A story goes around the world (chapter 1 of 8)

by Serhij Zhadan

A story goes around the world (Issue III/2020)


Illustration: Elisabeth Moch

The city was empty. No birds even. It was like they’d been poisoned. Or scared off. But what could scare birds in a big city? Maybe large groups of people. Or their absence. Absolute absence. If the streets aren’t safe for humans, then clearly, birds must feel exposed, too. Our fear can be transmitted to the birds, can’t it? Or just our neuroses?

As of yesterday evening, I wasn’t planning on going out. I still had some supplies left in the kitchen. I hadn’t been eating much. My habit of cooking every morning wound up not being much of a habit at all—preparing food wound up being too much of hassle, a real burden, so I tried to steer clear of the kitchen. I gave up alcohol last winter, too. There was no need to give up tobacco—I’d never been a smoker. You appreciate the fact that you don’t have any bad habits when you have to give them up. The thing is, what habits of ours aren’t bad? Living is bad for your health, too. It usually doesn’t end well.

I’d hardly gone outside for the last few months. Nearly all winter, I’d been hunkering down by myself in my quiet, empty room, watching movies or just catching up on sleep. I’d go out once a week, mostly for food. I ran out of drinking water several days ago, though. I’d buy a few bottles at a time during each trip to the pharmacy, to stock up. My mood would sour whenever I ran out of water since that meant I’d have to get ready, get dressed, venture out into the city, go to the pharmacy. When the last bottle was empty, I’d try to outwit circumstances for a while—I’d drink the leftover boiled water in the electric kettle, nice and slow, like it had healing properties or something, then I’d finish off the juice in the fridge, then I’d reach into my backpack and find the plastic bottle I took with me last year, when I went out into the sweltering, summer streets. But I really had run out of water. I didn’t drink tap water though, couldn’t make myself do it. I kept thinking about what was in it, the sheer number of germs. Thirst woke me up this morning. Enough already, I thought. This isn’t normal anymore. C’mon, get up, get dressed, run over to the pharmacy. Then you can go back to sitting in front of the computer.

Everything being so clean and groomed created an intense feeling of unease

The streets were as empty as they are the morning after New Year’s Eve. Something had changed, though, something was off. What is it? I thought, confused. Spotless. The streets were spotless. January 1st, late morning. You step outside after a long night of vapid celebration and see piles of trash—festive, multifarious, colourful trash. Remnants of fireworks, coloured paper, empty wine bottles. This time around, things were completely different. The streets looked like they’d been licked clean, the sidewalks swept, the grass well-maintained. Everything being so clean and groomed created an intense feeling of unease. It was like a death row prisoner tidying up his cell before heading to the electric chair.

Maybe I should head back?, I asked myself.

Quit being paranoid, I retorted instantly, trying to put myself at ease. It’s Sunday. Everyone’s still asleep.

It’s Monday, I reminded myself. Monday afternoon! It’s two o’clock! You slept until lunchtime. Something happened while you were inside. You snoozed right through it. Run over to the pharmacy, then go home and check the news.

I listened to myself, tried to relax, headed down the street.

I tried not to look around too much as I was walking. I didn’t want to give away just how scared I was. Yet, out of the corner of my eye, I noted that the hair salon in the next building over was closed. It was dark inside. The hairdressers’ black aprons were hanging up, like flags at the edge of a city that had perished from the plague. The neighbourhood bar was closed, too.

It’s early, that’s all, I reassured myself. They’ll open up come evening. I picked up the pace, regardless, like I was trying to gain some distance on someone. You hear your footsteps echoing like that? You keep telling yourself not to wear high tops. They’re like flippers, slapping against the pavement. I’ll definitely put on a decent pair of shoes next time I go out.

I definitely will next time, I remarked sceptically. When will that be, though?

The next time I go out for water, I snapped back at myself.

But where are you going to get it? I said, trying to bring myself to my senses. The city’s empty!

No, it isn’t, I replied in quiet fury. It’s the same old city.

The smells haven’t disappeared. The smells have stuck around

The same old city. There’s the music school across the street. Every time I look at it, I subconsciously listen for the sounds of the instruments. I try listening for them now, but I can’t hear them. It’s like I’ve entered a room and gone over to sit in the chair that’s been by the window for years, but the chair isn’t there anymore! And the instruments aren’t there anymore. Nothing is there anymore. It’s quiet. The dairy—that’s a little farther down—is quiet, too. It still smells like milk, though. The smells haven’t disappeared. The smells have stuck around. The smell of life—that may be the last thing I smell before I die.

We have the day off today, don’t we?, I asked myself. What’s the date? The 11th? It’s some sort of holiday. April 13th. Yes, it’s definitely some sort of holiday.

But what holiday?, I replied to myself, no longer concealing my fear. There’s no holiday today. There’s no day off. It’s a regular old day. There should be people in the streets. There should be birds in the trees. Where are they? Where’d they all go? Did something happen while you were inside?

What happened? And how long had I been inside? The last time I’d ventured outside was a week ago. That was on a Monday, too. Yes, it was definitely Monday. It was like a reflex—keeping track of the weeks, starting with Monday, keeping track of new, important errands I had to run, urgent matters I had to attend to. Like making a grocery run. Saturday and Sunday passed slowly, the late spring sunrises outside the window quickly giving way to early twilight. My windows faced tall trees, so I couldn’t see much of anything besides branches, sharp the way they are right after winter. It’s not as though I wanted to see anything else, yet I did decide to go out on Monday morning. Ten minutes there, ten minutes back. Ten minutes in the supermarket. You’ll be back home in half an hour if you don’t make any other stops. I put on a dark t-shirt, comfortable pants, and my black jacket. I purposely didn’t brush my teeth so I wouldn’t be tempted to strike up a conversation with anyone along the way. I grabbed my backpack, went outside. At the supermarket, a crowd had congregated by the check-out aisles. Men with shopping carts, women with grocery bags. A tonne of people. Silence, though. A tense, animated silence. Like nobody was talking because they’d all been talking for a while before that. They’re looking at one another like relatives at a wake waiting to hear the will read—yes, they are all sorry the deceased has passed away, but nobody trusts anyone. What did they get? Why had they come? What for? Why had they come on a Monday morning? Why weren’t they at work, or studying, or taking their kids to school, for goodness’ sake? What was going on, what had I missed?

The security guards’ tense faces. With faces like that, they ought to be guarding serial killers

I tried to think about something else. But what’s there to think about in a supermarket? Shelves. It looked like some of the shelves were empty. No children. It was like people were afraid of going outside with them. The security guards’ tense faces. With faces like that, they ought to be guarding serial killers, not canned goods. It’s odd that I was oblivious to all of this a week ago. It’s odd that I hadn’t noticed anything. Now I’ll go over to the pharmacy, pick up some water, go back home, and then I’ll definitely watch the news. I definitely will. I think the news will be interesting today.

I got to an intersection, then stopped. I was about to go, even though the crosswalk light was red, but, for some reason, I restrained myself. Hold on, I told myself. Don’t move. Wait for the green light. Empty street, bare trees. The endless red eventually turned green. I warily crossed over to the other side. The pharmacy was a block away. Almost there, I reassured myself. Don’t worry, almost there. Huh, the streetlights are on, I noted to myself. Well, it is early spring, and the days are still short, maybe they just decided to keep them on. Everything’s working, everything’s fine, the traffic lights are on. The streetlights are on, the streets are swept. Everything’s fine, don’t panic. You just haven’t been out for a while, you just aren’t used to the normal lights in the city, to the streetlights that are on in the middle of the day. Your eyes’ll get used to it and everything’ll be fine. You’re in the clear.

As I was turning the corner, just about to reach the pharmacy, I spotted some dumpsters. Something compelled me to stop. I stood there and looked at the tin containers overflowing with bags of trash, paper, plastic film, empty bottles, and food packaging. I looked at those containers, mesmerised. It was like I couldn’t even see them. The view down the long springtime street, the dim sky hanging low over the city. The absence of pedestrians. The absence of cars. The absence of birds and planes in the sky overhead. The overall absence of anything living. And most of all, the street without any pedestrians on it looked particularly long. I’d never noticed that before. A long, wide, spotless street. The swept sidewalks, the well-maintained grass, the asphalt licked clean. And then those overflowing dumpsters! Why hasn’t anyone picked up the trash? How come the streets are clean, but the dumpsters are overflowing? When was the last time anyone emptied them?

I dashed over to the dumpsters, began rifling through the trash. I grabbed some plastic bottles of milk. Milk goes bad the quickest. What kind of expiration dates do we have here? The dates on the bottles, yogurts, and prepared food from the supermarket passed a while ago. All of this was bought a long time ago and thrown out a long time ago, too. Judging by the faded stains and the pungent smell, all this stuff has been here for at least a week. At least a week.

In the dumpster’s entrails, under some pizza boxes, I spotted a piece of a newspaper. I pulled on it, and the stack of cardboard boxes collapsed. A weekly with TV listings. For last week. So, the newspaper is two weeks old. Someone bought it two weeks ago so they would know what programmes would be on for the next seven days. My eyes mechanically scanned the listings for last Monday. News, sitcom, news, sitcom, news. I took out my crummy old phone, checked the time again. Two o’clock. Time for the news.

Translated from the Ukrainian by Reilly Costigan-Humes and Isaac Stackhouse Wheeler


The whole story will be published in our German-language magazine: ORDER HERE

Click HERE for chapter 2.

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