The pound of flesh

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Only the dead have seen the end of the war – George Santayana

***

We Ukrainians are a superstitious lot. We knock on the wood thrice before delivering good news, not once do we gift watches to our near and dear ones, and never turn our back to the house halfway from work.  Konstyantyn was in this respect a true believer. He did everything by book, he attended all the masses, and prayed to all the spirits our ancestors believed in.

Yet, he was the one who lay on a bloody street, his unseeing eyes open to the skies, his face covered with a muddy plastic sheet.

Oksana, on the other hand, was a non-believer. Were the fates laughing when they let her live? or were they demanding their pound of flesh for her arrogance? She took one look at his mutilated body and ran, far away from Kyiv, the only home she had known, far away from her dead Fiancé, far away from her guilt.

***

Kraków, Poland.

March 31, 2022.

Oksana tried to move out of the way as a family jostled past her. A faint announcement followed stating the train had reached its destination. The compartment was, by now rife with the stench of hopelessness and body fluids. An elderly woman at her side pleaded in Ukrainian for directions. Neglecting her, Oksana dragged her swollen feet. She was tired to her marrow, depleted by the harrowing journey of two nights.

A wave of nausea engulfed her. But this nausea was welcome. It was a reminder of her happy past. A part of her life, she had still managed to carry here.  That which had not yet blown apart on a bloody road in Kyiv. Looking around, she tried to distract her racing thoughts.  The so-called volunteers had offered to help them, probably to feel good about themselves. Their clean clothes were a stark contrast to her soiled jeans with specks of blood and dried vomit at the hem. Once upon a time, she had prided her grooming. Today, all she had was a backpack full of clothes, some foreign money that was worthless here, and some jewellery that had not yet been used for bribes. The grief curdled into something sour and acrid, that burnt at the back of her throat. Oksana pushed down the rage and focussed on the numbness that prevailed all around her. She tried to draw on to it, let it cling to her soul like a plastic cling wrap, that in parts suffocated her, yet in parts kept her shielded from the bone-chilling sorrow; for every time she thought of Konstyantyn, she felt doused face first in the ice-cold waters of the Desna River.

I should never have celebrated his 40th birthday.

“Moya Lyubov* noo, we never celebrate the 40th!”

 “Don’t be an old grumpy man, Konstyantyn. Here cut the cake.” She had sniggered.

One week later, Konstyantyn was dead.

The elderly lady from before followed her at a distance like a needy dog and Oksana had the urge to kick her.

A booth at the corner read “Registration” in Polish. Oksana’s palm cupped her bulging belly as the crowd pressed against her, all trying to rush for a spot.  A passerby swung his duffel and it lightly hit Oksana on her front. Just like that, the cling film tore apart, something red and noxious oozed out of her soul and possessed her senses. A red haze covered her eyes. She had no recollection of scratching the face of a hapless bystander with her nails and pulling his hair till his scalp bled. She had no recollection of being pulled away and the Policja* handcuffing her.

She had no recollection of bleeding from her nose and losing consciousness.

***

2nd April 2022.

“I speak English. I coordinated the foreign students for documentation at the University in Kyiv.” Oksana was giving her statement to the bearded official from Komisariat Policji*

“Why did you assault your fellow passenger? Did he threaten you in any way?” Oksana saw him looking at her swollen abdomen, his eyes a mixture of annoyance and resignation.

“I thought…I thought he hit my baby. I realize it was a mistake.”

***

Her blood pressure had spiked dangerously, they told her later. The doctor advised a week of rest and said no charges were being pressed. An unspoken decree that the city could not risk bad international press coverage over a young, pregnant, English-speaking refugee was followed to the T.

They made her gulp a few tablets, sign a few papers, and gave her back the passport. An official escorted her to a line two stops away, where she waited four hours to register as a refugee and got a coupon for accommodation. A package of a cold-cut corned pork sandwich and a tin of soup was shoved in her hands while a pair of white reporters clicked photos and stood primly before the cameras, sharing the headlines of the day. Did they know they resembled a pack of hyenas eager to peck at the still-juicy bits of life scattered among sorrow and loss?

5th April 2022

“The trip to Lviv took us 38 hours.” Daryna, the old woman from the train station babbled on. The Irate Oksana pressed down on her ears, but the rant continued. It even drew in an audience, four other occupants of the dormitory.

“No one wants to know, that you had to squat for three days while you travelled.” Oksana said in a mean tone as she got up to leave.”

“Do you have a problem?” A middle-aged man with bushy eyebrows looked at her in annoyance.

“Actually, I do.” said Oksana. “This room sickens me. The charity sickens me. Freeloaders feeding on a communal misery sicken me.” The tethers over anger strained and Oksana stormed out before she hit someone, aware that the eyes bored into her back. She had to stop just outside the door as another abdominal cramp consumed her.

The voices continued to carry outside. “We left Mykolaiv around three weeks ago. The people were piled one over the other like sacks of potatoes. Two kids from my neighbourhood suffocated on their way here. The driver kept backtracking to avoid Russian bombardment…it was terrible as the mother sat between the dead bodies of both her boys for two days.”

“We ran into trouble at the Polish border.” Another female voice took over.  “The train stopped and we all were asked to get out. All night, we stood in the dark open fields listening to shells exploding nearby. It was awful…”

Oksana walked out of the building. The filthy pavement stank of excrement, Oksana retched and almost turned back when she felt a movement in the periphery of her vision. A pink shoe and dark brown hair perhaps. “Kto tam*?” She spoke loudly rudimentary Polish, wanting to startle whoever lurked there, desperately wanting to turn back and run. But then, a part of her wanted to stay. Stay and fight for once. So, she let the rage possess her and walked ahead.

***

One should be loyal to the nightmare of their choice.

The flight, the chalked-up anger, and the resentment had brought Oksana to this very spot at this very moment in time. They say the world is made up of slivers, not unlike a spider web. The threads emanate from one creature and touch and retouch so many others.

***

Oksana heard a yelp in the dark. She bent and picked a rock lying at her feet, the poorest choice of weapon at the moment. A sharp blade made a swish in the air and was heard before she saw it. He was a well-dressed man dressed in a brown overcoat, with the soulless eyes of a devil. The blade aimed for her abdomen slashed through her arm. The rage throbbing through her veins, she threw the rock at him, which missed the target but hit a shaggy dog lurking nearby. It was the dog who sprung on the attacker and took a chunk of his palm. An audible squelch as a chunk of flesh was chewed away felt like a salve to her soul. Oksana took a satisfying gulp of air as her attacker collapsed. She rushed towards the muddy pink bundle trembling in the corner.

The girl appeared to be about nine. She looked terrified but physically unharmed. Oksana gruffly took her arm and walked in the direction of her quarters.

Daryna was at the gates, with a worried look on her face. “So much blood.” She shrieked when Oksana came nearer.

Oksana was about to chide Daryna for histrionics when she felt it too. A trickle of blood seeping through her pants that pooled between her legs.

***

“I am my heart’s undertaker. Daily I go and retrieve its tattered remains, place them delicately into its little coffin, and bury it in the depths of my memory, only to have to do it all again tomorrow.”- Emilie Autumn.

Oksana spent her days in bed and nights awake, listening often to her cohabitants mutter, cry and moan in sleep. That was the only time when she felt a kinship with them. Strange things were happening to her. Her throat was angry red, her chest felt tight and her womb was empty. She had headaches that were relieved only if she cut herself or banged things around. Her soul seemed to have turned into a cotton wad that absorbed the melancholy around her and throbbed like a pustule all the time.

It was weeks before Oksana got out of her bed, showered, and combed her hair. Every morning, Daryna faithfully brought black tea with two biscuits. She talked and talked till Oksana ate them. “Maria, the poor child was admitted into an orphanage by the police. She made them give me the address. The little angel waited for you, but you were…sick. She has been writing you letters.” Daryna handed her a bundle. “She probably waits for your answers. Would you like to visit her?”

Oksana ignored her by habit and took a sip of scalding hot tea, wincing as her gums throbbed and the palate burned. “Scalding yourself won’t make your baby come to life.” The young girl from Mykolaiv stood by the door and spoke tartly.

Wanting to claw her eyes out, Oksana rose from her bed, but midway felt too listless and she plonked herself on the threshold. “Get up now. Don’t you know it is bad luck to sit on the threshold?” Daryna took her by arm and pulled her up.

What started as a mirthless laugh, soon dissolved into anguished sobs. “I loved a superstitious man once,” Oksana spoke. Now he is dead, I killed him. I killed his child too. Do you think the spirits of this threshold care?”

“You are not the only one who suffered.” The young girl spoke up, in a softer voice this time. “I buried my husband of thirty days before I came here. He caught pneumonia a week before we planned to travel. His funeral was out of the question, you see. I needed the money to come here. So, I covered his body in our prettiest bed sheet and left him in our garden. I did what I had to do. Unlike you, I have made peace with my sins.”

Oksana’s eyes puddled.

“Konstyantyn. My fiancé wanted us to leave as soon as we found out about our pregnancy. But I was stubborn. I had planted sweet potatoes last winter and I wanted to see them grow. I wanted to paint my nursery yellow and have a baby shower when the sonogram showed our baby was just one pound. And now, there is no Konstyantyn, no baby. It’s just me, broken and displaced and haunted by irrepressible anger at myself.”

***

Poland: A country that will crumble under the weight of the crisis?

13th June 2022

“Polish mayors sound an alarm about their cities’ being overwhelmed, the health system already failing. At some point, such a situation could blow out of proportion and trigger ‘other’ problems in Poland. Has the refugee exhaustion already set in?”

Oksana tore the paper into shreds and stabbed at them with a fountain pen. For a country that had displayed such sincere gestures of welcome, they certainly treated her as a second-class citizen. No university was not keen to hire her, after that incident with the professor, who she vouched glanced a gaze too long at her fronts. She had then tried the local library, the city office, and even small firms for clerical jobs. But she was jinxed. A poor pay scale, impossible timings, and layoffs often happened where she worked. If others thought it was her anger issues, they never said so.

The only solace in her bleak life was the letters Maria wrote to her on and off. Oksana had yet not answered a single one, but when the emptiness got unbearable, she took out the dog-eared pages and trailed her fingers along the pictures of hills and rivers in colorful crayons. The letters seemed to have stopped in the last few weeks and it bothered her a bit.

***

21st August 2022

Oksana lit a candle. Today was the day when a year ago Konstyantyn had proposed to her. “I have decided to seek help lyubov*. I cannot go living like this. I have my first meeting at a grief support group tomorrow. Here, do you see this cake I baked? I am going to the orphanage now. Remember that girl Maria, I rescued from a pervert? She used to write me letters. I plan on visiting her today.

Oksana put on a new cotton T-shirt, combed her stringy hair, and used some lipstick to hide her cracked lips. She smeared some over her cheeks to hide the pale skin. Then carefully packed the cake and walked toward the orphanage.

***

A young man in his early twenties was at the desk. “Oh, Ms Lyniv. We are so glad to see you. Maria wrote you so many letters. You never replied.” He shrugged and continued. “She was adopted last week by a nice family from across town.” Oksana’s heart sank. Maria was gone. The young clerk eyed her cake and gave her an understanding look.

“She is lucky. Not many nine-year-olds get adopted. Let me show you a photo we took of her with the other kids before she left.” He wanted to cheer her up. “It was difficult for Maria of course. She doesn’t speak the language and was naturally overwhelmed to see the couple.” He babbled on, pointing to a page on the album.

Then he frowned, “Mr and Mrs Brodowski, the couple is also in the picture…I, I am not supposed to divulge the details of the parents to anybody, sorry.” He awkwardly took back the album, but not before Oksana saw the couple. She would have recognized those soulless eyes and the brown cloak anywhere. Did they not know this man abducted young girls in dark alleys?

The room swivelled. Oksana clenched her jaws, thanked the clerk and bade him goodbye.

She walked to the gate and took out her battered cell phone. She opened the Facebook page and searched for Mr Brodowski, Kraków.

***

Krakow Post                                                                                              26th September 2022

A small-time businessman Mr Jakob Brodowski was ambushed and attacked in an alley outside Lidl supermarket yesterday evening by a female assailant, wielding a meat cleaver.  He sustained grievous injuries and is believed to have died on the spot.  The assailant, a Ukrainian citizen then allegedly cut her own throat and committed suicide. The police are investigating the exact cause of the incident.

The attack has sparked fears that the refugee crisis has finally spiralled out of hand and that displaced refugees need a proactive follow-up concerning their emotional well-being and mental health.

***

Reference:

https://visitukraine.today/blog/589/how-to-overcome-the-refugee-syndrome-advice-from-the-ministry-of-health.

Many instances in the story are a first hand accounts of various Ukrainian refugees, who fleed to Poland or Maldova, collected from various sources.

Moya Lyubov : My love (Ukrainian)

Policja: Police (polish)

Kto tam: Who is it? (polish)

Pic : Unsplash

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