her face. A smile, wondered Cleo?

“American breakfast,” said Hannah. “Help yourself. You just missed Carlos. He ate more than his share, but I believe I made enough for you. And Carlos made some coffee.”

Cleo walked to the end of the table, still focused on Hannah’s smile. Had she mentioned Carlos? Then Cleo realized that none of the cooking smells she had expected were there. She looked at the spread on the table that apparently had brought out Hannah’s good mood.

“Scrambled eggs and toast?” said Cleo. “That’s all you have?”

Vowels, Vodka and Voices

Hannah Twenty-eight

Thursday, 11:20 PM Kyiv, Ukraine

Hannah roused slightly. She had fallen asleep almost instantly. How long ago? The lighted clock indicated it was nearing midnight, but Hannah had not noticed the time before closing her eyes for sleep. She had performed her nighttime duties and sunk into restfulness, helped by the lullaby of her mother’s voice.

Out of habit, she reached to the nightstand, felt for her MP3 player.

Then she waited, assuming she would feel the sensitive spot, the one that made her reach for something to help her achieve a hum of distraction. But she felt no sensitivity. No pain. No need for anything but glorious, soft, soothing sleep.

She pulled her hand back under the cover, closed her eyes, and let the unfamiliar feeling of painless relaxation sweep over her.

Cleo Twenty-eight

Thursday, 11:25 PM Kyiv, Ukraine

What else was there to this place? Perhaps she had the passing thought of finding Anton’s room, perhaps she had an opportunity now, but Cleo decided that task was far beyond her skill set. She smiled at herself, and padded back to the staircase. What exactly did she think she would do? Open doors along this corridor when many people were settling down inside and Anton stood guard on the balcony?

Down the staircase, there was a full first floor, and she had only a basic idea of what the rooming house had to offer. Perhaps a room with some English-language magazines. Or at least, a Ukrainian magazine with fashion photos. Maybe more. She could follow her curiosity in that direction.

The first floor had been a well-lit area when Cleo had left the dining room, but now, most of the lights had been turned off. Still, there were some lit passageways. Cleo found a room that might have been a second smaller dining room, and then a full bathroom. Off the entrance was a sitting room, but no magazines.

Opposite the sitting room was a locked door.

A locked door? She had reached out and tried to open the door without pausing to think. In searching for a public room, there had been no reason not to investigate, even when a door was closed. Not that she had paused to think, it had been that spontaneous. Other doors had been closed, but not locked. She shrugged her shoulders. Why shouldn’t she open doors in a public area?

One door down, Cleo opened the unlocked door of might be a guest room. Guest rooms on the first floor? Unlocked? Why would the other have been locked?

Cleo looked toward the staircase, heard no approaching footsteps, not that she needed to hide her actions, this being an innocent exploration of a place to which she was permitted.

She returned to the locked door, knocked lightly, heard no response from the interior. She pulled her wallet from her pocket, slipped out a credit card, placed it against the latch, pushed and wiggled. The latch disengaged and Cleo opened the door. The immediate smell of Anton’s cigarettes wafted out. She hadn’t realized his had a particular odor until she smelled it out of context. Definitely Anton’s brand.

Cleo leaned into the door frame, saw a large room, an open wardrobe filled with a variety of clothes hanging, worn slippers near the head of a double-sized bed, several unmatched folded blankets at the foot. On the far side of the room was a table with a laptop computer, several paper notepads, a filled pencil holder and a modern land-line phone set. A row of thick binders with labels Cleo could not read lay along the head of the table. An electric kettle stood at the far end.

More than just Anton’s guest room. His home.

Without sound, Cleo stepped back and pulled the door closed.

Had she really just searched the room of a person of interest? Well, searched was perhaps not the correct term, since she hadn’t quite stepped into the room, but she had certainly pulled off her sneakiest prowl yet. Her first prowl, in fact. Person of interest? Where did that come from?

Her heart thudded. A slight panic settled-in now that she was walking away from the site of her break from reason. She had not even taken a moment before opening the door to think how ridiculous it would be if that worn-out credit card stunt really worked. It had worked on this older interior rooming house door, and that was all that mattered.

No. What really mattered was that Cleo was walking away from that escapade, safe. She needed some food.

The long empty corridor led her back toward the dining room, where she hoped the kitchen would be. As her pounding heart began to calm, Cleo felt a sense of satisfaction. She had found one piece of this puzzle. Certainly, there were many, many more, but this was enough for tonight. The long day began to assert itself and the edge of fatigue began to settle her mind.

One last piece of the cherry pastry would perfectly set off this wonderful day of discovery. The crisp crust with the sugary flakes covered tart cherry goo that screamed homemade. Cleo was sure there was one last piece somewhere nearby waiting for her. She headed down the corridor, retracing her steps, continuing past the staircase.

Out from the dining room walked one of the guests who had been sitting at the other table during the evening meal. He held a plate covered with a napkin and made an exaggerated sneaking motion. Cleo remembered he had spoken a language she could not distinguish. He spoke a word in that language now, held a finger over his lips in a shushing plea. He disappeared up the staircase.

Cleo was fairly certain there had been pastries on the plate he carried. She turned and entered the dining room.

Just a service light remained on, enough to see several clean small dishes next to a larger serving plate in the center of the table. Cleo noticed crumbs and a drizzle of cherry preserve on the platter, nothing else. The sneaking guest had taken all the pastries.

She paused outside the glass door to the dining room to get her bearings. Down the corridor, the darkness challenged her eyesight, but under a heavy wood paneled swinging door, there was the tiniest thread of light. Not from a well-lit kitchen, but possibly a street light showing through a window in a kitchen that had been closed for the night. Glad for the swinging door – it would make no sound and would not be locked – she hoped this room would contain just one more snack before sleep.

Cleo walked down the short passageway, quietly pushed the door open. She had found the kitchen.

The small bit of illumination came from the light of a clock on the opposite counter. On the work table in front of the door lay a plate with four cherry pastries. Cleo smelled cigarette smoke, heard the quiet crackle of new ash forming on the end of a cigarette. She stopped in the half-open door, and peered around.

On the far end of the table in a chair facing away from Cleo, sat Olga. Her right hand lay on the table with a lit cigarette between her first two fingers. Her feet were crossed at the ankles, her sling-backed high heels giving the smallest shine against the modest light.

But Cleo’s attention was drawn away from the shoes. Olga’s left hand was placed over the bone behind her left ear. In a slow-moving circle, Olga tenderly massaged. It was a motion Cleo recognized. Before now, though, it had always been from Hannah.

Vowels, Vodka and Voices

Hannah Twenty-seven

Thursday, 8:25 PM Kyiv, Ukraine

Hannah carried her bed clothes and accessories to the bathroom to shower and change. All she wanted to do was to close her eyes and rest. A persistent plea to leave, run, get away prickled at her sub-conscious, but she was too tired to respond. Even in her exhaustion, though, Hannah had steps to take before she could let herself sleep. She had neglected her routine that afternoon, and look what had resulted.

She washed, rinsed and wrung out her blouse and underwear in the sink and laid them on the exposed radiator pipes to dry. She paused, her hand resting on the damp blouse, feeling the warmth of the pipes through the fabric. It was a familiar, remembered movement.

No, she thought, the movement couldn’t be familiar. She had never washed clothes and placed them on a heated, heavy, irregular metal rack before. Maybe she had known of old-fashioned radiators in some theoretical sense. But she had never been to this part of the world, never bathed next to an ancient bathroom radiator. Her movement was not a memory, not part of any known routine.

She brushed her teeth. She laid out her toiletries, arranged her pajamas. Hannah concentrated on the mental list of things that must be done, and tried to ignore the thought that would not leave her. But her mind kept reverting to the drying clothes; a mystery was there.

Leave it alone, she thought. The night’s rest would restore some energy, give her a better perspective.

She turned on the shower water and marveled that the shower nozzle was so low she could reach to adjust it. Young Cleo would not appreciate this bathroom’s plumbing. Hannah smiled as she tested the water. Warm.

A mental voice began to sound through her defenses. Hannah stepped into the shower and sighed deeply to force the voice away, clear her mind. The spray was like a hum, a welcome distraction.

She would leave her clothing to dry overnight. Do not look toward the radiator. There was no need for reassurance that the items were still there. There was no need to touch them. Do not reaffirm that memory. Memory?

Hannah dried off, dressed in her pajamas and light robe and gathered her belongings, knowing her newly washed clothing stayed in place, calling to her. She shut her mind to the drying clothes. Not a memory, she told herself. She had never been here before, never seen a radiator so old.

She followed her normal routine in her room. Door closed, toiletries replaced in the pockets of her travel case, robe folded over the chair, music on the bedside table, slippers last to go. Lights turned out, she lay herself down to sleep, closed her eyes.

Don’t think of the drying clothes.

Then, from the back of her mind, from a distant life, she heard her mother’s voice break through with loving good-night words that were not spoken in English.

Polish, Hannah recognized. Why Polish? Her mother had spoken English, always. Why this memory? Memory? As in something she had once experienced? And why would she so easily identify Polish words? Hannah placed her hand over the tender spot in back of her left ear.

There was no hurt, no burning sensation.

She fell asleep cradled in the comfort of a goodnight wish spoken in her mother’s Polish words.

Cleo Twenty-seven

Thursday, 10:55 PM Kyiv, Ukraine

Cleo checked her notebook for the tracker’s signal. Nothing. Sergei was out of range or out of the shirt.

Cleo could not recall having been told details about how the tracker worked. Did it go inactive when the people did? Cleo didn’t know. It was fortunate she wouldn’t be leaving the apartment building this late at night. She did not know the language and did not feel she should be wandering an unfamiliar city in the middle of night. But she was not yet tired enough for sleep. She, unlike Hannah, was still here for work and felt the urgency of learning the purpose of Hannah’s visit.

That knowledge might hasten her return home. Was that what she wanted? Now that she had found the wonderland of Ukraine – the fashion style, the eagerness of the people to converse with her in English, the food, the unbelievable difference of simple living here – she was not so much in a hurry to get home. She felt very much enlivened, curious, and capable.

She shouldn’t let that new feeling go to waste. Sergei may not be available. Anton, however, was here in the building. At least, Cleo assumed he was here. Perhaps if she could find him, she could succeed in pulling out some direct answers, something more than the brilliant inference she had made that afternoon.

Cleo had come to her room after dinner, following the apparent flow of usual behavior.  She’d sat down, changed into her new slippers, and fiddled around a bit, but that was as far as she’d gotten. Her mind kept asking questions she couldn’t answer.

There must be a connection between this particular place and the reason for Hannah being in Kyiv. Otherwise, why would they have come here? Why would they be lingering? Perhaps rooming houses in Ukraine were as common as hotels in Panamá City, but why this place? It didn’t even seem to have a name. Since secrets were what she was after, couldn’t the boarding house itself have a few?

She had a sense that some guests had gathered in a sitting room downstairs, but that had been quite a while ago. She hadn’t been paying close attention, being in a cherry pastry comfort food haze, but she had followed a slow stream of guests returning to their rooms after the final hot tea that had ended the meal. Had everyone left the more public first floor rooms and headed for bed?

Cleo thought about her conversation with Anton that afternoon. There was nothing she had found out about the man. Cleo had developed her opinions, absolutely, and she believed they held weight, but what kind of factual knowledge of the man did she possess? Nearly nothing. And neither did Hannah, who had turned rather useless in this last day or so.

Finding out something more, even some small bit of information would be a worthy end to this day. An innocent interior prowl – it was a great idea, and would keep her safely inside her zone of familiars. Yes, that’s what this place was, a zone of familiars.

She stopped outside Hannah’s room, heard no sound and saw no light from under the door. Had Anton come up the stairs after dinner? She didn’t recall. The guests seemed to be housed on this second floor of the boarding house. If her memory was correct, she had last seen Anton heading out through a sitting room beside the dining room on the first floor.

Cleo continued down the hallway toward the staircase, padding silently in her slippers. She passed a door on the right behind which she could hear a muffled snore. Some quiet conversation came from the next room as she passed. A large window at the end of the corridor pulled her attention. Did she see a light? Some movement?

As she got closer, Cleo realized she was looking at a small outdoor balcony. She had seen similar ones from the street on her walk that afternoon. They hung off the upper floors of the apartments, looking to Cleo as if they might peel off the sides of the buildings and slide onto the sidewalks below. They had no support and looked like architectural after-thoughts.

It made sense there would be balconies in this residence also. Cleo stepped closer, hesitating. The hallway past the staircase was dark. Cleo slowed. The movement she had noticed was more pronounced as she got closer. Someone was on the balcony.

 What she had thought was a window was actually a door standing slightly ajar, opening on to the balcony. Windows formed the outside walls, and she could see light from the street and the nearby buildings. One step closer, then she stopped.

Anton’s back came into view. Cleo recognized his haircut, the hunch of his shoulders, even the movement. Should she approach? Something about his posture seemed uninviting, but that might be just the general impression of this rumpled, over-dressed man. Cleo tapped on the open door and stepped into the breach.

At least, that’s immediately how it felt to her. She was not fully onto the balcony, but felt that adding her weight to the structure would tip the precarious balance. Her knees felt slightly weakened, and she swayed just a bit, leaving her with a slightly more intoxicated feeling than had the vodka.

“Anton?” she said, but he had already heard her knock.

He glanced lazily over his right shoulder, grunted a long syllable, then turned back. Cleo followed his gaze, and before she could contain it, a sigh of surprise rose up from her belly.

In front of them, a light-filled city lay, sparkling through the chestnut leaves that brushed the windows of the balcony. A ring of soft lights outlined the multiple domes of the cathedrals they had toured that afternoon. Cleo even thought she could see a thread-like shine of the river with that name she could not pronounce.

Anton gestured with his cigarette hand, a regal motion filled with such pride that it seemed unnecessary when he added words. “Our city. Beautiful, no?”

“Magnificent,” she said.

The air flowing in from the open windows was as heavy as in daytime, but cooler and soothing. The very slight breeze helped the chestnut leaves rub against the glass walls, adding a rhythm of sway to the shimmer of the night lights.

Cleo heard Anton take a long in-breath, an even longer exhale. He tapped the cigarette butt against a can on the window sill, let it fall, slid a new cigarette from a pack in the pocket of his coat. He offered it to Cleo without turning fully around.

“No, thank you,” she said softly, so she didn’t distract the lights from shining. He lit the cigarette, inhaled. Cleo could feel a sense of peacefulness from the balcony, admired the view a last time. “Enjoy your evening, Anton. Good night.”

He acknowledged her with a slight lift of his chin. Cleo closed the glass door as she turned back to the corridor. Such beauty in that view. So much peace. Who would want to hurry such a relaxing moment? Hopefully not Anton.

Vowels, Vodka and Voices

Hannah Twenty-six

Thursday 6:40 PM Kyiv, Ukraine

What was Cleo saying? Her words seemed to come from far away, in a different language, in an unfamiliar voice.

Now, Cleo was pulling on her arm, insisting on food, looking cheerful in the midst of Hannah’s disconnected thoughts. She could hardly understand what the young woman was saying to her and only wanted to ask her to slow down or go away or simply stop.

If only Hannah could find the words. Words?

Cleo Twenty-six

Thursday 6:45 PM Kyiv, Ukraine

Anton joined them for dinner, adding several courses to the meal by insisting on having a smoke between each dish. Sergei, the running man, was not there, and neither Anton nor Cleo mentioned him. Their host, Olga, brought steaming dish after dish to the table. Dumplings, riced meatballs, beet salad. There was a soup that Anton said was ‘green borscht’ with sorrel and sour cream. Cleo began helping herself.

Four guests sat at the opposite side of the room. They had nodded at each other as they settled in. Cleo recognized their speech as something that was neither Ukrainian nor English, but that was as far as Cleo could go in evaluating the language. Well, she thought, it wasn’t Spanish, either. She attempted a conversation with Anton, or more accurately, a search for information.

“Anton,” said Cleo, “are we leaving tomorrow?”

“Maybe, no.”

“How long will we be staying?”

Ne znayu. I don’t know.”

His answers came in a dreamy monotone as he reached for one plate then another. The appeal of food, Cleo understood.

“Am I interrupting your dinner?”

He looked up and smiled.

Dah. Dah. Verenyki. Very good. Maybe we leave tomorrow.”

Dinner took a surprisingly long time, with two separate servings of tea. Guests seemed to linger over a particularly medicinal brew that had bark floating in the cup.

Olga had promised a cherry pastry that Cleo did not want to miss. She looked at Hannah’s haggard demeanor and decided to postpone their heart-to-heart. She couldn’t imagine any good would come from a discussion in Hannah’s state of apparent exhaustion. Jet lag really did a number on some people. Hannah had eaten a careful selection of dishes, but remained silent. She excused herself before dinner was completely over.

As Cleo waited for the desert, two realizations hit her at once.

The first was that, though she was here for her job, she had hardly thought about her boss or her agency the entire day. She had simply done what she needed to do, and she had done it well. This recognition gave her a warm feeling of self-congratulation. She could do this street work. In fact, right now, she felt like she could anything, anything at all. The thought that no one, not even Carlos, was here to commend her meant nothing to Cleo. It was enough that she could congratulate herself.

The second was that she was still hungry.