Ще не вмерла Україна
Ukraine is not yet dead
-First line of the Ukrainian National Anthem
Death Study No. 1
Just months after the collapse, yogurt was what brought me to my knees: dozens of tiny yogurt cups arranged by color in the refrigerated section of the local market. Reds to yellows to greens; blues, violets. I was shopping for my husband Valeri, who had lost a great deal of his teeth in Afghanistan, about to reach for his favorite of two brands of yogurt —only two flavors were available before— when the shelves in front of me seemed to swell and buckle, a tide of threatening choices, as I fell to my knees and my fingers locked behind my head the way I’d seen the children practice at home. It was the one moment in life I was not yet dead. I felt that to move would render me suddenly and forever dead.
Valeri had been back from the war a little over nine years, but I knew the experience had altered him. He never wanted to touch me, and when I complained he would storm out, puff another of his cigars, and pace the garden with one foot stepping in front of the other.
I can’t speak for every Ukrainian woman’s first time in the new refrigerated yogurt section, but for me, the experience was like finding out your husband had been cheating on you with dozens of other women. To be more precise, it was like finding out that these dozens of women had always been around, hiding behind the familiar childhood trees and village dachas since his birth, and that they must have been born alongside your husband for the specific purpose of satisfying all the cravings he might encounter in the course of his life, and that it was only you who hadn’t known these women were there all along, providing. Perhaps, you might have even enjoyed the extra company. You could’ve gotten used to it if you tried. If he’d let you. Blueberry with vanilla. Chocolate raspberry with a hint of rum. Mango-peach and sour apple.
Death Study No. 2
My wife said I was not yet dead when I joined up for the glory of the Soviet Union. She doesn’t say this now, though I’m standing right in front of her, gumming a cigar and living off the small checks I still manage to accrue from some pocket of funds not yet siphoned off by the new government.
“Even in this time of corruption,” I say, “with President Kuchma and his dirt, I’m still lucky as I ever was.”
My wife smiles. This reminds me of nothing more than the crudely plastered blast walls surrounding the citizens of Kabul.
“Luck,” she says.
Luck may have something to do with it. A stray PMF-1 land mine from my own regiment imploded near my feet, and somehow the pressurized impact, rather than swallow me whole, sent me across the line. Half-dazed, I hid behind a thick line of Juniper trees leading up to a three-story wood and mud house. As it happened this house was occupied by one of the only Afghan families not to have chosen a side in the war, rooted as they were in compassion.
Things only got better. The family fed me qabli pulao and forced me to finish all the lamb in the house, after which they led me out their backdoor to a shaded washbasin full of water, gesturing for me to remove my blood-stiff clothes while they headed back inside to retrieve the soap. I was feeling full but more alive than I had ever felt, and I stood naked in the Afghan sun and stretched my limbs and wiggled my dick until it became hard, not caring what anyone thought. It was good to grip the shaft, to know it was still intact; I had watched Igor lose his genitals during a village raid and had stood beside him, helpless, as he groped for nothing. When I saw the daughter peeking around the corner of the house, half her face cut off by the mud brick, her one brown eye suspended, I understood what the family had in mind. I cried, not caring what anyone thought, happy with my luck, and I allowed the girl to sponge my tired body as I shuddered with her hot breath.
“Why do you cry?” she said later, folding back the sheets. “He says if I lay here your luck will come deep inside me.”
I lived this way for over a year. The family managed to smuggle a few letters to my wife in Ukraine. I wrote to her about living in captivity the way a politician speaks about crime, and then after a while I stopped writing.
Garrard Conley is enjoying the UNC-Wilmington MFA program. A Returned Peace Corps Volunteer, he served as an English teacher in Ukraine for almost three years. A few months ago he was invited to Bulgaria as a Sozopol Fiction Seminar Fellow, where his love for Eastern Europe grew.
Ще не вмерла Україна