Almost Like in the Story

by Artem Cheh

from the collection Absolute Zero

Translated from the Ukrainian by Olena Jennings and Oksana Lutsyshyna

“Val, this louse, is sitting at the third line of defense, calling his wife and rambling on about how he was picking the guts of his friends off the ground.” My commander was telling the story about one of the soldiers with despair in his voice. He nearly shouted.

There were so many of such stories.  Even while we were in the boot camp, some soldiers were telling horror stories about the fierce fights and endless bombardments to their friends and family. 

“Why am I what?..  Sweetie, how can I not get trashed here?  At night I dragged Stepan, who had a head wound, through an enemy outpost.” Sweetie burst into tears, her legs gave in, and she had to sit down. Her hair was turning gray. The spicy scent of Corvalol, a valerian-based tranquilizer, reached all the way to the staircase and to the doors of the neighboring apartments. The neighbors tried to comfort her. Nobody explained anything to the children. Let’s pray for him to come back alive. Even if it is without hands, even if it is without legs, just so that he is alive. Our Kolin’ka. Our defender.  

The defender ran to the closest village for additional supplies of booze.  Stepan was waiting at the checkpoint. After two days of deprivation, the world was falling apart, and they needed a doze. “Hey, man, can you lend me a fifty until the fifteenth?  I’ll give it back, ‘ promise.” Another friend of theirs worked at a checkpoint near the town of Izyum, and searched cars, vans, and trucks. He was a lucky one. He lived in the café. There was an oven there.  Cigarettes, drinks, and small but reliable sums of money flowed into his pockets.  Yes, it wasn’t as safe as the National Guard, but you could make a living. It was just sad somehow. Sadness poisoned the soul.  At home, in dear Starkon, Natasha waited.  He called her, crying, “Yesterday they demolished a part of our squad… showered it with bullets.  A sniper.  Am I wounded?  Yes, but no.  I have a wound.  Two wounds.  I love you. Pray for us.  Oh, and send me some sausages.  Kisses.”  My friend, the beekeeper Sania B., only told his sisters where he was.  His mother believed that he was still on the training base in Mykolaiv.  

“Why should I worry her?  After three months I will be demobilized, and then I’ll tell everyone.  We’ll have a good laugh about it.”

Old Kolya with the nickname “Rifleman” was already fighting a second year.  He survived the Debaltsevo encirclement.  He saw more than any psychological resources can tolerate.  Sometimes he would fall apart, drink, cry.  His parents thought he is in Kharkiv working. “My Mom’s hair is already all white,” he sayd. “And my Dad has a heart condition.” 

Some went out to check the neighboring outpost, and before that they would have signed their wills, called all their acquaintances and described their adventures, highlighting their heroic successes. Others took part in dangerous shooting operations, captured trophy armored cars, crawl for hours in the mine fields and lay in wait, but they’d only tell their friends and family about the monotony of army life.  “Shooting?  Nah, nobody is trying to get us, everything’s quiet here.  Like in a tank.”  

 “She died,” my commander said.

“Who?” I didn’t understand.

“Remember I told you about that louse Val, who is stationed near Lisichaskyi? The one who calls his wife every day and tells her horror stories?  To make a long story short, Val called, talked a ton and after ten minutes – that’s it, her heart couldn’t take it.  They couldn’t bring her back to life.  Two kids.  Almost like in the story.”

“What story?”

“Forgot the title.”

Photo cover by Michaela Kostkova

Caitlyn Garcia