Escaping Kherson, a novella - 6. Day Six
29 October 2022 pik
The rugged wooden floor of the half-filled boxcar banks without warning to one side, making Denys’ task of producing a video of Theo and himself a challenge.
“Zhdan here. This is just a brief livestream to let you know, my viewers, a couple of things. One”—he tugs with his left hand, which, because it’s firmly placed on Theo’s shoulder, draws the young man closer to him—“I’ve decided to leave Kherson and to try to make it to safety. And two, world, this is Theo, a fellow citizen of my adoptive city, and I want you to know he’s a very important person to me.”
At these words, Theo’s lips part slightly and he turns his attention from the harsh spotlight of the camera to inspect the profile of the man who had just said them. Unbidden, a simultaneous blush and grin arise.
“And so, for today,” Denys continues, “I thought I’d read you something beautiful. It also has something my posts have lacked: optimism. I know you’ll appreciate hearing this new message.”
At the predetermined signal of a nod, Theo taps the flashlight from his phone. It shines on one of the teenboy’s journal pages, whose notepad is already in the reporter’s hand.
“14 March, 2022 pik
“It’s almost mid-March, and the crocus are beginning to displace the icy ground with their will to live. Soon, green shoots shall appear, and eventually, purple buds will open to catch the rays of springtime sun.
“There is reason for hope, if you follow the logic of the bulbs. And perhaps six months from now, this year’s sun-greedy crocus will have set in store all the sustenance needed to bring a happy, fruitful spring for the next generation.
“Today, looking at them trying to break through, I willed myself to be hopeful as well. If not next year, if not next spring, I have reason to believe the killing will have ended in one of these years I’m granted to see. Then peace will be allowed to pour her bounty forth upon the Earth once more.
“Yes, hope. That’s what’s needed in March 2022, and I willed myself to be hopeful by composing the following short poem.
“Am I allowed to dream one day
Iris and clematis will bloom
As they once did when we could say
‘Peace is the bride and Spring’s the groom.’
“Am I allowed to be okay
And think of a time without gloom,
Welcoming concord in the Spring’s way
With May flowers for every tomb?
“Will absolution come one day
To grow in hatred’s soil and bloom
With enough forgiveness to say
‘Love is the bride when Hope’s the groom?’”
Theo turns off the light.
Denys goes on. “The excerpt I’ve just read is not mine, dear viewers, but that of this remarkable young writer, Theo Antinovich Orlova. Remember his name; he’s going places with his writing, trust me.”
The train car lurches at the beginning of a curve. When the pair have righted themselves, Denys speaks with a bit more urgency.
“Unfortunately, I can’t reveal where we are, faithful subscribers, or where we plan to attempt crossing the frontline, but just in case we don’t make it, I want you all to know we tried. And to know with Theo by my side, I now have something worth living for.”
He leans over and kisses the boy’s cheek.
“So, if there’s no video tomorrow – the 249 day of the war – you’ll know what happened to us, and I ask you to then say a prayer for our immortal souls.”
Denys needs a moment before he’s able to say, “Theo and Zhadan signing off.”
More often than not, love between people is born in the quiet intervals that interrupt their shared moments of laughter, as well as the other occasions of ‘good times.’ But not so in war. For in war, love is born in the loud echo chamber of doubt. Here’s where the questioning of survival, and of the world to come, causes a human heart to seek solace in the laughless understanding of another’s commiseration.
In war, love is born amidst the tears of mutual sorrow. And so it is for Denys and Theo at twenty past three in the morning as the black-clad pair are secreted on a train rumbling its way towards Snihurívka. This town is the end-of-line for Russian-controlled territory and the start of the no-man’s-land frontier of Ukrainian liberation for the Kherson region.
They had just finished livestreaming the video, and although many dangers still lay ahead, the nascent couple had spent their post-rescue hours in the journalist’s home deep in conversation and lovemaking. Through the process, a new commitment had also been born to risk all if it could mean freedom for both on the other side.
And yet, with martial law in effect, and the movement of cars greatly scrutinized at numerous checkpoints, how could the pair ever make it out?
Denys then spoke with his contacts in the Occupation Administration, explaining his new determination to get out of Kherson while still possible, and learned of this north-bound Russian military supply train. The pair then had a busy period securing Denys’ apartment against looting. After deciding to take nothing but the clothes on their backs and a few treasures in their pockets, the couple had a long time waiting for the security of darkness to roll around once more.
Having already put their necks on the line to get on board, they now had to venture their life or captivity to sneak off of it again. Fortunately, Denys had pocketed extra powerpacks and could use his phone’s GPS to track the train’s progress.
The reporter’s thoughts become interrupted by Theo’s motions. Initially appearing to want a break of Denys’ post-filming embrace, the boy instead needs the elbowroom to focus on his phone.
He types: “What are the odds the Ukrainian Air Force accidentally bombs us to smithereens?”
By the kid’s unmistakable smirk, Denys knows Theo’s indulging in his own version of gallows humor. He smiles, retorting, “Hey, now – you’re a bit young to be cracking ‘dad jokes,’ aren’t you?”
Theo shrugs, like the total innocent he is not.
Denys compulsively checks their location on his glowing screen. “We still have about an hour to go.”
“And then?” Theo writes.
“Then, we open the door to this car and look for a soft place to jump.”
“Okay. I’ll try to land on you, Pan Melnyk.”
Denys laughs. He slowly draws his boy’s lips towards his own, whispering, “It’s so sexy when you call me Pan.” The man then kisses the defenseless grin he’s just raised on the youth.
“I love you,” the boy mouths.
“And I you, Theo. We’ll get out of this unscathed; I know we will.”
Theo slowly writes “How?” in all-caps.
A tremor of heat makes its way through the man’s core; should he reveal his confidence stems from his deceased lovers coming to him . . . ? Because they offered sage comfort with their tender advice?
“It’s just . . . I have a good feeling,” the journalist says earnestly while still not being entirely forthcoming. “I believe things will work out for us.”
Not having the intended effect, Denys has to watch as his words of hopeful confidence cause Theo to pull back from him – both physically and emotionally.
“What is it, Theo?” The man reassuringly relays, “You know you can tell me anything, don’t you?”
The kid takes his time, but eventually nods.
“Then, if you want to and are ready, I’m here to listen.”
“Maybe,” Theo writes, “I need to say sorry for being unsure about you when we got into our first heated argument—”
“Which one was that?”
Theo makes a sour, ‘How soon they forget!’ face. “Remember, back when you told me to publish my journals—”
“Oh, yeah, but—”
Theo shakes his head, and Denys stays quiet. The young man taps out: “I need to say sorry. I’m the one who jumped to conclusions and thought you cared more about my pages of notes than me.”
“No – Theo, you don’t need to apologize. In fact, that turned out to be an important conversation for me.”
“Oh, yes? How?”
Denys comes ever closer to pulling down the notion he’d only recently shelved. “Because you made me question things. Question if I was – like you said – more interested in ‘the story’ of Kherson than actually living through its liberation. You helped me, little star, see more clearly. You and – oh, you and—”
“Who?” Theo types with a half-grin. His beautiful, expectant eyes opening wide on Denys.
“Shit. Promise not to think less of me . . . . ”
Theo raises two fingers in pledge of fidelity.
“Well, it was you and Nadiya; you, Nadiya and Fedir.”
The boy puzzles a moment.
Denys continues, “I saw them, or dreamed them. I don’t know which. They came to me one by one with messages. Things I needed to hear.”
Amazed, Theo writes, “What did they tell you?”
“That I must be strong for another. It was almost as if they were telling me to open my eyes and see you. To see how much I was growing to care about you, rabbit. To realize something very simple; very important. That I had someone to live for, to protect, to keep safe; to love. You.”
The young man strokes his lower lip with his thumb. Pensive gesture, but brief, he then guides his partner in for a kiss. What else need Theo say?
Actually, Theo too has a certain confession he’s choosing to keep in reserve, but doubts now it can be contained for very much longer.
Yet, it will have to wait, for as the pair part from their bussing, a clear sign of sadness washes over Denys’ face.
Theo tenderly signs “What,” mouthing it at the same time.
“Oh, thinking of Nadiya and Fedir does things to me, Theo.” Denys takes a cleansing breath. “I don’t know what to do with my guilt. I can’t shake the feeling they are dead because of me.”
The boy types: “No; no; no—”
“Listen to me, Theo. The day of the demonstration in Liberty Square, as a reporter, I was out there not to protest, as my partners were, but to stand back and ‘document.’
“When the shit went down, it was Fedir who physically pushed me back, out of harm’s way as the fucking FSB rolled up and started taking people off the street.
“I know I could have done more – should have done more – to help shield them.”
Theo writes: “Denys, you have survivor’s guilt. I know about that too. I feel it with my Rudi, even though there’s nothing I could have done to help him in the Azovstal Steel Plant—” Theo can’t continue.
“Yes, Theo. Maybe, just maybe, we’re meant to help one another be less angry inside. Stop blaming ourselves and thinking it should have been us instead.”
Theo wipes the tears from Denys’ cheek, nodding tender agreement. Somehow, in this action, he gains new confidence and writes out: “I think there’s something else I should let you know.”
“If you think it’s something I should hear, then yes.”
“Do you remember that evening I asked you about Fedir? About if you regarded him the same as Nadiya?”
“Yes, I remember.”
“Well, I did it because I wasn’t – still am not – clear on your, you know, orientation.”
“I mean, see, I admired the closeness of the relationship you described, but wondered if you could ever have it with, a man, alone.”
“It’s true. I didn’t grow up with thoughts of ever marrying a guy, but I fell utterly in love with Fedir and sex with him was the most sincere, beautiful thing in the world. With Nadiya, it was the same. With the three of us, beyond perfect.”
“I wanted that with my Rudi – to build a life with him, on our own, and with no one else. So, can you truly commit to me, Denys, with no girl in the picture?”
Theo’s heartbreaking honesty causes Denys to hug the youth. “Totally. With you, Theo, absolutely.”
Eventually, Theo is able to write: “Good, because when you told me how you were Fedir’s ‘boy,’ I had a strong reaction.”
Denys chuckles. “I noticed.”
“Truth is, Denys, at that exact moment, that’s what I wanted for me. There was nothing in the world I wanted more than to be your ‘boy’ body and soul. For you to love me as Fedir loved you.”
Speechless, Denys simply pulls the young man’s forehead back to him. He kisses the curls there, more anxious than ever to make it out of the warzone alive.
Alive with Theo.
v v v v
As murky light first begins to stir over the eastern horizon with a dawn yet to be, Denys’ GPS alerts them it’s time to jump from the train.
Slowing to pass over a patch of switch crossings, the pair see their chance and land with shoulder-rolls down a grassy ditch without water in it.
Hunkering low, they wait until the taillights of the supply train are completely out of sight around a bend in the tracks up ahead.
Now they can rise and follow the course of the ditch, mostly concealed by it. This is farm country, and by following the waterways, they can remain nearly invisible. These passages have embankments, and the pair cling to these as the irrigation channels grow larger in size.
Route mapped out, they travel in this manner for a few miles, with the artificial watercourses giving way to natural streams. This is what they want, for here, the fields step back and allow wooded hollows to increase in size and density.
Gradually, they find themselves in a shadowy wood, light growing from the horizon on the eastern edge.
Walking through thickets, with low trees all around now, the lack of any detectable trail takes the breath and enthusiasm for quick escape out of the hikers. The slippery features of the autumn moisture on the groundcover takes its toll.
Trudging on, Theo begins to fall and muddy himself. But each time, Denys silently helps him up and checks to see if any of the young man’s notepads fell out of the kid’s sweatshirt pockets.
Eventually, the composition of the woodlands shift to taller, deciduous trees completely devoid of leaves. The couple can see farther into their surroundings now, but still no clear trails – or indeed, human activity – become manifest.
But all of a sudden, movement and the soft tones of a hushed voice catch the reporter’s attention.
Denys stops Theo’s progress with a hand across the young man’s chest; the boy hadn’t heard the noises.
Both crouch low and peer into a clearing. In it, a man is on his cellphone, pacing in that distracted way one does when concentrating on what’s being said on the other end of the receiver.
Denys shifts his view a little to see better through the undergrowth. The person up ahead appears more like a random guy than a hostile from either side. Although the stranger’s top half is clothed in a camouflage jacket with a blue and gold patch on his right shoulder, his lower limbs stride about in faded, well-worn blue jeans. The man’s also unarmed.
Confirming opinions with nods, both Denys and Theo think ‘the guy’ must be all right. They stand and make their way to him.
Out in the clearing with him now, the camo dude has stopped his pacing, preferring to stand with a boot lifted onto a stump, his back turned to the approaching civilians.
“Um – excuse me,” Denys says once man and teenboy get to within two meters of the person.
He spins around, clearly startled and defensive. “Hold the line,” he says into his phone before lowering it.
“Sorry to trouble you,” says Denys, “but can you tell us how to get to the road to Mykolayiv from here? We’re a bit lost.”
Camo-coat man looks the disheveled pair over and quickly loses his off-putting manner. In fact, he grins. “Got lost, did you?”
As he’d asked Theo, the young man nods enthusiastically.
“Yes,” says Denys, “we’ve just come from Kherson, and we’re not familiar with this area.”
The listening man raises an eyebrow at the peculiar intelligence that his unannounced visitors had ‘just come from Kherson.’ Clearly he’d like to know how, but says nothing along these lines. Instead, the man uses his phone and gestures to his left. “See that path over there, on the far side? Take it about a hundred meters and you’ll find what you’re looking for.”
Confirming where the trailhead starts, Denys and Theo smile warmly and offer sincere thanks.
They head off, towards the way indicated, and notice the man resume talking on his phone. They also take note of how the man’s eyes never leave them for a second now.
Nevertheless, the pair start walking the path through the woods. Soon both begin to feel something is off. It’s much too quiet; unaccountably quiet. Man and boy have the hair on the back of their necks stand up.
With no warning whatsoever, the blue-jeans-wearing man from the clearing runs past them. Now in front of them, he repeatedly shouts “Intruders!”
Startled, Denys and Theo cease their forward momentum, and within the next few seconds, the sound of running boots arises all around them.
Soon they are looking down the barrels of AK-74s, surrounded by combat troops. One uniformed man yells at them, “Hands!”
The pair show their hands immediately.
As the circle of soldiers grows tighter, the same one as before shouts, “Knees! Get on ‘em, now!”
Man and boy kneel on the muddy dirt of the trail. Within the blink of an eye, rough hands from behind the civilians hood them in black sackcloth. Then they’re kicked forward – made to lie on the ground – before being forcibly handcuffed.
Neither offer any resistance, yet neither anticipate any good can come from being detained in this manner.
v v v v
Ninety agonizing minutes later, their interrogation begins.
Shackled hand and foot to a chair, Denys suddenly has his hood yanked off. The low, intense morning light from outside the tent he’s in stings his eyes. He squints, trying to get his bearings.
A second whooshing sound draws his attention to his right. Theo’s hood had also just been pulled off, and Denys’ heart soars to see the boy unharmed. He’s also handcuffed to a chair.
A figure rises. He’d been sitting on the corner of a desk, and Denys instantly assumes this must be the officer in charge. He steps forward from the shadows, revealing a Ukrainian flag on his uniformed shoulder.
Theo sees it too, and the guys let out a controlled sigh of relief; up to this precise moment, neither knew if the Orcs had captured them or not.
Several other soldiers move within the tent as if drawing in closer to protect their CO. Each of these has his handgun drawn.
The interrogating officer speaks to his men first. “Now; now. Put your arms away, gentlemen. We don’t want our ‘visitors’ to get the wrong impression of the Armed Forces of Ukraine, do we?”
Each soldier snickers in turn and secures his sidearm in its holster. However, the final one, the biggest, toughest-looking mug amongst them, does not. Instead, he pulls out a cloth and makes a leisurely show of polishing the barrel right next to Theo’s temple. Playing ‘bad cop’ to the interrogator’s ‘voice of reason,’ this soldier loudly speaks to Denys over the kid’s head. “You’re Russian conscript spies, huh?”
He suddenly barks, making the boy jump, “Admit it!”
“Shit!” exclaims Denys. “We’re no such things. We’re Ukrainians. We left Kherson to escape back over the frontlines, to our homeland and freedom.”
The officer resumes his sitting on the desk. Now he makes a show of flipping through Theo’s confiscated notepads.
The hostile soldier comes around to the front of Denys. “You are Russian conscripts. The rules of war allow me to execute you right now, here on the spot, as soldier spies in civilian clothes.”
“My name is Denys Zhdanovich Melnyk, born in the Dnipropetrovs’ka Region, and residing in Kherson for the last nine years. My friend here, Theodor Antinovich Orlova, was born and raised in Kherson. We have no ties to the Russian occupiers whatsoever.”
Oddly, one of the background guards seems to react to what the reporter’s just said more than the others. This man distractedly pulls out his phone—
The loudmouth soldier squats down and leers straight into Denys’ eyes. “That story stinks like bullshit to me.”
“All right, Buldoh,” the officer says at last.
As the ‘bulldog’ rises and retreats to a rear position, the man in charge strides up to Theo with one of the young man’s notebooks.
“You can see, the both of you, why my man thinks you are spies. You waltz up on our position with no money, no bags, no nothing. Except – except these detailed notes on . . . well, on everything.”
The officer wags it below Theo’s nose, his motions threatening to rip the pages. “Well, explain yourself!”
“The young man,” Denys tries to lay out calmly, “is a writer. If you look at the details, all the information relates to how the Orcs brutalize the citizens of Kherson. That’s all.”
Buldoh suddenly shouts, “Let the punk speak for himself, asshole. The officer asked the boy, not you.”
Heartrate accelerating, Denys swallows down his resentment. It’s imperative he do so; Theo’s safety is at risk.
The interrogation officer asks the kid, “Well? What do you have to say for yourself?”
“He can’t talk—” says Denys.
The teenboy, eyes turned on those of the officer, agrees with the journalist by first nodding, then shaking his head, confused all at once which action best supports his partner’s statement.
Denys continues. “—So if you want him to answer your questions, you’ll have to untie him so he can use pen and paper.”
The bulldog soldier stalks around to the front of Denys again. “You seem to know a lot about him. If he’s not a Russian mobik, then who is he – to you?”
“He’s just a high school kid, that’s all. His folks are in Romania, and I’m trying to get him to Mykolayiv so he can join them eventually.” Denys hopes his white lie concerning the final part of his statement gets buried in the general truthfulness of the rest.
The officer returns to the desk. He slams the notepad down in frustration. “Let’s try this again. Who are you, and what are you doing here?!”
Denys inhales deeply. “Like I said, my name is Denys Zhdanovich Melnyk, reporter. And he is Theodor Antinovich Orlova, high school student, at least before the war. We have both escaped Russian occupation in Kherson and would like to get to Mykolayiv. We—”
“It is him!”
Everyone in the tent needs to look around to see who had just said this.
It’s the soldier who’s retrieved his phone. He walks up to the officer with it, holding it out for viewing.
Standing, the bulldog joins them, and within the next few seconds, Denys hears his own voice.
“The tragedy of Kherson has yet to be written, dear viewers. I’ve come to Saint Catherine’s Cathedral to talk about serious things; behind me is weighty history, Ukrainian history of the type our enemies wish to destroy.”
“This is the owner of Zhadan’s POV,” says the soldier with the phone. “He’s got a couple million followers for his daily Kherson updates on Telegram.”
Now the other men show recognition as well. They relax all of a sudden.
“And he’s posted about the boy too, just this morning. They’re both who they say they are, sir. In fact”—the soldier grows proud—“Zhadan is a true Ukrainian hero, spreading the news of our plight around the globe.”
After a nod from the presiding officer, Buldoh goes and unlocks the handcuffs.
The man in charge tells them, “Welcome home. Heróyam sláva!”
Denys stands, helping Theo do the same. He replies, “Thanks. Glory to Ukraine!”
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