For Fandango’s Flash Fiction Challenge #159, where we write about the photo below, by Erdbeerstern at DeviantArt.com.
As she zipped up her coat, the radio told of the latest stories. It was as well Lili needed to visit Putchkov’s, because she would never have been able to concentrate on all that ironing, anyway.
Should she evacuate little Nadiya? Poland was still accepting refugees, apparently. A long journey with a child of just twelve months, but at least there was the promise of safety.
Dad had thought otherwise. Wait and see, he advised. They just want to rattle their sabres.
But this was too close. Russians in the northern suburbs? Too close.
Sensing Lili’s distress, the baby began to whimper in her crib. Lili took her in her arms, held her, cuddled her.
I wish Oleg were here.
But Oleg – her husband of just three years – had been mobilised a month ago. She’d heard nothing from him since.
To her parents, there was no question of retreat. Kyiv was all they knew. But Lili had to see through the baby’s eyes, and Nadiya had not lived yet.
She checked her watch – a quarter to. Putchkov had been clear. Four, on the dot. She daren’t be late, or he would sell the bread to someone else. If she were lucky, maybe there’d be other items, too?
“Come on, cherub”, she cooed, “we have to go out”, as, with practised hands, she quickly dressed the baby, silencing the radio as she left.
Outside her apartment, the icy wind hit her. Instinctively, she pulled the collar of her bubble jacket up into her long, dark hair, to ward off the stiff March breeze. Trash and rubble had begun to litter the streets, since most services had stopped functioning two weeks ago. It wouldn’t be long before the rats moved in. The school across the street had taken a shell, she had felt it hit two nights ago – thank goodness it had not been a few hours earlier. So too the hospital where she used to work before the baby. So she’d heard. Lili didn’t understand – why were they deliberately targeting populated areas?
She hurried along the sidewalk, anxious to be outside. The sooner they reached Putchkov’s, the better. The supermarkets had dried up instantly, but these small shopkeepers usually had supply lines in the surrounding countryside, and they had become invaluable. She was lucky. Before all this, she was a regular at his shop. He had promised to put something aside.
Putchkov sold her two small loaves, a litre of milk and four eggs. She walked the extra block to her parents’ apartment, where they divided the food. Journeying home, however, Lili’s lingering doubts regarding evacuation were settled when she bumped into Anna, another mother from their Baby and Toddler group. “Did you hear about Georgiy?”
Another boy in the group. Lili asked for details.
“Yesterday. A shell. Their apartment. Georgiy, his parents and an auntie, I believe. All of them, dead.” Anna’s husband, part of the civil defence, had helped in the fruitless search for survivors.
Within an hour, Lili had packed as large a suitcase as she dare carry and was triple locking her front door. Poland, here we come.
She knew that the trains had stopped running – services had stopped a week ago – so Lili, with Nadiya strapped onto her chest in a baby carrier, set out on foot towards the bus station.
But it was clear that others had had the same idea, and there must have been hundreds milling around the depot. Not a bus in sight and, worse still, Lili could not even see anybody who appeared to be in charge. Eventually, behind an office, she found a uniformed man who had been enjoying a peaceful cigarette. He was roughly the age of her father. Lili noticed his exhausted blue eyes, and his thick stubble betrayed that he had not shaved for days. And Lili shattered his peace.
“Sir, do you know what this is? Do you know if it is possible to take a bus to the border?”
The soldier sneered. “Ha! You’ll be lucky! You and all these other poor souls!”
“Please, sir”, she pestered, “how can I get out? There is just me and the little one”. As her voice trailed off, she nodded at Nadiya.
Softening somewhat, the man explained that because the Russians were shelling the main highway, the evacuations had been paused. Buses out were now sporadic, at best.
“You can wait for one, but…”, he waved his nicotine-stained hand at the crowd.
In a quandary now, Lili needed to think. It did not help that at that moment, Nadiya noisily decided that she was hungry. One last throw of the dice.
“Please, sir, is there anywhere private here that I may feed her?”
The man fished a large set of keys from his pocket, commanding “Follow Me”, and leading them to a closet set into a concrete wall. Allowing Lili to enter, he instructed, “Call me when you are done. I will be outside”, before locking Lili and Nadiya in. When she called, she exploited their tiny connection, touching his arm. He froze, surprised.
“Please, sir, what would you do?”
The man came fully inside the closet and, locking them both in, his expression softened.
“A girl, huh? How old?” He did not wait for an answer. “I have a grandson myself, just nine months. It’s not easy…” He sat on an upturned crate and exhaled a deep breath.
“You have no options. To reach the border – everybody has the same idea, and there is danger just getting yourselves there. They can cut the highway at any time. Plus, with the limited transport, you will be far back in the queue.”
He forced a smile. “But look. We are a city of three million. They can’t kill us all. And they sure as hell won’t relish trying to govern us. You have family?”
“Then go to them. Help each other through this. It might feel hard, but this is our home. They will grow tired long before us.”
Becoming officious once more, he stood and opened the door. “I’m sorry, there’s nothing more I can do.”
The trudge back took her twice as long as normal. All around her, she was incredulous. How could Russia have done this? Thrown her first-world society back into the dark ages?
The journey was momentous in one respect, however. When Lili arrived home, she searched the book by the phone. Thank goodness the line still works, she comforted herself, as she dialled the number.
“Hello, Anna? It’s Lili. Little Nadiya’s mother. We spoke earlier.”
“May I speak with your husband please?”
“Mr Amalenko? I’m Nadiya’s mum.” She allowed a further pause for recognition.
“Before Nadiya was born, I was a doctor at the Tri-Cel Clinic. I have medical skills. Can you put me in touch with someone? I want to help…”
Early next morning, leaving Nadiya with her parents, Lili stood at the now-disused bus stop, as instructed, to wait for the minibus that would ferry her to the most needy field hospital. And thus began Lili’s own service.
This was a difficult write. The image screamed Ukraine at me, as I’m sure it did for most of us.
I wanted to try and highlight how this woman was just like us. How maybe a month ago, she’d have been taking her baby to a Toddler group, just like we used to do. Who maybe was a doctor in civilian life. Maybe her biggest worry was making sure she remembered to put the trash out on Monday morning. Just like here.
I poked around Google Maps yesterday for some pointers to names. Businesses there have web sites, just like here. Right now, at this instant, these sites are still up and running. Just like here. One of the sites I found yesterday was advertising opening hours. Just like I might find here.
The news a couple hours ago relayed that people were resorting to draining radiators in order to obtain water. Radiators? That’s central heating, right there. Just like here.
What we are witnessing is a modern, first-world society being destroyed piece by piece.