We’re meeting up with Lev: a few steps down, a room in the basement, a mess; there are cans of paint in the corner. Lev says he wants to set up a workshop here, with wooden floors, low ceilings, and a lightbulb hanging like a ripe fruit–the last pear on the tree, yellow and radiant.
The light of the bulb is needed because we gather when it gets dark, and it gets dark quickly this time of year. We are like conspirators: our meetings are filled with a sense of secrecy, preparation for something important and dangerous. Marta says that “conspirators” is a bad word. It’s not for us; our cause is righteous. Probably all conspirators say so.
Two of Lev’s children arrive. The boy’s name is Luka, and the girl’s name is Oksana. They help us, still schoolchildren, but they treat everything in an adult way: they brought coffee and tea, it’s cold outside, and it’s worth warming up; some of them haven’t had dinner yet, and serving warm food in cups will satisfy hunger for a while. It becomes cozy; for a moment, we forget why we gathered. We forget that we should be careful, lock the door, and look around. Everyone takes a bowl, and the smells mix: Congo, Sri Lanka, Colombia; cinnamon, cloves, a little sugar, citrine, and cardamom seed, all in a cup; thank you.
“Let’s get started,” Ilya hurries. We all understand: it’s because of Marta, who is not in the room. Ilya wants to finish before she comes. With Marta, he won’t convince anyone. Marta says this will mean our final loss. She is right to talk about it here.
Ilya is cunning: he hands me rolls of drawings he brought with him as if they were blasphemies or symbols of power. This is how he invites me to become his accomplice. I don’t like this kind of game. I listen: I can’t hear the noise of the wheels outside, the light footsteps that are getting louder and louder, the turning of the key in the lock. The door will open, and Marta will be standing behind it. This is whose accomplice I will become.
Although if steps are heard, it may not be Marta at all. Lev tells the children to go upstairs and lock themselves there.
“No matter what you hear, don’t come out.”
“It is worth destroying several central pillars, and the complex will collapse on itself,” explains Ilya. He is a builder, so he is sure of it.
“This will be our last argument,” Roman contradicts him.
But convincing. Something radical must be done, a show of strength. Until today they only talked. Did something stop the conversation?
“Pull yourself together,” Roman does not back down, “We cannot be so frivolous. This will be the last thing we do in the fight for territory. You have to play by the rules.”
“They don’t follow the rules,” Ilya shouts at him and looks back at the door leading to the yard. And then the voice quiets as if he is being eavesdropped on from the other side: “And that’s why they win.”
Maybe they are eavesdropping. We are all afraid: not of eavesdropping, but of something else, something worse. But not so much as to retreat.
There used to be a military unit on the wasteland next to our houses. The site was to become a recreational complex: a lake, wooden benches above the water on which you can sit, tucking your legs under yourself and savoring the brought sandwiches wrapped in parchment, and a tennis court with balls bouncing off the elastic surface. Hit one, and it flies in the opposite direction. This was all discussed in the agreement with the construction company. Now they are building a shopping and entertainment center there. They’re calling it the Empire.
Marta arrived just in time to hear Ilya talking about the support columns.
“What are you thinking?!” she asks, although it is not a question.
Ilya falls silent. Marta closes the door and turns the key in the lock. She looked around when she entered; maybe she saw something there, in the darkness, in the forest. Perhaps someone was following her. She takes off her down jacket and puts a large laptop with a black cover and lots of stickers on the table: He for She, Zaborona, Kyiv Pride.
“This is what will change the course of events,” she points to the laptop and looks sternly at Ilya. “Now we have everything to defeat them. We will not deviate from our strategy.”
“It won’t change anything,” Ilya looks at the black panel. “It won’t work with them; no documents about falsification or whatever you’ve got there. This is war.”
“And we will fight it according to the rules,” answers Marta, although she knows very well that the Empire crossed this line long ago. Strangers who follow us through the forest until we, quickening our pace, close the gates of our yards; phone calls in the middle of the night from unknown numbers.
“They try to scare us with flashy images and archetypes,” Marta explained to us, “They are skilled. After all, this is not the first parkland where they want to build a shopping center. They have experience, lawyers, connections, handshakes, agreements, whispers, offshore accounts, and backdated contracts. They are conquerors. But we also have power—office workers, directors, single parents, veterinarians, lawyers, writers, astronomers, engineers, construction workers,” she looked from one to the other, “We can fight too.”
I box, so I know how to fight but don’t know about the others. Although Marta, it seems, was talking about something else.
Marta hands over the laptop to Roman.
“There is a lot here, and it is unpleasant for them: illegal privatizations, forged signatures, changed dates, fake people, not only in our area but also in many others. It cost me a lot to get these documents. It is so severe that it is not kept in the cloud, only on hard drives. Now we will show all this to the press.” Marta drinks her coffee as if it were a reward for winning a sparring match and looks at Ilya. “It is more powerful than dynamite.”
Ilya folds the diagrams of the old military unit.
“Let it be plan B.”
“Choose another letter of the alphabet,” says Marta. “Maybe U.”
We look at the laptop between us. If it’s as serious as Marta says, then it’s dangerous. Roman looks back at the door: Are they pulling the handle? Are they trying to break in?
“We must go to the wasteland,” Yosyp breaks the hanging silence. “Let’s look at the place where we will perform.”
Going out into the dark forest, there, in the darkness, in the winter silence, is the most terrifying thing. But I nod at this proposal, and so does Marta, followed by Ilya and the rest. We will go there and do what we fear the most because this is such a moment, and each of us feels it the same way: we are strong and confident we will succeed.
We get dressed: woolen sweaters, duck-down jackets, knitted hats, and mittens, and we go outside. I take a large lantern to light the way; when we get to the place, it won’t be needed as the building is surrounded by floodlights.
We go one after the other. I’m in front, Marta is behind me, then all the rest. Ilya is the last to step out; it seems that hope has ignited in him, too. There is a liveliness in his walk that was absent before.
“Cheer up,” encourages Marta.
Fear dissipates. What is this, adrenaline? As Martha speaks, I hear a tennis ball bounce off a rubber surface. We will play with it when there will be courts, playgrounds, benches, trees, and bicycle paths where the Empire is now being built. Pedestrians will hear fast footsteps, not running away, but a measured, light, rhythmic run.
Outside, the light is from the snow, which has yet to completely melt. It smells of needles; there are cypresses and pines around, and the path leads between the trunks. Under the winter starlight, the reflective logos on the jackets glow like the eyes of a fox in the dark. Two lights flash between the trees: a fox. She paused for a moment, surveying us, and then turned on her path, fleeing into the depths of the forest that grows to the north.
We are silent. This is prompted by a feeling that has arisen in each of us, it is still delicate and tender, and we are afraid to break it. A great battle is ahead, and the enemy is strong and treacherous.
We are at the place, the Empire, behind the hill. This is our future park. A glow appears at the edge of the hill, where the borders of the Empire are illuminated by dozens of lamps. Occupied territory.
“The constellation of Orion,” says Joseph, who is professionally familiar with the night sky. “That’s how their lamps are positioned…”
“It will go out soon,” says Marta.
There are sharp spokes of rebar, monolithic concrete blocks, crane frames, the bloated bellies of concrete mixers, and the clenched jaws of bulldozers on our tennis courts, between our jogging paths, where children, dogs, tennis balls should be. The last set.
We look at this enemy, a frozen, cold, archaic leviathan with whom we will fight. The fight will be tough. We are silent in a kind of reverence for what awaits us tomorrow.
The sound appeared instantly. It did not flash, getting louder, but instead appeared all at once. And behind it was a flash, fire, glow, and sparks, followed by a roar a moment later. The light burst into an untimely dawn, mixed with earth, snow, branches, and a hum in one’s ears, as if on the coast of the sea, over which a storm rages. A wave, yellow and hot, rose over the Empire.
We got in touch before dawn: everyone was already on their way. Our car crossed the border of the city and was driving onto the highway. Cars stretched into the distance in a long line; we would become just another bead on a necklace in ten minutes. My ears are still ringing, I can’t hear anything, and Lev, who I brought with me along with the kids (he doesn’t have a car), has to bend down and shout when he wants to say something.
Lev hears everything because he stayed home with the children while we went through the forest. He did not see how the Russian missiles hit. We saw it, we heard it, and that’s why we went deaf. However, our hearing is slowly recovering, and sounds are returning. We learned these were Russian missiles when we returned home through the forest.
“Everyone has left,” says Lev, “Marta, Ilya, Yosyp, Roman, and the others are already on their way.”
While I’m driving, he’s writing in the chat we set up a few months ago to coordinate against the Empire. We called this chat “The Enemy.”
“Let’s not change the chat’s name,” Marta said. “When we get to safety, the work will be the same.” Lev reads it aloud to me.
“Yes,” I nod, looking in the mirror at the road we left behind. “Only the enemy has changed.”
Translated by Yulia Lyubka and Kate Tsurkan