Under the Sign of Peace
by Victoria Amelina
An excerpt from the novel The Fall Syndrome
Translated from the Ukrainian by Zenia Tompkins
After Tarik was gone, and the Egyptian government had yielded its positions, I closed my laptop and walked up to the window. It was spring, and it wasn’t yellow leaves, as on that distant day in the fall of 1989, but now the white petals of an old pear tree that swirled in the yard between the hanging linens and the maples, abloom with the green heartlings of newborn life. I closed my eyes. It can’t be. Nowadays no one hangs out their linens like that, in the open; no one shows their neighbors their intimate sheets with pink polka dots or light blue flowers faded from washings, or even plain white ones like these. Nowadays everyone pretends that their sheets are all silk, elegant, scented with perfumes and long bouts of extraordinary lovemaking. I opened them. The plain white sheets were still unabashedly flapping in the wind, like sails in the midst of a bright green sea—one as clean as someone’s freshly laundered clothing. I got the feeling that this was exactly what I needed, to cleanse myself. From the unnecessary, from excess thoughts. I’d become white as white, clean as clean.
My treasure was in safekeeping where my grandma had once placed the little gray container. No, naturally, the pencil case was new—made of dark wood and ordered from a reputable company—but it lay in that same spot. I rolled the pellet around in my hands, salvation from all my troubles (or were they not mine?). A white, tiny pellet.
I should probably drink it down with a glass of water. And have faith, faith, faith—until it takes effect. I pushed the pill way back, all the way against my throat, to make sure the result was guaranteed. I swallowed a few times, but it was as though the pill had gotten stuck.
And I fell into a panic. Maybe it wasn’t worth it?
I tried my two fingers, a trick that had never worked for me. It just felt unpleasant, but nothing was going back. Lord. I stumbled around the apartment like a wounded animal. My salvation had gotten stuck in my larynx and wasn’t going down. It hurt inside, and it was scary, as if I was losing something, though on the contrary I should have been gaining—gaining normality, purity, and, ultimately, joy.
If I recall, the phone rang, or something like that. I can’t say for sure. Something drew me out of that state of panic.
“Stop,” I told myself. “Everything’s fine.” My head was clear. There was no more clump in my throat. There was no more nonsense in my head. It appeared to have worked.
And indeed, things changed. My life became beautifully normal, or maybe it just seemed so again to me. I smoked less and drank only on holidays and at work events. I began to want sex again, so I called Alla. She had another guy, but I was ready to understand her. I wouldn’t have wanted to be with me—abnormal, jellied somewhere in the middle of Tahrir Square, in another spatial dimension—either. And that’s why I took the pill, so as to not be… So I called. Alla lived in a rented apartment somewhere in the Vynohradar neighborhood and had a very long commute to her job in the center of Kyiv. She complained about this for a bit, then asked if my “quirks” were completely gone. After my response in the affirmative, she breathed a little into the receiver and said that she in fact loved me and would come soon.
“I’ll be waiting.”
Prior to her arrival I pulled myself together, set out what little I had on the table (some oatmeal cookies and the leftover pistachios from the beer drunk two days before), then took a shower (without forgetting why it was I had come up with the idea of calling Alla). Alla was a long time in coming, all the way from Vynohradar, and, as it turned out, also wasted a lot of time getting her things together. Apparently, I wasn’t such a bad guy in her opinion, or maybe the daily commute from Vynohradar to the city center was just that complicated. Either way, my hours of waiting were rewarded: I hadn’t bathed in vain.
And so my life once more gained meaning—correct meaning, human meaning, the kind that you can feel only with your skin, on your tongue, or through the release of endorphins into your blood.
We even decided to take a trip somewhere that summer. Not to Egypt, of course. To Montenegro or Bulgaria. Or maybe Turkey? Maybe.
I was a good person. I paid my taxes. I watched soccer, especially the UEFA Euro 2012. Vambo and I bought a bunch of beer—our, Ukrainian beer—and stocked up on all kinds of goodies. Alla baked a pizza. Our guys won in the first match! God, was I overjoyed. There was something else in the news other than the Euro 2102. But I really had changed: I no longer listened, and not listening was easy. It’s actually natural to not listen to the news. There is no such need in man: Even Maslow didn’t include it in his celebrated pyramid. It’s nonexistent, save perhaps that the feeling of one’s own security is stronger when there’s a war going on somewhere. I felt something like that now, as dirty soldiers moved in dashes amid heaps of stones and fired from machine guns, at someone who was offscreen.
The Arab Spring was treading through Africa, with flags and AK-47s.
“Savages,” Alla would say and change the channel.
Then spring arrived once more, and in Boston some who had almost fulfilled their dream and finished running the marathon had their legs torn off, and there was something disgustingly loser-ish about this—crippling those who wanted to run. I felt it acutely because I too periodically ran in the mornings now. Nothing much was coming of this running of mine: I would get lazy, the weather would turn bad, the alcoholic neighbors would look at me askance. But the fact that those who had finished running the entire marathon had been crippled somehow resonated with me. Yet it was normal, or at least within the bounds of the norm. I felt the resonation, then went off to have breakfast. I got myself distracted, and forgot it forever.
In the fall there was a typhoon in the Philippines, while in Egypt protests resumed. Nothing was working for the Egyptians: It had all been futile. The president that the wave of revolution had tossed up to the tippity top was now arrested, the announcers were saying that he had been killing peaceful civilians, the producers were broadcasting horrific images… To no end had Tarik lunged under a tank or whatever it was he had lunged under. Though who knows?
Somewhere I had read (online?) a parable about a peasant who received a horse. Everyone was jealous, but he just said, “I don’t know whether it’s good or bad.” His son fell of the horse and was left a lame cripple. Everyone sympathized, but he just said, “I don’t know whether it’s good or bad.” War came and everyone was taken off to fight, except for his son. And again everyone was jealous, but he just said… Well, you’ve probably figured it out. I wanted to think exactly like that, without passing judgment, both about the death of the fruit vendor that became the catalyst for the Arab Spring and about the death of the friend that for years led me through the streets of Venice but offered me tea only once in our lives. I was normal, don’t think otherwise—no symptoms of my “disease.” I just measured less by my own yardstick, tried harder to understand, read a lot, and listened differently now. It seems I became even less cynical because I now decided for myself whether to sympathize or not. I stockpiled money, not because I wanted to buy something, but simply because I was in no rush to spend and, were it not for Alla, could have likely gotten by quite modestly. All of my big expenses had been from unease, but I had bought myself ease. With a little white pill.
My little world was building up around me like a fortress. And this fortress’s only openings were small embrasures for looking out and intrepidly fighting off those who came too close—teeny-tiny embrasures, and strange ones on top of it, with thick shutters (where have you seen embrasures with shutters?). As soon as I shut them, there’s no outside trouble, and there’s a lamp burning in the living room, and a shelf of books, and some cognac, and a girlfriend in a negligee. The tranquil life of the bourgeois, as it turns out?
And then one evening Vambo called me, breathless.
“I’m walking down Horodecki Street. Everything here in the center is as it’s being reported. I’m calling because it’s a little eerie… There’s a sea of cops!” he was whispering. “They’re standing in rows, their eyes darting like wild beasts. If they sweep us up, no one will even meddle.”
“Where are you going?” I asked, stunned.
“Don’t yell!” Vambo was frightened. “For now, I’m coming for you. But we need to head to Mykhailivs’ka Square.”
“The students were dispersed at night, beaten, like puppies… They say some are in St. Michael’s Cathedral, hiding. We need to go.”
He fell silent, scared perhaps that he’d be heard.
“I’ll come to you,” I exhaled.
I didn’t say anything to my girlfriend. I just stood and looked out at my yard, the same one with the road where ambulances pulled up repeatedly once (the building was full of senior citizens), these days less and less often. No one strings up linens in the yard either, and the curb is lined with only cool-looking cars—typically black, black-as-night car-fortresses, whose owners perhaps have fortresses inside as well, like I do. They’re convenient for firing back at those climbing into your soul: I am not the only one to not like that.
The paths in the yard had changed their courses. New ones now ran to the kiosks and shops, and the old ones, the ones that previously led to the missing round table where someone would sometimes play dominoes, were overgrown. Only the trees had remained and manned up, as if preparing to repulse the blows of fate. But they had continued to lose their leaves just as before, as if that was how it should be. Because it is in fact necessary, and it would be a mistake to count these losses of theirs—one, two, three. The leaves fly and fly, fall ceaselessly, every autumn, but the tree remains. As do the people. And all of humanity remains and grows, preparing to repulse the blows of fate—irrespective of the borders that change like the lines of the paths in my yard, irrespective of the beauty of the patterns on one single leaf, irrespective of the fates of the friends with whom you once shared a branch. One, two, three. Fly on, oh beautiful little one, fly, oh wise little one. No one’s counting. What’s it, a little maple leaf, worth remembering for? In order to impress yourself on at least someone’s memory, you need to dance a whole storm of such pirouettes before you sink onto the asphalt. But there you’ll intermingle with other corpses either way, quietly receiving the imprints of strangers’ boots that will change the unique drawing of your whimsical, thin veinlets. The fallen leaves will grow duller, they’ll smell damp and astringent, they’ll be washed with rains and covered with snow, quivering in the wind and accepting the snow with gratitude, the way a chilled old man pulls up a comforter while he awaits his ambulance.
What Lotfia had said was true: Counting leaves was lunacy. Because leaves are born on their own, they rustle and turn a pretty green, but for their own enjoyment only, and then they die—always. There’s no end to those leaves.
The tree will remain. A tree needs to be fought for, not allowed to be chopped down like a cherry orchard—no matter the design of the paths that have emerged in this decade, no matter the picture the veinlets have drawn on your maple-tree palm.
Within half an hour, Vambo was in my kitchen. He rang the door buzzer, and Alla groused and grumbled something about the fact that I should have warned her.
“Move over! Let me at least sweep up the crumbs!”
Alla brewed tea in my grandma’s porcelain teapot, while Vambo, in a state of excitement, explained to us what had happened, yelling, his arms waving. It was playing out as if Alla and I were some small children who weren’t at all understanding something obvious. We did, in fact, understand. We understood every last thing. This was just a rupture of reality, an instance of time out of joint which—is this not what Vambo wanted of us?—we were being called to St. Michael’s Cathedral to set right. So we, naturally, were objecting and shaking our heads, while he quietly yelled. Yes, yes—it was definitely quiet and it was definitely yelling. It happens.
“We’ve woken up in a different country! We had thought we were free! Democracy! Rights! But no! We’re nobodies! The state can just take us like this and beat us down, demean us… They were beating girls there! They say one was even pregnant! We’re nobodies.”
Alla and I exchanged glances across the table. I was scared that as she listened to my friend, she was thinking that degrading term “savages” that she usually voiced with respect to Egyptians, Syrians, Libyans, and generally everyone south of Sicily and east of Yekaterinburg. But I was thinking about something else. About the fact that something abnormal was going on with Vambo, that a person who was about to open up his dreamed of auto repair shop couldn’t seriously be asking me to go with him where the cops could nab us and, as he himself had put it, beat us down, demean us, cripple us. No, I was trying to believe in honest policemen, for the sake of which I had watched a load of American crap about cops. But anything can happen. I’m, of course, no fragile, pale boy who grew up under my grandma’s wing: Vambo and I had survived the orphanage, and we would’ve survived an acquaintanceship with law enforcement too. But didn’t Vambo want to forget all that horror and never again be a victim? Maybe he simply doesn’t understand? Can’t imagine it? Vambo hadn’t been in Tahrir Square—in the skin of a man who doesn’t know whether his own child is alive, of a man being crushed by a multi-ton iron beast.
“Vambo, I’m sorry, I’m not going to go…”
“Well, I can’t. I…” I was getting ready to lie that I was busy, to hint to Alla and hope she’d play along. “I don’t think it’s worth it. Your father believed too… Or maybe he didn’t believe so much as he wanted to support and protect the young people, most of all your brother. But you know how it all ended.”
Vambo truly did know. For two years both of us had watched—Vambo with sadness and despair, I with affected indifference—how Islamists came to power in the elections after the revolution; how later a new round of protests began, this time against the newly elected President Morsi; how again blood flowed and even I could no longer believe that in vain, whether because of the effect of the white pill or simply because believing this, after all the victims that I had seen with almost my own eyes, was impossible.
“Listen, it’s a question of dignity. Either we’re cattle, slaves, or we’re getting our asses off our couches and going to the Maidan.”
“Yes, Midan El-Tahreer…”
“What?” Vambo hadn’t caught what I said.
“Yes, never mind. That’s enough talking nonsense for now,” Alla interjected, and how glad I was she had.
Alla could have had a career in politics. I still can’t remember what she had been saying—it wasn’t related to recent events—but she so bamboozled Vambo that we didn’t go anywhere that evening. When Vambo said goodbye, calmed down by Alla and a little tipsy, I holed myself up in my room and took stock of the news: site by site, some sort of broadcasts, Hromadske “Public” TV, which I had never heard of before, but now all the links seemed to lead to it like roads to Kyiv. I scrolled through the news until my head grew dizzy, then fell asleep with the firm resolution to not read the news anymore. And all night I saw the bells of St. Michael’s in my dreams, and I kept plugging my ears and pulling the cover over my head.
In the weeks that followed, I diligently pretended that nothing was taking place. Passersby with yellow-and-blue ribbons irritated me, almost like ambulances and charity boxes with poor-quality photos and the last names of those needing money had irritated me earlier. I would throw in money—from one to twenty hryvnias—and feel a little better. Passengers on public transit started a fad of discussing the events, women with bags full of hot food left no doubts regarding the purpose of their trip, and that singing of the anthem in the metro… I didn’t sing. Because singing meant becoming a part of all this—going out into the square, with a ribbon or without, going out among the people, reportedly more smiley and friendly than anywhere else in Ukraine, sharing their faith in the fact that something could be changed.
The worst thing was that even at work barely anyone remained apathetic. Only Ahunika was silent, but I knew that she definitely wasn’t apathetic. Yet neither one of us touched this topic: It had been my request. True, after this request of mine we simply didn’t talk. Once or twice I tried to strike up a conversation over Skype. She wasn’t silent, she just… answered in a way that the chat wasn’t gelling and withered on its own, not like in the past. Vambo disappeared. He didn’t call anymore, and when I tried dialing his number, the phone would respond with the standard “out of range.” Our sales plan was falling to pieces: The European clients were afraid to enter our market, the Russian ones were too, the Ukrainian ones seemed busy with something else, and my suspicions were bad.
In short, if there had been a pill for the Maidan, I would’ve taken it. But there was none. I went to Vambo’s apartment a few times. No one opened the door. I knocked at the neighbors’, but they didn’t know anything. They seemed to have heard the door open not long ago, but hadn’t seen Valeriy himself. They weren’t retirees for me to go peeking in their peephole.
“Maybe he’s at the Maidan?’
“But why isn’t he picking up?”
“Yes, but why pick up? They’ll track him down by his number. A lot of people there aren’t picking up. Or they buy a different number, a clean one, one not listed anywhere. Or they simply walk off to a different street to make a call.
“Ah, yes, of course…”
I retreated down the stairs, forgetting to say thank you.
“Oh, so you’re not going there today to look for him? I wanted to pass along some warm clothes… They won’t change anything, of course, they’ll only plant other bloodsuckers on the throne, but they’re freezing either way!”
They’re freezing either way… The Maidan was encroaching on me, surrounding me, as if preparing to storm this castle too. But that wasn’t the scariest part. The scariest part was when the first news arose about the bodies found in the forest belt. Or body? Yes, body, because the second guy they let go, I think. Two martyrs—one dead, the other alive. It’s better to be alive, that’s what I think. And it’s even better to not at all go where they can make a hero out of you. It’s no wonder our Russian brethren jeer “Heroyam sala”—“Cured pork fat for the heroes”—instead of “Heroyam slava”—“Glory to the heroes.” It’s incorrect because heroes barely get any salo, and they should be aware of this too (they are in fact aware, from the looks of things). Real live heroes, as sysadmin Tolik would have said, ultimately die, and they get only glory, while salo, a delicacy, is eaten by those like me, calmly and quietly, on a couch.
Lord, and then it started: the murders. And everyone had reassured that here it wouldn’t be like that or that it would be not like that. That we’re not the Arabs, that we’re completely different, like extraterrestrials, and that it’s peaceful, so peaceful here… I’m not saying that we’re the same. But I had heard all this already somewhere.
Gossip and news—they’re indistinguishable—were spreading about other corpses too. No, Vambo wasn’t among them. With his characteristic physical appearance, all doubts would have been blown asunder immediately. All pro-regime publications would have immediately at a minimum written about the captured Arab terrorist, and if so… And if I didn’t actually find him? There could be others—those who simply hadn’t been found yet, those who couldn’t make it back home on their own, couldn’t call back a single friend.
Those warm clothes from Vambo’s neighbor—I never did pass them along. They were left lying in the hallway in a purposeless, shapeless bundle. Alla grumbled a bit when she learned what and for what it was, and in the morning the things went missing. But for some reason I caved: Maybe Vambo really was there? And what if without these missing things that I had taken from a naïve old lady, who had evidently read through too much of the opposition press—what if without these things Vambo was cold there? What if he was alive and just standing somewhere there, on the Maidan, or sleeping in a tent, or going home to warm up sometimes, but there, on the Maidan. What if he was cold, what if he’d run out of warm socks? And Vambo—he’s not genetically suited to the cold. Alla said that I was an idiot (yes, an idiot, above all because I shared these thoughts with her) because Vambo was from Kyiv. Why should he freeze? On the contrary, maybe someone was using his rented apartment to spend the night. But I had for some reason already become fixated on this. Lying in bed, I was thinking about the fact that someone I knew was sitting over there, next to a barrel, but there was too little warmth, and his feet were still cold, and his fingers growing numb… Lord! Would a normal person even go to that Maidan? Or to any midan! Did they not understand?
But I know. I know how this will end. I’ve seen all this. I’ve gone through all this. There’ll be death, or there’ll be nothing. Even to save people from an imaginary hell, someone had to die, so selflessly and senselessly. The most peace-loving of all the peace-lovers. And what of it? He, the main Martyr, perturbed human minds and brewed up trouble for millennia. In the march campfires of the Christian Crusades and in the witches’ bonfires, this trouble cooked and boiled over into humanism. And the romantics, like that Ahmed, keep climbing and climbing, pushing on and pushing on, as if able to cover the chasm with their bodies. But they just fall into it, and now there’s a mountain of them down below already, and the chasm is still right there, seemingly just as deep. And Vambo is like all the dreamers; dreamers are generally the same everywhere. Thieves and rogues are diverse, but dreamers are identical. And as in Egypt everything ended with God knows what, so it will here… As if I don’t know? As if I haven’t seen this? As if I wasn’t there, on Midan El-Tahreer?
Vambo, Vambo, where are you? Are you really sleeping in some tent? You’re paying for a rented apartment—a normal, almost cozy apartment, as befits you, five-minutes shy of being a respectable owner of an auto repair shop. Is there really something worth you dying for or even freezing for?
In the morning I asked leave from work, to go to the Maidan. They gave me leave, but sounded surprised—pleasantly surprised, it seemed.
“Teatralna Station. Dear passengers, when exiting the train, don’t forget your belongings,” says a familiar voice.
“Glory to Ukraine!” shouts an unfamiliar one.
“Glory to the heroes!” shouts everyone except me, so it seems.
“You a government thug, or what?” some young man with headphones round his neck asks me, in Russian and distrustfully.
“No, I’m not a titushka. I’m from Kyiv.”
“Ah… so you’re one of the ones that doesn’t want the city getting dirtied by protestors. I’m from Kyiv too, but I’m at the Maidan.”
“Listen, I’ve been at the Maidan already, you understand?”
“Why are you yelling? Everyone’s been there already and…”
“No, you don’t get it. I was there already, at the maidan, and it didn’t end in anything good.”
“Ah, you’re talking about 2004…”
A stream of people separates us, and that’s good. No, I’m not talking about 2004. I almost didn’t notice 2004. I was too busy selling ads. No, I did even attend the rallies, but I viewed all of it as some sort of festival. There was no shooting then, which meant the president we drove out in 2004 wasn’t all that horrible. You won’t drive out the horrible ones that easily. No, sir, I was talking about Tunisia, Egypt, Syria, Lybia… “But they say everything in Georgia turned out well. Reforms…” Excerpts of sentences reach my ears, as if in response. God help us.
I’m walking through Kyiv and beginning to feel awkward because I won’t know what to say to the self-defense brigade at the entrance—to it, the Ukrainian Maidan—and I won’t know what to do, and I won’t know anything, and it’ll be obvious to everyone that I’m at this Maidan for the first time.
Photo cover by Michaela Kostkova