Vowels, Vodka and Voices

Hannah Forty-four

July 7, Staroyemesto, Ukraine

Unfortunately, Anton had brought with him celebratory vodka. He had apparently known Cleo would approve. Hannah put out her hand to cover the third shot glass as he poured the drinks.

“No vodka, Hannah?” asked Cleo.

“My birch tea is hearty enough.”

Hannah raised her cup of tea.

Bud’mo,” Anton raised his shot glass.

“That’s not the toast you made last time, Anton,” said Cleo, hesitating, her fingers around her cup, a laugh waiting to emerge.

“I have learned,” said Hannah, “that there is a usual order to giving a toast here. But I think Anton has an order all his own in mind.”

“Ukrainian toast. Bud’mo.” Anton downed the first round.

Bud’mo.” Hannah sipped her tea.

“Bud’mo.” Cleo drank the oily liquid, shook her head. “Wow.”

Her American English approximation of the Ukrainian word made Hannah smile. What a pleasure to hear an easy word, enjoy the context, the honest fun and the interplay of languages.

“Vodka homemade,” said Anton.

Hannah heard the simple pride in his voice, an emotion transferred through sound in all languages. Anyone would notice, anyone would draw the same conclusion. Anton poured two more glasses, in a motion offered a tot to Hannah, who shook her head.

   “Russian drinking toast. Za zdarovye.” He raised his glass.

   “Za zdarovye,” said Hannah.

   “What you said,” said Cleo.

They toasted. The meat on the barbeque crackled. Hannah bent over the grill, turned the meat, placed the mushrooms and potatoes on top, then a layer of fresh dill over it all. Hannah picked up a plate from the table.

“I think we should fortify ourselves. Cleo, take a piece of bread and dip it in the salt. It’s a custom I’ve picked up in the neighborhood.”

   “Bread and salt,” said Anton, pouring a third round.

   Hannah offered the plate to Anton, then took a piece of salty dark bread for herself.   

Cleo picked up the toast for the third round. “Cheers.”

“Cheers,” said Anton and Hannah.

Two small shot glasses were upended and one tea cup sipped. Hannah noticed Cleo close her eyes and take a deep, irregular breath, the effect of vodka, no doubt. Then she spoke, her words sounding tight, like they had to be forced out.

“I brought you a gift from JS.”

“Misha?” said Hannah. “Sending me gifts?”

“I’ll go get it.”

“Don’t hurry,” said Hannah.

Cleo seemed eager, but her announcement gave Hannah a chill that a sip of the birch tea couldn’t warm. Cleo hurried back with the box.

“So,” she said. “A perfect solution. It makes everyone happy. Everyone gets what they want. You, freedom. JS, your talent. What is left of it.”

Cleo paused and Hannah could see that she was hoping for a smile. Hannah smiled. Cleo handed her the package. Hannah patted the present, then placed it to the side.

“Soon, soon,” she said. “Our dinner wants some attention. These coals can be overenthusiastic if they are not watched closely.”

“We’re right here, Hannah. Everything is fine. Open the package.”

   “Anton promised he would show you the garden before the sun goes down. The present can wait.”

   “Dah, dah. The garden.”

Anton got up from his seat, answering the hint and led Cleo on a short tour up and down the five rows that he had recently planted. Hannah laid plates and silverware around the table, setting their places for dinner. The sun was beginning to set, and the heat had become an intense memory instead of an oppressive reality. The day itself seemed to sigh. Hannah looked around her garden yard, still amazed that this place and she had a joined past.

The meal sizzled its readiness, Hannah piled the meat, mushrooms and potatoes together on a platter and placed it on the table. She stepped to the water barrel to wash her hands, then called out to the others.

   “Wash up. We eat.”

   After the pre-meal shot of vodka, Hannah listened to the mealtime sounds. Plates scraped, utensils clicked, and then the wonderful vocal sounds of the pleasure of good food. Hannah appreciated this respite from the tangle that had been her life for more years than she wanted to number.

   Anton lined up the glasses for a mid-meal toast. Hannah tested the teapot, poured herself a fresh cup.

   “My brew,” said Anton. The drinks were again up-ended.

   They returned to meal, finishing up with one last toast, a silent salute to the three of them.

   Anton then placed his shot glass onto the table top, then slowly folded his arm to cushion his head as he nodded off to sleep. Hannah looked to Cleo. But Cleo had already sunk onto her arms on the table top. A snore came from Anton.

   Hannah moved the unopened package away from the comfortable remnants of their meal. She knew Misha had sent the latest audio/video device. Hannah wouldn’t be learning to use it. Not yet. Maybe never. Hannah placed her hand over the patch on the bone behind her ear. There was no sensation of heat or pain. But the memories had not yet faded.

Hannah picked up her tea cup, glad her companions had not stayed awake for a last toast.

 “To having no pain, no trouble,” she said.    

… or is this a better ending?

Thank you so much for reading ‘Vowels, Vodka and Voices’. I hope you enjoyed it as much as I enjoyed having you all along for the ride. Warm regards – Susan

Vowels, Vodka and Voices

Hannah Forty-three

Thursday, 7 PM Staroyemesto, Ukraine

Hannah Forty-three

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?

Cleo Forty-three

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.”

“Come inside.”

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.”

Vowels, Vodka and Voices

Hannah Forty-two

Saturday, 8:50 AM Chernihiv Main Bus Terminal, Ukraine

She had to leave. Leave now. Walk away, with only the clothes on her back and the cash in her pockets. Leave all the trouble behind.

She had to leave behind the things that reminded her of being American, and embrace the things from her early childhood that would bring back memories from that time. No more backpack, no more rolled-up clothes. Then she could take the time to sort things out. Especially now, with this new twist in her life’s story.

She hadn’t planned to be enticed into the computer conversation. Even more, she had not planned to see John Smith. And she had never, not once, not even for an instant in the very, very back of her mind, where other secrets were still hidden, thought that he was a part of her forgotten past.

But she had begun to remember a Misha. The name came to mind after she had accepted who Anton was to her, and later, while she walked in back of her family’s dacha. Misha. It was a part of the cascading memories that Hannah could not explain to herself, nor understand.

They had a connection. It would explain why John Smith had sought Hannah, offered her employment, fostered her career. That connection was in the distant past, though. As a boss, he had been remote, rarely seen. Certainly, the constant pain that distracted Hannah put some distance between them. He must have known secrets about her that Hannah had not known. Misha. He had kept her secrets safe, even from Hannah herself.

For now, though, it was enough for Hannah to deal with the lost memories of her parents, her family’s homes, her birth, and her lost languages. Where John Smith fit into that would no doubt come in its own good time. And the others? The world of Anton and John Smith seemed to have many connections. Hannah would leave that for now.

She placed her fingers against the familiar spot at the back of her left ear, the spot that now held no pain.

She powered down the notebook, looked to the small cubicle store where Cleo was making some sort of purchase. Hannah walked toward Cleo as she gathered up a new package and hefted her travel tote and hand bag. She looked so much at ease, as if she had slept well and traveled in comfort these past several days. Young Cleo had grown into her own during this unforeseen parade of events.

“I will trade you all your Ukrainian cash for the tickets I have purchased,” said Hannah.

Cleo pulled out the cash, handed it to Hannah. Hannah placed the computer, the bus ticket, then the airline ticket receipt in her hands.

“You’re not coming, are you?” asked Cleo.

“This is only the fifth day we have known each other,” said Hannah. “Did you realize that?”

“I have known you for quite a while longer.”

“On paper. In person, I have an idea it has been quite a bit more difficult than you may have wanted.”

“What are your plans? Why did we have to sneak off this morning? So many questions. Did you have any idea about John Smith?”

“No. Not a bit,” said Hannah.

“So. At least tell me where you’ll be. Otherwise I might worry.”

“Young Cleo, I think you are over the worrying. I think you are making your own self-discoveries, and it did not take you to reach 50 years old to get there.”

“You answer questions like no one I have ever known.”

 “I’ll tell you my plans,” said Hannah. “I have three weeks more of my vacation. But I have a lost childhood I have to account for.”

“And what will you do after the vacation? I thought all this following you around was to get you to come back to work.”

“It seems more complicated, doesn’t it?”

“For instance, what happened at that non-university in Kyiv?”

“Whatever happened, it has brought me great relief.”

“And why did you really leave your passport?” asked Cleo.

“I think mostly so I wouldn’t change my mind, partly so that efficient Carlos would get distracted for at least long enough to let us slip away.”

“You’re slipping away? Away from Anton even?”

“I think Anton knows what I do before I do it,” said Hannah.

“Yeah. He’s a bit scary, that one.”

Hannah smiled, as if smiling was for her commonplace, and pointed at the waiting buses.

“Number 42. It leaves in five minutes and drops you off right at the airport. Go. Five minutes. You don’t want to make a habit of missing busses.”

Still, Cleo waited.

“You made me change my shoes. I could run to the bus if I had to. It’s just over there. And anyway, there’s only one last thing to say.”

“Good bye,” said Hannah.

“No, not goodbye. Thank you,” said Cleo.

Cleo Forty-two

Thursday, 8:45 AM Panamá City, Panamá

Cleo Forty-two

Thursday, 8:45 AM Panamá City, Panamá

Cleo walked into her office, poured one cup of distilled water and three drops of cucumber oil into her diffuser, then turned it on.

She looked forward to a day, or perhaps a week of catching up writing her reports. Reports of behavior, reports of people’s backgrounds, reports of where interesting people lived and what they did. She was relieved to be back in her comfortable space. She couldn’t wait to start her day.

“Welcome back, Cherie.”

Sandra stepped into the office, surprising Cleo with her early arrival. And coming to Cleo instead of having her attend to Sandra’s beck and call? Had things changed?

“Good morning, Sandra. It’s so good to be back. Home. It’s a lovely place to be.”

“Well, let’s not ramble. You’ve no doubt got some catching up to do. Work, work, work around here.”

“Speaking of work, Sandra. Are we entirely done with the Hannah episode?”

“Done. Finished. Why do you ask?”

“I just remember JS once referring to ‘them’, someone else who was looking for Hannah.”

“Probably Anton, right?” said Sandra. “And you found him.”

“No, that doesn’t sound quite right. John Smith knew all about Anton.”

“One street-contact and you’re second-guessing everyone? Granted, it was rather extended and you performed wonderfully. But, it’s done, Cherie. And it was fabulous. Everything is fine. Stupendous, in fact.”

Sandra waved from the door as she left. Cleo liked the tone of the conversation. She felt included, equal. But she did not like Sandra’s glib reassurance. Sandra hadn’t been along on the adventure. She didn’t know what Cleo knew.

Cleo pulled up her calendar. At the end of the month, she could take some time off. She logged in to her travel account and booked a ticket to Kyiv.

Cleo wondered what they were having for breakfast at the rooming house, and sat for a long moment remembering the aromas and recalling each wonderful dish that had been placed before her. She touched her hair and smiled.

Question for readers: I wanted to end the book at the last chapter. Is this a better ending, or…..?

Vowels, Vodka and Voices

Hannah Forty-one

Saturday, 8:24 AM Chernihiv Main Bus Terminal, Ukraine

In the blink of an eye, Hannah’s life story turned a corner. Her ideas began to reshape, some things made more sense and a lovely peace settled upon the small world in which she had always lived. 

Hannah no longer had any pain. Why that pain had come and gone, an issue that had consumed her yesterday, no longer held any value at all. Maybe pain had been her constant companion for decades upon decades. But right now, it mattered not even a small bit that once she had pain and now she did not.

What mattered now was why. Since she had lost the pain, she had memories returning to her consciousness that seemed impossible, but were more real in Hannah’s mind than the last 40 years had been. That was enough to think about and figure out. More than enough. And now that she had some calm, she knew where to seek her peace and quiet. And in that peace and quiet, she believed she might figure things out.

Hannah looked at Misha’s face on the notepad screen. A 12-year-old boy had grown up, become a man she had not recognized, and was now talking to her in a voice from nearly 50 years ago. Maybe she now recognized the boy in the man, and that allowed her to know the voice, but it all still remained an unsolved puzzle, but the truest memory she had yet come across.

Then Misha stopped speaking in that voice and began using the voice of the boss, a man Hannah knew to be as American as she had been. All of it, an undone puzzle, sitting in front of Hannah, waiting to be placed back into order. Today, right now, the puzzle was important. The past 40 years was not.

“I need your help,” he said. “You, only, from all of us at folga zdaniye, the tin foil building, the factory that wasn’t a factory, only you still have your ability intact. Do you remember, Hannah? It was not a factory. We joked, all of us, that it was a talent factory. There were others, Khanna malyshka, and they need your help.”

“I have much to think about, Misha. I cannot make plans beyond thinking.”

“Hannah, please. It’s urgent. We are all getting older.”

“Most likely, you have been helping me for a long time. But this is all very new to me.”

Khanna. Come home.”

She stuffed her hands into the sagging pockets of Anton’s coat.

“What if I am home, Misha?” said Hannah.

Cleo Forty-one

Saturday, 8:30 AM Chernihiv Main Bus Terminal, Ukraine

Good morning. Dobre utra. They had said good morning to each other. Simple words, spoken in Ukrainian, or perhaps Russian, but to Cleo, the mystery was revealed.

The two spoke the same way Hannah had spoken with Anton. The link between Hannah and Anton included her big boss. Somehow John Smith was a part of this interaction. And Cleo knew that the personal reason that brought her professional agency into this event was explained. Hannah, John Smith, Ukraine. The details of the mystery may never be explained to her, but her ending was already in place. Cleo had done her job.

She had never heard the boss’ voice like that. He was not speaking a foreign language. His voice slid back into sounds that were more comfortable than Anton’s ancient garden gloves. John Smith was speaking to Hannah in his mother tongue, and calling her endearing childhood names. Khanna malyshka.

It seemed that whatever explanation Hannah would offer now for all the things that had passed in the last few days was out of Cleo’s hands and into a whole new realm that hardly involved her. At least it did not require her to make decisions that were beyond her comfort zone.

But that zone had been widely expanded. Cleo knew she had developed skills for growing her repertoire.

For instance, being able to make a decision on the spot. The encounter that was playing itself out on the screen of her notepad was not for her, and she didn’t feel the sting of being left out. She felt, in fact, a moment of freedom. Whatever was going on in that conversation was for someone else to understand.

She ran a hand though her newly-metallic hair and passed the notebook computer to Hannah. Cleo pointed to the clothes store she had seen standing hopefully alongside the travel agency, then spoke.

Odezhda.” Clothes. A word Cleo had heard repeatedly during her shopping in Kyiv. “The clothes store is calling. Poka.” Bye.

Vowels, Vodka and Voices

Hannah Forty

Saturday, 8:15 AM Chernihiv Main Bus Terminal, Ukraine

Hannah had made all the purchases. One bus ticket to Kyiv’s airport. One air ticket to Panamá City that flew to an unreasonable amount of stops between here and there, but still the least connections available.

She wasn’t as concerned about that as she was concerned about explaining it all to Cleo. Five days she had known her. It shouldn’t be that difficult to break away.

Hannah walked toward Cleo, who was faced away from Hannah talking to her notebook computer. A call to her boss, no doubt. Hannah would give her a moment to finish up, but time was getting short. She stopped a polite distance away, not quite close enough to look over Cleo’s shoulder.

But the voice on the screen had caught her attention. Unbidden, without meaning to be, Hannah was drawn in.

The woman on the screen spoke. Hannah watched, listened and lip-read. There it was. The first lie she had heard since arriving in Ukraine.

Of course, there had been countless small infractions – the daily hubbub of vocal inconsistencies and white lies of social living. But Hannah had not observed the type of lie that drew her attention until now. Maybe she had been too jet-lagged at the university to notice, but since then, not one piece of verbiage had pulled her attention like this. The thought made her consider Anton, but just for a moment.

If only she could hear the voice on the screen clearly. She stepped just a bit closer, enough to begin hearing the complex tones in the words. The close-up voice always gave the conversation texture and depth. Hannah recognized the lie, and not just the lie, but the intensity of its telling. Was there also a violent intent?

   Hannah focused on the woman speaking. Seated in an office setting, thin, stylishly dressed, speaking to Cleo in English with a forced French accent and repeating ‘Cherie‘ as if the word had no significance. But other words were important beyond the usual. Those were embedded in the lie.

   “It will all be fine,” said Sandra. Because this woman had to be Sandra: comforting Cleo in an off-handed way, treating her as if Cleo wouldn’t know a thing about evaluating intense situations. “You’ll see. Everything will be fine.”

   The lie reached out to Hannah and held her. But violence? There was none in the speaking of this conversation. Would Cleo know? Would she revert to the prior Cleo, the one who accepted whatever she was told as truth? Or would the lessons of the past several days stay with her?

Cleo Forty

Saturday, 8:20 AM Chernihiv Main Bus Terminal, Ukraine

Lies. She was getting tired of the lies.

She had known for a while that Sandra would give her half-truths. She would be casual with details and give false assurances. Cleo understood that was part of Sandra’s job. None of it mattered when Cleo’s job had been safe in her clean, predictable office, and her work product had been in written form. Now, Cleo was in the real world making judgements that changed with the accent of the person speaking. Cleo herself had pulled up self-protective half-truths without a thought. Maybe Sandra’s lies were necessary for work, but they were aggravating on two hours’ sleep.

“Sandra, I can handle it from here,” said Cleo. “Just tell me that you’re fine with me coming back. Hannah seems to be safe and as happy as I have ever seen her. She can make her own decision about coming or not.”

“Of course, Cherie. Everything will work out. You’ve done a perfect job in a tough situation.”

Sandra was fiddling off-screen again, and appeared to be glancing to the side of the computer screen. Cleo suddenly felt the conversation was words without meaning. Where had the urgency gone? Why had she needed to follow Hannah half way across the world if she could simply up and go home upon a whim of travel weariness?

“Well, I’ll text or email my travel details,” said Cleo.

“Good. Good.”

Now, Sandra was looking beyond Cleo’s shoulder and then to something off-screen in her own office. Her facial expression did not match her words.

“It looks like you’re busy, Sandra.”

“Not at all, Cherie. Give me just a moment.” This was aimed over Cleo’s shoulder.

What was going on? Cleo turned around in her chair, and saw Hannah standing a short distance behind her, focused on the screen of Cleo’s notepad.

Hannah’s eyes went wide; a smile came to her face as she looked past Cleo. Another smile? Cleo wondered what was going on with the odd little woman. Hannah stepped closer, placed her hands over her heart.

“Now I remember. I know who you are,” Hannah said to the computer screen, soft words filled with adoration. Cleo would never have expected to hear such words spoken in Hannah’s voice.

Cleo turned back to look again at Sandra, but Sandra had disappeared. John Smith’s face was on her notepad screen, smiling at Hannah.

Dobre utra, Khanna malyshka,” he said.

Dobre utra, Misha.”

Vowels, Vodka and Voices

Hannah Thirty-nine

Saturday, 7:00 AM Staroyemesto, Ukraine

Cleo stood in front of the neighborhood store, looking every bit a young Ukrainian woman. Hannah had been surprised that Cleo so willingly embraced this dyed hair color, commonly seen here, but a bit more bold than anything Hannah had ever seen in the States. Cleo swore they would love it in Panamá. Shame she had to leave her heels behind. With the heels, she would be in complete Ukrainian style.

But Cleo’s future lay in getting back to her job. Having proved her worth, she deserved now to get what she wanted. She would be walking onto the next flight making her slow way back to JSA.

Hannah, though, would not.

Natalia had arranged that Otto, her brother-in-law, would bring Hannah back to this village, Staroyemesto, after she purchased Cleo’s tickets and by that time, everything would be settled. She would have a dacha to stay in, and some transportation back and forth from wherever she needed to go for the next week or two. There were several vacant country homes that would be acceptable. Natalia simply needed to make the calls, as long as Hannah had the cash.

It seemed to Hannah that Natalia had been much more worried about Cleo’s request. She had fretted over the hair style and the color, making adjustments until the moment that Otto pulled up with the car.

But Cleo herself was beaming. The neighborhood store, fit into the corner of an unassuming front room in a tiny country house, had delivered on more than just coffee. Cleo had her new hair color and a ride back into Chernihiv. From Hannah, she even had a promise that she would be back in Kyiv before noon.

Cleo didn’t need to know that Hannah wouldn’t be going along. She didn’t need to know just yet.

Cleo Thirty-nine

Saturday, 7:50 AM Chernihiv Main Bus Terminal, Ukraine

They had made it to the bus terminal in Chernihiv. Hannah was in line to purchase their tickets. She said she might be able to buy their airplane tickets at the travel agency next to the bus company kiosks. All Cleo needed to do was relax, let her blister adjust to the new shoes Natalia had sold her.

Cleo knew something was off with Hannah. She had left behind her backpack and, it seemed, all her possessions. Cleo had asked for an explanation, and though Hannah had spoken words, she hadn’t explained anything. She’d pointed out Cleo’s Ukrainian handbag and the importance of blending in. Hannah was leaving out all the inconvenient truth. And Cleo believed there was a good deal of that.

The one issue that most worried Cleo was the passport. How could Hannah get onto a plane with a passport that hadn’t been allowed into the country? Cleo could get no answer from Hannah. She wouldn’t even confirm she had a passport for Hannah Black, and so far, Cleo had seen no proof.

A sinking feeling that Hannah had her own destination in mind rested in Cleo’s gut. She felt rather helpless in this country of many languages, none of which Cleo spoke. She would have to rely on Hannah, who seemed more comfortable and less odd the more she spoke languages that Cleo could not understand. Hopefully, Hannah was buying at least one ticket to Panamá. It was past time for Cleo to be heading home.

In the meantime, Cleo had decided to contact her boss. What she would tell her and how much she needed to reveal, Cleo had not quite resolved in her head before the connection to Sandra came through. She saw her boss’ face come into view on her notebook.

“Good lord, Miss C. You are a red I’ve never seen before. Glorious. Did you do it on purpose?”

Cleo fluffed her hair, not reacting to her boss’ latest back-handed praise.

“I hope this is a better time for you than our last call. I tried the return call yesterday, but couldn’t get through,” said Cleo, hurrying the lie. “How late is it there?”

“I’m still at the office. Things here are swinging today. JS has an all-hands-on-deck thing, but so far, I haven’t seen much action.”

“Something I should know about?”

“There seems to be a lot of waiting around for I-don’t-know-what. I’m not concerned, so you shouldn’t be.”

“I have good news. We are in a bus station, perhaps heading home. Hannah seems to have agreed to come along, though I’m not entirely convinced she’ll follow through. How would you feel if I came home without her?”

“The whole idea was to arrange a meeting with John Smith. Is Hannah with you?”

“No one told me about a meeting,” said Cleo. “My whole idea was to follow Hannah. And I have done that. A lot. And she has agreed to come back. At least, I think she has. I just have this feeling…”

“Truly, Cherie? You got her to agree to come here? Is she with you?” Sandra seemed to be handling something off-screen, fidgeting.

“Well, I wouldn’t bet on anything yet, and Hannah is not an easy read, but it seems to be heading that direction. Maybe.”


Cleo had expected more, some instruction on what to do, perhaps even some congratulations. Or the unwanted expectation that, regardless what Hannah’s next step was, Cleo would need to follow her in this unending search for something Cleo couldn’t even name.

“It wasn’t easy,” said Cleo, “but all this may be over soon, right? If I do convince her to follow through, I assume we should come to Panamá City? I may need some help with her passport.”

“I suppose so. That sounds good.” Sandra was still fiddling off-screen, her face tilting slightly, her voice vague.

“Sandra, are you okay?”

Sandra tilted back, on screen and focused. “Oh, yes, Cherie. Where were we? Oh. Coming to Panamá City.”

Vowels, Vodka and Voices

Hannah Thirty-eight

Saturday, 5:25 AM Outside Chernihiv, Ukraine

It had been difficult to walk away. As soon as she found the back gate, the one that linked the two dachas, she knew.

Anton’s family and hers, as with the small homes on the factory grounds, had been neighbors here in the countryside. She had walked past the edge of a country home where she had lived with her parents. How old had she been when they left? Why had her parents hid all these memories? Who was Misha? That name came into her consciousness as she walked along the back fence. There was so much to know.

Had the homes been assigned to them? And if so, why? Hannah had heard of that practice, made complicated by the break-up of the Soviet Union. But Anton apparently still owned the small, square home. What had happened to Hannah’s family dacha? She had so wanted to open the back gate to that garden, and go retrieving memories in the early dawn.

But it was not yet time for that. First, ensure Cleo’s safe departure. Second, think. Then the decisions Hannah needed to make would be easier. Not easy. But easier.

They walked on. Certainly, in this neighborhood of country living, there would be someone baking and selling bread, someone squeezing fresh juice with some leftover to trade to their neighbors, someone else who may have a taxi service, to the city and back again. Most people did not live here permanently, but there were probably enough that some household businesses had popped up.

“Please explain to me this change of plans,” said Cleo. “Because it looks to me like you are ready to embrace this Ukrainian life, with your gorgeous head scarf and your sensible walking shoes. My heels have been complaining since we started, and I think I popped a blister two blocks back.”

“I don’t like being the one to tell you, Young Cleo, but those heels will need to go. They are stained, they are impractical, and if I am to get you where you need to go, you must be ready for walking. Perhaps a good distance.”

“Longer than we’ve already walked?”

“It’s been half a mile, no more, nothing to complain about. Look ahead. I think I see a sign for a store.”

“It’s too dark to see. If there is a store, let’s hope there’s coffee. So, Hannah. Why did you leave your backpack? I remember you putting all your loose cash into your pockets. So, you are literally walking away with only your cash and the clothes on your back.”

“Ah. I see you’ve thought this over. When did you last see Carlos?”

“Carlos. He was at that restaurant yesterday. He says he will find us wherever we go. Some fancy tracking device.” She paused. “Oh, I get it. You think the tracker was on the backpack. I don’t think so, Hannah.”

“It wasn’t on the backpack.”

Cleo didn’t appear surprised at this, in fact, didn’t appear surprised at the two of them, disguised as Ukrainian women, walking down a country lane before sunrise.

“Why do I get the feeling that each question I ask only opens up a larger issue?” said Cleo. “So, why did you leave the backpack? And, where is the tracker that Carlos uses? “

“Think about it, Young Cleo. What did your JSA give me that they could have manipulated in any way they wanted?”

“Oh. The passport. Too easy. They put the tracker in the passport.”

“That’s what I decided, also.”

“So, you left the passport back at Anton’s. I assume you have your Hannah Black passport with you. That will present some problems at the airport, Hannah. But what about all your other stuff?”

“Look just up ahead. It is a store, and they are opening up. I smell bread baking. I wonder if the owner would know of a reliable taxi service back to Chernihiv?”

Cleo Thirty-eight

Saturday, 5:30 AM Outside Chernihiv, Ukraine

This country seemed to be run by middle-aged women.

Cleo had limped up to the neighborhood store to see a stout woman of about 45 slide a couple dozen bread rolls onto a cooling tray on the counter. The heavy aroma of baked whole wheat and seeds with just a hint of honey made Cleo admire the woman immediately. Then she noticed the brilliant metallic red of the woman’s hair color. She thought she smelled coffee somewhere behind the counter. She may have started moaning with pleasure.

Hannah had begun a conversation with the woman that soon produced two steaming cups – one of coffee and one of tea – and a plate of hot bread and homemade jam. Was that boysenberry? The woman also brought out a plate with a honey comb on top. In the gray of dawn, Cleo saw there were two chairs in front of the counter.

Cleo helped herself to a slice of the bread, dropped a dollop of jam and a dribble of honey on top, and marveled at the coffee with creamy milk. The conversation went on as Cleo sat in one of the chairs, then took her first sip. With so much to comfort her, she could hardly feel the sting from the blister.

The space was quite small, and Cleo tried to move her chair to give room for Hannah. But her chair would not budge. Something was pushed into the corner behind Cleo, just now coming into her vision with the morning light.

Hannah, still conversing with the woman, arranged her own plate as they talked, then sat. Cleo glanced to her right, saw a beauty salon-type wash basin and, out from the chair she had settled in, she saw the hood of a salon hair dryer reach up above her shoulder. Hannah spoke to her in English.

“Natalia here,” she indicated the woman behind the counter, “says her brother-in-law can drive us into Chernihiv, but not until he is done with his morning garden chores. In about an hour, maybe an hour and a half. Anton will think we took an early bus. I think that’s acceptable. What about you?”

“An hour and a half. Does Natalia know how to color hair?”

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.

Vowels, Vodka and Voices

Hannah Thirty-six

Friday, 4:30 PM Chernihiv, Ukraine

She remembered running into the forest. Looking down, she could see her toddler-sized shoes, dark brown with a strap, padding against the soft dirt of the forest floor. It was a summer day, then as now. Tall trees that her small child-sized arms could reach around quickly surrounded Hannah. Khanna malyshka. Little Hannah.

She and – who was with her, another child? – gathered kindling. They followed an older man – her father? – as he found one after another cache of secret mushrooms. He carried a burlap bag over his shoulder for the mushrooms, wore a cap on his head, called teasingly to the children to stay away from Baba Yaga.

They returned from the forest to her home, alongside the tall folga zdaniye – tin-foil building – a child’s name for the factory. The little boy ran into the house next door.

Her mother sat outside on the porch, working at a large wooden table. She was kneading salt and pepper into chunks of meat, then placing the meat into a large bowl with ripe round cut-in-half tomatoes. Fresh chopped dill tickled Hannah’s nose, making her laugh. She picked up a handful and tossed it into the bowl as her mother continued to work the spices into the meat and tomatoes.

Her mother wiped her hands on her apron, picked up the bowl, motioned to Hannah to bring the kindling and the longer cuttings of dill. They joined her father under a tall trellis covered in vines. Her father placed the sack of mushrooms on top of a large, flattened paper bag on the ground. Her mother took the kindling from Hannah and started the fire, laying the dill on top.

Hannah’s mother and father began sorting through the mushrooms, putting aside some for today’s meal and saving others for later. Soon, the fire turned to embers. They placed the marinated meat onto the hot grid of steel rods, then added the mushrooms and tomatoes on top.

Her father turned and looked over to the house next door, where the small boy stood on the porch. Hannah heard her father’s voice clearly as he spoke in English.

“Anton, tell your parents,” he called, “come. We eat soon. Barbekyu.

Cleo Thirty-six

Friday, 5:45 PM Outside Chernihiv, Ukraine

Cleo stepped to the living room window of the tiny two-story dacha Anton had been so delighted to show them. From this view, she looked out to four country lanes, duplicate dachas lined up and down in wide-spaced rows of similar living.

She could see other neighborhoods in the distance, countryside escapes, Anton had explained, where people could grow their vegetables and feel some relief from the city’s Soviet-style apartments of large group living. And where they could enjoy barbekyu.

She looked out over rows of cabbages, carrots, and tall greens. Four fruit trees, perhaps cherry or apricot, rimmed the small garden. Anton had proudly announced a long litany of other produce that Cleo couldn’t identify. There was a small pasture-like space behind the fenced garden. Somewhere among the rows were potatoes.

Cleo judged they were 30 minutes northwest from Chernihiv. The driver had left them off in front of the small brick home, and Anton, at the same moment, stood taller and appeared more relaxed.

During the drive, Cleo had noticed the forest thin out. Rambling farm spaces with plots of smaller trees here and there began to appear along the countryside roads. They had taken the freeway a short distance, then turned off onto a two-lane highway with broad shoulders for buses to collect and leave off patrons.

The neighborhood of miniature houses was visible from the highway. Cleo and Hannah could walk back and catch a bus to Chernihiv, then the train to Kyiv.

The window was shut. Her view was interrupted by a wrought ironwork guard, and that distinctive three-paned window. She looked out past the garden and saw each tiny two-story dacha in the neighborhood. Made of light-colored brick, some with a diamond design on one side, each rose like tall barn-shaped Lego homes, each surrounded by a roughly 40-foot square garden yard, with a small pasture to the rear.

As evening began to descend, there was a chill to the air that Cleo had not noticed in Kyiv. Smoke began to rise from the middle of some of the dachas‘ roofs, coming out of tall ceramic pipes from the center of the rooflines. Cleo thought it was all so unfamiliar, yet she could identify many parts to the whole of the picture she witnessed.

In the yard, Anton and Hannah stood around a small, square black iron barbecue resting on the ground. Cleo saw Hannah reach for a jacket Anton had brought out. As she put it on, Anton layered chicken, potatoes, tomatoes and corn onto the heated coals.

Cleo had left them several minutes before, weary of trying to understand their language. She suspected they were speaking something quite different from the Ukrainian with which they had begun. She was tiring of the oppressive language spectacle that punctuated this venture. When would they return to simple English? In that language, Cleo could function.

   She had come inside the house to find the bathroom. She had found the kitchen with a wood-burning oven and no running water. She had found the living room to the side of the kitchen, and up a ladder – not a staircase, a simple true ladder – on the second floor, she had found two bedrooms. A powder room, she had not found.

Looking out past Hannah and Anton, she saw a very suspicious looking small wooden shack. Outhouse, it had to be. There was much about this country escapade that was becoming tiresome.

Cleo walked to the door, looked down at the shoes she had removed before coming inside. Had she purchased them just yesterday? She wished for a sidewalk and many-storied buildings with frail balconies and people who spoke English with a strong accent. She missed Kyiv. Again.

She heard Anton’s voice from the yard. “Cleo, bring jacket, come, we eat soon. Barbekyu.”

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.