Kuzia woke up. He stared at the cracks in the ceiling for a long time, counting the drops that splattered on the floor, one every four seconds. Last night, a June rain shower poured down, and the roof that soaked up the water was now spilling its tears onto the worn-out floor. A voiceless draught flew in through the crack under the door and quickly flew out through the window—Kuzia had smashed the glass with his bare hands a week ago out of despair and loneliness.
Yawning, he got out of bed and shuffled over to the bathroom. He ran out of wipes a while ago, but swamp water—thick, red-brown, full of duckweed—should last forever. On hot summer mornings, it tasted like artesian water and ambrosia; in the presence of deaths, like joie de vivre; in the moments of hopelessness, like a lifeline or a wonder-working remedy from thirst and despair. To him, it tasted like a chance to keep his head above the waters of limbo he’d jumped in, running away from the world, the people, and the mess he’d gotten himself into.
There, no patrol cars were roaring or legal tourists clamoring. There, the sunshine was a hitchhiker, and the swamp practiced Zen. There, the reeds reached for the sky. There, duckweed grew huge as jellyfish in the terrain where all things, except for roof slates and concrete slabs, had been wiped out. There, roe deer rambled among the sheds, wandered into the houses, and gazed, wistful, at the stars through the gaps in the roofs, chewing yellowed letters sent without return addresses.
There, snakes crawled into his sneakers and tickled his bare ankles. Kuzia shook them out every morning—the snakes slithered away into the blue mailboxes abandoned in the ruins of the post office and penned cheerful letters to their home nests: “I’m fine, mom. The sun is burning my venomous skin. Tourists no longer trample on me. I sleep well.”
There, fragrant flowers grew as high as the blue skies. Kuzia didn’t know their names. It was enough to see them. On one sunny day, he’d found himself in that village, Hamlet. Coming across a house with thousands of dead flies, he’d dropped his backpack and realized—he’d stay there until his death.
Back then, a fisherman from Chernihiv gave him a ride to that wilderness on the cusp of a scorching hot Polissia summer. All the way there, he blabbered about the pike, joked about the poachers, sipped his whiskey, and tried to explain how to hide from the police patrol among the thousands of islands, in the labyrinths of the Prypiat estuary. He dropped Kuzia off in one of those labyrinths, too. Dying under the weight of tin cans and bags of rice, Kuzia trudged away deep into the wild country—so wild that it wasn’t even on Kyiv Cartographic Factory’s radar. It had taken Kuzia a long time to find the right place. He’d spent days poring over the maps of the evacuated areas in the Chernobyl Zone. Year after year, he stuffed his sleeping bag, tin cans, and booze into his backpack and went to Prypiat to watch another sunset and fall asleep on yet another roof.
The forbidden zone teemed with people. Cheerful tourists, sun-tanned scrappers, and unshaven smugglers marched along the overgrown railroad tracks. It was the point of intersection between the mysterious worlds and the knot of Chernobyl paths. Looters poured moonshine into the tumblers dating back to pre-catastrophe times, smugglers stuffed their faces with Gomel sausage and aged Mozyr cheeses, washing them down with Narovlia milk, and dragged Minsk-7 cigarettes. They risked their lives, smuggling the food across the border only to wolf it down in the abandoned town and go on with their shady business. Only tourists kept away from that feast of life—they lay silent on the ground, resting their heads on their backpacks, and stared into the infinite star-studded sky.
Kuzia settled upon the nameless valleys where the Prypiat river fell into the Dnieper. The area belonged to the Zone, but only emptiness and silence lived there. Those two became especially pronounced if you dove deep into the thicket and found a deserted house standing in the nameless ruins surrounded by the canals, abandoned stretches of the state border, mosquitoes, and slow death by poisonous water from murky puddles.
He never thought about death back then. He was listening to the fisherman who took him all the way across the wide Dnieper river dotted with hundreds of nameless islands and dozens of abandoned floating factories. Predatory fish chased after them, so as not to feel forlorn at night when lone clouds fled southwestward, and stars shook down into the water like pepper and tobacco that you’d shake on the intersections hoping that dog handlers would not get on your track. You prayed for rain, too, so you could cross the border, drowning in the Belarusian swamps, and run away to other dialects and dictatorial regimes—to peer into the cracks in roof slates and study constellations you’d been struggling to remember ever since you were a small kid.
Silence dropped down on the river’s surface. On the violet night sky, not yet soaked in the heavy darkness of a Polissia night, emerged the stars. The fisherman helped Kuzia put on his backpack and, offering him a sip of whiskey for the road, promised to drop by three times over the season. He also said he could bring him some food or whatever else he needed. Kuzia said that he’d thrown his cell phone away and that it was a no-signal area in any case, so eventually they agreed to meet exactly in one month when fever would start beating the drums of hallucinations and the frogs’ rock opera would rupture the eardrums of all things living. Thank God Kuzia didn’t leave his music player at home. Thank God he took along his solar batteries. There would be plenty of sunlight.
What else did he bring? Confidence, fever, wet feet, four Nepalese buffs in warm and cool colors, a sea-green watch, bites on his arms, fifty tin cans three hundred twenty-five grams each, three kilos of rice, five kilos of sugar, one kilo of tea, hundreds of instant noodles packs, and seven hundred lollipops. Forty batteries, a million wet wipes, and a fervent belief—there, without anyone to bother him, he’d be able to sum up his despicable life, let go of grudges, talk to empty walls for hours, rap his knuckles against old wooden planks until they bled, rediscover his motivations, story lines, and inner strength, get a second breath, knock the breath out of death, and avoid red tape that would’ve become a bitter burden for his family after he died.
He also had a pair of trodden-down sneakers and four rolls of scotch tape, a needle and thread, and a piece of string—to mend that cheap crap. He even brought his orthotic inserts. He had all things he needed for a comfortable life in this thin air by the swamp, in the shadows his tent threw on bright, early mornings.
He did take his tent along. He’d gotten it from an old Vietnamese man seven years ago. For hundreds of days, it served him faithfully in dozens of climate zones; for seven years, it soaked up his salty sweat and his nightmares. It absorbed the moisture of his most secret dreams and offered its camo back to countless downpours along all kinds of meridians all over the world.
He had a Swiss army knife and a Chinese head torch, a German raincoat and a British tourist mat, a Ukrainian sleeping bag and a Taiwanese burner with Polish gas cylinders, as well as a Russian cross-your-fingers mentality with the hope that this gas would last him forever—that it would be enough to warm up the tinned meat on sunny afternoons or send endless streams of vapor into thick early-morning fog. Or to dry his socks after week-long rain showers when all things around him would drown in water, and the shattered roofs of miserable huts would sink into the embrace of black dirt and bright-green jellyfish.
Who is he? He does not exist. Kuzia’s bio is beyond the reach of bureaucratic machines and counting boards. Even neighbors forgot about him—he never smoked on the stairs, never went to polling stations, never chipped in to redecorate the entrance hall. Kuzia does not exist on paper— neither the labor statistics bureau nor the employment center record his habits and shortcomings. He’s got utility debts, a pile of fines, and an expired passport. If the guards catch him, he’ll just sit at the border crossing checkpoint, spitting at the ceiling, and listen to the tired border guards flapping about the Belarusian cigarettes and last Thursday’s shooting. He’s a drunkard and a miserable wreck who abandoned the graves of his ancestors.
Kuzia was born on the night of the Chernobyl disaster that left an indelible mark on this planet’s face. Since his early days, he remembered somber disaster liquidators coming to his birthday party—the day that was supposed to be full of childlike joy brimmed over with gloomy stories about the year of 1986. His dad’s friends would gather around the table, glasses of vodka in their hands, and wolf them down in three, four, five shots. They’d recall heroic deeds, make cautious predictions about the future, and put down the moments of anxiety with formidable fiery mixtures. Growing up, Kuzia soaked it all in—he absorbed kilotons of stories about the tumultuous days of liquidation, scrutinized black-and-white photos, and pinned the newspaper cutouts on to the walls of his bedroom. He decided to play a hand in that Chernobyl business after he grew up. When he did grow up, though, it turned out he never learned anything useful. So, he just roamed around the forbidden zone, illegally and with no purpose whatsoever.
He had his moments in downpour and darkness, among the puddles and barbed wire. Shivering in rain, he tried to breathe quietly and dissolve in the torchlight of border guards who’d soon catch him red-handed and drag him into the puddles of cold light at the checkpoint. Staring at the guns pointed at him, Kuzia would listen to the guards scolding him and watch them write out fines. He’d dealt with all kinds of nonsense. Now, he was dealing with the mess he made himself. But instead of sorting things out, he tried to run away from them.
In the Zone, he found tranquility, Zen, marvelous slumber, and comebacks to his long-gone childhood. The Chernobyl wilderness brought him back to his earliest warm memories. This wilderness and his childhood had a common denominator—endless sunlight, more ubiquitous than duckweed, drowsier than the swamps around him.
It was on sunny days like this that he and other kids had raced through the maze of Chinese markets, picking at the Vietnamese sellers, yelling at the Armenians, and stealing running shoes from the Chinese. Sunflower seeds snatched right from the frying pan burned their legs through their pockets, while the sun scorched their heads and melted the cracked asphalt.
Kuzia’s childhood was constantly drowning in the generous gifts of summer and fall: heavy ripe peaches, blood-red strawberries, emerald-green gooseberries. In hot days of August, Kuzia placed cherry pits into his sling and fired those berry-hearts into the infinite blue skies, aiming at airplanes. He counted their vapor trails and drew imaginary hieroglyphs in the sky—the symbols he could never remember from reading the end credits of Voltron, his favorite Japanese cartoon.
The feelings of soccer’s tranquility and fishing’s comfort that had permeated his childhood washed over him only when early summer apples turned yellow in the thicket, when ants marched over his boots, hornets hovered over his head, bees landed on his arms, and he ate rotten cherry plums in the middle of an overgrown street in the abandoned town. That was his zone of comfort and peace. The zone of sunlight and fruit. The zone of ants and fragrant bee stripes.
A long time ago, Kuzia had decided that people who’d never sneaked into their neighbors’ gardens, when they’d been kids—or had never run away from the world—had hearts the size of pebbles on a nighttime beach. Holidaymakers charmed with elusive white foam and black waves under the star-studded sky couldn’t care less about them. Only women, strolling along the deserted beach arm-in-arm with their old lovers, mellow after a glass of chianti, touched the pebbles. They did it to dive for a moment into the stories of those tiny hearts, to escape the tight embrace, the whiskey breath, and a sneaky feeling about a lovely night that would finish with mercilessly rough sex.
Kuzia woke up and went outside, rubbing his eyes with his mosquito-bitten hands. Squinting into the morning sun, he put his solar battery on a black piece of cloth and went to look for an abandoned irrigation system so as not to die of boredom.
When his music player had broken down, he had thought he’d go nuts in a week. When his batteries had drowned in water, he’d pulled his hair out. When he’d finished his last book, he’d been running around the canals in despair; he’d marked those canals on his map, howling out of boredom. He had calmed down pretty soon, though. He’d even stopped making notes in his pad among the piles of rough memories strewn with dead insect bodies—his records were now covered in dust, candy wrappers, and thick layers of oblivion.
When liters of sweat poured off him from exhaustion and scorching heat, when fistfuls of tears dropped on the ground out of loneliness and despair, when a cold spell made his nose run like crazy, he thought only about happiness given by a lack of opportunities. He no longer had to choose what kind of pre-made breakfast to buy. He no longer watched beautiful women float past him or racked his brain how to pick up another skirt with yet another witty remark. The bills no longer piled up, and the background of dark green swamps always stayed in the background. He went bonkers. His sanity became a surfboard—he glided on it down the snow-covered August hills, scattering duckweed all around, then picking it up and stuffing it into his deep pockets.
With that duckweed, he drew patterns and maps of animal paths. He created formulas of happiness and misery. He compiled an algebra of life and death. Through the microscopes of swamp mirrors, he scrutinized his achievements and mistakes, his hopes and frustrations, thick strands of his life, unruly curls of his destiny, and sticky dreadlocks of his bitter failures.
Kuzia learned to distinguish the scents of herbs and the tastes of puddles in different parts of the thicket around him. He remembered that it took exactly two hundred twenty-one steps to get to the river, and forty-six steps to the nearest source of water. He knew exactly how many dead Germans grabbed his ankles with their translucent hands every second, and how many water snakes slithered around his house or crawled into one of the old mailboxes yesterday. He remembered how many rough-edged clouds floated southeastward from noon till two in the afternoon.
He collected the scraps of the past epochs and brought them inside his house. Once, among the ruins of a coop, he stumbled upon an old grocery store sign—the paint had peeled off, but the name was still readable. He lugged it home and left it outside. He wanted to bring the sign inside and put it in a corner to add a valuable exhibit to his collection, to solve a jigsaw puzzle from the shards of the past, to build a fortress of recollections for his bored brain for those hard times when he’d feel lonely.
But the sign still sat outside. The swamp ghosts stared at it, pointing their fingers and whispering something to one another. Kuzia waved his hand at them and shouted “Hello”, trying to make a connection, but they disappeared as soon as he made the first hesitant move toward them. They just vanished in thin air, without a single sound, gesture, or word.
Overcast days poured down along with rain showers. Dry flakes of paint fell into the sticky embrace of water-soaked soil. Kuzia brought the sign inside. The ghosts left and never came back.
Sometimes, he felt like a living human being who dreamed of touching women’s bodies and chewing animal flesh, well-done. When that feeling sneaked up on him, he shivered and trembled like hell, as if he had a fever, and there was only one thing that could help him—his map, his pocket topography. In the moments of feverish tantrums, he glided the tips of his fingers along the squares of forests, pricked his cuticle with the rough patches of scotch tape, ran his fingers over the curves of asphalt roads, and scratched the patterns of paths and streams on the wet soil with his fingernails.
On one of those baking hot days, Kuzia sat by a brook that rolled its shallow waters from the sister republic of Belarus. He was trying to catch shiny goldfish with his old fishing rod cobbled together from mud and bamboo. He didn’t think about the state of humanity or about his relatives whose graves had long overgrown with grass; he didn’t care about the future or miss the past. He just stared at the river until he dozed off.
When he woke up, he saw that his fishing rod had vanished—the stream had snatched it away and carried it southward. Kuzia tried to go round about the thicket, but he gave up pretty soon and plunged waist deep into the foul-smelling swamp, the kingdom of mud and slippery leeches. He trudged thirty meters like that. His fishing rod washed ashore to the remains of a wooden boat. Looking inside, Kuzia found a note in small handwriting:
“Blood on the ground, bodies in swamps, death in storm, howling in wind. Remember about the alleys of solitude and the glistening goldfish of your childhood; about the fights of your youth and the loves of your maturity. Remember about the obligations and the desires of your own heart; remember about life and don’t think about death.
Don’t look into the eternity—it’s just the background weaved of darkness. Don’t regret what you did in the past and never ask for forgiveness. Die in the swamp, accept your destiny in this terrible world, but don’t think about the death.”
I miss mosquitos, dying from swarms of crazy midges. They are like death at the threshold of life’s sunlit parlor—noisy and unexpected one moment; quiet, slow, but inevitable the next.
The sun is shining brightly, when I try to cross the canal throwing a huge log over to the other side. I barely dragged that log here, attacked by the legions of midges. My legs are scarred up, my head tingling. I’m knee-deep in mud that in some places reaches up to my underpants in an orange-and-violet nonsense pattern. The dirt already dried up and turned into dust when I finally put on my jeans.
I rub that dust into my torn, ragged wounds. I mix with mud. I become one with thousands of stinking hearts in this swampy heaven. I fall asleep.
It’s a tiny island. I hope that wild boars will never get here and that they’ll dig up the ground with their hairy snouts elsewhere. I see snow-white skulls of foxes all around me—I build stonehenges with them and beg the spirits to stop the rain so I could find my way back, to the abandoned house of my heart, to my bed that got strewn with flakes of plaster and scraps of wallpaper while I was wandering about in this noxious oblivion.
I get lost.
Shivering with fever, I trudge through the deepest canals, chest deep in death. I can’t move anymore. I stopped feeling pain or thinking about wild beasts. I’m stuck so deep in this foul swamp that they notice me only when I creep past them. I no longer look like a human being, I no longer read political news, I no longer ask my lovers on a date in the French bistros. I forgot the sound of human voices. Why the hell did I throw my cell phone away? Why did I escape? I should’ve drunk cold beer, have safe sex, and care about bad teeth and consumer loans. But honestly, I do dream of living the way I live here—among the swamps, canals, duckweed, swamp jellyfish, leeches, midges, and death. For three days, I’ve been trying to find my way back home. In the middle of Polissian swamps and bright green afternoon sunlight, satellite signals fade, memory cards come down with amnesia, and liquid crystals of displays solidify.
I went down with fever after I drank poisonous water. I saw it was full of dead midges, but I drank it anyway. I’ve got medicine, but it’s far away, across the swampy border—I forgot the way there a thousand years ago.
I’m sleeping in puddles and hiding from the insects under a dirty rug. I can still see the stars through dirt. I close my eyes when the sky is starry and dark, I open them at dawn, when it’s bright blue. The nights fly by. The days drag on.
The sounds of the swamp can blow your mind and carry it far away. I am too tired to look for Hamlet. A hundred years ago, it was right here, on this spot; only the imperial topography remembers about it, but I swear to God that I saw the ghosts of houses last night. I’m going to die soon.
I’m running out of food. I have to find my way back. I lost my fishing waders two days ago.
Leeches have become a usual thing for me—I no longer peel them off; I even swallowed a couple of them. They taste like jelly when you run your tongue over them—your rough tongue, white from exhaustion, hot from summer heat, greedy from loneliness. Once, I came back from the swamp and noticed that my eyes had changed their color, becoming bright green. Same thing is happening again now. I’m scared. I’m transforming into something.
I’m drumming my fingers on the shells of turtles I ate yesterday. I’m going to make necklaces and bracelets from carnivorous plants and crabgrass with blind hope that their power will rescue me, that they will take me high over the endless forest with its throngs of midges, so I could finally see
where Hamlet is. I will make new routes and jump from one patch of crabgrass to another across the swampland. Never again will I get down onto the ground or put my blistered feet in water.
I can’t find Hamlet, no matter what I do. It’s been hidden too well. During the war, it used to be a guerrilla hideout. Later, an old woman settled there—she snatched wolf cubs, took care of them, and turned them into ravens, lynxes, or enormous swamp golems. In the end, she dissolved into reeds and sunlight. The ravens croaked that she’d drowned in the swamp. I lived there next— until I could no longer find my way back.
I sink into the swamp deeper and deeper, even though I’ve lost a dozen of kilos. I stink like a medieval pilgrim. My clothes let off steam by the campfire; my heels crack and won’t heal. I stopped bandaging my feet long ago. I no longer spray antiseptic on my blisters or wipe them with wet wipes and put iodine on them. These things are all long gone. I faint.
It was She who woke me up. She rose from the swamp, calling for ravens with her piercing whistle. I woke up in Hamlet, at home, on top of the old grocery store sign. The fisherman dropped by in September. I told him there was no need to come here again. I gave him all the money I had and asked him to buy the cheapest tin food, instant noodles, and a winter sleeping bag. The fisherman brought it all in two weeks. He cooked fish soup and offered his flask of whiskey to me. We never saw each other again.
Now She patches up the holes in the roof, paces up and down my house, and mutters reproaches in dead languages. Her hair is the color of copper wire, her eyes—emerald duckweed. Her laugh reminds me of a hollow wind, a drought between the abandoned houses. She’s a smile of fluidity and a joke of eternity.
“You’re flying too fast over the river of life. Why did you come to me?”
“I don’t want to die.”
“You died a long time ago, because you chose death. You found it in the brooks of the Red Forest and in the poisonous booze you gulped down.”
I will come back home, smoke cheap cigarettes, and dance on the parquet floor to cheerful tunes. I will blow on hot tea, burning my tongue, drink wine, sit on the roof on early evenings and late mornings, love women, ride the subway, give up my seat to a girl, go to the supermarket at six in the morning to get a bottle of mineral water while all people are still in bed, stay the hell away from my exes and call my would-bes ten times a day, booze in the parks when it’s warm outside, and take shelter in the pubs when it gets cold. I will install vinyl windows and start saving money for a motorbike. I will visit my parents, read boring books, listen to ambient music followed by powerful, energetic folk, run in the park, roll downhill on my bike, pile up the loans, grow the beer belly, join a gym, get three passports stamped with all kinds of visas, go wild in Asia, and applaud the piloted mission bound for Mars.
I never came back, though. I died, crumbling to duckweed in the Polissian swampland.