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.
Fraughtfully turns Festive this December with a seasonal bookdrop at Café and Salvage in Hove, UK. The theme is ice, snow, winter and Christmas. Drop in and get yourself some holiday reading courtesy Fraughtfully. These cards will also be left in books around town. If you find one, take a picture of where you found it and leave a comment below. Let us know what you’re reading.
Against the pearly whiteness of a cinematic queen,
I shimmered with an enticing and legendary sheen,
surreptitiously a star in many scintillating scenes,
until recklessly ravaged by ruthless go-betweens.
I was purveyed to the palms of a pretty maid,
in return for favours of a much darker shade,
but malice made the maiden’s marvel fade
and so began my wanders through the starless trade.
I saw her casing crack and flap away in haste,
a chipped bauble was she, and half-crazed.
On shabby velvet I lay with others gone to waste,
yet, too expensive for those without any taste.
“This ere’ – a buckle for the missus Sunday shoes!
I was fondled by filthy fingers declaring: “Two!”
The pawn-broker raised his eyes, sapphire blue,
shook his hardened head and stared him through.
Awhile they stood their ground, then settled for three.
I faded further, as I reflected on my dented fee.
The wife: gap-toothed and greedy-grinned, glaring with glee.
My view: the flouncing flaccid flesh of an overweight knee.
Shod was she, and I – shoe-riding mile after mile,
through gutters of slop with waste running vile.
Splashing through puddles, a yellowish green bile,
a lady dressed in best, ‘cause the fish-wife had style.
She gained a stone and I lost two – then four.
Now a piece of worthless scrap forever more,
I thought as I came undone and fell to the floor.
Groping the ground, she wailed and swore!
Trod on and trampled by countless, yet noticed by none,
until the precious hands of a child turned me round.
I mingled with the cluster of other treasures she’d found,
of illustrious backgrounds that would truly astound!
Still much in love with her street urchin souvenirs,
her workshop sparkled below crystal chandeliers.
She beheld me with onyx pupils, dilated as in fear,
and whispered excited: “A necklace, my dear?”
After many long years being treated like trash,
once again I catch the eye of every amber flash,
where I sit in pride of place, uniquely re-hashed,
and reflect over a century of contrasts’ clashed.