In the Exclusion Zone

Mika Taylor

The sky turned orange, as if washed with bile, and there was a smell – a smell we’d never smelled before, acrid and burnt and burning – that crept through the countryside until it was the smell of all things, the muddy roads, the slow flowing river, the grass and trees and the babies at our daughters’ breasts.

“Reactor,” someone said.

For days, helicopters flew low to drop sand on the core. Our sons, the ones not working in the plant or fighting the fire, went off to Pripyat to watch from the railway bridge. We would have gone too, but we were too busy packing our things, searching for the house cat who ran off in the chaos. We wrote our names on our doors, on the asphalt, on the fences. We scrubbed our kitchens and bleached our stoves. We placed small plates with salt and three spoons, five spoons, two spoons, one for each soul that lived in that house. All this so we could return.

We must be grateful now that the cat ran away, that there was so much work to do at home, that we were not more curious or brave, that we were neither young enough nor male enough to fight the fires. We heard it burned for eleven days, long after we’d left.

Later, they said the helicopters were a mistake. The sand they dropped soaked up the poison, rode the wind, and coated the earth for more miles than we can walk. We saw it as we left, gray snow glinting in the air. One boy leaned his head back and opened his mouth. He cried when a flake touched his tongue. More stuck to his wet lashes and he rubbed his eyes for the whole bus ride while his mother slapped his hands and threatened to tie them down.

The village council told us to pack clothes for a week, but the soldiers took all that when we arrived in the city.

“Contaminated,” they said.

We hid what we could, our wedding rings, our grandchildren’s shoes, the handfuls of dirt we’d taken from our mother’s graves. We ate the bread we’d stashed in our sacks. They were supposed to bury it all in deep holes the way they buried the boys who fought the fire. But we saw our belongings in the city markets that summer, the clothes and blankets we’d brought with us, and more we’d left behind – our stoves, our furniture, radios, tables and chairs. One man sold doors with hinges and knobs we recognized, our children’s heights marking up the edges. Chernobyl apples were the biggest, the freshest, the most red and round. We could not afford to buy back our furniture, but we bought the apples. They were cheap. They were ours.

We didn’t ask our daughters about why they started the young ones on solid food early. Maybe their milk had turned to powder. Maybe it still ran sweet but they couldn’t forget the taint of fear, that bitter orange sky. They worshipped their monthlies as a blessing. They would not even love their husbands. We told them not to listen to the rumors. None of us had seen babies born with their eyes sealed shut, their hearts open. Our own hearts emptied every time a child swallowed hard.

But those ones are grown, grown or gone. The fire was thirty years ago. It’s so quiet here now.

After too many months in the city, we returned by foot with parcels on our backs. We snuck along the forest’s edge, crouched under barbed wire, picked through bushes. The nights were darker than we’d seen since the war. We marveled at the stars, at the way soft light streaked and gathered in the black – a river of quiet. We found our houses looted, markings on our gates. Thieves had taken our cook pots, our televisions, the switches from the walls. But the things we were smart enough to hide were still here, our mushroom knives and skeins of wool, our photographs and our mothers’ churns. All they needed was a good cleaning. There were turnips in the root cellars, cherries shriveled on the limb. Some of what we’d planted in spring had reseeded itself in fall. The dogs, they shot, but our cats remained.

A few neighbors had stayed. They’d hidden in the woods when the soldiers came, kept weapons at the door to fend off looters. They watched from a distance as conscripted men cut down the forests near the fire, cleared the topsoil and buried it deep, earth under earth. All those are dead now, but they told us what happened when we were gone, how the chickens’ coxcombs turned from red to black, how the gardens went white.

At least there were still roofs for our heads. And the gardens grew green again by spring. We pulled boards from empty houses to fix our own. Who needs televisions when the electricity’s gone? We sit by moonlight or kerosene lamps.

Each of us has a house here now, each a garden. All that you see is ours. We sow our rows and trade our seeds. We raise hens who peck and putter, nibbling herbs, pulling grubs invisible from the dirt, warbling in their throats like grounded songbirds, ever off key. Each year we share a sow, spoiling it fat with potato parings and extra cabbage, whatever bounty turns before we cook or can it.

Men come every few months, scientists now, not policemen. They don’t threaten us anymore. They don’t yell. They’re just boys. By now they know we won’t leave. They take their notes and wave their instruments – the beeping as insistent as sparrows. We make them turn off their machines and enjoy the quiet. We pinch their young legs and call them handsome. We threaten to marry them now that our husbands are gone. The nice ones bring loaves of bread or sacks of sugar. It’s the only thing we cannot grow ourselves. We feed them pickles and salt pork, vodka we’ve made. We take no gifts from those who won’t eat. Those ones can’t be trusted. We tell them: you can eat a Chernobyl apple, just make sure to bury the core! We tell them: If you are so afraid of the mushrooms, you can bring some home for your mother-in-law, for your boss! The ones who don’t laugh, don’t stay long. They warn and worry and fuss. They flinch at the wind. After Stalin, after Hitler, after Soviets and socialists and communists and all the long winters since, who has time for invisible dangers? We fear real things: beetles in our cabbage, an early frost. This is a good place, we tell them. We don’t need bolts or locks like our daughters in Kiev. We don’t live ten stories up in two rooms with three children surrounded by drugs and crimes and capitalists, neighbors on every side.

Our daughters don’t visit enough. They refuse to even spend the night. They don’t linger in their bedrooms to trace the perfect stitching on their quilts, or hold the soft rag dolls the babes cried for so desperately on the night we fled. They bring only pictures of our grandchildren, grown now with children of their own. The young ones look so skinny and pale, so Western. If only they came here, we could teach them the old ways, bring them to the creek, show them the wildflowers on its banks. We’d tell them the names of trees: pine, linden, hornbeam, poplar, beech. We’d show them which branches are best for baskets and fish traps, for bonfires and wreaths. We’d fatten them with mushroom stew, hunks of bread thick with lard. We’d sing the lullabies our babas sang us.

The doctor visits once a year. He brings a different assistant each time. He measures our hearts and draws our blood. He treats us like petulant children. In his assistant, we see pity. We tell them how our animals were meant to grow eyes on their paws and three tails all wagging, how our skin was supposed to melt off our faces. We have sore knees, yes, but our faces remain. The animals have one tail each. There are more of them now, that is all, more foxes, more voles, more songbirds on the limb. We grow older, we die off, one by one, but each spring brings new life. Rabbits burrow under our fences, deer trip down the middle of the street. The crickets’ chorus fills the night. There is more beauty than you could imagine.

Do not pity us. Pity the sons who walked unprotected into the fire, the ones who watched in wonder at that pillar of smoke, that circle of smoke. Pity the children who weren’t evacuated for days, who sat at their windows or played in the streets while everything burned. Pity the soldiers called up to this new invisible front, sent in without masks, without gloves, without warnings. Pity the nurses and doctors and hospital workers made ill treating the sick. Pity the women who had not yet had children or found their loves, who now never will. Pity all those forced from this place, never to return.

Us? We have each other. We have our land. On our worst nights, we chase boars out of the turnip patch. We listen for wolves in the distance.

Pity only the last one left.

Mika Taylor’s stories and have appeared in GrantaNinth LetterThe Kenyon Review, Guernica, Diagram, and others. She was the 2015-2016 Carol Houck Smith Fiction Fellow at the University of Wisconsin and holds an MFA from the University of Arizona.