Subterranean Saints

(Christmas story)

Part 1.

This year Christmas was marked by Anna, a voguish Ukrainian woman in her early thirties, in wartime Kherson, more precisely, in a dim dungeon or as they called it, in an untroubled underground of a multi-story house in the center of this bloodshed-stricken city.

The festive table was covered with kutya, a traditional wheat dish with honey gravy, dotted with poppy seeds, varenyky or stuffed dumplings with cabbage, pickled mushrooms, fried carp, covered herring, and uzvar or a soft drink from dried fruits. Homemade red wine, in two-liter plastic bottles, with several open conservation cans around them, were the last strokes of this subterranean Christmas Eve supper.

“As for the Lenten borscht, pampushky, and other Christmas dishes, do forgive me, Anna, but these artillery explosions RUINED almost all our shopping plans. For God’s sake, we have what we have now,” Svetlana, the university-mate of Anna, seeming 10 years older than her female friend, with a strand of gray hair on her forehead, and a sparkle of sadness in her eyes, glanced at the well-outlined long bob haircut and the well-groomed hands of Anna with attractive blue-and-yellow manicure who had just arrived with Polish volunteers and their humanitarian aid from Warsaw.

“It’s a trifle, I mean your shopping plans, you aren’t RUINED, you are alive. That’s the key result of this hard year,” Anna looked around at all those who got together at the holiday table. Except for Svetlana, a professional doctor, working in Kherson Oblast Hospital, there were her parents, Volodymyr and Halya, in their early seventies, her 10-year-old son, Pasha, playing with some video game, and Maria, a former actress of the Kherson Dramatic Theater, a sixty-five years-old elegant lady, smoking a thin cigarette and keeping two fluffy cats in her hands.

All of them were the only residents of the same multi-story house entryway. There was one more tenant, a young police officer; however, he was called to night duty.

All of them looked different, but some subtle thing united these people together – their eyes…childishly kind, clean and silent, sad and sparkling.

“Sveta, I don’t know either I am right or wrong, but your eyes look alike. You have the eyes of Saints…” Anna made a pause, seeking the right words and simultaneously shrugging her shoulders from the sound of another artillery explosion.

“Yeah,” Svetlana smiled sluggishly, looking at her ringing smartphone. “Now you will see our immortals, pizza delivery guys. Two hours ago, I ordered two Calzone pizzas. You’ll see, they always come on time. Come shells or high water, hurricane or flying bombs, they are permanently punctual and prompt.”

“Business is business and war is war. Money goes to and fro…” Volodymyr smirked at the corners of his lips.

A cheery looking girl in a dark yellow uniform appeared at the door of their underground shelter. In her hands, there were two big cardboard packages of spicy-smelling pizza with scents of salami, ham and mozzarella. After getting money, the girl pronounced pleasantly, “Merry Christmas!” and disappeared as quickly as a snowflake falling on a camping bonfire.

Anna rubbed her face with open hands, “Just unbelievable. Mortar mines, smashed streets and pricey pizza…By the way, do you have a candle or two, to light our festive table?”

“Why not,” Volodymyr pulled out from his pocket a candle made of 14.5 mm heavy machine gun cartridge and placed it solemnly on the table. “The 57th caliber suits the best for this year’s Christmas.”

“Amen,” added Maria, asking her neighbor with a gesture to pour wine in their glasses.

While looking at the red wine streaming slowly in the old faceted glasses brought by Halya, feeling nostalgia for the pre-war Kherson and retro-style crockery, Svetlana thanked Ann for the “gorgeous Christmas gift,” a fueled travel gas stove with 5L oil tank. “I have never thought that I will be the owner of such a splendid thing. They say that it works for the whole month and just after that needs refueling.”

“The Polish volunteers don’t sleep, and I try not to sleep either, helping them as I can do. You see, to sit idly in Warsaw and watch as you and Pasha suffer here is not for me. I need some action. I understand that you should do your daughter’s duty and your doctor’s duty. That is your right and responsibility. I have nothing against it. But long ago, your son should have been taken from this dangerous place to my aunt in Kyiv. I told you about it a dozen times. She has a large three-room apartment there, in a safe district, with good neighbors and good air defense. Why do you keep him here? Waiting for what? He is the future of your family and this future depends on the choices you make today not tomorrow… Russian bombs spare nobody, neither old men and women, nor adults and kids.”

“You are right. At long last, I convinced him, myself and my parents that it would be the best choice. In a day, there will be an evacuation train to Kyiv, so you are welcome. You can take him to your auntie’s apartment, but I won’t go to see you off at the train station, it would just break my heart. My parents will stay at home too,” Svetlana was ready to burst out crying, stretching her hands to her only son.

“Wait, wait, wait! Everything will be OK! I promise you,” Anna hugged her university friend, trying to calm her down, and wipe out the first tears in her tired eyes. In a while, Ann raised her glass of red wine. “I think it’s time to say ‘Merry Christmas’ and to drink to all good things!”

“We’ll take a cup of kindness yet, for auld lang syne!” The eyes of Svetlana sparkled for a sec when she raised her glass too, “Do you remember our University Prof-Boff teaching English and the lecture when we sang this Christmas song together?”

“Surely, a funny man…Let’s drink to Merry Christmas, our friends, and a cup of kindness…” Anna hugged Svetlana again.

“To our families, folks and left-bank fazendas,” Halya smiled.

“To our Kherson, picturesque riverbanks and wonderful watermelons,” Volodymyr added.

“To our hopes. I believe that one day I will stop living like a mole in a hole and will walk freely to our Dramatic Theater, where I spent all my best years,” Maria looked dreamily somewhere far and up, not forgetting to pet her purring cats.

“To our victorious spirit!” Pasha drew the Christmas line with a firm voice.

Part 2.

One day after, Anna, with a cheery Christmas smile on her face, dressed in a classy black blanket coat with a built-in scarf flowing over her shoulders and red block-heel knee boots, together with pessimistically-looking Pasha in a casual black bomber jacket and faded boots of unspecified color, walked along the platform of the Kherson railway station. The sunny day with a frosty wind promised them a terrific trip to Kyiv, the capital city of Ukraine, with its shiny Christmas fir-tree in front of Saint Sophia Сathedral and its festive Ferris wheel with dizzy dancing images of the snowy tops of the city center. All these amazing things Anna had already described to Pasha, adding curious details and funny memories connected to these splendid sightseeing sites. However, Pasha kept silence and carefully examined the silhouettes of two hundred passengers, with a lot of police officers around them, waiting for the evacuation train Kherson-Kyiv, seeking the familiar faces in the crowd.

After another slice-of-life story told by Anna with sparkles of light-hearted humor, Pasha made a cautious comment, “My Granddad always says that you should not say ‘hop’ before you jump.”

Anna turned off the tap of her memories, not knowing what to say, “What ‘hop’ do you mean, Pasha?”

“I mean that we are in Kherson, we are not in Kyiv, and right now I have bad premonitions…” Pasha looked around and noticed the inscription ‘Bomb shelter.’ “You’d better think about how to flash fast to that place in your high-heeled boots, instead of thinking about festive ‘Ferris Wheel’ and the best shopping spots with Christmas toys in Kyiv.”

“Pasha, you speak like an adult bore. I just feel the Christmas mood and…” Anna smiled as if she had asked him to forgive her.

“And I have a smack of metal in my mouth which says that in a while there will be a lot of falling artillery shells…My premonitions have never let me down. I think that we should be closer to the bomb shelter entrance…” Pasha made a move towards the dignified building of the Kherson railway station, constructed somewhere in the early XXth century. However, he was stopped by Anna, keeping his hand firmly.

“Nobody goes there. Just look around, there is neither an alarm signal, nor any announcements… Besides, we should stick together and support each other…without spreading panic and respecting Mother…” Anna rhymed the words to distract Pasha. “Don’t you see that in case of any anxiety or agitation we can lose each other and your Mom will be deeply disappointed? Think about it…”

Though, Anna failed to finish her speech. The atrocious alarm siren hushed her words down, forcing the crowd of passengers to rush to the railway station basement. Almost immediately, appeared the first Russian Grad rockets exploding with horrible blasts and harsh fragments. Pasha was right; she stumbled on the first parapet, losing her balance and consciousness as well as the hand of the boy, drawn by the flow of fiercely wailing people, rushing away with their backpacks and suitcases, briefcases and packages, children and pets, to the only ‘holy place’ of the railway station – the safe and spacious bomb shelter…

When Ann came to her senses, she felt something heavy lying on her body, causing her to feel stiff and tight. The alarm system kept on roaring and the artillery shells kept on raving. A split-second thought sparkled in her mind, “It’s time to open the eyes.” To her surprise, a young policeman was lying on her body, covering his head with intertwined fingers.

“Who are you?” Anna asked with astonishment.

“Yaroslav, a senior lieutenant of the Kherson police,” the young man flared up with a Viking’s smile.

“What are you doing on me?” Anna was shocked by such…unusual behavior of a law enforcement officer.

“Saving your life, Anna, you are too heavy for me to bring you to the bomb shelter. Besides, it’s too dangerous to run away from here right now. Moreover, my left forearm is wounded by a rocket splinter intended for you, a high-heeled beauty with a Paris Match hairstyle…”

“You are too hefty too…” Anna blushed suddenly, which happened too seldom.

“Try to get accustomed to it… As for Pasha, he is waiting for you at the bomb shelter entrance with my partner, Boris.”

At first, Anna did not know what to say, then, she found the words to express her…indignation. “You are the man I met for the first time, the man who knows my name and the name of my boy, the man who is saving my life while lying on me with a smiling face of a satisfied stallion… Yaroslav, who are you? I ask you again. Are you a freaky fella or a fortune-teller in the police uniform?”

“I am just a manly man, a neighbor of Svetlana from the same house…”

“Ouch! A macho neighbor of Svetlana, I heard about you…”

“Yeah, a macho neighbor with a big gun… At least, she thinks so. Well, and now, are you ready to stand up sharply and to speed off to the basement? There is a break in Grad shelling; we are to take this chance.”

Seeing the determined look of Anna, Yaroslav jumped up and helped Anna to stand on her high heels and to streak swiftly to the bomb shelter in a crouched way.

Fortunately, for Anna and almost all passengers, almost nobody was injured that day, except one policeman who covered a senior woman too, but was not as lucky as Yaroslav.

After catching her breath and meeting Pasha, Anna calmed down a bit and bandaged the wounded arm of Yaroslav, who turned out to be a reliable partner, offering to give her a ride to Mykolaiv, a big city, located 54 km away from Kherson.

“It’s a bad sign to return, let’s go there right now, if your boss has nothing against it,” Anna and Pasha agreed to leave the heavily wounded railway station as quickly as possible.

All the way to Mykolaiv, covered with ruins of small country houses, she was silent as a cool fish. Yaroslav tried to entertain her with some wartime jokes, like “Don’t you know that this year Saint Nickolas is in shock. 50% of Ukrainians living in Kherson asked for a sniper rifle… Besides, this year we asked this Saint man to take away his deer with unwashed hooves from our lands…”

Behind the cheery chatter of Yaroslav, she heard the sounds of sharp pain in his soul. Svetlana said that two or three months ago his mother had passed away under the debris of her private dwelling and his wife had fled to Spain and found a new man there…

In Mykolaiv, Yaroslav gave her the suitcase and looked awkwardly in her eyes, “Maybe, I should say ‘Sorry,’ for being too straightforward… You look like my former wife. The same hairstyle and the same voice…”

“No need to apologize. Who knows, maybe you saved my life. Besides,” Anna suddenly smiled, “I feel some sort of sympathy for macho men. In a month, I will come back with Polish volunteers to check on you and to determine whether you are a mooch or a he-man. Just stay alive, Lieutenant. I know where to seek you… Bye-bye.”

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