Bruce Costello imagines an encounter between a Ukrainian local and a Russian soldier in Mariupol.
|Image generated with OpenAI
The woman is sheltering from the bombing. The soldier is searching for deserters. Then a rocket strikes. The building collapses. The cellar is buried under rubble. The woman and the soldier are entombed together
“My name is Stepan,” the soldier says, his voice disembodied in the darkness. He cannot see the woman but hears her whimpering and says she need not be afraid. He is not going to hurt her. He tells her he is 25 years old, a carpenter, conscripted into the army for 12 months, and he comes from Moscow.
“My name is Nadiya,” the woman mutters, speaking Russian with a Ukrainian accent.
The soldier searches the cellar with his cigarette lighter. He finds a small mound of grain that looks like it has spilled from a sack, a small packet of sunflower seeds, and a locked steel container, hidden behind an empty cabinet. He yanks the container out, and hammers it with his rifle butt until it opens, revealing seven bottles of wine.
“This is good,” the soldier grins, his face glowing oddly in the flickering flame. He holds up a bottle. “Shall we drink?”
The cellar is silent, apart from muffled explosions in the distance. And somewhere nearby a cat is howling, presumably trapped in rubble.
The wine bottle passes to and fro and the two start to talk.
“My great grandfather died fighting Germans in 1914,” Stepan says. “My grandfather died at Stalingrad fighting Nazis in 1942. My father died in 1981 fighting Afghans. My brother lost a leg fighting Chechens in 2009. It seems I will lose my life in Mariupol, you and I together, stuck in this cellar, unless they dig us out in time.” His voice fills with tears. “And I don’t know why I am here.”
Stepan clears his throat and is silent for several minutes before continuing. “We Russians, we love our country. We have been invaded many times. We need strong leaders who can stand up to our enemies. We know to do what we are told to do.”
“You Russians do not know what it is to live freely,” Nadiya replies. “You murdered the tyrant tsars and replaced them with tyrant communists who were worse. And now this. Throughout your history you have lived under tyrants. It is all you know. You have not learned to do otherwise.”
Stepan does not answer this, but changes the subject to talk about his wife, Natasha, an office worker. She cried when he was conscripted into the army but was proud when he left for the fighting. “My Stepan is doing his duty for the motherland,” she boasted to all their friends and neighbours.
They have a daughter, Elena, who is just over two, with red hair. And there is another child on the way.
“I also have a child on the way,” remarks Nadiya, in a voice devoid of emotion. “I am a teacher of history at the Mariupol State University. My husband, Pavlo, is a deacon in a parish of the Ukrainian Orthodox Church which rejected the authority of the Russian Orthodox Church in 2018. When your country invaded ours, he joined the army as a volunteer.”
She stops talking, falls silent, then continues, enunciating each word separately, as if reading to a child. “I have not heard from him for over a week. I think you have killed him.”
Stepan pulls a half-eaten loaf of bread from the pocket of his greatcoat, tears a chunk from it and thrusts it into her hand.
Three days pass. They eat the grain from the floor, empty Stepan’s water canteen and consume three bottles of wine, one per day.
Explosions continue to be heard, some near, some far away, but the sound they are hoping to hear does not happen.
On the fourth day of their captivity, when Nadiya has a miscarriage, Stepan is like a brother, sitting close, warming her with his body and rubbing her back. It is winter and the temperature in the cellar is freezing.
On the seventh day, they hear heavy machinery outside. After several hours of banging and crashing, two Russian soldiers force open the door and enter. Seizing Stepan by the throat, they accuse him of being a deserter, then knock him to the ground with their rifle butts, where he writhes in agony. They jeer at him, slap their sides with laughter, and make obscene gestures towards Nadiya. One drops his trousers and moves towards her. Stepan, on the floor, grabs the man’s ankles and attempts to wrestle him to the ground. The other soldier shoots Stepan in the head.
What happens next is blanked out of Nadiya’s memory forever.
After the war, too unwell to resume her work at the university, she retired to a cottage in a small seaside town nearby and grew sunflowers that peered out over the street. People walking by with their dogs would often stop to comment how beautiful her sunflowers were.
“Yes, they are happy, friendly flowers,” she would reply. “I feed them on shit. Horse shit, hen shit, cow shit and seaweed.”
Then she would fall silent and look away, as if surprised at what she had just said, and carry on with hoeing or weeding or whatever else had to be done. Local people would smile, wish her a nice day and then move on with a cheery wave.
Nadiya spent a great deal of time in the front garden.
Sometimes she thought about the war, but usually she didn’t. Today was a good day, so why spoil it by thinking about yesterday? Today was a much better day.
The time when she had been a university lecturer seemed very far away, had it ever existed? The world before today was foggy, her past life a fiction, a book, a tale dictated by a tyrant, signifying nothing.
But on Sundays when she heard the cathedral bells, Nadiya sometimes remembered that she had been married once to a deacon and that there was once a child who never was and a Russian soldier from Moscow who surely was.
But there was little feeling in her, merely indifference, outward spiritual calm, actually a dulling of everything.
Only the present was real and Nadiya’s best friends were sunflowers.