Grey Bees: Andrey Kurkov’s tale of quiet resilience amid war in Ukraine

Grey Bees: Andrey Kurkov's tale of quiet resilience amid war in Ukraine
Image: via Pixabay

In this extract from the forthcoming English version of the novel Grey Bees, translated by Boris Dralyuk, Russian-language Ukrainian author Kurkov tells the story of one of the last two inhabitants in a Ukrainian village devastated by war, and his obsessive care for his bees, which keeps him going.

18 March 2020
Text: Andrey Kurkov

1.

Sergey Sergeyich was roused by the cold air at about three in the morning. The potbelly stove he’d cobbled together in imitation of a picture in Cozy Cottage magazine, with its little glass door and two burners, had ceased to give off any warmth. The two tin buckets that stood by its side were empty. He lowered his hand into the one nearest him and his fingers hit coal dust.

“All right,” he groaned sleepily, pulled on his pants, slid his feet into the slippers he’d fashioned out of an old pair of felt boots, threw on his sheepskin coat, grabbed the buckets, and went out into the yard.

He stopped behind the shed in front of a pile of coal and his eyes landed on the shovel – it was much brighter out here than it was inside the house. Lumps of coal poured down, thumping against the bottoms of the buckets. Soon the bottoms were covered with coal, the echoing thumps died away, and the rest of the lumps fell in silence.

Somewhere far off a cannon sounded. Half a minute later there was another blast, which seemed to come from the opposite direction.

“Fools can’t get to sleep… Probably just warming their hands,” Sergeyich grunted.

Then he returned to the darkness of the house and lit a candle. Its warm, pleasant, honeyed scent hit his nose, and his ears were soothed by the familiar, quiet ticking of the alarm clock on the narrow wooden windowsill.

“The village had been awful quiet lately.”

There was still a bit of heat inside the stove’s belly, but not enough to get the frosty coal going without the help of wood chips and paper. Eventually, after the long bluish tongues of flame began to lick at the smoke-stained glass, the master of the house stepped out into the yard again. The sound of far-off bombardment, which was almost inaudible inside the house, now reached Sergeyich’s ears from the east. But soon another, more proximate sound drew his attention. He listened close and heard a car driving along a nearby street. It drove some distance, then stopped.

There were only two streets in the village – one named after Lenin, the other after Taras Shevchenko – and also Ivan Michurin Lane. Sergeyich himself lived on Lenin, in less than proud isolation. This meant that the car had been driving down Shevchenko. There, too, only one person was left – Pashka Khmelenko, who’d retired early, like Sergeyich. The two men were almost exactly the same age and had been enemies from their very first days at school. Pashka’s garden looked out onto Horlivka, so he was one street closer to Donetsk than Sergeyich. Sergeyich’s garden faced the other direction, towards Sloviansk.

The garden rolled down to a field, which first dipped then rose up towards Zhdanivka. You couldn’t actually see Zhdanivka from the garden – it lay hidden behind a hump. But you could sometimes hear the Ukrainian army, which had burrowed dugouts and trenches into that hump. And even when you couldn’t hear the army, Sergeyich was always aware of its presence. It sat in its dugouts and trenches, to the left of the forest plantation and the dirt road along which tractors and lorries used to drive. The army had been there for three years now, while the local lads, together with the Russian military international, had been drinking tea and vodka in their dugouts beyond Pashka’s street and its gardens, beyond the remnants of the old apricot grove that had been planted back in Soviet times, and beyond another field that the war had robbed of its workers, like the field that lay between Sergeyich’s garden and Zhdanivka.

The village had been awful quiet lately. It had been quiet for two whole weeks. Not a shot fired. Had they tired themselves out? Were they saving their shells and bullets for later? Or maybe they didn’t want to disturb the last two residents of Little Starhorodivka, who were clinging to their homesteads more tenaciously than a dog clings to its favorite bone. Everyone else in Little Starhorodivka wanted to leave when the fighting had just begun.

And so they left – because they feared for their lives more than they feared for their property, and the stronger fear had won out. But the war hadn’t made Sergeyich fear for his life. It had only made him confused and suddenly indifferent to everything around him. It was as if he had lost all feeling, all his senses, except for one: the sense of responsibility. And this sense, which could make him worry terribly at any hour of the day, was focused entirely on one object: his bees. But now the bees were wintering. The roofs and combs of the hives were lined with felt on the inside, and their thick walls were covered with sheets of metal. Although the hives were in the shed, a dumb stray shell could fly in from either side. Its shrapnel would first cut into the metal – but then maybe it wouldn’t have the strength to punch through the wooden walls and be the death of the bees?

Image: Annie Spratt via Unsplash

2.

Pashka showed up at Sergeyich’s at noon. The master of the house had just emptied the second bucket of coal into the stove and put the kettle on. The plan was to have some tea alone, but it didn’t pan out.

Before letting his uninvited guest into the house, Sergeyich placed a broom in front of the “safety” ax by the door. You never know – Pashka might have a pistol or a Kalashnikov for self-defense. He’d see the ax and break out that grin of his, as if to say that Sergeyich was a fool. But the ax was all Sergeyich had to protect himself. Nothing else. He put it under his bed every night, which is why he sometimes managed to sleep so calm and deep. Not always, of course.

Sergeyich opened the door for Pashka and let out a not very friendly grunt. This grunt was spurred by Sergeyich’s thoughts – thoughts that had heaped a mountain of resentments on his neighbor from Shevchenko Street. It seemed the statute of limitations on these resentments would never run out. Sergeyich’s thoughts reminded him of the mean tricks Pashka used to play, of how he used to fight dirty and tattle to their teachers, of how he never let Sergeyich crib from him during exams. You’d think that after forty years Sergeyich might forgive and forget. Forgive? Maybe. But how could he forget? There were seven girls in their class and only two boys – himself and Pashka – and that meant Sergeyich had never had a friend in school, only an enemy. “Enemy” was too harsh a word, of course. In Ukrainian one could say “vrazhenyatko” – what you might call a “frenemy.” That was more like it. Pashka was a harmless little enemy, the kind no one fears.

“It was as if he had lost all feeling, all his senses, except for one: the sense of responsibility for his bees.”

“How goes it, Greyich?” Pashka greeted Sergeyich, a little tensely, as he crossed the threshold. “You know they turned on the electricity last night,” he said, casting a glance at the broom to see whether he might use it to brush the snow off his boots.

He picked up the broom, saw the ax, and his lips twisted into that grin of his.

“Liar,” Sergeyich responded calmly. “If they had, I would’ve woken up. I keep all my lights switched on, so I can’t miss it.”

“You probably slept right through it – hell, you could sleep through a bomb blast. And they only turned it on for half an hour. Look,” he held out his mobile phone. “It’s fully charged! You wanna call someone?”

“Got no one to call,” Sergeyich said, not looking at the phone. “Want some tea?”

“Where’d you get tea from?”

“Where? From the Protestants.”

“I’ll be damned,” Pashka said. “Mine’s long gone.”

They sat down at Sergeyich’s little table. Pashka’s back was to the stove and its tall metal pipe, which radiated warmth.

“Why’s the tea so weak?” the guest grumbled, looking into his cup. And then, in a different, more affable voice, added: “Got anything to eat?”

Anger showed in Sergeyich’s eyes.

“They don’t bring me humanitarian aid at night…”

“Me neither.”

“So what do they bring you, then?”

“Nothing!”

Sergeyich grunted and sipped his tea.

“So no one came to see you last night?”

“You saw…?”

“Yep. Went out to get coal.”

“Ah. Well, what you saw were our boys,” Pashka nodded. “On reconnaissance.”

“So what were they reconnoitering for?”

“For dirty Ukes…”

“That so?” Sergeyich stared directly into Pashka’s shifty eyes.

Pashka gave up right away, as if his back were to the wall.

“I lied,” he confessed. “Just some guys – said they were from Horlivka. Offered me an Audi for three hundred bucks. No papers.”

“D’you buy it?” Sergeyich grinned.

“What, you take me for a moron?” Pashka shook his head. “Think I don’t know how this stuff goes down? I turn around to get the money and they stick a knife in my back.”

“So why didn’t they come round to my place?”

“I told them I was the only one left. Besides, you can’t drive from Lenin to Shevchenko anymore. There’s that big crater by the Mitkov place, where the shell landed. Only a tank could make it over.”

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Sergeyitch didn’t respond. He just stared at Pashka’s devious countenance, which would have suited an aged pickpocket – one who’d grown fearful and jumpy after countless arrests and beatings. He stared at Pashka, who at forty-nine looked a full ten years older than Sergeyich. Was it his earthy complexion? His ragged cheeks? It’s as if he’d been shaving with a dull razor all his life. Sergeyich stared at him and thought: if they hadn’t wound up alone in the village, he would have never have talked to him again. They would have gone on living their parallel lives on their parallel streets, Sergeyich on Lenin, Pashka on Shevchenko. And they wouldn’t have exchanged a single word – if it hadn’t been for the war.

“Been a long time since I heard shooting,” the guest sighed. “But around Hatne, you know, they used to fire the big guns only at night – but now they’re firing in the daytime, too. Listen,” Pashka tilted his head forward a bit, “if our boys ask you to do something – will you do it?”

“Who are ‘our boys’?” Sergeyich asked, irritably.

“Stop playing the fool. Our boys – in Donetsk.”

“‘My’ boys are in my shed. I don’t have any others. You’re not exactly ‘mine,’ either.”

“Oh, cut it out. What’s the matter, didn’t get enough sleep?” Pashka twisted his lips to express his displeasure. “Or did your bees freeze their stingers off, so now you’re taking it out on me?”

“I’ll give you freeze…” Sergeyich’s voice showed that his threat wasn’t empty. “You shut your mouth about my bees…”

“Hey, don’t get me wrong, I’ve got nothing but respect for your bees – I’m just worried!” Pashka backpedalled, hurrying to cut Sergeyich off. “I just can’t understand how they survive the winter. Don’t they get cold in the shed? I’d croak after one night.”

“As long as the shed’s in one piece, they’re fine,” Sergeyich said, softening his tone. “I keep an eye on them, check in every day.”

“Tell me, how do they sleep in those hives?” asked Pashka. “Like people?”

“Just like people. Each bee in its little bed.”

“But you’re not heating the shed, are you?”

Forgive? Maybe. But how could he forget?

“They don’t need it. Inside the hives, it’s thirty-seven degrees. They keep themselves warm.”

Once the conversation shifted in an apian direction, it grew more amiable. Pashka felt he should leave while the going was good. This way, they might even manage to bid each other farewell, unlike the last time, when Sergeyich sent him packing with a few choice words. But then Pashka thought of one more question.

“Say, have you thought about your pension?”

“What’s there to think about?” Sergeyich shrugged. “When the war ends, the postwoman will bring me three years’ worth of checks. That’ll be the life!”

Pasha grinned. He wanted to needle his host, but managed to restrain himself.

Before Pashka went out the door, his eyes met Sergeyich’s one more time.

“Listen, while it’s charged…” He held out his mobile phone again. “Maybe you ought to give your Vitalina a call?”

“‘My’ Vitalina? She hasn’t been ‘mine’ for six years. No.”

“What about your daughter?”

“Just go. I told you, I’ve got no one to call.”

Anti-terrorist operation in east Ukraine. Image: Volodymir Vovkogon

3.

“What could that be?” Sergeyich wondered aloud.

He stood on the edge of his vegetable garden, facing a white field that sloped down like a smooth, wide tongue and then, just as gradually, rose up towards Zhdanivka. There, on the snowy horizon, lay the hidden fortifications of the Ukrainian troops. Sergeyich couldn’t see them from where he stood. They were far away, and, in any case, his vision left much to be desired. To the right of him, sloping gently upward in the same direction, ran a sometimes-thick, sometimes-sparse windbreak of trees. Actually, the windbreak only began to rise at the turn towards Zhdanivka. Up to that point, the trees were planted in a straight line along the dirt road, which was now peacefully blanketed with snow, seeing as no one had driven down it since the start of the conflict. Before the spring of 2014, you could take that road all the way to Svitle or Kalynivka.

It was usually Sergey Sergeyich’s feet, not his thoughts that would bring him out to the edge of the garden. He’d often wander the yard, surveying his property. First he’d peek into the shed, to check on the bees, then into the ramshackle garage, to check on his old green Lada station wagon. Then he’d walk over to his heap of long-flame coal, which grew smaller every night but still gave him confidence in a heated tomorrow and day after tomorrow. Sometimes his feet might bring him into the orchard, and then he would pause by the hibernating apple and apricot trees. And sometimes, though less often, he’d find himself on the very edge of the garden, with the snow’s endless crust crunching and crumbling beneath his feet. Here his boots never sank very deep, because the winter wind always rolled the snow down into the field, towards the dip and turn in the road. There was never much snow left on higher ground – like here in Sergeyich’s garden, for instance.

It was almost noon, high time to head back to the house, but that spot on the field, on the rising slope towards Zhdanivka and the Ukrainian trenches, puzzled Sergeyich and wouldn’t let him go. A couple of days earlier, the last time he’d gone out to the edge of the garden, the snow-white field had been spotless. There had been nothing but snow, and if you looked at it long enough, you’d begin to hear white noise – a kind of silence that takes hold of your soul with its cold hands and doesn’t release it for a long time. The silence around here was of a special sort, of course. Sounds to which you grow used, to which you no longer pay any attention, are also fused into silence. Like the sounds of distant shelling, for example. Even now (Sergeyich forced himself to listen close) they were firing somewhere to the right, about fifteen kilometers away – and also to the left, unless that was an echo.

“A person?” Sergeyich asked aloud, peering at the spot on the field.

For a moment it seemed that the air had become more transparent.

“Well, what else could it be?” he thought. “If I only had a pair of binoculars… I’d already be warming myself at home… Maybe Pashka has a pair?”

And then his feet led him in pursuit of his thoughts – to Pashka’s. They carried him around the rim of the crater by the Mitkov place, then down Shevchenko Street, following the trail of the car about which Pashka might have been telling the truth or, just as likely, lying through his teeth; it was all the same to that man.

“You got binoculars?” Sergeyich asked his childhood foe as he opened the door, without so much as offering him a greeting.

“Sure. Whatcha need them for?” Pashka had also decided to forego greetings: why waste words?

“There’s something on my side on the field. Maybe a corpse.”

“Wait!” Pashka’s eyes lit up with inquisitive light. “Hold on!”

They left the crater at the Mitkov place behind them.

Along the way, Sergeyich looked up at the sky. It seemed to him that it was already getting dark, though even the shortest winter days don’t end at half past one. Then he glanced at the massive old pair of binoculars, which dangled from a brown leather strap and rested on Pashka’s bulging sheepskin-clad chest. Pashka’s coat wouldn’t have bulged, of course, had he not turned up his collar, which now stood like a fence around his thin neck, dutifully protecting it from the frosty wind.

Image: Ali Smith via Unsplash

“Where is it?” Pashka raised the binoculars to his eyes as soon as they reached the edge of the garden.

“There, straight ahead and a little to the right, on the slope,” Sergeyich pointed towards it.

“All right,” Pashka said. “Ah, there it is!”

“So what is it?”

“Casualty. But who is he? Can’t see his chevrons… Laid himself out awkwardly.”

“Let me have a look,” said Sergeyich.

Pashka took off his binoculars and handed them over.

“Here, beekeeper – maybe your eyes are sharper.”

What had looked dark from afar turned out to be green. The dead man lay on his right side, with his back towards Little Starhorodivka – which meant he was facing the Ukrainian trenches.

“Make anything out?” asked Pashka.

“Sure. Dead soldier. But was he one of theirs, one of the others – who the hell knows?”

“Got it,” Pashka nodded, and the movement of his head inside his upturned collar drew a smile from Sergeyich, who had already lowered the binoculars from his eyes.

“Whatcha smiling about?” Pashka asked suspiciously.

“You look like an upside-down bell in that thing. Your head’s too small for such luxuries…”

“It’s the head I was given,” Pashka snapped back. “Besides, it’s harder to hit a small head with a bullet – but a big dome like yours? Hell, you can’t miss it from a kilometer away…”

They trudged together through the garden, orchard, and yard to the gate on Lenin Street, silent all the way, never once looking at each other. There Sergeyich asked Pashka if he could keep the binoculars for a couple of days. Pashka agreed, then walked off to Michurin Lane without glancing back.

4.

That night Sergey Sergeyich did not awake because he himself was cold, but because someone else was, in his dream. More precisely: he dreamt he was the dead soldier. Killed and abandoned in the snow. Terrible frost all around. His dead body was growing stiffer and stiffer, but suddenly it turned into stone and itself began to radiate cold. And in his dream Sergeyich lay inside this stone body. He lay and felt this cold horror both within the dream and outside of it – in his own body. He bore it as long as the dream had hold of him. But as soon as the dream began to weaken, he rose out of bed. He waited for his fingers to stop trembling from the cold he’d endured in the dream, then poured some “nuts” of coal from the bucket into the stove and sat down at his table in the dark.

“Why won’t you let me sleep?” he whispered.

He sat still for half an hour, his eyes slowly adjusting to the dark. The air in the room stratified horizontally; his ankles grew cold, while his shoulders and neck grew warm.

Sergeyich sighed, lit a yellow candle, went over to his wardrobe, and opened the left door. He brought the candle closer. There, among the empty hangers, hung his wife’s – his ex-wife’s – dress. Vitalina had left it on purpose. A transparent hint. One of the reasons for her departure.

In the dim light shed by the small, quivering tongue of flame, the pattern of the dress wasn’t easy to “read,” but Sergeyich didn’t need to read it. He knew this whole inelaborate plot-pattern “by heart”: thick, close-set columns of big red ants running up and down the powder blue fabric – probably thousands of ants. Just imagine some inventor of clothes coming up with such an idea! Oh no – can’t just be simple and beautiful, like every other dress, with polka dots or daisies or violets…

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Sergeyich snuffed out the little flame in his usual manner, with the thumb and forefinger of his right hand. The candle’s sweet farewell ribbon of smoke drifted up to his nose. He went back to bed. It was warm under the blanket. Such warmth ought to give rise to warm dreams, not ones that pierce you with cold horror.

His eyes seemed to close of their own accord. And now, with his eyes closed, falling asleep, he saw it again – the dress with the ants. Only it wasn’t hanging in the wardrobe. The dress was on Vitalina. It was long, coming down below her knees. The red ants seemed to be scurrying up and down the fabric because Vitalina was walking along their street, and the dress was fluttering in the breeze. She wasn’t walking, actually – she was swimming. Just like the first time she’d left their yard. The first time she’d “got out,” you could say – so as to present herself to the street and the village, as if she were some kind of important document the very sight of which was supposed to make everyone step aside and stare. She hadn’t yet unpacked all her bags and suitcases that first day after the move from Vinnytsia, but she’d immediately dug out the ant dress, ironed it, put it on, and headed for the church that stood at the end of their street. He’d tried to stop her, had begged her to put on something else, but nothing doing… It sure was hard to cope with her personality and her love of “beautiful” things. Impossible, even.

She had thought that Sergey was going to walk along the street with her, but he had stopped at the gate, too embarrassed to accompany his wife and her “red ants.”

And so she’d set out by herself, stepping boldly, even arrogantly, drawing all the neighbors to their fences, windows, and gates. Little Starhorodivka was full of life back then, almost every yard ringing with children’s laughter…

Needless to say, for the next few days, she was the talk of the village, and not in a good way.

But after all, it wasn’t on account of some dress that he fell in love with Vitalina and took her for his wife. She was much better without the dress on, and then she was all his… A pity that didn’t last as long as he’d hoped.

But the dream that engulfed Sergeyich showed him Vitalina’s first promenade through the village differently, not as it had actually happened. In the dream he was walking beside her, holding her hand. And he greeted each of his neighbors, nodding, although their eyes stuck to the ant dress like flies stick to those gluey ribbons that are hung over tables in the summer.

In the dream they reached the church but didn’t enter its open gate. Instead, they walked around the house of god and stepped onto the grounds of the cemetery, where the silent crosses and gravestones take away any desire to smile or speak loudly. Sergey led Vitalina to the graves of his parents, neither of whom had made it to fifty, then showed her his other relatives: his father’s sister and her husband; his cousin with his two sons, all three of whom has died in an accident, driving drunk; and even his niece, although they’d put her at the very edge of the cemetery, above the ravine – all because her father had tangled with the chairman of the village council, who got his revenge the best way he could. You live someplace long enough, and you’ll have more family in the ground than above it.

Memory reminded the dream-rapt sleeper that they had, in fact, gone to the cemetery on her second or third day in the village, but she had been dressed appropriately – all in black. She looked awfully good in that color, Sergeyich had thought back then.

There was a loud crash outside the window. Sergeyich started, lost the thread of his dream. The cemetery disappeared, Vitalina and the ant dress evaporated, and he himself vanished. It was as if the film had snapped in the projector.

But Sergeyich didn’t open his eyes.

“So they blew something up,” he thought. “Wasn’t that close – just a big caliber gun. If it had been close, it would have thrown me off the bed. And if the shell had hit the house, I’d have stayed in my dream, where it’s cosier and warmer than in life. And even the ant dress didn’t seem so annoying… Kind of got to like it.”

Image: Ukrainian church domes via CC0

5.

“He’s right under their feet!” Pashka didn’t conceal his angry bewilderment. “They oughta gather him up.”

A cold, sharp wind was blowing from the direction of the bombed-out church. Pashka seemed to be pressing his head into his shoulders, trying to hide from the wind behind the upturned collar of his coat. His indignant profile reminded Sergeyich of the fiery revolutionaries depicted in Soviet textbooks.

They were standing on the edge of the garden again. Pashka had been sulking all morning, from the time he opened his door for Sergeyich an hour earlier, without inviting him inside. Still, he did agree to accompany his childhood foe to the edge of the garden and got ready quickly.

“All right, so he won’t let you sleep,” Pashka had grumbled on the way. “But what’s it to me? Let him lie, for all I care. They’ll get him down in the ground soon enough.”

“But you’re talking about a human being,” Sergeyich tried to explain his point of view, not watching his step and occasionally stumbling. “A human being should either live or lie in a proper grave.”

“He’ll have his grave,” Pashka replied, dismissively. “We’ll all have our graves when time comes.”

“Listen, let’s crawl out there – we could at least drag him off to the planting strip, get him out of sight.”

“I ain’t crawling out there! Let the people who sent him go out and fetch him.”

The harshness of Pashka’s tone told the beekeeper that there was no point in talking further. Yet he kept on talking.

He kept on talking even when they had stopped on the trampled snow in front of the downward-sloping field.

“Gimme the binoculars,” Pashka demanded.

He looked through them for a minute or two, his lips twisting. He didn’t like the sight anymore than Sergeyich did, but the thoughts it inspired in him were, apparently, very different from the beekeeper’s.

“If he was crawling away from them, that means his a Uke,” Pashka reasoned aloud, lowering the binoculars from his eyes. “And if he was crawling towards them, then he’s one of ours. Now, if we knew for sure that he was one of ours, we’d just tell the fellas in Karuselino to come and get him at night. But he’s laid out sideways! Who knows which way he was walking or crawling? By the way, Greyich – did ya hear the blast last night?”

“Yep,” Sergeyich nodded.

“I think they hit the cemetery!”

“Who?”

“Hell if I know! Say, got any extra tea?”

Sergeyich bit his lip. He felt he couldn’t refuse, since he had dragged Pashka out here, but he sure wished he could have.

“Yeah, let’s go.”

“This too is holy work, after all – to brighten man’s life in dark times.”

The snow, finely ground by the soles of heavy boots, crunched drily under the men’s feet, like frozen sand.

Sergeyich walked ahead of Pashka, thinking of what he should pour the tea into. If he used a matchbox, Pashka would take offense, but a mayonnaise jar – that’s too much tea.

On the threshold both stamped their soles against the concrete, knocking off the snow.

In the end, Sergeyich did use a mayonnaise jar, but he didn’t fill it all the way – just two-thirds.

“You still want the the binoculars, or have you seen enough?” Pashka asked, trying to appear grateful.

“Leave them here awhile,” said the beekeeper.

This time they parted on friendly terms.

When Pashka had gone Sergeyich went out to the shed to visit his wintering bees and make sure everything was in order. Then he ducked into the garage to have a look at his station wagon. He thought of starting the engine, just to check, but decided it might disturb the bees – they were just behind the wooden wall; the shed and garage were as close as twin brothers, almost under the same roof.

Outside the early winter twilight was approaching. Sergeyich had stocked up on coal for the night, poured half a bucket into the stove, closed its glass door, and put a pot full of water on one of the burners. He’d have salted buckwheat for dinner, then read a book by candlelight. He had a lot of candles – more candles than books. His books were old, from Soviet times, and sat behind glass in the sideboard, to the left of the china. They were old, yes, but easy to read; the letters were large and distinct, and everything was clear because the stories they told were simple. The candles, meanwhile, lay in the corner – two full boxes of them. They lay in tightly packed rows, and each row was divided from the other with waxed paper. This waxed paper was itself a thing of great value; you could use it to start a fire in the rain, even in a hurricane.

Once it gets going, there’s no dousing it. When a shell had hit the Leninist church – everyone called it “Leninist” because it stood at the end of Lenin Street – and it, being wooden, burned down to the ground, Sergeyich walked over the next morning and found two boxes of candles in the stone outbuilding, which the explosion had torn wide open. So he took them home – first one, then the other. Give and you shall receive – that’s what the Bible says. For years and years he used to donate his beeswax to the church, precisely so that the priest could make candles. He gave and gave, and then he received these candles as a gift from the Lord. They came in an hour of need, when the power was cut off. And so they serve him now that light bulbs are useless. This too is holy work, after all – to brighten man’s life in dark times.

Ukrainian traditional village. Image: ©torange.biz via a CC license

6.

After several calm, windless days came an unusually dark evening. It didn’t come on its own accord, but was brought by the agitation of the sky, which was invisible from the wintery gloom below. Up there, heavy clouds pushed aside their light neighbors and suddenly began to shed fluffy snow. These new flakes fell to the ground, which was plastered with old snow that had grown hard in the dry wind.

Sergeyich, yawning, fed his stove a new portion of long-flame coal, then snuffed out a yellow church candle with two fingers. It seemed he had done what had to be done before bedtime. All that remained was to pull the blanket up to his ears and fall asleep until the morning or the cold woke him. Yet the silence, thanks to the snowfall, felt somehow incomplete. And when silence is incomplete, there arises, willy-nilly, the desire to complete it. But how? Sergeyich had long ago grown used to the sound of far-off bombardment, which had become an integral part of silence. But now the snowfall – a much less frequent guest – had blocked that sound with its rustling.

Silence, of course, is an arbitrary thing, a personal aural phenomenon that people adjust and attune for themselves. In earlier days, Sergeyich’s silence was not unlike the silence of others. It easily absorbed the drone of an airplane up in the sky or the nighttime chirp of a cricket that had hopped in through an open window. All quiet sounds that cause no irritation and don’t turn one’s head eventually fuse into silence. So it was with Sergeyich’s peacetime silence. And so it became with his wartime silence, in which military sounds suppressed and displaced peaceful, natural ones, but, in due course, also nestled under the wings of silence and ceased to draw attention to themselves.

Now Sergeyich lay in bed, seized by a strange anxiety because of the snowfall, which seemed too loud. Instead of drifting off to sleep, he lay there and thought.

And once again his thoughts returned to the dead man in the field. But this time Sergeyich’s thoughts hastened to bring him cheer, suggesting that the dead man would soon be out of sight. After all, snow as heavy as this would cover everything up for a good long time, until the springtime thaw. And in spring all would change: nature would awake, birdsong would drown out the cannon fire – because the birds would be close, while the cannons would stay over there, far away. And only occasionally, for some unknown reason – maybe out of drunkenness or drowsiness – would the gunners accidentally drop one or two shells on their village, on Little Starhorodivka. Once a month at most. And these shells would fall where nothing living remained: on the cemetery, the churchyard, or the long-deserted and windowless building of the old kolkhoz administration.

And if the war did continue into spring, Sergeyich would leave the village to Pashka and take his bees – all six hives – to where there was no war; where the fields weren’t pockmarked by craters but covered in buckwheat or wildflowers; where you could walk without fear through the woods, across meadows, and along country roads; where there were lots of people and, even if they didn’t smile at you, life would still seem easier and warmer simply because there were so many of them.

“Silence, of course, is an arbitrary thing.”

The thought of bees eased Sergeyich’s mind, and it seemed he was drifting closer to sleep. He recalled the day, dear to his memory and heart, when his former governor, the boss of the Donbas – and almost of the entire country – had first paid him a visit. Now that was a man you could understand in all respects, understand and trust, like an old abacus. He had come in a jeep, with two guards. Life was completely different back then, quiet. They still had ten years to go, if not more, before the onset of military silence. All the neighbors had come out of the woodwork to watch with envy and curiosity as that mountain of a man entered Sergeyich’s gate and clasped his hand with his own gigantic mitt. And maybe some of them had heard the governor ask: “So you’re Sergey Sergeyich, eh? And I can take a nap on your bees? You think this up all by yourself?”

“No, someone else thought it up – I saw it in a beekeeping magazine. But I built the bed myself,” the beekeeper responded proudly.

“Well, let’s have a look,” the guest boomed, smiling a hard but friendly smile.

And then Sergeyich led him to the orchard, where six hives stood back to back in rows of two. They were topped with a sheet of wood, on which lay a thin straw-filled mattress.

“Should I take off my shoes?” the guest asked his host.

The host looked down at the guest’s shoes and froze in astonishment. They were sharp-nosed, exquisite in shape, and as iridescent as mother-of-pearl – like a film of petrol on a puddle of water in bright sunlight, only far nobler than petrol. Their mother-of-pearl shone so bright that the air above them seemed to melt, as it does in great heat. Melting and losing its full transparency, the air added volume and extraordinary vibrancy both to the color and shape of the shoes.

“No, no need,” Sergeyich said, shaking his head.

Ukrainian village house. Image: Adam Jones, via Flickr

“Like them, eh?” the governor asked, smiling. These words forced the host to tear his eyes away from the shoes.

“Sure, yes – never seen anything so beautiful,” Sergeyich confessed.

“What’s your size?” the governor asked.

“Forty two.”

The guest nodded and approached the beehive in the middle, turning his rear end towards it. There was a wooden stepstool at the hive’s base. The governor got up on the stool and carefully lowered himself onto the thin mattress. He lay down on his right side, carefully stretched out his legs, then looked at Sergeyich somewhat childishly, like a schoolboy looks at a strict teacher.

“Is it better to lie on my back or my stomach?” he asked.

“Back’s better,” Sergeyich replied. “Maximum connection between the body and the hives.”

“All right, then. You can go and I’ll take my nap. They’ll call you,” said the former governor and glanced at his guards, who stood a little ways off from the bee-bed. One of them nodded, acknowledging that he had heard.

Sergeyich returned to his house and turned on the TV – they still had power then. He tried to distract himself, but he couldn’t tear his thoughts away from his important, gigantic guest. He was afraid that the legs of the hives might collapse under the man’s weight. He drank some tea to calm himself, but he couldn’t stop worrying about the fragility of the hives, which he had built himself. After all, when he was building them, his only concern had been the comfort of the bees; he hadn’t yet learnt of the healthful benefits of sleeping on top of the creatures.

After his nap, as a sign of gratitude, the important guest had given Sergeyich three hundred dollars and a one-liter bottle of vodka. From that day on, all those who had never liked the beekeeper or had simply ignored him began to greet him cordially, as if he’d been touched by an archangel’s wing.

A year later, also in early autumn, the governor paid him a second visit. By then Sergeyich had built a little gazebo around the bee-bed. It was light and foldable; you could assemble and disassemble it in an hour’s time. And he’d made the mattress even thinner, so that the straw wouldn’t block the slightest vibration from the hundreds of thousands of bees beneath it.

“For almost three years he and Pashka had been keeping the village alive. They couldn’t very well leave it lifeless.”

The guest looked tired. He now had about ten guards with him, and there were probably as many cars parked along the fence on Lenin Street. Sergeyich had no idea who was in those cars or why they wouldn’t come out. This time the boss of the Donbas slept on the bee-bed, or just lay there, for a full five or six hours. At parting, he not only gave Sergeyich an envelope with a thousand dollars, but also hugged him with all his might. A proper bear-hug. As if he were saying goodbye to a dear friend.

“Well, it’s over,” Sergeyich decided. “Luck like that doesn’t strike twice. He won’t be coming again.” This was a sensible thought, for several reasons. One of these reasons was completely banal: people were now advertising bee-beds in every district center. Competition was running wild, while Sergeyich, for his part, didn’t advertise at all. True, everyone in the village knew that the former governor had come all the way from Kyiv to sleep atop Sergeyich’s bees, and they spread the word to their friends and relatives in other villages and towns. So those wishing to sleep atop the “governor’s bees” showed up at Sergeyich’s gate with a regularity that other beekeepers could only envy.

Still, Sergeyich didn’t hike up the price, and he even treated especially pleasant customers to tea with honey. His customers liked to chat with him about this and that, about life. At home, by that time, there was no one for Sergeyich to chat about life with: his wife and daughter had run off while he was out at the wholesale produce market in Horlivka. They left a wound in his heart. But he persevered.

He gathered all his will into a fist and didn’t let the tears that had welled up in his eyes roll down his cheeks. He went on living – and life was calm and satisfying. In the summers he’d enjoy the buzzing of his bees, and in the winter the peace and quiet, the snowy whiteness of the fields and the total stillness of the grey sky. He could have lived out his days that way, but something intervened. Something broke in the country, in Kyiv, where nothing was ever quite right. It broke so badly that painful cracks ran along the country, as if along a sheet of glass, and then blood began to seep through these cracks. That was the start of the war, the meaning of which had, for three years now, remained a mystery to Sergeyich.

The first shell hit the church, and the very next morning people began to leave Little Starhorodivka. First, fathers bundled their wives and children off to safety, wherever they had relatives: Russia, Odessa, Mykolayiv. Then the fathers themselves left, some becoming “separatists,” others refugees. The last to be taken away were the old men and women. They were dragged off shouting, weeping, and cursing. The noise was awful. And then, one day, things grew so quiet that Sergeyich stepped out onto Lenin Street and was nearly deafened by the silence. The silence was heavy, as if cast in iron.

Sergeyich was suddenly afraid that he’d been left all alone in the village. He set off cautiously down the street, peering over each fence. After a night of cannon fire, this silence weighed on him, pressing down on his shoulders like a bag full of coal. All the doors were boarded shut. Some of the windows were covered up with plywood. He reached the church, just under a kilometer from his home. Then he crossed over to Shevchenko, the parallel street, and began to make his way back on shaky legs. Suddenly he heard a cough, and it thrilled him. Sergeyich went up to the fence from which the cough had come, and there was Pashka, sitting on a bench, a bottle of vodka in his left hand, a cigarette in his right.

“Whatcha doing here?” asked Sergeyich. They never, ever exchanged greetings, not even when they were kids.

“What am I doing here? So I’m supposed to give up all this? My cellar’s plenty deep. Push comes to shove, I can hole up down there.”

That was the first spring of the war. And now they were in its third winter. For almost three years he and Pashka had been keeping the village alive. They couldn’t very well leave it lifeless. If every last person took off, no one would return. This way, folks were sure to come back – either when all that nonsense stopped in Kyiv, or when the landmines were gone and the shells stopped falling.

Grey Bees is forthcoming in May 2020. Pre-order your copy here.

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