Dima sat, watching the fish in its final throes at the bottom of the boat. A monstrous catfish that had taken all his strength to haul out, gasping for air, clinging onto life for as long as possible. Now there they were, not so different from each other.
The river was teeming with these fish. He’d heard them called mutants by adventurous fishermen who crossed into the zone, but Dima didn’t believe any of that. After the town was evacuated, the fish had been left to grow, and he saw the daily advance of plants over the contaminated soil, moving to invade and encroach, to make abandoned concrete and brickwork their own.
The fish had stilled. Dima sighed and picked up his knife, squatted down and brought the point to its soft belly, then he washed the insides with the clear river water, aware of the silent killer permeating the flesh he touched, mingling with the water he was using, soaking into the fabric of the boat he was sitting in, lurking within his own body.
He washed the final remnants of gut from his hands by rubbing them in the cool water. He would take the fish home and cook it, keep a small portion for himself and leave the rest in the old grocery store on the corner, where the selfsettlers had agreed to leave surplus food; they roamed this ghost town that had once been so full of promise.
Memories flittered by, of children running barefoot outside, of military men appearing in protective gear and the streets being washed with cleaning fluid. Until they were given two hours to pack important papers and essentials, enough to last them three days. What must have been thousands of buses appeared and the town was emptied in just two hours. The time he spent sharing a flat with other evacuees outside Kyiv were the darkest cloud in his mind. Why had he survived?
Dima raised himself up in the boat and grabbed the oars. He paused for a moment. Against the horizon loomed the ill-fated plant with its dying reactor entombed in a concrete and steal sarcophagus. It was meant to limit radiation. Dima thought that the view from the boat on the river, must be just as good as the view was that night on the bridge, where the people of the town came out to watch the fireworks. And how spectacular the rainbow-coloured flames of the burning graphite nuclear core must have looked – the flames higher than the towering smoke stack.
Rowing back to shore was heavier with the fish in the boat. As he rowed he thought that perhaps it had been worth it for those people. Perhaps the beauty of the display was such that they died happy. He liked to think that way, of his wife and daughter, that night, in the crowd on the bridge.
When Dima reached the river bank, he continued sitting for a while. The sickness he played host to was sapping his strength. He rested his head in his hands, closed his eyes and listened to the clucking of the water against the boat. So soothing! A familiar sound, as if nothing had really changed.
Dima dragged the boat up on the beach until it was positioned by the diamond-shaped warning sign where the water never reached. He bent down to haul his catch out and place it over his shoulder. The cold eyes of the fish stared back at him.
The authorities had tried to make them all leave. They said it was dangerous to stay. But Dima refused to become another victim, when to stay meant a few more weeks living in the lightest place of his heart.