Yampil’ – Donetsk Oblast 17:00 27 September 2022
When Tomas came in through where the door used to be, he heard weeping.
‘Maman?’ he cried into the dim pallor of early-evening light.
‘Here’, the dark whispered in reply.
Tomas rushed toward the disembodied voice, his heart already threatening to jump out of his chest.
‘Maman, why do you cry?’
He hugged her as tightly as his 11-year-old arms could.
The chill air of Autumn had come early. Their home had lost its heating, together with the windows and doors, from the Russian shelling. Back then, it was still Winter, but they managed to survive the cold and afterwards, the Spring rains…
But that was last Winter. Papa was still around. Papa answered the President’s call to arms when the Russians first invaded. His older brother, Vitali, just turned 16, went with him. They deployed to the Azov Steel plant and no one was able to tell them anything after the intrepid Azov defenders surrendered. No one could say if papa and Vitali were alive or no.
They weren’t there with maman and young Tomas.
‘Are you afraid, maman?’ he asked, his voice quivering. ‘…of the bombs?’
His mother stroked his cheek, the tears running down her own…
‘My dear, gentle little man!’,she said, a smile emerging from somewhere deep within her soul, to vanquish the taut line of grief her lips pressed into.
They both hugged for a while without speaking.
‘Your uncle Vitali was here. He brought us some bread and cheese…and some tea…’she swallowed…your cousin Sylvie went missing…Vitali believes she’s dead.’
‘Sylvie dead? No! She’s not dead!’ Tomas grasped his mother tightly; then relapsed into a numb, convulsing silence. Neither spoke for a time…they drew solace from weeping quietly, together.
Sylvie was older than Tomas by only a few months. They had grown up together in Yampil, had sleepovers nearly every weekend and played Monopoly until one or the other (or both!) fell asleep or owned the entire board plus all of the money in the bank (and in Free Parking!).
‘Not. Dead.’ He said to himself, over and over.
Later, he felt his mom slide away from the mass of cushions which did double-duty as both sofa and bed in one of the two rooms still with a roof.
‘I’m going to find something for supper.’ He thought she said.
Tomas awoke in darkness, shivering.
‘Maman?’ No answer.
Tomas reached for the flashlight buried among the cushions. It’s failing batteries capable to reveal very little of what was hidden in the early-morning shroud.
Her coat wasn’t on the back of the chair by the doorway, her shoes weren’t on the porch…she hadn’t come home last night!
The feeling welling up from his stomach paralyzed him. He was all alone!
Tomas sat. He wept. He shivered…
With that, he jumped to his feet, grabbed the half-apple his mother had reserved for their breakfast, then ran out the door. Halfway up his street, he slowed, then stopped, then turned back…he’d thought it best to leave a note for maman, in case she was still alive…
Sylvie and Tomas, best friends since diaperhood, swore to marry one day, after they were grownups. They played together, walked to school together (before the Russians came with guns and tanks), and of course, they walloped one another at Monopoly most weekends…
Some Friday nights, they sneaked away after everyone at home was asleep, to prowl the streets, pretending they were looking for criminal activity to report to the police. They arranged to split up and approach ‘the criminals’ from opposite sides, and, should they ever become lost and unable to find each other, they would meet at the Rusava nearby, next to where the ‘poo-pipe’ came out of the bank, when it was time to go home.
Tomas made for the river. As he rounded the corner of the fire station and descended the river bank the trepidation of alone-ness welled up within him once again…
…but there! Beyond the pipe…a shadow, a clump of bush?…a person? A little person!
‘Sylvie?’ he called, incredulous.
The dark patch beyond the pipe stirred…
‘Tomas!’she cried out. ‘It’s you!’
They rushed together and hugged and cried. Sylvie had become separated from her dad. After a cruise missile struck, a pile of rubble, formerly an office building, prevented her from going back home the way she came. Fearing everyone dead -she could see dead people laying in the street- she gave up on going home and made for their secret meeting place instead.
‘Your dad’s not dead’, said Tomas. ’He was at the house only yesterday. He brought us food. My maman went out for something before supper but she didn’t come back last night…I’m afraid that something happened to her…she is dead.’
Sylvie hugged him tightly at the news. His maman. Her titka. She was as frightened as Tomas…but she wouldn’t never let on…
There, in the early morning dampness, the two talked of going to look for criminals one last time…this time, so that no one would ever get bombed by Russia Putin again…
‘It is more than 1200 kilometres,’ she told him. ‘How are we going to get there? We have no money.’ Sylvie had the savvy of the eldest sibling. ‘Whatever could we do to him, if we did get there?’
Tomas looked away from her. ‘I don’t know. But I’m going anyway. There is nothing left for me here. You don’t have to come, Sylvie. Your papa is around here, somewheres… I’d likely get killed or caught and they’ll stick me in a Siberian orphanage…’
The tears welled up and Tomas did not want Sylvie to see how scared he really was.
‘I got to do something…’and off he went without speaking another word.
Sylvie watched after him for a moment. She had never felt so torn: between Tomas, her cousin and best friend (and future husband!), whom she might not ever see again, and her papa, who was going around right now, thinking she was dead.
She cried as she made her way back toward home, seeking a pass through or around the mounds of rubble left by the missiles; asking anyone she encountered along the way if they had seen her papa or knew a way to cross over the river somewhere so that she get back to her house?
She came upon a man, bedraggled in appearance, pushing a shopping cart with everything he possessed in the world after a Putin cruise missile, fired from a ship somewhere in the Black Sea, had taken his home and family and livelihood away. His appearance made her afraid. She turned to go in the other direction.
‘Young girl!’ the elderly mendicant called. ‘Why do you cry? Are you lost?’
Sylvie was scared, struggling with what she should tell him, with how much she could trust him…
‘I see that you are lost…What street did you live on?’
‘Ah, yes. That block was hit by the missiles. There is very little left standing…’ he paused to reflect. ‘The bridge is gone there…but the next one is intact…a few miles…I can show you.’
Sylvie was not the sort to trust a stranger so readily…but, his appearance notwithstanding (he wasn’t wearing a business suit, after all), he seemed to her to be of a gentle spirit…she hesitated to refuse his kindness…
She decided to trust the man.
‘Do you know the gas station right across the river from here?’ The man knew it.
‘That is where my dad got gas and went for coffee every day. They know him. If I give you a note, will you promise to bring it to the gas station?’
‘Sure I will…but, why? Aren’t you coming?
‘I have a friend. He wants to go to Moscow to give Putin a bloody nose. I have to go with him, to keep him out of trouble,’ she confessed.
The man regarded her for a time, then agreed to take her note.
She wanted to give him the apple she had tucked away, but the man’s mouth told her he didn’t like apples. His eyes said otherwise.
She gave him the apple, telling him she liked apples even less than he, thanked the man profusely for ‘taking the apple off of her hands’, then, turning back in the direction she came, she went to find Tomas.
The mendicant’s eyes followed her until she disappeared around a bend in the avenue that accompanied the Rusava along its eastern shore.
Sylvie knew if she didn’t find Tomas soon, she never would. Tomas was as resourceful an 11-year-old as he was stubborn. She knew he’d find a way to cover those 1200 kilometres and knock on Putin’s front door…’the Kriminalin’ her dad liked to call it…she was deathly afraid of what might happen next.
Her papa would be as scared for her. She prayed the mendicant would keep his word and deliver her note. Maybe they would meet.
She arrived back at the poo-pipe by mid-morning. She watched a plane fly overhead, a way up, and wondered where it was going, who was going to die today.
Looking in the direction she had seen her friend going, she thought perhaps he made for the highway to hitchhike?
No…too many are being bombed in their vehicles, like those 13 kids trying to escape Zaporizhzhia…he’d be too afraid to do that…as for buses and such? Likely all the same to Tomas, if they were even running…besides, he has no money…
She rounded the corner where the gas station used to be, now a faintly smoldering pile of steel and rubble, opposite the railway station.
“The train!”, Sylvie said aloud, then putting a hand to her mouth while looking about to see if anyone had heard her.
Boxcars! Hundreds of them! How will I ever find him? Sylvie, extraordinarily resourceful herself (“All oldest sisters have to be!”, she’d often say) and not much for squandering valuable time (another oldest-sister trait), resolved to go up one side of the boxcars and then down the other; pausing at each one, then calling out his name.
Boxcar after boxcar…no answer. Very soon, it would be evening, and the night crew will come to man the train and off it would go, snaking its way north and westward toward Kyiv. A chill began to settle in.
“Tomas!” she called. She had made it down the one side of the train and was starting up the other side when she was grabbed gruffly from behind.
“Hush!” whispered a familiar voice.
Sylvie turned round and struck Tomas a good one right on the nose. Tomas released his grasp immediately and put his hands to his face. She could see a little blood coming through his fingers.
“Oh my god! Tomas! I’m so…sorry!…I…” and then that look on Tomas’ face…and she started to laugh…and then she made to hug him.
Tomas made a weak effort to push her away and even managed a smile himself after the stinging wore off…
Sylvie told him about the mendicant and the note, so that she could go with her friend to keep him out of trouble…
“Because that’s just what good friends do.” That’s what she’d always say, anyways.
Between them, they had but one sleeping bag, an apple (Tomas’), some dry toast, and a bottle of water. Tomas brought her to the boxcar he had been hiding in. There were rolls of paper bound for Kyiv for making boxes. There was about a metre of space between the rolls and the roof of the car and nobody would be able to see them until all of the rolls, but for the ones they were hiding on, were removed. Perfect. There’d be an issue with the toilet over the full day and night it would take to get there, but
“…that’s what the other end of the boxcar is for.” Sylvie pointed out emphatically.
Soon after, the crew arrived. There were calls and creaks, the sound of shunting and air brakes, and then the train lurched forward.
They were on their way…
Sylvie jealously watched Tomas rocked to sleep by the gentle swagger of the train. She marveled at how easily the train’s rocking motion had plunged him into a deep sleep. Even at the best of times, it always seemed to take her forever…
The Sun led the train forward as it descended its arc across the sky, drawing them and the darkness spreading from the East over the World’s western edge with it.
After a while, she felt the train lurch to a stop. She listened…she heard nothing but Tomas’ slow breathing…she crawled along the roll tops to the crack where the sliding door met the jamb…very gingerly…on scraped knees and elbows and hands, cracked by the dryness of the September air.
She heard some rummaging around outside the boxcar but could not see…
“Hey! You! You there! What are you doing here? Sacrilege!” someone was yelling from somewhere out in the darkness…
Sylvie strained to look through the crack in the direction of the man, still yelling maniacally, at someone or something located just out of Sylvie’s view, but quite close to her.
The yelling grew louder as the man approached; attired in the garb of Orthodoxy and brandishing a scythe over his head like a Cossack riding his horse into battle.
The rummaging stopped. Sylvie watched, not daring to breathe even, for fear the ‘Cossack’ might see her breath coming out of the crack in the door jamb.
There! Off to her left, she saw… a man! a very tall man!
“My god!” she said aloud. “It’s the man I gave dad’s note to!”
She cupped her hand to her mouth fearing that she had spoken out loud. She turned to check on Tomas and then watched as the Cossack and the mendicant, now fully erect, closed on one another, the Cossack swinging his scythe broadly back and forth, laying out broad swathes of waste as he came.
The Cossack stopped, removed something from his pocket, then threw it at the mendicant. The projectile put the mendicant squarely on his back; a small mushroom of smoke billowing high up into the air.
“No!” Sylvie screamed. She pushed the door open enough to slide through, then ran to the man, forgetting the fearful Cossack (and Tomas) for the moment. Sylvie put her hand gently under the mendicant’s head, raising it up from the ground.
The mendicant opened his eyes. Bewilderment soon gave way to recognition and affection. Sylvie smiled down at him and he up at her.
In a moment, it was her laying on the ground and him standing. With jaw locking speed he got back on his feet. He said something in a tongue no one she knew spoke but was somehow familiar, then, reared back like a Vida Blue and whipped a 160 kph fastball of iridescent blue fire at the Cossack, who, by that time, was very nearly upon them.
The Cossack, stopped dead in his tracks, reached in his pocket for another projectile to toss at the mendicant, but thinking the better of it, reversed his course and ran for home.
Sylvie watched after him, then gave a start when a hand grasped her shoulder from behind.
“Sylvie! Wake up! We’re here…” said Tomas.
It was early morning. Tomas and Sylvie slipped out the side opposite to the station into the cool air of dawn. Sylvie paused a moment, listening…apart from the shunting of boxcars, the sliding of boxcar doors, and an occasional groan emitted by the air brakes, there was nothing of note…still, she felt as though they were being watched.
She was troubled by her dream last night, but right now they had to get away from there, to reconnoiter the Kremlin, to find a way in -and then hole up somewhere until the time arrived to see Tomas’ insane (or so she esteemed it) plan through.
She had watched him, during the night, scribbling with his pencil on the a piece of paper he’d culled from the rolls they rode on, consider it, then crumple and discard the whole page and start over again…and then again. One time she dared try a glimpse at what he was doing but he clutched his work tightly, his expression a warning not to persist…and she backed away, without a word of complaint.
Hours later, as the sun crept over the Kremlin to begin its Western descent, Tomas stood at the Kremlin’s gate. He stood, at attention, his right hand held in the posture of salute, his left clutching a piece of paper, carefully folded.
Sylvie watched him, from a park bench situated along the Square, strategically located under the shade of a magnificent Red Oak. She periodically looked around, searching, for that nameless foreboding her dream had left to resonate in her soul. One time, she’d thought she saw something out of the corner of her eye but facing direct, nothing there but a copse of trees growing out of a grassy knoll.
The guards watched Tomas and exchanged a smile or two…one mimicking Tomas’ salute to the other, who made a feint to knock his headgear off in reply. After an hour or so had passed, she saw one guard pick up the phone, say a few words, then hang up. He came out of the shack and made straight for Tomas.
Tomas did not move, but stood even more erect, raising his arm even higher, in salute.
“Little man,” the guard said, “you must go home now. Your parents are worried about you.”
“My parents are dead,” Tomas managed to say, before his throat tightened and his mouth went completely dry. He swallowed, then proffered his note to the Russian guard.
“What’s this?” the guard smirked, but as he read, the smirk gave way to bewilderment, finally resolve…he took his pistol and pointed it straight at Tomas’ face.
Sylvie catapulted off of the bench. She ran full steam toward the pair, screaming ‘Tomas!’ the whole way.
The guard hollered something at his partner in the gatehouse, who picked up the phone with one hand while pressing the alarm with the other.
And then all hell broke loose.
Sirens blared, people ran this way and that way, all about the Square, seeming to come from out of nowhere. The guard had dropped to one knee alongside of Tomas, splayed on the cold tarmac, his pistol pressed to the back of Tomas’ head.
From a window about midway up on the North Tower, a curtain pulled back, held for a moment, before returning, once again, to its blank, lifeless repose, watching over Red Square.
Sylvie, running and screaming, felt something hot pass over her head at lightening speed, before striking the tower at the very spot where she had just seen someone looking out of a window.
There was a loud explosion and white light everywhere. Sylvie fell to the ground. Her vision cleared. She looked about for…Tomas!
He was but metres away. The guard…
The guard lay face down on the tarmac as he had made Tomas do…but was still…as death.
The Square began to fill up with officials, cars, gooseneckers and ambulances…mostly coalescing around Tomas and the guard. Everyone else ran for cover.
Everyone but one rather tallish, gangly man. Despite his rather unkept appearance, he walked through the chaos with the imperturbable air of a lion, as if lord of an ancient desert domain.
“The mendicant!” Sylvie recognized him as her benefactor from the other side of the Rusava and also the protagonist of her dream.
She watched as the man stopped, inspected the Russian guard, then muttered something. The guard stirred…
The man knelt beside Tomas, laying his hand upon the back of his head. Tomas, frightened but uninjured, turned his head to the side to look…bewilderment, inquisitiveness, then recognition passed across his face in quick succession as the mendicant gently guided him to his feet.
“Is…is it really you?” Tomas managed.
The tall man smiled warmly as the two embraced.
Sylvie, only a few feet away, was transfixed. The chaos of only a few moments before had resolved into a few shouts, a few sirens in the direction of the North Tower…
…and a throng gathering into a horseshoe, seemingly to form a protective shield around the two children and their mendicant savior, its open end facing the Kremlin, as if to invite the ogre living inside to try venturing just one more step forward…and then be swallowed up.
She watched Tomas and the man, still hugging, only now, they were both laughing too. Tomas’ note fluttered past her ankle…she chased after it, pinning it to the ground with her foot before the wind could catch it again…
My name is Tomas. I am from Yampil’, Ukraine. My father’s name was Joseph. My mother’s name was Mary. They are both made dead by the missiles you fired to free our country from the Nazis you said are trying to take over Ukraine. I had an older brother too, but he disappeared when my dad did. My maman told me, before the missiles struck our home, that my papa and my brother had gone to defend our country and were killed by the enemy.
I read in the newspaper that you are a great leader of a great nation, that you are more terrible than Ivan; enough-so to wrestle god like Jacob in the Bible and even to ride horses in Siberia without a shirt! Not even Jacob could do that!
But God loves to wrestle, not use missiles, because that way, when people fight, nobody dies. No moms and dads, no children, no animals, no plants…but you fight with missiles and now my parents and my brother are dead and I am all alone. Did you get the Nazis?
There is no one to take care of me…I must take care of myself…I must hunt and fish and gather from the garbage…BUT NOW YOU THREATEN TO USE NUKES ON UKRAINE and everything will be covered in radiation and I won’t be able to eat anything I find, not for many, many years. But did you get the Nazis?
Before my grade five teacher was killed, she told us if we breathe the air from a nuclear bomb, we will die a horrible death, like they did in Hiroshima and Nagasaki. You talked about Hiroshima and Nagasaki on the news. You know about Hiroshima and Nagasaki. If you know about it, why would you do that to the country you want to rescue from those Nazis? I don’t understand.
Now that your soldiers are in my home, you can see there are no Nazis. But you still fire missiles and now you want to nuke and make sure no one can live here for a long, long time, if anyone tries to stop you.
BUT, IF YOU DO THAT, you escalate your fight with God…it won’t be just ‘wrestling’ anymore.
ARE YOU SURE YOU WANT TO GO TOE-TO-TOE WITH GOD IN A DEATH MATCH? Not even Mike Tyson would have dared do that…but, then, on the other hand, as Ukrainian folklore has it, Vitali Klitchko, the mayor of our capitol, Kiev, once challenged God for the unified Universe Boxing Association version of the heavyweight championship(UBA); but God chose to retire from boxing rather than fight him.
DO YOU THINK YOU KNOW BETTER THAN GOD?
No one living today knows what became of Tomas and Sylvie, or the Mendicant; but every Bye-Bye Babushka-Z Day, Ukrainian children happily look forward to the elders regaling them with tales of their heroic adventures, beginning always with the one at the Kremlin…as they bob for apples by the Ba-bushel.
No one can really say what happened to Putin. He disappeared when the North Tower blew up. He may be dead. He may have gone to Argentina. He may even have sought refuge in Beijing…but on one thing everyone can agree: he will end up in Hell along with all of his friends, right alongside Stalin and Hitler.
As for those brave soldiers who fell in Putin’s War, why, they left their bodies on the spot, and, without so much as a look behind, walked straight into the Light and Land of the Creator…to the part of the Ukraine where no shell, missile, or bullet can ever reach and no Putin can ever try to annex.
There wait the Fallen…
They await the Great Reconciliation; the end of war, and the Return to the Garden.