Pyotr

After the major clean-up of the Chernobyl nuclear leak had been completed (as the authorities would term it), the remaining three reactors resumed operation six months later amid the snow-covered rubble around reactor number four. Government chemists and physicists returned to work at other locations. Some remained at Chernobyl to monitor the radiation and ongoing cleansing of machinery, buildings and vehicles. The leak in reactor four had produced an explosion. Within days of the destruction, exposure to lethal levels of radiation decimated citizens in the nearby city of Pripyat as well as valiant conscripted workers, firefighters, miners and military engaged in the clean-up. Employees were becoming ill, yet other souls desperate for a paycheck continued to work at the site. Someone had to do the dirty work. They were heroes, of course, ordered to heroism, but nonetheless courageous.

I was one of those poor, dead souls—apparitions for Gogol’s book—who continued on the government payroll as the better choice among forced evacuation, hunger or immigration to Moscow for other employment. As a bachelor I was dispensable, not likely to father and produce freaks. Each day I dressed in the protective hooded coat, boots and trousers furnished by the government and trudged to the explosion area. In the immediate aftermath of the disaster my job was to hose down buildings covered with radioactive dust. Later I was switched to the construction crew erecting the huge concrete sarcophagus to enclose the damaged reactor. I knew the work was shoddy, but haste does not make for quality, as the unfortunate inhabitants of Pripyat had learned that neither did insufficiently-trained employees who played a major role in the explosion at the nuclear plant on April 26, 1986.

Now, twenty years later I am still here, all my organs intact, having graduated from the school of liquidators, who were the first responders to the disaster, to the school of stalkers, charged with monitoring the damage on the concrete encasement and measuring radiation levels at different points on the site today. For an eight-hour shift I stumble over broken concrete slabs and snow-covered debris on my horrible treasure hunt. Years ago the major wreckage along with mounds of radioactive dirt was bulldozed and buried. I walked along; head down, intent on my lonely mission against the backdrop of an abandoned city where many of the nuclear plant workers had lived. I sidestep the moss flourishing in the cracks in the sidewalk, highly radioactive; somehow they retain the effects of the nuclear disaster better than other materials. I am cautious regardless of the heavy white canvas suit, mask and thick boots I wear. I carry my radiation detection meter like a fifth appendage and record readings. As do all survivors I wonder why I have cheated death, granted I was not one in those squads that shoveled sheets of graphite from the roof of the reactor or descended like miners under the core of the reactor, but I saw comrades succumb to radiation illness in the weeks, months and years after the disaster. Even the robots could not withstand the foul breath the tower belched.

The cold ostensibly has abated, but I feel cold in my soul, a prisoner of the environment that engendered me. Sometimes I wonder how I had been born whole in 1950 after the ravages of war when other infants arose from the womb with deformed bodies or stunted brains. The world is a cancer ward and I am one of the hospital orderlies tending to the casualties, unaffected by mutant cells.

I poke around the door of an outbuilding. The detector sounds, its insistent static chirp replacing the bird calls once heard in the nearby buried Red Forest, kissed to a crisp death by the radiated lips of the nuclear explosion. As I progress along the route of my daily checkpoints, I devise elaborate plans to escape this blighted land, all of which I eventually discard as impracticable. This has become the habitual escape route my mind has taken over the years. Uneducated, I am not considered a desirable acquisition for either the United States or Canada. I can not be classified as a refugee from persecution. My physical condition, of course, is suspect—the possible victim of nuclear contamination.  On the other hand, the Soviet regime provides regular health examinations. I have a government job and health care, assuredly of questionable quality, but available if necessary.

The dreariness of the grey sky, the polluted air and crumbling building seep into my soul. I pull the bottle from my inside jacket pocket. Unscrewing the cap, I lift the open bottle to my lips and let the soothing vodka coat my tongue, the roof of my mouth, and trickle down my gullet, such a balm, Russian vodka, consecrated for the cold, clear and austere to fend off final despair. I screw the cap back on the bottle and replace it in my pocket.

I imagine that I am detecting identity documents, a cache of euros and a passport to spirit me away from the steely Ukrainian sky. I could cross over via the Rumania border, thence over the Adriatic on an oil tanker to Italy. From there I could seek asylum at the Australian embassy.

The five o’clock whistle blasts, signaling the end of my shift. I return my equipment to the post on the perimeter of the plant, remove my protective garments and place them in a locker, then take the obligatory shower before dressing in my street clothes.

It is a good three-kilometer walk to the station where I catch the blue and white train to my sixth floor apartment in Slatvutych, the modern city erected 30 kilometers from the ghost town of Pripyat. I like living on the top floor of my building. It affords a good view of the surrounding area. I do not have to share the apartment with another soul. In fact, there are a number of vacant apartments since the last reactor shut down in December 2000. There are many unemployed. Some of the workers who used to work at the nuclear plant have moved to Kiev or Moscow.

I play chess with a neighbor several evenings a week. Chess is the sport of sedentary, middle-aged Russians. Many of us have television after the breakup of the Soviet Union, but we older ones prefer the camaraderie of playing a game with another human being. I cannot be faulted for wanting companionship after a day at a solitary job. Olga is not afraid that I would contaminate her. Older Ukrainians past the half-century mark say they must die one way or another. Olga is a widow, plump and unshapely like many Slavs, understandable after cooking for a brood of children, all who are now located in high-paying technical jobs in Moscow. Her husband died of a lethal dose of radiation received when he ran to gain a closer view of the fire spewing from the tower from the railroad overpass before the authorities admitted a disaster had occurred. That trestle over the tracks is now called the Bridge of Death because all the observers who stood watching the fire from that perspective died within days of the disaster. Olga’s hair is still blonde, wrapped in an attractive if old-fashioned beehive style. Her teeth are in bad repair, clearly visible when she laughs, which she does often. She works in the Slatvutych brewery and brings a pack of the beer with her to our games. I, of course, prefer the vodka, but cannot look a gift horse in the mouth, so I drink her beer joyfully on these occasions. The drink does not affect her game. She is a worthy opponent and I trust it does not impair my mental acuity either.

I confess that in former days Olga and I had other pastimes than board games—other interests, other needs, for instance, intimacy. I do not deny we both enjoyed a tumble in bed. Now the mood possesses us maybe at Christmas time, or when the buds first begin to appear on the trees. What could be more natural, both of us being alone? I may have still been able to father children in those days, but I knew Olga was past her child-bearing years.

“Old Katya has gone back to her village.  She’s near ninety and bent like a pretzel. She said she does not care if the dirt is contaminated, she still wants to be buried on the family farm.” Olga moves her white bishop.

“Sensible move . . . I mean her going back. She has one foot in the grave already.”   I move a black pawn into position. “It’s time people should start dying of old age. Don’t you think? Life is a terminal condition anyhow, isn’t it?”

She ignores my question and continues with her report.

“Dmitri’s tumor is not shrinking. He is tired of chemotherapy and is thinking of stopping it.” She moves a white pawn.

Olga always starts this way with the news of sickness and dying. It had gone this way for years. Gradually, the death tally had diminished. The adults who were going to survive had survived in a Darwinian-like fashion. Once the lugubrious is out of her system, she shifts to more pleasant subjects, her children in Moscow and the growing number of grandchildren.

“I am so happy they are in Moscow gainfully employed. The children are doing wonderfully in school. There are too many reports of children with thyroid cancer here. Why the children, you suppose?” She moves the white knight.

“I don’t suppose anything. I just live,” I say and move a castle to the right four squares.

“And play chess . . . aha, you’re out of beer. She pours more into my glass and laughs. “My move.” She pretends to ponder then moves her queen. “Checkmate!”

I study the board, hoping the situation is not hopeless. No angle offers escape, so I gracefully concede. “A rematch, a rematch! I insist. You will not find me so inattentive the second time around.” We both laugh and set up our pieces on our side of the board. Our mood grows more jovial as the evening progresses. I don’t let Olga leave until we both have won two matches. It is two o’clock in the morning but we will sleep late tomorrow, Sunday morning. Who goes to church anymore?

So many evenings passed this way, so many days passed in monotonous work for those pleasant times with a good friend. My imagination is still active, constructing schemes of an existence beyond the visible record of disaster. I dream of steering a catamaran on the Mediterranean Sea, of riding a hay bailer in the wheat fields of America’s bread basket, of hiking the Alps with two Russian greyhounds by my side and of staring up at the Great Pyramids and exclaiming “These have stood the test of time.” Most of all I dream of walking freely through the world. I have spent so many hours with my head turned toward the earth, always some tool in my hand—a shovel, a hose, a meter.

It is still dark when I board the train for the Chernobyl plant. I carry my lunch in a tin pail. Tourists have started to tour the site of the disaster and for this reason we need security guards to ensure they do not violate any of the rules. At first, we needed them to prevent looting of abandoned buildings. Between my monitoring rounds, I return to my station. It has large glass windows near the perimeter to observe any questionable activity. Today there are no visitors—too cold—what foreigner travels to the Ukraine in the winter—no one as foolish as Napoleon or Hitler’s army nowadays—so  I have time to lapse into my daydreaming until it is time to make another scheduled round, always with the trusty radiation metering device, a fixture like a guard’s pistol.

I stand up and stretch, reach for mask and protective hood on the peg by the door, when from the corner of my eye, I detect some movement about hundred meters in the open space outside the glass door. I blink and open my eyes wider to focus on the source of the movement. It is an animal, a scruffy creature, with nose sniffing the clumps of grass in the yard. It is a dog, a stray. I thought we had shot them all in the streets of Pripyat. They are coming back. Its coat is splotchy grey and brown. A German shepherd? The animal nears my guard house and then it dawns on me: Is this a wolf, a lone wolf? I stare. It is a wolf that has wandered into the precincts of the nuclear plant. I am mesmerized. Is it hungry? Surely, there are sufficient small creatures in the forest. Why does it have to come into this god-forsaken area—unless, it is because the human predator has all but been removed? The wolf feels safe. Strangely, I do feel safe, not frightened by its presence. People may not feel safe here anymore but the wild animals have found a haven in this damned exclusion area where only maintenance men like me remain to stand guard. It does not sense my presence yet. I cannot move a muscle. The wolf raises its snout and looks toward me. It has meandered several meters closer. With a jerk of its head, it turns and lopes in the opposite direction toward the canal. My trance is broken. I wonder if I am seeing things, if the wolf was part of my daydream. I have never thought of wolves before—at least not since I was a boy on my grandparents’ farm. My father died in a German prison camp and my mother died when I was five of overwork coupled with a broken spirit. My grandfather used to tell stories of how he and his father hunted wolves in the great forest, setting traps, and saving the pelts for fine fur hats. Somehow I feel blessed, for this is the first wolf I have ever seen outside of a zoo. How wonderful! I must tell Olga. I can tell her, but otherwise what I saw must remain a secret.

Excitement courses through my blood. For the rest of the shift, I walk on air, not heavily on ponderous feet as I had grown accustomed to doing. I look up. The sun seems to shine brighter today. The chirp of my radiation measuring meter sounds like a symphony. I can see the conductor’s baton in the needle’s motion. My world expands; my lungs enlarge with each intake of breath and I can almost say I am a free spirit.

I burst into Olga’s apartment after supper.

“Olga, my dove, you’ll never believe what I saw today.”

“What canary did you swallow? You’re almost singing with excitement,” she answers.

“No canary, Olga. Sit down and I’ll tell you, but you mustn’t tell anyone else. It is a secret.”

Olga claps her hands like a little girl. “Oh, I love secrets.”

“Now, my plump pigeon, I know how you love secrets—love to tell them,” I admonish. “This one you must keep. Promise me.”

She sits down primly in her straight-backed chair and pressing her right hand to her ample breast, says, “I swear on the holy icon of St. Andrei.”

“You’re not religious. Swear on something else.”

“I swear on the Communist Manifesto.

“That won’t do. You’re not a good party member.”

“I swear on the grave of my mother.”

“That’ll do.” We both laugh. I take a seat across the table from her and begin my story.

“I saw a wolf. He didn’t see me. He stood about eighty meters away.”

Olga gasps. “It could be dangerous. Be careful, Pyotr, it may attack. You cannot trust a wolf.”

“No, Olga, it was not like that at all. I felt a deep compassion for the animal.”

“They go in packs. There must be more. Beware.”

“It was alone, a sorrowful soul, I thought, forlorn, looking for food, smelling the ground. It must smell different from the new growth on the pine forest floor.”

“Don’t you think you should report it? The wolf could be a menace to visitors. Its presence could signal an influx of wild wolves into the area, then what will happen?”

“For the life of me, I did not perceive it as an enemy but as a friend, indeed, a friendless creature—a lone wolf.”

“I hope it does not appear again for your sake. I trust it was just passing through, snooped around a little bit, and found the area not to its satisfaction.”

“Could be. For the moment it was a wonderful experience, one in a million, one I will never forget. To be that close to a wild creature, to sense its spirit. Olga, to tell you the truth, it was like a sacred vision.”

“It won’t be so sacred if it attacks you,” Olga chortles.

“What a way to go,” I parry, smiling.  “Better than being attacked inside by cancerous cells, eaten away from the inside out.”

Olga laughs. Despite her words of caution, she customarily appreciates my grim humor. At heart she has to share it, the daughter of disaster as I am its son.

“Now, don’t tell anyone,” I remind her for good measure.

My lips are sealed. “If you don’t believe me, get duct tape and seal them shut yourself.”

“Don’t tempt me,” I answer and bid her good night.

The wolf prowls my dreams. I wake twice and get up to go to the bathroom and return to bed where wolves multiply in happy abandon. Awake, I resume my routine and forget for a while yesterday’s apparition. Until lunch time, when I pause between bites of my liver sausage sandwich and look up. Pressed against the pane of the glass door is the snout of the wolf. I freeze, paralyzed in awe of the wild creature. Its yellow-gold eyes slightly slanted keenly observe me with a human-like inquisitiveness. They are fearless, unstartled orbs that question my presence. I am perceived as the intruder. It lifts a fore paw to scratch the pane as if asking entrance or in attempting to extract some scent from the surface. I hear the sound grate upon my senses. Its winter mat of fur already thick does not betray a lean and hungry body.  I am too mesmerized for fright to grip me, to scream, to shout, and to utter a sound that could turn the animal to flight. The wolf is like a skilled hypnotist binding me to my chair. Maybe my fascination would turn to panic if the glass partition did not separate us. I think: what a magnificent creature. Truly, it owns a soul like yours or mine. It seems as if I am transfixed for hours, for as suddenly as it appeared, the wolf jerks its head and trots away. I lose sight of it behind the unfinished fifth reactor. I snap to my feet. The minute hand on the clock has not progressed much. Only ten minutes have elapsed in my allotted half hour lunch break. It could not have been here long. I wonder if I should not reveal its presence to others. After all, it has appeared twice. But I hold to my resolve to keep it a secret. A protective instinct for this wild creature grows within me. I both want to see it again and am afraid for it should other workers sight the wolf roaming around the excluded area.

I am enthralled and cannot refrain from telling Olga that I have seen the wolf again. This time Olga expresses alarm. “Remember the wolf in sheep’s clothing,” she says. “It appears harmless, but a wolf is a wolf. It will attack. It is just waiting an opportunity. Wolves are full of cunning.”

“What do you know of wolves?” I sneer. “Since when do you have a degree in zoology, or anything else?”

“I know what I’ve read.”

“Sure…of werewolves and folk legends.”

“There’s truth in those stories, or otherwise they would not be passed on from generation to generation.”

“Ah, tradition, how it imprisons our minds,” I say. “In any event keep it a secret.”

“And you be careful, Pyotr. Don’t trust a wild animal.”

“We, survivors of Chernobyl, know humans to be more untrustworthy and deceitful than any animal,” I respond, proud of my rebuttal of Olga’s caution. She did not say anything. I left for I must arise early for work tomorrow.

During the day I scan the grounds for sight of the wolf. My gaze roves the distance, where the overgrowth of bushes and trees edge crumbling buildings. I peer beyond the wire fence, hoping to catch a glimpse of the wolf. There is no sign of the creature and I presume that it has receded into the wilderness from which it arose, safe from human predators. It is almost quitting time. I head back toward my station. Two security guards are in a clutch near the door. I greet them and we exchange pleasantries. We enter the guard house for a warming swig of vodka. It is no secret that we all carry our pocket flask. We kill time until the shift is over, shooting the bull. One guard, Dmitri gets out a pack of dirty cards for a round of Durak, a game in which the fool is the one left with all the cards at the end. We do not get to finish the game, for suddenly Sergei shouts, “Look!”

Dmitri and I look up from out cards. We follow Sergei’s pointing figure. The wolf is nosing the grass about a hundred meters away. Sergei jumps up. “It’s rabid. I know. The rabid ones wander into villages.” He reaches for his pistol in the holster at his waist.

“Wait! Don’t!” I detain his hand. Dmitri heads for the door. I shout after him. “Don’t kill him.” Sergei shoves my hand aside and joins Dmitri by the door.

“Listen, we don’t have to shoot him. We lay a trap and take him deep into the forest.”

“Ridiculous, Pyotr. You don’t know what you’re talking about.” Dmitri bursts through the door, followed by Sergei, both with their pistols raised. The wolf instantly detects movement and lifts its head toward the men bursting from the door. “Please, stop!” I yell after them. Dmitri with two hands grasps his pistol, aims quickly and fires. He misses. The animal lopes toward the canal, but Sergei has already fired. The wolf leaps, halts in midair and drops, struggles to arise, but falls again, crippled in the hind leg.

The three of us rush to the stricken animal. “Please, don’t fire again,” I plead as I see the other two men ready to finish the animal off. I arrive at the fallen animal first. It lifts its head. The dying, human-like yellow-gold eyes fix an anguished gaze upon me. I reach for its head to cradle it in my arms in its death throes. Just as I do so, the bullet hits the wolf between the eyes. The head goes limp in my arms. My body convulses in sobs. The two men stand speechless over me and the wolf. My white protective suit is spattered with blood, but I do not care. Dmitri and Sergei let me cry until I am cried out. Slowly, I get up.

Dmitri says, “We had to do it. It could have rabies. We can’t have a wolf on the loose around here.”

I am silent. The whistle blows. I face the men, subdued to see a grown man cry but nonetheless unapologetic for their murder.

“There are zoos for them,” I say and leave them to carry the carcass away.

Listlessly, I change clothes, walk to the railroad platform and board the blue and white train for Slavutych. In the corridor on my apartment floor, I see Olga enter her apartment and close the door. Instead of opening the door of my apartment, I rap on her door. She has not had the time to take off her boots, coat and hat.

She reads the distress in my face, for she says, “What’s the matter, Pyotr? You look like you lost your last friend.”

“No. There’s still you. Do you have a beer?”

“Sure.” I take off my coat and sit at her kitchen table. She retrieves a cold bottle of beer from the refrigerator before taking off her coat. She leaves me alone and does not pry, waiting until I am ready to speak. I take several gulps of beer, wishing I had a shot of vodka instead, but this will have to do. I really need something to warm my innards, not beer to chill me further.

“The guards shot the wolf.”

Olga is compassionate. She says, “I’m sorry.”

“This is no place for human beings. Let us go back to the forest ourselves, Olga … to the village of our youth.”

“What village? It’s buried.”

“Where we were born. We should die there. I hear the older ones have planted potatoes there and are raising chickens and pigs again.”

“And will we eat poisoned eggs there?”

“Maybe the wolf has already eaten poisoned hens. We can do worse.”

“And what is that to me?” Olga balks. “I have a job at the brewery until I retire.”

“Retire now, Olga. Both of us have labored long.”  I wink. “I think I may even want to marry before I die. Will you have me?”

Olga laughed a deep, husky laugh. “I could do no worse.”

“No deformed babies either, my dove.” I grasp her hand across the table and draw her hardened fingertips against my lips. I still could not understand why I had lived so long or why the wolf had to die, yet I know the trees are taking root where fields were once plowed and grass is growing tall in the untended parks of Pripyat. The earth beckons and I wish to dwell in a peasant’s hut rather than a concrete beehive. I say to Olga, “I have heard the songbirds have returned to the forest where the wild boars roam freely.”

“The wolves, too,” she adds.

I smile the first time since the wolf died. “We will not fear the wolf at our door.”