Giving voice to a frontline medic and a soldier and bridging their life-and-death experiences, Olha Kryshtopa’s short story also offers a glimpse into the future after Ukraine’s victory. The translator Inga Kononenko praises the author’s ‘unhurried storytelling with the parenthetic collocations’ which keeps the reader engaged, as well as the profound humanity of the story.
‘So, you’re asking what I would say to my grandkids about this war someday?’ Olenka turned her grubby face to me.
‘Some day later, when I tell my blue-eyed grandkids about this war, I will definitely bring up Pavlyk.
Guys like him never go down in history. Politicians who did not flee and made good speeches to the world are remembered when it’s all over. And schoolbooks will certainly and deservedly mention generals and a handful of combat leaders.
But I would talk about Pavlyk. One day, hopefully, I’m going to have grandkids with deep blue eyes, and I’ll be that crazy old biddy who chain-smokes instead of baking pies and nags her daughter on the phone, “Angela, why the heck would I need that water, Angela, I’m not opening the door for you like that; get me a Chilean dry red and a Camembert, Angela, or I’m not opening the door for you!”
Well, someday I will have those blue-eyed grandkids after all, and they will ask me who won that freaking war. And I’ll tell them: in that holy war, it was the one who overcame himself and rose from the dead. And that was Pavlyk.
He didn’t give his life for his homeland; he just remained among the living when he died.
I will tell them about Pavlyk, who lived in Kharkiv, coded for a pharma company in Canada, and loved Oksana. The same Pavlyk who, on 25 February, literally carried totally stiffened and numb Oksana out of his split-level condo in Saltivka that was being shelled like no other suburb in the city, only taking their IDs, Oksana’s cat, and a Mavic drone that he bought to film Oksana at the Syvash salinas and in the Bakota hills.
He drove Oksana across the country, to Lviv, giving her hot water to sip because it was all her stomach could manage. He also fed her cat jerky sticks that could still be bought at gas stations. And the mere thought that he could die there and then was freaking him out so bad his toes cramped, yet he kept telling Oksana all the way about Kraków and what a theatre they’ve got there.
Once Oksana started eating a week later at her aunt’s Lviv place, Pavlyk went to the recruiting office. They looked at him, asked him about his combat experience if any, took down his details, and told him to wait for a call.
After the first bombs dropped in Lviv, Pavlyk packed Oksana’s stuff, put her on a bus, and sent her off to Poland, where her mum, who’d been living and working there for fifteen years, was waiting for her and her cat.
He then went back to the recruiting office, sweated the line out, got another go-home-and-wait-we’ll-call-you for an answer, and returned to Oksana’s aunt. A friend of a friend of a friend knew a volunteer battalion commander who agreed to meet and talk. Pavlyk told him: “I have a Mavic and I know how to use it. I bought all my gear back in early February; I’m an experienced mountain hiker, and I want to kill. Take me to war”.
I will speak to my blue-eyed grandchildren about Pavlyk, though it will actually be about the war.
I will tell them how Pavlyk spent two months training to become a soldier before going on to liberate, first, Kharkiv region, and then, Bakhmut, where the fighting was the heaviest. I will talk about how he had been freezing there and how he mourned his brothers-in-arms. But first and foremost, I will tell them how Pavlyk kept calling Oksana at every chance he had and how he wrote to her. I will tell them that he was looking at Oksana’s picture as he fell asleep in the trenches.
And then my story will turn to how Oksana called him one day and said that she would no longer write to him because she now had Adam, and they had a family and would have a son, and he, Pavlyk, must take care, okay?
I will be telling my blue-eyed grandchildren at length how Pavlyk died inside.
He sat down under a tree, I will tell them, put his AK in his lap, and stared at it for a long time.
I will be speaking about this Pavlyk’s staring at his Kalashnikov for 164 minutes and 17 seconds because that was how long he stared at it. I will tell them how Pavlyk’s blue eyes were turning black, how his throat was burning, and how he hated the war—and himself in that war.
What other thing I’m going to tell my grandkids is how, 164 minutes and 17 seconds after Oksana’s call, his commander walked up to him. And I will tell them how Pavlyk’s commander took the AK from his hands.
One thing I can’t tell, though, is what the commander said to Pavlyk. Maybe he said nothing. Maybe he, too, stared at that AK with his own throat burning. I don’t know what he said to him. What could he say? Pavlyk’s commander, he had been fighting for a long time, when, in early March, his wife took their son and left for Rostov in Russia. What was there he could say to Pavlyk?
All I know for sure, and that’s what I will tell my blue-eyed grandkids, is that Pavlyk died that day. And the dead cannot fight, only the living can. A dead Pavlyk would not save anyone. Not even himself.
And I will tell my grandchildren what I thought, when a month after Oksana’s call, he was lying wounded, Code 300, under a high-rise. “Code Two Hundred”, I thought then. Killed in action.
He didn’t even bother to apply a tourniquet because he had already died a month ago after Oksana called him.
And when I staunched his wound and hauled him piggyback to the medevac vehicle, he was just hanging there, dead weight, because he had already been dead for a month anyway, and the dead don’t want to live.
I will tell my grandchildren how strong I was then. I was trying to get through to him, “You can’t do this to me, you shouldn’t do this to me, I can’t take it, come back, bitch, what the fuck?”
“I need you like I need to breathe. If you die here, I’ll die with you, and if I die, who’s going to pull out all you hulks, what are you going to do without me and I without you all; and all the others, what will they do without all of us, look, I know you’re a goner, but I’m alive, I need you to live, too, to be alive, alive, alive, alive a live a live a live…”
That’s what I kept whispering over Pavlyk, who had been dead for a month and was wounded by a sniper twenty minutes ago.
And I’ll tell them how he was looking at me, and how his eyes, black for a month, turned first grey and then became the colour of the sunny winter sky he was staring at while I dragged him to the medevac.
I will tell my grandchildren with eyes of the same deep blue how Pavlyk came back from the dead, and how I came back with him and kept coming back with each and every one I carried to our medevacs.
And that’s all I’ll have to say to my grandkids about this war’.
Olenka hugged her knees resting her chin on them and fell silent. I was silent too. Then she shot me a look and a smile, and finished on a cheerful note:
‘And then Pavlo Petrovych, my blue-eyed grandbabies’ gramp, will walk into the room and say: “Not tired of that rinse-repeating yet? Let’s go to Crimea. I’ll launch our Mavic-234, and we’ll make some cool shots of how the sun sinks into Laspi Bay”’.
[Read in Ukrainian here].
Image: Ivan Hubenko, Prorizna, 2021, oil on canvas, detail.
Become a supporter and help us publish future issues of the London Ukrainian Review.